Monday, June 30, 2014

The nature of power: from Feudalism to 21st century Capitalism

The word "feudalism" evokes images of slavery: medieval serfdom, peasants bound to serve a class of landed gentry. By definition, feudalism was a form of slavery. In the modern world, "feudalism" is considered as dead as the age of knights that is associated with it. But perceptions can be misleading.

Feudalism was mainly concerned with two things: property, and freedom of movement. As land was considered property, so were the people who tilled the land of the person who owned the land. These "serfs", or slaves in other words, were bound to the landowner, and any attempts by serfs to flee their fate could be punishable by death.

The first part of the world that began to change this system was Europe, with the growth of the professional merchant class, skilled professions that allowed individuals freedom of property, movement and so on. The Republic Of Venice was an early medieval example of this. Gradually, more and more European states moved in this direction: the last major European power to formally abolish serfdom was the Russian Empire in the middle of the nineteenth century; over in North America around the same time, the southern states of the USA fought for secession from the USA in order to continue their own form of serfdom on African slaves and their descendants. They lost.

A land of milk and honey?

Karl Marx famously wrote about the path of feudalism to Capitalism, in the end equating the "satanic mills" to a form of "industrialised serfdom".

Industrialisation brought a transformation of society to those it affected. The serfdom of the land was transformed into the subservience to the factory. Proponents of Capitalism would argue that this was an inevitable stage of the process of mankind's advancement, and unless people wish to live in tree-houses and tilling the fields in an agrarian commune, this logic is hard to refute.

In a more basic way, feudalism was about power, who controlled what, and how. And this is where the argument for feudalism's death becomes more complicated.

In the 21st century, in 2014, who holds power, and how? In a great many cases, the way that nation-states are ran is really not so very different from five hundred years ago, or a thousand years ago, or more. Certainly, technology has changed life in many ways beyond recognition, but human nature is unchanged, and the nature of power is fundamentally unchanged also. This is a point that Jonathon Swift explained very well in the last part of his famous novel, "Gulliver's Travels", all the way back in the early 18th century. The TV series "Game Of Thrones" is famous across the world, but one of the main reasons is that human nature and the use of power is represented by the characters in a very accessible way for the viewer. In other words, medieval politics and power are fundamentally no different from the modern-day.

A handful of examples can easily express the point.

The UK is held up as an exemplar for the rest of the world to follow. As the mother of modern democracy (apologies, Greece...), the rule of law, and a sensible balance of power, an education system that is the envy of the world, and so on. And yet, this "exemplar" is one of the most feudalistic modern states in the developed world.
While the UK has no "serfs", its "citizens" are still legally subjects to the crown. The UK has no constitution. The British crown is one of the biggest landowners in the world. While the British royal family may well seem harmless enough, one half of the electoral system (The House Of Lords) still consists of individuals who are either from centuries-old landed gentry (i.e. landowners), or are there by the favour of a bygone government. The House Of Lords has few contemporaries in the developed world as a temple for feudal values. The British establishment also propagates itself through the UK's education system, which is one of the best methods in the developed world for maintaining the untouchable position of Britain's peculiarly-modern form of feudalism. This system has done wonders for preserving the elite, while the lot of the average Briton has suffered, especially since the financial crisis. Needless to say, like any feudalistic institutions, this system isn't even very efficient; it is simply is very good at doing the best for those in positions of power.

Aside from the UK, many of the most developed countries in Europe are still monarchies: in Scandinavia, Sweden, Denmark and Norway; the Low Countries are all monarchies; as is Spain. Yes, they are "constitutional monarchies", but while the power they wield is only theoretical, it tells us more about the psychology of the people themselves: they like having a monarch. The interesting question is "why?", and this tells us that while many people in the modern world are far more educated (and the world they live in technologically-advanced) they still want to believe in fairy tales.

Modern-day feudalism?

