MAY 12, 2020
IN CAPITAL IS DEAD, McKenzie Wark asks: What if we’re not in capitalism anymore but something worse? The question is provocative, sacrilegious, unsettling as it forces anti-capitalists to confront an unacknowledged attachment to capitalism. Communism was supposed to come after capitalism and it’s not here, so doesn’t that mean we are still in capitalism? Left unquestioned, this assumption hinders political analysis. If we’ve rejected strict historical determinism, we should be able to consider the possibility that capitalism has mutated into something qualitatively different. Wark’s question invites a thought experiment: what tendencies in the present indicate that capitalism is transforming itself into something worse?
Over the past decade, “neofeudalism” has emerged to name tendencies associated with extreme inequality, generalized precarity, monopoly power, and changes at the level of the state. Drawing from libertarian economist Tyler Cowen’s emphasis on the permanence of extreme inequality in the global, automated economy, the conservative geographer Joel Kotkin envisions the US future as mass serfdom. A property-less underclass will survive by servicing the needs of high earners as personal assistants, trainers, child-minders, cooks, cleaners, et cetera. The only way to avoid this neofeudal nightmare is by subsidizing and deregulating the high-employment industries that make the American lifestyle of suburban home ownership and the open road possible — construction and real estate; oil, gas, and automobiles; and corporate agribusiness. Unlike the specter of serfdom haunting Friedrich Hayek’s attack on socialism, Kotkin locates the adversary within capitalism. High tech, finance, and globalization are creating “a new social order that in some ways more closely resembles feudal structure — with its often unassailable barriers to mobility — than the chaotic emergence of industrial capitalism.” In this libertarian/conservative imaginary, feudalism occupies the place of the enemy formerly held by communism. The threat of centralization and the threat to private property are the ideological elements that remain the same.
A number of technology commentators share the libertarian/conservative critique of technology’s role in contemporary feudalization even as they don’t embrace fossil fuels and suburbia. Already in 2010, in his influential book, You Are Not a Gadget, tech guru Jaron Lanier observed the emergence of peasants and lords of the internet. This theme has increased in prominence as a handful of tech companies have become ever richer and more extractive, turning their owners into billionaires on the basis of the cheap labor of their workers, the free labor of their users, and the tax breaks bestowed on them by cities desperate to attract jobs. Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and Alphabet (the parent company name for Google) together are worth more than most every country in the world (except the United States, China, Germany, and Japan). The economic scale and impact of these tech super giants, or, overlords, is greater than that of most so-called sovereign states. Evgeny Morozov describes their dominance as a “hyper-modern form of feudalism.”
Albert-László Barabási explained the processes underpinning such a neofeudalism in his analysis of the structure of complex networks, that is, networks characterized by free choice, growth, and preferential attachment. These are networks where people voluntarily make links or choices. The number of links per site grow over time, and people like things because others like them (the Netflix recommendation system, for instance, relies on this assumption). Link distribution in complex networks follows a power law where the most popular item generally has twice as many hits or links as the second most popular, which has twice as many as the third most and so on down to the insignificant differences between those in the long tail of the distribution curve. This winner-takes-all or winner-takes-most effect is the power law shape of the distribution. The one at the top has significantly more than the ones at the bottom. The shape the distribution takes is not a bell curve; it’s a long tail — a few billionaires, a billion precarious workers. The structure of complex networks invites inclusion: the more items in the network, the larger the rewards for those at the top. It also induces competition — for attention, resources, money, jobs — anything that is given a network form. And it leads to concentration. The result, then, of free choice, growth, and preferential attachment is hierarchy, power law distributions where those at the top have vastly more than those at the bottom.
Power law distributions are not inevitable. They can be stopped. But that takes political will and the institutional power to implement it. The neoliberal policies of the 20th century, however, strove to create conditions that would facilitate rather than thwart free choice, growth, and preferential attachment.
Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism documents the neoliberal strategy of undermining the authority of the nation-state over its economy in the interest of advancing global trade. Threatened by the organized demands of the newly postcolonial nations of the Global South for reparations, sovereignty over their own natural resources, stabilized commodity prices, and the regulation of transnational corporations, neoliberals in the 1970s sought to “circumvent the authority of national governments.” They advocated a multilevel approach to regulation, a competitive federalism that would let capital discipline governments while itself remaining immunized from democratic control. In the words of Hans Willgerodt, one of the neoliberals Slobodian studies, the new competitive federalism required the state to “share its sovereignty downward with federal structures and bind itself upward within an international legal community.”
