Techno-Feudalism

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.

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Member

No one knows what the fuck you’re talking about Z.

Karl McHungus
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Karl McHungus

What’s the frequency, Kenneth?

Bellator
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Bellator

Unlike the feudal era the tech giants are quite vulnerable to asymmetric attacks. Not just cyber, but data centers need dedicated electricity and data lines. .50 caliber takes out transformers, and backhoes take out data lines. They are very vulnerable to asymmetric warfare – if that ever becomes necessary.

TomA
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TomA

They are also very vulnerable to software attack; and we have already passed the tipping point, it’s just not apparent to everyone as yet.

Rod1963
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Rod1963

Yep. Don’t forget water, they are water guzzlers as well. A bit of thermite you can whip up your garage can take care of water inputs. Don’t forget to put their cooling towers out of commission. Hit the big transformers and you’re looking at 6 months to a year to replace as they have to be custom built. No Google and the rest of the Silicon Valley data collection merchants aren’t going to be the new feudal lords. They are BS artists leeching off the current system. Unlike the old HP corporation which was a national asset(which was destroyed by… Read more »

Zeroth Tollrants
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Zeroth Tollrants

They are also vulnerable to what is currently occurring w/FB-a revolt of their user base. If they lose the confidence of the people who were previous willing victims to their plunder, they will face this all out assault from all vectors, suddenly throwing rocks at the King.
BTW, if you aren’t aware of the news about Microsoft yet, they are also plundering your files, hunting “bad think” in order to banish you from all of their platforms.
Think Office, Xbox, One Drive, etc.
If you use any of those, you might want to check into their newest terms.

Drake
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Drake

Feudalism is what happens when the middle class collapses. That was the transition Rome made. The patricians were exempt from taxes so the middle class was taxed into extinction. Artisans and small farmers became desperate enough to sell themselves into slavery to escape the crushing debt. The slave owners became the lords and the slaves became medieval serfs. Labor is a commodity but they are bundled with the land. A new feudal lord buys or is granted land, he gets the land and the peasants assigned to it. When I mock my leftist relatives I point out that their vision… Read more »

Member

And eventually, the slave owners were replaced by German barons. The perfect karma.

Toddy+Cat
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Toddy+Cat

But of course, the tech giants continued hegemony relies on the electricity and water staying on, and the guys with the guns maintaining some kind of public order. As we see in places such as South Africa and Detroit, this is by no means a foregone conclusion. Will Google, Facebook, and Twitter be any good at this? From their past record, I think not. We may very well get some sort of Neo-Feudalism, but Zuckerberg and Bezos ain’t going to be running it.

Rod1963
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Rod1963

Also each little feudal domain was independent. That’s not possible today. The big companies are massive energy users dependent on a functioning power grid to keep operating. The grid in turn is fueled by NG, coal and nuclear sources for baseline energy. IOW it needs a vast intact infrastructure to remain viable. Not to mention being at peace as well. Any sort of civil uprising would be the end of this relatively fragile system in short order. And since they are located in cities, they can’t grow their own food. Hence their dependence on imported food which also vulnerable to… Read more »

Worldly Wiseman
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Worldly Wiseman

Excellent post. Just one more thing to add, feudalism on the original form allowed a kind of social mobility for peasants and serfs. In the early versions (at least in France) feudal lord had the authority to enoble anyone who distinguished himself in battle. Later reforms put that authority solely in the hands of kings.

Issac
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Issac

Disagree. Present day Oligarchy (ostensibly republican democracy) is radically stable, despite the failure of the (facade) institutions. The likelihood that the west sees something recognizably feudal in toto is low.

Shane
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Shane

Very interesting post Z. The thing however about feudal society was the overarching influence of the Catholic Church. As you put it the serfs worked the Lords lands despite being not often of his ethnic group. Without a unifying force of throne and altar I don’t think you get a version of Christendom, but more Latin America, a first worldesque paint job over chronic dysfunction. It can limp along for a long period but it’s break up is assured. A fragmented society can work, you’re on the money, re Medieval Europe but like us wrong thinkers realise it requires some… Read more »

Dutch
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Dutch

Christianity generally used to assume that its role in Western society was as a binder for the broader culture. The Church seemed to start questioning that role when secular totalitarian movements (communism and fascism) went on the march. There was always tension between the Church and the secular authorities, but it seems that Christianity, in my lifetime, has thrown off any sense of broader cultural responsibility, and now tends to operate as some combination of personal self-help service and agitator for the “oppressed” people far, far away, inviting them to come here. Any sense of responsible representation of our Western… Read more »

Jim Burnham
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Jim Burnham

I think Shane is on point here. I would call that possible future a Latin America lookalike, overlaid with a corporatist veneer. Thing is, though, if they can achieve sufficient thought control, it could go on quite a long time. Wonder what Orwell would have done with 1984 if he had truly forseen the rise of corporations like Facebook and Google?

