Monday, March 4, 2024

On Feudalism

Have we ever lived outside of a system of pseudo-feudalism with peasantry, slavery, or the working poor labouring for the benefit of Kings, land barons, or factory owners? 

One perspective of the past thousand years or so might go something like this: Peasants lived on the King's land, first for free, then later in exchange for a portion of the food they grew or products they crafted. A tax on land started when the Lords realized they could profit more from keeping sheep than people, and peasants had to commodify their labour for the privilege of continuing to live where they had been born. Then we had some revolutions to usher in a whole new way of living, to be able to have individual property rights and to choose our leaders. The wealthy expanded their land into plantations and dragged over people from the colonies to work them in exchange for some food and shelter. It was different in tone the King/peasant dynamic but not result: lords allowing food and shelter on their land to people who already lived there in exchange for their labour compared to landowners providing food and shelter to people they kidnapped in exchange for their labour. That type of labour was never abolished; it was merely outsourced to poorer countries and American prisons. More acknowledged today, we have the working poor who make just enough to barely pay for rent and food. Leaving a horrible job at Amazon isn't a realistic choice without any possibility of saving money. They're free in title but not in practice. They might very well still live on land belonging to their overlord

So, when did we have a democracy in which each person's unmanipulated and unfettered vote counts as much as any other, or human rights in which we are all have the right to food and shelter and certain freedoms. Did I blink and miss it? I wrote about this five years ago as well. 

There has always been a wealthy group at the top who has control over resources and a ton of people having their labour ripped off at the bottom, relying on the whims of their captors, whether a King or plantation owner or Jeff Bezos, to choose to be kind instead of cruel. Check out this great talk between Masha Gessen and Timothy Snyder from shortly after Trump was first elected. Snyder explains that we forever gravitate towards authoritarianism, but then we check ourselves. We don't notice ourselves checking because then the bad thing just doesn't happen. But if we don't check ourselves, we really notice. It sneaks up on us quietly, and then feels very sudden. 

We haven't been checking ourselves.

Yesterday I introduced a fiction about billionaires in bunkers - that they're encouraging Covid transmission to reduce competition for food - in order to try to figure out the rationale behind current policies, and, at the same time, Katherine Guinness and Grant Bell came to a different conclusion about the presence of those bunkers:

"What is emerging among billionaires is a belief that survival depends not (only) on hiding out in a reinforced concrete hole in the ground, but (also) on developing, and controlling, an ecosystem of one's own. It's all too easy to assume that, because some of the world's richest people are buying up estates on remote islands and fitting them out with bunkers, they must be privy to some secret inside information. But the truth is simpler, and more brutal, than that. Billionaires are building elaborate properties because they can. . . . This ideological shell game allows us to (fleetingly) acknowledge the damage runaway global inequality is doing to social cohesion and the viability of our ecosystems. . . . Meanwhile, for the actual billionaires, bunkers are just a small part of a 'diversified portfolio' of bets against the future." 

That doesn't explain why we are being presented with policies that will decidedly further the spread of Covid and now measles and tuberculosis as well. But it does further the argument that we live in a feudal system. 

Well beyond 1,000 years ago, slavery was accepted and promoted with rules to govern it. It's in Hammurabi's Code, from over 4,000 years ago:

"If any one receives into his house a runaway male or female slave of the court, or of a freedman, and does not bring it out at the public proclamation of the major domus, the master of the house shall be put to death."

And in Exodus 21:2-21:

"When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years. . . . When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not be freed as male slaves are. . . . When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod, and he dies there and then, he must be avenged. But if he survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, since he is the other's property."

Then Aristotle justified slavery as natural to society: 

"For that which can foresee by the exercise of mind is by nature intended to be lord and master, and that which can with its body give effect to such foresight is a subject, and by nature a slave. . . . a complete household consists of slaves and freemen. . . . But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature? There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule." 

