Corporate Feudalism

[Written sometime in 2003, at the outset of the invasion of Iraq, as a young journalism student. Some of the claims in this strike me as a bit bombastic now, but as I write this, 14 years later, my ‘it can’t happen here’ o-meter seems to be malfunctioning. So I suppose we shall see. ]

The United States has become embroiled in the most controversial conflict in modern history, and the entire planet is poised at the edge of its bloody event horizon, waiting to be pulled into the fray. In Iraq, in Afghanistan, and other hot spots to be announced, the United States has led the world into another phase in history, a global war which could spell the end of nations as the dominant form of social organization.

Is this merely the first global Oil War? Is this the first phase of a tiny right-wing cabal’s vision of American global hegemony? Is it, as they would claim, a global police action to secure America from fanatical terrorists? Perhaps all three are true, after a fashion. About the only thing everyone can agree upon is that we ARE at war, but beyond that everyone’s rhetoric gets a bit fuzzy.

The United States is the last imperial nation-state. For 200 years it has stood with unassailable borders, and ushered in the modern age. The American system is the most flexible and adaptable system of mass control ever devised, and the American value system has unleashed the creative powers of its citizens to an unparalled degree, allowing for cultural mutation and adaptation never before seen. No nation before the U.S. would have been able to withstand the wild nature of dissent and relatively free thought and still exist. But the vast majority of creative thought is channelled into increasing production and profit. This is the American value system, where freedom means choosing between slavery and starvation.

Nonetheless, the American economic system, with its crown jewel, the middle class, is the most brilliant self-regulating system of control in the history of mankind. Acting as a buffer zone between the poor and rich, the middle class has enough to lose that it will always side with the perpetuation of the system. At least until it is absorbed back into the ranks of the poor.

In the last hundred and fifty years a new form of organization has been gestating and becoming more prominent in human affairs- the corporation. While there have always been guilds and interest groups to promote economic considerations upon the minds of kings, the corporation is a somewhat more virulent strain. It is largely a child of the industrial revolution, when new technologies made mass production- and thus mass profit- a defining aspect of society. With its emphasis on increased individual profit and decreased individual responsibility, the corporation’s relationship with nations and people has been overwhelmingly parasitic.

In America, where royalty was abolished, the only status symbol has been raw wealth. A corporation is merely amassed, focused wealth without individual culpability. Thus these macroviruses have been able to eat away at the foundations of states’ legitimacy: their laws.

Now, the United States (along with other nations) is much like a house fully infested by termites. The corporations dictate government policy nearly verbatim, albeit from behind closed doors. The most powerful tool corporations have is the public’s belief that the system works; that they, in effect, are free. This is an act of faith on their part, one that requires them to turn a blind eye to many aspects of modern life. The stock market can be seen as a sort of thermometer to indicate that faith.

But when some aspect of the system crumbles away, the underlying corporate hive-structure is revealed. When government programs are threatened by financial shortages, politicians often suggest “privatization”, which is to say, corporate ownership. This means that the functions of governance are being managed by corporations. It is a gradual but unavoidable process. Governments are not made to be profitable, but they no longer value anything else. This is a symptom of the corporate virus.

As more functions of government become privately controlled, the corporations gradually come to BE the government. The nation, which was once bound by geography, ideology, and culture, becomes little more than a broker for population, leasing out its information and labor to the highest bidder.

So eventually, perhaps fifty to one hundred years from now, the world will be overtly run by multinational companies, unfettered by considerations of geography, public opinion, environmental concerns, and other problems given lip service by nations these days. They will have their own military services, money, and people tied to the company for perhaps generations. An era of corporate feudalism will most likely be the next step in the evolution of governments. Combine this with the structural need of a corporation to constantly expand, and a state of perpetual inter-corporate warfare reveals itself.

However, the old nation-state, its open sores bleeding a mass identity crisis, will not go quietly. The ties of nationalism are too deeply ingrained to fade away without a massive discharge of political and military power. In short, a war, perhaps several, will be fought when the crumbling old model of the nation resists final absorption into the corporate consciousness. The nation of one’s geographic origin could become a rallying cry for resistance against the new structure, much as the religious ideal is against the onslaught of nations.