Back to the Future

Eighth in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

It may seem odd to look back at Feudalism, universally considered one of the most unpleasant and backwards economic systems ever invented, as the first stop on the quest to replace Consumerism.  However, in order to know where you’re going, you must first know where you’ve been. Consumerism’s ways of meeting the employment-creation criteria may seem like the most natural and obvious ways possible, but a lot of that comes from the fact that we are already immersed in a Consumerist system.  Feudalism actually meets the same criteria, but in a much more primal way.

  1. It creates jobs:  Unlike the “franchise” model of Consumerism, where everyone works together to create jobs, in Feudalism the ultimate responsibility for creating jobs falls on one person, the King.  The King sets the agenda for the overall big projects of the nation, typically invading other kingdoms, or building mighty works like castles or cathedrals or –if you have a extraordinarily enlightened King –kingdom infrastructure.
  2. It distributes jobs:  Feudalism’s model for job distribution is extremely simple, yet in its own way, elegant.  If you’re a Duke or equivalent aristocrat, you work directly for the King.  You send men for his armies, food for his table and his court, and money to pay for his projects.  Each of the Dukes is surrounded by a host of minor lords, who support the Duke in the same way the Duke supports the King.  And each of those minor lords has a small team of servants and larger assembly of slave-like peasants who work like dogs to keep him and his family in what passes for a lifestyle of local luxury (and to generate the thin margin of excess that gets passed upwards).
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:  It doesn’t seem like much of a booby prize for a modern observer, but even the work of a peasant in a Feudal system is ultimately the work of the nation as a whole.  Each person’s individual labor goes not only to support and sustain his or her own life, but also in support of all the King’s grand projects.  This is why a King who demands too much of his subjects is ultimately a more successful King than one who demands too little.

It may seem like so much ancient history, but actually Feudalism never completely went away.  A modern multinational corporation is nothing but a Feudal society dressed up in a nice shirt and tie.  The CEO is the King, the Vice Presidents are the Dukes, the middle managers are the minor aristocrats, the entry-level white collar workers are the servants, and the factory workers are the peasants.  Instead of invading other kingdoms, they take over markets.  However, unlike in Feudalism, there is at least some social mobility in corporate life.  It may be rare, but people do occasionally travel from somewhere near the bottom to somewhere near the top.

At any rate, the purpose of looking at Feudalism is not to posit it as an actual improvement over what we have now, but to see how very possible it is to meet the same employment-creation criteria in very different ways.

NEXT WEEK: War