Feudalism, in the most general sense, is a set of obligations between a superior and a subordinate, based on land. The lord owns the land and grants access to the land to vassals. The lord provides services like protection and the imposition of order, while the vassal provides food rents, military service and labor to the lord. In practice, a lord could also be a vassal to a greater lord or a king. The result of this combination of relationships is the system we know as feudalism, that dominated Europe in the Middle Ages.
From the perspective of economics, the key components are land and labor, with land being the critical one. For most of human history, labor was interchangeable. German speaking peasants working estates in France were the same as Frankish speaking peasants. Wars were fought over land, so chasing off the other guy’s peasants, in order to take his land, made perfect sense. The land was the thing of value, while the labor that worked it was a commodity. The supply of peasants was never a problem.
The politics of a feudal system are simple. The arrangements were designed to serve the needs of the warrior nobility at the top the system. The lords may serve a king, but they also serve one another in defending and perpetuating the system. It is why innovation was often seen as a threat. If one lord could get much more from his fief, than the other lords, or even the king, then the power relationships all change. Feudalism, by nature, must be highly conservative, as it is based on legal and economic relationships never changing.
The other thing worth noting is that feudalism arises when an empire begins to decline or collapse. The central authority is no longer able to maintain order, so local power centers emerge that can protect land and impose order. Since no single local lord can impose order over his rivals, a system of rules and obligations evolve to handle relations between the local power centers. In other words, feudalism is what comes after the collapse of central authority. It is a return to a default position of local control and local autonomy.
The relevance of this to our age is that we are at the end of the liberal consensus or maybe even at the end of liberal democracy. The West is not an empire, in the way Rome was an empire, but there’s no doubt that the last 500 years of human history has been about the rise of Europeans and the evolution of European social order. The liberal order is base upon the nation state, which roughly corresponds to a single ethnicity. The people of that state own and control the assets of the state, picking rulers from their own people.
The role of the state has been the single focus of Western intellectuals since the Enlightenment. The evolution of economic arrangements, political arrangements and international arrangements, have all been in the context of the state. What is called the liberal consensus is the combination of all these things, based on each state having some form of liberal democracy. A nation gets to be in the liberal order if it holds elections and has a form of representative government, that is notionally responsive to its people.
What has become increasingly obvious, is that private entities now perform many of the duties formerly delegated to the state. Regulating political speech, has always been the job of the government, but now it is tech companies serving that role. Similarly, it used to be the job of government to control the financial system, even at the retail level. Today, firms like PayPal or CitiBank are in charge of regulating and controlling access to the financial system. Even central banks now operate outside of national governments.
The result of this delegation of power is that the national authority is losing power over the societies it allegedly rules. This may be the natural result of globalism. As the states delegate important duties to international authorities, they lose the power to impose order domestically. The result is they must rely on private interests that are not constrained by constitutions and customs. In order for government to maintain the illusion of power, they have ceded domestic power to multinationals and tech giants, that they claim to regulate.
In feudalism, the political relationships between the warrior elite were about controlling land and defending it from those outside the alliance. The subjects working the land were not all that important. The post national world we are entering will be one where the global tech and finance giants control the flow of information, working with one another to maintain control of the system. Because a feudal system must be conservative, defending this new system will mean stamping out dissent and alternatives to the dominant platforms.
The thing about the feudal order was how effective it was at preserving itself. At the dawn of the French Revolution, as France began to emerge from feudalism, most people living in what was then France, did not speak French. They spoke regional dialects that dated back, in some cases, to the Roman Empire. Given the ability of tech giants to regulate the flow of information, it is not unreasonable to think they will be better at controlling and isolating people, as a form of defense in depth. Everyone will live on a data manor.