The Neofeudal Degeneration
from Umair HaqueEudaimonicsRedesigning Global Prosperity. by umair
Welcome to the crisis that never ends. Here’s what I’ve suggested on Twitter. Our economic problems are really political problems. But our political problems are really cultural problems.
To begin explaining what I mean by that, consider the following. If, as I’ve argued following the above, we’re on a trajectory that’s collapsing towards “neofeudalism”, what does it look and feel like?
I’d say it has five key characteristics:
Neoserfdom. Here’s the first aspect of neoserfdom. In a neofeudal order, serfs pay tribute to be protected from harm. In a social contract, people invest collectively in public goods that offer real benefits. They’re mirror images. We’re arcing towards the former: tribute is paid to be protected from harm by institutions with the credibility and power to inflict it, whether banks, corporations, or governments. The simplest example of tribute is the shifting of bailout costs onto the public balance sheet—as are the monopoly rents that corporations earn by virtue of their size, privilege, and structure. The second aspect of neoserfdom, of course, is insecurity: not having a personal balance sheet, but being perpetually and asymetrically indebted to (literally, in soft and hard debt to) those with assets—not by virtue of an economic exchange, but purely by accident of birth, class, or social position.
Output fetishism. The point of neoserfdom, of course, is to maximize output. The axis around which a feudal economy spun was surplus (grain, gold, etc)—channeled upwards, gathered at the very top, often literally to a single family. In a neofeudal order, that simple surplus fetishism is replaced by output fetishism—you’re in hock so you can produce (and acquire) industrial output. Think Black Friday, forever.
Kleptarchy. In a neofeudal order, governance as we know it isn’t. A combination of kleptocracy (“rule of thieves”), where elites loot states, and oligarchy, where the looting of states sustains elites, replaces democracy (or even American quasi-democracy). The point of neoserfdom isn’t merely to entrench the gains of kleptocrats, who subvert the institutions of the common good not merely for personal gain, but to structurally alter the fabric of wealth, income, opportunity, and capability, eviscerating the concept of society.
Patronage. In a neofeudal polity, patronage replaces meritocracy (etc). “Success” for an organization, coalition, or person is to become a client of a powerful patron, pledging your services (soft and hard, informal and formal), in perpetual alignment with the patron’s interests. This is the story of Congress, for example, pledging allegiance to banks, showering them with bailouts and guarantees, not merely unable to—but incapable of—reforming them.
Cronyism. There are no markets in a neofeudal order—there are tiny, closed, exclusive networks of patrons, directing the flow of a once-society’s set of resources. As such, “competition” doesn’t really exist; just the marketing of competition; and all the attendant flaws of a lack of competition are produced (stagnation, unnovation, monopoly) The reverse is also true: instead of institutionalized redistribution (think basic safety nets), transfers in a neofeudal order depend on the whims of the kleptarchs. Bill Gates made billions as a textbook monopolist, eviscerating an entire industry for decades—and now, he’s showering that money on “good causes”. Sound familiar? It should, it’s the role the church often plays in a classic feudal order. Yet, if we had a working order, the cycle above would have been broken from the beginning—no monopoly, more efficient distribution, legitimized social choice directing it (instead of Bill Gates’ preferences).
I’ll discuss later what the evolution of a neofedual order might look like in human terms (though I’m sure you can guess it boils down to something like “pretty gross”). For now, chew on the above, and let me if you’d add or subtract stuff.