“[W]hat may be attained by industrial or commercial success is still the nearest approach to medieval lordship possible to modern man…”
― Joseph A. Schumpeter
Feudal nobles acquired their status by the breakdown of the state. The great medieval scholar Marc Bloch wrote:
“In feudal society the characteristic human bond was the subordinate’s link with a nearby chief. From one level to another the ties thus formed—like so many chains branching out indefinitely—joined the smallest to the greatest. Land itself was valued above all because it enabled a lord to provide himself with ‘men’ by supplying the remuneration for them.” Feudal Society, p.444
As I promised last time, I’d like to take another look at a system I’ve often referred to as Neofeudalism.
I haven’t written much about Neofeudalism since 2013-2014. But, if anything, the trend towards it has greatly accelerated.
What brought this to mind was a widely disseminated news story which, to me, is the quintessence of what I was talking about back in 2013-2014.
Robert Smith, a billionaire investor, surprise[d] students at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, by using his speech at a commencement ceremony to pledge to wipe the debts of the 2019 class. ‘This is my class – 2019 – and my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans. I know my class will make sure they pay this forward,’ he said.
This was widely circulated as a warm-and-fuzzy “feel good” story. But when I heard it, I was shocked. Really? I would argue it’s anything but. If anything, it should disturb people, as it did me. What about all the millions of debt serfs who aren’t lucky enough to have a rich benefactor–that is, almost all of U.S. college students? What about them?
And why the hell should crippling debt for an education even be a thing in the first place?
Really, this should be interpreted as a sad example of a state failing its own citizens.
But it’s not. Instead, the media uniformly portrays it as a paradigmatic example of the generosity and benevolence of our successful entrepreneurial overlords.
And I don’t think that’s accidental.
No, rather, I think it’s quite intentional—part of a desire by elites to change the core mentality of the citizenry of deteriorating democratic nation-states from one in which the state is expected to provide a modicum of basic services to all citizens regardless of luck or rank; to one in which we rely on wealthy benefactors to provide the essential goods and services we all depend on arbitrarily to those whom they deem “worthy” or “deserving,” paid for out of their own pockets.
After all, who owns the media?
The media increasingly pushes the line that “society owes you nothing” and that progressive taxes are simply “punishing the successful.” Instead, the things previous generations took for granted will now be “grants” and “gifts” distributed by whim by a handful of oligarchs who control more wealth than many governments—state, local and federal. And if you aren’t in the queue, or in the wrong queue, when the “gifts” are handed out, well then, too bad for you. Better luck next time. Go f*ck yourself.
Once again, incidents such as the one above are always framed as good news stories rather than as what they really are – symptoms of the tragic collapse of the post-Westphalian state and Enlightenment ideals, and the re-emergence of multiple overlapping Neofeudal patronage systems, similar to how medieval Europe and other regions functioned for much of history.
Here’s another perfect example:
The richest man in the world [Jeff Bezos] announced on Thursday that he would give $2bn (£1.5bn) of his fortune to finance a network of preschools and tackle homelessness in America.
James Bloodworth, a writer who went undercover to expose working conditions at [Amazon’s]fulfilment centres, said there was “something slightly ironic” about Mr Bezos’s plan. “There have been credible reports of Amazon warehouse workers sleeping outside in tents because they can’t afford to rent homes on the wages paid to them by the company,” he told the BBC…Others highlighted Amazon’s recent successful attempt to quash a law in Seattle – the home of the online retailer’s headquarters – that was designed to raise millions of dollars to alleviate the city’s homelessness crisis…
For his part, Mr Bezos, who is thought to be worth in excess of $150bn, did little to distance his philanthropic efforts from the business model of his company. “We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon,” he said in the statement announcing his fund. “Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession. “The child will be the customer…”
Well, given that his employees are already crying sitting at their desks, running schools shouldn’t be all that much different for Bezos than running Amazon. Although one wonders what kind of strange grading system will be implemented:
In case you somehow missed it, working at Amazon is pretty terrible according to The New York Times: brutal hours, unforgiving managers, a culture of cutthroat competition. If you’re a star student of the Amazon ethos, and you earn a perfect score when quizzed on the company’s “leadership principles,” you get permission to call yourself a “Peculiar,” which sounds more like something from Dr. Seuss than a workplace accolade.
