The medieval empire

Is resistance futile as America goes feudal?

Illustration By Don Button

“Hateful poverty, of all evils worst!” It’s an exclamation we might argue with in this time of seemingly endless consumption, but Geoffrey Chaucer makes a good case for placing extreme neediness at the top of the list of horrors to be endured. In the medieval poet’s best-known work, The Canterbury Tales, the character of the Man at Law spends his prologue expounding on the difficulties of a life without financial security: “It’s better to be dead than poor.”

Of course, Chaucer’s poetry is old. Really, really old. Poverty such as the Man at Law describes isn’t something with which we contemporary folk need be too concerned. To many of us, all the horrors of the medieval period—poverty and debt, poor health and no medicine, famine, being sent off to fight in wars for the profit of the nobility—seem so far away from our super-sized economy as to be of merely historical interest. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so hasty.

A series of moves are afoot to turn the socioeconomic clock back for most wage earners—and we’re not talking just a few decades. William Greider, writing in The Nation a couple of years ago, argued that a neoconservative, Bush-administration-approved plan would take the United States back to the McKinley era—a time of robber barons, cheap labor and no pesky environmental regulations. In fact, current policy moves—the right’s plans for Social Security, pension systems, and access to debt relief through bankruptcy—aim to turn the clock backward, not to the 19th century, but to the 13th. They’re going totally medieval on the social safety net.

The current move to dismantle Social Security—under cover of “reform”—resembles the current move to “reform” California’s public pension system, which in turn is similar to recent lender-friendly legislation setting limits on personal bankruptcy. But these actions all are part and parcel of the same cloth: the transfer of funds from the wage earners to the well-off. The extinction of the middle class, a process that’s been under way since the Reagan administration, will be the end result of these “reforms.”

What will this new feudalism look like? An awful lot like the old one, but substitute “big business” for “nobility.” Under the feudal system of the early Middle Ages—and contrary to popular opinion—nations were not governed by kings, but rather by the feudal barons, who ran their estates, minted their own currency, taxed and drafted their subjects and administered justice. Often, the feudal barons or lords had greater resources—larger armies and heftier treasuries—than the king. As a consequence, even though the king was theoretically in charge of the barons, he depended upon their support in order to maintain power. Check out all the troubles Richard II had keeping his nobles in line—including the one who executed him and took his throne.

Peasants had a rough go of it; they worked hard, often for little in pay (certainly not a living wage as we understand the concept), usually with Sundays and holidays off, and they were considered free. Retirement, that lovely concept of a gentle old age that Franklin Delano Roosevelt made accessible for the working class, didn’t exist. If an elderly peasant was lucky, she could earn her keep with the family by doing light work around the house. If not, well, at least she was a peasant, so she died free.

Serfs, on the other hand, were pretty much screwed. Oh, it wasn’t technically slavery, but a serf couldn’t own property, marry, or travel without the permission of his or her lord. The only option was to run away and hope he didn’t get caught. Some legal systems allowed serfs who’d successfully dodged their baron for a year to become free, which meant they became peasants. Whoopee.

That accounts for two of the three classes, or “estates,” within the feudal framework: nobility and workers. The third estate was the clerical class, made up of, literally, clerks. Of course, that group included the clergy (hence the term “cleric”), as well as doctors, lawyers, skilled tradesmen and artisans.

Think middle class—and think small. There just weren’t all that many folks who fell into this group.

Now, substitute big business—as in large corporations, which are legally “persons”—in the category of nobility, and take a look at the three estates of the new feudalism that our elected officials are in the process of creating out of all their “reform.”

Under the vague outlines of President George W. Bush’s plan to “reform” Social Security, younger workers will have the option of tying their retirement safety net to the stock market. (It’s important to remember here that Social Security was never intended to be the sole source of retirement income; it always was planned as a safety net—and insurance program—to keep the elderly, orphaned and disabled from falling into abject poverty. That it’s become the main source of retirement income for so many Americans is testimony to just how bad we are at saving—or, more accurately, how hard it is to save anything on worker’s wages.)

