I don’t often like to toot my own here on this blog. But while observing what’s going on around me, I can’t help but note that so many trends I saw playing out in the early part of the decade of the 2010’s are coming to fruition. A lot of the things I was talking about several years ago have suddenly been discovered by a wide array of pundits, with many of them writing entire books on these subjects.
I don’t often go back and read what I wrote in the past. but looking at a lot of the news and commentary today in 2020, I get a weird sense of déjà vu.
For years, I’ve said that the Republican Party is no longer a political party. Rather it is an authoritarian movement. Here’s me all the way back in 2013(!):
The short version is this: Wealthy elites, alarmed at the flattening of incomes that had happened between World War 2 and the 1970’s decided to wage an all-out campaign to undo those policies (unions, a social safety net, good public services, progressive taxation, environmental regulations, etc). To do so, they allied with all of the most venal, extremist, paranoid, reactionary and authoritarian elements in American society that had always been lurking under the surface but had been marginalized and kept under control by the “adults”: John Birchers, Evangelical fundamentalists, Christian Reconstructionists, Southern racists, white supremacists, Dixiecrats, Posse Comitatus, “Big Mule” politicians, corrupt politicos, “sovereign citizens,” “Patriot” militia brigades, libertarian Robber Barons (Koch Brothers, et. al.), Wall Street swindlers and takeover artists, Randroids, social Darwinists, and so forth, and used these elements to take over one of America’s two major political parties in the name of eliminating their taxes, curtailing regulations, and busting unions. Now, having united all of the worst elements in American society under one banner for the first time (for they seem to have little else in common), organizing it, shaping it, and giving it a powerful vehicle (the reactionary authoritarian movement that calls itself the Republican Party), the business class can no longer control it, and like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, can only watch helplessly as the forces it has unleashed for it’s own short-term benefit, fueled by white rage and decreasing living standards, tear the country apart (the “Corn-pone Nazis”)…
…To this end, they took effective control of one of the United States’ two major political parties and created a coherent worldview centered around what has been called “the paranoid style in American Politics.” for the New Right, the declining fortunes of white America were caused by an activist government determined to levy high taxes on “productive” (mainly white) citizens to give to a lazy and shiftless (mainly black) citizens in order to buy votes. They argued that America was divided into “makers” and “takers” (or ants and grasshoppers) where half of all Americans (the “47 percent”) pay no income taxes and thus are economically unproductive and entirely dependent upon government largesse…
…Now business leaders have effectively lost control over the party they took over, as the elements they unleashed with the objective of lowering their taxes and regulations has become a fanatical, radicalized, reactionary, nativist, conspiratorial, authoritarian political movement, opposed to even the very concept of government or the public trust in the name of “liberty. To them, government is always too large, taxes are always too high, and any sense of common purpose is derided as “socialism.” They see the nineteenth century as a golden age worthy of returning to, and see themselves engaged in a life and death struggle for the “soul” of the nation. They regard anyone else with a different opinion as “traitors” and opponents not to be negotiated with, but as threats to be eliminated. The right has even resorted to physical intimidation and has even formed a modern version of the Freicorps of inter-war Germany.
Politics of the Shutdown (2013)
And here’s what I wrote in 2015:
It’s no surprise populism needs to be the “right-wing” variety in a country like the U.S. As I’ve said before, the Republican party is no longer a party, it is an authoritarian movement, and authoritarian movements need a leader…
Corn-pone Hitler (2015)
How’s that description panning out? Pretty good, I’d say. I’d say the essay above is still pretty much on point, although immigration was much more of an issue in 2016 than it is today.
In that same essay I wrote that “sometimes countries just go crazy.” Um, is that not the perfect description of what’s going on in America right now? Is there any better way to describe QAnon?And then there are the Anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, Bill Gates microchip conspiracies, people burning down 5G towers, and Kanye perennially running for president. Let’s face it, this is a country in the grip of deep, deep psychosis.
