American Feudalism: How our nation went from “we the people” to “my feelings trump your rights”
Most Americans who are bent toward socialism do not identify themselves publicly as socialists. Nor do they employ the Marxian slogan that socialism is the wave of the future. Nonetheless, they have a way of looking at things that embraces the idea. The American approach to socialism is gradualist, piecemeal, and step by step; it is by way of government intervention, government-provided welfare programs, and government regulation and control.
These steps are called progressive, are said to be in keeping with the contemporary situation and modern needs, and are supposed to be pointed toward a brighter future. Those who oppose these steps are called reactionary, conservative, backward – looking, opponents of progress, not of this century, and so on.
The first thing to be observed about all this is that there is no such thing as socialism, actually or potentially. Socialism is a fantasy, and the illusion that it is being approached is in the nature of a mirage. No country in the world has attained even an approximation of the socialist vision. In communist countries, the state has not withered away, as Marx predicted; instead, it has grown in power and sway. Nowhere does “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” prevail, nor can it do so. “Need” can no more be measured than men can be induced to produce according to their abilities when rewards are separated from efforts.
Nor is it simply that the actual falls short of the ideal, a development which might be expected where human beings are involved. On the contrary, the movement toward what is supposed to be socialism produces results quite the opposite of those claimed for it. Everywhere the results of the thrust toward socialism are similar in kind, though different in degree, depending upon the approach and the zeal behind the effort. The results are, in brief, statism, bureaucratic autocracy, neofeudalism, and neomercantilism.
Government as a Means
The development of statism —the totalizing of government power over the lives of citizens and the veneration of the organ in which the power resides — is both obvious and readily explained. Anyone can see that governments everywhere exercise more and more power and that those who wield the power command subordination and obedience. The state does not wither away because it has been made into the instrument through which socialism is to be attained. Socialists were always vague as to just how socialism was to be achieved. They could describe in detail the evils of the existing systems and the marvels that would be under socialism. The how of reconstruction was the missing link of socialist theory. To Marx the emergence of socialism was inevitable; one need not trouble himself overmuch about precisely how the inevitable would come to pass. The main thing was the destruction of the existing system.
In practice, however, socialists have taken over and used the state when and as they have come to power. They have used it to do all sorts of things to usher in socialism, thus building tremendously the power of the state. To remain in power, they have found it useful to cultivate the adoration and veneration of the state. In like manner, they took over bureaucracies, greatly enlarged them, and equipped bureaucrats with a great deal of power with which to achieve their ends. It is these bureaucrats who wield the power over the lives and intricate affairs of citizens. The result is, predictably and demonstrably, bureaucratic autocracy, implicitly tyrannical, but in practice more often aggravating because of its pettiness and triviality. Even so, the tyranny of the Soviet Union, of Communist China, and of all socialist (or socialist inclined) countries is, in the final analysis, the tyranny of bureaucrats.
Neither statism nor bureaucratic autocracy are anything new under the sun. If progress be synonymous with improvement, there is nothing progressive about them. They are an expansion, consolidation, and rigidifying of forms and institutions that have been around for quite a while. The other two products of the thrust to socialism are plainly retrogressive, that is, are revivals of older forms and institutions in a new setting. The new mercantilism is not the subject of this paper; it will, therefore, be dismissed with only a few observations about it. Mercantilism was widely practiced in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and, at its lowest ebb, never quite disappeared in the nineteenth century. It was a system of attempting to promote national prosperity by government intervention. Particularly, it was an effort to promote manufacturing and shipping by government-granted privileges, export and import controls, payment of bounties, and restriction upon trade. Many of these practices have been revived in the twentieth century, extended, and given new justifications. They can be referred to as the new mercantilism.
The reversion to mercantilism in the twentieth century has been noted by some, but the new feudalism has been paid scant attention, if any. Mercantilism was an instrument more or less ready at hand for socialists, as were the state and the bureaucracy. Socialists no more started out to be mercantilists than they did to be statists or bureaucrats. The positions developed as a result of adapting devices which were supposedly means to an end, but which swiftly became ends in themselves. In the circumstances in which they have come to power, socialists have attempted to develop national economies. To do this, they have fallen unavoidably into mercantilistic practices, which had a similar aim.
