Thursday, August 25, 2016

Jeez, we are already in the midst of a new feudal age!

Time to attend the anguished cries of my growing readership and get back to the scriptorium to provide them the nuanced and thoughtful content they have become accustomed to, after a long, blissful vacation that had me flying above the oceans and driving thousands of miles through multiple continents (I’m “barely” exaggerating in this era of shameless self-aggrandizement when every FB and Instagram user seems to be perpetually jumping from the Maldives to the Atacama desert, and from Phuket to Tokyo in the blink of an eye, only to attend to fancy parties and brainy conferences, but as usual I digress). Thankfully, all that flying and driving, and scuba diving and nonchalantly basking in the sun on crowded beaches has not prevented me from a healthy dose of reading, seeking to understand better the hidden currents that are shaping our global village, which run deeper and have a greater momentum than those that bath the Canary Islands from which I pondered such weighty trends.

Some of that reading has been on the topic of feudalism, whose application to our modern times I had already considered in a post of some time ago (entering a new feudal age), as I felt I needed to understand better that period of our shared civilization, what caused it, what made it tick and what finally condemned it to the proverbial dustbin of history. I went back to Europe Between the Oceans 9000 BC – AD 1000 by Barry Cunliffe, to Europe in the High Middle Ages by William Chester Jordan (within the excellent Penguin series on the history of the continent), but mainly I exploited my recently recovered ability to read French originals to visit what resulted in a much deeper understanding. Although my first foray (L’homme médiéval, a collection of essays on different human types barely edited by Jacques Le Goff) was somewhat disappointing, I ended up finding some real masterworks that have much clarified my views on the social dynamics prevalent then. In that vein, I can not recommend highly enough La société féodale by Marc Bloch, and to a lesser extent Le Problème de l’incroyance au XVIe siècle: la religion de Rabelais, by Lucien Febvre (that one touches only tangentially in a minute aspect of the middle ages, but which I needed to wholly grasp to complete my view of the period: the extent to which religious belief truly permeated the worldview of both the elites and the common people towards the end of the middle ages, when the feudal institutions were either greatly weakened or entirely disappeared).

Be it as it may, the three key insights I gained were a) the personal nature of the feudal bond between lords (formalized by the rite of hommage in which the would-be vassal put his joined hands between the hands of his future master, followed by a kiss in the mouth to signify the equivalence in dignity between both participants); b) the necessary insufficiency of the bonds towards state structure and family to ensure the safety and survival of the individual as a precondition for the voluntary acceptance of such vassalage bonds and c) the relative independence of such bonds from the economic structure, which was based on what Bloch calls “seigneurial” agricultural production, a system that vastly predates feudalism and long survived its demise (indeed, the “old regime” the French Revolution finally overthrew, although characteristically “feudal” in the eyes of its contemporaries, was indeed a seigneurial economic compact with no traces of feudalism whatsoever). Each of those insights have consequences of interest for the analysis of our own social order that I will proceed to unpack.

Personal nature of the bond, which presupposed a similar level of dignity between both participants, and determined thus the dynamics within the upper echelons of society, not affecting that much the way the mass of the people lived and were bossed around (such mass was formed mostly by peasants, in an era of very low, almost inexistent, urbanization). So personal was it that when either the lord or the vassal died, it had to be renewed by the deceased’s successor (only in lower Middle Age, as it would become hereditary afterwards, signaling a growing weakness of the top of the lords’ hierarchy, occupied by would-be nation-state kings). In its original form, the vassal committed his whole person to his lord, agreeing to support him in case of armed conflict (reflected in the widespread formula tes amies seront mes amies, et tes ennemies seront mes ennemies: “your friends shall be my friends and your enemies shall be my enemies”) in exchange for maintenance and the provision of means of subsistence. Those means of subsistence (that Bloch goes to great pains to differentiate from a “salary”) could be provided in the house of the lord, giving the vassal almost free access to food and lodging, or by the concession of populated land (a “fief”). Note the importance of the land being populated, as having a desert was of no interest to anybody. Difficult as it may be to imagine such state in our overpopulated times, land was back then the inexhaustible resource that kings could freely adjudicate to their subjects, and they liberally did so in exchange for their loyalty, the availability of settlers being the only “brake” to such adjudication.