Sometimes countries just go crazy. It’s happened many times before in the past, from the Gin Craze in Britain, to the Terror in France, to the Cultural Revolution in China, to the Rwandan genocide, to the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Syrian Civil War. We Americans just told ourselves, “it can’t happen here,” as we went about our daily business. But, in truth, it was more likely to happen here—in this overlarge, unwieldy mess of a republic that shouldn’t even by rights be a single country—than anywhere else. We’ve just been coasting on luck since the 1860’s. Now that luck has run out. We’re watching a country collapse in real time in front of our eyes.
I’ve also repeatedly said that while the Republicans have become the John Birch Society, the Democrats have become the moderate Republican Party of the 1970s, but that’s actually just a bit off. The Republicans of the 1970s were quite to the Left of today’s Democratic Party establishment. Instead, the most recent convention confirmed that today’s neoliberal Democratic Party is basically the same as the Republican party of the 1990’s:
On Tuesday, Cindy McCain, the widow of Senator John McCain, narrated a video portraying the close and decades-long friendship her husband and Biden shared…General Colin Powell, who was secretary of state in George W. Bush’s administration, went further and explicitly endorsed the former vice president.
On Monday night, former Ohio Governor John Kasich also made the case to independents and those in his party that Biden is a leader who will listen to all perspectives, without regard to partisanship…Former New York Congresswoman Susan Molinari, the keynote speaker at the Republicans’ 1996 convention, also spoke out in support of Biden Monday night. And so did California billionaire Meg Whitman, who made an unsuccessful bid for governor a decade ago.
The DNC on Monday night also featured a video of Republican voters who are disillusioned by Mr. Trump and ready to vote for Biden…
The former manager of the Clinton administration’s effort to reinvent government is calling on Congress to break up the U.S. Postal Service into two separate organizations — one public and one private.
Elaine C. Kamarck, who managed the National Performance Review for the Clinton administration, argues that as the business of delivering first-class mail fades away, the Postal Service needs flexibility to compete with private-sector rivals.
Former government reinventor calls for breakup of U.S. Postal Service (Chicago Tribune)
Meeanwhile, AOC got only 60 seconds, with NBC deliberately distorting the content of her micro-speech (which was simply a rote procedural nomination of the second-place finisher Bernie Sanders).
Also in 2015, I pointed out that Wal-mart was a planned economy:
Think about it- from the factory floors where Chinese peasants crank out enough goods for the entire planet, these goods manage to end up on store shelves all over the world just in time and in adequate amounts to satisfy consumer demand with almost surgical precision. They keep track of exactly how many items are on the shelves in every store on earth, and make sure the shelves are never empty, even without items piling up unused in a warehouse. Advanced algorithms keep tabs and make sure that counts never get too low and that there are adequate lead times. Manufacturers are coordinated to make sure that there are not too many or too few goods. Customers’ preferences are tracked in stores and online and data mining means that companies they can anticipate the wants and needs of customers in any given location. They are so good at it that one big-box store knew a woman was pregnant before her own father did.
And these stores contain everything you could possibly want, from durable goods like washing machines and blenders, to medicines, to electronics, to health and beauty products, to clothes. Now they’re even putting groceries under the same roof. Everything you could possibly want or need can be purchased under one giant warehouse roof.
And think of Amazon.com. Imagine a writer in the nineteen fifties penning a story about people ordering any good they could possibly imagine from anywhere in the world off a computer network attached to everyone’s homes, and having those goods delivered in a few days, or even the very next day. They can see images of the goods, and return them if they do not want them.
Computational Conversations (2015)
It seems like the “free” capitalist market is resembling the Soviet equivalent that it supposedly “defeated” more and more these days. [David] Graeber’s examples above consist of Stakhanovite work ethics, wasteful busywork and pointless jobs, and massive amounts of red tape and bureaucracy. But as I’ve also noted previously, the capitalist market is extremely centrally planned and controlled. Recall this study from a few years back that a handful of companies control the world’s money flows: Proof of Global Domination By a Few Corporations (Treehugger) As I like to point out, Wal-Mart is a planned economy. It does what free market fundamentalists claim is “impossible” every single day – coordinate production, distribution and global supply chains of every good under the sun from lawnmowers to barbecues to bananas and heads of lettuce all around the world with little disruption or acute shortages.
