In spite of dashing technological progress, the globalizing world is more and more similar to the one from the Middles Ages. What does it mean for humanity? Welcome to neomedievalism.net, an online prognostic resource covering neomedieval trends in international relations, culture, society, economics and urbanism.
You can also download (for free) “Cities in the Neomedieval Era”, a prognostic anthology on current neomedieval phenomena from this website. English and Polish editions available.
In brief: I define new feudalism as a bundle of the four following trends: (1) the appropriation of market niches by digital platforms; (2) transformation of the relationship between the state and the citizen in the direction of greater protectionism; (3) digital lightness of being, i.e. the gradual transformation of the psychological condition of societies leading to a redefinition of freedom; and ultimately (4) the transformation of the democratic system in the spirit of collectivization. They will fuel the new logic of class struggle between new feudal lords and socialists.
This essay sketches the issue in more detail.
Something has buckled in Western man. Due to the growing instability, the need for being taken care of is becoming increasingly more important than freedom. The new feudal lords will offer you a fair deal: a peaceful tomorrow in exchange for obedience and hard work.
Here in Poland, the generation fed on capitalistic ideals – such as, “where there’s a will, there’s a way“ – crashed into structural barriers during the first two decades of freedom. It turned out that not everyone has equal opportunities in the system – and that hard work does not always guarantee success. And today? Things have become even worse – and everywhere. Indeed, we now have proof of the inequality of opportunity. The former economist of the World Bank, Branko Milanović, has shown that 60% of our income can be explained by our place of origin and another 20% by the professional position of our parents. Only 20% comes from other variables. The physicist Alessandro Pluchino, in turn, has demonstrated via game theory models that amongst people with similar talents, random variables – the luck of the draw – have a greater impact on one’s career development than effort. Knowing this must create tension, especially if you belong to the precariat – a social class which is not starving, yet struggles to save a dime as it’s constantly battling to simply make it to the next paycheck.
Anxiety about living conditions – not only amongst the precariat – is fueled by the logic of capitalism, which necessitates ever increasing consumerism, thereby instilling a lack of contentedness with one’s current material conditions. Capitalism is based on the principle of market valuation: of you, your life, your social relations. Though in theory you are aware that the market cannot evaluate some things (volunteering, relations with others, the joy of having children), you nonetheless think in those categories, continuously comparing yourself to others. So what that things in Poland are better now than 20 years ago, inasmuch as everyone has it better and you subjectively have it worse? What of it that ‘money isn’t everything’ when COVID-19 took away the company you had been building for the last 20 years? Your children will not understand this.
Existential anxiety will only increase the world over, as the dynamics of the geopolitical system create an increasingly uncertain tomorrow. All the more so, as the middle class instead of growing is shrinking, and algorithmization and digital technology are continually changing the map of profitable occupations, and thus make getting one’s market bearings a dire challenge. As if that were not enough, technology is causing the areas covered by traditionally understood market mechanics to shrink. What does this mean?
(1) Technology. Techno-feudalism is only the beginning.
The impact of technology on the shrinking of the markets is described by the economist Yanis Varoufakis, who claims that capitalism is headed towards feudalism. This is a gradual change: just as capitalism slowly emerged from a plagued by crises feudalistic system, today we see the reverse process. Although this process is taking place in the background, according to Varoufakis, soon enough people will realize that their lives have become governed more strongly by new relations – ones in which you work for your master with no prospects of having any strong influence on anything.
Varoufakis believes that the transformations of capitalism underway today are deeper than those of the 20th century. The first crisis, back in 1929, was associated with the emergence of oligopolies of large and networked corporations and mega-banks; the second, of 1971, was related to the weakening of the Bretton Woods currency system. Every crisis benefited someone. For example, the Bretton Woods crisis strengthened investment banking. However, both events buttressed the key characteristic of capitalism: the primacy of private profit and market mechanisms. After 2008 the situation was different: the stabilizing role of central banks (and therefore of government) became more important than private profit.
Moreover, a greater amount of value is made not on the market, but on digital platforms such as Facebook or Amazon, where neither free market mechanisms nor oligopoly dynamics rule. What rules is the wanton fancy of those platforms’ owners. Digital platforms are ruled as private fiefdoms where the arbitrary and authoritarian will of the lord is what counts most. What is more, their main method and source of income – data – is produced by users everyday. As Sebastian Stodolak wrote in Dziennik Gazeta Prawna (a leading Polish newspaper, where this essay was originally published), this results in a situation in which “although it is we who plow our e-fields, the fruits of our labor go to the new feudal lord”. Today these digital feudal lords are bringing in the highest global profits and are becoming the new workhorses of capitalism. They set certain rules for their subjects, but retain the right to change them anytime. By carving out entire market segments for themselves, they introduce value extraction rules on them that promote only their own solutions. This in turn leads to the collapse of smaller competitors.
Varoufakis calls this trend ‘techno-feudalism’ in echo of feudalism – that is, the medieval system of relations between lord and vassal in which the former establishes the rules and the scope of the work, offering in return certain – albeit limited – benefits. These benefits are limited enough so as not to threaten the lord’s authority, but significant enough so as not to incite subjects to rebel.
As Varoufakis aptly points out, feudalization does not mean that capitalism will suddenly disappear. On the contrary, feudalism can long coexist with sectors managed by capitalistic logic. This process does not happen quickly. Rather, it is a slowly growing trend which, alongside the ever present digitalization, will in time start to dominate. We are transferring more and more parts of our lives online – that’s where we shop, consume, earn, travel about, and simply exist. The science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson called this new reality a ‘metaverse’ – that is, a virtual reality supplanting the ‘real world’. The digital rules for interaction in this metaverse are to be created by the new feudal lords who are restrained by nothing. According to Marxist researchers such as Stan Harrison, they already have become digital landowners. Of course, not all of us are confined to this “digital land”. But it suffices to look at the rapidly progressing digitalization of China to realize that this is the future. All the more so because – as game theory suggests – the current trend (digitalization) does not have be dominant for the current generation in order to change those to come.
