The New Feudalism

From Thom Hartmann
Excerpts from Threshold (just published)

July 31, 2009 Ukiah Valley, Mendocino, North California

Emerson told us, in his lecture “Angloam,” that in America “the old contest of feudalism and democracy renews itself here on a new battlefield.” Perhaps seeing our day through a crack between the skeins of time and space, Emerson concluded, “It is wonderful, with how much rancor and premeditation at this moment the fight is prepared.”


Let’s be blunt. The real agenda of the new conservatives is nothing less than the destruction of democracy in the United States of America. And feudalism is one of their weapons.

Their rallying cry is that government is the enemy, and thus must be “drowned in a bathtub.” In that, they’ve mistaken our government for the former Soviet Union, or confused Ayn Rand’s fictional and disintegrating America with the real thing.

The government of the United States is us. It was designed to be a government of, by, and for We the People. It’s not an enemy to be destroyed; it’s a means by which we administer and preserve the commons that we collectively own.

Nonetheless, the new conservatives see our democratic government as the enemy. And if they plan to destroy democracy, they must have something in mind to replace it with…

What conservatives are really arguing for is a return to the three historic embodiments of tyranny that the Founders and Framers identified, declared war against, and fought and died to keep out of our land. Those tyrants were kings, theocrats, and noble feudal lords.

Kings would never again be allowed to govern America, the Founders said, so they stripped the president of the power to declare war. As Lincoln noted in an 1848 letter to William Herndon: “Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This, our [1787] Convention understood to be the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions; and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us.”

Theocrats would never again be allowed to govern America, as they had tried in the early Puritan communities. In 1784, when Patrick Henry proposed that the Virginia legislature use a sort of faith-based voucher system to pay for “Christian education,” James Madison responded with ferocity, saying government support of church teachings “will be a dangerous abuse of power.” He added, “The Rulers who are guilty of such an encroachment exceed the commission from which they derive their authority, and are Tyrants. The People who submit to it are governed by laws made neither by themselves nor by an authority derived from them, and are slaves.”

And America was not conceived of as a feudal state, feudalism being broadly defined as “rule by the super rich.” Rather, our nation was created in large part in reaction against centuries of European feudalism. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said in his lecture titled “The Fortune of the republic,” delivered on December 1, 1863, “We began with freedom. America was opened after the feudal mischief was spent. No inquisitions here, no kings, no nobles, no dominant church.”

The great and revolutionary ideal of America is that a government can exist while drawing its authority, power, and ongoing legitimacy from a single source: “The consent of the governed.” Conservatives, however would change all that.

In their brave new world, corporations are more suited to governance than are the unpredictable rabble called citizens. Corporations should control politics, control the commons, control health care, control our airwaves, control the “free” market, and even control our schools. Although corporations can’t vote, these new conservatives claim they should have human rights, such privacy from government inspections of their political activity and the free speech right to lie to politicians and citizens in PR and advertising. Although corporations don’t need to breathe fresh air or drink pure water, these new conservatives would hand over to them the power to self-regulate poisonous emissions into our air and water.

While these new conservatives claim corporations should have the rights of persons, they don’t mind if corporations use hostile financial force to take over other, smaller corporations in a bizarre form of corporate slavery called monopoly. Corporations can’t die, so aren’t subject to inheritance taxes or probate. They can’t be put in prison, so even when they cause death they are only subject to fines.

Corporations and their CEOs are America’s new feudal lords, and the new conservatives are their obliging servants and mouthpieces. The conservative mantra is: “Less government!” But the dirty little secret of the new conservatives is that just as nature abhors a vacuum, so also do politics and power. Every time government of, by, and for We the People is pushed out of administering some part of this nation’s vast commons, corporations step in. And by swamping the United States of America in debt with so-called “tax cuts,” they seek to force an increasingly desperate government to cede more and more of our commons to their corporate rule.

Conservatives confuse efficiency and cost: They suggest that big corporations can perform public services at a lower total cost than government, ignoring the corporate need to pad the bill with dividends to stockholders, rich CEO salaries, corporate jets and headquarters, advertising, millions  in “campaign contributions,” and cash set asides for growth and expansion. They want to frame this as the solution of the “free market,” and talk about entrepreneurs and small businesses filling up the holes left when government lets go of public property.

But these are straw man arguments. What they are really advocating is corporate rule, and ultimately a feudal state controlled exclusively by the largest of the corporations. Smaller corporations such as individual humans and the governments they once hoped would protect them from powerful feudal forces, can watch but they can’t play.

The modern-day conservative movement began with Federalists Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, who argued that for a society to be stable it must have a governing elite, and this elite must be separate both in power and privilege from what Adams referred to as “the rabble.” Their Federalist Party imploded in the early nineteenth century, in large part because of public revulsion over Federalist elitism, a symptom of which was Adams’s signing the Alien and Sedition Acts. (If you’ve read only the Republican biographies of John Adams, you probably don’t remember these laws, even though they were the biggest thing to have happened in Adams’s  entire four years in office, and the reason why the citizens of America voted him out of office, and voted Jefferson—who loudly and publicly opposed the acts—in. They were a 1797 version of the Patriot Act and Patriot II, with startlingly similar language.)

Destroyed by their embrace of this early form of despotism, the Federalists were replaced first in the early 1800s by the short-lived Whigs and then, starting with Lincoln, by the modern-day Republicans, who, after Lincoln’s death, firmly staked out their ancestral Federalist position as the party of wealthy corporate and private interests. And now, under the disguise of the word “conservative” (classical conservatives such as Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower are rolling in their graves), these old-time feudalists have nearly completed their takeover of our great nation.

