You Got Serfed: How The GOP Turned Capitalism Into Feudalism

What we’re seeing from Republican policies isn’t freedom and capitalism. It’s feudalism and serfdom with more effective propaganda.
Donald Trump pumps his fist as he arrives to speak during a campaign rally, Monday, Nov. 7, 2016, in Manchester, N.H. From left, Eric Trump, Vanessa Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Mike Pence, R-Ind., Karen Pence, Trump, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and Tiffany Trump. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Donald Trump pumps his fist as he arrives to speak during a campaign rally, Monday, Nov. 7, 2016, in Manchester, N.H. From left, Eric Trump, Vanessa Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Mike Pence, R-Ind., Karen Pence, Trump, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and Tiffany Trump. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Unlike many other social and political systems that we learn about in school, feudalism is less of a formal doctrine and more of a messy set of rules and customs. Broadly speaking, it was an exchange of ownership of various lands and properties for military service and fealty of nobles, who then made use of those lands by putting the people who lived there to work on their own terms. And one of the key features of feudal systems was a mechanism to ensure the perpetual transfer of the land and everything on it, as well as the wealth generated by it, from generation to generation of those nobles through a mechanism known as trusts.

Because trusts were legally immortal and exempt from taxation, wealthy and powerful nobles could ensure that no matter whether their progeny were business savants, mediocre inventors, or useless ne’er-do-wells, they would always have money. Those trusts also allowed the dead to impose their rules over the living and make sure their will was carried out to the letter before releasing a single ducat, or gilder, or pound to their progeny. Such arrangements are one of the main reasons why Europe’s wealthiest families maintained that wealth over some 700 years.

In short, feudalism is the ultimate statism. Monarchs rule, nobility owns, vassals live, and serfs toil. Few are able to rise above their station at birth without a lot of luck and connections. After over 600 years of this and the lessons learned along the way, including those of monarchs who ended up putting a finite lifetime on trusts to finally get the wealthy to pay their taxes, and the whole system being finally abandoned as a bad idea, you’d think that no one would bring back immortal trusts to re-create the landed gentry of feudal times, especially not in a first-world beacon of freedom and meritocracy.

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But you would be wrong. South Dakota, along with a number of other states, is partying like it’s 999 and making the nobility great again with perpetual, secretive trusts that would make an 11th-century Italian viscount giddy. What does the state get out of it? Glad you asked. A few thousand accounting and paralegal jobs. Yes, that’s right. South Dakota is resurrecting the very same European power structures that Americans once saw as nothing short of the antithesis to progress and modernity, and desperately did not want emulated in their country, in return for the economic equivalent of stale circus peanuts.

Couple that with lavish tax cuts made on the twin assumptions that after getting their pockets stuffed and assets secured forever, the wealthy, in their infinite generosity, will create more jobs than the loss of their tax revenue would cost the nation, and it’s a recipe for ruin. Today, in the age of automation and AI, the number and quality of jobs being created are more or less decoupled from tax savings and stock market growth. Wages have been stagnant for close to four decades. Nearly 8 in 10 live paycheck-to-paycheck and 6 in 10 couldn’t cover a surprise $500 bill without having to borrow money. Supply-side economics hasn’t just been failing us for a while, it hasn’t worked since the day it was implemented.

By insisting on more and more tax cuts and funding shortfalls with runaway borrowing and raiding Social Security funds, the GOP has done something akin to taking a reverse mortgage as a first time home buyer to pump the money into Ponzi schemes, deluding itself into thinking that because they get money now to invest the latest get rich quick scam, they will make up all the equity they’re losing in the process, while effectively cashing out every last dollar they have in the property they just bought. And now, drowning in debt, they decided to let the lenders do as they wish as long as they still get to stay in the house and claim it as theirs, becoming serfs on their own land.

In fact, this has been the story all over Red America as right-wing politicians effectively ran thousands of communities into the ground, and are now trying to apply ideas discredited long before even being voiced to the rest of the country for nothing more than a few donations and a handful of specialized jobs that do nothing at best for the people they claim to represent, and set them back for an entire generation at worst by helping the wealthy cannibalize their voters’ livelihoods and futures. On top of that, after packing the courts with Dickensian ideologues, the GOP is busy reducing the rights of workers and enabling their employers to pretty much do as they please with them, their health benefits and coverage, and their labor.

