Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Imagining the upsides of neo-feudalism

For practically as long as I've been conscious, I've been hearing complaints about modernity. These complaints come from the left and the righ: we're too technologically dependent or technologically mediated, we've lost a "sense of place", "disenchanted the world," submitted to rigid constraints on the varieties of erotic experience, stigmatized ecstasy and prophecy into mental illness, lost our capacity for "deep connection" with others (and with trees and buffalo and krill), oriented our aspirations towards impossible ends like the abolition of death even while we despise the banality of life, and so on. In sum, life was a lot more meaningful in the premodern past, which came to an end sometime between the 15th and 19th centuries, depending on whom you ask, and then gave way to liberal capitalist bourgeois tyranny.

Why then are we so averse to the re-creation of precisely the social arrangements of yore, with a small class of rentiers and a large class of...renters? Is this not - finally, after so long an exile - a road back to pre-modern authenticity? If these trends persist, we may even return to the long-disused forms of property-holding that obstructed the nation-state and the advance of modernity in the first place, like allodial and entailed land. Then the power of Kotkin's universalizing, centralizing "clerisy" will find itself in competition with that of the neo-feudal land aristocracy, re-creating an uneasy balance between our new ecclesia and the saeculum that might hold for a good four or five hundred years between the neo-Investitute Controversy of the mid-21st Century and the neo-Reformation of 2517. Not only will most of us successfully rediscover our roots in the necessity of our newfound poverty (imagine that; we always were from wherever we happen to be now! I myself come from an ancient family of Skokieans) and reconnect with nature, our labor, and the divine, but we'll decisively give the lie to progressive (and maybe even linear) theories of history. Aristotle was right all along, "practically everything has been discovered on many occasions--or rather an infinity of occasions--in the course of time."

I understand that for those positioned somewhere between the anti-liberalisms of the left and the right, who regularly invoke the miracle of penicillin and "creative destruction," this nostalgia is counter-balanced by a view of the Middle Ages as a time when everyone was born and died (of Bubonic plague at age 17) in the same sparsely furnished puddle of mud which he shared with 27 family members, passing his days in illiteracy, drunkenness, sexism, and superstitious belief in dragons and a flat Earth, politically repressed by the simultaneous despotism of feudal lords, absolutist monarchs, and an omnipotent clergy (a remarkably harmonious power-sharing arrangement). Holders of this view of the past may be less eager to return to it. But these images of the Middle Ages are merely dark mirrors of our present fears: material discomfort and inegalitarian social mores and appearing foolish in front of our peers. Since they were hardly true in the first place, it's not clear that they will re-appear in the second. Neo-feudalism may well retain the Ikea furniture and smartphones of modernity, for even the feudal serf had a few simple possessions. And there is no reason to think identity politics incompatible with feudal orders, is there? There will yet be fights over gender pronouns for the clerisy to work out in their ten thousand-page digests of the Twittersphere. So everything will be ok even for creative destroyers, who ought to take comfort in the lifetime sinecures that will cement their status near the top of the neo-feudal hierarchy, since the upside of stagnation is security.

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