Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Are we entering a new feudal age?

I have been thinking a lot about the surviving feudal features of our current socioeconomic system (as part of my research into what makes "capitalism" capitalist, exactly) for the last couple of years, and have had some (eventually nasty) discussions in some forums where people post easy epithets without knowing much what they mean...

However, last Friday I stumbled upon this post: Feudalism in corporate governance that I found better argued that the usual rants about the subject (which tend to be a way of disparaging modern capitalism, or its likely evolution, accusing it of something not very precise that just smells like old and stuffed and really uncool), and made me want to systematize a bit my own thoughts on the subject.

First, lets start by what most of the people I've read seem to think this new feudalism means. In most cases, it is a denunciation of the growing inequalities we are witnessing, that make them think that if current trends continue we will soon be living in a society of serfs (i.e. very poor people, with just enough to get by and no formally recognized rights) surrounding a minuscule elite of superrich (the equivalent of the feudal lords of yore) unbounded by laws or statutes, as their vast wealth would enable them to do basically what they please, without any fear of the consequences. Under that scenario, the modern nation-state that emerged in the XVIIth Century would finally crumble, unable to compete with the likely private armies of those plutocrats after being gradually deprived of resources by the emptying of its traditional, middle-class based revenue source, a process we havebeen witnessing for some time now, and which will only acelerate with the retirement of the boomer generation. An extreme illustration of the kind of society we may be heading to is depicted in the comic Lazarus

As the first post I referenced points out, feudalism is indeed a response to the lack of power of the central authority (that's why it appears after the crumbling of the Roman empire), in which the peasants (albeit unwillingly) renounced to some of their freedoms (like, in the end, the freedom of abandoning the land, or the freedom to work in whatever they pleased, or not to work at all) in exchange for protection, and the lords (originally local chiefs marked by their fighting prowess) aquired an enhanced status, and control over the meager surplus produced by the peasants. That control required they had the equivalent of today's legislative and judiciary powers (to command, enact and arbiter in case of dispute, in a fragmented monopoly of violence).

So we have today a situation with some analogies, as the international system based on nation states as main actors, on which the powers "to command, enact and arbiter" are invested (and thus who can wield the monopoly of violence) seems to be if not crumbling, at least weakening, thanks to the technological advances that have reduced the cost of transport and communications almost to zero (at least for merchandise), and made the enforcement of national borders more and more problematic, as any first world country bordering with a second or third world one (with the exception of Japan) can attest. So an evolution towards a social order in which people gravitates towards alternative sources of authority may not be so much off the mark (specially if the hollowing of the state championed by certain sectors of the right continues apace). And the foundation of that authority maynot be the capacity to exert force (or the holding of a monopoly over violence, which may even be outsourced or privatized, as some anarchocapitalists dream) but the command of vast sources of information (the most advanced of the three sources of power identified by now infamous futurist Alvin Toffler in The Third Wave)... or the command of vast sums of capital, if there is still a social structure where capital is scarce and recognized as valuable.

Indeed, to some extent, as the original post I linked suggests, feudalism has very much survived in the heart of the modern corporation. Where once land was the main source of value, and possession of the land was the paramount sign of power, and the authorization to work the land was the only way to subsist for most people, today capital is the main source of value, possession of capital (and the ability to display that possession) is the highest mark of social status, and authorization to use that capital (to produce wealth for others, in exchange for a salary) is the only way to subsist (more so in those countries where the "social safety net" is weaker). I would add one additional parallelism: Max Weber, one of the fathers of modern sociology, spoke  in his magisterial Economy and Society of charismatic power (invested in an individual) as opposed to bureaucratic power (invested in a position with fixed duties and responsibilities documented in some written form) as a sign of archaic societies. Well, anybody that has worked in a big enough corporation, specially in "modern" ones (in the IT sector) can immediately recognize the preeminence of charismatic power in it, and the subsequent building of cliques, fiefs, and tribes around the main executives, along with other signals of highly personalized hierarchies, as paradigmatically shown by the cult of the "rock star" CEO (and CFO, and COO, and so on in a fractal structure of imitation of the upper echelons at lower and lower levels). So the shift towards more informal, more "flexible", flatter, less defined (less bureaucratic) organizations is a change towards more charismatic (more feudal) forms of control and command...

So I tend to agree that we are seeing a reinforcement of the more feudalistic tendencies within our societies, specially within the economic realm, a reinforcement that is only lacking the formal recognition of separate legal statutes for the lords (the owners of enough capital) and the rest, making de iure what already exists de facto. It will be interesting to watch, as it will require a new legitimizing metanarrative similar in scope and strength to the Christian view that legitimized the three orders of medieval society. Can the scientific/ materialist worldview that is closer today to be a coherent metanarrative play that role? it's difficult to say, and I would expect it to be replaced by something new, more metaphysical and more accomodating of the differences between the different classes. But wait and see, as I have few doubts about its eventual rise.

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