Economics/Class Relations

A History of Landlords: Rent & the Feudal Origins of a Non-Working Class

By John Lauritis

In 2015, studies estimate that US renters paid $535 billion to landlords in residential rents. To put this in perspective, $535 billion is about enough to give $15,000 to every human being in the US state of California. It would also be enough to replace every page of every book in the US Library of Congress¹ with $100 bills. And if a person stood outside of Walt Disney World every day from open to close, handing $30,000 in cash to each individual visitor, it would take a year to hand out $535 billion. But what exactly did this massive sum of money actually pay for? Why did people start paying landlords in the first place? And do lands really need lords?

Long before the blossoming of modern technology and the dawn of the industrial era, humanity occupied only a fraction of the lands it does today. Between the hubs of ancient commerce, an immense wilderness existed that (legally speaking) was the property of no one and even land that had already been settled was likely to be managed communally.

In parts of West Europe, wild and communal lands were (and are still) called “commons” and those who could not or did not wish to make a living in the town often had the option to subsist by farming common land or to join a communal farming-village that was already established. Similar forms of non-private, custom-based and communal systems of land-use existed across the globe in the pre-industrial ages for tens-of-thousands of years — until a few centuries ago.

Before modern notions of private-property arose alongside the full development of capitalism in the 18th century, social and economic life in medieval Europe was organized within a system that today is known as feudalism.² Under the pre-industrial conditions of feudalism, the central focus of economic activity was agriculture and, since land was the main thing needed for production, landholdings were the most important form of wealth in feudal society.

In the same sense that ‘money is power’ in capitalist societies today, land is power in feudal society.


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