Over the last few years, a growing numbers of authors have convincingly argued that America’s social order is in a deepening crisis. Among these studies are: Louis Uchtelle, The Disposable American (2007); Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine, (2008); Don Peck, Pinched (2011); Donald Barlett and James Steele, The Betrayal of the American Dream (2012); D. W. Gibson, Not Working (2012); and Barbara Garson, Down the Up Escalator (2013).
These and other writers argue that the Great Recession and the still-unfulfilled recovery — what economist Paul Krugman identified as the Second Great Depression — bespeaks something more then just one more capitalist crisis, another speed-bump in globalization. It is restructuring the nation’s economic life, with profound political, social and personal consequences. One can wonder if this restructuring is fostering a new social order best conceived of as “postmodern serfdom”?
Postmodern serfdom may be distinguished by four key attributes: (i) internationally, capitalism is restructuring and U.S. global hegemony is fraying; (ii) domestically, the post-WW-II good-life of the “American Dream” is slipping away; (iii) politically, democracy is eroding, a casualty of big money and voter suppression; and (iv) legally, law enforcement is being increasingly militarized.
These factors contribute to an ever-deepening inequality represented not merely by the tyranny of the 1 percent. It is also fostering the rise of the postmodern serf, an ever-growing number of citizens (and non-citizens) doomed to perpetual economic and social poverty — people stuck in a life of misery. Collectively, these developments may preconfigure a very bleak future for an increasing number of Americans.
The leading presidential candidates, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, neither fully appreciate the structural transformation the U.S. is undergoing nor offer programmatic policies that really address the crisis developing in its wake. They share a common (mis)belief that the U.S. can once again fulfill the post-WW-II promise. Sadly, those days seem very much over and are being replaced by an era of postmodern serfdom.
* * *
Premodern or feudal serfdom flourished throughout Europe for nearly two millennia. In Britain, it dates from around the year 1000; it was finally abolished in Russia in 1861. Under serfdom, class tyranny ruled. Peasant serfs knew their place and had neither economic nor political power; a royal, deified nobility ruled — no wonder the British gentry were called “Lords.” But serfs were not powerless, as Eric Hobsbawm reveals in Primitive Rebels, his legendary tale of pre-modern peasant uprisings.
Feudalism – as a form of social organization – fostered its own contradictions, one of which prefigured the rise of the modern nation state. And with it, the aristocracy of old was overthrown, superseded, by a new social order, the capitalist class.
The transformation of feudalism was marked by three developments. First, by an economic system; agrarian society was superseded by a society based on pre- and early-industrial capitalism. Second, by a political system; the godly tyrant was superseded by a leader chosen through (limited, representative) democracy. And third, a belief system based on religious thought and superstition was superseded by one based on reason and science. These developments helped shape a capitalism system that incubated a social order based on secular modernism.
The U.S. fostered its own forms of quasi-feudalism. One was indentured servitude that operated from 1608 to the early-1800s. The second and most deeply scaring was the enslavement of Africans and African-Americans that formally lasted from 1619 to 1865 and, informally, persisted under Jim Crow policies well into the 20th century.
Postmodern serfdom seeks to reconstitute an earlier system of social hierarchy through 21st century rebranding. The king and nobles once ruled, with a supplicant church and legal system promulgated the ideological glue that held society together. Today, the new nobility of the 1 percent rules and is assisted by a fawningly army of political operatives and law-and-order functionaries — and the nearly all-powerful ideological glue of a vast distraction industry that includes the information and entertainment media.
Those most subjected to the tyranny of postmodern serfdom are the postmodern serfs, the new generation of proletariat laborers who live precarious lives. Richard Florida, who celebrated the rise of the “creative class,” has identified the new low-wage service workers as a key component of this new social hierarchy.
In a 2012 Atlantic article, he estimates that the new “underclass” consists of about 60 million Americans who make up the a new working class, “the service class.” He identifies this sector as “some of America’s fastest-growing job categories, such as food preparation, personal care, and retail sales, but on average they earn just over $30,000 in annual wages, and many quite a bit less than that” (The U.S. Census reports the average median household income for 2013 at $51,939.)
Florida also includes in this sector “the unemployed, the displaced, and the disconnected to these tens of millions of low-wage service workers, and the population of post-industrialism’s left-behinds surges to as many as two-thirds of all Americans.” He concludes, with a bitter warning: “Worse yet, the ranks of the 66 percent are a product of the very structure of post-industrial capitalism. If the top third of America’s workers are navigating and prospering in the knowledge economy, the other two-thirds are disconnected and sinking.”
C.Z. Nnaemeka calls this new part of the working class as the “unexotic underclass” and identifies three sectors :
* single mothers – “80% of whom, according to the US Census, are poor or hovering on the nasty edges of working poverty.”
* veterans of two ongoing wars in the Middle East – “some of these veterans, having served multiple tours, are returning from combat with all manner of monstrosities ravaging their heads and bodies.”
* people over 50 – who are “finding themselves suddenly jobless. These are the Untouchables of the new American workforce.”
And the list of the underclass of postmodern serfs goes on and on. It includes coffee-shop baristas burdened by enormous student debt; the legions of contingent workers – i.e., freelancers, contractors, consultants — hungry for a paycheck and willing to work for what’s been dubbed “the sharing economy; and the adjunct faculty, the exploited intellectual labor force who keeps the billion-dollar collage-education racket functioning.
These are wageworkers in the “legal” economy. One need only add in those of the “underground” economy – e.g., neighborhood dope dealers, local hookers or small-time hustlers — and the number grows. And don’t forget the millions of unemployed who’ve given up and are no longer counted by counted among the unemployed.
* * *
Does anyone still believe in the American Dream, that the nation’s better days remain ahead? For nearly three-quarters of a century, Americans embraced a shared ideology that hard work, increased debt and white skin privilege would guarantee them – and, more importantly, their children – a better tomorrow.
The belief in the American Dream is grounded in what Henry Luce, founder of Time magazine, announced in early 1941 as the “American Century.” He proclaimed his vision when the country was finally recovering from the Great Depression and word war was still overseas, in Europe and Asia. Isolationism was the national sentiment and principle foreign-policy strategy. Pearl Harbor broke the isolationist bubble, turning Luce’s words into the nation’s war chant, “the 20th century is the American Century.”
Today, the American Century is over – and, increasingly, Americans know it. In its wake, a great social restructuring is underway. The slow emergence of postmodern serfdom may more resemble the fabled frog in a slowly heating pot of water that a catastrophic social or economic crisis. And the proverbial heat is rising. One senses that this issue is at the heart of the 2016 presidential campaign and both Bernie Sanders and Trump spoke to the deepening sense of disillusionment it is fostering.
If the American Century is over, could the U.S. be — dialectically speaking — returning to an era not dissimilar to that which preceded WW-II and its great postwar recovery? The U.S. may be reliving an historical experience not dissimilar to the mid- to late-1930s when Pres. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” recovery from the Great Depression was floundering. The economy was stuck and the well-intentioned programs that had kept the nation afloat during the early- and mid-years of the Depression no longer worked. The war saved the U.S. from itself and propelled it forward over the following quarter century.
The inequality and austerity that drives postmodern serfdom is being imposed at the system’s peripheries. In Europe, it was imposed on Greece and Spain, both suffering under Germany-imposed austerity. In the U.S., it was imposed on Detroit and — with the complicity of Congress and the President – on its colony, Puerto Rico. But it’s also being imposed on the weakest social sectors, the underclass or new serfs.
The great squeeze, postmodern serfdom, is underway. The temperature in the proverbial pot of water is slowly rising and the great American frog will increasingly feel the heat.