Category Archives: revitalizing the left

the neo-feudalism thesis

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I’ve superficially encountered the terms “neo-feudalism” and “refeudalization” and read a few relevant works, e.g., Jodi Dean’s “Neofeudalism: The End of Capitalism?” in the May 12 edition of the LA Review of Books and Robert Kuttner’s “The Rise of Neo-Feudalism” in the March/April American Prospect. I know my Habermas (who proposed a thesis about neo-feudalism in 1962 that still attracts attention). Years ago, I made a somewhat serious study of actual feudalism as I tried to understand and assess Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. But I have missed everything else in this debate–so caveat emptor.

The basic idea is that capitalism has not continued as such, nor has it transformed into socialism, as the Marxian left predicted. Instead, it has morphed into a new system that resembles feudalism in important respects. If this is true, it means that the left should stop opposing neoliberalism or late capitalism, because those are not the reigning systems of the day. And the center-right should stop defending capitalism, because it’s gone.

Definitions would be helpful. I start with these:

A market is any venue in which individuals choose whether or not to exchange goods or services that they own for things that other people own. Markets seems almost ubiquitous–for example, they are found in communist states, inside bureaucracies, and in a huge range of cultures. Market choices are never without constraint and necessity. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to doubt the genuine experience of choosing whether or not to exchange what you own for something you want.

Feudalism–at least in its European medieval version–was a political/economic system in which land represented the vast majority of wealth and was not actually understood as marketable. Although people sometimes traded land for land or land for goods, such exchanges were frowned upon and made difficult. Most people were born with an inalienable link to a specific place. Whether you were a peasant, a lord of a manor, a higher lord, or a sovereign, you had both obligations and rights with respect to particular acres. Your name even incorporated that place: you were from it if you were a commoner, and of it if you were gentry. The gentry did not own demesnes as they owned carpets and tables; they held their places as their “seats.”

Rights and obligations were massively unequal; feudalism was hierarchical. However, a peasant had inalienable rights (e.g., to take firewood from the manor’s commons); and even the king had many feudal obligations. Status came in shades and degrees.

Meanwhile, government in the Weberian sense–the legitimate use of violence–was profoundly decentralized. The lord of the manor was a landlord but also the law. The king was a higher law but had very little capacity for governing anyone outside the royal court itself, unless assisted by feudal vassals who had interests of their own. Parliaments emerged as places where sovereigns bargained with local leaders (lords, bishops, and towns) because they could not govern on their own.

Capitalism is a system in which the most important assets are heavily “capitalized”: subject to investments that make them highly productive. Although farms can be capitalized, the classic example is a factory or manufacturing plant. Thanks to concentrated physical, intellectual, human, and social capital, a factory produces an impressive flow of goods. Because it is complex, it requires a bureaucracy to operate. Therefore, a capitalist economy requires firms, not just individuals coming to market with things they privately own.

As a matter of definition, capitalism involves investment in these productive assets. Some people can live from the proceeds of such investments. Other people are paid to work in a capitalized industry. That distinction produces two classes (at least in Marxian theory–in reality, lines may blur).

Capitalism is incompatible with feudalism because feudalism’s refusal to allow a market for land and agricultural labor prevents investment. Also, capitalism cannot operate efficiently when governance is decentralized in the way we see under feudalism, with many independent rulers wielding legitimate force and making discretionary decisions in their various domains.

Capitalism is, however, compatible with a range of political institutions. The US republic, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and today’s one-party People’s Republic of China have all been capitalistic. Capitalism can certainly co-exist with political systems that involve equal legal rights, democratic elected governments, and even social welfare systems. In fact, some people think that the most robust and sustainable capitalist systems (for better or for worse) are also democratic, liberal, and at least mildly socialistic.

It would appear that a world dominated by Google, Facebook, Apple, Airbnb, Uber, and the like is still capitalistic. It certainly isn’t feudal in the classical sense, with barriers preventing people from exchanging the most important goods and with inherited status prevailing over contracts. But it might have certain features that make it different from high capitalism and might dimly resemble feudalism.

First, the capitalism that Marx and Engels observed involved great masses of people working in the most productive firms. These workers constituted the proletariat. Today, the most powerful companies in the world don’t employ many people. Google has 118,000 employees and about $1 trillion in market capitalization (measured before the current downturn). That approaches $10 million in capital per employee.

Imagine that Manchester, England, had become the powerhouse of the British Empire with cotton mills that employed … a few hundred workers in total. Engels would have needed a different theory.