Our students are Peculiar! And it is nice that he wants to do something about the rampant homelessness caused in part by the business practices of his own company. (I was actually talking to some Amazon warehouse workers at a bar last weekend. One was fired for not meeting the insane productivity quota after several months, and his girlfriend was summarily fired after suffering a stoke on the work floor. Both of them described it as a “sweatshop”.)
The falling back on wealthy individuals and private corporations to do the things that used to be considered just a part of the government’s basic mandate to its citizens is hardly good news in my opinion. Yet, rather than point this out, the media just engages in shameless hero-worship.
Another case in point is the school funded by basketball superstar LeBron James in Akron Ohio. If you’re one of the lucky lottery winners to attend the school funded by the “King” (yes, the article really uses that word), here’s what you get:
Some people call LeBron James the GOAT for his prowess on the basketball court. Others say it’s his work in the community that really makes him the greatest of all time..The [Promises] school, a project of the LeBron James Family Foundation and Akron Public Schools, provides students with a slew of awesome perks.
According to James, in addition to attending a school run by The King, students will also receive:
– Free tuition
– Free uniforms
– Free breakfast, lunch and snacks
– Free transportation within 2 miles
– A free bicycle and helmet
– Access to a food pantry for their family
– Guaranteed tuition for all graduates to the University of Akron
What’s more, parents of students will receive access to job placement services and help acquiring their GEDs.
The school’s curriculum was crafted with the help of Akron County educators, who say they’ve long seen their students underperforming in the classroom. There will be a focus on hands-on STEM education, with an emphasis on developing problem-solving skills, according to the foundation website.
Students will also have a later start time for school days and more staggered breaks in order to promote year-round education.
Although the school is currently open only to third- and fourth-grade students, classes will expand from first to eighth grade by 2022, James told CNN…James, who has given millions to the project, told CNN, “We want every kid to walk through this school to be inspired, to come … away with something. Something where they can give back.”
Is it possible for a media article to be more fawning than this? (synonyms: be obsequious to, be sycophantic to, be servile to, curry favor with, pay court to, play up to, crawl to, creep to, ingratiate oneself with, dance attendance on, fall over oneself for, kowtow to, toady to, truckle to, bow and scrape before, grovel before, cringe before, abase oneself before; flatter, praise, sing the praises of, praise to the skies, praise to excess, eulogize; sweet-talk, soft-soap, brown-nose, suck up to, make up to, smarm around, be all over, fall all over, butter up, lick someone’s boots, rub up the right way, lay it on thick, lay it on with a trowel; smoodge to; kiss someone’s arse..)
And anyway, why is a formerly prosperous major American city dependent upon the personal income of just one man to deliver services to its citizens that would just be considered a standard duty in any other normally-functioning, wealthy, industrialized democracy? Funny how, in its efforts to praise Mr. James, the article does not bother to even ponder that important question. I mean, nothing against Mr. James himself, but what if you don’t live in Akron, Ohio, or if you don’t get accepted into “the King’s School?” Well, once again, I suppose you’re just f*cked and on your own, then…
Welcome to Neofeudal America. Sorry about that, kid. Better luck next time…
2. Our ‘Game of Thrones’ Future
We’ve been here before, of course. It’s actually an earlier and much older form of social organization, going all the way back to the first civilizations, when a handful of aristocratic households were, for all intents and purposes, “the state,” and their family members comprised the ruling class. Even referring to these governments as a true “state” is an anachronism which is unfortunately all too common in historical writing.
A prime example of this are the liturgies of ancient Greece. Today we think of that word in reference to religious ceremonies. But what it originally referred to were the gifts bestowed upon the citizens of Greek city-states by wealthy elites as a matter of social convention. Even armies were provisioned this way. It was, in essence, a “voluntary tax” enforced by peer pressure:
The Greeks put taxation in the field of ethics…There was no tax on income. Taxes were not the way by which the wealth of the rich was shared with the people. Instead, this was achieved by a voluntary alternative: liturgy.