And as a cherry on top of this excrement sundae, Attorney General William Barr is threatening citizens who show insufficient fealty to their police forces with the reduction or elimination of police departments, much like a messenger from a Medieval noble telling his unruly serfs “it’s an awfully nice farm you’ve got there and wouldn’t it be a shame if something happened to it and my knights didn’t come to your rescue?” In short, what we’re seeing from Republicans and their policies isn’t freedom and capitalism but feudalism and serfdom with better PR.

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Although to be less polite, the PR isn’t even that crafty. Thanks to a steady stream of talk radio and Fox News, tens of millions are told every day in rabid histrionics that it’s either whether the GOP is doing or agents of the Evil Liberal Illuminati will send Antifa shock troops with purple hair, septum piercings, and face tattoos to their houses to rip their faces off, and sell their kids or grandkids to Satanic pedophiles operating out of pizzeria basements. Their prime-time hosts have nightly meltdowns in which they breathlessly vomit rapid-fire conspiracy theories to an audience that decided that if they can’t get ahead in life, their friends, neighbors, and family must be to blame.

And when it’s not Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or Fox News thundering across vast information deserts around the country with chants of this ever more rabid apocalyptic propaganda every minute of every day, it’s government officials. In fact, fear-mongering was the official platform of the party during the 2018 midterms and it enables pro-feudal politicians to create crises that can justify their shattering of the norms and rules of both governance and basic human decency. If they reframe their insatiable hunger for power as a necessity in a war to defend the nation from evil, they can excuse just about any step they take to win and hold that power, even if they spit in the voters’ faces to do it.

So, just imagine hundreds of trusts worth trillions in 200 years, completely free from taxes and scrutiny, still dictating how their estates are to be ran from beyond their creators’ graves, installing a glass floor for their families, and, along with more tax cuts for the wealthy, putting close to a quadrillion dollars out of public coffers, hobbling everything from infrastructure to education over this time frame, or necessitating the painful taxation of the bottom 80% of the country to keep things running while those who already own 93% of all assets are kept aloft with the resulting services. Question this order and you’ll be branded as a traitor to the crown… err, enemy of the state.

The only real structural difference is that our rulers are elected, although with outsize input from the nobility, and the serfs don’t need permission to move to the lands of other nobles. History isn’t necessarily repeating itself here, but it is rhyming. We may not have families born into power and ascending to government posts by birthright — though nepotism is thriving in today’s America among politicians and the wealthy — but we have very limited social mobility that’s grossly overestimated when compared to surveys of social mobility perception versus reality in European nations. And we are constantly threatened by the specters of terrorism, crime, and foreigners, and told to make peace with what we have or suffer the consequences.

And there even echoes of neo-feudalism in the advice given by right-wing pundits — of both professional and amateur variety — to younger generations trying to figure out a way to pay for college and healthcare. Join the military, they say, in much the same manner as the nobles advertised knighthood to young serfs desperate to escape the family farm. Again, the exact nuances may be different, but in the grand scheme of things, the mechanics and outcomes are very much the same. Americans without wealth and status have been reduced to peons, cogs in a very large machine that exists merely to perpetuate itself and uses vague promises of jobs and “freedom” merely to buy goodwill.

It really boggles one’s mind that so many Americans would be fine with giving away their rights and not just lower their standards for employers and the wealthy citizens of their nation but drop them altogether just because they’re told to cower before imaginary enemies who lurk in the shadows according to millionaire talking heads screaming and crying on TV. God forbid they fail to thank the Almighty Job Creators for their benevolence in giving them a paycheck! Why if they actually start getting their politicians really regulating what companies can and cannot do, and getting the same services as every other civilized nation, the sky will fall on them and next thing you know, genocide, pogroms, and reeducation camps will be upon us.

But hey, maybe this country is fine with transitioning from capitalism and leading the world to feudalism and isolationism. Maybe we don’t need politicians and civil servants, perhaps simply knowing our place under a self-declared nobility is all we need because really, as long as the next paycheck clears and the bills are paid, does anything else really matter? Besides, as of right now, we’re allowed to change jobs, marry, and move to other cities and states without their permission. If we avoid angering them by asking them to participate in the social contract like every other civilized country on Earth, maybe we’ll get to keep those rights too.

Opinion // Capitalism / Donald Trump / Economy / Income Inequality / Republican Party