Tag Archives: Abbe Mowshowitz

Virtual Feudalism is Here: the 1% vs. the 99%

16 Oct

Over at Crooked Timber they’re having a discussion of the software SNAFU that’s occurred in the rollout of Obamacare. As anyone in the software biz knows, that’s just how it is with large software projects. The thread title suggests something more interesting and far more sinister: Neo-Liberalism as Feudalism.

That title reminded me of the work of Abbe Mowshowitz, whom I met when I was on the faculty at The Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute back in the previous century. He was interested in how the deployment of computer technology was creating virtual organizations that, he believed, would lead to a virtual feudalism:

Absent a sense of loyalty to persons or places, virtual organizations distance themselves—both geographically and psychologically—from the regions and countries in which they operate. This process is undermining the nation-state, which cannot continue indefinitely to control virtual organizations. A new feudal system is in the making, in which power and authority are vested in private hands but which is based on globally distributed resources rather than on possession of land. The evolution of this new political economy will determine how we do business in the future.

Here’s an essay I ghosted in Abbe’s name back in ’97 but which, alas, never got published. The ideas are his, the prose mine.

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The New World Order of Virtual Feudalism

One might imagine that, in 2020 a person could be brought to trial on criminal charges in a court convened by a private corporation under provisions granted by the United Nations. What is perhaps more difficult to imagine is a world in which such an institutional arrangement is the solution to a pressing problem, and that a wide range of individual and corporate actors would agree to such an arrangement. At the moment we live in a world where criminal prosecution is primarily a power of nation-state authorities, with the United Nations being an organization created by states and having no direct power in the private sector. This imaginary trial thus violates fundamental distinctions governing our political life.

Yet I believe that such arrangements are not only possible, they are inevitable. New actors — most noticeably, large multinational corporations — have come to dominate the world’s advanced economies. Increasingly these organizations are operating in a seamless global marketplace. Ironically, as the marketplace becomes global, the great nation states and empires are fragmenting into smaller and smaller units. Large companies have more wealth and power than small states. These developments conjure up visions of the brave old world of medieval feudalism, in which the role of the nobility will be played by corporate executives assisted by employee-vassals who rule over legions of latter day serfs.

Day by day the emerging new world order looks like a virtual feudalism. In thus talking of feudalism I am not, however, asserting that our immediate future holds a regression to the distant past, though there may well be regressive elements. Rather, I think that we are increasingly living in a world which exhibits patterns of social organization and action characteristic of feudal societies, such as fragmented authority, private security arrangements, and a highly permeable boundary between private and public activity. This feudalism is “virtual” because these patterns reflect non-territorial organizational arrangements made possible by information technology rather than being rooted in the customs of land ownership and tenancy which existed in medieval Europe.

To get a feel for this future let us consider the life of three different individuals who are born in the current world and move into middle-age as virtual feudalism unfolds. Continue reading