The word liturgy — from the ancient Greek leitourgia — means “public service” or “work of the people.” The idea of benefaction was embedded in the ancient Greek psyche, and had roots in mythology. The Titan Prometheus created humanity and was its greatest benefactor, giving the gift of fire, which he stole from Mount Olympus. The Goddess Athena gave the citizenry the olive tree, symbol of peace and prosperity, and so the city of Athens was named after her…
…Perhaps the city needed some kind of improvement to its infrastructure — a new bridge, for example. Perhaps a war loomed and military spending was required. Perhaps some kind of festivity was deemed necessary. Then the rich were called upon. They were expected not only to pay for the undertaking, but to carry it out as well: It was their responsibility to oversee the work in question.
The rationale was that the rich should shoulder the expenses of the city, given the unequal share of the community’s wealth they enjoyed. Any contribution was not enforced by law or bureaucracy, but by tradition and public sentiment. The motivation of the liturgist was benevolence, a sense of public duty and — significantly — the reward of honor and prestige…
Many of the buildings of ancient Greece were … constructed by benefactors competing for honor. The Stoa Poikile or Painted Porch of Peisianax in Athens, for example…Many works on the Acropolis, possibly even the Parthenon, were also funded by liturgy…The most prestigious and important liturgy — and by far the most expensive — was the navy, known as “trierarchy.” The trierarch had to build, maintain, and operate a warship — a “trireme.” Triremes kept the Athenian navy strong and shipping lanes free from pirates. Given that Athens was a trading center (indeed, taxes on trade were another source of government revenue), their role was essential…
There were anywhere between 300 and 1,200 liturgists in Athens — depending on need (in times of war the number went up) — and the liturgical class was constantly being renewed. Those who were responsible for liturgy volunteered in most cases, although some were assigned by the state. There were also major and minor liturgies, which varied according to the liturgist’s wealth.
While the system of liturgy allowed for public works to be funded and performed by qualified people, it slowly disappeared in the 4th century BCE, with the development of taxation…
Often times, the “state” was, in reality, simply the household budget of the ruler. For a modern analogy, imagine if the the entire budget of the United States was funded out of the personal wealth and income of one single, solitary individual—say, Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos. At the same time, local “governments” were simply councils of wealthy citizens (usually large landowners) who paid for everything out of their own pockets—important infrastructure, poor relief, defense, police, housing, food banks, law courts, etc.). Over time, such people became what we know today as the feudal aristocracy, as noted above.
Maybe it’s not so hard to imagine after all. Because that’s where we’re heading once again!
Cullen Murphy describes how the system functioned in the late Roman Empire:
Patronage spilled over into communal adornment; it was in fact inseparable from it. The Roman magnates competed with one another to endow the capital with improvements. Rome’s wealthiest class, the senatorial aristocracy, constituted by one estimate two-thousandths of 1 percent of the population; then came the equestrian class, with perhaps a tenth of a percent. Collectively these people owned almost everything.
Americans are well aware of the nation’s worsening income inequality, with those in the top 1 percent earning nearly 50 times more a year than those in the bottom 20 percent. The average C.E.O. earns more than 400 times as much as a typical worker. In Rome, the gap between the elite and everyone else was on the order of 5,000 or 10,000 to 1. (“Nothing is more unfair than equality,” observed a very comfortable Pliny the Younger, who would have felt at home in many Washington circles.)
The expectation in Rome was that affluent citizens, as individuals rather than as taxpayers, should provide for community needs. Did the city require another aqueduct? New roads? A stadium? Some magnate would surely provide it—in return, implicitly, for a measure of public power, and, of course, for ample public recognition. Inscriptions on countless marble fragments attest to such generosity—an early version of “Brought to you by … “
On Rome’s edifice of private giving—whether with the seemliness of an Andrew Carnegie or the vulgarity of a Donald Trump—an empire was built.