The current transformation of capitalism is merely one thread in the tangle of interacting megatrends that I have described (amongst other places, in Dziennik Gazeta Prawna) as the ‘New Middle Ages’. All in all there are seven megatrends: apart from the feudalization of capitalism (a) we have: (b) the growing importance of religion and ethnicity; (c) the overabundance of information that results in a new form of illiteracy; (d) abandoning Enlightenment rationality in favor of reasonability and intuition; (e) fragmentation of political identities; (f) great migrations altering civilizations; (g) the emergence of alternative legal norms and new sources of law. Together these megatrends create a great web of complicated relations that truly are changing the world as we know it. Certain chain reactions take place between these relations as well. For example, the current transformation of capitalism influences social relations; they in turn create new desires and fears amongst people, ones that next create new reactions and political ideas. And political ideas are what change society – and may therefore affect capitalism, too.
Feudalization is also reflexive and multidimensional: it is related not only to (1) technology, but also to the social and political sphere. It is in fact a civilizational change. Of course, Big Tech is today the workhorse of capitalism (as once were traditional industries). But feudalism does not end here. That is why instead of saying ‘techno-feudalism’ – which suggests that technology alone is the axis of change – we should rather say ‘the new feudalism’ or ‘neofeudalism’. This has other manifestations, as well – including: (2) transformation of the relationship between the state and the citizen in the direction of greater protection; (3) the slow transformation of the psychological condition of societies leading to a redefinition of freedom; and ultimately (4) the transformation of the democratic system in the spirit of collectivization. I realize that for now these points may sound like philosophical gibberish. All the more are they worth looking at.
(2) The state and the corporation. Take care of me, please
Feudal obligations between nobles and vassals were based on the moral principle of financial or existential care in return for services or resources. According to the British historian Chris Wickham, the ideal model of feudalism is that the peasants control the production process and generate some kind of surplus for the benefit of the feudal lords. The latter may influence the production process, but are not involved in it. However, they assiduously make sure that their vassals do not modify their privileged position of power. According to Wickham, while under capitalism the power relationship between the master (employer) and the subject (employee) is concealed under the guise of freedom – because in theory you can work for whomever you want – in feudalism the power relationship is plainly visible, undisguised, and overt. In the background of the master-subject relationship is also class tension and the threat of the master taking advantage of his privileged position. Let us now ponder: where are similar structures present today? On the one hand, there is no alternative to using digital tools (Google, Facebook, etc.). When you do your mercenary work, you need those tools to earn money and survive. And after all, if you do not want the new rules which we will announce to you tomorrow, we will block you, suspend the website you have been building for years, and take away your digital tools. It is none of your business that we arbitrarily change the rules by which you cultivate your digital field.
This neofeudal relationship can also be seen between the state and the citizen. In direct proportion to the impoverishment of the middle class and the displacement of small and medium-sized enterprises by corporations, our dependence on the guardian – that is, the corporation or the state – grows. Consider the precarian who is struggling to create a financial cushion in the event of crisis or sickness. Whoever takes some of the burden off his shoulders can count on gratitude in the form of an electoral “yes”, even at the cost of a part of his freedom. And whoever adds a load will hear a loud “no” on the barricade. It was the precariat in France that created the revolutionary yellow vest movement; it is the precariat that is responsible for Brexit and is driving the populist boom. While a state that spreads its benevolent tentacles over the citizenry might appear as a threat, it can also appear as a liberator: it will take away your freedom “from” state oppression, but in return it will give you the freedom “to” finally enjoy your family and the little choices of everyday life. And those little choices and joys are precisely the things that your toil and the uncertainty of tomorrow have been depriving you of.
Let’s admit it: something has buckled in Western man. Due to the growing instability, the need for being taken care of is becoming increasingly more important than freedom in the maximalist, leftist-liberal sense. We are getting used to the world of post-privacy, in which the hitherto components of the liberal “I” cease to be the driving force of politics. Let’s take, for example, the social acceptance for citizen evaluation systems (scoring). Already in 2018 there were voices in Europe claiming that the digital tracking systems similar to those in China were being considered, for instance, in Germany. It’s 2021 now and the European Union has declared its willingness to create an e-ID (Digital Identity Wallet) – that is, a profile containing important information about you. Of course, this will also be the basis for scoring, though not as totalist as it is in Asia. In the EU scoring will employ built-in firewalls limiting the extraction of too far-reaching conclusions about you from the data. But the die is cast: our liberal societies are basking in the rain of post-privacy like fertile fields, ones soon to be rolling with amber waves of feudal grain.
(3) The psyche. The digital lightness of being
Why this basking? As the late philosopher Marcin Król claimed, at the root of liberal democracy lies the irremovable tension between “I” and “we”: we want democracy – and therefore the primacy of the will of the majority – but also liberalism, and therefore the primacy of the will of the individual. But what if these two wills clash? What to choose: the interest of the whole or of the individual? What if during, say, a pandemic it is necessary to limit the privacy of individuals in order to achieve the collective goal, i.e., to obtain knowledge about the dynamics of the disease’s development? For now, we are still sticking to the primacy of “I” over “we”, but that is changing. Partly because Big Tech’s algorithms make us realize that we do think like others, that in our desires and fears we are measurable and countable; we are elements of one predictable collective. Those algorithms are also slowly accustoming us to the post-privacy era that is to commence on behalf of our comfort and well being.