And Seneca hoped to merely inspire kindness in the ownership of others, maybe unable to step outside of the system in place:

"Deal with your inferior the way you wish your superior would deal with you. . . . Associate with your slave on kindly, even on affable terms; let him talk with you, plan with you, live with you. I know that at this point all the exquisites will cry out against me in a body; they will say: 'There is nothing more debasing, more disgraceful, than this.'"

But by the 18th century a few philosopher started vehemently disagreeing with the very nature of slavery of any kind:

Montesquieu wrote, 

"The state of slavery is, in its own nature, bad. It is neither useful to the master nor to the slave; not to the slave, because he can do nothing through a motive of virtue; nor to the master, because, by having an unlimited authority over his slaves, he insensibly accustoms himself to the want of all moral virtues, and from thence becomes fierce, hasty, severe, choleric, voluptuous, and cruel. . . . In democracies, where they are all upon an equality, and in aristocracies, where the laws ought to use their utmost endeavours to procure as great an equality as the nature of the government will permit, slavery is contrary to the spirit of the constitution: it only contributes to give a power and luxury to the citizens which they ought not to have."

And then Rousseau argued,  

"No citizen should ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself."

And then Wilhelm von Humboldt wrote (h/t Nescio13), 

"It cannot be doubted that freedom is the indispensable condition, without which even the pursuits most happily congenial to the individual nature, can never succeed in producing such fair and salutary influences. Whatever man is inclined to, without the free exercise of his own choice, or whatever only implies instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very being, but still remains alien to his true nature, and is, indeed, effected by him, not so much with human agency, as with the mere exactness of mechanical routine. The ancients, and more especially the Greeks, were accustomed to regard every occupation as hurtful and degrading which was immediately connected with the exercise of physical power, or the pursuit of external advantages, and not exclusively confined to the development of the inner man. Hence, many of their philosophers who were most eminent for their philanthropy, approved of slavery; thereby adopting a barbarous and unjust expediency, and agreeing to sacrifice one part of mankind in order to secure to the other the highest force and beauty. But reason and experience combine to expose the error which lies at the root of such a fallacy. There is no pursuit whatever, nothing with which a man can concern himself, that may not give to human nature some worthy and determinate form, and furnish fair means for its ennoblement."

Unfortunately, in the middle of all that, James Madison convinced the founding fathers that because the poor outnumber the rich, we have to limit democracy in order to keep the riffraff from trying to take all their stuff! If people were really allowed to understand the system and vote without an Electoral College to sway the results, then they might vote to outlaw exploitation or for guaranteed basic income, or maybe for a limit to how much a factory owner can make relative to their lowest-paid worker. 

It makes perfect sense for Marx and Engles to have followed this lineage towards, not just freedom from slavery, but freedom from the conditions that prevent the working poor from actually being able to make important choices in their own lives:

We continue to be willing to sacrifice one part of mankind in order to enable the very best possible life for a teeny tiny portion of us. We're still living with the economic disparity that keeps some people working almost all their waking hours just to stay in one place, but now we've been convinced to like it. 

We signed up for democracy as the rule of the majority with respect for the minority. I'm not sure we've seen that happen yet. 

The rise of private property has enabled a few people to gain enormous personal wealth without having been born into the royal class, but it has brought with it an individualism that has all competing against all. We have an illusion of freedom under corporate dictatorship, i.e. a freedom to choose from a multitude of products we don't need but have been convinced to buy. We've lost communal values to the point that many see having them as a threat to this bizarre version of freedom. Instead of fighting for the freedom for all to live with dignity even when unable to work and for everyone to have leisure time each day and a generally less stressful existence, we fight for the freedom to insult others, to honk horns all night while people try to sleep, to drive where we want as fast as we want with the biggest vehicles we can afford, to not have to think of one another or the future. It's a childish version of freedom at a time when we need a serious revolution, a check on our gravitation towards authoritarianism, in order to salvage our public health care, public education, and environment protections from a government set on selling off our province. The values of individualism keep us swimming in this feudalistic condition, oblivious to its trajectory.  


And this one:

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