Auntie Analogue
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Auntie Analogue

Had Orwell “foreseen the rise of corporations like Facebook and Google” he’d have written ‘Brave New World,” except that in 1932 Aldous Huxley had already beaten Orwell on that one.

Member

Thanks for the link.
I knew nothing of this, but I will.

Whiskey
Guest

A few minor quibbles. Dynastic succession I.e. lack of male heir or any heir. Constant warfare among nobles. The Church and kings united in trying to restrain noble violence.

And castles. A noble who had one could dominate 12 miles around and no one could dislodge him. Armies were small and mostly comprised of mounted knights.

TomA
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TomA

Actually, it’s worse than you describe. Memetic reprogramming of mush-minded people is becoming highly sophisticated and effective. It used to be that a charismatic politician or charlatan was the sole practitioner of this art, but now AIs are controlling the game. The zombies of the future will be mentally compromised automatons that react predictably to designer stimuli rather than think independently. This will fundamentally change the species if it is unchecked.

Dutch
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Dutch

Zombies of the future? The future is here already.

DLS
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DLS

The flaw in this argument is equating the value of land with the intrinsic value provided by the current tech giants. Is there really any intrinsic value to housewives blabbing about their kids on Facebook? Google has a bit more power, but no more than the biased MSM. Half the country works around them. Apple and Microsoft make commodities that can easily be replicated. Amazon is just an online Walmart. If Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon ceased operating today, would we really be any worse off? But if you took away a corresponding amount of land, we would… Read more »

Dutch
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Dutch

Take all of those entities away (and assume that others don’t quickly rise to take their place, which is probably what would happen), and we would need to depend on our friends, neighbors, and community for a much greater part of our news, information, and goods. Knowing how to use a card catalog and understanding the Dewey Decimal System would actually have value again. The atomization of our lives would reverse, to some extent. That atomization has value, in the eyes of the elites, which means that the rejection of these on-line entities has to come from the bottom up,… Read more »

Zeroth Tollrants
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Zeroth Tollrants

“Knowing how to use a card catalog and understanding the Dewey Decimal System would actually have value again. ”

Dare to dream of the day where I would be hot shit, again! 😁

I see the future as a kind of 1st world Brasilia Norte. Kind of like current day Brasil, but with more Starbucks, negroes, skyscrapers & iPhones.

Gerard Van der Leun
Member

I don’t know. How many battalionsqc9er does Zuckerberg have?

John Smith
Member

Hmmmmmm. It has the ring of truth to it.

Alternatively (and I am just spit-balling here) – I wonder if those corporations aren’t being delegated with power – perhaps it is they who are attempting a power grab…?
I can see any number of sociopathic corporate chit hawks and outright psychopaths that would be more than willing to challenge the king or the oligarchies.

Karl McHungus
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Karl McHungus

Looks to me like a Rollerball future is headed our way. Houston is the energy city!

Holiday Inn
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Holiday Inn

You meant illusion, rather than allusion. Unless you were alluding to something else.
Substantively, Bruce Schneier has been talking about techno-feudalism for years. I mean that not as an attack on Z, but as a useful reference for anyone interested in the general topic.
And finally, we’re not decentralizing (yet), but rather we’re still largely centralizing, although Brexit and Trump are signs that the centralization process is in the early stages of reversal.

Ben
Guest
Ben

Please stop saying the word, “arrangements”.

Dutch
Guest
Dutch

In context, using the word “arrangements” seems appropriate. The current economic, political, and international set of relationships is mostly set from on high, to a fairly specific template, designed to function in their best interest, and to look good (or at least acceptable) to the rest of us. What word would you use to better describe the current set of circumstances?

Ben
Guest
Ben

any word that isn’t plagiarised.

Ursula
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Ursula

How about thanking the Z Man for providing us, on nearly a daily basis, with unique and stimulating blog posts. He’s an articulate wordsmith and fleshes out his original thoughts in a most satisfying way. Kindly stop wasting comments fussing about his word selection. Gratitude.