As the famous Polish poet Wisława Szymborska wrote, we used to know as much about ourselves as we were tested. In other words, we ourselves didn’t know our own nature. Today, the Big Tech behemoth, with its belly full of information, knows more and more about us, and is better able to describe our personality, views, and tendency to subversion or to wealth. However, all this constitutes a secret, guarded on the servers of the new feudal lords as a business secret and the guarantor of your efficient plowing. That is why Szymborska would rather say today: we know as much about ourselves as we have been told.
And what have we been told? Firstly, that we are unique, but only a little. And that it is not worth cultivating an excess of individualism within oneself, especially as it leads to a disintegration of the democratic community, particularly in a crisis. Secondly, we know that civilization does not need our individual dramas, but above all the fulfillment of our specific tasks, such as fighting the pandemic, selling bread, brewing beer, producing computer games, and making flights into space. We are so special that in many of these tasks we have already been replaced by robots. So, uniqueness is overrated. Thirdly, we will all die. We will leave bahind a few fleeting memories, some unfinished stories, some vacation photos of use to no one. But although our individual “I” will vanish, our collective “I” – in the form of society, civilization – will continue on. So maybe it is worth changing priorities before it’s too late, and instead of investing in your individualism – invest in the collective heritage? In the family, community, planet?
As digitalization progresses and the world becomes increasingly unstable, these trends will change our very hearts. The young generation will be struck by the digital lightness of being, i.e., a decrease in existential tension that will result from the individual believing they are but a repetitive, measurable, and not entirely unique part of nature. This new lightness of being gives a sense of fulfillment and righteousness and evokes new attitudes. Exceedingly visible among the young generations of the West is the concern for the planet, their postulates for global empathy or democratic socialism, and the return to the collective as a theme. The evolution of the mental map in this spirit will strengthen both the movement of left-wing ideas (earth, climate, empathy) and that of the right-wing (family, peace, tradition). Moreover, this old distinction will fall apart and give rise to ‘marriages’ across the existing chasm of political divisions.
Individualism, then, is boomerish, extremely individualistic freedom is overrated, and the person forced to work 30 days a month from morning to night is not free, but merely lives an illusion. Neo-feudalism proposes to cut through this illusion: let’s be honest and admit that owning stuff and the maximization of consumption and possession do not necessarily lead to a better life. On the contrary, sharing, limiting consumption, supporting collectives, and putting a part of life in the hands of an authority and guardian to free us from everyday decisions can have profound meaning. Life will be easier. More enjoyable.
(4) Politics. Better together
Under capitalism, we have already subjected ourselves to the rule of employers or the media. So what about politics in the era of feudalization? Maybe we need a new social contract that will at least give us certain bonuses for self-surrendering to the new feudal rule?
The answer to this question will be provided by democratic collectivism. To understand where we are headed right now, let’s look at East Asia – above all, at South Korea and Taiwan. These countries belong to Confucian civilization, which emphasizes the secondary importance of the individual to the collective. At the same time they are open to westernization, which brings individualism and democratic values. In Europe, we will sail in the same direction, albeit on a different river. We will not become a copy of democratic Asia, because the civilizational ingredients that form us are different: in Asia, we have collectivism absorbing the admixture of individualism as the historical basis. In Europe, the opposite is true: individualism absorbing the admixture of collectivism. In the long term, we will be closer to democratic Asia, and we will oppose the political models of authoritarian Asia. That is, we will not introduce totalitarianism and track citizens in the Chinese fashion, but rather we will introduce comparatively minor forms of limiting individual freedom in exchange for security and stability. Even if some of us will not like it.
This is all so, because the West will feel more and more pressure from China. If we do not implement some illiberal (from today’s point of view) reforms, China will take the world’s helm. In the language of the British historian Arnold Toynbee, the turning-points of history are laid out in such a way that the West has to face the challenge posed by China’s ultra-efficient techno-totalitarianism. And today, this rivalry is primarily the domain of Big Tech companies working on algorithmization and of institutes developing breakthrough innovations – that is, ones that will change the geopolitical rules of the game and give winners a long-term development bonus (e.g. nuclear fusion).
The new class struggle. Feudal lords vs socialists
The collectivist adaptations of the West, forced by the development of Asia, will make social relations increasingly more coherent with feudalism rather than capitalism. The erosion of individualism will increase the percentage of people putting themselves under the control of the feudal lord – whether the state-politician in a tie or the tech-company owner in a T-shirt. Anyway, who cares? After all, it’s all about a good life and work-life balance. Things will be more convenient this way. The state and the corporation will propose a deal: care and a specified, just allocation of resources that will put you in a better position than before, in return for obedience.
In this spirit, feudal relations will develop at the top of global power, not only at the level of an individual’s life, but also at the level of international relations. States will also enter into agreements of servitude, distinguished from ordinary international co-operation by a much greater and progressive loss of sovereignty. But this is a kind of servitude that is chosen for a good purpose and at a good price. It’s a good deal.
On the social level, the feudal lords will wield the law in clashes with citizens discovering their strength and the might of democratic socialism. The vassals – more aware than those in the Middle Ages – will have advantages on their side: legal codes, legal norms, and their very collective strength, their number.
Although many did not notice it, we had a prelude to this set of dynamics in the GameStop scandal, when micro-investors with applications to play on the stock market began to change big trends. The financial aristocracy swiftly used the flexibility of law to outsmart the plebes and took their digital pitchforks by turning off their investment apps. An then? A few declarations of reforms, some minor changes were announced. Nothing more. The plebes will unite again, however, and demand safeguards against exploitation. In response the feudal lords will then bend the market rules to better serve their will. Thanks to democracy, however, the new class struggle between the feudal lords and socialists will not be as dramatic as conflicts of the past. Thus, although the asymmetry of power between lord and vassal is great, the vassal collective has tools of exerting pressure.
