Feudalism in the Middle Ages [was] centered on a distinct social hierarchy, the submission of inferiors to superiors, and restricted mobility for the lower classes – the vast majority of the population. — Joel Kotkin, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism
Meditating on the question of historical repetition in The Road to Serfdom, the great Austrian economic philosopher Friedrich Hayek wrote that, “One need not be a prophet to be aware of impending dangers.” Though historical events and epochs do not repeat precisely, whether as tragedy or farce, there are times when elements of past eras reappear in different forms, announcing their particular dangers or opportunities in ways that should be evident. By studying how past events unfolded in full, we can gain insight into where the still-developing dramas of our own era might lead us. Our own time reveals some striking and perilous parallels to the Middle Ages, despite our highly evolved technical and scientific society, the concept of individual autonomy, and the rights and freedoms presumably guaranteed by the Rule of Law.
What? Wasn’t the agonizingly long period from the terminal decline of the Roman Empire in the 4th century to the beginning of the Renaissance in the very late 14th century a period of near-constant warfare, chaotic invasions and migrations of entire peoples, collapsing population, cratering material wealth and economic output, illiteracy, superstition and near-zero medical knowledge? Surely there are no purported parallels that do not stretch credulity and break it in two. Surely there’s nothing there from which our own technologically soaring era might learn. It is a mistake, however, to regard the Middle Ages as unrelievedly primitive or uniformly “dark,” as popular imagination has it.
The millennium in question constituted an elaborate and complex historical period. Thomas Cahill in his compendious Mysteries of the Middle Ages argues that it consisted of three distinct stages: Early, High Middle and Late Middle, each with its own determining characteristics, cultural variations and political developments integrated into a rich tapestry of “human being.” Similarly, in his encyclopedic European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, Ernst Robert Curtius draws our attention to what he calls the “pre-Middle Ages” from the 4th to the 11th Centuries (including the so-called Dark Ages in the early portion). Even the era’s opening centuries generated some opulent literary, philosophical, architectural and theological achievements, although the European world’s periphery was often in chaos and, at times, genuine darkness.
What we understand by the Middle Ages included some soaring wonders as the Western world emerged from Antiquity and rearranged itself. It was also an era increasingly governed by a broad range of fixed privileges and duties, invariant property arrangements, rigid levels of authority and strict economic rankings. It was marked by the ascendancy of two often competing powers: the Roman Catholic Church as a spiritual binding agent, and the secular authority as an administrative regime. Respectively, these were the ecclesiastical hierarchy under the aegis of the Pope and the feudal lords who in much of Europe were under the sway of the Holy Roman Emperor.
Both the sacerdotium and the imperium enjoyed the rights of property ownership in a universal feudal system (Latin: feodum, i.e., fief ), in which the governing classes assigned land grants (fiefs) to vassals in exchange for service military or agricultural. The Oxford English Dictionary defines feudalism as a system in which “vassals were…tenants of the nobles, while the peasants (villeins or serfs) were obliged to live on their lord’s land and give him homage, labour, and a share of the produce, notionally in exchange for military protection.”
The consequence of the feudal system, as The Encyclopedia of World History explains, was the creation of very localized communities which owed loyalty to a specific parochial lord who exercised absolute authority in his domain. The peasantry worked on the land for the benefit of their masters, were often treated as indentured servants and could not leave the estate on which they lived and worked. In what sense can it be argued that we are in the process of returning to the Middle Ages, in particular to a recrudescence of the feudal system?
In his recent The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, Joel Kotkin, a fellow in urban studies at Chapman University in California and a sagacious commentator on current social trends, adopts the feudal model in parsing the massive social changes taking place in the West today. Viewing the Ancien Régime of pre-revolutionary France as predicated on the Medieval paradigm of designated authority, Kotkin considers the three classical “Estates” of the feudal template – clergy, nobility and the commoners – as they functioned prior to the cataclysm of 1789, but adapted to the modern world.
In the contemporary Western context, the First and Second estates make up the ruling hierarchy: the professional clerisy of politicians, academics, intellectuals, judges, news and entertainment media people, and other opinion makers, and the plutocratic technocrats including Silicon Valley, controllers of information and Big Tech, that together dominate the culture. Today’s Third Estate – analogous to the peasantry, villagers, craftsmen and merchants of old – comprises the middle class plus the demographic underbelly of the unproductive and parasitical classes.
Kotkin chronicles – and any observant citizen can confirm this independently – how the once-numerous and thriving middle class is relentlessly being phased out of existence. He argues, and I agree, that it is to be replaced by a new “serf” caste of social peons, a vast social grab-bag of underemployed Millennials, “marginals,” the “disadvantaged,” the “disenfranchised,” and the unemployable. These comprise a recognizable Estate mainly in the sense of their joint dependence on the ostensibly philanthropic control of the current feudal overlords, that is, the power elite who use the means at their disposal to keep the underclass alive and quiescent while advancing their own social, political and economic supremacy.
