Fascism, Feudalism, and the Future

One of the things that I can’t help noticing, as someone who listens for narratives in the ways people talk about the future, is the way that certain motifs reappear over and over again in discussions surrounding peak oil and the future of industrial society. These are distinct from the great mythic stories that shape so many accounts of the future – the myth of salvation through technological progress, for example, or its usual debating partner, the myth of redemption from an evil society through apocalypse. The motifs I’m speaking of here are more self-contained and more flexible, and pop up in most visions of the future in circulation these days.

One classic example is the image of mindless, marauding hordes spilling out of the dying cities and ravaging everything in their path. This one has been a recurring cultural nightmare in the western world for a couple of centuries now, since the cities of the industrial world disconnected themselves socially from their agricultural hinterlands and began filling up with immigrant populations. Read such classic fictional treatments of the theme as Newton Thornburg’s Valhalla (1980) and it’s clear that on this side of the Atlantic, at least, it roots into the enduring emotional legacy of American racism, the terror of the dark Other on which the shadow of white America’s unacknowledged desires has long been projected.

You can look through history books in vain for examples of urban populations invading the countryside en masse in the twilight years of civilizations, but the motif remains stuck firmly in place. The inhabitants of Willits, one of the few American towns that have taken the imminence of peak oil seriously, have apparently laid plans to blow up highway bridges leading into town from the south, to keep those imaginary mobs at bay. Willits is in liberal northern California, but it’s embraced the same fantasy that leads survivalists on the opposite end of the political spectrum to indulge in wet dreams about automatic weapons blazing away at marauding hordes.

The motif I want to talk about in this week’s post has equally complex roots, and bridges the narrowing gap between the far left and the far right in a similar way. This is the belief that the American political class – those rich and influential people whose unity, power, and malevolence are articles of faith across the farther shores of American politics – are plotting to impose an authoritarian regime combining feudalism and fascism in the wake of peak oil. Like the belief in rampaging urban hordes, the imminence of this “feudal-fascist” takeover can be found in peak oil literature from every point along the political spectrum.

The words “feudalism” and “fascism” appear so often and are used so loosely in this context that it’s worth remembering that they actually do have exact meanings. Feudalism is a specific form of social organization that springs up in the aftermath of sociopolitical collapse. When central government disintegrates, money economies implode, and pervasive violence is everywhere, one of the few effective responses is a radical decentralization of power that hands control over small regions to magnates who can raise a corps of professional warriors, feed and support it with local agricultural produce, and defend their fiefs against all comers.

A feudal society is a legal hierarchy of decentralized force. In feudalism, the place of every human being from monarch to serf is measured precisely by that person’s ability to wield violence, and is matched by an elaborate hierarchy of rights and responsibilities. It bears remembering that the Magna Carta, the foundation of Anglo-American constitutional law, is a quintessentially feudal document; under feudalism, serfs had rights that at least in theory, kings could not arbitrarily set aside, though those rights were doubtless honored about as often as the rights of the poor in industrial societies today. Harsh and by modern standards unjust, feudal systems nonetheless flourish in desperate times because they offer an effective bulwark against violence and chaos, and provide each person some measure of security under the rule of law.

Fascism, even in the broadest sense of the term, is a far more culturally specific phenomenon that sprang up in Europe and Latin America in the aftermath of the First World War and faded out, where it had not been forcibly blotted out, after the Second. Allied wartime propaganda from the 1940s still has most people thinking of the metastatic nightmare of Nazi Germany as the archetype of fascism, but the mainstream of the fascist movement came out of Italy, where Benito Mussolini launched it with with his seizure of power in 1922. In Italy as elsewhere, fascism was a radically centralized socialist-capitalist hybrid that opposed communism while borrowing many of the Soviet regime’s own features.

In fascist societies, property remained in private hands, but capitalist competition was replaced by government coordination, and wages and prices were set by edict; labor unions existed, but workers were forbidden to strike and disputes were arbitrated by government tribunals. Public officials were appointed by the party leadership rather than being elected by the people, as in democracy, or inheriting their positions, as in feudalism. The rule of law was explicitly abandoned in favor of the “will of the nation,” which in practice meant the will of the party leadership. Fascist political philosophy explicitly argued that there should be as few levels as possible in the chain of command between the leader and the individual citizen, and the result was unfree but distinctly egalitarian – that is, everyone outside the top leadership of the party had the same lack of rights as everyone else.