Is there today something similar to land back in feudal times? Something that can be created almost “out of thin air” and given in compensation for fealty and a commitment to come in the defense of the giver if needs be? Well, of course there is. Capital is the new land, and with it the new “kings” (those who seat at the top of the managerial class) reward the loyalty of their followers. Technically, it is not them who control the “creation” of capital, something that formally only sovereign central banks can do, but think about it for a moment: why do central banks continue with a policy of “scarce money” and international monetary authorities keep on defending austerity in the face of 99% (and I’m being generous, see the last exasperated tirade of Paul Krugman on the topic: of the most reputed economists? What could the potential downside of a more expansionary policy be? A diminution in the value of the currency the ruling class uses to buy the loyalty of its barons and counts, of course! I’ll leave a more detailed analysis of the apparent inconsistencies of monetary policy (which of course, without resorting to any wacky conspiracy theory, only masks its utter coherence with the interests of the ruling classes, transmitted through the acceptance of a shared dominant reason that is a precondition for the whole society functioning as such).

However, identifying the personal character of the feudal bond helps us reveal the milieu where such type of relationship has become more prevalent today: that of the “modern” enterprise, where the CEOs of big multinational corporations act, for all practical purposes, as the kings of yore, appointing their barons (senior vice presidents) to rule over parts of their realm (geographical or functional divisions within the company) which they can more or less mercilessly exploit (and use the population contained within their fiefs as human chattel) as long as they pay homage to the boss, and come into his aid in case of conflict. Below them we can differentiate a bewilderingly complex hierarchy of counts, dukes, squires, viscounts and the like (sorry, I meant vice presidents, unit heads, division managers and the rest of the baffling “C-level suite” of any modestly successful corporation of today). The way thy rule over the lower strata is irrelevant here: some will be absentee landlords, some will dwell with their underlings. Some will by autocratic and tyrannical, some will be gentle and understanding, and give some voice to the “little guys” over which they lord. For the understanding of the whole system the really important thing is what moves the upper levels, regardless of how any of them individually decides to treat their serfs.

A system that requires a weak state and a weak family structure finds itself exactly and uncannily at home in our own troubled times. We have reduced families to the minimal expression (father, mother and a single child, that in most of the West now grows up barely knowing his or her grandparents, and has no uncles, aunts or cousins) and certain segments of the ruling classes are busily undermining the legitimacy of the state, as described by Nils Gilman in this article from the National Interest: the twin insurgency (thanks to the always interesting Branko Milankovic for the pointer). With no state to guarantee the bare necessities and almost no family to rely on, people have to turn themselves to the new lords at the top of the social hierarchy and offer themselves entirely to them, to be “friends of their friends and enemies of their enemies”. No shit Sherlock that the most rewarding multinationals expect nothing less than a 100% commitment from their executives. I distinctly remember attending (with growing unease) a lecture by one of the most successful honchos of the consulting company where I started my professional days, where he told us how he became the first executive to land a deal over 1 billion US dollars with a major client, which “only” forced him to move, family included (and also the families of his immediate reports) to a tiny village in the middle of nowhere where the client happened to have its headquarters. I had already witnessed how in my own geographic corner the families of the partners were understood to be an appendix of their professional careers, participating and creating the social opportunities to interact with potential customers to the exclusion of more uninterested (or non-monetizable) pursuits. Twenty four hours a day, three hundred and sixty five days a year, no holidays, rest or breaks allowed. But hey, as I said, we have created a system that exploits its most successful participants in ways that would put to shame a Roman slave master, and we fool ourselves proclaiming us the freer people on history, while boasting of work weeks of 80, 90, and up to 120 hours.

Independence of the bond between “lords” and between those and their “serfs”. Finally, we shouldn’t lose sight that what gave the feudal system its distinctive “flavor” was not the more or less strict serfdom on which it rested, or the other order of people on which it relied, the priestly class, which played a role very similar to that played today by scientists and scholars, both perfecting the common understanding of how the world, including the social reality, works and developing a common narrative to justify why it is the best of all the possible, imaginable arrangements. What was at the core of that flavor was the dense, strictly hierarchical network of fealty bonds that on the one hand kept the upper class together against external threats (from invasions -like the Saracens, the Vikings and the Magyars between the VIIth and the IXth centuries; from the dissatisfied peasants, through occasional but never too frequent revolts; from the plague and famines caused by bad harvests) while at the same time prevented them from accumulating too much power by continuously pitting them one against the other.