In 2019, a pair of authors published an entire book arguing the same thing: every single day the existence of firms like Wal-mart and Amazon, which dominate the modern American economy, prove that the supposed “problem” of the so-called “calculation problem” is really no problem at all! It’s called “The People’s Republic of Wal-mart”, published by Verso books.
For the left and the right, major multinational companies are held up as the ultimate expressions of free-market capitalism. Their remarkable success appears to vindicate the old idea that modern society is too complex to be subjected to a plan. And yet, as Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski argue, much of the economy of the West is centrally planned at present. Not only is planning on vast scales possible, we already have it and it works. The real question is whether planning can be democratic. Can it be transformed to work for us?
Now, it’s possible that I may have gotten the idea from somewhere else, as I note in the post. Either it was from the eventual authors of that book, or they and I read the same thing and came to the same conclusions. In that post I also wondered, “Could the big-box stores be an unwitting stepping stone to a socially-based post-scarcity economy?”
I was warning that our social order was starting to resemble feudalism as far back as 2013, even before the current consolidation of wealth and business activity in the hands of a few oligarchs thanks to Covid-19:
Foundations of Neofeudalism (2013)
And More neofeudalism (2013)
I revisited the topic of state disintegration in 2015:
A more plausible cause of collapse is the ability of the rich and powerful to escape taxation while the common person cannot. The burden falls ever more on the average citizen during a time of declining incomes, meaning decreased revenues for the state. The state loses its ability to get things done. Rather than the ever-expanding government of their imagination, contracting government proceeds a collapse, which is hard to square with exponentially expanding tax revenue theory.
The thing that makes civilization work is the ability of a central government to get things done – defend the borders, keep law and order, adjudicate disputes, maintain infrastructure, and so forth. As more of the state’s wealth is siphoned off into private hands, the state’s ability to do all of these things is hampered. That’s what we see in history. It is the private powers who lay around in ostentatious luxury while contributing less and less to the wider society, helped along by the fact that moneyed and ruling classes merge to become one and the same.
As money flows into private hands, they become the de facto government. When that happens, justice is enforced by whim, and the freedom of the average person doesn’t increase, it declines…
I’ve written a lot about Neofeudalism—where the resources built by the public commonwealth are seized by a tiny oligarchy who then restrict access to them via tollbooths which they use to siphon the wealth of the wider society into their own pockets while offering nothing in return. The philosophical justification for this is, of course, neoliberalism, aka, free market fundamentalism under the tutelage of economic “science.”
In our previous survey, we saw Michael Hudson describe this as one of the primary recurring patterns throughout history. Certain controls on the accumulation of the wealthy are dismantled. As wealth inequality increases, eventually more and more of the population becomes indebted to a small minority. Those debtors then lose their “stake” in society, often losing their ability to participate as citizens in the process, and the society falls apart. Societies become adversarial instead of cohesive – predator and prey instead of cooperation. This is fatal. Ibn Khaldun pointed out that that well-run, cohesive societies with a sense of common purpose – he used the Arabic word asabiyah, tended to out-compete and supplant adversarial, unequal ones over time. Often these societies were based around smaller, flatter social structures than the top-heavy ones they supplanted. Successor societies then put moderate curbs on wealth accumulation to preserve that cohesion, but those curbs are eventually dismantled. We’ve seen this just in a few hundred years of history of the U.S.
Wealth falls into private hands where it is distributed not by public necessity, but by the whims of the wealthy and powerful. Rather than the superior allocation predicted by Market fundamentalists, it leads to widespread misallocation as the wealthy compete for status. And so we get more and more luxury apartments while infrastructure crumbles, artwork going for hundreds of millions of dollars while public funding for the arts dries up, stadium luxury boxes while schools can’t afford to replace lightbulbs, solid gold trashcans and toilet seats, single record albums selling for two million dollars, and things like that. Meanwhile, streetlights flicker out, bridges collapse, and urban areas become lawless…
High-end Versus Low-end Governing (2015). Since then, we now we have a coin shortage and the Post Office is actively being destroyed as we speak. It now looks as though the State might be so weak in the U.S. at this point that we won’t be able to hold an accurate election for president! Think about how far we have fallen since 1980. This is truly unprecedented. Even outer space exploration has turned over to wealthy oligarchs to fund out of their own pocketbooks. And yet we’re all supposed to cheer every time SpaceX sends up another private rocketship. Sigh.
