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Friday, June 26, 2020
Economics/Business ... Politics ... Society ...

In recent times, we have heard a lot about systemic racism. Since the horrible George Floyd killing by the police in Minneapolis, we have heard a lot more about it. What is systemic racism? To be honest, from what I’ve read about it (which has been a lot lately), I’m not completely sure. Those who use the term seem to be saying that racism is widespread in American society. The days of Jim Crow and back seats on the town bus are long gone, thank goodness. But there remains something about our “systems” that continue to manifest anti-black acts and attitudes; that is what I take away from the notion of systemic racism. And I am not writing this to deny the concept’s validity. But it does raise questions and problems in pinning it down precisely.

So, next question — exactly what is it about our systems that manifest racism? The easiest answers to this question come from the criminal justice system, especially from the police enforcement component. The George Floyd killing was perhaps the most egregious recent example of an African American being treated in a racist fashion by police, but Floyd’s death follows in a series of incidents where blacks stopped by the police wind up dead or seriously wounded because of police misconduct. The evolution of widespread video recording capacity in the late 1990s was the technology that “uncovered the rock” to see the ugly stuff that was previously shielded from most citizens.

Yes, there is no denying that many police departments have a problem in controlling racist attitudes and unprofessional behavior on the part of their officers, and that inadequate progress has been made in addressing this problem over the past 2 decades.

OK, so we can watch the videos and see systemic racism occurring in the nation’s policing system. But the term ‘systemic racism’ as used today appears to be addressing much more than that. However, it gets more and more difficult to identify specific examples of system-oriented racism being manifested by the agents of the many other economic, social, political and religous systems that make up our society.

Sure, there is clear evidence of red-lining in the housing finance industry, but mostly in the past. What evidence is there of current bigotry? Well, there are a host of sociological studies showing that “white people in general” have subconscious presumptions that hurt black people, and that many white people are not even aware of it, would deny it. I.e., “implicit bias”. There are also plenty of statistics showing that blacks have long been doing much worse than Euro-whites and Asian-whites in terms of income, wealth, political and corporate leadership positions, educational achievement, criminal involvement and police arrests, incarceration, health status, etc. — and that trend continues today unabated (although admittedly, when the economy is good and employment is high, black families generally do benefit – but not necessarily as much on average as white families). There are clear statistics showing there to be too many blacks in jail relative to their proportion of the population, and way too few in corporate boardrooms, legislative chambers, scientific laboratories and university tenure tracks.

Despite continuing American economic growth, blacks on average are not getting ahead as quickly as whites. When an economic set-back omes, as during the recession following the 2008 financial crisis and also the current contraction from the COVID pandemic shutdowns, blacks are the first affected and lose the most. Why is this?

The answer being proposed today is that systemic racism is behind it all. The continuing collective economic and social injustice that blacks have long experienced, which found its root in slavery during the 1600s thru 1800s and then continued via ongoing Jim Crow segregation and explicit oppression well into the 1900s, is pointed to as evidence of the existence of systemic racist practices; despite the fact that most of these practices cannot be captured on video as easily as a police beating (albeit, the recent Central Park dog-leash incident did capture an unthinkingly biased white person “in action” in a more subtle everyday fashion; although, law enforcement ultimately was involved).

OK, that is my very imperfect and admittedly flawed description of what the currently popular notion of systemic racism is about (and my admission that the concept is not wrong, although there may be more to the story than most of its proponents admit). Now let’s have a look at another modern social-political trend — the meteoric rise of President Donald Trump to the White House. How did that happen? Some will relate systemic racism to the Trump phenomenon, and I need to admit that simmering racism on the part of too many Americans is certainly a component of Trump 2016.

But I myself believe that Trump struck an unexpected chord with a surprisingly large group of Americans, mostly Euro-white in ethnic heritage, who themselves feel increasingly disenfranchised economically and socially from the American mainstream. These white Americans have quietly become more and more angry about this. They themselves seem to feel that something “systemic” is going that works against their own lives and the lives of their children. They would agree that whatever it is has been going on for many years, without any signs of abating.

Yes, I’m talking about white families in the former manufacturing cities of the midwest. I.e., the cities that now define the “rust belt”, due to increased international trade and rapidly changing technology since the 1990s. Trump also gained much support in the agrarian communities where technology and trade have also worked against their prosperity. The economic prospects of the families living in these areas have steadily declined over the past 25 years.

