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by Stefan Howald Thursday, Apr. 24, 2014 at 4:42 AM

Neoliberalism has brought us back to Rockefeller's best times. Bill Gates is 1.4 million times as rich as the average American. A "feudal lifestyle" is made out to be worthwhile and in no way negatively described. Thus "re-feudalization" is dulled as a polemical term.


Bowing and Submitting under the Feudal Yoke

Capitalism surpasses itself and mutates back to feudalism. In any case the term “re-feudalization” makes the rounds in the social-political debate. What does this mean?

By Stefan Howald

[This article published on 6/28/2012 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.woz.ch.]

The new money-nobility buys art and football clubs for record amounts and shamelessly puts its riches on display. An increasing number of contracted workers are held as serfs. Hard working entrepreneurs no longer have it so simple and are eaten up by the financial sharks like the shaken middle class. In short, we are returning to feudal conditions.

So the entertainment papers describe life. In his 2005 book “The Empire of Shame,” Jean Ziegler wrote: “We witness a re-feudalization of the world. Transnational private corporations bear the face of the new feudal power.” By new feudalism, Ziegler understands the privatization of power benefiting a tiny minority whose members can no longer be controlled or called to account.

Jean Ziegler is now indispensable as a thorn in the Swiss conscience and an inexhaustible motivator of indignation. An academically-linked sociologist was needed to make the term “re-feudalization” fashionable in left debates. Sigard Neckel, the Austrian scholar, became known through studies on the new manager-elite and published an essay in 2010 “Re-feudalization of the Economy. On the Structural Change of the Capitalist Economy,” Working Paper Nr. 10/6 of the Max Planck Institute for Social Research. He catapulted the title term into public discussion. The “re-feudalization of politics” occurs in the middle class world, editor Thomas Schmid decried in the summer of 2011. “Didn’t German and other politicians notice that they screen the EU against the sovereign and take away – intentionally or not – the right to participation, insight and understanding? (…) Didn’t they notice they were carrying out an unsuspected re-feudalization of politics?”

While Jean Ziegler with re-feudalization aimed at the connection of economy and politics and the subordination of the later under the former, Sigard Neckel goes beyond that. For him, the new feudalism is expressed in the social structure and social conduct. He lists a multitude of recent developments: abandonment of the middle class code of conduct, replacement of the performance principle through pure profit mania; reduction of possibilities of social ascent and more intense dismemberment of society.

Whether re-feudalization is something new is connected with the temporal context. Neckel refers explicitly to Jurgen Habermas who spoke of a “re-feudalization of the public” in his trailblazing 1961 book “Structural Change of the Public.” The middle class public formed in the 18th century is undermined and replaced by the mere representation of the powerful through public relations and other marketing instruments. Neckel also knows it is problematic to generalize a phenomenon identified in a certain social era fifty years later. Therefore he limited it. Re-feudalization is not a progressive tendency. Such reservations can fall away in the journalist use of the term.


The starting point of the re-feudalization thesis is the criticism of growing inequality. Compared with the fifties and the sixties, the wage- and wealth gap is undoubtedly opening up dramatically. Assets distribution was also unequal in the inter-war time of the last century and even more unequal at the end of the 19th century. Instead of a re-feudalization, we could speak of a return to the 19th century and to Manchester capitalism – which is bad enough or even worse.

The alleged replacement of the middle class “principle of performance” by the pure greed or profit-seeking of the financial world and the undermining of “classical middle class values” by social ruthlessness are often pilloried in the current criticism of finance capital. However this criticism assumes that assets were strongly coupled to performance in the past. Were the billions in assets of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Ford and Kripp “more just” because they were based on an industrial output? Performance as a “middle class virtue” was always an ideological creation. Manchester capitalists already cited the performance principle for reassuring edification. Since around 1880 the whole set of enlightened middle class virtues has decayed to a beautiful appearance. Even secondary virtues like neatness or punctuality are socially conditioned. Punctuality is an “achievement” of industrial labor and had to be forced on the rural population. Thus we could say: capitalism confesses to its innermost nature given the “decay of middle class values.”