To sum up: what we have in play are feudal lords (the seed of things to come) and socialists (the adaptation of the old to what’s to come). The paradox is that we will need the feudal lords to develop socialism. Because only their power will create the geostrategic and economic conditions and provide resources necessary for social democratic redistribution. So choose your liege lord wisely. And then respect him, even if you curse him.
This is the English translation of an essay "Choose your liege lord wisely" by Greg Lewicki that was originally published on Semptember 18th 2021 in Dziennik Gazeta Prawna's long-read weekend magazine and was subsequently re-published in other media. Translation from Polish by Amber Steele-Zielińska. The ideas related to neomedievalism have been explored by the author in various papers, including “Cities in the Neomedieval Era” anthology prepared in the framework of the European Capitol of Culture.
In brief: neomedievalism in prognostics is a bundle of at least 7 interconnected megatrends in the following areas: (1) International relations: the emergence of a network state (2) Demography and migration: the new Great Migration (3) Religion and ethnicity: their growing impact on political dynamics (4) Law: the crawling emergence of legal pluralim. i.e. many legal standards on a single territory (5) The economy: the feudalization of capitalism and rising neofeudal risks (6) Technology: debilitating information overload and a new illiteracy (7) Urban planning and governance : the triumph of popular reasonability over “cold” rationality.
This essay sketches them all in more detail.
A new wave of 7 network trends is permanently changing our civilization. Instead of mocking them, let us describe them in order to discover how to go about saving liberalism.
“But that’s medieval!” – we say when bashing someone’s backwardness. And let’s face it – we say so with a sense of superiority, believing that what the backward need is some proper education and more prosperity. But that’s not true. The approaching era, in which those blowing themselves up in the name of Allah often times have both money and university degrees, requires different solutions.
But what is this new era? Both “new Middle Ages” and “neomedievalism” are mentioned in differing, often unrelated, or even in opposite contexts. Neomedievalism is a bit like “postmodernity” – one can categorize many divergent things with this label and the term will still hold.
The above backwardness (irrationality) may be called the new Middle Ages, as can be religious fanaticism, the fascination with medieval motifs in pop culture, long with the demands of deurbanization.
Unfortunately, the term “new Middle Ages” has suffered bad press, because one of its early users, the Russian thinker Nikolai Berdyaev, paid it a backhanded complement. In his catastrophic essay “The New Middle Ages” (1924) Berdyaev talks about the mysterious nature of the past, declaring here and there concrete postulates for deconstructing governments, stopping the circulation of information, or shutting down the stock exchange. In such a world we would go back to a simple life in small communities organized by religion. This regressive vision is marked by the trauma of the First World War. Because civilization’s mad rush forward had led to death and destruction, as Berdyaev thought, we need to turn it off, or at least go back to a lower level of complexity.
What’s interesting, a similar understanding of the term the “new Middle Ages” is sometimes encountered on the reactionary right. On the other hand, the left wields this term as an insult or accusation – if you are saying something which is too conservative for my liking, you are endorsing a “new Middle Ages”.
These extreme, colloquial understandings of the term I call Berdyaev’s curse. I’ve experienced this many times when presenting the concept of network neomedievalism, which is a useful tool in prognostics. Before I could even start a conversation, I first had to listen to what each person thinks of when they hear the term “the Middle Ages”, why it was bad (or good), and how one can (or cannot) speak of the Middle Ages today.
However, to understand neomedievalism, what is needed is “the virtue of moderation”, as Poland’s Bronisław Geremek, both an outstanding medieval historian and a politician, once put it. We need a calm and unprejudiced approach. This is crucial as neomedievalism has nothing to do with the liberal bashing, conservative whining, or with medieval motifs in pop culture. It is rather a new language suitable for describing the reality of the 21st century, and useful in prognostics. It assumes that macrostructures and processes typical of the medieval period are currently resurfacing – and in fact that they might to a greater extent organize our reality. For this reason we should look at reality not from a short or mid-term perspective, but rather from a historical distance. This enables us to perceive in the background longue durée processes, those phenomena which were masterfully captured by the French historian Fernand Braudel and the Polish-American thinker Immanuel Wallerstein.
This new viewpoint is necessary, because Europeans seem to be living in an ahistorical “glass-house” and are unable to draw conclusions from the past. Precisely because of this, the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk says that Europe has to grow old, that is, to philosophically digest its historical heritage, in order to find a new language to describe the multi-layered transformation of the world. Only upon finding this language will we be able to create solutions for our complex civilizational problems. In the same vein, I propose that we first should look within the modern trends for analogies of the processes typical of the transition from Antiquity to the medieval period, and secondly to the later Middle Ages.
This will allow us to describe seven interconnected megatrends. The first is neomedievalism in international relations, the British political scientist Hedley Bull being its father. The others will be elaborated upon the basis of the recommendations of Umberto Eco and our modern state of knowledge concerning prognostics and the dynamics of globalization. These are “medievalisms” in the following dimensions: demography, religion and ethnicity, law, economy, technology, and urban planning. What’s interesting, these phenomena constitute an integral plexus – that is, they affect each other and evolve jointly. If reality starts to dovetail with past ages in so many dimensions simultaneously, it absolutely requires a description!
(1) International relations: a network state
In the academic dimension, neomedievalism in international relations is what has best been described. Hedley Bull developed the concept in his work “The Anarchical Society” from 1977. Already then, nearly 45 years ago, he perceived that we are headed towards abandoning the classically-understood sovereignty typical of traditional nation states. Thus, in the future we will have multiple, overlapping centers of power, identity fragmentation, countries uniting into bigger entities, and the development of nonterritorial international organizations, but also a technological unification of the world. The future also means the erosion and transformation of states’ roles, ones increasingly dependent on non-state actors.
