Neofeudalism: a manifesto

We shall never truly defeat socialism until we abolish private property.

Socialism is the inevitable result of modernity’s public/private dicotomy:  “public” (i.e. government) wealth exists for the common good, while “private” property is that which exists for private indulgence, that which an owner can do with as he pleases.  Given this understanding, it’s no wonder that many think that a society will become more virtuous the greater the fraction of wealth that is under government control, and that a small ratio of public to private wealth is a sign of selfishness.

The public/private split is itself the direct result of what modernity, not without reason, considers its great accomplishment:  the separation of persons from their social roles.  A feudal lord felt no embarassment in calling the lands he adminsistered “his” land and the people on it “his” vassels, peasants, and serfs.  He could acquire them through personal inheritance or marriage, and he hoped to pass them on to his son.  In the modern world, such fortunes of land, men, and other resources belong not to individuals but to corporations–governments or businesses.  The person who administers them is a civil servant/employee of the corporate owner.  His actual property is just the tiny house and salary the corporation gives him in compensation for his work.  This system has its advantages, especially from the point of view of Weberian rationalization.  The corporation can appoint/elect the most talented administrator and fire incompetent ones without being hindered by property and inheritance law.  The disadvantage is less obvious but no less real:  property loses its social function.  Once it was an expression of one’s social role; now it has no social function whatsoever.  It functions only as an incentive; it exists only to serve its owner’s material needs, desires, or caprices.  The very meaning of “mine” changes.  It has changed so thoroughly that we now recklessly project our novel ideas of property onto past ages.  The feudal arrangement seems evil and inhuman, because we imagine that when a feudal lord said that some land or its inhabitants were “his” that he meant the same thing as a man means today when he says a television set is his, i.e. that it exists solely for his pleasure, and he can smash it to bits if he feels like it.

Premodern man meant no such thing.  He had no “private property” in this sense.  What he had was a trust:  something entrusted to him by his ancestors, something he was bound to pass on unspoiled to his descendents.  Not only did he not think of “his” people the way we think of inanimate objects we own, he didn’t even think of inanimate objects the way we do.  The land and the estate owned him as much as he owned them.

The author of this heresy of private property was the Whig John Locke.  The scholastics had maintained that government is natural–i.e. an integral part of the good life–while property is artificial.  By natural law, the world and everything in it belongs to everyone, but the community divides the world into parcels of property for its own purposes.  Locke reversed this, making government a pure artifice and property a dictate of nature.  What I make is mine because I have “mixed” myself with nature through my labour.  Of course, this bears very little relation to most of our actual experience of ownership, but the modern mind was bewitched.  Indeed, the failure of Locke’s theory to describe reality was used by Marx to indict reality.  The capitalist system is evil because workers do not see their creations as being mixtures of themselves.  They are alienated, and, ironically, only under socialism will the Lockean ideal of private property actually be fulfilled.  Still, there was no question that a man should see himself–his creativity, his will–objectified in his possessions or products.

According to the scholastic view, which represents the traditional wisdom of mankind, this is all wrong.  Property isn’t supposed to objectify the owner; it’s supposed to objectify his place in the community–his status and his responsibilities.  If we accept this understanding of property, then the problem of political economy, the problem of social justice, must be radically restated.  We should first begin with the human relationships dictated by natural law, those that support integral human flourishing.  Then we should ask what property arrangements will best support these relationships.  I call this position “neofeudalism”.

Often today, the opposite is done.  Not long ago, I was reading an anthropology book from the early 1960’s.  It reports that in newly-industrializing areas of sub-Saharan Africa, marriage was collapsing and giving way to cohabitation.  The author recommended we not worry about his, because marriage is supposedly only needed in an agricultural community where inheritance of farms is a big issue, and everybody needs to know who everyone’s official father is.  It struck me that this is quite backwards, letting economic structures dictate our most intimate relationships.  In fact, monogomous indissolvable marriage is an important part of the good, virtuous life, independent of economics.  If the latter is discouraging this human good, then the economic arrangement is bad and should be changed.  That, to me, is thinking straight.

What are the practical consequences of the neofeudal possition?  That still needs to be worked out.  In a series of future posts, I’d like to argue the following–all in the spirit of the historical Louis de Bonald:

  1. Incorporation of the family.  Conservatives have always opposed inheritance taxes, because in our minds when property passes from father to son, it doesn’t really change hands at all.  The family itself is the owner.  It would be better to assert this directly, by making families property and responsibility-bearing subjects under the law.  Details on how family property should be treated are tricky, since we want to incentivize its correct us and discourage abuses.  Also, inheritance becomes a live issue again.
  2. The abolition of private fortunes.  The rich should be given a choice of having their surplus property confiscated by the State or buying their way into an aristocracy, in which case they get to keep their fortunes, but these are transformed into a public trust, to be used to benefit the aristocrat’s locale.  Rights and duties need to be spelled out.
  3. Strengthening and socialization of unions.  Trade and workers’ organizations are to be encouraged, but they shouldn’t just exist to promote their members’ self-interest (although they should certainly do this).  They should be the forum wherein these workers experience their duty to the wider social order.  One possibility would be to put unions in charge of the training and training standards of new workers, which would begin an evolution of unions into guilds.
  4. A revitalization of anti-usury laws.  Activities that obscure the relations between property and social order (e.g. by giving money a life of its own, as the ancients saw it) must be kept from being too lucrative.  Lots of details to be worked out here.