The Roman system was a remarkable contrivance. But it contained the seeds of its own destruction. For one thing, it fostered an expectation that “others” would always provide. If public amenities came into being through private munificence—and if these in turn served to enhance private glory—then why should the public pay for their upkeep?
This way of doing business “did not work for the common benefit of the overall urban fabric,” writes one historian, much less nurture a sense of common purpose and shared responsibility. I’ve seen the same mind-set at work within my state, Massachusetts, in hardscrabble mill towns whose philanthropic founding families have departed, where local taxpayers resist the idea that support of libraries and hospitals must now rest with the community as a whole. Moreover, even at its most uncorrupted, the patronage system was greased by small considerations: “It was a genial, oily, present-giving world…”
The Sack of Washington (Vanity Fair)
The trajectory of civilization over the last few centuries has been precisely of heading away from this inefficient, archaic arrangement. As Wikipedia states, “…with modernity, traditional bureaucratic patrimonial forms of government eventually gave way to modern capitalist bureaucratic rationalism as the main principle of both government and governance.” And yet, remarkably, the movement toward Neofeudalism is defended and rationalized by many of the same people who call themselves (with a straight face) “Classical Liberals,” and defenders of so-called “Enlightenment Values.”
Most likely, yes.
3. The New Pre-Post-Westphalian Order
As internal to nation states, so too between nation-states. Not only are the formerly firm guarantees of the living under a democratic nation-state eroding, but globally the capabilities and the importance of the post-Westphalian nation-state itself is declining, replaced by a scattered menagerie of powerful actors—a hybrid regime where institutions are just shells, and leaders are accountable to no one (save their own clients and patrons). We saw this grim future world outlined last time in The Twin Insurgency.
While there is no real examination of Neofeudalism on Wikipedia, it does have a pertinent entry on a related concept called Neomedievalism, a political term first coined by theorist Hedley Bull in The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics. Rather than local politics, though, it deals with the global power relationships both between and within nation-states, and makes an explicit analogy with the pre-Westphalian world order of persistent, low-intensity conflict:
[Hedley] Bull suggested society might move towards “a new mediaevalism” or a “neo-mediaeval form of universal political order”…In this reading, globalization has resulted in an international system which resembles the medieval one, where political authority was exercised by a range of non-territorial and overlapping agents, such as religious bodies, principalities, empires and city-states, instead of by a single political authority in the form of a state which has complete sovereignty over its territory.
Comparable processes characterising Bull’s “new medievalism” include the increasing powers held by regional organisations such as the European Union, as well as the spread of sub-national and devolved governments, such as those of Scotland and Catalonia. These challenge the exclusive authority of the state. Private military companies, multinational corporations and the resurgence of worldwide religious movements (e.g. political Islam) similarly indicate a reduction in the role of the state and a decentralisation of power and authority.
Stephen J. Kobrin in 1998 added the forces of the digital world economy to the picture of neomedievalism. In an article entitled “Back to the Future: Neomedievalism and the Postmodern Digital World Economy” in the Journal of International Affairs, he argued that the sovereign state as we know it – defined within certain territorial borders – is about to change profoundly, if not to wither away, due in part to the digital world economy created by the Internet, suggesting that cyberspace is a trans-territorial domain operating outside of the jurisdiction of national law.
Anthony Clark Arend also argued in his 1999 book Legal Rules and International Society that the international system is moving toward a “neo-medieval” system. He claimed that the trends that Bull noted in 1977 had become even more pronounced by the end of the twentieth century. Arend argues that the emergence of a “neo-medieval” system would have profound implications for the creation and operation of international law.
Here’s a quote taken directly from Bull himself:
“It is…conceivable that sovereign states might disappear and be replaced not by a world government but by a modern and secular equivalent of the kind of universal political organisation that existed in Western Christendom in the Middle Ages.
In that system no ruler or state was sovereign in the sense of being supreme over a given territory and a given segment of the Christian population; each had to share authority with vassals beneath, and with the Pope and (in Germany and Italy) the Holy Roman Emperor above.