Crossing the pond, many political commentators like comparing the modern-day USA to the Roman Empire of the past. The "Land Of The Free". Few objective economists would argue that the USA is the most unequal nation-state in the developed world, and that is a result of the way it is managed. While health care is considered a human right in the rest of the developed world, in the USA it is considered something you can only have if you can afford it. While Obama's controversial health care reform has claimed to have helped (a little), any objective observer would look at the private health care system as a grossly-inefficient and amoral answer to the world superpower's health problems.

But the American model of running the country was never meant to be "fair": it was meant to be "laissez-faire". Ayn Rand was the most famous proponent of modern-day neoliberalism, which idolised the gains of the rich as a way to motivate the poor. The rich in the USA, in the last thirty years have reached a level of wealth so far from that of the average person that they may as well be considered aristocracy in their own right. No-one in the know seriously doubts that the elite of America are the ones who decide how the game of power is played every four years for the White House. The Koch brothers, who funded the "Tea Party", are simply the newest (and most polarising) set of characters on the scene.
While the USA rid itself of legal slavery, it advocated an economic model that created a new riddle: a slave may be fed and housed, but has no freedom; a freed slave has freedom, but no house nor food to eat. Since the the USA became an imperial power at the turn of the 20th century, it has been exporting this riddle across the world, spreading its own "riddle of freedom".

The USA's "riddle of freedom" was taken in by the UK under the tutelage of Margeret Thatcher, which is these days known as the "Anglo-Saxon Model" by some, and has been implemented ruthlessly by the Conservative government since 2010 under the excuse that "there is no alternative"(!). Since 1979, the UK has been ran like a multinational company, if symbolically headed by a feudalistic establishment: the asset-stripping mentality has turned the UK into a vulture market even for foreign governments.

Since 2008, in the Euro-zone, it's "Club Med" that are being treated to a similar kind of treatment. As Germany holds the purse-strings, it has the right to dictate the economic affairs of Southern Europe. It has already toppled governments in Greece and Italy to do so. While in the latter case, the sitting premier (Silvio Berlusconi) was hardly going to be missed by most Italians, it is hard to deny that the European Union itself is an unaccountable bureaucratic behemoth (not unlike empires of old) that seems to grow with ambition year-on-year. The EU's ambition has been laid bare with its efforts to bring Ukraine into the fold.

At the end of the Cold War, the "Anglo-Saxon Model" was exported to Russia and the former Communist bloc.
Some commentators have described Putin's Russia as a "modern feudal state", or worse. But in reality it was always likely that once the Soviet Union was gone, Russians would revert back to their old way of thinking. Modern Russia and the battle for who controlled the Kremlin in the 1990s became another version of the "Game Of Thrones" seen on TV. Putin was simply in the right place at the right time, and was the most effective player of that oldest of games: power. "Capitalism" in Russia simply became a battle for who controlled the most property, and who controlled the most had the most leverage (or so he hoped). The Kremlin is run as the supreme "court" that it has been for centuries, ruling the largest realm in the globe. Technology is just a detail; all freedom is relative.

A number of other post-Soviet states are also ran as "modern feudal states" in the same manner, with ruling families or oligarchies; come to think of it, almost all the the Middle East is run in such a manner. Given the blessing of oil, and what does an emir need to keep power over his modern-day feudal state than sprinkling a little of his wealth around? Give enough of the population enough money to afford an "iPad" or an off-road vehicle for the desert, and what would any person care about "democracy"? China is living proof of that logic, and both it and Russia are the two biggest countries in the world, by population and area respectively. The USA's dominance looks transient compared to the many centuries that these two states have thrived.

The third world (e.g. most of Africa) is hopelessly corrupt, inefficient and sunk deep in poverty. Investment by aid charities will not change that. Some say you get the government you deserve. But you cannot change human nature, and for all the technological advances made since the time of "real" feudalism, some people still want to live in a "real" feudal society (with "wifi", of course!). The establishment of a trans-national "caliphate" in the heart of the Middle East by the Islamic extremists of ISIS (regardless of how long it lasts) is a very definitive endorsement of that view. Feudalism and power struggles will be around in one form or another as long as people have a feudal mentality.

And that doesn't look like it will disappear very soon.

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