To put it a different way, in 1850 it seemed as if most people were being recruited into the “armies” of workers who labored for the most important firms in the world. In 2020, a minuscule proportion of the world’s labor force is employed by the biggest companies.

Second, we are “governed” (in the full sense of that word) by a whole set of overlapping and decentralized rule-makers. Nation-states make rules, but so do companies. They establish and enforce elaborate terms that regulate their employees, contractors, and customers. Kuttner provides examples:

Gated residential communities, such as Disney’s Celebration, are privately controlled municipalities that make and enforce their own laws. Private mercenary armies, such as Blackwater (now rebranded as Academi), are hired by the Pentagon so that their “soldiers” will be less accountable for what might otherwise be war crimes. Eminent domain, the inherent public prerogative to claim private property for a public purpose, has been commandeered by private developers. And courts—the ultimate embodiment of law in a democracy—have been privatized by the vast expansion of compulsory arbitration.

Speaking for myself: I am OK with polycentrism, with layers and overlapping Venn diagrams of power. I believe very strongly in pluralism or a mixed economy, in the sense of a society that incorporates different kinds of institutions, with different logics and incentives. I am not a statist socialist, because I observe that systems in which the nation-state monopolizes power simply enrich the rulers and their families; they do not deliver the equity they promise. It is no coincidence that the sons of Chinese revolutionaries are now capitalist princelings.

Therefore, the very fact that centers of governance have proliferated doesn’t bother me. But one question is whether centers of governance have actually consolidated instead of ramifying. Whereas millions of firms previously established law-like rules within their own domains, now Google makes rules for billions of people. From a global perspective, the fact that most of the world’s most powerful organizations have headquarters on the coast of the USA between San Jose and Seattle is also a worrying sign of concentration. These firms may compete, but their cultural capital, norms, and social networks overlap.

Another question is whether we have preserved robust forums in which to debate whether power has been allocated appropriately. (Surely not.)

A world with consolidating centers of power and a weak public sphere doesn’t sound to me like feudalism, but like something new and bad.

See also: the oscillation between dictatorship and parliamentary institutions (a game theory model); why is oligarchy everywhere? and why is oligarchy everywhere? (part 2); Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Picketty; the gentry as caste and class; when chivalry died; China teaches the value of political pluralism; and how a mixed economy shapes our mentalities

Elizabeth Warren in a tradition of radical American progressivism

A lively and valuable debate is underway about whether Senator Sanders or Warren should carry the flag of the left. Considering that Sanders calls himself a “socialist,” and Warren says she’s pro-“market,” it’s worth thinking about what each means by these words and how their words relate to their policies and their political strategies or theories-of-change. For instance, if both use the New Deal as a positive reference point–Sanders to illustrate socialism and Warren to show how capitalism can be saved–then maybe the difference is merely semantic. Or maybe not.

I would contribute one observation. Elizabeth Warren may belong in a specifically American tradition of progressive politics that is distinctive from socialism and that lacks a crisp name of its own, so far as I know. But it has these features:

  1. Enthusiasm for truly competitive markets that are free of monopolies. Competition is supposed to lower profits to minimal levels and make companies accountable to consumers and prospective workers. For instance, Louis Brandeis argued in 1912 that “our people appreciate better than they did before, the great economic truth which was embodied in the Sherman Law”: “the value of competition.” “The Democratic position … is that private monopoly in industry is never permissible; it is never desirable, and is not inevitable; competition can be reserved, and where it is suppressed, can be restored.”
  2. An understanding of the public as consumers. In 1912, the Progressive thinker Walter Weyl wrote that the office of “consumer is most universal, since even those who do not earn wages or pay direct taxes consume commodities. In America to-day, the unifying economic force, about which a majority, hostile to the plutocracy, is forming, is the common interest of the citizen as a consumer of wealth” (The New Democracy, New York, 1914, pp. 248-50)
  3. Related to the last point, a preference for universal identities over special interests and particular identities.
  4.  An ideal of the government as the protector of consumers. Robert M. La Follette said in 1906: the “welfare of all the people as consumers should be the supreme consideration of the Government.” Often this is extended to workers as well.
  5. Related to the last point, a defense of democracy (with reforms like referenda and publicly finance campaigns) as the system that makes government most accountable to all the people, not to special interests.
  6. A theory that citizens should mainly monitor their own rights and choose leaders and officials to protect them. For their part, prospective leaders should offer detailed proposals for solving problems. “I have a plan for that” is exactly this approach.
  7. A belief in transparency and access to information as tools of reform, captured in Brandeis’ famous line that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Brandeis also wrote that the Sherman Antitrust Act would remain inadequate without stronger enforcement, better “administrative machinery,”and “comprehensive, accurate, complete knowledge” of the behavior of businesses (mandatory transparency).