The new feudalism has a somewhat different explanation. After all, feudalism is correctly associated with that most reprobated and despised of appellations, Medieval. Medieval is the very antithesis of modern. It is associated in almost everyone’s mind with backwardness, with darkness, with things alien to modern man, whether these associations are justified or not. Mercantilism has its apologists.’ One writer even attempts to make the new mercantilism alluring. He says, in part:
Abundance will enable a reversal of the old order of things. Modern mercantilism will remove the economic machine from the middle of the landscape to one side, where, under planning by inducement, its ever more efficient automata will provide the goods and services required by the general welfare… This is the promise of modern mercantilism, and if the time is not yet, it is yet a time worth striving for.
Feudalism has no such apologists. Yet what we are developing is much more closely akin to feudalism than to mercantilism and much more deeply entwined with the premises of those who think of themselves as socialists.
Of French Design
Socialist doctrines were formulated mainly in the first half of the nineteenth century, in the wake of the final destruction of the vestiges of feudalism which had occurred during the French Revolution. They were shaped by Frenchmen more than by any other nationals, by Auguste Comte, by Henri Saint-Simon, by Louis-Auguste Blanqui, by Charles Fourier, and by others. The French were assisted by others, of course, by the Scotchman Robert Dale Owen, by the Germans Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, among others.
At any rate, socialist doctrines were permeated from the outset with notions drawn from feudalism. Socialism was born (or reborn) amidst the conservatism of the restoration following the French Revolution and the romanticism of the nineteenth century. Both of these were friendly, in varying degrees, to feudalism, or its relics. Some romantics wrote lovingly and favorably of the Middle Ages. For example, there were the very popular novels of Sir Walter Scott in English
Most important, however, both romantics and/or socialists were anti-industrial. The new snake in the Garden of Eden was industrialization, and man had been cast out into what came to be called the Industrial Revolution. Most of men’s woes, real or imagined, were attributed to industrialization, a term synonymous with the horrors of the factory town, with little children laboring at spindles, with women drawn from the home into the mills, with men spending long hours in mines, with exploitation and alienation. By comparison with industrialization and its machines, its factories, its mines, its industrial proletariat, the preceding ages were often thought of as exemplifying pastoral bliss.
Those who stick to economic analysis pass over one of the deepest appeals of socialism. It can be shown rather conclusively that men worked long hours at hard and unmitigated labor before the development of large-scale manufacturing carried on in factories, that small children had worked from time immemorial, that deprivation was much greater in preindustrial times, that far from decreasing well-being, industrialization generally contributed to the improvement of it.
The Alienation Theory According to Marx
But the socialist appeal goes much deeper than this to something rather fundamental. Socialists claim that industrialization came in a way that dissolved the bonds of community. Modern man is alienated, said Karl Marx, and by so doing he gave a name to that phenomenon supposed to result from private ownership of the means of production, from capitalism, from industrialization, from the loss of community. The factory drew men from their ancestral homes to live in factory towns where they were “alienated” from the products of their labor by the “cash nexus.” It pitted them one against the other for jobs and wages thus promoting individualism. Competition, so socialists have held, is the war of each against all, and private property is the booty gained in the contest.
There have been two models for the community which socialists are supposed to be seeking, one historical and the other imaginative. The historical model for community is found in the Middle Ages, in the medieval manor (or mir in Russia), in the medieval guild, university, universal church, and so on. The other model is in the never-never land of utopia, that is, by translation, in the land that is “nowhere.” Marx attempted to give reality to utopia by making it historically inevitable. Other socialists were utopian, according to Marx; his socialism was “scientific,” scientific because its outlines were supposed to emerge from the projection of trends already discernible. In other words, one is no longer utopian when his utopia ceases to be a product of the imagination and becomes a prophecy of the shape of the future.
Marx knew no more about how to form viable communities than did those “utopians” whom he denounced in the nineteenth century for their futile efforts at erecting utopian communities. He did succeed, however, in turning men’s eyes away from the real source of their notion of community to the mumbo-jumbo of false prophecy supposedly based upon an extrapolation of history. This enabled socialists to obscure from themselves and others the medieval sources of their idea of community.
