How America is institutionalizing inequality
We love to think of Medieval times as something totally unlike how things are today. But the truth is, from a global perspective, they really weren’t all that long ago. The Renaissance occurred less than 600 years ago. And yet homo sapiens have been around for about 200,000 years — even that a drop in the bucket compared to the history of life at about 4 billion years.
So the people back then really aren’t all that different from the people of today. There may have been different technology, a different overall level of education, and a different level of sophistication. But in our deepest fears, hopes and beliefs, we are still those same people who were around at the time of the Knights.
Most of us weren’t knights, though. The genesis of feudalism came as the Roman empire was falling apart. During the nearly 500 year-long pax Romana, Rome had kept the peace and enforced its laws. Although those laws were far from perfect, they did bring a sense of stability and order to society. Indeed, much of the world, including Louisiana, still abides by a legal system based upon Roman law. As Rome started to lose its ability to enforce its police powers in the provinces, however, a power vacuum developed.
With Roman power waning, suddenly there were former soldiers who had nothing to do. Many of them were trained in nothing but warmaking. And with the Roman authorities increasingly powerless, there was nothing to stop these rogues from pillaging widely.
The large Roman landowners were concerned about potential damage to their property. Since they could no longer rely upon civil authority to protect them, they hired their own security, oftentimes many of these same rogues who had tired of pillaging. They needed people to work their land, while the poor farmers and other peasants feared for their safety with these bands of villains riding around the countryside.
Thus the three groups made a deal. The large landowners would employ the soldiers to protect their property and the people working their land. The soldiers would owe a duty of loyalty to the landowners. The peasants would work the land in return for some level of protection from the large landowners. It is from this arrangement that feudalism arose, with its lords, knights and serfs.
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Each group got something out of this arrangement. Similarly, each group had responsibilities and disadvantages. Ultimately, the serfs started to feel that they were getting the short end of the stick, but the Church, with promises of heavenly rewards, helped keep them in line. That’s the basis for Marx’s calling the Church the “opiate of the masses.”
The lords and knights in particular, however, liked the system as it was. As Americans, our familiarity with medieval society is generally limited, and is colored by our close association with the British Isles. In reality, feudalism was different in England than on the Continent. With the Norman Conquest in 1066, the English crown was able to consolidate power and reduce the strength of the landowners. The rules from that period are the basis for our system of real property, by the way.
In France, Germany, Italy and Spain, however, the nobility became so powerful that the royalty had to heed to their desires. In fact, during the Hundred Years War between France and England, one of the biggest problems France had was the disloyalty of its own Duke of Burgundy. The French king could do nothing about it.
Ultimately, the system fell apart largely as a result of the plague. With about a third of the population of Europe dead, suddenly serfs had options. A free market of sorts ensued where the power shifted from the landowners to the peasants. At about the same time, the rise of more centralized royal authority was starting, so the need for protection from the nobility was less urgent. Ultimately, the system fell apart as a result of a tragedy, but in parts of Europe, it endured for more than a millennium.
Fast forward to today. In the news today is a report of Kylie Jenner at 21 becoming the youngest self-made billionaire ever. For those who are unfamiliar with her background, she is one of the Kardashians, having been featured on the eponymous show and with her career pushed from a young age by her ambitious mother. That is what passes for a self-made billionaire these days.
We love to believe in the myth of social mobility, but in fact, America is less socially mobile than much of the rest of the developed world. It’s only in a world of hardening economic classes that people like Jenner and our President can be perceived as “self-made.” After all, at least they are working rather than simply luxuriating in their inherited wealth.
Just as the nobility gave the knights just enough hope that they too could join the elite, so too do the Koch brothers and other .1 percenters as they dangle the potential of joining them before the rest of us. With their money, they have taken control of the state away from the rest of society just as the lords did, even overshadowing the King.
A classic case is the story of Scott Walker, the recently-defeated governor of Wisconsin. You don’t need to dig very deeply to get a sense of his covetousness. He oozes insecurity as a result of his relatively modest background, and his class resentments regularly appear. A mediocre student, he dropped out of Marquette University without a degree, and so he regularly spews invective at the well educated.
Walker’s entire tenure was characterized by a base obsequiousness to the Koch brothers and other members of the conservative elite who allowed him a little entry into their world in exchange for his loyal service. If we want to see the system the .1 percenters want, we need only look at Walker’s legislative agenda.
Of course, there were the aggressive attacks on unions. After all, much as a free labor market resulting from a scarcity of workers in the wake of the plague helped bring feudalism to an end, a shift in power from the employers to the workers would have a similar impact in America.
How have we been convinced that labor unions are bad?
We have been swayed by a concerted propaganda effort
Similarly, consider his attacks on the public university system. Wisconsin has a very good state higher education system, but it has been decimated by cuts engineered by Walker. My guess is that it will take years for the system to fully recover.
His beef with higher education was about more than just its cost, however. He disagreed with its mission, even arguing that the system’s mission statement should be changed. Rather than focusing on the free exchange of ideas, Walker wanted the universities to teach people marketable skills rather than less concrete liberal arts.
That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? But consider what are the greatest enforcers of class division in our society: the Ivy League schools. At Harvard, for instance, it is estimated that legacies are admitted at a rate more than five times higher than those without family connections. The same is true at Princeton, Yale and most of the other elite schools. Despite his claims to the contrary, our newest Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was one. What do they teach at those schools? The liberal arts. Indeed, at Harvard, with its vaunted business school, business as a major is not even available to undergraduates. Same for Yale and Princeton, by the way.
How could this be? Why would the elite be studying the liberal arts while the rest of us must justify our degrees based upon their return on investment? The reason is that the liberal arts teach you to think critically and to communicate persuasively. Such skills are dangerous when spread widely. Those are the skills that enable people to question authority and challenge it successfully — just what the .1 percenters fear.
Indeed, one of the untold stories of our society is the increasing monopolization of the liberal arts by the elite. Just as college has become more expensive, we have also found ourselves with a need to justify it as an investment. Being able to think critically is less monetizable than understanding marketing tactics. But in the long run, the people who run companies and the country have those skills. The rest of us are trained to be the worker bees.
Truly, it is not too late to change the direction we are heading in. Some of the policies being proposed by the progressives including greater democracy in the form of protections for voting rights, the reduction in the power of megacorporations, taxes on the wealthy, and universal higher education and pre-K will be big steps in the right direction.
But if you don’t believe me that more is at stake than just whether the Democrats or the Republicans have power, just look at the lengths the .1 percenters are going to to stop these initiatives. Our only hope is to wake up and change the direction before it becomes institutionalized the way feudalism was in the middle ages.
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