Friday, May 21, 2010

Neo-Feudalism and the American Dream

American pundits, politicians, and even – to a certain extent – voters, seem to have a great fear of communism. It goes in and out of favour – it was brazen in the McCarthy era, it is less so in the opposition to universal healthcare – but it is present as a major political force nonetheless. They want to live the mythical American Dream – which is essentially a rebranding of the capitalist dream – that anybody can start at the bottom of the ladder and rise to the top based solely on their merit, how hard they work, etc. This is a great system to have, and hardcore socialism would indeed threaten that dream. But that dream is already being threatened by the road we are heading down right now

The thing that everyone loves about capitalism is that it (theoretically) makes everyone equal – if the child of rich parents is inept and lazy, he will lose all his money and so get the status he deserves; if someone born in poverty is intelligent and hard-working, they will outcompete their rivals and rise to the status they deserve. One of the main reasons people don’t like socialism is that it doesn’t have this – yes, assuming that the system works (which is a big assumption) everyone has enough to survive, so one person’s wealth doesn’t depend on another’s starvation, but there’s no real opportunity for advancement. If you’re a hard worker, you get the same amount of mashed potato as the lazy guy next to you, which removes your incentive to work hard, and generally opens up a can of worms that we don’t much like. So, since these two options are really the only two economic models the average voter is familiar with, any time something has a hint of socialism (read: opponents call it socialist) they tend to react with fear – they don’t want to give up the American Dream.

Of course, even taken on the face of it, this is sort of silly. Any political model short of anarchy (which isn’t so much a political model as a lack of one) is somewhat socialist – the government taxes you so it can distribute that wealth fairly, making sure that there are things like roads, hospitals, and schools. You need a little bit of socialism for the capitalist ideal to work – no matter how much natural intelligence your kid has, if there isn’t a school for him to go to, he won’t make full use of it, and will therefore stay right where he is.

The thing is, though, there is a third option – one that is an extension of capitalism, but which has none of its benefits (and, it should be noted, no democracy). Hopefully you’re familiar with it, since it also preceded capitalism – feudalism. In the old days, the ruling class owned all the lands, and the working class, well, worked. The Lord would let you work his land for a (large) percentage of the yield, and would also protect you if you agreed to fight for him. The working class were given enough to survive – or at least, enough so they didn’t revolt – but could not advance. Their children, and their children’s children were never going to become Lords; they would always be workers.

You can see the beginnings of Neo-Feudalism in today’s economic model, particularly in the States. You go to work for a big company. Instead of giving you enough money to pay your medical bills (or for your own health insurance) they provide you with healthcare. Instead of giving you enough money to buy a car, you are encouraged (in some cases, maybe even forced) to drive a leased company car, usually in exchange for some of your salary. Expense accounts are also common – less common, but not unheard of, are cases where accommodation is provided by the company. Such things will only increase in the future, unless something is done. Most people think of these things as perks – but, tellingly, they are all controlled by the company. If you want to quit, or you get fired, you suddenly have no car, no healthcare, no place to live, and not enough money to get all these things for yourself. Furthermore, you have salary-sacrificed so much that you don’t really have the money to send your kids to a good school – a good enough one that allows them to become a Lord instead of a worker, like you.

So you don’t quit. And now they own you.

As always, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants here. The Last Psych has written extensively on the subject, and you can get a good preview by reading Neal Stephenson’s brilliant novel Snow Crash. But then, people have also written a lot of dystopian sci-fi on what would happen if the government gets too big – if their level of control over us rivals that of the Neo-Feudal Lords. But here’s the big difference – if your CEO-Lord does something you don’t like, or makes a bad decision, he’s really only accountable to the other members of the ruling class. They will torch him if he starts to lose them all money, but if he makes bad ethical decisions, or fires a heap of people to save money, there’s really nothing you can do.

Compare this to a big government – one that taxes fairly heavily and has a lot of socialist policies in place; unemployment benefits, disabled/elderly pensions, universal healthcare, etc. You still have someone other than yourself dictating how your earnings are spent – which infuriates a lot of the currently wealthy and middle-class – but the difference is, you have power over them. The people who make these decisions are dependant on your votes. There aren’t dynasties – hell, positions are rarely held for one person’s lifetimes, let alone that of their descendants. In Neo-Feudalism you have a small group of people that is very static; in big government, you have a medium-sized group taken from a huge, ever-changing pool, and these changes naturally bend to the will of the people they rely on for votes.

This is why America’s recent federal political progress has been so pleasing. You have elected Barack Obama, the living embodiment of a non-dynastic regime, and he has made wonderful progress on healthcare, thus stripping the Lords of one of their major bargaining tools.

But the battle isn’t over. So next time pundits say that a bill is socialism, and attacks the American Dream, remember that a little socialism is necessary for that dream to succeed. Neo-Feudalism doesn’t benefit you or the pundits – it only benefits the ruling class.

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