My point is this: It is not accidental that the thrust toward what is supposed to be socialism produces the New Feudalism. This does not mean that socialists have wanted to revive feudalism. By and large, they have been in the ranks of those most eager to pillory the medieval. Nor does it mean that they have succeeded in establishing a feudal order comparable to the one in the Middle Ages. My remarks do not have to do with the intent of socialists but rather with the tendency of their action. In their efforts to recover what they supposed was a lost community, they have been drawn to favor practices which are medieval in character. These are, after all, the ones which prevailed generally before modern man became “alienated.” They are the pre-industrial, pre-individualistic, pre-cash nexus ways of dealing with things. Socialist inventiveness has, to an amazing extent, been reconstruction of abstractions from the vaguely recalled Middle Ages.
The essence of medieval social organization was corporatism. According to Jakob Burckhardt, in the Middle Ages “man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, family, or corporation — only through some general category.” These corporations, bodies, or organizations —guild, manor, college, town, monastic order — provided the framework within which men had their prerogatives, privileges, duties, obligations, and responsibilities. A man, simply as a man, could be said to have hardly any rights. These belonged to him in his capacity as a member of an organization, as a knight, as a burgher, as a priest, and so on.
The New Feudalism does not, of course, resemble the old feudalism in detail generally; the similarity is essential. Modern socialists have not revived the outward trappings of monasticism, have not established lords of the manor who defend their possessions with sword and shield, and have not permitted a religious hierarchy to rule over a certain area of life. It should be obvious that it is not in such matters that feudalism has been revived. In at least two essentials, also, the New Feudalism is unlike the old: positions are not inherited generally, and powers are concentrated and unchecked rather than divided and balanced against one another. Otherwise, though, there are amazing similarities in essence between the new and the old.
In the United States, which concerns us here, the New Feudalism is corporate in a manner similar to the old. The thrust is for men to be compulsory members of some body, and to have their prerogatives as members of that organization. The most obvious example of modern corporatism is the labor union. There have been extensive efforts to establish, in effect, compulsory labor union membership, to fix men in their jobs by seniority “rights,” to grant certain privileges to those who are members of the union, e. g., the “right” to strike, and to provide benefits such as insurance and retirement. Farmer unions differ in detail from labor unions, but they, too, are corporate in character. The contemporary university, with its hierarchy, the tenure of its faculty, and claims to special privileges for its members, e. g., academic freedom, comes more and more to resemble its medieval counterpart.
Organizations become feudal in character as they are established and maintained by government power, as they have a special legal standing, as the members have special immunities and privileges and are subject to government control of their affairs. The opposite type to a medieval corporation is a voluntary organization. The latter organization would exist at the behest of its members, would enjoy no advantages at law not possessed by individuals, and would be subject to no restrictions other than those generally applying to individuals. Thus, a labor union is called a feudal organization because it is interfused with the power of government, may, in effect, act as a government, i. e., use force to attain its ends. If it had no special legal standing, it would only be a voluntary organization and would not merit being referred to as feudal.
Modern Feudal Forms
Many organizations in America are being made feudal in character which did not start out that way. Thus, almost all religious and charitable organizations were voluntary in their inception. They have benefited, however, from special immunities, particularly taxation, and pressure grows for bringing them under government control in many ways. As a matter of fact, foundations are already heavily restricted in their activities by government. Those bodies which we call corporations are apparently on the threshold of being thoroughly feudalized. Limited liability corporations had the special immunity of limited liability from the beginning. This served as justification, or excuse, for government regulation and intervention in their affairs. The stock issues of corporations fall under government regulation. Some corporations, those denominated public utilities, are vigorously controlled. Antitrust legislation is used quite often as a weapon to manipulate corporations. Government contracts serve as inducements to corporations to obey the wishes of governing power.
By and large, business corporations are not yet themselves sub-governments, but there have been proposals since the time of Theodore Roosevelt to make them organs of government. (For a brief period under the N.R.A. in the 1930′s corporations did assume governmental powers, or government acted through them, which amounts to the same thing.) Intellectuals are, once again, proposing similar and more thorough action. This proposal was made in a recent book:
The center of my suggestion is that corporations be reconstituted as made of people. The associational element has been lost to sight in most modern corporations. This is almost as true of colleges and universities as it is of business corporations, and has led to fuzziness of purpose, an incredible metaphysics of corporations, and meaningless growth. More specifically this would mean first the creation of a corporate constituency or constituencies consisting of all those who had long-term and significant interests in the corporation. Just how one would balance securities holders, workers, managers, suppliers, clients is not easy to discern, but they should all be in somehow. Secondly, in accordance with Western political practice, there should be a separation of legislative and executive instead of the merger or identification of the two… Finally, it should be acknowledged that corporations, consisting of a lot of people, must have an internal law and proper courts to administer it.
