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Serfdom Is Better Than What the West is Heading For

2015 March 20
by Ian Welsh
Time to be an Entrepeneur, by anoncru

Time to be an Entrepreneur, by anoncru

One of the things that we forget about Feudalism is that serfs had rights: economic rights.  They had the right to farm common land, they had the right to take wood from common forests, they had the right to live where they had lived before.

This is not to say that they were free, they certainly were not.  But they were not slaves; they had access to, as it were, capital: what they needed to grow their own food, shelter themselves and clothe themselves.

We have an overly grim view of the Middle Ages, but, in various periods and various places, serfs, let alone freeholders, lived quite well.  Much of what we associate as the worst of the Middle Ages actually happened either in the Dark Ages or in the Renaissance.  For example, torture really takes off in the Renaissance, because as Stirling Newberry has pointed out, torture chambers and so on take a lot of iron and they didn’t have it to waste in the Middle Ages.

Late serfdom (after the Renaissance) was pleasant enough for serfs that they had to be forced off their land: The factories were worse.  In factories, they lived shorter, sicker lives and worked far more.  Capitalism is based on dependency—on wage laborers needing to work for someone else, or their lives are miserable or short.  (Marx’s “whip of hunger”.)  It is voluntary only in the sense that you can offer your labor to anyone willing to pay, not in the sense that you can opt out of the system and have anything approaching a decent life.


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Today, if you lose your job and you’re an ordinary person, you can’t support yourself. If the government, friends or family don’t give you what you need, you have to beg for it.  If you don’t get it, you die.  Homesteading laws and laws which allowed people to take unused or underused property and use it to support themselves have been drastically weakened.

Absent a job, or charity, you will probably wind up dead.  If you don’t, you will be miserable.

Our forebears in the 19th century understood this. It’s why they called jobs “wage slavery.”  You do what you’re told by your boss, where you’re told to do it, when you’re told to do it, how you’re told to do it, and if you don’t, feel free to try and find another job.

Whether you can find another job is often unrelated to your personal attributes and has little to do with anything approaching virtue (those who doubt this are invited to investigate how Wall Street and Fleet Street make their money).  How well most people are paid is a market decision in the sense that it has to do with the balance between labor supply and demand, and labor power and the power of capital: For all intents and purposes labor only has pricing power if it is organized and politically powerful or if the labor market is tight.

Those who came out of the Great Depression understood this because they had seen many people, through no fault of their own, reduced to poverty, unable to find any work.  Because of this they tightened labor laws, tried to make unions more powerful and taxed the heck out of rich people so they couldn’t use their money to destroy the liberal state.

What they didn’t do was overthrow capitalism; they didn’t see a better, more practical way to organize society.  As a result, many men stayed in positions of vast private power and wealth (even if they personally were heavily taxed) and were eventually able to use that money to overthrow the liberal state in England and the US, and from there they have been able to undermine it virtually everywhere, including in most of the European socialist states.

What is on offer, then, is not neo-feudalism, with neo-serfs, but aristocrats and their slaves–slaves towards whom the aristocrats feel less and less an obligation to even feed (see all the cuts to food stamps).  In some ways it’s superior to even slavery for the master-class: Surplus labor beyond what is needed to keep wages down is now completely disposable and doesn’t have to be paid for, after all.

So understand this: What is being offered you, increasingly, is a chance to scramble for pennies from your masters and when considered superfluous to their needs, to suffer and quite probably die before your time.

Serfdom?  You should be so lucky.

29 Responses
  1. V. Arnold permalink
    March 20, 2015

    Serfdom? You should be so lucky.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Indeed. Very nice post and dead on, I might add.
    The serfs, for the most part, had it better than unemployed middle and under class.

  2. V. Arnold permalink
    March 20, 2015

    “Not slaves” is a very crucial point; because it increasingly looks like wage slavery in the U.S.
    Being employed in minimum wage jobs is tantamount to slavery.
    The compliant population is the most frightening thing I’ve seen in my lifetime.

