This was prompted by a comment by Wolfgang Brinck on the last post, that we’re going into a feudal society, with the capitalists in the place of the feudal lords of the Middle Ages. It’s not that simple, of course, but here’s a way we could conceivably get to something resembling that state.
There are two problems with this model. Historically (and this is off the top of my head, so feel free to call me on it), the Roman Empire (really the Byzantines) transitioned into a feudal model because they couldn’t afford to pay their soldiers, and it goes back to the odd practice of tax farming. Tax farming (which has been practiced all over the place, and may still go on now), is when the government privatizes the collection of taxes in some area. When it is too broke to collect its own taxes, it farms out the job to some warlord or strongman in an area, who collects the taxes, keeps some for himself, and gives the rest to the capitol. The Byzantines, if I have it right, got even more broke than that, and gave military companies outright ownership of districts (under ultimate control of the capitol, of course), on the condition that they provide a certain number of men armed to a certain degree when needed. This system got subdivided down, but basically, a feoff at the lowest level was supposed to be enough men to support someone going off to be a soldier, with arms, a horse, and equipment. That person was the feudal lord, and there was this chain of allegiance going up (in theory) through land grants all the way to the king/emperor/dude on top. You could also pay for a soldier-equivalent, if you were someone (like a church or a monastery) who didn’t do that whole war thing.
While I can see the US getting broke enough to privatize the IRS and start tax-farming, there’s another path to domination that we Americans always forget about: slavery. We don’t think about such things, but it’s a big part of our history. Now, before you start yelling (as is your right) that the US will never enslave poor, white people, I do have to point to the 13th Amendment to the US constitution. It says, in its entirety:
Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Note the part in italics? Slavery is still legal, but only if convicts are enslaved. That’s the nasty downside to the American prison-industrial complex, and it’s arguably why so many white people have been so eager to put so many black people in prison. But getting away from the historical racial politics, it’s sort of the ghost behind illegal immigration. It’s generally considered okay to treat illegal immigrants as having fewer rights than citizens. In the bad old days–well, actually now–illegal immigration propped up a large part of US agriculture by providing the cheap labor with few rights that kept food prices down. I’m intensely cynical, so I suspect that El Cheeto Grande’s push against illegal immigration is less about building walls and more about putting them in positions where they can be better exploited. It’s just good business practice, knocking down the costs of production and all.
The thing is, it’s easier to go from the present to a slave state than it is to go from the present to a feudal state.
What I think could happen is that, as climate change bites down and migration starts becoming imperative, some enterprising types will make migration a crime, punishable by long terms of penal servitude on farms run on a private-public model. Hell, they may even have these slaves doing things to ameliorate climate change, like planting tree plantations, making northern Canada more livable, and similar hard labor. It’s all fundamentally legal, and we’ve already got private prisons doing broadly similar things. It’s all a question of what they want to criminalize to enslave the poor and desperate.
Something similar happened in parts of France, in the late Roman empire. Migrants from the tribes were apparently settled as “colonists” on the great latifundia of the region, and some of these apparently became medieval estates ultimately, through many transformations. This was well after Rome had outlawed slavery, incidentally, so those colonists weren’t slaves. But they weren’t free either. There are many ways to deprive people of freedoms and rights and to install a system of authoritarian strongmen, and feudalism is only one of them.
Could the US become feudal in the old sense? Probably not, unless the US government or one of its successors turns to tax farming. But that doesn’t mean that capitalists won’t install themselves as the rulers of their own little domains. For example, they could run towns with adjacent prison farms, serviced by a small class of free townsfolk. We’ve got similar things already, just as we have small towns that are basically run by multiple generations of the same family.
The rather more interesting question is how freedom-loving democratic folk like myself can fight against this. One thing to note is that this kind of servitude doesn’t really happen in cities. It happens in the poor countryside, and through the Middle Ages, there were ongoing political fights between the relatively more free towns and the relatively unfree country estates. It’s one reason cities attracted people, even though urbanites historically had a lower life expectancy than peasants.
Another thing to remember is that there are ways to fight back, both violently and non-violently. This is the whole point of the Theory of Competitive Control that I talk about it Hot Earth Dreams. For example, an army of migrants can conquer an area, settle, redistribute the land, and even give their former enemies of a piece of the pie, if their leader is moral enough to give up power at the end of a campaign and to push to establish a democratic political system. Or, rather than fighting, a territory can welcome migrants in, give them a stake, and make them citizens. Or rich people can use their money to shore up areas that are in trouble, so that their inhabitants don’t migrate in the first place. And there are other things, both moral and horrific, that can be used to keep hordes of migrants from becoming enslaved convicts.
Still, the takeaway is that I’d expect something like slave-owning to show up again before we start seeing true feudalism.
One other semi-related thought is that my superficial reading of history makes me think that capitalism is a crappy way to run a country, but a great way to loot a population. I’m thinking back centuries, to what Cortes did to Mexico (allegedly to pay his creditors) to the relative failures of the Dutch East India Company (broken up) and the British East India Company (bought out by the crown), Fordlandia, and on up the chain. I’d love some examples of long-lived corporations that took care of their employees as if they were citizens, because I can’t really think of any, even in Japan and Korea. This, to me, is one of the great stupidities of the neo-cons and the libertarians who want to use capitalist business models as the basis for government. Businesses are great for organizing people, and they’re great as extractive tools for making their investors rich. What they’re not great at is staying in business or benefiting their employees or chattel. That’s the great weakness underlying the incoming US administration, and I don’t think it’s going to go well for us.
This is also why I don’t think capitalism is anything like a proxy for feudalism. Like it or not, some feudal families lasted have lasted longer than almost all businesses (barring that inn in Japan). Capitalist entities aren’t known for their durability, and I don’t think they’re a good structure on which to build a government.
13 Comments so far
Leave a comment