The new feudalism, Kotkin continues, won’t feature intrepid knights, castles, or heaven-aspiring cathedrals. “Instead,” he writes, “It will boast dazzling new technology, and be wrapped in a creed of globalism and environmental piety.” Liberal dynamism and intellectual pluralism are set to be replaced by “an orthodoxy that puts a premium on stasis and accepts social hierarchy as the natural order of things.” This is no mere theorizing. The marked reduction of upward mobility between income groups in the United States has been tracked and commented upon, as have other worrying trends such a reduction in the tendency of people to marry across income classes or outside their political affiliation.
Unprecedented levels of social control through mass surveillance, electronic monitoring and biochemical devices, a kind of distributed and barely noticeable panopticon, will promote a docile populace. As for upward mobility, it will be a relic of the past. The primary task of the new regime is to redress “social grievances” and the new ideal is to arrest “the spread of wealth and opportunity” to the bourgeoisie, tradespeople and craft workers, a system regarded as promoting inequality. In other words, the time has come for the Great Reset (a term coined by economist Richard Florida in his 2011 book of that title).
Implementing the Great Reset is the brainchild of Klaus Schwab, founder and president of the World Economic Forum, which meets every year in the large Swiss mountain town of Davos. Its purpose is to mobilize the world’s super-wealthy and most influential political and cultural actors in order, according to its website, “to shape global, regional and industry agendas.”
Schwab is one of those specialist fanatics whom Hayek warned about, “men who are most anxious to plan society.” There could “hardly be a more unbearable – and more irrational – world,” Hayek continued, “Than one in which the most eminent specialists…were allowed to proceed unchecked.” Such a system, warned Hayek, is a clear threat to freedom and, because it never really works and triggers popular resentment and opposition, relies increasingly on “force and coercion”.
Schwab is determined to create just such a world by virtue of a supranational planning system, relying on a trifecta of counterfeit benignity, public panic and malleability, and the compliance gained through repressive political authority. The scheme is as simple as it is efficient. Masking as a benevolent enterprise, the Great Reset aims to use climate hysteria and Covid-19 terror as motivators to remake the world in the image of what is nothing less than a techno-fascist global state governed by a patristic group of “experts,” financial magnates and political brahmins.
Because the climate scare is a “future reward” project, it has proved a difficult sell among the common people, and so another means must be found to accelerate the process. Enter the pandemic panic. This became an optimal strategy for engineering the transformation of society and the economy into a surveillance state and unleashing a so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution that aims to curtail private property, restrict travel, transition to a cashless economy and establish administrative control of the population.
Yet Schwab admits in his own book urging such measures, COVID-19: The Great Reset, that this virus is not “an existential threat” and is “one of the least deadly pandemics the world has experienced in the last 2000 years.” (Emphasis added.) The major issue and incitement strategy for Schwab, then, is not Covid 19 – “One day, it will be behind us” – but climate change. “The climate risk is unfolding more slowly than the pandemic did,” Schwab disingenuously warns, “But it will have even more severe consequences.”
Thus, plans for “decoupling economic growth from resource use” must be expedited, a solution, he claims without the slightest evidence, that “could generate up to 37 million nature-positive jobs.” As has been amply studied and demonstrated, Green jobs are largely temporary and/or chimerical, and mammoth unemployment can be expected to ravage the working population once the Green economy is in place.
A definitive study by the Institute for Energy Research shows that across-the-board investment in renewables “makes the nation poorer,” since actual energy production through Green means requires several times the capital investment, material resources and/or labour hours to produce the same amount of energy generated by conventional means. That, plus an entire infrastructure of backup power from conventional sources – kilowatt-for-kilowatt – for those many times and long periods when the sun doesn’t shine, the wind doesn’t blow or the remote production site is too far from the urban centres of power demand.
In the new dispensation, however, this need not mean more workers, but longer working hours. Automation will also cut dramatically into the work force. Moreover, not only does maintenance-after-building require fewer permanent workers but, as the Fraser Institute points out, “An industry that depends on subsidies for its survival is not a net source of jobs. The funds for the subsidies have to be raised through taxation, and the burden of taxes kills more jobs than the subsidies create.” As John O’Sullivan sardonically writes, “unless the laws of economics have been repealed, the policy of spending and borrowing massively in order to make our economies less productive and efficient can only have one result.” These are issues which Schwab studiously avoids.
Rather, Schwab exults in COVID-19: The Great Reset that the mask mandates, quarantines, endless testing and massive lockdowns that have destroyed a vast proportion of the world’s economies constitute “our defining moment…The societal upheaval…will last for years, and possibly for generations.” And he really does mean it, for he also warns, “Many of us are pondering when things will return to normal. The short response is: never.”