  3. Cvp permalink
    March 20, 2015

    http://www.economist.com/printedition/covers/2014-12-30/ap-e-eu-la-me-na-uk

    They’re not even trying to hide it anymore.

  4. March 20, 2015

    The revolt is coming…

  5. March 20, 2015

    But we are doing wonderful things. Unemployment is down to 5.6% now, almost what it was before the recession. Target and Walmart have raised their wages to $9/hr. Cities and states are raising minimum wages so that “food service” careers are more rewarding, and there is even talk of raising the national minimum wage. San Francisco is even turning off sprinklers so the homeless can once again camp on the cathedral grounds.

    I don’t know where the criticism is coming from. Our society is a model for the success of modern democracy and liberal generosity.

  6. RJMeyers permalink
    March 20, 2015

    In a very abstract sense, China manufactures, the US and Europe consume. Low(er) labor costs, cheap shipping, and lax regulations allow cheaper manufacturing overseas, while the populations of the US and Europe are relatively affluent and can afford to buy these products. You have a low cost source and a high income consumer sink. Under this arrangement, there’s at least some incentive to keep the middle class in the US and Europe afloat, though stagnant.

    What I worry about is Chinese domestic consumption. It’s a huge country with rising incomes and the natural next step is to turn it into a mass consumption society. At that point, China will be both manufacturing and consuming at high levels. The consumption of the US and Europe will become partially redundant and the need to maintain high incomes for this consumption will decrease.

    I’m not sure what happens as we approach that point. In the US, domestic revolt? Or an increased reliance on its military and intelligence capabilities to extort value from the rest of the world and distributed via some new welfare 2.0 (doubtful, imo)?

  7. Cvp permalink
    March 20, 2015

    In a very abstract sense, China manufactures, the US and Europe consume.

    I’ve always wondered, why can’t China’s merchant ships just dump their cargo in the middle of the Pacific, thereby eliminating the “need” to find “consumers”…?

  8. alyosha permalink
    March 20, 2015

    Adding to Ian’s argument – making human labor superfluous – is the relentless push toward automating nearly all work, brilliantly argued in Humans Need Not Apply.

    The irony is,if society were configured differently, robots and machines could produce all the abundance everyone would need to survive. We’d have to get through the energy bottle-neck that drives this, and get past destroying the eco-system which threatens to bring down the roof over our heads, but otherwise we have all the tools and creativity we would need to keep everyone fed and clothed.

  9. Anthony Cooper permalink
    March 20, 2015

    Alyosha,

    That’s exactly right. I hold huge reservations regarding energy concerns, but if that can be solved, the sky really is the limit.

    Property rights probably need some work, new forms of government, etc. Those are all very doable. Still, the energy thing is key. All the rest really depends on it.

  10. John permalink
    March 20, 2015

    Everyone could be reasonably sheltered, clothed and fed with only a modest energy input.
    Think about someplace like Cuba.
    But what is going to occupy all the naked apes with their monkey minds with nothing to do?
    That’s the question.
    If we took the Bonobo route and spent our days in intimacy and frequent sex, there would still be a lot of time left over.
    A small number would pursue creative activities.
    The vast majority would have a lot of difficulty. Especially those who have been indoctrinated to require distraction and are not comfortable being with themselves.
    That’s a problem that makes the energy issue pale in comparison.
    Not to worry. After looking up the wiki on slavery and serfdom…a long wiki, that is. Seems to me it’s not so much about work but control of the disenfranchised by TPTB.
    Same reason the staff gives out so much Thorazine (or drug du jour) in nursing homes.
    And in that sense, it hasn’t changed much since city states arose in the fertile crescent.