Bull does not use the language of network theory, but he does speak of networking and stratifying power centers, as well as about codependency, which is a distinctive feature of globalization. Although neomedievalism does not inherently possess a global reach, as there may be regions functioning according to different rules, Bull’s theory seems to remain true in 2020 – non-state actors, such as Google and Facebook, are currently more powerful than many countries, and the European Union is a perfect example of countries united into bigger blocks, bonded by grand ideas (analogous to Christianity in the past). In this and related veins, the political scientist Jan Zielonka was developing Bull’s ideas in his book “Europe as Empire: The Nature of the Enlarged European Union” (2006), in which not only did he showcase that the EU is today a peaceful empire expanding thanks to soft power diplomacy and economic pressure, but also that it is created in a medieval fashion. Unfortunately, in the next years, Zielonka discontinued his development of neomedievalism, perhaps because of the criticism of political scientists who do not see the purpose is using historical analogies as tools for analyzing reality. And that’s too bad. When one reads his recent works concerning the crisis of liberalism or the EU (e.g., “Counter-Revolution: Liberal Europe in Retreat”) it is plain that the author does not know how to react to the crisis. This inability stems from the impossibility of crossing and transforming language, which (following Wittgenstein) dictates the limits of imagination. Putting it differently: from within an ahistorical liberal paradigm, certain processes and solutions are simply not visible, and others – even if they are – seem to be nonsensical, terrifying, or impossible to implement. Meanwhile, it is precisely these historical references that can unlock our imagination and give us solutions.
If we accept the historical perspective, then the current impotence of European intellectuals will become clear – indeed, a similar impotence was experienced by the Roman elites. The time came when they strove to regulate the dynamics of the cultural and political crucible of Europe in the times of Pax Romana, but without a clue as to what the various fractions of the divided populace desired or believed in. Seneca’s successors wrote treatises on equality, tolerance, and the necessity of peace, whilst politicians were scratching their heads on how to organize the angry masses and to prevent the brewing revolts. It was a thoroughly modern dilemma: if the populace more and more often does not dream of the tolerance which the elites urge, than what language should be used to speak to them?
Magnum in parvo – in the footsteps of Umberto Eco
Let us then push the wheels of history forward and write about what everyone currently treats with silence, but which will be spoken of – without embarrassment and loudly – already in ten years’ time. As to not fall too deep into speculations, lets hold to the intuition of Eco as a medieval expert.
The essay “The Return of the Middle Ages” (1976) is an example of what in Latin is called “magnum in parvo” – immense richness of content in a small work. In this essay Umberto Eco presents a sketch of the concept of the new Middle Ages, outlining or sometimes only pointing to the dimensions in which to look for neomedieval phenomena as civilizational trends. After weeding out unimportant connotations, Eco presents his own list of processes and structures whose emergence in the world may be seriously considered neomedieval. These are: (a) a large socio-political unit, comparable to Pax Romana; (b) unification of the world through, amongst others, a common language and technology, as well as social consequences of such unification; (c) religion and ethnicity as an important part of identity; (d) great migrations, bringing customs from other parts of the world; (e) metropolization of cities and the alienation of social groups; (f) under-information and trivialization of information; (g) a tendency for continuous upgrading without concern for primary cultural sources. On the basis of these and other flashes of intuition it is possible to identify a plethora of surprisingly medieval processes that will gain speed in the upcoming decades. Here they are.
(2) Demography and migration: the new Great Migration
Eco writes that one sign of the new Middle Ages is mass migration, which “brings new customs and new outlooks on the world” and propagates them from within a large political entity guaranteeing regional peace. Pax Romana was this kind of entity, and as we know from e.g., Zielonka’s neomedievalism, the European Union is currently such an entity absorbing peoples. There are many more similarities between the EU and Rome: both have a post-war structure, meaning they were created as a result of war exhaustion; both strive to expand their area of influence; they both witness the rivalry of different missionary religions; and finally both have developed a concept of multiculturism in order to manage a culturally complex populace.
Those who witnessed the migrant crisis in 2015 do not need being reminded, yet it is worth stressing that the EU is and will remain an area of great migrations – mainly from the territories of the Middle East and Africa – that introduce new customs and cultural norms derived mainly from Islam. In 2015 alone a million migrants arrived in Europe; the trails expand and shrink according to international politics, mainly those of Turkey and the countries of the Mediterranean Basin. The topic of migration is often misunderstood, trivialized, demonized or passed over, even though it must be accepted as a permanent element of the European reality for the next century. According to the prognosis of Bruno Kahl, president of the German Federal Intelligence Service, given during his lecture “Zur Zukunft der internationalen Ordnung“ for Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung (2017), soon over a billion people will be seeking to emigrate from their place of residence, and more often than not their aim will be Europe. According to NATO’s lecturer Gunnar Heinsohn, this is related to the high birth-rate and low demographic absorbency of many economic systems in the developing countries. If within a social system five or six people are competing for one place, then the rest are left to fight over resources, to partake in internal revolts, or emigrate.
In any case, the migrant potential of the world will be increasing and this will also be affected by climate change. The great migration is a fact, and its counterpart is the Völkerwanderung, the great migration of the barbarians which changed the cultural landscape of Antiquity and created a new civilization after its collapse. This is why we will witness similar cultural and political phenomena to those experienced by Rome. Awaiting us are segregation, religious fundamentalism, and the screams of the angry masses. But also, the promise of salvation and a search for shared values in order to hold everything together.
