THE FEUDAL REVIVAL
Feudalism, a system long consigned to the distant past, is back. As modern liberal capitalism—defined by the rule of law, self-governance and competitive markets—loses much of its appeal around the globe, a new Medievalism, one that shares with its predecessor a culture of messianic belief, strong hierarchies, demographic stagnation and declining social mobility, is gradually rising to take its place.
The emergence of a new feudal class structure is the primary focus of this book. Rather than the expanding middle class and upwardly mobile working class of the second half of the 20th century, we now see ever greater concentrations of wealth and land, creating a modern aristocracy at the top of the emerging class order. One widely cited estimate suggests that the top 0.1 percent share of global wealth increased from seven percent in 1978 to 22 percent in 2012. This concentration of wealth, notes a recent British parliamentary study, is expected to increase across the globe; by 2030, the top one percent is expected to control two thirds of the world’s wealth, with the biggest gains overwhelmingly concentrated at the top of the pyramid, to the top .01 percent.
As in the Middle Ages, this dominant Oligarchy is supported by an influential cognitive caste, which I refer to as the Clerisy. This group dominates the global web of cultural creators, academia, the media and even much of what remains of the traditional religions. Though often sharing many beliefs with the Oligarchy, the Clerisy, as in the feudal era, sometimes act as a restraint on unbridled corporate power.
Beneath these two ascendant classes lies two distinct, and clearly declining, parts of what was once referred to as the Third Estate, which consists of the “commoners” neither ennobled nor anointed. One class constitutes the Yeomanry, the property-owning middle orders so critical to overturning the original feudal order and now being crushed in its revival. Below them lies the vast new serf class that, unlike the working class in the 20th century, has increasingly little chance of improving their place, and virtually no chance of owning significant assets themselves.
These two classes represent the most potent challenge to the oligarchs and the Clerisy. No longer quiescent in the face of globalism and technological obsolescence, there has been what one sociologist describes as “the defection of the working class” from both their traditional allegiance on the left, as well as the prevailing globalist regime and its value structure. But if this challenge tends to be from the right, there are also other forces—notably younger workers as well as the less affluent portions of the Clerisy—that could also attack from what one conservative described as “a zombie army of anti-capitalists.” The new feudalism, at least in its initial stages, promises turbulent times.
History also regresses.
Viewed from the past, the rise of feudalism from classical society demonstrates that history does not necessarily always move forward. Classical civilization, which provided the basis of modern liberalism, had its cruel and unjust aspects, but also engendered remarkable cultural, civic and economic dynamism that, over time, spread from the ancient Near East to Spain, North Africa and Britain. Feudalism has largely reversed this process, ushering in an era of relative economic, political, demographic and cultural stagnation.
The collapse of classical civilization was barely expected by most of its denizens. The process of decline took place not overnight but over centuries. Yet by the sixth or seventh centuries the backward trajectory was all too evident, as reflected in the demise of learning, the rise of religious fanaticism, the decline of cities and the collapse of trade. Class relations also hardened, as aristocrats and clerics rose to gain almost complete power over society. In this order, the once vibrant middle orders continued to shrink, while most people endured life as landless serfs.
It would take roughly a millennium to reverse these trends. Only gradually, a system based on free markets, liberal values and a belief in progress evolved in Europe and its offspring in North America and Oceania. The Catholic Church and land-owning aristocrats—what the French called the First and Second estates—gradually lost their monopoly on power to the ascendant Third Estate, particularly the property-owning and increasingly educated bourgeois class.
The liberal order, like all social structures, spawned its own injustices, notably creating an impoverished proletariat, living at the very edges of subsistence. It also shamefully extended slavery to its newly conquered territories. Yet throughout much of the 20th century, notably after the Second World War, the middle orders continued to expand, and life, even for most of the working class, also grew demonstrably better. This constituted, and remains, liberal capitalism’s premier achievement, and the key to its future survival.
Liberal capitalism has engendered many social, political and environmental challenges, but has delivered a remarkable departure from the servility, entrenched cruelty and capricious regimes that have dominated most of history. Compared with earlier periods in history, the material conditions of life have improved dramatically, not only in Europe but throughout much of the world. For the 500 years up to around 1700, economic output per person was flat. In other words, the median person in 1700 was no better off, economically speaking, than the median person in 1200. This changed by the mid-1800s, particularly in the West, but accelerated after 1940, and spread inexorably to the rest of the world.