The discontent that powered Trump into office is also a matter of social dissonance; Trump voters frequently perceive that what matters to them has been rejected and even disparaged by the increasingly educated populations along the more economically flexible and prosperous coastal regions, i.e. the high-tech service economy belt. These factors include traditional religion, the ability to easily own and utilize firearms (which makes more sense in a rural area than in a crowded city), the value of human muscle-driven labor, and pro-American attitudes versus the more internationalist presumptions, cosmopolitan tastes, and intellectual and artistic careers that are commonly found amidst the residents of California, Massachusetts, Washington State, Washington DC, northern Illinois, etc.

Somehow Donald Trump, a man who spent his entire life as a celebrity entertainer and business magnate based in New York City, found a way to speak to this sense of disregard and separation that was increasingly being felt hundreds of miles from his home base. At best, Trump had previously looked down on these communities while his private jet flew overhead 3 or 4 miles up. However, somehow Trump managed to relate to these regions. And this took America by surprise, especially the “coastal elite” part of America. In trying to come to grips with what happened on the night of Nov 3-4, 2016, there has been increasing realization that something “systemic” has also been occurring amidst the Trump phenomenon.

As with Black Lives Matter and the other African American thinkers and leaders who cite systemic racism, Trump voters often feel that “the system” has been doing something intentional to keep them down, even though it is hard to map out the precise details of whatever that is. Despite the murkiness of the concept, systemic racism against blacks can at least anchor itself to police behavior and sub-consciously biased attitudes (as well as hundreds of years of history). Can the systemic angst of Trump supporters also find moorings amidst the uncertainty? Give Trump credit for finding and articulating a handful of reference points for it, and for recognizing how politically powerful such reference points could be.

Trump’s main references in 2016 were: 1.) limitation of foreign trade as to bring back American manufacturing jobs; 2.) limitation of immigration as to decrease competition for lower-education job opportunities, as well as to (allegedly) promote social homogeneity i.e. fewer Muslims, and lowered crime; 3.) limit American cooperation with other nations and emphasize “America-first” interests; 4.) celebrate and support traditional Christian religions and their cultures. And all of this was wrapped up with a catchy phrase: “Make America Great Again”.

What I am trying to do here is to dig up something that underlies both the current black anger over systemic racism, and Trump’s MAGA movement. Yes, this is hard to accept, and I imagine that most people will reject what I am about to say here, given how difficult it is to imagine anything in common between Trump supporters and Black Lives Matter. They seem diametrically opposed. Let me make clear that I am not trying to defend the “white midwestern blues” or to say that disenfranchised working class whites have an equal claim regarding injustice relative to blacks in America.

But I still believe that there are deeper social, political and economic trends under way right now that underlie and fuel the great angst and divisiveness being observed. These trends and forces help to explain what is currently happening, and why there are no reforms that could “make America great again” for white workers and small business proprietors, nor truly rid America of systemic racism against blacks — not anytime soon, that is. In recent months, certain thinkers from both conservative and liberal-progressive quarters have given a name to what I am trying to grasp at here. And that name is “Neo-Feudalism”.

Right now, Neo-Feudalism is a fairly new concept and like systemic racism, it is not easy to define especially with any rigor. But it certainly does relate to the social and economic systems of the European Middle Ages, which are collectively referred to as “feudalism”. What the emerging “Neo-Feudalists” seem to be saying (myself included) is that current trends in politics, economics, society and technology are pushing American society to increasingly adapt characteristics of the Middle Ages. And those characteristics are usually not good for the vast majority of people, as was also true in the Middle Ages. But they certainly are “systemic”, even more so than Black Lives Matter and MAGA-hat wearers would currently imagine. They should be called “meta-systemic”!

There are quite a few different interpretations and explanations of how modern social, economic, political and technological trends are moving America closer to what Europe experienced during the Middle Ages. Some focus on politics and human freedom, some on distribution of wealth and welfare, some on social attitudes and cohesion. My own favorite explanation focuses on technology and economics over the history of human civilization. If we go back 10,000 years or so, the human species existed in small hunter-gatherer bands, led by one or two powerful family figures. Most people experienced roughly the same level of well being, security and power. Even the leaders didn’t have many comforts unavailable to the masses, nor did they enjoy much greater security from disease, predation and the temperamental conditions of nature.

Over time, more and more humans settled down to grow crops and domesticate animals in one location. As better techniques for meeting their immediate caloric and sheltering needs emerged, humans had more time and energy to do other things, such as create cloth, make clothes, refine metals, build things with wood, and very importantly, carry themselves and their things over longer distances. Over time, craftsmen emerged, and better transport allowed people to interact with other communities like their own. They could trade things and swap ideas. Eventually, an economy started to form. And at the same time, this increased contact and communication allowed leaders and governments to emerge, i.e. governance was no longer tied to local family tribalism.

