Apr 15, 2010

The new Feudalism (and why women really shouldn't vote for the Tories)

OK, so first off, we live in a feudal society. If this is news to you, then: wakey wakey!

Let's anatomize.

A feudal society is one on which the majority give their allegiance, labour and control over their destiny to a tiny minority who amass vast clusters of wealth and power exclusively in their own hands. It is therefore characterized by very high levels of inequality, and by low levels of mobility, as structural obstacles are put in place to prevent the wealth creating majority (people doing actual work, in simple terms) from impeding the enrichment and control of the few by climbing up the socioeconomic ladder.

Two other characteristics of a feudal society are that, first, its laws and justice are applied differently to the many and to the few. The Magna Carta, famously, is a document in which the few are demanding to have legal parity with the very, very few: the barons demanding habeas corpus and other legal rights from the king. Secondly, a feudal society, though politically autocratic, is economically distributed and has weak central controls for things like hunger alleviation, public works etc. It's up to the benevolence of the feudal masters to provide such public services as exist.

Now, it's this last one where the most progress was made during the social and economic revolutions of the 20th century. We have wrested a measure of control from our economic masters (who were, fittingly, also called "barons" - robber barons, to be precise - during the preceding age of laisses faire capitalism and rampant disregard for the working masses) and vested it in a central authority in order that it should centrally provide for some of our basic human needs and rights. A quick comparison of the 20th century NHS versus the 15th NHS demonstrates that this was quite a good idea.

In other areas of comparison between modern Britain and feudal England, just in case you doubt my analogy (and also to show off my historical analysis skills), let me just say that levels of inequality in the UK are at a an all time high, and levels of mobility have been stagnant since the big economic explosion of the 80's. New Labour has done some good work in dismantling one structural obstacle to mobility by widening access to higher education, but this was done in isolation and in an economic climate of rampant consumerist growth (and also, via the medium of loans, cause debt is such a good idea!). Labour's education policy arrested what would definitely have been a post-Thatcher plunge in social mobility in the UK, but it didn't really reverse the trend, which is for diminishing social mobility. The the same time the UK also imported a large and growing underclass of desperate, grey-status foreign workers, who are occupying rungs on the economic ladder even further down from where their British working class predecessors dwelled, and are in many cases literally immobile due to extreme poverty and the vagaries of the Home Office. Needless to say women suffer disproportionately more in these conditions, so perhaps another post on immigration policy later.

So yeah, we're very unequal and increasingly immobile, kind of like our medieval forebears before the Peasant's Revolt, or our Victorian grandparents before the labour movement and the equalizing trauma of WWI. We are also increasingly threatened by a two tier health system, where the wealthy suck away resources into a private shadow system of the NHS; likewise the effect is present in education with the growth in private schooling. Actually, anything you hear that is a "two tier system", it's a red flag for feudalism, because the top tier is always way way smaller than the bottom tier. Another famous two tier system is the justice system, in which money can silence dissent, argument or even scientific debate through our frankly Kafkaesque - but more importantly extremely expensive - libel courts.

And then, of course, we have a two tier tax system. You may think this is a commonplace: of course, there is corporation tax for companies, and then there's income tax for people. Except, guess what: corporations don't really pay taxes. Mostly, when you hear about tax revenues this and tax expenditure that, it's money that's been colelcted from the majority of economic actors actually doing actual work, not fromt he corporations growing and expanding as a result of those efforts. If you think I'm exaggerating, then I urge you – and I really do urge you, please - to check out the following resources:

- The Tax Justice Network
- Mark Thomas on why we should invade Jersey (which is hilarious as well as scary)
- Will Hutton on tax avoidance
- And something from the US, to make us feel a bit better (not)

And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

So you see, corporations are our new feudal masters. We increasingly work for them rather than ourselves, each other, or the state, tying our economic destiny to them both individually and at a societal level (as in the case of the banking industry, which is a systemic as well as an unemployment risk and therefore had to be bailed out). They try to decrease our mobility, through benefits that only vest with length of service, or through encouraging us to specialise until we're virtually unemployable elsewhere, in the same way that feudal England (or Russia) imposed penalties, fines, and loss of property on serfs and peasants who wanted to move to another lord's domain. This is especially potent in the US, where employment with a alrge corporation is sometimes the only means of access to basic human rights such as healthcare provision, but the pressure is exerted int eh UK as well.

Corporations do not contribute anything to the world that you see around you - not anything hat is free and aimed at your wellbeing, anyway. Their job is to grow and become bigger corporations - no other return on ivenstment is written into the model. They do "make" lots of shit that you want, and maybe even need, but it's shit you have to pay for. The stuff that's free, that should be free, like schools and transport infrastructure and the economic safety net and the courts, is paid for almost exclusively BY YOU.

Because corporations don't pay tax, you end up paying them twice: you pay them in kind with your labour, and you pay your hard earned cash through taxes so that corporations can continue to have a workforce that is literate and healthy, so that they can have courts of law to carry out their litigation and contract resolution in, so that they can operate in an environment free from the risk of disruption through war, so that they don't have to spend money on getting their workers to work (since they travel on government financed roads), so that they can use the communications infrastructure for their emails and telephone conversations and be connected to the electricity grid and water and sewage in their offices.

If you work in a large company, then chances are that your employer is getting all of the above FOR FREE, like a Baron of old. And that you have, indirectly, paid for it to be able to do so. So I'd got to payroll and demand a rebate, if I were you. (yeah I'm too chicken to do that too)

We know that the pay of the few people at the top is obscenely - hundreds of times - larger than that of even the average person in the middle, let alone the real "serfs". And that extreme lumpiness is not just some bug in the system of rampant capitalism and the corporate idea, it is absolutely at the heart of it, because at heart it is a feudal system.

So how do the Tories come into this?

The short, simple answer is that the Tories luuurve the feudal lords at the top of this particular rubbish heap. In many cases, as in that of Cameron himself, that's because they are both related and married to some of them. And, out of simple tribal loyalty as well as ideological commitment, they will make sure the feudalism will only get worse. Under the Tories the disparity between what the rich put into running the country and what the poor do will only grow. The government will demand a larger and larger share of most of our incomes, but will generate less and less tax revenue (because we are not rich!). It will therefore be to afford fewer and fewer of the essential things we expect a first world country to have, and which increasingly only teh rich will be able to access freely via the private sector.

The Tories will send us back to the 19th century, and in the 19th century women did not do so good as they do now. Just compare the maternal mortality rates under the Victorian NHS. Haha. You get the picture I'm sure. Anyway, this is getting sort of indecently long, so I will break it up and do Part II: Why Women Would be Crazy to Support the Tories a bit later.