The New Feudalism

Quinn Slobodian’s Crack-Up Capitalism

In Cory Doctorow’s dystopian novel Attack Surface, a disaffected hacker provides a tart postmortem for liberal democracy.

Burn money. Anticapitalist graffiti, Torino.

“The reality is, there was a kind of blip when a minority of working stiffs – white dudes mostly – held a little more political power, that lasted for less than a century. Now humanity was returning to its baseline: all or nothing with a tiny super-rich minority able to control everyone and everything else.”

The hacker’s solution is to turn back the clock. “The trick isn’t to fight the aristocracy, it’s to find one who isn’t too terrible and make friends,” a strategy she calls the “quid pro quo of feudalism”.

If that sounds familiar, it is. Since the turn of the century, feudalism has been a catch-all term to describe the neoliberal era as a new Middle Ages.

First coined by Jürgen Habermas in his legendary 1962 book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, the concept of refeudalisation has been revived as a consequence of this discourse.

For Habermas, the term explains the negative impact of consumer capitalism on people and politics, turning everyone and everything into metaphorical slaves of the market.

More recently, political scientists and sociologists have taken up the concept, including prominent leftists such as economic historian Robert Brenner and philosopher Slavoj Žižek.

Evgeny Morozov’s critical assessment of the growing body of literature in the January/April 2022 issue of the New Left Review triggered much discussion in the NLR and elsewhere.

There is a legitimate debate to be had as to what refeudalisation might mean in a contemporary context. The controversy focuses on two questions. The first is economic.

Is the direction taken by contemporary capitalism, especially the platform variety, actually capitalism, or more properly viewed as some sort of extraction of rents akin to feudalism?

The second question is political. Is the nature of the connection between capitalism and liberal democracy changing, and is the former increasingly willing to do without the latter?

In his new book entitled Crack-Up Capitalism, American historian Quinn Slobodian makes a strong case for the second option. Slobodian has written extensively about the development of neoliberalism and its project of insulating markets from democratic interference.

In his last book, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (2018), Slobodian traced the developmental trajectory of neoliberalism from its roots in the work of Austrian political economists such as Ludwig von Mises and Frederick Hayek through the foundation and growing influence of the Mont Pelerin Society, and finally into its later incarnations in the monetarism of Milton Friedman and Murray Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism.

Crack-Up Capitalism has a more current agenda, looking first at the growth of enterprise zones.

These areas are territories made separate from the normal sovereignty of the countries in which they exist, where laws regulating tariffs, taxation, and labour are suspended to attract businesses and investors interested in keeping their money away from government and social programs.

Slobodian’s narrative begins with an examination of Hong Kong and its role in the 1970s as a poster child for what could be accomplished if economic and political decision-making were immunised from democratic control.

The fear of the tyranny of the majority and the dangers to property presented by hoards of underachieving spongers have long been a fixation of the wealthy.

In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith noted, “For one very rich man, there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many.”

These indigent masses, in turn, required the creation of institutions for maintaining order to keep them from visiting their depredations on their affluent neighbours.

The connection between capitalism and liberal democracy has long been a subject of debate, from the highest levels of policymaking to right-wing talk shows.

The question is often framed in terms of whether economic freedom is compatible with liberal democracy.

According to Crack-Up Capitalism, over the last century, a consensus has evolved which views liberal democracy as being inimical to private property and the proper functioning of capitalism.

Crack-Up Capitalism traces this hostility from economist Milton Friedman to devotees of Austrian economics, various tech bros and alt.right fascists such as Richard Spencer.

The underlying goal of all these projects is the freedom of the wealthy to dispose of their property without having to pay a premium to the state for welfare and other programs.

These projects take myriad forms, from the non-democratic states of Asia (Hong Kong and Singapore) and the Middle East to startup nations where legal codes are purpose-built to ensure maximum freedom for capital.

Most of the thinkers working along these lines converge on the idea that the world would be better organised into a large number of small states, each of which treats its population as clients or customers rather than rights-bearing citizens.

While capital would be free to find its best return, people could shop for whichever polity suits their desired lifestyle and make their stand there.

Herein lies the connection to feudalism.

If one looks at political development in Europe between the 9th and the 19th centuries, a pattern emerges of a transition from personal authority to nominally independent institutions in which the conflicting interests of people and organisations can be mediated by the state.

The ideas that populate the dreams of the new libertarian capitalists are not a return to feudalism per se.

Feudalism tended not to insert itself too deeply into the lives of the lower orders. Peasants were mostly free to organise themselves, provided they did their compulsory service to their lord and didn’t leave the area.

The main criticism of feudalism from the capitalist perspective was that it ossified rather than became increasingly dynamic and profitable.

This failure to advance is inimical to the approach of contemporary capitalists, whose business models are predicated on the increasing employment of technological means to intensify the exploitation of labour and keep a lid on political dissent.

There is, as Slobodian notes, a pronounced racial inflection to libertarian and anarcho-capitalist conceptions of freedom.

For the white middle class, freedom has traditionally included the right not to live near people from other racial groups or the need to pay for their social services or education.

One particularly interesting element of Slobodian’s narrative is the role played by China and the CCP in the anarcho-capitalist imaginary.

One would rather expect that any state run by an avowedly communist grouping would be anathema to the views and values of the Heritage Foundation and other right-wing think tanks.

But China’s pattern of promoting economic development while suppressing democracy has come to be seen as a model for the right.

From its willingness to create special regulation-free zones for foreign investment to its brutal crackdown on pro-democracy movements, there is much to be learned, even if the Communist Party’s capital controls leave much to be desired from a libertarian perspective.

The post-2008 financial crisis was a setback for some of the projects associated with this line of thought. While COVID-19 seemed to offer many opportunities, the ultimate centripetal influence of the pandemic was less than many on the anarcho-capitalist right had hoped for.

Still, the danger remains. One of the main points of friction for the neoliberal project is that reproduction of capital requires human labour, and its profits are based on increasing the intensity with which that power is exploited.

Hence the persistence of anxiety about feudalism and why, if you’re not working more hours than ever to make ends meet, the lack of affordable healthcare and housing and shrinking pensions renders everything positively medieval.

I can’t think of anything that would discourage voter turnout for elections more than this. Italy, anyone? Particularly when there’s no way to distinguish between parties anymore economically.

That’s the ultimate death knell, not just for liberal democracy but democracy itself.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.