I’m not sure why, but simulations seem to prove that when a lot of people start becoming more and more connected and interact more and more, winners and losers start to emerge. Even more interesting, a tiny percentage of the winners start winning really big. They become extraordinarily wealthy and powerful, while the majority are pretty close to average. Over time, kings and barons emerge, and they take up more and more of the available economic wealth. Power and wealth start to concentrate very quickly.

As this trend continues, human experience becomes more and more “feudal”. Territory, wealth and political power concentrate within a handful of powerful people and their royal families. As the economy expands, as technology develops, and as more natural resources from the territories are exploited, these families are able to hire and support a “second estate” of specialists and thinkers and managers, including those who would lead the armies that were forming, as to apply deadly force in order to expand the evolving empire or fiefdom or nation, and protect the empire from other evolving empires. This estate would also include the spiritual shamans and eventually priests or rabbis or imams who promised to align divine interests with those of the nation.

Then there was the “third estate”. That would basically be the masses, those who struggle to stay alive and live according to the whims of the powerful royal leaders and barons. They have few territorial rights; whatever land they use and however they use it is defined and assigned by the royal barons. They live at a subsistence level, the benefits of their labors mostly accrue to “the first estate”.

For many, many centuries, this was basically how things were in the temperate climates of Europe and the Middle East and North Africa. There were occasional periods when something different seemed to be emerging, e.g. the Roman Empire. But when things fell apart, the default arrangement was usually some variant of feudalism.

In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, something different once again seemed to be emerging. Learning, mobility and communication were expanding (thanks in large part to the “Renaissance” of culture that began to emerge in the 16th century), technologies were emerging, and more and more people had enough time to deeply study the natural world and document its reliable behaviors and patterns. Science and mathematics started to gain identity; and once these new bodies of knowledge were taken up by those looking for better techniques to do more and more of what we already do, and even find ways to do stuff that we would like to do, well . . . powerful forces started to unleash themselves.

In the 20th century, the industrial age came into flower. And as the century progressed, something extraordinary happened (although it was already happening over the past 2 or 3 centuries, albeit much more slowly). The barons of commerce grew extraordinarily powerful. But unlike the classic land barons of the middle ages, they eventually realized that they count not maximize their own power and fortune by keeping the peasants living at bare subsistence levels. Someone had to buy all the stuff that they could now produce and distribute. They had to start sharing a bit more of their riches, so that the masses would be there to work in their factories and buy all the products that their machines could produce. Sharing a bit of their wealth turned out to be the best way to expand their wealth even further.

Things got even better as the masses themselves started to enjoy their initial tastes of a better life, and found ways to communicate and organize themselves to demand even bigger shares of wealth from the capitalists. The labor movement came into being, and even though there were bloody clashes in the process, the end result was something almost never seen throughout history — a system that continued to grow in wealth and power, and that also shared a significant chunk of that wealth and power with the masses.

The owners of land and businesses and other resources, along with the political leaders (who were now more subject than ever to “the will of the masses” through increased democratization), had powers much greater than their medieval and ancient predecessors. But the gap in wealth between them and the laboring class was not nearly as great as it had been throughout most of history. The masses themselves started to accumulate more and more things, and even land ownership became common among them.

Humankind, despite its many continuing problems and vulnerabilities, appeared to have entered a new era. Civilization and democracy seemed to finally be fulfilling many of their long-unkept promises. Despite the tumult of great and bloody wars and other forms of strife (e.g. the “Cold War” of the second part of the 20th century), the fire behind the promise of a better world, a world that more widely shares the bounties of human ingenuity, did not go out. Even the deep-seeded racism in American and European society was finally acknowledged, as limited “civil rights” measures were taken to address it.

But now, at the start of the third decade of the 21st Century, it seems as though that fire is burning low and dim, threatening to flicker itself into a mound of dying embers. Something happened. Wealth and power are concentrating increasingly in the hands of fewer and fewer. The barons seem to be back. As is racism. Something in the nature of technology and commerce and politics and a worn-down planet seem to be changing the balance between the wealthy and the “rest of us”, in the direction of earlier centuries. The estate owners don’t need the masses as much as they did for the past 100 years or so; technology seems to be filling in for them more and more. As Thomas Pickerty points out, when the productivity of capital greatly exceeds the growth rate and productivity of the rest of the economy, concentration of wealth into the hands of the capital owners — who are mostly rich — is inevitable. As a result, the standing of the great majority, i.e. those who don’t own much economic capital and depend upon their labors to get by, seems headed in the direction of feudalism. And the bad habit of exploiting racial differences between the powerful and the underprivileged seems to fit in well with such a feudalistic world view.

