What is Feudalism?

  
The feudal class process is one of many different ways surplus labor is appropriated and distributed.  It is similar to capitalism in that the performer of surplus labor, the person(s) who creates the surplus goods and services, is distinct from the person(s) who takes possession of those goods and services. The feudal class process is distinguished from the capitalist class process by the lack of choice of employer in the former: in feudalism the direct producer has an obligation to work for a specific employer within a given sphere of production. Sometimes, but not always, this obligation may result from the feudal lord exercising monopolistic control over key means of production required for the laborer(s) to work (to perform necessary and surplus labor). Debt obligations may also serve as the basis for feudal social relationships. Whether monopolistic control or debt peonage or some other mechanism for creating an enforceable obligation, these conditions provide the basis for the feudal lord to extract a monopoly rent from the direct producer/laborer who must work with these means of production or pay the debt in order to secure his/her livelihood. In capitalism, on the contrary, workers are free to choose employers.
Feudalism, as an economic system,is often confused with the characteristics of specific feudal societies. For example, in Western European feudalism, there were specific cultural and political conditions by which feudal lords reproduced their monopolistic position. Often writers on feudalism will conflate all these cultural and political conditions with the economic system of feudalism and fail to recognize when the feudal system occurs in a different mix of cultural and political factors. Historians typically operate with such a conflation, borrowing their notion of feudalism from orthodox Marxism, where feudalism was understood as a particular historical moment in the Euro-centric teleological movement towards capitalism and eventually communism. The problem with this conflated notion of feudalism as a particular moment in space-time (medieval Europe) is that it has no utility in social scientific analysis. However, since historians are not social scientists, but chroniclers of the past, then it is not surprising that historians would be unaware of the social scientific concept of feudalism (as a mode of controlling labor that can exist in any time-space location among human cultures).
Serap Kayatekin has proposed
that sharecropping in the postbellum
Mississippi Delta region was feudal: . . .
"... surplus labor produced by
the tenant was extracted by the landlord
in the form of rent."

"Discovering a feudal element in
the recent past of the United States ---
a country whose modern social formation
postdated the demise of what is commonly
understood as feudalism in Western Europe ---
helps shed light on the class complexity
of any social formation."

---Serap Ayse Kayatekin, in Re/presenting Class (2001)