Note: There is a new post up behind the green door. This is about the brown paper bag test instituted by the grocery chain Wegman’s. The SubscribeStar version is here and the Substack version is here.
Feudalism is a term that either brings to mind serfs slaving away on the land or knights on horseback jousting at tournaments. Neither image has much to do with the socioeconomic system that grew up after the fall of the Western Roman empire and carried on into the 18th century. Both the knight and the serf were real things, but they are not what defined the feudal order. It is the system in which people of all ranks lived that defined what we think of as feudalism.
That system was a series of interlocking relationships. It began with reciprocal relationships between the warrior elite. The leaders of the various peoples slowly evolved rules for dealing with one another. Over time those rules extended to the people over whom they ruled. First it was the vertical relationships and then the horizontal relationships. Most of these rules were not written down. They were the habit of mind that everyone understood and accepted.
What we think of as freedom and liberty come from the feudal era. The two words are used interchangeably today, but it was not always so. Liberty was the right to act within the context of the rules. Freedom was a state in which there were no rules. In the feudal age, liberty was the range of actions for people of a class. Freedman had different liberties than Knights or serfs. Freedom, on the other hand, was being free from those reciprocal relationships that defined the system.
One of the interesting things about the feudal order that has been forgotten is that freedom was a powerful weapon used by kings. Freeing people from their feudal obligations did not necessarily grant them more liberties, but it did weaken the power of the people to whom they no longer had obligations. Freeing the serf from his duties to his lord not only meant he could sell his labor but it meant that his lord no longer had control over him or the proceeds of his labor.
In a system where everyone is defined by their relationship with everyone around them, monarchical power is diffused through the system. The noble who controlled a portion of the kingdom had a great deal of power relative to the king, because all of the rights and duties of his people flowed through him to the king. Once those people were free then they reported directly to the king. A great irony of the feudal order is that individual freedom turned out to be the great centralizing force in politics.
A similar dynamic is at work in this age. As recent as the 1950’s the primary duty of most men was to their family. From there it was their community then the larger political entities like city, county and state. Outside of the draft and the post office, people had no reason to think about the national government. Go back further and the national government played little role in the life of Americans. You could live your life never having had contact with the national government.
As Americans have been freed from the old rules of life, like marriage, family and community, the power of the government has grown. The weakening of state and local government by direct intervention by the federal government has corresponded with the collapse in things like property rights and freedom of association. Young women are no longer dependent on a man, but they are entirely dependent on government. It is impossible to live without interacting with government now.
The conventional conservative critique argues that personal liberty has declined because the power of the state has increased. In reality, personally liberty has declined because freedom has increased. As people have been freed from their particular obligations to one another, their liberties have declined, which is what has allowed the power of the federal state to grow. Each new “freedom” comes with less liberty and therefore a declining ability to resist the state.
In a way, the great progressive reforms of the 20th century were like the king freeing the people from their feudal obligations. It was first and foremost about weakening the intermediaries between the central government and the people. In America this has meant the constriction of state and municipal power. Griswold v. Connecticut was never about individual liberty, but about subverting local authority. It was about breaking those local bonds that preserved individual liberty.
What little liberty remains in modern America appears to most people to be dependent upon the power of the state. It is a perverse form of slave logic. The homely women demanding reproductive freedom in the public square are no different than the slave begging the master for protection. They are no longer at liberty to make choices within the range of options available to them, so they demand the all powerful state provide the freedom they mistake for liberty.
The zenith of every empire features the almost unlimited power of the person who sits atop the imperial system. The decline of empire always features an increasingly inability of the sovereign to impose his will. Factions within his own government collude to undermine his will. New power centers begin to grow up, operating as choke points between the empower and his subjects. Like weeds, those old reciprocal relationships begin to sprout up and eventually overtake the system.
We may be seeing something similar. Corporations now wield more power in the lives of the people than the federal government. For example, if the mobile companies wanted, they could have stonewalled the FBI with regards to the J6 protests. Their swift action in identifying the people in the capitol was a power move. When the federal government needs help dealing with internal threats, they now ask politely for help from their partners in the private sector.
We are also seeing a resurgence of state power. States shipping migrants to Washington is a power move. States challenging the power of the administrative state in the courts is another assault on the king. Of course, the same managerial mindset that crippled the Trump presidency is doing the same to Biden. The real power of the federal state, as expressed through the executive, is waning. Like every empire in decline, this one is suffering from a growing impotence at the center.
In the transition, both liberty and freedom will decrease. We see it today with the abuses of individual liberty from all sources of power. In the long run, the restoration of those old duties and obligations will restore the balance between the two. Being ruled by a local elite personalizes the relationship. The people at the top are reminded of their duties every time they go outside. The people at the bottom have no illusion about the source of their liberties.
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