Rather than focusing on the origins of neoliberalism, Albena Azmanova’s Capitalism on Edge demonstrates the ways neoliberalism in practice has led to a new precarity capitalism. Policies pushing deregulation and global free trade have had unexpected outcomes. The global market morphed from a system of “national economies integrated through trade agreements into transnational production networks.” Because of the unclear and uncertain contribution of these networks to national economies, maintaining the competitiveness of national economies has become “a top policy concern.” Competitiveness has replaced competition and growth as a state goal, leading states to prioritize not a level playing field and the dismantling of monopolies but “to aid specific economic actors — those who are best positioned to perform well in the global competition for profit.” Acknowledging how the private sector has always benefited from public funds, Azmanova emphasizes the novelty of a form of capitalism where “public authority handpicks the companies on which to bestow this privilege.” States don’t intervene to break up monopolies. They engender and award them.
Monopoly concentration, intensified inequality, and the subjection of the state to the market have transformed accumulation such that it now occurs as much through rent, debt, and force as it does through commodity production. Azmanova points out that the privatization of sectors of the economy relatively immunized from competition — energy, rail, broadband — gave owners “the privileged status of rentiers.” Globally, in the knowledge and technology industries, rental income accruing from intellectual property rights exceeds income from the production of goods. In the United States, financial services contribute more to GDP than manufactured goods contribute. Capital isn’t reinvested in production; it’s eaten up and redistributed as rents. Valorization processes have spread far beyond the factory, into complex, speculative, and unstable circuits increasingly dependent on surveillance, coercion, and violence.
Capitalism is turning itself into neofeudalism.
Neofeudalism does not imply that contemporary communicative or networked capitalism identically reproduces all the features of European feudalism. It doesn’t. In fact, as historians have successfully demonstrated, the very idea of a single European feudalism is a fiction. Different feudalisms developed across the continent in response to different pressures. Viewing contemporary capitalism in terms of its feudalizing tendencies illuminates a new socioeconomic structure with four interlocking features: parcellated sovereignty, new lords and peasants, hinterlandization, and catastrophism.
Historians Perry Anderson and Ellen Meiksins Wood present the parcelization of sovereignty as a key feature of European feudalism. Feudal society emerged as the imperial administration of the Romans “gave way to a patchwork of jurisdictions in which state functions were vertically and horizontally fragmented.” Local arrangements taking a variety of forms, including contractual relations between lords and kings and lords and vassals, came to supplement regional administration. Arbitration replaced the rule of law. The line between legality and illegality weakened. Political authority and economic power blended together as feudal lords extracted a surplus from peasants through legal coercion, legal in part because the lords decided the law that applied to the peasants in their jurisdiction. Wood writes, “The effect was to combine the private exploitation of labour with the public role of administration, jurisdiction and enforcement.”
Under neofeudalism, the directly political character of society reasserts itself. Global financial institutions and digital technology platforms use debt to redistribute wealth from the world’s poorest to the richest. Nation-states promote and protect specific private corporations. Political power is exercised with and as economic power, not only taxes but fines, liens, asset seizures, licenses, patents, jurisdictions, and borders. At the same time, economic power shields those who wield it from the reach of state law. Ten percent of global wealth is hoarded in off-shore accounts to avoid taxation. Cities and states relate to Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google/Alphabet as if these corporations were themselves sovereign states — negotiating with, trying to attract, and cooperating with them on their terms. Cash-strapped municipalities use elaborate systems of fines to expropriate money from people directly, impacting poor people the hardest. In Punishment Without Crime, Alexandra Natapoff documents the dramatic scope of misdemeanor law in the already enormous US carceral system. Poor people, disproportionately people of color, are arrested on bogus charges and convinced to plead guilty to avoid the jail time that they could incur should they contest the charges. Not only does the guilty plea go on their record, but they open themselves up to fines that set them up for even more fees and fines should they miss a payment. We got a brief look into this system of legal illegality and unjust administration of justice in the wake of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, that followed the murder of Michael Brown: “[T]he city’s municipal court and policing apparatus openly extracted millions of dollars from its low-income African American population.” Police were instructed “to make arrests and issue citations in order to raise revenue.” Like minions of feudal lords, they used force to expropriate value from the people.
New lords and peasants
Feudal relations are characterized by a fundamental inequality that enables the direct exploitation of peasants by lords. Perry Anderson describes the exploitative monopolies such as watermills that were controlled by the lord; peasants were obliged to have their grain ground at their lord’s mill, a service for which they had to pay. So not only did peasants occupy and till land that they did not own, but they dwelled under conditions where the feudal lord was, as Marx says, “the manager and master of the process of production and of the entire process of social life.” Unlike the capitalist whose profit rests on the surplus value generated by waged workers through the production of commodities, the lord extracts value through monopoly, coercion, and rent.
Digital platforms are the new watermills, their billionaire owners the new lords, and their thousands of workers and billions of users the new peasants. Technology companies employ a relatively small percentage of the workforce, but their effects have been tremendous, remaking entire industries around the acquisition, mining, and deployment of data. The smaller workforces are indicative of digital technology’s neofeudalizing tendency. Capital accumulation occurs less through commodity production and wage labor than through services, rents, licenses, fees, work done for free (often under the masquerade of participation), and data treated as a natural resource. Positioning themselves as intermediaries, platforms constitute grounds for user activities, conditions of possibility for interactions to occur. Google makes it possible to find information in an impossibly dense and changing information environment. Amazon lets us easily locate items, compare prices, and make purchases from established as well as unknown vendors. Uber enables strangers to share rides. Airbnb does the same for houses and apartments. All are enabled by an immense generation and circulation of data. Platforms don’t just rely on data, they produce more of it. The more people use platforms, the more effective, and powerful these platforms become, ultimately transforming the larger environment of which they are a part.
Platforms are doubly extractive. Unlike the water mill peasants had no choice but to use, platforms not only position themselves so that their use is basically necessary (like banks, credit cards, phones, and roads) but that their use generates data for their owners. Users not only pay for the service but the platform collects the data generated by the use of the service. The cloud platform extracts rents and data, like land squared. The most extreme examples are Uber and Airbnb, which extract rent without property by relying on an outsourced workforce responsible for its own maintenance, training, and means of work. One’s car isn’t for personal transport. It’s for making money. One’s apartment isn’t a place to live; it’s something to rent out. Items of consumption are reconfigured as means of accumulation as personal property becomes an instrument for the capital and data accumulation of the lords of platform, Uber and Airbnb. This tendency toward becoming-peasant, that is, to becoming one who owns means of production but whose labor increases the capital of the platform owner, is neofeudal.
The tech giants are extractive. Like so many tributary demands, their tax breaks take money from communities. Their presence drives up rents and real estate prices, driving out affordable apartments, small businesses, and low-income people. Shoshana Zuboff’s study of “surveillance capitalism” brings out a further dimension of tech feudalism — military service. Like lords to kings, Facebook and Google cooperate with powerful states, sharing information that these states are legally barred from gathering themselves. Overall, the extractive dimension of networked technologies is now pervasive, intrusive, and unavoidable. The present is not literally an era of peasants and lords. Nevertheless, the distance between rich and poor is increasing, aided by a differentiated legal architecture that protects corporations, owners, and landlords while it immiserates and incarcerates the working and lower class.
A third feature of neofeudalism is the spatiality associated with feudalism, one of protected, often lively centers surrounded by agricultural and desolate hinterlands. We might also characterize this as a split between town and country, municipal and rural areas, urban communes and the surrounding countryside, or, more abstractly between an inside walled off from an outside, a division between what is secure and what is at risk, who is prosperous and who is desperate. Wood says that medieval cities were essentially oligarchies, “with dominant classes enriched by commerce and financial services for kings, emperors and popes. Collectively, they dominated the surrounding countryside […] extracting wealth from it in one way or another.” Outside the cities were the nomads and migrants who, facing unbearable conditions, sought new places to live and work yet all too often came up against the walls.
US hinterlands are sites of loss and dismantlement, places with fantasies of a flourishing capitalist past that for a while might have let some linger in the hope that their lives and their children’s lives might actually get better. Remnants of an industrial capitalism that’s left them behind for cheaper labor, the hinterlands are ripe for the new intensified exploitation of neofeudalism. No longer making things, people in the hinterlands persist through warehouses, call centers, Dollar Stores, and fast food. Phil A. Neel’s recent book, Hinterland, notes patterns between China, Egypt, Ukraine, and the United States. They are all places with desolate abandoned wastelands and cities on the brink of overload.
Politically, the desperation of the hinterlands manifests in the movements of those outside the cities, movements that are sometimes around environmental issues (fracking and pipeline struggles), sometimes around land (privatization and expropriation), sometimes around the reduction of services (hospital and school closings). In the United States, the politics of guns positions the hinterlands against the urban. We might also note the way the division between hinterlands and municipality gets reinscribed within cities themselves. This manifests in both the abandonment of poor areas and their eradication in capitalist gentrification land grabs. A city gets richer and more people become homeless — think San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Los Angeles.
The increased attention to social reproduction responds to hinterlandization, that is, to the loss of a general capacity to reproduce the basic conditions of livable life. This appears in rising suicide rates, increase in anxiety and drug addiction, declining birth rates, lower rates of life expectancy, and in the United States, the psychotic societal self-destruction of mass shootings. It appears in the collapsed infrastructures, undrinkable water, and unbreathable air. The hinterlands are written on people’s bodies and on the land. With closures of hospitals and schools, and the diminution of basic services, life becomes more desperate and uncertain.
Finally, neofeudalism brings with it the insecurity and anxiety of an overwhelming sense of catastrophe. There is good reason to feel insecure. The catastrophe of capitalist expropriation of the social surplus in the setting of a grossly unequal and warming planet is real.
A loose, mystical neofeudal ideology, one that knits together and amplifies apocalyptic insecurity, seems to be taking form in the new embrace of the occult, techno-pagan, and anti-modern. Examples include Jordan Peterson’s mystical Jungianism and Alexander Dugin’s mythical geopolitics of Atlantis and Hyperborea. We might also note the rise of tech sector neo-reactionaries like PayPal’s billionaire founder Peter Thiel, who argues that freedom is incompatible with democracy. In a lecture in 2012, Thiel explained the link between feudalism and tech start-ups: “No founder or CEO has absolute power. It’s more like the archaic feudal structure. People vest the top person with all sorts of power and ability, and then blame them if and when things go wrong.” Along with other Silicon Valley capitalists, Thiel is concerned to protect his fortune from democratic impingement, and so advocates strategies of exodus and isolation such as living on the sea and space colonization, whatever it takes to save wealth from taxation. Extreme capitalism goes over into the radical decentralization of neofeudalism.
For those on the other side of the neofeudal divide, anxiety and insecurity are addressed less by ideology than they are by opioids, alcohol, and food, anything to dull the pain of hopeless, mindless, endless drudgery. Emily Guendelsberger describes the stress caused by constant technological surveillance on the job — the risk of being fired for being a few seconds late, for not meeting the quotas, for using the bathroom too many times. Repetitive, low-control, high-stress work like that associated with work that is technologically monitored correlates directly with “depression and anxiety.” Uncertain schedules, lauded as flexible, unreliable pay, because wage theft is ubiquitous, are stressful, deadening. Neofeudal catastrophism may be individual, familial, or local. Getting worked up about climate change is hard when you’ve lived catastrophe for a few generations.
What’s the benefit of thinking of our present precarity capitalism as something post-capitalist, as neofeudal? For conservatives like Kotkin, the neofeudal hypothesis helps them identify what they want to defend — carbon capitalism and the American way of life — and against whom they need to fight — that segment of the capitalist elite that is enriching itself at the expense of the middle class, namely, green high-tech entrepreneurs and their allies in finance. Neofeudalism is part of a diagnosis aiming to enlist working-class support for a particular section of the capitalist class, namely, fossil fuels, real estate, and big agriculture.
For those on the left, neofeudalism lets us understand the primary political conflict as arising out of neoliberalism. The big confrontation today is not between democracy and fascism. Although popular with liberals, this formulation makes little sense given the power of oligarchs — financiers, media and real estate moguls, carbon and tech billionaires. Viewing our present in terms of democracies threatened by rising fascism deflects attention from the fundamental role of globally networked communicative capitalism in exacerbating popular anger and discontent. Underlying the politicization toward the right is economics: complex networks produce extremes of inequality, winner-take-all or winner-take-most distributions. The rightward shift responds to this intensification of inequality. When the left is weak, or blocked from political expression by mainstream media and capitalist political parties, popular anger gets expressed by others willing to attack the system. In the present, these others are the far right. Thinking in terms of neofeudalism thus forces us to confront the impact of extreme economic inequality on political society and institutions. It makes us reckon with the fact of billionaires hoarding trillions of dollars of assets and walling themselves into their own enclaves while millions become climate refugees and hundreds of millions encounter diminished life prospects, an intensifying struggle just to survive.
The neofeudalism wager also signals a change in labor relations. Social democracy was premised on a compromise between labor and capital. Organized labor in much of the Global North delivered a cooperative working class in exchange for a piece of the good life. Labor’s defeat and the subsequent dismantling of the welfare state should have demonstrated once and for all the bankruptcy of a strategy requiring compromise with capitalist exploitation. Yet some socialists continue to hope for a kinder, gentler capitalism — as if capitalists would capitulate just to be nice, as if they, too, weren’t subject to market logics that make stock buybacks more attractive than investment in production. The neofeudal hypothesis tells us that any labor struggle premised on the continuation of capitalism is dead in the water. Capitalism has already become something worse.
In the service-dominated economies of the Global North, majorities work in service sectors. Some find that their phones, bikes, cars, and homes have lost their character as personal property and been transformed into means of production or means for the extraction of rent. Tethered to platforms owned by others, consumer items and means of life are now means for the platform owners’ accumulation. Most of us constitute a property-less underclass only able to survive by servicing the needs of high earners. A report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that over the next 10 years the occupation that will add the most jobs is personal care aides, not health workers but aides who bathe and clean people. The dependence of the ruling class on the vast sector of servants — cleaners, cooks, grocers, cashiers, delivery persons, warehouse personnel, et cetera — suggests new sites of struggle, points of weakness where workers can exert power. Strikes of nurses, Amazon workers, and others target the neediness of the wealthy by blocking their access to the means of survival. If labor struggles under capitalism prioritized the point of production, under neofeudalism they occur at the point of service.
Finally, neofeudalism is an idea that lets us identify a primary weakness of the contemporary left: those left ideas with the most currency are the ones that affirm rather than contest neofeudalism. Localism encourages parcelization. Tech and platform approaches reinforce hierarchy and inequality. Municipalism affirms the urban-rural divide associated with hinterlandization. Emphases on subsistence and survival proceed as if peasant economies were plausible not only for that half of the planet that lives in cities (including 82 percent of North Americans and 74 percent of Europeans) but also for the millions displaced by climate change, war, and commercial land theft. Many who dwell in the hinterlands face political, cultural, economic, and climatic conditions that make it so that they can’t survive through agricultural work. Universal Basic Income is an untenable survivalist approach. It promises just enough to keep those in the hinterlands going and barely enough for urban renters to handover to their landlords. Catastrophism becomes that hip negativity denigrating hope and effort, as if the next hundred years or so just don’t matter.
Taken together these current left ideas suggest a future of small groups engaged in subsistence farming and the production of artisanal cheese, perhaps on the edges of cities where survivalist enclaves and drone-wielding tech workers alike experiment with urban gardens. Such groupings reproduce their lives in common, yet the commons they reproduce is necessarily small, local, and in some sense exclusive and elite, exclusive insofar as their numbers are necessarily limited, elite because the aspirations are culturally specific rather than widespread.
Far from a vision anchored in the emancipation of a multinational working class engaged in a wide array of paid, underpaid, and unpaid labor, popular left recapitulations of neofeudalism can’t see a working class. When work is imagined — and some on the left think that we should adopt a “postwork imaginary” — it looks like either romantic risk-free farming or tech-work, “immaterial labor.” By now, the exposés on the drudgery of call center work, not to mention the trauma-inducing labor of monitoring sites like Facebook for disturbing, illicit content, have made the inadequacy of the idea of “immaterial labor” undeniable. It should be similarly apparent that the postwork imaginary likewise erases the production and maintenance of infrastructure, the wide array of labor necessary for social reproduction, and the underlying state structure.
The neofeudal hypothesis thus lets us see both the appeal and the weakness of popular left ideas. They appeal because they resonate with a dominant sense. They are weak because this dominant sense is an expression of tendencies to neofeudalism.
Just as feudal relations persisted under capitalism so do capitalist relations of production and exploitation continue under neofeudalism. The difference is that non-capitalist dimensions of production — expropriation, domination, and force — have become stronger to such an extent that it no longer makes sense to posit free and equal actors meeting in the labor market even as a governing fiction. It means that rent and debt feature as or more heavily in accumulation than profit, and that work increasingly exceeds the wage relation. What happens when capitalism is global? It turns in on itself, generating, enclosing, and mining features of human life through digital networks and mass personalized media. This self-cannibalization produces new lords and serfs, vast fortunes and extreme inequality, and the parcellated sovereignties that secure this inequality while the many wander and languish in the hinterlands.