The language of the above is vague, or fuzzy, but the meaning is sufficiently clear for us to conclude that he is proposing that corporations be made into governments. If all those who are associated with corporations in one way or another were treated as members of a political body, a long step would have been made toward feudalizing America. Another writer in the same book suggests the universalizing in America of group power. “It is now time for constitutional theorists to recognize,” he says, “an entity intermediate between the individual and the state. This is the group… the wielder of effective control over large parts of the American power system.” In short, we should stop pussyfooting around and establish a full-fledged feudal system.
Individuals in the Middle Ages did not own real property. They held it in trust for their family, present and future. But families did not own property, either. Even the lowly serf quite often had a legal claim to his habitation upon the manor, and the lord of the manor had the land as a fief from his overlord. These grants were traceable backward, in theory, to the king, whose lands they really were.
The gradual thrust to socialism in America is producing a situation similar to that of feudal times. Individuals continue to hold title to property in our day, but it is subjected to an increasing variety of restrictions as to its use, to building codes, to area development plans, to crop restrictions, to zoning laws, and so on. Government does not claim that it owns all the land, only that it may exercise the powers of an owner over it. We approach the point where government commissioners of one sort or another might well be called overlords without straining the imagination. Surely, the best theoretical justification for contemporary taxing policies would be that what we are able to keep of the fruits of our labor is a fief granted us by government.
Actually, our property is increasingly taken from us by taxation and returned to us, or others, as services which may be called boons, fiefs, or special privileges. The process is somewhat analogous to what some historians believe occurred in the very early Middle Ages. It is thought that small landowners quite often turned over their lands voluntarily to lords who would provide them protection. The lord, in turn, gave the use of the lands back to the former owner. In the intervening Dark Ages, as memory faded and conquest followed conquest, it came to be held that the king was the original owner. If another Dark Ages now looms before us, it is quite probable that our descendants will believe that the state is the original benefactor and owner. Indeed, our children are already being taught such doctrines.
There are many parallels between the Middle Ages and present developments and tendencies. In feudal times, there were different courts and different laws governing the various bodies, classes, and orders. There were courts for the nobility, for the clergy, for townsmen, for guilds, and for such things as trading fairs. These have their modern counterparts: the numerous boards and commissions with their special rules (with the effect of law) and their court proceedings. There is the Interstate Commerce Commission with its regulations and its hearings, the National Labor Relations Board with its investigations and its rulings, the Securities and Exchange Commission with its rulings and supervision, and so on. Men in the Middle Ages would not have considered such organizations nearly so strange as would our great great grandfathers.
Before the development of common law in some places in the later Middle Ages, it was not unusual for the law to prescribe different penalties for the same offense, depending upon the status of the person against whom the offense was committed. Money payments were frequently exacted instead of the life of the offender. William Stubbs said, regarding England, “This differed according to a regular table of values. The life of a king was esteemed at 7,200 shillings, that of… the archbishop at 3,600, that of a bishop or ealdorman at 1,200 shillings, that of an inferior thane at 600, that of a simple ceorl at 200. There were other valuations for Britons and slaves.”
There are signs that we are about ready to follow this early medieval pattern. Several state legislatures have been or are considering legislation to abolish capital punishment except for murderers of certain persons, as Presidents or governors and policemen. True, such an enactment would be a long way from a table of values that would set penalties according to our “value to society,” but it would certainly be a step in that medieval direction. That such things are seriously proposed and that the proponents are not called crackpots indicates that we are already prepared to think in such terms to some extent.
Other parallels can only be suggested here. The Middle Ages had its just price and just wage. We have minimum wages and “fair” prices. The Middle Ages had its manor. We have co-operatives with their special immunities and privileges, reincarnations of the manor. The Middle Ages had its Children’s Crusade; we have the Peace Corps. The Middle Ages had craft guilds; we have labor unions.
Many substitutions have been made, of course. The state has replaced the king, ideology replaced religion, the Supreme Court replaced the College of Cardinals, the bureaucracy replaced the nobility, the intellectuals (scientists) replaced the clergy, the civil servant replaced the knight, and so forth. Our situation is much more diverse than theirs, however; the relationships to institutions from one age to another is not one to one, nor is the New Feudalism as solidly established in America as was the old feudalism in England in the twelfth century. Part of the New Feudalism is maintained by law now, but much of it is present only in suggestive tendency.
