Putting the life back in science fiction


From here to Technofeudalism (or not)
December 18, 2016, 6:48 pm
Filed under: 2016, futurism, Speculation | Tags: ,

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.

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13 Comments so far
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The economy of the UK changed quite a bit over time if you took snapshots in 1800, 1850, 1900, 1950, and 2000. Nonetheless I expect that it would be broadly described as “capitalist” in each of these years. Capitalism seems to be the word we’re going to use for the foreseeable future to describe every production system outside of completely failed states regardless of how much the specifics change between eras. The UK of 2050 will again be quite different but at least we can take comfort that people will still describe it as capitalist 😛

I think that the future demand for human labor for most kinds of tasks is going to decline. And because most people are slow to reject the historical baggage of “only those who work (or inherit) deserve to consume,” there’s going to be intensifying resentment against immigrants who “steal” from the shrinking pool of jobs. Employ climate refugees to plant trees? Hell, no! Angry citizens will be queuing up even for back-breaking jobs and voting in Trump 2.0 if they’re not getting them. (See also: former coal miners in Appalachia who have black lung and damaged vertebrae, who supported Trump because they’re more afraid of the end of coal jobs than the destruction of their own bodies.) It seems like the increasing disconnect between “broadly useful jobs that need people to perform them” and “people who need the food, shelter, and medical care traditionally attached to employment” is going to lead to an earthquake at some point, but people can stay irrational for a surprisingly long time…

Comment by Matt

I’m reminded of John Barnes 1987 novel The Man Who Pulled Down the Sky, where the capitalist orbitals spent a lot of time and effort ensuring that the free market delivered the correct results. (He reprised this idea in A Million Open Doors, where the theocracy of Caledony used most of its resources ensuring that the market reflected the theological ideal.)

I believe this is called the “drift of the signified” in semiotics, in which the meaning of labels shifts sufficiently to change meaning without people (necessarily) being aware of it. (Not a semiotician, so I may have this very wrong.)

Comment by Robert

“Employ climate refugees to plant trees? Angry citizens will be queuing up even for back-breaking jobs and voting in Trump 2.0 if they’re not getting them.”

I mean, “employ” is only one of the listed options here…

More to the point though: Why would citizens volunteer to do that stuff when stoking illegal immigration to drive down the costs of backbreaking, low-paid labor has been such a successful strategy? Why wouldn’t they just cling to whatever racial and nationalist signifiers tell them they deserve better than Those People, who are Taking Their Jobs? That’s pretty much what the white working classes have been doing in the US and the UK since industrialization kicked off and it’s worked out fantastically for the white elite, who are the ones encouraging this dialogue in the first place.

“See also: former coal miners in Appalachia who have black lung and damaged vertebrae, who supported Trump because they’re more afraid of the end of coal jobs than the destruction of their own bodies.”

Appalachian coal miners are interested in not starving to death/losing their homes within the coming year. That’s enough of a struggle that they don’t have much latitude to agitate for proper safety oversight and equipment. Black lung kills you slowly — starvation, exposure and many of the other consequences of widespread social breakdown will kill you fast. Appalachian coal miners want their jobs because they don’t have any other opportunities. They’re not idiots; they’re being cynically manipulated by the likes of right-wing populists, who speak to their anxieties and appear to be outsiders on the system that makes their lives difficult (but whose interests are ultimately diametrically opposed to theirs). They are more vulnerable to this manipulation because of cultural hegemony, racial politics and nationalism. Analogous factors are at play in the UK.

“It seems like the increasing disconnect between “broadly useful jobs that need people to perform them” and “people who need the food, shelter, and medical care traditionally attached to employment” is going to lead to an earthquake at some point, but people can stay irrational for a surprisingly long time…”

The irrationality of the masses is not to blame for the current setup. It’s a factor, insofar as it’s being exploited, but if you posit this as a problem rooted in human nature, you’re going to be misled every time.

Some of the most broadly useful jobs (like food production, garment production, and resource extraction in general — the stuff that makes all the other stuff run) are some of the most poorly-paid. That’s not an accident — the elite in any era skim surplus value by making sure the costs of labor are artificially suppressed. Most of the wider social phenomena we’re discussing here are employed as means to this particular end.

Comment by K

“Appalachian coal miners are interested in not starving to death/losing their homes within the coming year. That’s enough of a struggle that they don’t have much latitude to agitate for proper safety oversight and equipment. Black lung kills you slowly — starvation, exposure and many of the other consequences of widespread social breakdown will kill you fast. Appalachian coal miners want their jobs because they don’t have any other opportunities. They’re not idiots; they’re being cynically manipulated by the likes of right-wing populists, who speak to their anxieties and appear to be outsiders on the system that makes their lives difficult (but whose interests are ultimately diametrically opposed to theirs). They are more vulnerable to this manipulation because of cultural hegemony, racial politics and nationalism.”