It’s as though something very big happened over the last 2 or 3 centuries, and we thought that this big thing had culminated in a revolution, a permanent change. But it is now starting to look as though the 20th century was just a “time out”, a confluence of extraordinary circumstances that are now dissipating and returning to the historical norm. This is not my exclusive idea; several very smart observers have already said this. And it has everything to do with all of the wonderful computation and communications technologies that have emerged over the past few decades – we thought they would set us free all the more, but now look more like the prisons that will re-enslave us.

There are still many other smart social observers who disagree, who say that the party is not over, we’ve just hit some bumps that can be resolved such that human society and its wonderful technologies will continue to progress towards the dreams of equality and freedom for all. But obviously, I believe that neo-feudalism is really happening, even if we can’t exactly pin down just what, where and how it is taking place. I believe that the Trump movement and the BLM movement are clear signs of an unknowing recognition of neo-feudalism along with a desire to respond to it, to somehow stop it. Unfortunately, if it really is happening, it is powered by incredibly strong social currents that will not be amenable to redirection in the ways that Trump supporters and BLM followers hope will occur because of their own programs.

But I do believe that there is an idea that has been gaining currency in the political and social arena that could respond to neo-feudalism and help to satisfy some of the intentions behind the MAGA-hat people and the BLM activists. And that is the notion of a Universal Basic Income. Yes, bring Andrew Yang back on stage!

Just for fun, I like to add my own high-level conspiracy twist to Neo-Feudalism. I do this mainly as a thought experiment, because I have no real proof of an explicit conspiracy. And I am not going to make up stuff about a powerful cabal being run by that lightening rod of modern paranoia, i.e. George Soros. No, I have nothing on Soros. However, conspiracy-like behavior does not always need express agreements and cabal-like coordination. Sometimes what appears to be complex coordinated action just evolves and emerges from a confluence of common interest amidst powerful actors.

SO here is my quasi-conspiracy theory about how modern Neo-Feudalism is being powered. The super-rich benefit when the serfs tear themselves apart and fail to unite; when the serfs dwell on all sorts of smaller issues like nationalist exceptionalism and tearing down statues and open borders vs closed borders and abortion and transgender rights and face masks, and fail to look up from their entertaining smart phones and tablets to see who is really up in the big castle that owns all of the “estates” (now including the great techno-information corporations that have done so much to help divide and distract the masses in the 21st century). Interesting that the First Estate seems to support both sides, their $$$$ powers both the Democrats and GOP.

They even keep the thinkers and culture-shapers of the Second Estate divided — making sure that National Review and Fox never see eye to eye with CNN and Huffington. Making sure that the academics at the fundamentalist-owned colleges never talk to liberal academia. Make sure that Dems and GOP leaders play blood-sport and never collaborate and cooperate. Making sure every level remains divided on global warming (so they will never agree to actually do anything about it). Too bad that the serfs of both left and right wing persuasions are gonna have to put up with flooding and migration and arid farmland and pandemics. The First Estate is currently obtaining places where things will remain comfortable. And don’t think that some of the first estate residents of those comfort islands won’t keep on writing checks to the Democratic Party, while their friendly neighbors will write them to the GOP. Then afterwards they all get together for tennis or golf.

So what am I saying here? Is there no hope because of Neo-Feudalism? Well, I do believe that most of what BLM supporters are pressing for and what MAGA people demand from Trump are ultimately doomed; they will not accomplish their objectives. Despite their many differences, their plans and visions will run up against a meta-system that they don’t even see. But some observers who recognize the outlines of the evolving quasi-feudalism that I and others are now speaking of have, in fact, outlined what could be practically demanded by “the Third Estate”, to make their lives more tolerable and meaningful. And what could be demanded and is practical is the previously mentioned Universal Basic Income, a means of transferring excess wealth from the First Estate back to the Third.

Black Lives Matter is way ahead of me here; UBI has been one of their core demands since 2016. They argue that because of long-running historical injustice, blacks should be first in line for UBI. It would be right that blacks get more UBI than whites and many Asian populations. Other “people of color” with histories of systemic oppression should also be heard when the UBI pie is cut. I agree with this general principal. However, unless and until the BLM and MAGA movements can come together to demand and fight for a UBI, there will not be any pie to split. So long as divisions are encouraged and maintained within the Third Estate by the masters of the First Estate, there will be no UBI.

Over a century ago, in the midst of an interesting national movement meant to more fully exploit the evolving promises that society, economics and technology were hinting at, a Russian Marxist Revolutionary named Leon Trotsky said “you may not be interested in [Marxist] dialectic, but dialectic is interested in you.” My advice is similar: Don’t ignore Neo-Feudalism, because it’s not going to ignore you.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:52 pm      

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