Repost: neofeudalism

Originally posted here (lots of typos corrected below). See also Zippy on property.

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

Socialism is the inevitable result of modernity’s public/private dichotomy:  “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 embarrassment in calling the lands he administered “his” land and the people on it “his” vassals, 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, monogamous indissoluble 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 position?  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.

14 Responses

  1. […] Source: Throne and Altar […]

  2. @Bonald – I regard these kind of analyses as thought experiments, designed to break the hold of unexamined false habits – but they should not be regarded as policy blueprints. Indeed, these things are something of a snare for intellectuals (see for example the endless utopian system-building of the Moldbug-influenced neoreactionaries).

    The relationship between Christianity and politics is as simple as – be the best Christian you can, and fit politics around it as best you can (politics being the art of the possible – but requiring a direction and rules).

    One consequence of Christian thinking is, I think, the necessity for personal responsibility in all decisions. This leads to many possible forms of government and law – but rules-out the current use of non-responisble committees and voting.

    In a group decision either everybody should be individually and personally responsible for the decision – in other words decisions must be unanimous; or else in practice nobody is really responsible and the decision merely emerges from some mathematic process, not human judgment. Kenneth Arrow demonstrated 50 years ago (mathematically) that voting may lead to decisions which *nobody* approves.

    Not as a blueprint… but if you don’t already know it you would be fascinated by the political and economic system of the early Mormon state under Brigham Young – it had many of the features you describe, and it worked extremely well for a few decades. Unfortunately there isn’t a single source I can direct you to – but there is a lot scattered through The Mormon Experience: a history of the Latter-Day Saints by LJ Arrington and D Bitton.

    What is also an interesting context to the magnificent achievements of early Utah/Deseret is the vitriolic (and dishonest) response – which lasted for several generations.

    The popular and academic imagination was fixated upon imaginary nonsese about assassination squads (Danites etc) – ignoring the astonishing achievements in eliminating both poverty on the one hand, and idle parasitism on the other; in the context of a high immigration society; and combined with a remarkable level of education, music, theatre, dance and other civilized conveniences (the tireless and rigorous Terryl Givens has been producing scholarly volumes documenting these cultural aspects over recent years).

    The fact that this real-life, objective, local and recent achievement is not more studied and understood in the USA is probably evidence of continued animus – but I know you aren’t like that! so I am sure you would find this stuff useful.

  3. Could you elaborate point two?

  4. After the State confiscates the money in #2, does it then commit suicide to make way for the Aristocracy? I can’t imagine the Boehner’s and Schumer’s of the world voluntarily relinquishing power to build the Catholic utopia.
    Great, thought-provoking piece. Thanks.

  5. I regard these kind of analyses as thought experiments, designed to break the hold of unexamined false habits – but they should not be regarded as policy blueprints. Indeed, these things are something of a snare for intellectuals (see for example the endless utopian system-building of the Moldbug-influenced neoreactionaries).

    Indeed, if only he quoted Gandalf or Frodo then you would have liked it better. Really Bruce, your farcical attempts at evangelism are becoming very tiresome. Whatever the problems with Moldbug and neo-reactionaries, you citing Mormon political thought here is silly. When Utah became a state, it overwhelmingly voted for William Jennings Bryan, a left-populist and one who would go onto to be the socialist party candidate. Utah was one of the few states to have done so. You have never made any mention of this or even bothered to grapple with it in all your “commentary” on “leftism.” Whats even worse is that Modern Mormons see the American Constitution, the first truly liberal and secular political constitution, the product of a cabal of hyper-rationalist anti-Christian thinkers as being divinely ordained. How can anyone take what you say seriously?

    If one wants to see traditional cultures in the US, one should look to the Spanish Southwest. That culture was basically a extension of Christendom into the New World. While not always amicable, it also provides an interesting and neglected model of racial and ethnic harmony, much more so than in the Anglo colonies. Of course this civilization was conquered and basically destroyed by the US,( spearheaded by the Mormon battalion of course) in the name of progress and liberty.

  6. What’s your view on distributism and the encyclical Rerum Novarum by pope Leo xiii?

  7. Hello ISE,

    I’m surprised you don’t side with the Utah theocrats against the godless Americans, and with the anticapitalist fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan for that matter. We all know that America is really good at hollowing out religions and replacing them with clones of itself (well, maybe “we all” don’t know it, but you and I and anyone who heeded the popes’ warnings do), Mormonism included. The Utah experiment (which I know next to nothing about) gives us clues as to what Mormonism’s authentic development might have been.

  8. “What’s your view on distributism and the encyclical Rerum Novarum by pope Leo xiii?”

    The question is not directed to me, but I’d point out that in a feudalist society, laws should aim to maintain aristocratic fortunes (e.g. legal primogeniture), but to disperse fortunes owned by commoners (e.g. partiable inheritance).

  9. The problem with Mormonism is that, because of its views on the constitution, it is corrupted to the core.

  10. “The fact that this real-life, objective, local and recent achievement is not more studied and understood in the USA is probably evidence of continued animus – but I know you aren’t like that! so I am sure you would find this stuff useful.”

    The only thing people learn about the Massachussetts Puritans is that somewhere some community has a law about stoning disobedient children, not that they accomplished anything.

  11. Bonald,

    I have always said the US government’s persecution on Mormons was one of the few good things it has ever done. Protestants of the time still took their religion seriously enough to see that Mormonism was nothing but an attack on the quasi-orthodox Christianity in this country. The Supreme Court’s rejection of Mormon polygamy was the right decision arguably for the wrong reasons.

    If you really look at the Mormon arguments both then and now, they were essentially arguing that American religious toleration included them and all of their anti-social practices. Mormons were in essence arguing that American society was not liberal enough* and needed to live up to its own stated principals in the Constitution. This is now true even mores o today where fundamentalist Mormons in Utah have challenged that state’s anti-polygamy statutes, citing the Supreme Court cases of Lawrence v. Texas and Windsor v. United States (the two cases legalizing sodomy and upholding the overturning of the Californian anti-SSM law). They are doing their part to undermine the residue of Christianity in the US. This also shows the complete folly of the USCCB for allying with Mormons on the “sanctity of marriage.”

    Regarding Bryan and American left-populism, I do admire aspects of 19th century populism, it is probably the most coherent ideology to arise here in the US although its flaws are also obvious. What I don’t like are moderns who’s ancestors were largely economic leftists now touting their “tradition” of free market economics. Its nothing less than what you have said in the past, its a form of reverse class warfare “we have ours and we’re noting going to subsidize’ you.”

    As noted in my comment, from the very beginning the Mormons were spearheading the growth of Americanism into the Southwest and Mormonism continues to spearhead Americanism into other parts of the world today.

  12. […] still working well. Social Matter audio. “We shall never truly defeat socialism until we abolish private property” (apparently). Secular religion. Whose side is history on? Round-ups from FN […]

  13. “property is artificial.”
    Certainly not. Private property is based upon the moral axion that a man must eat of the sweat of his labor.

  14. vishmehr24

    Arguably not, at least not all of it: for not all property is earned, surely?
    Inheritance, for example, cannot be reduced to things produced by the heir.

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