The response to Covid-19 has pretty much laid bare the fact the United States has already clearly transitioned into a low-end society. Our current peers are Brazil and Belarus, not Germany, Switzerland or South Korea. Even Vietnam has a more functional government than the United States at this point.
In 2015, I also wrote:
Much of this presages a return to Neofeudalism – instead of broadly distributed ownership, the rich will own all land and housing, and the rest of us will be “serfs” perpetually in debt to them from the day we’re born and paying all of our income for the necessities of life, which the rich will own outright.
Q.E. Worked (2015)
I wrote an extensive summary of neofeudalism back in 2014:
…the Hobby Lobby case is important in a way that is not getting much attention. It is a fundamental redefining of the social contract! It also ties in with the redefinition of the rich as “job creators.” Such terminology would be anathema decades ago. There was not a separate class of “job creators,” rather, anyone could be a job creator if they saw some sort of need in the economy and filled it. Jobs were created by necessity if there was a task that needed doing; they weren’t gifts from above to be showered upon the filthy, unwashed masses. Workers did not see themselves as helpless agents dependent upon these “lords” for their subsistence, but the source of their own wealth. No more. The yeomen have now been reduced to serfs dependent upon the generosity of those above them who own the economy.
It’s frightening the number of ways we seem to be devolving socially, even as our technology becomes more potent. College has become a from of indentured servitude. Debtors’ prisons are making a backdoor comeback. Police are being militarized. The drug war is used as an excuse for asset seizures by the state which are then auctioned off to raise money. Police are getting more violent and thuggish. Excess workers are channeled to prisons where slavery is totally legal under the Thirteenth Amendment. Creationist museums and megachurches populate the forgotten and economically backward interior of the country. Many Detroit residents now no longer have access to water, and have appealed to the U.N. People walk around with guns and pass “open carry” and “castle doctrine” laws (there’s a nice medieval-sounding name). Laws are being passed to restrict voting from certain groups. Even culture is becoming coarser and more vapid. People are behaving in a deranged fashion. What is happening to this country? How can anyone continue to believe in “progress” given what we’re seeing?
The “N” Word (2014)
How are those observations panning out? Pretty well, I’d say.
And now, a number of authors have written books on the subject. Most prominent is “The Coming of Neo-feudalism” by Joel Kotkin, which was published in 2020:
Our society is being rapidly reduced to a feudal state, a process now being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of small businesses are near extinction, millions more losing their jobs and many others stuck into the status of a property-less serfs. The big winners have been the “expert” class of the clerisy and, most of all, the tech oligarchs, who benefit as people rely more on algorithms than human relationships.
Following a remarkable epoch of greater dispersion of wealth and opportunity, we are inexorably returning towards a more feudal era marked by greater concentration of wealth and property, reduced upward mobility, demographic stagnation, and increased dogmatism. If the last seventy years saw a massive expansion of the middle class, not only in America but in much of the developed world, today that class is declining and a new, more hierarchical society is emerging.
The new class structure resembles that of Medieval times. At the apex of the new order are two classes―a reborn clerical elite, the clerisy, which dominates the upper part of the professional ranks, universities, media and culture, and a new aristocracy led by tech oligarchs with unprecedented wealth and growing control of information. These two classes correspond to the old French First and Second Estates.
Below these two classes lies what was once called the Third Estate. This includes the yeomanry, which is made up largely of small businesspeople, minor property owners, skilled workers and private-sector oriented professionals. Ascendant for much of modern history, this class is in decline while those below them, the new Serfs, grow in numbers―a vast, expanding property-less population.