Note that this is not socialism. That word can be defined in many ways, but surely it would stretch the term to use it for a political philosophy that prizes competition and consumer identities.

But it can be radical, and it’s a deeply American tradition. Roger Taney, while Secretary of the Treasury under Andrew Jackson, said, “it is proper that [banking] should be open as far as practicable to the most free competition and its advantages shared by all classes of society.” A century-and-a-half later, Ralph Nader also championed deregulation of selected industries, consumer rights, transparency, and popular sovereignty.

To illustrate Senator Warren’s adherence to this tradition, I would cite (for example) her interview with Franklin Foer in The Atlantic:

I believe in markets and the benefits they can produce when they work. Markets with rules can produce enormous value. So much of the work I have done—the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, my hearing-aid bill—are about making markets work for people, not making markets work for a handful of companies that scrape all the value off to themselves. I believe in competition.

Or consider her endorsement of school vouchers in The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents are Going Broke (2003):

Warren’s specific position on vouchers has changed, but not her deeper philosophy.

Her stance deserves very serious consideration, and a case can be made that it is the best path forward for the American left. But I would raise these questions:

Should the consumer identity satisfy us? What about criticisms (cultural, environmental, and spiritual) about consumerism? Would it be better to see us all as producers? And what about other identities that differentiate Americans, such as race and ethnicity?

Should the implicit role left for citizens satisfy us? Is our job to critically evaluate candidates’ plans for solving our problems, or must we take deeper action?

Do competition and transparency work? (I think Warren herself would say: only sometimes.)

(Most quotes from my book The New Progressive Era. See also: citizenship in the modern American republic: change or decline?; transparency is not enough

the Green New Deal and civic renewal

Here’s a short case for a Green New Deal:

  1. We face a climate emergency.
  2. Government spending must be part of the solution. Even if we passed a robust carbon tax, we still need coordinated action that can’t be accomplished by individuals and firms that are trying to minimize their taxes. For example, building a new power grid, shifting some traffic from a national network of highways and gas stations to a more sustainable transportation system, and subsidizing basic research are goals that need coordinated solutions. Note that most actual work will still be done by companies (that’s true in Europe as well as the USA); the question is who should plan and pay for it. I suspect the payer must be the government, borrowing at currently low rates and using tax revenues to finance the debt.
  3. If we are going to spend trillions, we must spend it equitably. That means not just distributing the resources fairly but using them to combat accumulated injustices. Jobs and profits must go to the people who deserve and need them most. Deciding who those people are requires a theory of justice; and in my view, such a theory requires attention to racial injustice as well as class differences.
  4. Politically, the way to pass a major economic reform is to ensure it serves many interests. Although it may offend purist notions of good government and detract from the cost-effectiveness of our response to climate change, we’re probably going to have to make a big spending package a bit of a “Christmas tree,” with some additions that address legitimate concerns apart from the climate and some that just help get the bill through Congress.

Meanwhile, we also face a sustained decline in certain aspects of our civil society, with fewer Americans associating, organizing, and exercising power. This is one reason that our political system fails to address issues like climate change and racial injustice.

The original New Deal supported civic life in at least three ways.

First, the Civilian Conservation Corps added an explicit civic education curriculum to its public works projects, striving to teach the participants to be responsible and effective citizens.

Second, programs like the WPA not only employed Americans to do important work but also empowered them to make creative decisions about what work to do. The WPA’s artists, architects, engineers, craftspeople, and laborers contributed their talents and ideas, thus gaining a sense that they (not the government) were rebuilding America.

Third, Roosevelt explicitly supported unions, which not only increased workers’ take-home pay but also recruited them into powerful, autonomous, durable groups.

Could we do this again? One component would be big employment programs that provide civic and workforce education for the people who insulate houses or build public transit. That was already the proposal of Van Jones’ 2008 book The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems. His chapter four is entitled “The Green New Deal.” It almost goes without saying that most federally supported jobs should be unionized jobs.

Another component would be support for civil society groups. Rural electric cooperatives own 42 percent of the distribution lines in the US and serve 12 percent of the population. They have already shifted somewhat more to renewables than the energy industry as a whole (even though they are disproportionately based in conservative states). At the same time, they provide opportunities for Americans to participate in governing significant assets–for instance, at their required annual public meetings. They should be favored along with urban analogues.