21 Responses

  1. But how do you authorise the power to enforce this? Socialism is a problem in the real world; allowing your analysis (which is good), how does it help us defeat socialism here and now?

    Aristocracy was was affirmed by right of conquest. I see no profound problem with this, but how can right of conquest co-exist with the super-authority (state power?) needed to enforce neofeudalism?

    Related to this: if the nation states of the present could be dismantled (somehow), then small regional monarchies could arise. But such monarchies could not survive the ambitions of the power that brought about and continues to sustain the dismantling of the nation states in the first place.

    All this is to say: regardless of the details of your plan, how may neofeudalism arise in practise?

  2. I think E. F. Schumacher came to some not disimilar points, that the economics should serve the people and their values and that the economy was ultimately at the service of the Good Life.

    Excellent analysis of Locke and Marx,

    At university it is amazing how many students, after studying Locke’s second treatise essentially come to the view that he was right- it is that deeply instilled through our civilisation that individual private property is prior to governement and that government’s essential function is the preservation of property rights.

  3. Bonald, what is your stance regarding “rent-seeking”, parasitic, economic relations? In my analysis, this is the most fundamental question that must be answered when it comes to the theoretical foundation of economic systems.

    The crux of the question boils down to how your treat the concept of “absentee ownership”. Does someone have the right to profit from work that others do, without contributing to that work himself?

    In short, is “absentee ownership” a legitimate social construct, or is it a barbaric relic of conquest and exploitation? That is the basis of feudalism, proper. In what specific ways does your neo-feudalism advance from that base?

  4. I don’t have much to say to this, except that as an ex private-property-absolutist, I’m very keen to see how you develop it.

    Private property does work to dramatically increase productive capacity, by allowing the developers to capture the benefit. However in the process it has uncontrolled effects on society and politics, which ultimately undermine itself and many other things.

    Neofeudalism can’t freeze social organisation completely, you will have to show how to get some beneficial change without arbitrary wrecking.

    Also, are you familiar with Nick Szabo’s analyses of feudalism? “Jurisdiction as Property” etc.

  5. Further consideration at my blog Anomaly UK – http://anomalyuk.blogspot.com/2011/04/neofeudalism.html – can feudalism work outside an agriculture-based economy?

  6. Hi Justin,

    When feudalism originally arose, feudal lords did serve a function. In those chaotic times, they were the powerful ones, and peasants did gain something by putting themselves under a lord’s protection. They served in some ways like the local government after Roman administration had collapsed. Later, as Tocqueville explained, monarchs took over the nobles’ duties while leaving them their privileges. From a neofeudal perspective, this was unfortunate. It would have been better to find a real function for the aristocracy more suited to early modern times and to give them whatever perks would be appropriate for that role.

  7. Thanks, Mark. That was my favorite part of the post myself.

  8. Hello homesteadtheatreofwords,

    Good question. In my follow-up posts, I hope to present concrete ways that property can be reintegrated into social roles. This is the goal, not necessarily to reproduce medieval feudalism, so it might be possible to have a neofeudal program in a modern nation-state. (Not that replacing modern nation-states with regional monarchies is not also a worthy goal.)

  9. Thanks for the mention, AMcguinn.

  10. It sounds a bit vague to me.

    Now, I’m a great believer in Georgism (replace all taxes with Land Value Tax, have small government and dish out the rest as a Citizen’s Dividend),

    The Blue Socialists* say “Ah, but that’s feudalism” and I say “Yes it is very much like that, except without the aristocracy. And the people in the nicest houses won’t be artisto’s living off rents of others, they will be the ones paying most into the system”.

    Is your idea more like Georgism or even less like Georgism that the current set up?

    * or Faux Libertarians, or Home-Owner-Ists or whatever you want to call them.

  11. Feudalism – We had it in Scotland, until 27 November 2004 – depends on the separation of the dominium directum and the dominium utile.

    Under feudalism, no one actually owns land in the modern sense: the Superior owns the superiority (a bundle of rights & duties) and the vassal owns the use of the land, subject to the reciprocal rights and duties. Of course, there can be as many rungs in the ladder as one wishes.