  11. March 20, 2015

    I think some common wisdom is being lost as we lose the generation that lived through the Great Depression. There is a common thread in a lot of old movies, “It’s a Wonderful Life” being one of the best examples, where older characters can help us to see this. (George’s mother, in a Mr. Potter-dominated world, runs a rooming house.) It’s there in a lot of old films and early t.v. These sympathetically broken characters, played by actors who would have been born in the 1800’s, seemed to be recognizable to younger people, until about the late 50’s. Frank Capra’s audience for “populist” films was perceived to have run out after “It’s a Wonderful Life.” One wonders if a less egalitarian wish for one’s neighbors was an organic thing, or engineered. Does our current entertainment encourage us to respect and help each other, or not? (X)

  12. March 20, 2015

    I am a businessman for one reason and one reason only. It is so unbearably miserable to be an employee in the United States that I felt I had no choice. I hate all employers. All. Of. Them. Without a union, the employer-employee relationship is irretrievably poisoned. Just looking around at all of the dead eyes of my co-workers was enough to make me nauseous or worse. The work environment is deliberately organized to make employees neurotic or worse. I hate employers with do-gooder ideals (fucking non-profits), I hate employers who have a psychopathic drive for exploitation, I hate employers who think our work means anything big (martyrs), etc.

    Yes, that is how I really feel.

  13. Dan Lynch permalink
    March 20, 2015

    Spot on, Ian !

    I have been known to point out that African-American slaves enjoyed full employment for life with room, board, and what passed for medical care in those days. There were no unemployed slaves and no homeless slaves.

    I am not trying to belittle the misery and injustice of slavery, just pointing out that if the holy grail of economics is full employment, then the AnteBellum South achieved that for blacks.

    Maybe we need to rethink our goalposts?

  14. Ramona permalink
    March 20, 2015

    Reading “Sacred Economics” really helped me focus on what humans have lost since the Middle Ages and even since we moved from tribal groups to agriculturally based cities.

    The assumptions hammered into generations of Americans that we are living in a golden age and that everything was nightmarish before the postmodern age is one of the barriers to changing our world.

    I am a professional but feel more and more like a wage slave with fewer rights than a serf and tons and tons more stress of all sorts. A serf may have lived and died in the same place, but s/he could count on almost half a year of days off when there simply was nothing much to do or it was a religious holiday.

    Now, every minute of my time 24/7 is counted in some way as my job never ends and expectations constantly increase.

    And I am one of the very, very lucky ones.

  15. Gaianne permalink
    March 21, 2015

    Well said, Ian.

    –Gaianne

  16. V. Arnold permalink
    March 21, 2015

    @ Ianwelsh; serfdom-is-better-than-what-the-west-is-heading-for.

    While that is probably true; what is the reason the U.S. proletariate is willing to accept slavery, much less serfdom?
    Fear, intimidation, militarized police, and the end of a society/government of laws.
    Next question; what is the reason the U.S. proletariate stays within the confines of a government like that?
    Fear, intimidation, militarized police, and the end of a society of laws.
    And I would add, thanks to education; a total lack of critical thinking skills and the consequent lack of imagination regarding a solution to the dilemma; if in fact that very dilemma is even recognized.
    In my 70 years, the most frightening thing I’ve ever seen, is the complicity of the citizenry of the U.S. of A. Scares me shitless, it does…

  17. Pelham permalink
    March 21, 2015

    @ Stirling Newberry

    I certainly hope the revolt is coming. But can it succeed?

    It seems to me, judging from my limited knowledge of history, that two things are lacking:

    1) We don’t have an organized, disciplined party or organization with a clear idea of where we should take the country once the old regime gives way;

    2) The elites show very little sign of losing faith in the governing neoliberalism — although there have been some faint indications of doubt emanating from the likes of Larry Summers and the IMF.

    The only hopeful signs I see are in Greece with Syriza, Spain with Podemos and (frighteningly but most significantly) in France with the Front Nationale. In those places and with those parties we finally witness a real break with neoliberalism. This is all the more the case as the center-right and center-left mainstream parties in those states have been worn down internally and discredited broadly by their embrace of austerity that has long since proved to be wholly counterproductive — and this by itself undermines the entire neoliberal/globalist project in the eyes of many.

