Tag Archives: feudalism

What’s so Liberal about Neoliberalism? An homage to my sister’s father-in-law*

3 Sep

My apologies for the light posting over the past three weeks. I’ve been on vacation and am now at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in lovely Seattle. Next week will probably see some light posting as well: it’s the first week of preschool for my daughter, which involves a delicately orchestrated four days of “transition” in which I have to be either onsite or on call throughout the day. So much for school taking children off the hands of their parents…

While I take up residence in toddlerville, here’s something to chew on.

The National Labor Relations Board has issued a new rule stipulating that employers have to post notices in their workplaces informing workers of their right to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act. The government will provide the modestly sized posters for free. Even so, the bosses—and the conservatives who speak for them—are furious.

Here are some of the reactions:

“Just when we thought we had seen it all from the NLRB, it has reached a new low in its zeal to punish small-business owners.”

“Out of control.”

“Arbitrary” and “capricious.”

Some Republicans are using this latest outrage to push for defunding the NLRB.

Remember: this is just a rule requiring employers to inform employees of their legal rights. When I say that the last 40 years of conservative politics is about the restoration of feudalism, this is what I’m talking about.

Too often, leftists and radicals agree with conservatives that the promotion of free-market capitalism is about promoting liberal individualism and individual rights. Conservatives are supposed to like that, leftists not so much.

But capitalists and the conservatives who speak for them have nothing but hostility for the exercise of those rights. After all, what is the right to join a union but a concatenation of the classic 1st Amendment rights: freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, and the implicit freedom of association that goes with those rights? It also has happens to be one of the rights set out in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Capital does recognize one right: its right to control the hearts, minds, and bodies of labor, which it calls the right of property but which I prefer to call by its proper name: feudalism. Or neo-feudalism if you want to get fancy about it.

As always, Karen Orren’s Belated Feudalism is the indispensable text. Though also check out this new book, Feudal America: Elements of the Middle Ages in Contemporary Society by Vladimir Shlapentokh and Joshua Woods, just released by Penn State University Press. It examines a far wider range of feudal practices in contemporary America: gated communites, private security firms, and the like.

* * * * *

* Sam Lerner, father of my brother-in-law Bennett and a reader of this blog, asked in response to an earlier post, “Whence the label neoliberal? Not sure I like diluting the coin of the proressive realm. Offers solace to free market capitalists who would like to believe they are social democrats at heart.” I replied:

It’s kind of a term of art which probably has a lot more resonance in Europe than here. As you probably know liberalism has a very different meaning in Europe than in the US. It arose in the 19th century and was very much allied with the free market and classical economics. Left-wing critics of the market in Europe took some variety of the socialist banner, and there were a fair number of critics on the right as well. So liberalism remained permanently allied with the idea of the free market there. Then when the free market got a new lease on life during the 1970s, it took the name neoliberal. It has an odd ring in the US, I realize, but it’s somewhat accurate if you’re trying to speak across the borders of one country. Because even in the US there was a movement in the 1970s of people called neoliberals who were members of the Democratic Party (Gary Hart, Bruce Babbitt, Robert Reich in fact) and were pushing the party to be more receptive to markets and less focused on the state. Some called them “Atari Democrats.” They were also critical in pushing for deregulation (in fact, Teddy Kennedy — along with Stephen Breyer, of Supreme Court fame, and Ralph Nader — pushed for deregulation in Congress as early as 1975). So the term is not completely unhelpful.

But I take the force of Sam’s point, and, as I argue above, there’s a basic animus against fundamental liberal principles in neoliberalism that needs to be confronted.

Persistence of the Old Regime

5 Jul

The Last EmperorThe death of Otto von Habsburg, the man once slated to be Emperor of Austria-Hungary, reminds us just how recent the destruction of Europe’s old order really is.  Up until World War I—some would say the end of World War II—Europe was still in thrall to its feudal past. (Otto was the eldest son of Charles I, who ascended to the Hapsburg throne at the tail end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.) Landed aristocracies possessed inordinate political and military power, furnishing what Joseph Schumpeter called the “steel frame” of bourgeois capitalism. Academics like me often wield the term “modernity” as if it describes a centuries-old formation, but the fact is: a great part of Europe only became modern—in the sense of being post-feudal—in recent memory. The best treatment of this theme remains Arno Mayer’s The Persistence of the Old Regime, recently reissued by Verso.


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