No, I do not mean at all that the EU will collapse, as proclaimed by extreme conservatives and the agents of Russia’s influence. Quite the contrary, Pax Europeana, just like Romana, can last centuries with wise management. What’s more, our economy does not depend on agriculture, trade, and conquest, so in contrast to Rome during the period of stagnation, we have good resources for managing the growing complexity of Europe.
(3) Religion and ethnicity: cuius religio, eius regio
The Middle Ages were an era of religion. When one branch of Christianity dominated the market for religious services in Rome, it became the spiritual and political mortar for the whole empire. Later, in surviving Rome’s collapse, it became the Christendom of the medieval period.
Religion played an important sociological part in Pax Romana. It acted as a psychological safe haven for those alienated from their homeland, who for economic reasons traversed immense distances; it was also a refuge providing fellow believers with, for example, a place to sleep and food – first in Christian communities and later at the parish. Very few today are aware of this, as well as of the fact that Rome in the 1st century A.D. was an enormous cultural crucible inhabited by a million people, though without access to modern communication technologies.
A similar return to religion as a mortar and a refuge from an unpredictable world may we witness today, both among native EU inhabitants as well as among migrants. A common religion helps to overcome the feeling of exclusion and helps to deal with the shock of cultural distance – that is, the cultural otherness of the host country. Just as Judaism before, Christianity, paganism, or the Imperial cult often came into contact, and frequently poached each other’s believers. Today, we have interactions between two fractions of Christianity (Catholicism and Protestantism), between different branches of Islam, or a-religion – that is an agnostic-atheistic worldview. At the same time, religious identity overlaps with class and ethnic identity, creating a still impenetrable mixture for sociologists.
It is already visible that these interactions occur according to the rules of network theory – that is, where specific ethnicities and specific religions are important variables. They influence the dynamics of movement, housing choices, and even create segregation in line with certain rules. Poor understanding of these factors and claiming that it will suffice to provide migrants with a good job and education to make them integrate, is an immense foolishness, one for which Western Europe will pay with separatisms, revolts, and cultural Balkanization. Whereas in the past Western Europe’s opertaing rule was cuius regio, eius religio (“whose realm, their religion” – that is, the ruler chooses the official religion for the territory), today this rule applies again, but backwards. Today the rule is cuius religio, eius regio (“whose religion, their realm”, meaning the factual majority of the territory implements their own civilizational practices as the dominating ones).
(4) Law: one territory, many legal standards
As Michał Zabdyr-Jamróz claims in book “Miasta w nowym średniowieczu” (“Cities in the Neomedieval Era”), we are headed toward a world where legal pluralism is beginning to emerge – that is, where on the same state’s territory different legal systems pertain to different people. Indeed, migrants bring along with them their own legal systems – and if they don’t quickly integrate, they may wish to adhere to their own tried and true systems. The situation where a judge before a hearing asks the accused, as in the Middle Ages, “Under what law do you live?” and will issue a ruling according to that legal system, may become reality.
If you think this is nonsense, then just look at France. Islamic communities, despite president Macron’s efforts, do not want to publicly declare the superiority of French state law over religious Sharia law. Similar is the situation in England. As Piotr Kłodkowski, an orientalist, states in “Cities…”, solutions typical of the past used in India or the Middle East are today seen in Europe, a good example being the British Muslim Arbitration Tribunal, which remains outside of the legal system of the country in its settling of civil disputes amongst the Muslim community. Another such example would be the issue of Islamic marriages, that is, religious ceremonies binding for the local communities, yet not recognized by the state. How to deal with that? Here we approach some trouble. When in April 2020 the British court of appeal concluded the invalidity of Islamic marriages, one could hear both approval of the decision, as well as criticism pointing out the tremendous harm done to women. Indeed, this decision implies that women can assert their rights exclusively in the religious legal system, which at baseline is discriminatory.
(5) The economy: ethical feudalism where capitalism fails
Although we are living in a capitalist system, it is experiencing a crisis. Not only in relation to the COVID-19 epidemic. One does not need to read Thomas Piketty to notice that societies of late capitalism are inflicted by poverty among certian communities and the middle class is experiencing a crisis. In the places where capitalism is failing, a new feudalism will step in.
The feudal system was a set of obligations between lords and vassals. As Tacitus wrote, “to those who lost their homes and fields to thieves, or escaped from tax collectors and cannot regain their property, search for manors of the rich and become their subjects”. Similar choices will be made by the Western precariat – a social class which is marked not by poverty, but by continuous fear for their future. The precariat for many reasons is not capable of saving enough to have a financial safety net in case of, for example, illness. It was the precariat of France that created The Yellow Vests, the precariat in England is responsible for Brexit, it is the precariat that en masse votes for the so-called populists who promise the people a return to their proper place in society. These people are in a state of existential anxiety and continuous uncertainty. They are capable of sacrificing much of their freedom and are willing to promise unconditional loyalty in return for safety, predictability, and unthreatened health care. If politicians or business actors propose such solutions, they will find followers. The current feudalization of capitalism does not entail that capitalism will disappear. It will rather evolve in the direction of social-democracy and feudalism. Increasingly, not only companies with a CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) postulate, but also social groups are demanding encoding into capitalist mechanisms the ethics of responsibility, stressing the importance of business entities providing care over the local communities. The spitting image of medieval paternalism! The pandemic will greatly increase the speed of these postulates evolving into political programs, as it is causing rapid impoverishment, mainly amongst the least financially-safe working class and the middle class. Just as epidemics in the Middle Ages plagued feudalism with crises, so will they plague capitalism today. The speed of the feudalization of capitalism will be proportional to the shrinking of the middle class, at least within Western civilization. Moreover, the expansion of neofeudalism will be stimulated by technological progress.