The universal political order of Western Christendom represents an alternative to the system of states which does not yet embody universal government.”
The problem is that he saw this as possibly a good thing—an alternative to political structures that were too oversized, remote and inflexible. Many people shared his view.
But nature abhors a vacuum, especially a power vacuum, and into that vacuum powerful corporations have stepped in to become the new de facto post-democratic civic structures, and lone individuals, such as Bezos, Smith, Gates, James, Mark Zuckerberg and many others, have become the new de-facto aristocrats—like their historical forebears chosen not via the popular ballot, but simply by virtue of their achieved or ascribed status. And just like Augustus, they couch their munificence (synonyms: generosity, bountifulness, open-handedness, magnanimity, magnanimousness, princeliness, lavishness, free-handedness, liberality, philanthropy, charity, charitableness, largesse, big-heartedness, beneficence, benevolence) in the same pseudo-democratic “first-citizen” rhetoric of Noblesse Oblige that accompanied the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Empire.
It’s the pre-Enlightenment world all over again! As Crooked Timber wrote back in 2013:
…The cosy relationship between corporations … and the government bears a strong resemblance to feudalism (which, stripped of the pageantry, was a complex web of relations and privileges between a small and privileged elite of nobles and the state). It bears an even stronger resemblance to Old Corruption, the strangling web of sinecures and emoluments that radicals like William Cobbett inveighed against in the early nineteenth century.
Government – even at the best of times – has many clunky and inefficient features (the American version particularly so – many of the worst inflexibilities of the US government have their origins in people’s distrust of it). Yet the replacement of large swathes of government with a plethora of impenetrable subcontracting relationships is arguably even worse – it has neither the efficiencies (sometimes) achieved by markets, nor the accountability (sometimes) achieved by democratic oversight.
Neo-liberalism as feudalism (Crooked Timber). As Murphy describes of ancient Rome:
Sociologists have a term for what is occurring: they call it the “externalization of state functions.” Water and sewage systems are being privatized, as are airports and highways and public hospitals. Voucher programs and charter schools are a way of shifting education toward the private sector. The protection of nuclear waste is in private hands. Meat inspection is done largely by the meatpacking companies themselves. Americans were up in arms…when they learned that DP World, a company in the United Arab Emirates, would soon be in control of the terminals at half a dozen major U.S. seaports—only to discover that the privatization of terminal operations at American ports had begun three decades ago, and that 80 percent of them were already operated by foreign companies, the largest of which is Chinese. Serious proposals to privatize portions of Social Security have been on the table, and the new Medicare prescription-drug plan effectively puts an enormous government program into the hands of private insurance and drug companies.
And that leads us, once again, to the concept of the Hollow State we discussed last time. As you recall, a Hollow State is,
...a set of governmental practices in which states contract with third parties (private companies) in order to distribute government services.
In a hollow state there are many degrees of separation between the source of taxpayer funds and the final distribution of taxpayer-funded products or services. Services paid for by the state are produced by a vast network of providers and the task of the government is not to manage provision, but to negotiate contracts with providers.
There is no “command and control” relationship between government and contractors. Contracts are managed by countless agencies and even more providers, there is no means of central record keeping or data management.
A Hollow State has all the standard edifices of governance although most are under the influence of third-party organizations, either for-profit or non-profit entities.
In the name of “efficiency” government interests are delegated to private contractor[s], who will then often subcontract to other groups. For example, contractors hired to patch roofs with blue tarp for FEMA after Katrina received payment of “between $149 and $175 per (10ftx10ft square).” This price was comparable to installing entirely new roofs at the time. However; through a long string of subcontractors, the firms performing the final installations of the tarps “earned as little as $2 per 10ftx10ft square. Taxpayers end up paying exorbitantly as business interests takes complete control over the process of procurement.