  18. Ryan permalink
    March 21, 2015

    > the revolt is coming

    …and it will be co-opted and redirected towards irrational ends; just like the last one, and the one before that

  19. Cvp permalink
    March 21, 2015

    embrace of austerity that has long since proved to be wholly counterproductive —

    Why do we have to keep up this pretense of free agency?

  20. anonymous permalink
    March 21, 2015

    Robert Reich sees just such a nightmare; http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2015/03/robert-reich-in-our-horrifying-future-very-few-people-will-have-work-or-make-money/

    and as for farming….. see this; reason.com/archives/2015/03/20/the-end-of-farming

  21. Cvp permalink
    March 21, 2015

    While that is probably true; what is the reason the U.S. proletariate is willing to accept slavery, much less serfdom?

    Same reason the Spartans were willing to live worse than their slaves. Power over others.

  22. Trixie permalink
    March 21, 2015

    They’re not even trying to hide it anymore…

    Yep, but I’m cautiously optimistic. Say what you will about Americans — and there’s certainly a lot to say: the good, the bad, and the ugly — but when the full effects of neoliberalism roost? At home? That’s when it ends.

    Libertarian economist Tyler Cowen sums it all up in his book Average is Over. And while he’s really bad at statistics, he’s correct in his assessment of the current economic and political trajectory of the US…

    To sum up, Mr. Cowen believes that America is dividing itself in two. At the top will be 10% to 15% of high achievers, the “Tiger Mother” kids if you like, whose self-motivation and mastery of technology will allow them to roar away into the future. Then there will be everyone else, slouching into an underfunded future of lower economic expectations, shantytowns and an endless diet of beans. I’m not kidding about the beans. (…) If that doesn’t propel you and your children out of bed, you deserve all the beans you get.

    I’m with Carney (coming from a conservative pov) though on the assumed passivity of Americans: Don’t bet on it.

    What Cowen describes is a situation in which America is ripe for a political and social revolution. You can keep some of the people down most of the time, you can keep most of the people down some of the time, but you can’t keep most of the people down most of the time. Not in the United States.

    Capitalism has been the most successful program of the modern era. It has improved the lives of millions. If Cowen is right and it’s next phase is widespread lowering of the standards of living for most Americans, its days are numbered.

    http://www.cnbc.com/id/101137659

    Hell, even Paul Krugman — The Conscience of a L̶i̶b̶e̶r̶a̶l̶ Borderline Sociopath — makes the case for soaring inequality as one big economic MEH:

    So am I saying that you can have full employment based on purchases of yachts, luxury cars, and the services of personal trainers and celebrity chefs? Well, yes. You don’t have to like it, but economics is not a morality play, and I’ve yet to see a macroeconomic argument about why it isn’t possible.

    http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/20/inequality-and-recovery/

    Again, don’t bet on it.

    I mean don’t get me wrong, the misguided effort to “get gov out of the way” will continue. And when those same efforts predictably result in even more people filling out applications for gov assistance programs instead of “freedom wages”? Or that, as it turns out, it’s not a lack of “family values” that’s destroying working family communities? Robert Reich gets it right: It’s not about the size of gov, it’s who gov is working for.

    And the masses are going to figure it out. Eventually. They have to since TPTB have no intention of reversing 30+ years of policy that culminated in a global financial crisis that’s yet to be resolved. In fact, they’re doubling down so this experiment is not over. Alas, the needed pushback is going to come from the far-right though. And where it goes, nobody knows.

    Buckle up.

  23. March 21, 2015

    Pel and Ry

    Of course it won’t. But you have the the direction reversed.

  24. V. Arnold permalink
    March 21, 2015

    @ Cvp
    March 21, 2015

    Do you understand that we are the proletariate?