(6) Technology: under-information from overload and a new illiteracy
Why? Because of the expansion of algorithms and the growing under-information of society.
Let us begin with the latter. In medieval times information was lacking. Because of the non-existent communication technologies, information was passed on orally and later by the written word. Illiteracy was dominant, there was no media, and their only counterparts were the bards, innkeepers, and town announcers declaring the will of the lords. Today, however, the media are enormous, multichannel information sources, who – willingly or not – partake in the fluid structures of political power, selecting information and creating a vision of reality for their audience. It often happens that the amount of available information is so great that it is impossible to choose what to focus on and what to trust. This is how under-information is born of overload: the human brain’s information capacity is exceeded and results in confusion. This is one step away from the new illiteracy – that is, the inability or conscious refusal to absorb information about the world. A human with too much information is indeed no different from one that has none. Why? Because he will end up like the donkey in Aleksander Fredro’s poem that was given hay in one manger and oats in the other. Without knowing which is better to eat, he ate none, and died of starvation surrounded by food. The situation is further made worse by social media locking people in information bubbles – that is, in virtual worlds of seemingly coherent information, where in fact they often are a falsified small piece of reality.
In order to sort out this overload, our civilization is investing in computer algorithms which organize reality. Such organizing, however, is done according to specific criteria and interests, which in turn gives the owners of the algorithms a lot of power over human souls. This is power-knowledge – power over what a certain person will consider knowledge and what they will know about. The ability to create convictions that technological giants (GAFA – Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, etc.) have in their hands gives them the capability of shaping human behaviors, a power which is greater than that which the strongest intelligence services of the world have.
(7) Urban planning: reasonability instead of rationality
The above processes also influence urban planning. The concept of spatial planning and cities’ self-perception as globalization centers is changing. According to Eco, today’s metropolises are often areas of segregation by affluence or ethnicity, where human alienation is becoming increasingly more visible. Why is this so? Today we would answer that responsible for that lies i.a., with the rule of hierarchical networking, which tells us that certain processes spread unevenly according to certain criteria, creating centers and peripheries (e.g., a hub and spokes).
Under the leadership of Rudolf Cesaretti, the researchers behind the work “Population-Area Relationship for Medieval European Cities” (2016) have shown that today’s cities resemble medieval ones much more than in any other period. Including in the area of spatial planning. As Michał Zbdyr-Jamróz points out, today new urban solutions more often than not are based not only on the rationality of experts, but also on deliberative methods, in which emotions and the subjective judgements of social groups count at least as much as the calculated verdicts and rational conclusions of planners. This was so in the Middle Ages, which did not apply the nonpersonal and abstract rule of rationality, but the rule of common sense. In effect, the development of cities has allowed for a high degree of spontaneity. Moreover, just as in the medieval period, today’s cities increasingly promote “soft” regional identities, thanks to which cross-border cooperation is growing.
The spiral of history. How to adapt to the New Middle Ages?
These seven medievalisms listed by Eco are not a closed list. They entail merely an outline of mutually related phenomena, and each one warrant book-length treatment. Another book could be written on the topic of how to react to these trends, in order to prevent our society from derailing in the future. With all certainty the logic of some of the described phenomena threatens liberal democracy in the long term. It seems that at least part of its heritage can be preserved, but the question is: how much? Amongst the strategies for dealing with the new Middle Ages I would include:
Weakening legal pluralism. This might be acceptable to some; however, its normalization may accelerate the deep cultural fragmentation of Europe. That is why systems for the least invasive erasing of parallel legal systems within the EU must be established.
New multiculturalism. This will be necessary not only to combat legal pluralism, but also in order to stabilize dangerous trends from the overlapping economic, cultural, religious, and ethnic alienation. The current multiculturalism model, which is responsible for many of its ailments, must be reprogrammed, for example, in the spirit of Jagiellonian multiculturalism, whose ideas provided an exceptional period of religious tolerance in Europe.
Codification of European values. This could take the form of a European constitution defining civilizational heritage, which it would protect unconditionally. Such a step would allow for the legal embedding of the axiological minimum needed for unity which is lacking today. The 14th-century Islamic historiosopher, Ibn Khaldun, claimed that without a sense of social unity and a shared goal (asabiyah) civilizations cannot last. This is well-worth heeding.
Proteus’ adaptation. In the case of some of the processes, which from the liberal standpoint are unacceptable, Proteus’ adaptation could prove effective, which means one that will retain the liberal essence simultaneously changing the form to a more acceptable one for the other side.
Strengthening selected European Union institutions. The EU needs economic liberalization and a digital union, for which it should bear responsibility. However, because of the neomedievalism of the European Commission it should delegate part of its responsibilities to the Council of the European Union. The European Committee of the Regions also ought to be strengthened at the expense of the European Parliament. This will allow for more adaptive management of the political and cultural fragmentation, and it might grant national parliaments more say in the EU legislative process.
While sharpening swords to fight for Pax Europeana we must remember that the old is making a return or repeating itself not from someone’s backwardness. Something completely new is approaching, albeit in old shoes. History is neither linear nor cyclical. It is neither a process in which everything is unique nor is it a process in which everything repeats itself. History is rather a spiral – each period is unique, but typical processes of the past come back cyclically in a new form. The old laws of humanity (physical, networking, biological, psychological, anthropological, sociological, etc.) are responsible for the eternal repetitions. In turn, technological progress, which affects everything, is accountable for the uniqueness. As also is – to a limited extent – moral progress, which lasts as long as we remember the mistakes of the past.