Hollow State (Wikipedia)
Case in point:
Trump has repeatedly pressured the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Homeland Security to award a contract for building a wall at the southern U.S. border to a North Dakota company headed by a leading Republican donor…
Fisher [Industries] is a curious choice. The company is already suing the government after being rejected for any Army Corps contract for the border wall…Fisher Industries has some assets, though. Tommy Fisher is a major GOP donor. He has North Dakota’s Republican Senator Kevin Cramer in his corner. He’s already working on a private-sector attempt to build a barrier on private land in New Mexico, which is backed by close Trump allies such as Steve Bannon, the former White House strategist; Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos; and Kris Kobach, the former vice chair of Trump’s voter-fraud commission, who was under consideration as his “immigration czar.”
Moreover, Tommy Fisher has wisely made himself a fixture on Fox News, which the president watches obsessively. He’s used those appearances to pitch his company’s plan. And in a statement to the Post, Fisher Industries struck a positively Trumpian tone, promising to build “faster than any contractor using common construction methods” and adding, “Consistent with the goals President Trump has also outlined, Fisher’s goal is to, as expeditiously as possible, provide the best-quality border protection at the best price for the American people at our nation’s border.”
A Single Scandal Sums Up All of Trump’s Failures (The Atlantic)
Instead of presidents or prime ministers, future nations may only have CEO’s:
The remaking of the American state in the image of its biggest corporations reflects the extent to which popular confidence in public virtue has been bleeding out over the long decades since Rollerball came out the year after Nixon’s resignation. The New Deal vision of government as the engine of egalitarian progress, itself the liberal cousin to state socialism’s dream of communitarian paradise, seems almost completely gone. The only utopia left after the “End of History” was the neoclassical economists’ whiteboard world of perfect markets measuring out welfare through price optimization, and the financial crisis permanently discredited that. The dream of the liberation from work has been replaced by the deluded restoration of industrial age proletarian drudgery — and the reversion to a baronial warlord model of governance. Long live the new serfs
Ancien Nouveau Régime
This disintegration of the nation-state and tragic failures of modern governance, as we saw above, are usually framed as very good things by many intellectuals and the media. Making a Difference, Uplifting News, Good News, and so forth. Some of commenters I quoted from above were explicitly promoting the idea of philanthrocapitalism as a viable alternative to progressive taxation and procurement of necessary goods and services via states with their own national currencies and civil service.
But at least a few people are recognizing the charade for what it is—extreme taking followed by extreme giving, and fundamentally antithetical to progress, social justice and representative democracy, no matter how its justified:
Some parts of these stories—the protagonists’ determination or generosity, for instance—are certainly admirable. But the accounts as a whole can only be seen as uplifting if we unquestioningly accept the brutal logic of neoliberalism, where a person’s worth, standard of living and even their continued existence are determined completely by their wealth and what they can earn on the market.
Neoliberal ideology that promotes individualism and “free enterprise” does not see the rights to housing, healthcare or an adequate standard of living (enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) as inalienable, but rather as commodities to be bought, sold and bargained for on the market…
Perhaps the two most common subjects for these unintentionally horrifying “uplifting” stories are paying for education and healthcare, the cost of which is off the scale in America compared to the rest of the industrialized world. CNN shared the story of the “inspiring” Ryan Hickman, who, at just three years old, began recycling trash to help pay for college…CNBC also found a North Carolina kid with a “can-do attitude” who did the same (making barely $3 a week doing so). Neither network asked why children have to literally wade through garbage to hope for a decent education in the richest country in world history.
Medical costs are a problem crippling many Americans. Hospital bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy in America, while one-third of all GoFundMe donations are for medical expenses. CBS shared a supposedly “touching” story about a man who sold his beloved Ford Mustang to pay for his wife’s cancer treatment and how, 12 years later, his children bought it back for him. The twist? The owner sold it back to fund her own mother’s cancer treatment, according to the San Antonio Express News.