A third component would be lots of support for innovative solutions by smallish groups– for-profit startups as well as nonprofits. If you invent a company that has a positive impact on the climate, you are doing public work.

Fourth, people should have more and better ways to influence and even create policy, at all scales. The traditional means include formats like public meetings, which devolve into lines of angry citizens who each get 30 seconds to yell at the decision-makers. Check out Tina Nabatchi and Matt Leighninger’s book Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy (2015) for better ideas.

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, to address social justice, we need an account of what justice requires. That is a contested matter, appropriately so. It involves conflicting goods, from the intrinsic value of nature to the principle of liberty to concerns about past injustices. We won’t reach consensus, because these issues are complex and we differ in our values, identities, beliefs, and interests. But we can have a better or worse conversation about justice at all scales, from neighborhoods to the US Congress. Better conversations require better institutions, from neighborhood centers and listserves to broadcast news.

It would be important not to detract from the ranked priorities of (1) combating climate change and (2) remedying injustice, but a thoughtful approach could use civic means to accomplish these goals. In fact, civic engagement can strengthen the environmental benefits. For example, although it takes time to involve the public in designing a new transportation system, the chances are then greater that people will use the system. And unless they use it, it does no good for the climate.

I would not go so far as to argue that civic engagement always makes programs work better. Engagement can be done well or badly. There can also be tradeoffs between good engagement processes and efficiency. The most difficult challenge for environmentalists may be that active citizens resist directing resources efficiently to climate issues, because their agendas are broader. But I do think it’s worth investing in civic engagement to maximize the advantages for (1) climate, (2) justice, and (3) civic life.

See also national service in the stimulus; empowering citizens to make sure the stimulus is well spent; public engagement in the stimulus: Virginia’s example; an overlooked win for civic renewal: federally qualified health centers; work, not service. And see Harry C Boyte, “Populism or socialism? The divided heart of the Green New Deal.”

a better approach to coalition politics

Sometimes people view coalitions instrumentally and transactionally. You know what you believe, but unfortunately you don’t (yet) have enough support, or seats, or votes, or dollars to get what you want, so you must join with other people who either share roughly similar beliefs–close enough to settle for–or who will support your agenda in return for your help with theirs.

We see this approach most clearly in parliamentary systems, when parties come together to form majorities. The center-left party will form a government with the Greens if they need the Greens’ votes, but will drop them if they don’t. We also see it in US logrolling politics: Democrats from rural districts vote for HUD; urban Democrats vote for the Farm Bill. And we see it in social movements, when participants advocate for a “big tent” or invoke a “bird that flies with two wings”–clichés that usually mean: “Include me in your coalition or you won’t win.”

Some circumstances–such as parliamentary votes of confidence–require a transactional approach to putting together coalitions of 50% plus one. But it is possible to view a coalition in a different way: as a network of valuable relationships among people who trust and respect one another.

Brad DeLong, a self-proclaimed “neoliberal” and “[Robert] Rubin Democrat,” recently announced his support for a coalition led by people to his left. Speaking of his own faction within the Democratic Party, he wrote:

Over the past 25 years, we failed to attract Republican coalition partners, we failed to energize our own base, and we failed to produce enough large-scale obvious policy wins to cement the center into a durable governing coalition. We blame cynical Republican politicians. We blame corrupt and craven media bosses and princelings. We are right to blame them, but shared responsibility is not diminished responsibility. And so the baton rightly passes to our colleagues on our left. We are still here, but it is not our time to lead.

Note that DeLong is not renouncing his own beliefs or exiting public life in defeat. Instead, has has reached an all-things-considered judgment that people who disagree with him on some important matters should lead a coalition that he will support. It’s their time.

In a Vox interview, he adds:

while I would like to be part of a political coalition in the cat seat, able to call for bids from the left and the right about who wants to be part of the governing coalition to actually get things done, that’s simply not possible as of now.

We shouldn’t pretend that it is, or that it’s going to be. We need to find ways to improve left-wing initiatives, rather than demand that they start from our basic position and do minor tweaks to make them more acceptable to their underlying position.

DeLong wants to contribute, but he thinks the left should lead. His role is non-coercive persuasion: offering market-based suggestions that the left can accept or not. He doesn’t suggest that his support will be conditional on their agreement. He is in, but he wants to retain his voice. His explicit renunciation of a claim to lead should engender some trust from the left. It’s an example of the general principle that Danielle Allen defends in Talking to Strangers. Our task is to become “political friends” who demonstrate “reciprocal goodwill”; and to get there, often the first step is to make an explicit sacrifice.

