When I learned that we were entering a new period called neo-feudalism, my first reaction was to wonder if that was any worse than what we have now. After all, the serf might have suffered from a lack of freedom but at least had lots of time off as Michael Perelman pointed out in “The Invention of Capitalism“:
Although their standard of living may not have been particularly lavish, the people of precapitalistic northern Europe, like most traditional people, enjoyed a great deal of free time. The common people maintained innumerable religious holidays that punctuated the tempo of work. Joan Thirsk estimated that in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, about one-third of the working days, including Sundays, were spent in leisure. Karl Kautsky offered a much more extravagant estimate that 204 annual holidays were celebrated in medieval Lower Bavaria.
Then again, I wondered if they were using the term feudalism in the same way I do. When I first began to hear about Trump as a “neo-fascist,” I stubbornly insisted on using the term fascism in a strict sense. I didn’t find him that different from past American presidents, including F.D.R. who threw Japanese-Americans into concentration camps in defiance of constitutional guarantees to citizens.
I decided to look more closely at the term after Jodi Dean’s article appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books on May 12th. Comrade Dean, after all, is an accurate barometer of trends in the left academy. Before his shelf-life had expired, Dean was quite the apostle of Slavoj Zizek. Titled “Neofeudalism: The End of Capitalism?”, her article identified Joel Kotkin as “a conservative geographer” who envisions the U.S. future as mass serfdom. Well, if that means having one-third of your working days off, that might not be so bad. Although Dean’s article doesn’t mention him, Robert Kuttner has also weighed in the March/April 2020 issue of The American Prospect. Since these three constitute the broad political spectrum from Kuttner’s liberalism to Dean’s Marxism, I thought that writing about them might help me clarify my own thinking and that of my readers. With the cataclysmic changes capitalism is now undergoing, one can understand why some would go in search of new theories.
Let me start with Joel Kotkin, an urban studies professor who traffics in futuristic projections. His 2010 “The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050” was just such an exercise. The book called for nurturing the middle class, a goal shared by just about every politician on the planet, at least verbally. He has a new book out titled “The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class” that seems consistent with the earlier one. You’d think that anybody warning about neo-feudalism would be an arch-enemy of Donald Trump, but it turns out that Kotkin was a fan. In a 2017 Daily Beast article titled “Here’s How Donald Trump Could End America’s New Feudalism,” California liberals, especially in Silicon Valley, are the dragon and Donald Trump is St. George:
Neo-feudalism diminishes the property owning middle-class. In the Bay Area, regional governments are now seeking to limit all new development to a mere fraction of the area’s land mass, all but guaranteeing the future generations will face almost impossibly high housing prices. And a new set of state regulations, including a requirement that new houses have “zero” net energy use all but guarantees that houses, over time, will continue becoming ever more expensive.
The article hails Trump’s nativism, economic nationalism and all the other nostrums associated with the far-right. He writes, “For all the awfulness associated with Trump, his election stemmed from a disinclination among Americans to accept their place in the new technocratic order.” There’s not much else to say about Kotkin except to paraphrase what Jeeves told Bertie Wooster: “You would not enjoy Kotkin, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.”
Let us turn now to Robert Kuttner, a stalwart and long-time Democratic Party supporter. His prolix article titled “The Rise of Neo-Feudalism” does not target Donald Trump per se. Thankfully, Kuttner sees neo-feudalism as a product of both Democratic and Republican administrations. It is a system that promotes deregulation, allows Facebook and other tech firms to enjoy a monopoly, and empowers Monsanto to screw small farmers through its intellectual property control over seeds. Since these abuses grew under both Obama and Trump, we can at least give Kuttner credit for not making Trump the embodiment of neo-feudalism.
Although he does not pinpoint exactly when such practices began, he does identify most of the 20th century as the halcyon days of democratic rather than feudal rule. The first inkling you get that Kuttner is rather hazy on feudalism as a system is when he refers to the Enclosure acts:
In the new tragedy, public regulation is precluded because law has been sundered from the democratic commons, in a manner that evokes the original tragedy of the commons—the English enclosure movement of the 17th and 18th centuries—in which lands that had been cultivated by the peasantry since time immemorial were carved up into commercial properties by local lords, with the blessing and legal protection of the Crown.
If you’ve read Marx, you’d understand that there was nothing feudal about the enclosure movement. Instead, it was the sine qua non for capitalist farming. Those “local lords” were not disposed to giving farmhands the kind of days off they enjoyed in the 12th century. They worked them to the bone, all in pursuit of profit. In the same way that there was nothing pre-capitalist about slavery in the New World, there was nothing feudal about English agriculture once the Enclosure acts began.
Kuttner makes the same error in discussing American industrialists of the 19th century. They retained “quasi-feudal rights” through the entire contract doctrine, which provided that “workers who left an employer mid-contract had no right to be paid for any work they had performed, and the tort of enticement, which enabled employers to prevent their workers from departing their establishment to work for someone else.” Once again, there is nothing feudal about that. It was simply the capitalist class using the law against workers who lacked the political power to defend themselves. During apartheid in South Africa, there were pass laws that robbed the black miner from enjoying the same freedoms as white wage workers. Pass laws were not feudal. Instead, they were part of apartheid’s racial capitalism.