Any of these stories could have been used as a gateway to discuss many of the crippling economic and social problems the US is facing. But under neoliberalism, every problem is understood through an individualist lens, and not a result of systemic forces that dominate society…
The Homeless 8-Year-Old Chess Champion and Other Horrific ‘Uplifting’ Stories (FAIR)
This description of Neoliberal capitalism above is apt. In many ways, it’s likely to be worse than life under feudalism in medieval times, as Noam Chomsky pointed out:
“A feudal system is non-capitalist. In a feudal system everyone has a place – maybe a rotten place, but some place. So the serf has some place in the feudal system, they have some rights within that place in the system. In a capitalist system, you don’t have any rights. And in fact when modern capitalism developed in the early 19th century – this is post-Adam Smith or anything like that, but Ricardo and Malthus and so on – their principle was pretty simple: you don’t have any rights. The only rights a person has are what they can gain in the labor market. And beyond that, you’ve no right to live, you’ve no right to survive. If you can’t make out on the labor market, go somewhere else. And in fact they could go somewhere else, they could come here and exterminate the population and settle here. But in Europe, you couldn’t do that, so some remnants of the whole feudal system and conservative structures and so on did lead to – after all, Europe had huge labor movements, the German social democratic party grew out of very powerful movements, and they just forced the development of what became social market systems…”
Such “generous” measures don’t come out of the inherent benevolence of our new overlords. No, they serve a more base purpose—to tamp down dissent and to keep the serfs in line:
…there is still another, darker way of judging what goes on when elites put themselves in the vanguard of social change: that doing so not only fails to make things better, but also serves to keep things as they are. After all, it takes the edge off of some of the public’s anger at being excluded from progress. It improves the image of the winners. By using private and voluntary half-measures, it crowds out public solutions that would solve problems for everyone, and do so with or without the elite’s blessing.
There is no question that the outpouring of elite-led social change in our era does great good and soothes pain and saves lives. But we should also recall Oscar Wilde’s words about such elite helpfulness being “not a solution” but “an aggravation of the difficulty”. More than a century ago, in an age of churn like our own, he wrote: “Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good.”
What they’re really doing is greasing the skids toward a world from before the Enlightenment and the French Revolution that we assumed we had permanently left behind centuries ago. But now we’re drifting back towards it—to an older, more primitive social arrangement; one of pervasive grotesque inequality, grinding poverty, hereditary aristocracy, religious fervor, and a threadbare patchwork of first-world order amidst a widening sea of chaos. Of ineffective states, government by whim, and justice for the fortunate few. And all the way down, if the media has their way, we’ll be grateful for whatever scraps fall from the tables of our new “God-Kings”.
As I wrote back in 2013:
I think that we really are entering a new political arrangement as profound as the transformation from the monarchical/manorial economy into the nation state. Some of the salient points are a dissolution of money and power from centralized governments directed by the citizenry into the whims of unitary individuals who control its distribution and allocation. Another is and a loss of rights and protections traditionally guaranteed to all citizens by the nation state, to dependency on whatever one can claw from the impersonal marketplace, nothing less and nothing more. Public provisions traditionally guaranteed by the state, such as roads, universal education, police and fire protection, a social safety net, etc. are also falling apart, another similarity to the dissolution of power following the fall of the Roman Empire, heightening the similarity.
Thus, I propose to call the new political system “Neofeudalism” to recognize the similarities to the previous system. The key of course, is the “Neo” part. It is a new system, with similarities to feudalism but entirely different and unique. Don’t look for knights in armor or stone castles with moats. Do look for private security contractors, gated compounds and yachts. Don’t looks for lords and serfs, do look for oligarchs living like kings and debt serfs living paycheck to paycheck. I don’t use this term pejoratively, or as a “snarl word,” I mean to really understand what this system is and how it works, because I think it’s going to be the political system that we’re all going to end up living under as capitalism disintegrates and we enter a new Dark Age.
“The idea that each corporation can be a feudal monarchy and yet behave in its corporate action like a democratic citizen concerned for the world we live in is one of the great absurdities of our time—”
― Kim Stanley Robinson, Antarctica
“…Given half a chance, the sons and daughters of peasants would rather not grow up to be servants. It seems bizarre for modern folk to pine for a way of life our ancestors rightfully fought desperately to escape.”
― David Brin, Glory Season
BONUS: A video saying much the same thing: