N is for Neofeudalism


Everything that was old is new again. Take feudalism, it’s making a comeback.

The US economy is trending towards wage bondage and economic polarization, with an all-American debt peonage that I’ve come to call neofeudalism.

Heterodox economist Michael Hudson explains how it works in an interview with Adam Simpson. Hudson has just written a book entitled–J is For Junk Economics: A Guide to Reality in an Age of Deception, where he deconstructs the positive economic jargon that influences our world and offers up a far bleaker view.

“Today, families entering the labor force are going to have to spend all their life working off the debt they need to take on in order to get an education to get a job, as well the debt they need to buy a car to drive to the job, and the mortgage debt for the house they need to live in to avoid rents going up and up. They have to spend all their life merely to pay their creditors, not to live better with more goods and services. Unlike serfdom, today’s workers can live wherever they want. But wherever they live, they have to produce value not only for their employers but also for the bankers.

These bankers (and bondholders) are the main exploiters today. So finance capitalism is overwhelming industrial capitalism. Instead of industrial capitalism evolving into socialism as was expected, it is retrogressing back to neo-serfdom and neo-feudalism. This is mainly because of the inability to bring debt within the industrial capitalist system to evolve into a socialist economy. That is what neoliberalism is sponsoring by financialization and privatization.”

The sad truth of the matter is that the middle-ages serfs had it better. They had a lord to act as their protector, a small garden plot to till and some chickens to raise. Indeed, the good folk of the Middle Ages were enjoying far more of the good life than we are in our technologically-advanced society. What they had that we’ve neglected are community and culture, as historian Juliet Schor reminds us:

“The medieval calendar was filled with holidays …These were spent both in sober churchgoing and in feasting, drinking and merrymaking …All told, holiday leisure time in medieval England took up probably about one third of the year. And the English were apparently working harder than their neighbors. The ancien régime in France is reported to have guaranteed fifty-two Sundays, ninety rest days, and thirty-eight holidays. In Spain, travelers noted that holidays totaled five months per year.”

I remember reading science fiction as a kid, where the citizens of the future had minimal, rewarding work leaving plenty of time to write, paint, and pursue a life of leisure if they desired. These future beings were able to attend to family, friends and community.

That sort of world has turned out to be a cruel joke, as Hudson elaborates.

“If you told anyone a century ago about the rise in productivity, they’d think that people would only have to work one or two days a week. There would be a lot of leisure time. But the opposite is happening. People are being squeezed, they’re having to work overtime. They’re struggling just to break even. They’re one paycheck away from missing a utility payment. They can’t afford to campaign for better working conditions, much less go on strike.”

It’s not just economic. Neofeudalism has been enhanced through the deliberate imposition of austerity–starving the beast. Unfortunately, austerity is never just economic. It is cultural, and it is emotional. Americans are encouraged to hate on those beneath them while bowing and scraping to those above. Consequently, there’s been a serious loss of community and goodwill among Americans.

I have watched the country where I live become a harder, meaner place.

Going to leave you with some quotes from Trump voters that offer up a snapshot of neofeudalism in America.

“They cut my insurance at work…My doctor, because my back is bad, said, ‘Well, cut your hours. You can only work so many hours.’ Now I have to work more hours, take more pain pills, to get my insurance back, and now they’re telling me I can’t get it back for another year.”

“I was born and raised here. I am not happy. Middle class is getting killed; we work for everything and get nothing. I hate both of the candidates, but I would vote for Trump because the Iraq war was a disaster. Why we got to keep invading countries. Time to take care of ourselves first.”

“Clarington is a shithole. Jobs all left. There is nothing here anymore. When Ormet Aluminum factory closed, jobs all disappeared.” She is also blunt about the pain in her life. “I have five kids and two have addictions. There is nothing else for kids to do here but drugs. No jobs. No place to play.” She stopped and added: “I voted for Obama the first time, not the second. Now I am voting for Trump. We just got to change things.”

Update: Yves comments on the downward spiral of the American business model in the age of neofeudalism.

“I’m not sure if Jeff Bezos has much of a sense of irony, but even he would have to laugh if his warehouse employees could not order goods on Amazon because they didn’t earn enough to qualify for a credit or debit card. Amazon can’t be certain whether or not the clever wheeze of collaborating with conventional retailers to act as cash handling operations for this group of credit or debit card-less customers is sufficient to overcome an inherent regulatory failure in promoting financial inclusion.

The snags are obvious — if you have to go to a real, physical store to charge up your Amazon account, you might as well shop at either the store you’ve just had to visit or another store you could have gone to instead. And paying Amazon in advance with the inevitable consequence of having a credit balance sitting on your Amazon account does your personal financial management no good at all. If you are poor and living from pay check to pay check, you simply cannot afford to have money sat in your Amazon account when you might need it not for luxuries which you might buy from Amazon but to pay the rent that month.

Amazon — of all companies — must realise that it cannot expect the banks to subsidise unprofitable customers. But customers who cannot access even basic financial services like credit and debit cards because they are too poor to use these products in a way which makes them profitable are precisely what Amazon’s business model is creating.”




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