I half-agree with this. I agree that short-term worries and near-term disasters can overwhelm people’s abilities to consider the long term. What’s maddening is that American employment in coal mining has been declining decade-over-decade ever since the 1950s, so the time for short term thinking about the problem passed a generation or two ago. What’s doubly maddening is that “coal country,” or at least its most vocal workers, don’t *want* alternative employment in a non-dead-end industry. They just want coal jobs. Clinton was crucified for talking about finding alternative jobs for displaced coal workers and Trump was feted for lying that all the coal workers can go back to work in the mines.

It reminds me of the generation-long logging community resentment against the government in the Pacific Northwest after protections for the endangered Spotted Owl curtailed logging on federal land. The main problem was that centuries’ worth of accumulated natural wealth was being extracted in decades. The pressure on the Spotted Owl was a symptom of that problem, not a cause. It’s also reminiscent of fishing community resentment against catch limits. They’re angry at the thunder for causing the lightning.

Comment by Matt

Matt, we saw a very similar problem with Welsh coal miners back in the 1980’s. Welsh mines were some of the most unproductive and unpleasant in Britain, with seams so narrow miners couldn’t walk down to the pit face. The larger mines at Durham going under the North Sea were far better, but even so, they were far more expensive that Australian coal.

When the Welsh mines were to be phased out, Welsh miners played the “we’ve worked for generations….” and wanted the mines kept open, and did not apparently want alternative employment. In the end, the mines were closed, alternative employment didn’t work out, and the Welsh mining villages were left devastated. Wales voted for Brexit, despite the decent economy of South Wales centered around Cardiff.

Where I think politicians (and economists) need to improve their thinking is to understand how nearly impossible it is these days to move locations after you have settled down. The family and friends networks built up, plus the lower cost of living, make it extraordinarily hard to move to a new location unless you are desperate. Rather than just assume people will move, like dustbowl era Okies, better to understand those issues and find ways to employ people in work that is dignified. It may not be easy, but I think we have to get beyond the implied slights of those who claim to want jobs of yesteryear. It would be a lot less problematic than trying to move populations to new areas, especially the cities. While cities offer more jobs and variety, they have become ridiculously expensive places to live as wages have stalled. Moving to cities often doesn’t make economic sense.

If we did deeper, I so wonder if the claim is just a surrogate for “I don’t want to move, just find me a well paying job that doesn’t demean my status.”

Comment by alexandertolley

I can think of several kinds of jobs that humans will still be better at than machines for another generation or more, that would be socially useful, that could be done in Appalachia without uprooting existing communities. I can think of ways to ensure that the private sector employment that remains in Appalachia does not treat human beings like disposable inputs to production, does not discard their bodies or their dignity. But I don’t see how to do either on the basis of profit-seeking market logic. Let the market decide everything and you get… technofeudalism! Amazing, I circled back to the original topic 😛

Among other regrets about this election, I wish that I could see how Sanders would have performed against Trump in depressed coal-and-manufacturing areas. Did voters hate Clinton’s same old retraining-and-jobs proposal because they don’t really believe the newer jobs are there? Because retraining and moving would still destroy the communities they’ve known forever? Because they don’t trust Clinton personally? Because they want the illusion of rugged individualism? Some of these issues are more fixable than others. If they want a lot of government help and also demand that the help be structured invisibly, so they can pretend to independence, that’s a tall order. If they want a lot of help and just don’t want to move away from the places they have a deep historical attachment too, that’s also harder than the standard “retrain and move” Clintonite suggestion, but significantly more realistic and actionable.

Comment by Matt

Good discussion. I’d just note, per Cadillac Desert, that there appears to be a lot of this kind of “invisible structural support” all over the US, whether it be water projects and subsidies in the west to make farming and “old school” ranching viable, corn ethanol in the Midwest, or (for all I know) coal in Appalachia as a way of getting those hillbillies off moonshine and poverty and into something like the middle class.

Now I can’t knock this entirely, because a bunch of my relatives went from Europe to work in the iron mines of Venango County, Pennsylvania in the 19th Century, and their kids went on to become teachers, doctors, and ultimately, me. Thing is, we didn’t stay in Venango, we moved on, and Venango’s been losing population since the 1980s as the major employers move elsewhere. Sound familiar? That’s the other part of the story: people leave all the time. Critics would say that the best and brightest leave, cynics would say its the most ambitious, but still, this is what happens with retrain and leave. It works for some, but it doesn’t help the area itself.

In the larger picture, there are large areas of the US that would probably be depopulated without some form of structural support from the government, whether its ranching subsidies for Idaho or welfare for inner cities. This is where the whole US economy starts looking like smoke and mirrors, or perhaps an Ourobouros of the government taxing itself on the results of its own expenditures to keep itself growing. Or maybe I’m simply blathering and this actually all isn’t some sort of gigantic bubble that will eventually collapse.