    The Conveyancing (Scotland) Act 1874 quite unintentionally sounded the death-knell of the system, by requiring feu duties to be reserved in sterling money, instead of the old practice of doing so in victual – corn, hay &c, which effectively protected them against erosion by inflation. The payment was made in cash, calculated according to the Fiar’s prices for the chosen commodity or commodities. I have myself seen a feu duty of 30 bolls of oats and 20 of bere on an Edinburgh apartment

  12. On the modern concept of property, it was the Reception of Roman Law and the influence of Roman ideas more generally, from the Renaissance on that destroyed the original feudal system.

    Now, the Romans were a people who hated work, despised commerce and lived by plundering and enslaving their neighbours. To be successful at this (and they were very successful) it was necessary to cultivate certain very real virtues: courage, perseverance, self-control, prudence, discipline, constancy in misfortune, devotion to the community. In short, the traditional virtues of a military aristocracy.

    Liberty meant sharing in the government, which is to say, in overseeing the sharing of the spoils and the most honourable as well as the most lucrative professions were those of the soldier, the politician and the jurist. Property, of course, was a matter of pure positive law: to argue that everyone is entitled to the produce of his labour would have challenged the very foundations of a state founded on rapine and slavery.

    You can see this principle working to great effect in the French Revolution. Take Mirabeau (a moderate) – “Property is a social creation. The laws not only protect and maintain property; they bring it into being; they determine its scope and the extent that it occupies in the rights of the citizens.”

    So, too, Robespierre (not a moderate) – “In defining liberty, the first of man’s needs, the most sacred of his natural rights, we have said, quite correctly, that its limit is to be found in the rights of others. Why have you not applied this principle to property, which is a social institution, as if natural laws were less inviolable than human conventions?”

    You see where this is going? If property rights are the creation of the law and nothing else, well, then, the law can be changed, by the will of the majority. Governments can, with electoral support, engage in any degree of social experiment they choose, socialism, syndicalism, social democracy, or whatever and no one can claim his rights have been infringed, by the confiscation of his property (however acquired) through taxation or requisition. The law gave and the law has taken away…

    It is significant that Locke lived in the only country in Europe that did not adopt Roman Law.

  13. I think I read something similar in a book on medieval economics–I think it was Pirenne’s “Medieval Cities”. In some countries, feudalism was abolished because feudal dues were fixed by custom and therefore couldn’t adjust to market changes. Some people freed their serfs so they could raise their rents.

  14. Boland is right about the effect of inflation on customary duties.

    The rental value of my own farm was shown in Alexander III’s valuation of 1280 (The Old Extent) as two 40 shilling (£2) lands. In 1474, (The New Extent) the valuation had increased fourfold and in 1643 it had increased to two lands of £400 Scots (£33 Sterling).

    However, the Superior’s casualties continued to be based on the New Extent, or a fiftieth of the 1643 value, whilst right up to the Reform Act of 1832, the parliamentary franchise remained fixed at 40/- of Old Extent.

  15. You should Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, it has a rather similar line on the distinction between ‘private’ and ‘public’.

  16. Making a more thorough study of Marx is one of those things I’m always wanting to get around to.

  17. [...] Interesting. —————————————————————————————————— What are the practical consequences of the neofeudal possition? That still needs to be worked out. In a series of future posts, I’d like to argue the following–all in the spirit of the historical Louis de Bonald: [...]

  18. I’m not sure this would work, but I like the fact that there are some concrete proposals out there to debate. I admire the sentiments of, for example, the distributists, but their proposals, such as they are, tend to mostly be a bunch of hand-waiving.

  19. That private property entails the right to smash it to bits, I don’t mean to dispute. But why should this be an impermissibly bad thing, such that one doubts the institution? Suppose property does not exist solely for the owner’s pleasure, but to give him a means by which he can express his heart, can obey the Law or defy it, can say to God either ‘thy will be done’ or ‘my will be done’? Why should private property not be a delegated authority, wherein the one with authority is answerable to the higher authority from which it came, but not answerable to his fellows?

    (This was essentially Richard Weaver’s view from chapter 7 of ‘Ideas Have Consequences’.)

    It’s worth pointing out, in light of that, that in the ‘About’ section, you reject Liberal Point 2, that ‘we should always be suspicious of authority and see that it is properly checked and monitored’. Are you quite certain you aren’t taking it up again, when you use the possibility that someone may abuse his property as reason to reject the claim of authority outright?

  20. Nothing is more characteristic of Roman Law than the stark distinction it draws between possession, which is a fact and ownership, which is a right.

    Mirabeau was a true product of “le pays du droit écrit,” when he insisted that ““Property is a social creation. The laws not only protect and maintain property; they bring it into being; they determine its scope and the extent that it occupies in the rights of the citizens”

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