In turn, if the left were to lead the Democratic Party, it would become the main source of energy and ideas. Progressives would earn the voluntary support of a broader spectrum. They would not view leftover neoliberals as enemies to be rooted out but as fellow members of the coalition who can be inspired and persuaded. They would take seriously their own capacity, opportunity, and moment to lead. They would see themselves as better leaders if people like Brad DeLong continued to follow them. They would value not only the votes of such moderates but their insights.

They would also care about the condition of the coalition. Is it sufficiently attractive to a broad range of people? Does it offer entry-points for newbies and youth while also honoring the folks who have been working hard for a long time? Is it nimble but also principled? Can it manage dissent? How does it handle disagreement? You can’t answer those questions well if you are always thinking about whether your own policy goals will prevail. You must also care about the coalition as a community.

I am not saying that the currently insurgent left is failing to act this way. So far, so good. I am just offering a way to conceptualize leadership that doesn’t reduce a coalition to a pure means for accomplishing the leaders’ goals. I’d argue that valuing the coalition is a path to wiser strategies and more influence.

See also: we need SPUD (scale, pluralism, unity, depth); saving relational politics; and the value of diversity and discussion within social movements.

an agenda for the dignity of work

Sen. Sherrod Brown’s theme of the “dignity of work” is powerful and important, for these four reasons:

1. A basic cause of unacceptable inequality is the worsening position of workers versus the owners of capital. That shows up in statistics on the share of income …

… and also in less tangible ways, such as a growing cultural and spatial distance between workers and investors and the rising deference or obsequiousness to the rich

2. Work, in the broadest sense—making things of value—is one basis of a good life for human beings. It is spoiled when work is alienated (split between decision-makers who don’t actually do anything and laborers who make no decisions) or replaced entirely by automation and AI. The availability of good work is probably shrinking and is certainly threatened by the next wave of automation.

3. The dignity of work can be a unifying theme. Yes, who has dignified work depends on gender, race, class, and age, so addressing this issue requires attention to inequality and difference. But people in very different social positions share a sense that dignified work is threatened.

4. Workers who are organized (in unions or the functional equivalents of unions) gain countervailing political power along with dignity. I’m of the school that it doesn’t matter much which policies Democratic candidates endorse, because their policy options are highly constrained once they’re in office. It matters how power is distributed. Strengthening workers’ organizations addresses the third level of power (“Who decides policies?”) rather than the first or second levels of power (What do particular people get? and “What policies are in place?”).

[For related arguments, see Harry C. Boyte, “The Shutdown Taught Us About the Dignity of Work: An Unanticipated Civics Lesson, Courtesy of President Trump” (The Nation, Jan 29) and Albert Dzur, “Teaching Citizenship” (The Boston Review, Jan. 30).]

Sen. Brown has a plan entitled “Working Too Hard for Too Little: A Plan for Restoring the Value of Work in America.” I think it’s an important contribution, but it’s mostly about raising pay per hour and improving the bargaining position of unions. We could add to his agenda, recognizing that some people just aren’t going to be unionized, that AI threatens employment for all, and that work faces crises of quality as well as pay and hours.

I can only offer vague thoughts because I am insufficiently informed, but I would consider:

  1. Federal support for associations of workers who would have a very hard time unionizing. Domestic workers are the prime case, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance is the leading example. When organized, domestic workers can advocate for favorable government policies, but they can also provide education, training, insurance, and other services for their members and speak to a range of audiences. In practice, they use their voice to advocate for their patients and clients as well as for themselves, and they demonstrate a concern for the quality of work as well as pay. I am not sure what federal policies would help them most, but possibly they should be eligible for grants for their service functions to subsidize their organizing efforts.
  2. A new look at accountability policies in a wide range of fields, from teaching and policing to medicine, to ensure that the drive to measure inputs and outcomes doesn’t ruin the quality of professional work. Often these accountability measures are driven by federal policy.
  3. A new look at the federal civil service, with an eye to making the jobs that are directly controlled by the national government as rewarding and substantive as possible.
  4. Funding for R&D that uses new technology to enhance and expand work (not to replace work).
  5. Federal programs modeled on the EPA’s now-defunct Community Action for a Renewed Environment CARE) that support a range of stakeholders who work on common problems. Typically, some of the stakeholders are paid to work full-time on these problems; others use some of their paid time to help out; and others are volunteers. For instance, in an environmental project, some participants may be government regulators, some may be local business people, and some may be unpaid activists. It’s important to see and name them all as working.