There is a specter haunting America — the specter of neofeudalism. Especially in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, many Americans have felt considerable anxiety about the trajectory of the nation’s affairs, fearing diminished economic prospects, a heightening of social strife, and the possibility of the powerful making themselves less accountable to, and more removed from, the body politic as a whole. This anxiety can be seen on both the left and the right, fueling the rise of Elizabeth Warren and grass-roots Tea Partiers alike. Americans on both sides of the aisle worry about institutional dysfunction, an out-of-touch self-dealing elite, scorched-earth cultural controversies, the implications of the rise of post-national ideologies, the deification of tribalistic identity, and the failure of our economy to recover as threatening the civic compact of the Republic. The concept of “neofeudalism” offers one way of grouping together and understanding these major contemporary tendencies. The realization of a neofeudal vision could pose significant challenges for economic opportunity, free-market principles, and the traditional aspiration of a unified yet diverse American body politic.
In 2013, demographer Joel Kotkin warned that California was slipping into a condition of neofeudalism. According to Kotkin, the Golden State, once a citadel of the American middle class, has become splintered into four classes: the oligarchs (the super-wealthy, especially in tech and finance), the clerisy (government regulators, the media elite, and the academy), the yeomanry (the middle class and small-business owners), and the serfs (the working poor and government dependents). Kotkin claimed that the yeomanry has been eviscerated as California has moved into a neofeudal era, while the oligarchs and the clerisy have gained increasing power and the serfs have grown in number.
Kotkin’s analysis focuses on the demographic structures of California, but we can explore more broadly some of the underlying tendencies of neofeudalism. It might be helpful to contrast the neofeudal state with the traditional liberal republic. The latter is composed of individuals (and organizations of individuals) coming together to form a nation governed by laws, and it aims to be in accordance with certain foundational rights. The neofeudal state, on the other hand, is anti-national. Rather than the unified body politic of the liberal republic, the neofeudal state slices and dices its residents into discrete subsets, each with its own unique rights and responsibilities. Solid economic and social divisions were a key part of feudal society, and they also play a role in present-day neofeudalism. Moreover, the institutional dysfunction characteristic of neofeudalism undermines the efficient functioning of the republic and makes the nation more vulnerable to the whims of executive diktat.
The hardening of divisions in society is the backbone of neofeudalism. Some of these divisions are economic. The breakdown of opportunity and the weakening of the middle class divide American society while also harming economic growth. But these divisions may also be social and cultural, replacing traditional American narratives of equal access to the public square with a fragmented and fractious society. The existence of divisions does not define a neofeudal society, but neofeudalism hardens differences into caste-creating walls. While a free republic certainly has divisions, those divisions are counterbalanced by an assertion of universal dignity and of rights that transcend the social hierarchy.
The hollowing out of the middle class reinforces neofeudalist tendencies. Historically, the ascent of the middle class goes hand in hand with the rise of liberal democracy, and those places where the middle class was strongest (such as the United States and Great Britain) were key innovators of democracy. Neofeudalism replaces a broadly prosperous middle with a highly stratified society, in which a tiny elite lords it over a vast mass of the struggling poor. A lack of economic opportunity also undermines the autonomy of the aspiring poor. Meanwhile, the escalating power of the elite allows them to entrench themselves further and to appropriate more (government) power to themselves.
This self-enriching tendency of the neofeudal elite is connected to what some have termed “crony capitalism,” which we can view as an aspect of neofeudalism. As feudal barons would take on what we now consider to be public duties in order to enrich themselves, members of the neofeudal elite use the powers of the state to enrich themselves. The current policy of Too Big to Fail exemplifies that self-enriching tendency. This policy gives certain financial institutions a government backstop because of their overwhelming size. This backstop in turn allows these banks to grow even larger (as they have since 2008), which makes a bailout even more likely to happen should they run into trouble. These megabanks are thus free to gamble on the market, knowing that they will be saved by the U.S. taxpayer if their bets go bad. Because these banks are viewed as institutionally important, the U.S. government does not apply the same standards to them that it does to smaller businesses. Their profits remain in private hands, while insurance against collapse has been purchased with public dollars. Rather than equality before the law, we have the law being used to tip the scale in favor of the few. Defenders of Too Big to Fail argue that this intervention is in the best interest of the nation as a whole; feudal lords also argued that their self-enriching exercises in power were in everyone’s best interests.
