Serfdom and the historical ignorance of the American Right

Serfdom and the historical ignorance of the American Right

by David Atkins

A week ago my brother Dante wrote a featured article at DailyKos about feudalism, the Jacquerie, and taxation on the wealthy in the context of California's proposed ballot initiatives to restore some semblance of economic fairness. Since writing the article, Dante has been subject to angry tweets and hatemail from conservatives for daring to imply that they want a return to a a feudal system in which liege-lord barons control all the wealth, trained muscle pledges oaths to liege lords in exchange for better status, most of the population are landworker serfs tied to the land with no hope of a better future, and a caste of priests makes sure that everyone accepts their lot in this world in exchange for the hope of a better future in the next.

And no wonder. The right wing believes that they own the rhetorical language of serfdom. Notable laissez-faire economist and historical ignoramus Friedrich Hayek wrote his "masterpiece" The Road to Serfdom, alleging that socialism would lead to the tyrannical boot of Big Government on the necks of common people, leading them to suffer the status of serfs under the thumbs of regulatory Commissars.

We can also see the conservative view of the government as King owning the land and granting select rights to vassals and serfs in this inane American Thinker article:

The Obama administration has managed to move us back in time to the medieval days, where the king reigned supreme, and the fruits of the serfs' (taxpayers, producers in society, the middle class, entrepreneurs, etc.) labor belong to the government, who determine how much we shall keep.

Modern Liberalism, in this view, is supposed to be contrasted with Classical Liberalism, supposedly derived from Enlightenment principles in which liberties are derived from God, rather than from any manmade social order.

The only problem with this worldview and corresponding narrative (beyond its incompatibility with the theocratic rubes from which the economic libertarians derive their votes in elections) is that it betrays a deep-seated ignorance of history.

Feudalism as an economic system was operant in Europe during the Middle Ages and late Dark Ages. It evolved after the fall of the centralized statist bureaucracy of the Roman Empire, but before the centralized state bureaucracies of the Renaissance and later (depending on the country.) Versions of similar systems have existed throughout the civilized world, but the universal constant of feudalism is that it grows and thrives in the absence of centralized state power. During the early stages of European feudalism, the putative "King" was less a king in the modern sense than a primus inter pares, a "first among equals." The King was simply the greatest and most respected of the barons, and did not survive long as King without giving the barons their due and independence. This was true of the Tsars in Russia as well, where European feudalism survived the longest, and who were constantly under the threat of revolt from their supposedly subservient nobles, should the Tsar attempt to usurp too much authority. Far from enforcing a feudal system, Leninism was a revolt against feudalism.

Feudalism depends on decentralization, rigid local hierarchies, a martial culture of honor, an agrarian economic system, a strong religious caste system to keep everyone in their place, distrust of outside trade influences, and the lack of a middle-class tax base that would demand social services and a representation in government affairs.

Does this sound familiar? It should. With the exception of the adaptation of race-based slavery, it's exactly the economic and cultural system of the antebellum South, which has been appropriately labeled as feudal in its origins--even proudly so by Southern white supremacists like this guy.

"States' rights" is a longing for the decentralization of the feudal era, when local barons were free to do as they pleased, and to implement local laws and customs as they saw fit at the expense of universal rights for their citizens. The willing imposition of theocracy comes from a longing for a more feudal era when everyone "knew their place and had some respect for their betters," bless their little hearts. The longing for a more consistent heartland monoculture also derives from stratified feudal anti-cosmopolitanism. Economically, modern Republicanism is a free-trade globetrotting plutocrat's paradise. But culturally, modern conservatism is nothing short of a longing for the pre-Enlightenment days of the Middle Ages, or at least for the antebellum days of the American South, when Enlightenment principles were forced upon it by those damned Yankees.

The conservative argument that liberals believe that rights derive from the government, rather than from God, is specious at best. Both liberals and conservatives hold that human rights are Universal ("from God" for the theologically inclined), but must be protected by laws derived from and enforced by reason against those who would encroach upon them. The difference is that conservatism has a much narrower view of universal human rights. Conservatives believe that the only real universal rights are those of property and personal freedom from unlawful harm or imprisonment; everything else is up to the individual. A liberal has a much broader view of human rights: health, education, the opportunity for social advancement, and the freedom from the tyranny of prejudiced majorities. Too much breadth in the definition of human rights, and statist tyrannies result; too little breadth, and people suffer Gilded Age libertarian dystopias of iniquity. But this ageless debate between liberals and conservatives over the breadth of human rights has precisely nothing to do with feudalism and serfdom, properly understood.

Feudalism cannot exist in a modern, multicultural welfare state. They are like oil and water. By attempting to dismantle the modern centralized welfare state, conservatives inexorably are marching this country toward a new feudalism. Feudalism is the inevitable historical consequence of the decline of a centralized cosmopolitan state. That's because the exercise of power by those in a position to wield it does not end with the elimination of federal authority: rather, it simply shifts to those of a more localized, more tyrannical, and less democratically accountable bent.

That the modern conservative associates feudalism with the welfare state says much more about the intellectual bankruptcy, moral degeneracy and risible lack of historical awareness and education on the part of conservatives, than about the welfare state itself.

Pretty much every time a conservative pseudo-intellectual opens his mouth, anyone with a brain cringes in embarrassment. The discussion of feudalism and serfdom is no exception to the rule.