The Coming of Neo-feudalism (Joel Kotkin.com). Pretty much exactly what I was saying back in 2013-2015. Of course, Kotkin has the requisite hopium coda at the end about how we can reverse this process. We won’t, of course.
The book “Winners Take All” by Anand Giridharadas is a book-length critique of philanthrocapitalism. In it, he points out that diverting state tax revenue into the pockets of wealthy oligarchs who then distribute those funds according to their whim is tantamount to returning to pre-Enlightenment feudalism:
[8:27] “We actually have a system in this country for making the world a better place, and its called democracy. The winners of our age don’t like to use that system for their world betterment schemes. You know why? because they only have one vote in that system. That is not enough votes for them.”
“We actually have programs to make sure people are eating. We actually have programs to make sure people go to schools, and that they’re good schools. We actually have programs to represent people’s preferences and translate them into policies that will help people. We have robust mechanisms. They’re not perfect, and they’re in a bad way now…”
[9:20] “One of the things that came out of the Enlightenment was…think back to feudal Europe. You had a bunch of peasants. And then you had a bunch of lords and ladies and landed estates, and these peasants farmed their fields. You had peasants whose lives were vulnerable to the whims of the lords and ladies. If they wanted to take this much wheat that year, that’s how much they would take. If they wanted to let you rent their thing, they would or wouldn’t, and it was a cruel world.”
“And part of what we built from the seventeenth and eighteenth century onward was universal systems through governments and institutions and laws where your life didn’t depend on how much caffeine your lord and lady had that morning, or whether they were happy or not. It depended on a set of universal laws and norms. And so we built things eventually over time like public schools and Medicare and Social Security and the interstate highway system.”
“And so what is happening now in my view is a neofeudalism where the Zuckerbergs and Bezoses of the world are basically becoming the new lords and ladies. Even when they do nice things, they’re deciding what kind of schools we should have. What kind of financial aid programs universities should have. What kind of anti-disease programs we should have.”
“And whats so striking about this is that a lot of these people are our worst economic sinners reinventing themselves as our saviors…”
I also identified secession movements as a growing issue back in 2013: Coming Apart (2013) These trends have only intensified.
I was writing about what I called “The Final Solution for the Working Class Question,” as far back as 2012–a rather grim descriptor of what I thought would be the unofficial policy response to rising automation and the shrinking need for employees in the global economy.
I think the Republicans see what I have seen on this blog – increasing automation and a die-off due to declining resources and deteriorating economic conditions. They want to make sure the “right” people die off, and getting rid of those pesky social programs that were useful to the bottom line in the age of American mass industrialization is the place to start! They were useful once, but now they’re just costing valuable money! After all, there are plenty of Chinese workers to build their stuff, and plenty of Mexicans to clean their houses and cook their food. The rest of us are dead weight. And expensive education as the gateway to the shrinking job base of the future is all a part of the plan. They will make sure that it – along with education and health care, do not get “fixed.” From their standpoint, that’s exactly what their preferred candidates are doing.
When you look at it this way, and only this way, do the action of republican candidates make complete sense. Maybe it’s time we start realizing their game plan. As I’ve said before – it’s the final solution for the working classes. Too bad the American working classes seem determined to help their jailers herd them onto boxcars.
We Don’t Need No Education (2012)
Now with Covid-19, this concept has shifted into overdrive. See these posts from The Washington Post’s Jeff Stein: https://twitter.com/JStein_WaPo/status/1294097153309192193
— TJ Hedin (@TJ_Hedin) August 19, 2020
And I previously noted that we had a presidential candidate this year whose entire campaign platform was based around addressing the elimination of middle-class jobs through automation. Andrew Yang was saying in 2020 what I was saying in 2013:
The Post-Work Society Is Not a Future State. It Is Here. Right Now. (2013) He also wrote a book about it: The War on Normal People (Wikipedia)
So please permit me a small victory lap. If you were reading this blog back in those days, you would have been ahead of the curve on many issues that are front-and-center right now, and would have been clued in to the ongoing trends in our society. Which was, after all, my intent. And if you want to know what the future will look like, I’d say here’s as good a place to look as anywhere else.