Feudalism by Design: On Quinn Slobodian’s “Crack-Up Capitalism”

April 10, 2023   •   By Jodi Dean

Crack-Up Capitalism: Market Radicals and the Dream of a World Without Democracy

Quinn Slobodian

AT A RALLY in 2019, California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon announced, “When you hear about folks talking about the new economy, the gig economy, the innovation economy, it’s fucking feudalism all over again.” Rendon was there to support legislation classifying most gig workers as employees rather than independent contractors. Assembly Bill 5 was intended to bring gig workers under the protection of existing California labor laws, and the bill passed. But the following year, California voters chose feudalism: they approved Proposition 22, a ballot measure heavily funded by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Instacart, that would exempt app-based drivers from the labor protections that Assembly Bill 5 tried to secure. In March 2023, a state appellate court upheld Prop 22. By making exceptions for the big transportation and delivery apps, by saying that employment laws do not apply to them, California is entrenching the labor relations—the feudalism—that Rendon warned against.

California has long been at the neofeudal vanguard. Sea Ranch, the northern coastal community founded in the 1960s, ushered in the walled settlements and private enclaves that would come to dominate the US housing landscape. California has more private security businesses than any other state (close to double that of Florida, its closest competitor). It also has more charter schools—that is, schools exempted from some state and district laws. California is at the ideological forefront of movements that seek to protect capitalism from democracy, that model communities on corporations, and that idealize the European Middle Ages. While warnings about the unfreedom and deprivation facing a society of servants come at us from all sides, Silicon Valley tech-lords and venture-capitalist libertarians are dreaming up experiments for seceding from, carving up, and perforating nation-states into a neofeudal patchwork of authority and jurisdiction.

Some scholars and critics use the terms “neofeudalism,” “technofeudalism,” and “refeudalization” to describe this situation, with its loss of public space, its prevailing sense of entrapment in relations of expropriation from which there’s no escape. Others, especially the libertarians and anarcho-capitalists featured in Quinn Slobodian’s compelling new book Crack-Up Capitalism: Market Radicals and the Dream of a World Without Democracy (2023), see in feudalism an inspiring vision of private law and protection. They seek to create a fragmented political terrain promising freedom from central governments. In their ideal world, thousands of microstates compete for residents, investors, and customers. The idea of a public law to which all are equally subject crumbles. Citizenship is for suckers, for those unable to recognize themselves as sovereign individuals, or at least unable to convince a country to sell off some of its sovereignty in exchange for a hefty investment. Far from an institution for securing the public good, the state is just another instrument for securing one’s private interests.

Slobodian details how libertarians and anarcho-capitalists are trying to realize their vision through myriad hybrid political and economic forms: free ports, duty-free districts, city-states, gated communities, tax havens, innovation hubs, cryptocurrencies, and a dizzying array of zones (the most familiar being special economic zones and export processing zones). The neofeudal shape of the present is neither a metaphor nor an accident: it’s the result of deliberate efforts to shield capitalism from popular control by carving out exceptions and exemptions where private agreements replace public law.

Slobodian’s concern with the insulation of capitalism from democracy was a feature of his 2018 book Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, which issued a powerful corrective to the conventional story the so-called West has told itself since the end of the Soviet Union: capitalism and democracy are not synonymous. Not only does the market not take care of itself, but it also must be protected from democratic efforts to limit its effects and redistribute its proceeds. The push toward neoliberalism was not about liberating markets. It was about creating an international institutional order capable of securing the mobility of capital.

Globalists highlights the work of a loose group of economists Slobodian names the Geneva School. With anxiety as their dominant emotion, Geneva School economists worried about the impact of decolonization on the world economy. To counter their fear of the excesses of national sovereignty, they devised a rules-based system of treaties, property, and sanctity of contract. So long as internationalism superseded nationalism, independence could be contained:

If free nations remained snug within the bonds of world economic order, then decolonization presented no problems. Indeed, the proliferation of formally sovereign territories could even be useful by multiplying the jurisdiction for investment and innovation, leading to pressure on states to create attractive climates for capital.

Far from a story of capitalism’s triumph over communism, Slobodian’s account of neoliberalism is a tale of capital’s reaction to the increasing strength and independence of the Global South. The only way capitalism could stomach decolonization was by creating a system of rules that would subordinate the new countries to its interests, rules they could neither refuse nor avoid.

