If you were to come up with a simple explanation for the difference between the modern era and the feudal era it would be about rules. The West went through a great transition from the 18th century into the 20th century in which the rules that govern society changed to be both clearer and universal. There were other things that happened during this transition that are important, like industrialization and urbanization, but the big one was the change in the rules.
The feudal age was not without rules. In fact, the feudal age had more rules than even the current age, but the rules were opaque and complex. The line between the law, custom and privilege was never all that clear. Privilege was often the thing that prevailed, even over written laws. Most important, the rules of life were not the same for everyone in feudal society. Feudalism was an interlocking set of rules and customs that governed relations horizontally and vertically.
The changes ushered in with the Enlightenment did two things. One is the separation between law, custom and privilege became formal and clear. The law was a separate body of rules that superseded custom and privilege. The latter was possible only when the law was universal. It applied to everyone. It did not happen overnight, but by the time the West moved into the 20th century, the prevailing morality said that the law must be clear and apply to everyone equally.
This change did not spring from nothing. The feudal order evolved out of necessity and circumstance, without too much thought. No one planned it. The Enlightenment brought along the concept of a planned society. We could consciously organize our societies around a new set of rules. The reason we could do this is the natural world was not some great mystery. Men began to see that the natural world operated by a fixed set of rules that could be understood.
What the philosopher John Locke bequeathed to the world was the notion that we could not only figure out the rules of nature, we could discover the rules of society that best comported with man’s nature. If we can figure out those rules and implement them, we will have a society that allows for the full blossoming of man. The debate since the 18th century has been about the nature of man. Communism, fascism, capitalism, libertarianism and so on are all based on this assumption.
Fast forward to this age and we appear to be in another one of those great transitions in how we look at the rules of society. You can see it in the language. Hardly anyone in power speaks of rights anymore. The term civil rights has morphed into a dog whistle by the race hustlers, stripped of any connection to natural rights. Of course, the systemic assaults on basic rights like assembly and speech are so common now, the repression of these rights and the people exercising them is now normal.
The reason for this is we are transitioning from a society based on rights codified in the law to a society based on privileges based on a terms of service. You get to do things promised in the terms of services, as long as you are compliant with the terms of service, which can change at any time. What we used to think of as rights are now privileges, no different from access to Twitter. You get to do things based on your level of compliance to the current set of rules.
The obvious example is Covid. The remarkable aspect of the Covid panic was just how easily the political and administrative state created new rules and imposed them on people without ever mentioning rights. In fact, it has become fashionable for politicians to mock those who mention rights. They point to community standards, trust and safety, much in the same way we see with internet platforms. Your rights do not count as long as they can claim to be protecting the community.
The other aspect of the terms of service society is that the terms of service are opaque and impossible to understand. To this day no one can explain the term “hate speech” yet it turns up in every terms of service agreement. It is turning up in an informal sense all over society. Men are sent to jail for hate crimes, even though there are few laws defining hate crimes. The concept of “hate” is now a spectral force that no one can explain, but it animates the terms of service of life.
One of things that clarity of the law requires is the clarity of the process. In the before times when the law was supposed to be clear, the process of adjudicating disputes was supposed to be clear as well. In other words, the rules defining the process were supposed to be as clear as the law. In the terms of service society, the process for adjudicating disputes is as mysterious as the rules. No one can explain how Twitter enforces its terms of service, not even Twitter.
The citizen in a rules based society is expected to live within the law, but in return he gets protected by the law. In the feudal order, protection was from the man to whom you pledged loyalty, because privilege transcended the law. In effect, the law was a one-way street that imposed rules on people but offered little protection in return. The liberal order was about making the law clear and reciprocal. Men would follow the law because it was in their interest, as the law was what protected them.
The terms of service society is much closer to the feudal order in that we have a proliferation of rules, but we are not in a rule-based society. Because the rules are always changing and their implementation is dependent on a privileged elite, people cannot depend on the rules at all. Creators on YouTube, for example, spend a lot of time policing their past in order to remain compliant. What matters is not the rules but the whims of the censors.
Another aspect of the terms of service society is that citizenship is no longer a thing that has any value. From the point of view of the people enforcing the terms of service, you are compliant or non-compliant. It is why the French president feels free to terrorize French people over the vaccine. They are non-compliant, so their services from the state have been terminated. This is the new relationship between people and those who rule over them. You are compliant or non-compliant.
It is tempting to think this cannot work, but feudalism carried on for roughly a thousand years before things changed. At least a third of a human population is happy to be treated like a prisoner. For most people, freedom is terrifying. They want to be told what to do and some are happy to have no choices at all. To date, no politician has been hanged for imposing Covid mandates. What the last two years has told our trust and safety councils is they can go much further than they dreamed.
On the other hand, feudalism worked in an age where death from disease, violence and starvation was common. Feudalism was a survival response to the breakdown of order, rather than a replacement for it. The terms of service society can only last if it can actually follow through on the promise to turn society into a giant daycare center. If not, then the terms of service collapses and we have no order at all. Trust and safety, as it were, goes away entirely.
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