In such a world, public sentiment will be ruled by “behavioral contagion,” fear and timidity. The spirit of the people, we might say, will have been effectively “nationalized.” The Great Reset may also be interpreted as a vast social experiment in the likelihood and extent of public compliance with official decrees, relieving authorities of much of their policing protocols. Frightened people tend to be easily manipulated into policing themselves and informing on those who don’t, like groomed macrodots.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution or Great Reset is to comprise the new normal: a digital economy, the forging of AI technologies and the automation of the professions, gigantic windmills to grind electricity at enormous cost to little effect, the disappearance of the middle class and small businesses, the dissolution of the free market and the consequent “uberization” of society, the erasure of the concept of individual ownership, the enforcement of sedentary existence, and the advent of mandatory vaccines. As articulated in Schwab’s two premonitory books on the subject, The Fourth Industrial Revolution and his follow-up Shaping the Future of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it will all be advanced, overseen and regulated by “new forms of surveillance and other means of control.”
It is typical of the Schwabian mindset, as he frets in the latter volume, that “Intellectual property hurdles impede efforts to incentivize information sharing.” For “without clear information…creating effective policies that concern safety and risk minimization…become difficult.” An attempt, therefore, must be made at “reducing the legal obstructions for sharing.” Translation: For the sake of the common good, you may find that what you have invented, developed, innovated, written or published, irrespective of the labour and sacrifice involved and the value you have created, no longer belongs to you as an individual producer. It belongs to the “collective” – another term for top-down seigneurial ownership..
Similarly, “transformative technologies” require “collaborative international leadership” – code for uniparty global control as per the UN’s Agenda 2030 with its universally administered “social, economic and environmental” programs. The new Great Reset would presumably work for the “benefit of all,” not just for those “privileged enough to be wealthy or skilled.” The “benefit of all” is on the face of it a worthy goal. But as slogan substitutes for policy it tends, as Czechoslovak Cold War-era dissident Milan Kundera portrayed in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, to lead to a high-performing medical doctor scraping away at menial tasks. Like all Marxists, Schwab discounts the truth that the “wealthy,” by and large, create jobs for the many, and the “skilled,” who may have undergone years of study and practice, make sure these jobs are carried out professionally – to the advantage of all.
Schwab’s conception of promoting “human values” entails a project designed by “world-class experts” and “leading thinkers” that will “drive radical shifts in the way we live.” We might have learned by this time that “world-class experts” and “leading thinkers” are the bane of our existence. They are apostles of a “new specialism,” as Hayek wrote, who hold “a very limited view” of what is best for society, resulting in “a great exaggeration of the importance of the ends they place foremost,” as well as an intolerance of the ideas and proposals of others.
After a year of pandemic panic, all of this should sound eerily familiar and forebodingly apt. Nonetheless, we are assured that this brave new Davosian enterprise will “enhance human dignity,” just as Marx assured us that Communism would generate a “new man” emancipated from his egotism and create a world in which everyone would be equal and all would be provided for. What it actually created in its hard form was a series of mass-murdering tyrannies, and in its softer and/or decaying form a new (and usually inept and corrupt) managerial class to whose suzerainty the mass of the people became subservient.
It was an iron feudalism, as Milovan Djilas showed in The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System, controlling the means of production, distribution, consumption and ownership. Marxism was the second instantiation, after the French Revolution, of the Great Reset, and its results were horrendous. It was a revolution that was supposed to herald the future; instead, it brought about a macabre vestige of the real Dark Ages, predicated not on material abundance but on what Ayn Rand in Return of the Primitive called “the metaphysics of scarcity.”
Advancing its agenda by mobilizing the Covid-19 scare and the putative climate apocalypse to assemble an all-pervasive “systems leadership,” create “a new chapter in human development” and build a techno-political utopia for the 22nd Century, the new or third Great Reset looks and sounds technically sophisticated. But it is a throwback to an archaic mode of existence, one even more rigorous than its Medieval predecessor in its stringent supervision and severe economic scaffolding.
There is another and even more important difference from the Medieval model. Where the two historical governing Estates, the clergy and the nobles, the sacerdotium and the imperium, were never in perfect sync with one another, their contemporary counterparts – professional clerisy and plutocratic technocrats – are. There is no discernible daylight between Big Tech, Big Hollywood and Big Government, for example, no occasional conflicts that blunt their agendas and dilute their control as there were in the distant past. The interface between the two power blocs is mutually intuitive.
Kotkin is right. Welcome to the resurgent Middle Ages minus the uplifting visionary spirit and absent the canticles of ecstasy. Welcome to a world of manorial control, custodial oversight and cadastral tyranny practiced by a governing elite, in other words, the new feudalism.
David Solway’s most recent volume of poetry, The Herb Garden, appeared in 2018 with Guernica Editions. His manifesto, Reflections on Music, Poetry & Politics, was released by Shomron Press in 2016. He has produced two CDs of original songs: Blood Guitar and Other Tales (2014) and Partial to Cain (2019) on which he is accompanied by his pianist wife Janice Fiamengo. His latest book is Notes from a Derelict Culture, Black House Publishing, 2019, London.