Comment by Heteromeles

Speaking of slavery, let’s not forget what is called military service. It isn’t slavery, but it isn’t freedom under the law either. Members of the military are subject to the Unified Code of Military Justice. They lack the protection of the Bill of Rights and the constitution. The military is a totalitarian system operating within a nominal democracy.
On joining the military, whether voluntarily or under compulsion of the draft, members exchange service for free health care, a paycheck and room and board.
Re the feudal system, the US Army stationed me in southern Germany during my tour with them. That part of Germany is kind of like an open air, statewide museum and feudalistic theme park. The feudal legal system and government are no longer in place but the buildings and placement of towns in the countryside hasn’t changed.
The physical layout of castles and walled towns speaks of a need for an agricultural economy to protect itself from outside aggressors. Unlike in the US where farmland out in the Midwest were laid out on a grid and farmers built their farm houses on their farm plots, in Germany, even today, farmers live in towns and their plots are spread out around the town, within oxcart range of course. My knowledge of German history is almost non-existent but the fact that towns were walled seems to indicate that they were built that way in response to a threat that existed at one time. I am also guessing that the need for individual towns to protect themselves came into existence only after the Roman Empire collapsed. Prior to that, the Roman legions probably did the policing.
Seems to me that if a post-industrial US can no longer fund an army sufficient to control waves of migrants unleashed by drought, sea level rise and failed agriculture, protection of farm property falls back to the local level. I imagine farm communities will have to develop new defensive arrangements, both physical and social to deal with roving aggressors whether they be climate refugees or bandits.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

Well, actually, it wasn’t so often the legions proper as the auxiliary that did the local policing, but yes, you’re right.

At a guess, the layout you saw in Germany was a remnant of the 30 years war, although of course it might be older. Spiro Kostof’s The City Shaped gets into some of how you can read function from the city plan, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Will it transfer to the US? Probably only in some places. The first thing is it depends on the threats faced. Castles only make sense if gunpowder isn’t plentiful, and they only work where there’s a lot of rock, which isn’t much of the Midwest. Fortifications in the Midwest would do better with rammed earth, rather than rock, so they might look more like the stuff they’ve been building in northern China since the Shang dynasty. Just as an example. If you dig around in the archaeology and history books, there’s a lot of different possible ideas, from the rebuilding of collapsed cities (post-classic Maya, “dark age” Rome) to the aforementioned rammed earth fortifications, to Anasazi-style cliff dwellings, (which apparently didn’t keep people safe) and so on.

Comment by Heteromeles

Thanks for the reading suggestions. Mandans and other agricultural tribes along the Missouri fortified their villages against outsiders using a combination of earth and wood. Apparently, their agricultural plots were on the bottom lands and their villages were on higher ground near their plots.
They traded with hunter-gatherer tribes and nomadic buffalo hunting tribes but the nomadic tribes would also try to get the corn by raiding when they couldn’t get enough buffalo meat.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

Cities as lucus of consumption is exaggerated in this age. They should again be more productive. A hybrid national – capitalistic plus “fuedal” city-state metro – regional self-sustainable, islandable regenerative eco-city with both universal basic income and universal basic stock ownership might be a successful enough model to increase the earth’s carrying capacity for “peace in our time” progression of technological Civilization at the locus of and geography of the city itself. I suggest thorium plus ammonia fuel to power each city.

Comment by MetaMorpheus

This came up in my daily news search about coal: http://www.cascadiaweekly.com/cw/currents/trumps_energy_policy_and_the_planetary_nightmare_to_come

Long, but worth reading. Some of my favorite bits:

“…stop thinking of Trump’s energy policy as primarily aimed at helping the fossil fuel companies (although some will surely benefit). Think of it instead as a nostalgic compulsion aimed at restoring a long-vanished America in which coal plants, steel mills, and gas-guzzling automobiles were the designated indicators of progress, while concern over pollution—let alone climate change—was yet to be an issue.

If you want confirmation that such a devastating version of nostalgia makes up the heart and soul of Trump’s energy agenda, don’t focus on his specific proposals or any particular combination of them. Look instead at his choice of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state and former Governor Rick Perry from oil-soaked Texas as his secretary of energy, not to mention the carbon-embracing fervor that ran through his campaign statements and positions.

In particular, it will prove difficult indeed to “save” the coal industry if America’s electrical utilities retain their preference for cheap natural gas. This last point speaks to a major contradiction in the Trump energy plan. Seeking to boost the extraction of every carbon-based energy source inevitably spells doom for segments of the industry incapable of competing in the low-price environment of a supply-dominated Trumpian energy marketplace.”

Comment by Matt




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