Of course, if a minimal retirement income is subject to the vagaries of Wall Street—an idea rejected out of hand by the original framers of the Social Security program, who still were feeling the shock waves of the 1929 crash—then it’s no longer much of a safety net. Just ask someone who had to delay his retirement because of a ravaged 401(k) when the bull market turned bear in 2001.

No, what these “personal” retirement accounts guarantee is that fund managers and big corporations will get an infusion of income. Some folks might get lucky, but most won’t—especially when the cost of managing these private accounts is calculated. More than one wag has called Bush’s plan the “No Stockbroker Left Behind” Act.

The same principle is involved with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan to set up a two-tiered retirement system for state workers. Leaving aside the obvious point that a two-tiered retirement system is a nice way to break unions—newer employees, whose future already has been sacrificed, have no incentive to join the union—it also puts state workers in the same boat as those who are relying on Social Security for their entire retirement income: at the mercy of the Wall Street wheel of fortune.

And, like any endeavor that relies on Fortuna, the goddess of chance, some will win big. Most, however, like a weekend visitor to Cache Creek or Thunder Valley, will wind up with very little to show for their labors. We’re back to no retirement. What’s that leave? Work, on into old age.

Of course, some folks will be too sick to work. They’ll have Medicare, though, to help with the bills. Or not.

Medicare is in far worse trouble than Social Security right now, in no small part because of the recent changes in its prescription-drug plan. We might call that one the “No Pharmaceutical Company Left Behind” Act. There are already a proposed $15 billion in cuts to Medicare on the table, and considering the size of the deficit, it’s going to get worse.

Ironically, feudalism was based upon a stated belief in mutual obligation: The baron was supposedly responsible for his vassals, and the vassals owed him service in return. In reality, the folks who did the owing had a lot less leverage than the fortunate few who did the owning.

Today, the politicians who preach an “ownership” society are neatly evading a simple fact: The public already owns the government. As we steadily allow increased privatization of public resources—consolidation of those resources in the hands of corporations—we own less and less. If President Bush has his way, we’ll no longer own our retirement safety net; Wall Street will. Our money, taken out of our wages in taxes, no longer will be administered by the government we own, but by fund managers and stock brokers who will happily charge us for the privilege of betting with our dollars.

What’s more, the new personal-bankruptcy laws will speed up the process of reducing wage earners to indebted servitude. No longer allowed to reorganize in a way that clears out credit-card debt, those who’ve become overextended—over half the time because of medical expenses, according to a recent Harvard study—will be mandated to repay the balance without relief from interest and penalties.

Corporations, the new lords of the manor, will own the labor of those who owe them.

And the king—or, in this case, the president and other politicians—also are indebted to those new robber barons. Credit-card companies and other lenders are major sources of campaign financing; politicians depend on corporations for funding just as medieval kings relied on feudal lords.

The bankruptcy bill lays the foundation for a new feudalism in which debtors will be unable to free themselves from their servitude to the companies who own their labor—a real twist on Bush’s “ownership society” and one to think about the next time you whip out the plastic to pay a medical bill.

One can almost hear Tennessee Ernie Ford’s booming baritone: “St. Peter, don’t call me / ’cause I can’t go / I owe my soul to the company store.”

Of course, it’s not just the alterations to Social Security, public pensions and bankruptcy law that are part of the plan to construct a new feudalism.

It’s also massive deficits and the treasury-draining war in Iraq—all part of what neocon Grover Norquist famously has described as a plan to reduce our government to a size so small it can be “drowned in a bathtub.” And as our government drowns, that brief, 20th-century memory of a wage earner’s ability to live well is also circling the drain.

Max Barry, in a novel he wrote a couple of years ago, envisioned one possible result of increased corporate control of our lives. Jennifer Government describes a future in which everything is privatized and workers take on the name of their corporate employers as surnames (that makes me Kel SN&R). The government provides services only to those who can pay for them, Schildren attend schools run by corporations to prepare them to work in those corporations, parks and natural spaces are privately held and available only to those who can afford the visit, and even the quality of the roads people drive on is determined by how much they’re willing to pay for them.

That’s the ownership society that these peddlers of “ownership” have in mind for us: Those who own, own it all. The rest of us just owe.