As another example, you can look at how the Spaniards exploited native peoples in Peru in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Incas used the Mit’a to force conquered tribes to build roads. When the Spanish took power, they used the Mita (a different spelling and different meaning) to mine for gold. That gold was a critical link in the birth of capitalism and had nothing to do with the unhurried life under the Incan empire. It was human sacrifice rather than being worked to death in a gold mine that made you worry.
The one thing that Kotkin and Kuttner have in common is the belief that Silicon Valley is the embodiment of neo-feudalism. After reading a section of his article titled “Silicon Valley as a Giant Fiefdom”, you’d conclude that Mark Zuckerberg has something in common with King Louis XIV. He is outraged that companies like companies Google, Apple, and Amazon have invented their own jurisprudence within the terms of service that nobody reads to allow them to make money off our personal data. Is this feudal? I don’t see how. It just strikes me as the unlimited power of monopolies, the same sort of injustice that led Lenin to write “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.” As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Turning now to Jodi Dean, she at least acknowledges that today’s neo-feudalism does not reproduce all the features of traditional feudalism. To help her readers understand how the earlier feudalism works, she cites Perry Anderson and the late Ellen Meiksins Wood. From them, she draws the central lesson that political authority and economic power overlapped. Feudal lords extracted a surplus from peasants through legal coercion.
Under neo-feudalism political authority reasserts itself:
Political power is exercised with and as economic power, not only taxes but fines, liens, asset seizures, licenses, patents, jurisdictions, and borders. At the same time, economic power shields those who wield it from the reach of state law. Ten percent of global wealth is hoarded in off-shore accounts to avoid taxation. Cities and states relate to Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google/Alphabet as if these corporations were themselves sovereign states — negotiating with, trying to attract, and cooperating with them on their terms.
Like Kuttner, she mistakes the power exercised by such monopolies with feudalism. Google operating like a “sovereign state” is hardly feudal. Maybe she needs refresher course in “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.” Before WWI, the lines between the state and monopolies were highly porous. Like Google, General Electric straddled the world and forced sovereign states to bow before it. Lenin wrote:
The famous A.E.G. (General Electric Company), which grew up in this way, controls175 to 200 companies (through the “holding” system), and a total capital of approximately 1,500 million marks. Of direct agencies abroad alone, it has thirty-four, of which twelve are joint-stock companies, in more than ten countries. As early as 1904 the amount of capital invested abroad by the German electrical industry was estimated at 233 million marks. Of this sum, 62 million were invested in Russia. Needless to say, the A.E.G. is a huge “combine”—its manufacturing companies alone number no less than sixteen—producing the most diverse articles, from cables and insulators to motorcars and flying machines.
Perhaps, the ability of high-tech companies to achieve the dominance that Standard Oil and G.E. once enjoyed sends people like Kuttner and Dean in search of new terminology to capture the current period. It would be far better for them to identify the underlying class relations in 1914 and that still exist in 2020. People handling packages for Amazon are wage earners. The wage form disguises the ability of the boss to extract surplus value. Under feudalism, that was more obvious. The serf produced a hundred bushels of wheat and the lord took ten. He needed them to exchange for the armor his soldiers wore to defend the estate against rivals. The main difference? Under capitalism, the wage worker has no ties to the soil. If a factory is unprofitable, he or she loses her job. Under the sluggish feudal system, you are tied to the soil replicating age-old practices like leading an ox across a field.
Toward the end of the article, Dean tries to justify this new way of analyzing class relations. She writes:
For those on the left, neofeudalism lets us understand the primary political conflict as arising out of neoliberalism. The big confrontation today is not between democracy and fascism. Although popular with liberals, this formulation makes little sense given the power of oligarchs — financiers, media and real estate moguls, carbon and tech billionaires.
Once you get past the buzzwords about feudalism, all Jodi Dean seems to be saying is that big corporations are our enemy. Is that such a political or intellectual breakthrough?
With all due respect to the American Zizek, those on the left who have mastered their Marxism do not see the big confrontation as between democracy and fascism. That is how Noam Chomsky, Todd Gitlin, and Eric Alterman might see it. For us, it has always been a battle between those who own the means of production and those who sell their labor power to survive. Today, when the means of production lie prostrate on the ground like a dying ox, it is probably a good idea to stick to the Marxist basics rather than trendy but empty terms. If people want to call the capitalist system “neo-feudal,” I have no objection. For many people making a career out of Marxist punditry, there is always a need to keep your brand fresh and marketable. Once they called Zizek a superstar of Marxism and the Elvis of cultural studies. Now, like some superannuated movie star, it is hard for him to gain attention except through absurd books like “Pandemic! Covid-19 Shakes The World.” Let’s hope Comrade Dean stays on top of her game. The competition is tough out there.