Crack-Up Capitalism continues to track the mechanisms through which capitalism is shielded from democracy. From Milton Friedman’s Hong Kong dream-world and Margaret Thatcher’s hope of turning England into Singapore to libertarian enthusiasm for apartheid South Africa’s self-fragmentation into Bantustans, the convergence between anarcho-capitalists and neo-Confederates in the US South, and the charter cities pushed into Honduras by Stanford economist Paul Romer (heralded as “colonialism for the 21st century” and championed by Friedman’s grandson Patri)—through all this, Slobodian gives us a vivid description of a world of zones where decentralization subverts democracy. Rather than extending connections in a networked society, the thinkers in his book champion withdrawal and secession. They don’t want to conquer the state; they want to unravel it, “underthrow” it, by carving out exemptions. Their wager is that, as capital flows to no-tax, low-wage, and heavily subsidized zones, states will have no choice but to follow the money, creating more zones and remaking themselves to attract investors.

Slobodian’s emphasis on zones provides an image and vocabulary for making sense of the fragmentation that has accompanied globalization. Instead of the smooth world of flows heralded in the 1990s, contemporary capitalism depends on perforation, on holes and walls, on breaks and exceptions. The end of history heralded by Francis Fukuyama looks less like the worldwide triumph of liberal democracy and more like the violent jumble of multiple forms of power and privilege associated with feudalism. Zones are stimulating a global political reorganization that disrupts the categories of modernity. Clear divisions between states and markets, between politics and economics, have lost their capacity to explain how we live now. Slobodian writes, “The world of nations is riddled with zones—and they define the politics of the present in ways we are only starting to understand.”

Neofeudalism helps us understand a world of zones. Under feudalism, the political was not separated from the economic; the economic authority of lords over peasants was also at the same time a juridical power to adjudicate disputes. Likewise, sovereignty under feudalism was fragmented, parcellated, and exercised through conditional, nested relationships. Some of the most prominent diagnoses of neofeudal tendencies in the present highlight technology—tech overlords and digital serfs, the encasement of our interactions into private spaces where our every move belongs to another. Slobodian’s emphasis on zones goes further, as it illuminates broader patterns of power and privilege.

Slobodian’s argument resonates with Corey Robin’s account of democratic feudalism in the United States. In The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump (2018), Robin highlights US conservatives’ preoccupations with the private life of power. Forced by people’s movements to expand democratic political and social rights in the public sphere, conservatives drew the line at the private sphere. People may be publicly equal, but hierarchy would reign in family, field, and factory. Expanding the private has characterized the conservative offensive against hard-won rights, recently visible in the evisceration of abortion protections, expansion of religious exemptions, and empowering of parents to use their personal values to trump public school curricula. Zones continue the processes of secession and exemption, undermining not only public law but also the very possibility of conceiving law and the state in universal terms.

The contemporary appearance of the feudal in divergent guises—from Rendon’s evocation of feudalism as the return of a form of servitude to the anarcho-capitalist imaginary of future “freedom”—doesn’t tell us about the past. Medievalists joust incessantly over the meaning and applicability of “feudalism.” Feudal images and language today index the challenge of understanding how our societies are changing, the difficulty we encounter in assessing continuity amid transformation. How do we see our present and identify the tendencies producing our future? In his 1973 classic The Country and the City, Raymond William writes,

The structure of feeling within which this backward reference is to be understood is then not primarily a matter of historical explanation and analysis. What is really significant is this particular kind of reaction to the fact of change, and this has more real and more interesting social causes.

Williams analyzes the idealization of feudal values in the context of the rise of capitalist agriculture in England. A longing for the olden days, for hallowed forms of community and reciprocity, carried a critique of their displacement by self-interest and cash payment. As Williams makes clear, locating the displaced values in the feudal past complicates their utility for social critique: Is the goal a defense of tradition, of blood and soil? If the values are in the past, what does it mean to recover them?

In contrast to the literary texts Williams surveys, Slobodian’s neofeudalists celebrate private wealth accumulation. They look to the past not because they are critical of capitalism but because they reject popular sovereignty and the state. For them, feudalism isn’t an alternative to capitalism; it’s an alternative to democracy, which they are happy to jettison as they openly embrace the apartheid logic of blood and soil. Incapable of imagining themselves as serfs, the libertarians and anarcho-capitalists cracking up the system remake the world by “cosplaying the New Middle Ages” (the title of one of Slobodian’s chapters).