Regarding social transparency, historical studies show how massive assets were passed on by clans within the family dynasties. The increase of personal services is not a new phenomenon in capitalism. Middle class families had servants at the beginning of the 20th century.

The term “re-feudalization” refers to feudalism. “Instead of the independent man, we find every one dependent – serfs and masters, vassals and lenders, lay persons and prelates. Personal dependence characterizes the social relations of material production and the spheres of life built on them.” On one hand, Karl Marx formulated that the whole feudal society is permeated by personal dependencies. On the other hand, this dependence is mediated. The economy functions by means of a hierarchy of sub-contractors, not with absolute control as in slavery. Certain incentives to individual productivity arise that prepare the transition in feudalism to middle class and then capitalist production methods.

Precariousness and particularly contract work are examples for the increasing personal dependence for defenders of the re-feudalization thesis. Contract work completely transforms workers as whole persons into entrepreneurs. Still contract work in its present form is not feudal, neo-feudal or re-feudal. It is genuinely capitalistic. The commodity labor becomes a commodity passed from firm to firm and all mediators prune a part of the surplus value. The specific personal dependence that extends to physical control is lacking for a neo-feudal relation. The serf in the feudal economy may live very “precariously” because he is subject or answerable to the direct personal control of his master, not because he is constantly thrown on the labor market by alternating entrepreneurs. He may slave away a long time and deliver his work products until the master grabs him directly, obliges him to slave labor or drudgery or is taken as a foot-soldier for a war or the right of the first night. On the other hand, today’s contract work is always regulated by laws – and laws are at civilized (middle class) achievement. Obviously we must fight tenaciously against their undermining. Unlike the feudal system, there are still leadership authorities and political conflicts.

“Unfriendly takeovers” are cited as another example for the new personal control. Management takes over the personnel and fits them into each other. Isn’t this control structurally the same as with “friendly takeovers”? Even the “vulture capitalist” does not face the worker as a personal master. The relationship is objectified. The industrial baron of the 19th century or the patron of the postwar construction in the 20th century from whom nostalgic things are suddenly heard supposedly knew every worker by name and was connected to him much “more personally” than to the present managers or financiers to whom the personnel is a faceless maneuverable mass.

Finally, the attack on the bourgeois middle classes who lost their past “freedoms” is also regarded as neo-feudal. That is a proletarization (if there is still a proletariat). The middle class comes more intensely under pressure on the market. This precariousness is marked by precarious “freedom” and not by direct dependence…


“Re-feudalization” is a helpful populist term against the excesses of present finance capitalism. What despicable idea is conjured? Unscrupulous princes who wallow in luxury and whip their serfs? Hardly. A legitimate intrigue against those above who squander all our wealth vulgarly and ostentiously has undoubtedly increased. However a dilemma of our own fault occurs as criticism of the “neo-feudal.” Banker bonuses have become scandals. However the incredible salaries of rock- and football-stars are admired and not put in question by most fans. Lastly, the meritocratic principle has gained acceptance more strongly than ever in the wake of neoliberalism. Therefore a “feudal lifestyle” is made out to be worthwhile and in no way negatively described. Thus re-feudalization is dulled as a polemical term.

The term “re-feudalization” relies on a catastrophe mood… It veils what it promises to explain. Who is helped by this?


Kevin Phillips has analyzed the wealth distribution in the US and compared the respective top assets with the median assets, the assets in the middle of all assets. John D. Rockefeller’s billions in 1912 were 1.25 million times as great as the median assets. The Depression and the New Deal led to a slight degeneration. In 1940 Rockefeller was still 850,000 times as rich as the average American. The system competition with the Soviet Union led to a further balancing of the wealth. At the beginning of the eighties, the relation was 60,000: 1. Neoliberalism has brought us back to Rockefeller’s best times. Bill Gates is 1.4 million times as rich as the average American.

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