New feudalism. Choose your liege lord wisely

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.

Greg Lewicki

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.

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