Because we shouldn’t forget the heyday of the feudal system were extremely violent times, the kind of times that inspired Hobbes to describe life outside the dominion of an absolute sovereign as “nasty, brutish and short”, a life of economic uncertainty, despair and arbitrary subjection to the ravaging armies of the nobles that in their own territories or in those of their rivals combatted their ennui by hunting or warring, or mixing both. A class whose superiority was originally predicated in the mastery of the more and more expensive weaponry demanded by “capital intensive warfare” (a horse and a full suit of armor was in those times as “expensive” as an M1 Abrams may be today, in terms of the amount of surplus that has to be extracted from the population to afford it, once the total factor productivity has been equalized) necessarily will keep justifying that superiority by the constant resource to military conflict. Land (the supposedly scarce resource, which for most of the Middle Ages was in more than abundant supply, as enormous extensions of forests laid fallow, waiting to be colonized all over the European land mass) was but a poor excuse, and war succeeded one after another as long as there were men to fought them.

Similarly, what we see today is a class (professional managers in large companies) more and more detached from the common men, which justifies their superiority by their business acumen, their imagined ability to turn a differential profit on the capital they are assigned… but let’s not forget that the base of that capital, namely money, could be conjured from thin air in limitless amounts by the authorities that control the printing presses in the central bank of every major currency-emitting nation. Such differential profit can only exist in an environment of apparently thinly regulated competition. I say apparently because the surest way of making tons of money is to be given a monopoly, and just extract the corresponding rents from it, something that companies seek ever more eagerly to do. All the while singing the praises of free competition, of course, as hereditary nobles, who had done really nothing to deserve their privileges (as it was some ancestor of them, more and more remote in the mists of time, who established the original agreement from which they were still benefitting), sang the praises of a status of perpetual war in which they did the looting and the enjoying while other, more numerous and less privileged, did almost all the dying…

What would finally stabilize our modern economic feudalism, and allow it to last for at least three or four centuries like the original one? To begin with, the recognition of a separate legal status for “managers”, including the guarantee to be judged only by their peers. Not that justice is that much universal nowadays, but formally we all still live under the same penal code, subject to the same set of laws and liable to be tried under the same procedural rules. I concede that only the very naïve can think that such “formal” equality doesn’t conceal a massive inequality, and that there are really two justice systems, one (marked by its harshness, a worrisome level of arbitrariness and high publicity of its supposedly exemplar punishments) for the poor and another, very different one, for the rich (marked in contrast by its leniency, its homogeneity across frontiers and jurisdictions and the comparative secrecy of the penalties it imposes).

Thankfully, such recognition of a separate legal status carries within itself the seed of the destruction of the system.  The moment in which it is formally recognized the people belonging to such privileged strata want to perpetuate it and grant it to their descendants, and such granting (and the desire of the rest of the population to achieve similar formally recognized status) ends up clashing with the personal nature of the feudal bond, and finally emptying it of any significance, being replaced by a hereditary office that is severed from the meritocratic principle and thus, subject to genetic drift, ends up distributed between not specially gifted individuals, that sooner or later lose the ability to prevent the masses from recovering most of them.
But such dissolution lies far away into the future. What I foresee in the following decades is still a consolidation of the managing class’s power, more and more along feudal lines, and an increasing pressure to differentiate themselves from the masses of common men over which they see themselves commanding (not by divine right, in a distinctly secular age, but by ill-defined “merit”, even if that merit is based on their superior intelligence, a mostly heritable, and thus as undeserved as may be dreamt of, trait). Just because the source of their prestige is economic success, which is always relative (it absolutely needs economic failure by its side to highlight its distinctiveness), such class will relentlessly foster an economic climate of (apparent) ruthless competition, scarcity and, as the last decade amply illustrates, public squalor and low growth, because in such low growth scenario the greatness of those that can still pull ahead (what we could call the “one percentedness” of the one per cent) is more noticeable. Unless, of course, a peasant revolt here and there convinces them that it is in their best interest to give a few more breadcrumbs to the masses (or, alternatively, to invest more heavily in mercenary armies, as I suggested in my last post may be already happening under our noses).

No comments:

Post a Comment