Checks and Balances
The old feudalism contained a principle important for the containment of government power and the protection of the rights and privileges of inhabitants. That principle we know as dispersion of power and checks and balances. Medieval organizations were often centers of power which could check and offset other centers of power. Churchmen and nobles contested with kings and emperors to limit their exercise of power. Townsmen got charters from kings to free them from interference by the nobility. Separate courts largely freed the members of a class from the power of other organizations.
The Founders of these United States incorporated this vital principle in the Constitution. They separated, dispersed, and balanced powers. They were not, however, reviving feudalism when they did this. They were using a feature, probably partially derived from the Middle Ages, to accomplish somewhat different ends. They did want to limit power, of course, but they did not want empowered classes and orders of men. They substituted geographical dispersion for classes. Governmental jurisdiction was balanced by another governmental jurisdiction (national and state), and branch of government was arrayed against branch of government to inhibit and contain the exercise of power. Americans eventually sloughed off not only classes and orders but also that personal servitude which was at the heart of feudalism.
The thrust to socialism has been made at the expense of these arrangements. Power has been increasingly concentrated in America, and in every other land with a movement toward what is billed as socialism; the states are no longer centers of power which can effectively protect their inhabitants from the exercise of Federal power. Within the central government, power has been further concentrated in the executive branch, and that jealousy of the branches for their prerogatives no longer serves effectively to inhibit power.
Crushing the Opposition
Superficially, it would appear that the New Feudalism is providing new centers of power to counter those of the Federal government. A closer look, however, will show that this has not generally been the case thus far and raise serious doubts as to that’s being its future course of development. The organizations which signalize the New Feudalism —labor unions, farmer organizations, corporations, civil rights groups, and so on — are not exercising powers formerly exercised by government. Instead, they exercise (or would exercise in the case of those not fully developed) power in addition to that exercised by formal government bodies. Their power is gained not at the expense of the Federal government but by the loss of the control of their affairs by the citizenry.
Moreover, these organizations exist at the behest and pleasure of the constituted governments. They have no distinct and independent sources of authority. Their courts do not exempt them from the regular court system. These organizations have served, thus far, to extend government-like power into more and more areas of life. They are largely under the control of the Federal government. When they come into conflict with the Federal government, or contest the general ideological aims of those in power, they will most likely be subdued or crushed. They have no separate source of authority which would enable them to withstand the determination of the Federal government.
In the eschatology of socialism, the New Feudalism is largely a means to an end. The end is not socialism, however, not in the real world, for socialism never has been and there is no reason to believe it ever will be. The end, so far as I can discern it, is centralized and totalized power, absolute and unrestrained, power wielded so it may be maintained. Whether men believe the promises of socialism is significant only to the extent that their belief leads them to yield power and obeisance to the state. The new feudal organizations will be broken when it becomes expedient to break them. The feudal privileges will be withdrawn when it will serve the purposes of those in power to do so. The record of this century is clear on the matter. The communists have broken all groups which might oppose them, as have other socialists such as the Nazis.
Revival of the Worst Features of the Middle Ages
The New Feudalism does not hold for us, then, the promise of containment of power. It does bring in its wake, as a more permanent residue, some of the least prized features of the old feudalism. Namely, it revives serfdom, that personal servitude which was the bane of existence in the Middle Ages. The New Serfdom comes in many ways: in heavier and heavier taxation, in restrictions and controls upon property, in the manipulation of the money supply to impel us to use it in ways the bureaucracy has determined are beneficial. The rigidities and inflexibilities of feudalism are revived and promise to become permanent features as government control and regulation. As the independence of individuals is sapped by these and other measures, what were formerly rights become vestiges as privileges granted by government. Thus, arbitrary privileges become a universal feature of the remains of the New Feudalism.
Three points emerge from the above analysis. First, far from being progressive, the new political thought and developments of our era are retrogressive in reviving some of the worst features of the Middle Ages. Second, one of the major developments of our era is a reversion to feudalism. Third, the power allotted to the feudalistic groups is largely a means for politicalizing life. What is likely to remain from this effort is totalized power and a residual serfdom.
Perhaps, it is unnecessary to point the moral. At any rate, it is high time we stop deluding ourselves about the character of developments that have been taking place. The New Feudalism tends to further concentrate political power rather than disperse and check it.