American Feudalism: It’s Not Just a Metaphor

As many of you know, I’ve been calling our contemporary political order feudal for quite some time. But this post from the Roosevelt Institute’s Tim Price (h/t Alex Gourevitch) really blew my mind:

That could soon be the law of the land in Pennsylvania, where the state legislature has passed a bill that would, as Philadelphia City Paper blogger Daniel Denvir describes it, “allow companies that hire at least 250 new workers in the state to keep 95-percent of the workers’ withheld income tax.” These workers will essentially be paying their employers for the privilege of having a job. Some have called this“corporate socialism,” but it also calls to mind an even older economic model that was once popular in Europe – except back then, the bosses were called lords. It’s a more modern innovation in the U.S., but combined with increased political pressure from employers and a crackdown on workers’ rights, it all adds up to feudalism, American-style.

The Pennsylvania bill is just the most recent example of state income taxes being turned into employer subsidies. It’s already the law of the land in one form or another in 19 states, and according to Good Jobs First, it’s taking $684 million a year out of the public coffers. The theory is that this will boost job creation. But the authors of the Good Jobs First report note, “payments often go to firms that simply move existing jobs from one state to another, or to ones that threaten to move unless they get paid to stay put.” In other words, it’s more like extortion than stimulus. With state governments facing a projected $4 trillion budget shortfall and continuing to cut social services and public sector jobs, they can hardly afford to be wasting money on companies that already have plenty and have no intention of putting it to good use. And the more governments turn over their privileges to businesses, the more the distinction between the two becomes blurred.

But if corporations have state governments over a barrel, they have their employees stuffed inside the barrel and ready to plunge down the waterfall. As I’ve noted before, some conservatives view all taxation as theft, but there’s surely no better term for what happens when employers promise their workers a certain wage or salary and then pocket some of the money for themselves. When you pay taxes to the government, you get something in return, whether it’s a school for your kids or a road to drive on or a firefighter to rescue you from a burning building. When you pay taxes to your boss, you… well, you give your boss your money. Your only reward is that you get to continue to “work the land,” so to speak. The lords didn’t consult with the peasants on which tapestries they should buy with the money they collected from them.


  1. The Raven October 26, 2012 at 11:47 am | #

    Maybe it’s time to break out the pitchforks and torches.


  2. Paul H. Rosenberg October 26, 2012 at 12:19 pm | #

    Alas, the cyberpunk authors were there first, laying out the neo-feudal future we now inhabit just around the time Reagan was first elected. Once again, art is long…

    • jonnybutter October 26, 2012 at 4:19 pm | #

      Honest to god I thought this was an Onion article for a minute. Just wow.

      Aliothemage, I assume you know that there are plenty of low tax, low services countries out there, like Paraguay. I also assume you don’t already live in one of them. Wonder why?

    • Douglas D. Edwards October 27, 2012 at 6:18 am | #

      Not exactly first, unless you count Poul Anderson as cyberpunk. His short story “No truce with kings” (1963[!]) made explicit the connection between right-libertarianism and feudalism from a sympathetic, right-libertarian perspective; people in his post-nuclear-apocalypse future world even use the word “bossman” to mean “feudal lord”. It was reprinted in Anderson’s anthology Time and Stars (1964), which is available in electronic form via the Open Library if you can stomach their DRM (Adobe Digital Editions). Failing that, the Internet Science Fiction Database has an entry for Time and Stars, and it also has its own Wikipedia article.

  3. Arthur Curtis October 26, 2012 at 12:22 pm | #

    We have government of the corporations, by the corporations and for the corporations, and you can’t vote the corporate overlords out of office.

    • Aliothemage October 26, 2012 at 2:18 pm | #

      I can walk out of walmart without spending a dime. Try “not spending” on sending other people’s kids to school and paying those public teacher bureaucracies. See how far that gets you and if you don’t have men showing up at your house with guns taking your house from you because you “owe” them.

      I don’t see any walmart cops grabbing people off the sidewalks and dragging them into the store because they “owe” walmart for shelving and stocking all these products on behalf of the public.

      • artcurtis3 October 26, 2012 at 2:45 pm | #

        You are obviously a member of the “something for nothing” crowd. Government provides services that the private sector will not if a profit can’t be made on it. These services need to be paid for, and they create real jobs. Furthermore, you may be able to walk out of WalMart without spending a dime, but they take money out of your pocket with the subsidies and concessions they demand from state and local governments, under the threat of taking their business elsewhere. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

      • The Raven October 26, 2012 at 3:08 pm | #

        Ah, freedom.

        Do you accept any civic responsibilities at all?

      • casino implosion October 26, 2012 at 5:28 pm | #

        Read a book about Walmart. Their monopsony practices are so intrusive upon the businesses of their suppliers that it amounts to bureaucratic central economic planning.

      • Chip Daniels October 26, 2012 at 8:30 pm | #

        In other words, you demand police protection, fire protection, streets, sewers, and all the rest, but get angry at being forced to pay for what you receive.
        Sorry, you have to work and pay for what you receive- there is no free lunch.

  4. casino implosion October 26, 2012 at 5:25 pm | #

    What that actually amounts to is a mandatory, state enforced pay cut.

  5. Aliothemage October 26, 2012 at 6:14 pm | #

    monopsony practices are impossible in a true free market

    you liberals should take some economics course and study less sociology,philosophy/liberal arts and other crap

    • Bill Murray October 26, 2012 at 7:39 pm | #

      it’s good for monopsony that a true free market can’t exist

  6. NewHavenGuy October 27, 2012 at 2:22 am | #

    Reassuring to keep reading these horrible things here, Dr. Robin. For a while I thought I was losing my mind. No great lover of the State per se, but IMHO the Federal Government is the only entity with enough juice to act as even a firewall against private and corporate power today. Sucks to be playing defense, but SocSec, Medicare and Medicaid are worth defending. Not to mention what’s left of labor rights.

  7. JohnB October 27, 2012 at 7:33 am | #

    Speaking of feudal institutions, the Catholic church is butting its nose into the election in Wisconsin, offering wise ‘counsel’ on how one should (or should not) vote. You’ve got to see it to believe it.

  8. The Raven October 27, 2012 at 12:21 pm | #

    I’m hungry. Kill the troll.

  9. Douglas D. Edwards October 29, 2012 at 2:51 am | #

    Yes, Corey, you’ve been calling the current political order feudal for quite some time. So have left-libertarians. For example:

    Carson, Kevin A. Contract feudalism. Individual. 2006 Feb; 43:2–9. Available from: [entire journal issue]. Reprinted by the Libertarian Alliance as a standalone monograph, Economic Notes No. 105:

    Carson’s “Contract feudalism” in turn refers back to an earlier article:

    Anderson, Elizabeth. Adventures in contract feudalism. Left2Right. 2005 Feb 10. Available from: Accessed 2012 Jul 6. Archived by WebCite at

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