  25. Everythings Jake permalink
    March 22, 2015

    Michael Perelman’s is very good on this topic . I think what the 1-10% blind themselves to is resistance, organization. They believe in technological prowess, but when the vast majority is hungry, there is only so much technology can do. That said, can the ordinary cycles of history apply when climate change threatens us all. Tony Wikrent’s hope of potential progress appeals, although that science and technology, the abuse of which is a principal source of the problem would be the solution is ironic, and Auden may have seen greater truth in no one noticing “something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky.”

  26. RhettORick permalink
    March 22, 2015

    A revolution is coming. But it will be orchestrated by the financially elite. And it won’t be between the lower classes and the uber-wealthy, but between factions of the lower classes. One possible scenario is that the Black Community will get fed up with the overreach of the White police and fight back with increasing violence. At some point this will reach a point where the heavily armed Right Wing will need to “help” the police subdue the outbreaks. I see this as the “Revolution” that some are so hoping for. The uber-wealthy will see to it that THEIR police are well armed and equipped. This “revolution” will provide the uber-wealthy the excuse to completely tighten the noose on the lower classes and may even decide to disarm the Right Wing (Brown Shirts), temporarily of course, until things settle down.
    Yes a revolution is coming but it won’t set you free.
    This is a little off topic but just had to type it out.

  27. Flaser permalink
    March 22, 2015

    @V. Arnold: Cvp actually makes a good point, albeit the historic allegory is not that fitting. In our increasingly stratified society, the power you hold over others, no matter how wretched you personally are is a potent drug to keep you in line… if nothing else, the power to imagine yourself “better” than those beneath you.

    Black vs. White, blue collar vs white, office aparatchik vs plumber you can find many ways how society is fragmented. The fact that all of this is unsaid, unacknowledged and hidden beneath a thin veneer of “egality” is the most mordant irony of our century.

  28. March 22, 2015

    @X Yes, Milton Friedman was right in one respect. “When a crisis occurs, the actions taken depend on the ideas lying around.” The ideas lying around during the 1930s and 1940s that produced movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” were anti-capitalist, labor friendly and saturated with feminism. “It Happened on Fifth Avenue” that I watched at Christmas is about a hobo who occupies (YES, Occupies) a rich man’s mansion every winter when the richest man in the world goes to his Southern home. Against his better judgement the hobo (pretending to be the rich man) takes in a homeless veteran (YES, veterans are treated like crap). The veteran has a bunch of ex GI buddies and their wives and kids who also need housing, so the hobo takes in all of them. The daughter of the rich man runs away from her snooty college and decides to hide in her father’s mansion. She overhears the hobo confessing that he’s a hobo to the vet. She decides to pretend to be poor so she can stay there too and cuz the Vet is cute. When she finally confronts her rich father, she tells him that she doesn’t understand why they should have empty houses when there are people that need them. Meanwhile the vet and his buddies hope to purchase an army barracks and turn it into communal housing.

    Other movies also have spunky females like Barbara Stanwyck in “Christmas in Connecticut” who writes a Martha Stewart like column in a NY newspaper about her Connecticut stately farm. Truth is she’s an poorly paid working girl who lives in a one bedroom flat in NYC. “Holiday Affair” is about a single war widow raising her son. “My Man Godfrey” is my favorite film. It’s about a bunch of rich people going on a scavenger hunt. One of the “items” they must find is a “forgotten man”. So they go to where all the homeless are shacked up to find one.
    And audiences loved these stories. They still do if given the chance. “The Devil Wears Prada” is very much in this tradition, but not nearly as subversive as the old movies. Besides giving people work on sewer systems and dams, the WPA funded writers, artists and photographers. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have another WPA type deal in order to have more ideas than neo-liberalism lying around.

  29. March 23, 2015

    A-a-a-h-h-h-h, yes!
    Existing in a “default” world with all its “default” societies.
    Everything already predetermined by the governments, industries, merchants, charities and institutions.
    The only “choices” we have are among what’s already been “provided” for us collectively.
    Including laws, social climate, prejudices, dogmas, customs, belief systems …etc.

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