Identity politics plays a key role in hardening social divisions. The feudal realm was a mosaic of different classes, each with its own prerogatives and duties. Sumptuary laws regulated who could wear which clothes, for instance, and nobles were subject to a different justice system from commoners in many feudal realms. Present-day identity politics is the neofeudal version of that tradition. Instead of one nation under God, identity politics divides the nation into factions defined by national origin, skin color, language, sexuality, gender, and so forth. Rather than the celebration of differences within a broader cultural exchange, identity politics aims to collectivize people into homogeneous factions divided from one another by unbridgeable differences. One of the major uses of identity politics is to distract from or justify the actions of those in power, and a key tactic for this distraction/justification is the use of identity politics to stop a conversation. All too often, the point of invoking identity politics has been to short-circuit civil exchange and to divide through identity polarization.
One of the key traits of both medieval feudalism and the current neofeudalism is the lack of transparency and accountability. Aiming to separate the dream of an American republic from the practices of European monarchies, Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense that “in America the law is king.” Without totally endorsing Paine’s statement, one can note that, in the United States, the notion of the law as king has meant the public belief in both a law that applies to all equally and a society in which the exercise of government force depends upon a certain, specified legal process (with the Constitution acting as a legal foundation). The reality of American life has been that this law has all too often not been applied equally, but there has still been an abiding presumption that it should apply equally. This implicit consensus fueled the Union victory during the Civil War, the civil-rights movement of the mid-20th century, and other major national enterprises.
In recent years, the orderly process of the exercise of power has become troubled. The Obama administration’s selective nullification and rewriting of laws has created a sense of chaos. The administration has modified Obamacare so many times after its passage that it is hard to predict exactly what the law will look like a year or two from now. The president’s decision to nullify immigration laws has fueled the humanitarian crisis at the southern border (which looks as if it could worsen and spread to elsewhere in the nation). Meanwhile, scandals such as the IRS targeting of conservatives suggest the possibility of a bureaucratic-partisan complex at once labyrinthine and unaccountable. Executive whim has overshadowed legislative process.
The preceding points about neofeudalism do not, of course, do full justice to the complexity of the feudal system as it existed, and neofeudalism is quite a bit different from the feudalism of the medieval era. The present-day United States experiences nowhere near the crushing material misery of much of feudal Europe. And there is a considerable difference between the martial origins of the old feudal order and the economic and cultural dynamics of our current society. Unlike feudal Europe, the U.S. has a democratic system to help keep those in power in check. The notion of neofeudalism may partly be an exercise in historical imagination, but such exercises can at times clarify where we stand at a given moment.
Nor should this outline of neofeudalism be viewed simply as an enterprise of assigning blame. Neofeudalism is not a unified movement or creed; there is no single cabal working to impose a new feudal regime. Instead, these neofeudal tendencies are the result of the confluence of a number of forces. For example, in Kotkin’s narrative, technological advances, a large welfare state, financialization, offshoring, and an influx of illegal laborers contributed to California’s drift toward neofeudalism. Part of — perhaps even much of — what drives neofeudalism is unintentional.
Conservatives hoping to reinvigorate the prospects of limited republican governance need to counter these neofeudal tendencies. The ways we might do this include policy choices (such as putting forward real financial reform) and administrative diligence and competence (to root out corruption in government offices). Reforms to strengthen the middle class and reinvigorate economic opportunity could go far in counteracting neofeudalism.
But a key part of the pushback will involve advancing an alternative to the neofeudal idea of the state. In his 1765 work A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law, John Adams assailed the doctrine of feudalism, finding it antithetical to the principles of civil liberty. As a remedy for the corruptions of feudalism, Adams argued for a search for knowledge: “Let the public disputations become researches into the grounds and nature and ends of government, and the means of preserving the good and demolishing the evil. Let the dialogues and all the exercises become the instruments of impressing on the tender mind, and of spreading and distributing, far and wide, the ideas of right and the sensations of freedom.”
Though we need not agree with all the claims of Adams’s Dissertation (such as its suggestion of an opposition between Catholicism and a free society), there is considerable merit to his claim about the importance of thinking about the means and ends of government as a way of combating injustice and defending liberty. We can differentiate the rule of law from the rule of the powerful. Rather than a society riven by fractious identity politics, we can instead have a republic that affirms the dignity of the individual and the possibility of forging a social dialogue that accommodates individual diversity. By recognizing the legitimate limits of government, we can counter a self-aggrandizing demagoguery that rebukes limits in order to gratify its own appetite for power.
— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.