Starcat 1 by my favourite artist

Thursday, 4 October 2012


Slowly, perhaps not that slowly, we are sliding back to feudalism. Since the Black Death and the dearth of workers it caused, the common man has, in general terms, been gaining political and economic power as well as attaining ever more individual freedoms. This is now being reversed.

Let us first look at feudalism. The basic social set-up was triangular with the King, responsible to no-one but God, at the apex. Beneath him was the land-owning nobility, in all its different gradations, and at the bottom the serfs, bound to their squires’ lands and with no freedom whatsoever. Interestingly, as we scale the triangle and power is ever more concentrated in the hands of fewer individuals, the freedom of the individuals in question increases. We could therefore argue that the greater the power wielded by the individual, the more freedom he enjoyed. I say “he” because at the time, women were regarded as mere chattels and therefore, do not even enter into the Medieval equation.

As mentioned before, God floated above the whole as the ultimate auditor, the great tithe-taker in the sky, payment to whom could be deferred until going gently – or not so gently –  into that goodnight. Perhaps indeed, payment might even avoided by a timely confession – just like the tax amnesties practised today by cash-strapped governments to squeeze money out of rich tax-dodgers or to give their mate a chance to money-launder bribes.

Just like today, however, those at the bottom of the heap had to make their regular payments otherwise dire retribution was not far behind.

In those far-off days the Church also had a stranglehold on knowledge, and so all knowledge passed through the filter of its own interests – indeed even the teachings of the Bible were unavailable to the layman in his own language. One great advantage of the Church was, however, that to a certain extent it was a meritocracy, recognising the intellectual skills of the commoner and welcoming him into the fold where he could then progress and prosper benefiting both himself and the Church. Let us not forget what Pres. Harry S. Truman said about a problematic adviser “it’s better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.” Obviously, however, Truman did not have a handy pyre on whcih to burn his heretics.

Those outside the charmed circle of power and knowledge were left to grub about on their hands and knees, fearful for their nasty, brutish and short lives until they found release in the grave.

Unfortunately for the feudal system, too many found their release in the grave during the Black Death and all of a sudden the common man found that he was a scarce resource and slowly but surely began to improve his lot. It was a struggle that lasted centuries and with it, among other benefits, came the rise of the middle classes, the Industrial Revolution, the 19th-Century Workers Institutes, the Trades Unions, Free Universal Education, Universal Suffrage, the Welfare State.

And here we are.

And here we are at a moment in history where slowly we are regressing to serfdom. I am not a conspiracy theorist. I do not believe that there is a group of evil billionaires and politicians who are consciously plotting to turn us into serfs, but that is the way that history is taking us.

The increasing political, social and even geographical freedoms of the individual were the fruits of scientific, technological and economic progress. This progress has required and ever-increasing number of literate and numerate workers to maintain momentum. The individual has become accustomed to more wealth, comfort and rights than what was enjoyed by the previous generation.

However, as our wealth has increased, so have the means to take it from us. Who hasn’t got a reasonably new car, a flat-screen TV, a mobile phone, an iPod or a computer – and who doesn’t aspire to an iPhone and iPad or similar? Who hasn’t got children who enjoy all of the above, plus at least two games consoles? Do we need all of this? Now yes. Ten years ago, no.

How do we afford all of this? We don’t. Our banks lend us the money to acquire them and then take a slice of our earnings to service the debt. How do we power these devices? With energy that is increasingly expensive, whatever its form. The State too takes its tithe – more than its tithe – in the form of direct and indirect taxes.

Where does this leave us? In Serfland. Like our ancestors the serfs who were incapable of penetrating the Mysteries of the church we cannot even begin to grasp the Mysteries of the invisible, ineffable, all-seeing, all-knowing Internet upon which our daily existence – our daily bread - literally depends.  Like our ancestors the serfs we are tied to the land. In our case we are tied to our homes by mortgages from which only death will release us. We are also tied to our towns and villages by the cost of transport which makes it evermore difficult to travel either in our own vehicles or by public transport due to the remorseless rise in costs.

So what can we do? Stay at home and watch TV or serf (sic) the World Wide Web. It’s not in Latin, but most is in the new universal language: English. In temporal terms, it is definitely more powerful than our ancestors’ Medieval God. Perhaps, though,  it is more like Satan. It acts on the information we give it to tempt us into yet more purchases that add to our poverty. Today no-one sells their soul; they mortgage their life. Modern money, like medieval power, is concentrated in the upper part of the triangle. Until the flow is partially reversed. How, I do not know, things will get even more medieval on our asses. Let’s hope that the solution is not as traumatic as the Black Death.

Let's hope my next post is a bit less pessimistic. 

1 comment:

  1. One thing that I find interesting is what we regard as essential and how this changes with time. In theory, the only essentials are food, clothing and shelter, but in most societies that list quickly lengthens. For example, many people consider cigarettes an essential; or holidays; or private schools for their children. I readily concede that these days I regard my mobile as an essential: I forgot it yesterday when I went out and felt vulnerable. Yet we once lived without mobiles and could learn to do so again.

    Having said that, I am not sure things are really worse today than they were. The Victorians didn't have mobiles and flat-screen TVs, but there were other things they needed in order to hold their heads up in the society. Today we regard public transport as an essential to the labour economy whereas in Victorian times all but the most wealthy walked to work, often several miles.

    I think we can do a lot to enhance our personal freedom by making a wise choice of what we consider to be essential. Always craving what you don't yet have is an easy habit to acquire but it can have dire effects on your wellbeing.