Dr Greg Grzegorz Lewicki
This is the English translation of an essay "Let us forge swords for the New Middle Ages" that has been originally published on July 10th 2020 in Gazeta Wyborcza's long-read weekend magazine and was subsequently re-published in other media both in print and online. Translation from Polish by Amber Steele-Zielińska. The ideas from the essay have been explored by the author in various papers, including “Cities in the Neomedieval Era” anthology prepared in the framework of the European Capitol of Culture.
Italian writer Umberto Eco and British political scientist Hedley Bull were right: in spite of the dashing technological progress we are returning to the Middles Ages. And fast. The era ahead of us is a period of fragmented identity, future shock, alienation, segregation, uncertainty and the growing impact of religion on the public life. How to manage this increasing social and political complexity?
“Cities in the Neomedieval Era”, a prognostic anthology may give you a few ideas: it offers a sneak peek into our neomedieval future. As a first publication ever to integrate different approaches to neomedievalism into a coherent prognostic framework, it is definitely worth your while.
The main thesis of the book is that in spite of dashing technological progress, the globalizing world is more and more similar to the one from the Middles Ages. What does it mean for humanity? In principle, we are internationally facing the re-emergence of some processes, patterns and macrostructers typical for the era of the Middle Ages in the present times. The trend is there, no matter how weird it may sound. Hence the overarching label “neomedievalism”.
Why to deal with this phenomenon at all? Because by reflecting on our medieval past we can ultimately benefit from a proper foresight into the neomedieval future.
From neoliberalism to neomedievalism?
It is possible that due to the reasons independent from ourselves we are now moving from the paradigm of neoliberalism to neomedievalism, which would mean a radical systemic change of political and social timespace. However, this change has not been properly described so far. Rather, neomedieval intuitions are scattered across many disciplines without any overarching order.
Although some scholars have already struggled to describe neomedievalism, their insight was limited to a single discipline at best. For example, Hedley Bull spoke of neomedievalism in international relations, whereas Umberto Eco vaguely sketched how a proper neomedievalism should look like in culture and society. In turn for the likes of Nikolai Berdyaev, neomedievalism was synonymous with nothing more than escapist withdrawal from the modern world. Faced with the multitude of “medievalisms” we decided to re-examine them. What emerges is a stub of an original, coherent concept of globalization.
The book contains an introduction and five essays, which apply principles of neomedievalism to study different aspects of global trends. The essays include contributions by Piotr Kłodkowski (culture, identity and Islamic law), Kees Terlouw (urbanism), Paweł Musiałek (international relations), Michał Zabdyr-Jamróz (sociology of cities), Jarosław Włodarczyk and myself (information and media theory).
Summary of the contents
What are these essays about?
Greg Lewicki | Return to the Future. Neomedievalism, Globalization, Cities. I explain the importance of neomedievalism for prognostics and offer a bird’s eye view on many different “neomedievalisms”. Then, based on the writings of Hedley Bull, Umberto Eco and my previous publications, I define “integral neomedievalism” or “network neomedievalism” as a branch of prognostics that seeks medieval phenomena in the disciplines such as social and political science, anthropology, urbanism, media theory and economics. Critical arguments against neomedievalism are elaborated as well.
Pawel Musialek | Europe’s Full Circle. Sovereignty of States and Cities in the Neomedieval Era. Musiałek presents the assumptions of neomedievalism in political science by juxtaposing the ideological frictions of the Middle Ages, which led to the emergence of the nation state and modern trends that weakened the state, thus paving the way for a return of the Middle Ages with its overlapping network relations. According to Musiałek, who refers to scholars such as Jan Zielonka, the European Union is a completely unique phenomenon on a historic scale, and in many layers it refers to “the concept of the political” characteristic of the Middle Ages.
Kees Terlouw | Trading Identities. Neomedievalism and the Urban Future’ Terlouw analyzes the consequences of the transformation of the nation state into the network state for cities and metropolitan areas. According to Terlouw, in neomedieval times, apart from “thick identities”, characterising, for example, nations, cities will strongly benefit from ‘”thin regional identities” and their potential to integrate network structures. These thin identities will enable the integration of urban networks irrespective of the framework set by the nation state.
Michal Zabdyr-Jamroz | Rational or Reasonable? The New Middle Ages as the Era of Deliberative Cities. Zabdyr-Jamróz argues that neomedievalism, comprehended as a direct adoption of organisational solutions developed in the Middle Ages, may be a useful tool for solving problems which bother urban planners and politicians in our times. As shown by Zabdyr-Jamróz, the adaptive nature of medieval urban policy that was built upon human spontaneity can help to effectively reconcile the interests of different groups and even create cities with a unique, individual character.
Piotr Klodkowski | Wrocław and New Delhi. On Metropolitan Cultural Identity, Islam and the Millet System. Kłodkowski addresses neomedievalism in the spheres of culture, identity and law by describing the surprising but probable consequences of multiculturalism. Based on an analysis of the institutional evolution of Islam in India, Kłodkowski concludes that in face of rapid demographic changes in Europe we may soon wake up in a fragmented reality no longer having one legal system but different systems for different groups depending on their declared identity.
Greg Lewicki & Jarosław Wlodarczyk | News wars. Information, Journalists and Media in the Neomedieval Era. We analyse the consequences of the widespread information overload and the global misinformation that follows from it. We are to expect “news wars” and epistemic chaos that will be more and more unbearable for an average consumer of information. In the future world of automated information flows it is time to reform journalism and education; and to consider the taxation of data sorting centres, such as largest social networking portals (e.g. Facebook) that have become the centres of global soul control.
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“Cities in the Neomedieval Era” was written as part of “Social Foresight Wroclaw 2036/2056” for “City of the Future” project directed by the office the European Capitol of Culture 2016. You can download the PDF file HERE and at the website dedicated to neomedieval trends: www.neomedievalism.net.