Brodie Farquhar: Feudalism 2.0
February 7, 2018
As a student of history, I’ve been fascinated about feudalism as it existed during the Dark and Middle Ages, leading in up to and including the Ancien Regime of France and Tsarist Russia. I used to think that those regimes, with their horrors, were in the distant past.
Now, I’m not so sure. I’m seeing similarities between feudalism in the past, and trends taking shape today, in this country and elsewhere – what I call Feudalism 2.0.
Take the institutions of royalty and aristocracy, for example. We’ve grown used to the idea of a benign royalty that is more symbolic than active player in politics and economics. Think Denmark, Spain or Great Britain.
Yet there is a disturbing rise across the globe of "strong men" that wield king-like powers, or strive for those powers. Think Putin, the Philippines’ Duterte or North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, grandson of that regime’s founder. Now consider Donald Trump and his authoritarian tendencies.
Yesterday’s aristocracy used to be composed of princes, dukes, counts and earls, vying for power in courts and on battlefields. Other than the king or tsar, there was nothing to rein in their abuses of power. Certainly not the people or rule of law.
Today, we have billionaires and millionaires becoming a defacto aristocracy, moving beyond the reach of courts, Congress, legislatures, governors or presidents, many of whom have become subservient to the new aristocracy that funds their political campaigns.
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And what does this new aristocracy want? More power and ever-greater wealth and influence. They want family fortunes that become bigger and bigger and more unassailable, less accountable, with each generation.
The Republican Party’s "tax reform" legislation advances that goal. Trump’s drive to deregulate just about everything, makes the new aristocracy less accountable for the harm they do to the economy, labor, public health and the environment.
Private gain and profit is sacrosanct, while dealing with economic wreakage – remember 2008 – becomes a cost for the public.
Consider other trends.
Just as old aristocrats had armies, police and secret police to keep the peasants subdued, so too do we have militarized police and a vast military that keeps the world safe for aristocrats, at home and abroad.
Old aristocracies had churches that sanctified the power structure, threatened peasants with damnation if they rebelled and promised rewards in heaven for obedience. We have something similar today, with extreme fundamentalists allied with economic and political power and working to punish the poor.
Old aristocracies had a small merchant class and a vast pool of peasants and serfs to work the land, provide cannon fodder and even work in factories in later days. Today, we have a middle class with stagnant wages, little social mobility and a poor working class that hustles two-to-three jobs to keep the wolf from the door.
And borrowing an idea from Rome, today’s aristocracy invests heavily on bread and circuses to distract and entertain the masses – sports, TV and movies, social media. Today’s aristocracy makes sure we’re not focused on what matters: fair wages, health care, political corruption, the environment, and yes, climate change. Add ginned-up social controversies about abortion, gays, bathrooms, immigrants and political correctness, and we’re really deep into the weeds.
And that’s exactly where today’s artistocrats want to keep us.
In the wake of the Crash of ’29, we reined in the would-be aristocrats of that era with a 92 percent tax rate. What are we going to do this time?