Critics of neofeudalizing tendencies in the present who associate feudalism with forms of extra-economic coercion, dependence, and violent expropriation are in a more difficult position, because they run the risk of idealizing capitalism. In other words, against a feudal backdrop, capitalism doesn’t look so bad. At least workers aren’t serfs. One of the reasons Prop 22 passed is that many workers wanted more flexibility in their schedules. They didn’t see the position of employee as offering much autonomy or respect. Workers know full well that the wage relation is a form of exploitation. As Nina, a 50-year old Venezuelan immigrant driving for Uber and Lyft in San Francisco said to the labor researcher and law professor Veena Dubal prior to the vote on Prop 22:

Of course, I want to be an employee, but on the other hand, I think, how would I be treated by Travis Kalanick, as him being my employer? He would have a whip on us. What is he going to do to me as an employee? I know he is capable of many things. This man is an awful man, awful to the point that I think he is a sociopath. And to have so many people feeding families in the hands of a sociopath is bad. Uber is so ruthless to these software engineers. Imagine what they would do to us [drivers].

Interested primarily in the ways capitalism is shielded from democracy, Slobodian does not concern himself with changes to the capitalist mode of production. Capitalism appears as a constant, relentless force wreaking havoc upon the land, an unvanquishable dragon terrorizing villagers and attracting the valiant few who are brave enough to seize its gold or harness its power. But surely capitalism’s own self-transformation is part of the story of crack-up capitalism. Capitalism employs tendencies toward centralization and dispersion, monopoly and fragmentation. Does the drive for profit and security alone explain the crack-up? Does it explain states’ willingness to carve out hunks of themselves to serve up on platters to hungry knights of enterprise? What can account for the shift toward zones, for the fact that the number of zones is expanding globally across multiple different state forms?

Marxist economic historian Robert Brenner’s tracking of the declining rate of profit since the 1970s is helpful here. Since the 1970s, capital’s growing difficulty in generating profit by investing in the means of production (plants and equipment) and employing workers to make commodities has led it to pursue alternative accumulation strategies. The one Brenner highlights is the “upward redistribution of wealth […] by political means.” Rather than operating as capitalists who acquire wealth by investing in production, the already-wealthy pursue political strategies to force social wealth up to themselves. These strategies don’t involve seeking advantages that will benefit them as producers. They aren’t about growing the economy or baking a bigger pie; they’re about taking a bigger piece. The accumulation strategy, then, is political. It includes the wide array of zoning arrangements Slobodian describes, the extortion of exemptions from taxes and regulations, the imposition of monopoly rents, and various practices of soft secession.

Brenner’s analysis points to the merging of the economic and the political characteristic of feudalism. Rather than simply using political means to acquire competitive advantages in the marketplace, the wealthy use political means for their own direct enrichment. Firms get political privileges, exempting them from the laws everyone else is expected to follow. In exchange, politicians get campaign contributions—and then positions in firms or on corporate boards whose officers will also get political appointments. The economy is based on plunder and predation, as the recent sorry escapades of Silicon Valley Bank brought home yet again.

Capitalism produces inequality. States can mitigate or exacerbate it. Pointing out the error involved in reading neoliberalism strictly in terms of the competitive pursuit of profit, Brenner argues that “[w]hat’s essential here is the opposite of competitiveness: It is access to special privileges that directly yield wealth, thanks to political position or connection.” The players aren’t winning in the markets. They are using extra-economic power to change the game. Holders of capital hoard wealth rather than investing in production. Luxury real-estate developments—ever more frequently in special economic zones with shareholders instead of governments—service the consumption demands of the rich instead of putting money toward maintaining and improving the lives and futures of low-income and working-class people. I should add that the consumption of the nobility was a primary driver within the feudal economy and, for some analysts, a primary explanation for its relative stagnation. Capitalism’s own dynamics are neofeudalizing, turning capitalism into an economic system that can no longer be said to be capitalist.

Quinn Slobodian’s vivid description of zones shows us why our political system can no longer be said to be democratic. When capital secedes from popular control, when the institutions of representative government are unable to hold capital accountable and redistribute its benefits to those it burdens, the people are not sovereign. Slobodian wakes us up to democracy’s underthrow: decentralization is a strategy for its unraveling, not its salvation. The true threat to democracy is not the specter of “one world government.” It’s the multiplication of jurisdictions, the fragmentation of the world into zones that protect the rich and powerful from the rest of us.


Jodi Dean teaches political theory at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. She has written or edited 14 books, including Crowds and Party (2016) and Comrade: An Essay on Political Belonging (2019), both published by Verso.