It became obvious with the transformation of health care into a for-profit industry, leading to spiraling costs (and billions of dollars for Bill Frist and his ilk). Insurance became necessary for survival, and people were worried. Bill Clinton was prepared to answer the concern of the majority of Americans who supported national health care. But that would have harmed corporate profits.

“Do you want government bureaucrats deciding which doctor you can see?” asked the conservatives, over and over again. To this yes/no question, the answer was pretty simple for most Americans: no. But as is so often the case when conservatives try to influence public opinion, the true issue wasn’t honestly stated.

The real question was: “Do you want government bureaucrats—who are answerable to elected officials and thus subject to the will of We the People—making decisions about your health care, or would you rather have corporate bureaucrats—who are answerable only to their CEOs and work in a profit-driven environment—making decisions about your health care?”

For every $100 that passes through the hands of the government administered Medicare programs, between $2 and $3 is spent on administration, leaving $97 and $98 to pay for medical services and drugs. But of every $100 that flows through corporate insurance programs and HMOs, $10 to $24 sticks to corporate fingers along the way. After all, Medicare doesn’t have lavish corporate headquarters and corporate jets, or pay expensive lobbying firms in Washington to work on its behalf. It doesn’t “donate” millions to politicians and their parties. It doesn’t pay profits in the form of dividends to its shareholders. And it doesn’t compensate its top executive with more than $1 million a year, as do each of the largest of the American insurance companies. Medicare has one primary mandate: serve the public. Private corporations also have one primary mandate: generate profit.

When Jeb Bush cut a deal with Enron to privatize the Everglades, it diminished the power of the Florida government to protect a natural resource and enhanced the power and profitability of Enron. Similarly, when politicians argue for harsher sentencing guidelines and also advocate more corporate-owned prisons, they’re enhancing the power and profits of one of America’s fastest-growing and most profitable remaining domestic industries: incarceration. But having government protect the quality of the nation’s air and water by mandating pollution controls doesn’t enhance corporate profits. Neither does single-payer health care, which threatens insurance companies with redundancy; or requirements for local control of broadcast media. In these and other regards, however, the government still holds the keys to the riches of the commons held in trust for us all. Riches that the corporations want to convert into profits.

For example, an NPR Morning Edition report about Michael Powell by Rick Carr on May 28, 2003, said, “Current FCC Chair Michael Powell says he has faith the market will provide. What’s more, he says, he’d rather have the market decide than government.” In this, Powell was reciting the conservative mantra. Misconstruing Adam Smith, who warned about the dangers of the invisible hand of the marketplace trampling the rights and needs of the people, Powell suggests that business always knows best. The market will decide. Bigger isn’t badder.

But experience shows that the very competition that conservatives claim to embrace is destroyed by the unrestrained growth of corporate interests. It’s called monopoly: big fish eat little fish, over and over, until there are no little fish left. Look at the thoroughfares of any American city and ask yourself how many of the businesses there are locally owned. Instead of cash circulating within a local and competitive economy, at midnight every night a button is pushed and the local money is vacuumed away to Little Rock or Chicago or New York.

This is feudalism in its most raw and naked form, just as the kings and nobles of old sucked dry the resources of the people they claimed to own. It is in these arguments for unrestrained corporatism that we see the naked face of Hamilton’s Federalists in the modern conservative movement. It’s the face of wealth and privilege, of what Jefferson called a “pseudo-aristocracy,” which works to its own enrichment and gain regardless of the harm done to the nation, the commons, or the “We the People” rabble.

It is, in its most complete form, the face that would “drown government in a bathtub”; that sneers at the First Amendment by putting up “free speech zones” for protesters; that openly and harshly suggests that those who are poor, unemployed, or underemployed are suffering from character defects; that works hard to protect the corporate interests, but is happy to ignore the public interest; that says it doesn’t matter what happens to the humans living in what Michael Savage, a nationally syndicated conservative talk show host, laughingly calls “turd world nations.”

These new conservatives would have us trade in our democracy for a corporatocracy, a form of feudal government most recently reinvented by Benito Mussolini when he recommended a “merger of business and state interests” as a way of creating a government that would be invincibly strong. Mussolini called it fascism.

We see this daily in the halls of Congress and in the lobbying efforts directed at our regulator agencies. We see it in the millions of dollars in trips and gifts given to FCC commissioners, which in another era would have been called bribes.

These corporate-embracing conservatives are not working for what’s best for democracy, for America, or for the interests of We the People.” They are explicitly interested in a singular goal: profits and the power to maintain them.

Under control, the desire for profit can be a useful thing, as two hundred years of American free enterprise have shown. But unrestrained, as George Soros warns us so eloquently, it will create monopoly and destroy democracy. The new conservatives are systematically dismantling our governmental systems of checks and balances; of considering the public good when regulating private corporate behavior; of protecting those individuals, small businesses, and local communities who are unable to protect themselves from giant corporate predators. They want to replace government of, by, and for We the People with a corporate feudal state, turning America’s citizens into their vassals and serfs.

Our greatest hope for resurrecting the American Dream—and, indeed, the worldwide dream of small-d democracy—is to stop this assault on the commons, particularly the commons of the democratic institution we call our government. Ronald Reagan was wrong when he said that government is the problem and not the solution, and was wrong when he said that there were no good people in government because all the competent people had gone to work for private industry. Altruism and civic spirit are alive and well in America—and the rest of the world—and need our support.

One Comment

This really hits the nail on the head. I had roughly the same thought (that conservativism = feudalism) while reading about medieval feudalism recently.