Holiday Inn
Guest
Holiday Inn

The digital equivalent of land is intellectual property. Unlike land, it relies on norms that are more fragile and not self-enforcing. To attack an old-school feudal lord you’d need to physically attack his land. The new feudal lords are vulnerable to attack from a distance, digital and/or legal. The form of attack that’s effective will depend on each lord’s digital moat. For Microsoft, it would be open source software. For Facebook and Google, you could weaken their moats using privacy, data portability and interoperability regulations on the consumer side, as well as regulations on their relationships with advertisers (their customers).… Read more »

Al from da Nort
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Al from da Nort

H. Inn;
Good point about intellectual property. Easiest thing in the world to steal. Just ask the Chinese. And you need a really powerful and effective body with a monopoly on force (i.e. a world government) to protect it. Not happening.

Even the stupid and evil Cloud Folk would balk at running the risk of being *personally* fried in a nuclear exchange just to keep Gates, Zuckerburg, Bezos, et al, in private jet fuel.

Spud Boy
Guest
Spud Boy

Nice history lesson, but I’m afraid history doesn’t repeat itself. You can’t predict the future of Facebook by examining 5th century Europe.

Member

Always good to see a Pig Ignorant Fuckwit.

black flag corsair
Guest
black flag corsair

” . . . as France began to emerge from feudalism, most people living in what was then France, did not speak French. ”

Apropos of nothing related: I have always found it hilarious that the French hate the Germans ( the Franks ) yet are descended from them.

Member

Yes. And no. The original French were Celts. They referred to themselves as Gauls. They were conquered by Caesar and readily adapted themselves to Roman civilization. The German tribe of Franks came into the area today known as Luxembourg and Belgium, eventually spreading into northern France. Other German tribes moved into areas like Burgundy (Burgundians were a German tribe), and the Visigoths came through and took over in Aquitaine. Charlemagne took over the rest of France by defeating both German tribes. However, the genetic imprint of the Franks remains in Benelux and adjacent areas of France. For the most part,… Read more »

Al from da Nort
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Al from da Nort

Lots of thought-provoking discussion. But why speculate when we actually have a test case demonstrating what happens when governmental functions break down, namely Sub-Saharan Africa. You can object that those countries of Africa were mostly European colonial constructs and so they weren’t actually nation states to begin with. The thing that you can’t say is that there is any evidence at all of techno-feudalism emerging. What you *do* see is inter-tribal warfare. In some places it’s disguised as Islam on the move, as in Nigeria. So far there is not too much warlordism such as emerged temporarily in Russia and… Read more »

PRCD
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PRCD

Here is some good data on how people in Silly Valley think. None of them have a backbone for any kind of violence which is why they’re turning San Francisco into a dystopian hell hole. They want to create a lot of inequality and put everyone else on the dole. I am obviously headed for the hinterlands before I get sucked into that vortex

LineInTheSand
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LineInTheSand

From my experience living there, the upper middle class people are sincere, true believers in enforced multiculturalism and an endless welfare state. The same Chief Investment Officer who has to use all his intelligence to guess where a stock is going to go will turn around and say that the real problem in San Francisco is that we haven’t been nice enough to Hispanics, Blacks, and the “homeless.” No joke. The same analyst who is concerned by a minute change in annual return believes that there is no end to the resources we can devote to the welfare state. I… Read more »

Rod1963
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Rod1963

Scary article. It’s clear a lot of those people live in a bubble world and have no real understanding of people at all or the consequences of them wrecking society all in the name of progress and innovation. Yeah a lot techies are very beta and aspergy. I attended several Microsoft Device driver seminars and it was like a special needs class all jacked up on Red Bull. They would not make eye contact with people or talk to anyone who is wasn’t a asperger case like they were. BTW here’s another creepy article on the tech titans of SV.… Read more »

Georgiaboy61
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Georgiaboy61

The rise of neo-feudalism is directly connected to the paradigm change occurring in the composition of modern nation-states. Most historians trace the beginnings of the western nation-state as an entity back to 1648 and the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years War and a number of other religious-sectarian conflicts then. being fought in Europe. Since the rise of the nation-state, monarchs and other rulers have needed the cooperation of the masses – those who eventually came to form the new middle and merchant classes – in order to have sufficient men under arms to protect their nations and… Read more »