Compare fascism to feudalism and massive differences outweigh the few similarities: a radically centralized society versus a radically decentralized one, a complete lack of individual rights versus an elaborately detailed code of rights for each person, the unchecked will of the leader versus the formal rule of law, and the list goes on. In the modern world, certainly, the two have also appealed to different social classes – fascism to the lower middle classes and skilled laborers, feudalism to the old aristocracy. It’s not an accident that the most sustained opposition to Hitler’s regime in Germany came from the Prussian aristocracy; the famous bomb plot that nearly vaporized the Führer and ended the war most of a year in advance was planned and executed by as blue-blooded a conspiracy as any in history.

So what on earth would a feudal-fascist regime be? A radically decentralized centralized state with an egalitarian hierarchy that both had and lacked individual rights and the rule of law? Clearly the words “fascism” and “feudalism” are not being here used to mean what they actually mean. Rather, they are what S.I. Hayakawa used to call “snarl words:” terms of abuse invoked because they evoke a predictable emotional response.

Behind this lies the ugliest of the left’s bad habits, its habit of demonizing those who disagree with its political stances. It’s not enough, for example, to argue that the political hacks and free market ideologues who make up the current US administration have pursued bad policies with astonishing ineptitude and more than the usual dollop of corruption, as indeed they have; for many people on the left today, the dismal performance of the Bush administration has to be forced into the Procrustean bed of a conspiracy theory in which every bumbling misadventure becomes a step in a sinister plan deliberately aimed at creating a dystopian society.

Now it’s only fair to point out that today’s left borrowed this habit from yesterday’s far right. The dubious claims of concentration camps under construction now being circulated by the left have their exact parallels in the equally dubious rumors about black helicopters and uniformed UN troops on America’s highways in the aftermath of Clinton’s 1992 electoral victory. More generally, it’s remarkable to see how much of today’s left-wing thinking has its roots in the ideas of the extreme right a half century ago. Trace back the rhetoric today’s radicals use to denounce the Council on Foreign Relations and multinational corporations to its source, and you’ll find an unlikely godparent: Robert Welch, founder and chief ideologue of the John Birch Society, who made all the same accusations in the 1950s under the banner of extreme conservatism.

It needs to be recognized that any time somebody starts insisting that the political party they happen not to like is a fair imitation of evil incarnate, what’s going on has little to do with the sort of dispassionate analysis that might actually give us a sense of the shape the future holds. Like the motif of marauding urban hordes, I’ve come to think, the mythology of an evil elite plotting world enslavement is the projection of the shadow of unacknowledged desires – in this case, the desire for power over others. It’s a normal human desire; the political systems of most stable countries have checks and balances to contain it and channel it in useful directions; but the ideology of the contemporary left, like that of the extreme anticommunist right in America half a century ago, denies it any place at all. A scapegoat thus has to be found to bear the onus of unacknowledged desire. To Robert Welch, that scapegoat was international communism; for the contemporary left, it’s George W. Bush.

Even a broken clock tells the right time twice a day, mind you, and the fact that much of today’s radical rhetoric was invented by a man who believed Barry Goldwater was a communist sympathizer does not necessarily disprove it. A feudal-fascist society may be every bit as possible as a square circle, but fascism and feudalism – as social systems rather than snarl words – may well end up playing roles in the complex historical tapestry of industrial society’s decline and fall. Most modern industrial societies had already adopted fascist habits of government economic coordination and leadership by charisma rather than law by the time Mussolini’s corpse was laid to rest, and the temptation to push things further in the same direction in a time of emergency is always present.

That temptation, it should be noted, affects the left as much as the right. I’ve pointed before to David Korten’s The Great Turning as an example of this, but it bears repeating here. According to Korten, those who share his own background and opinions are naturally gifted with the ability to lead humanity through the present crisis, and ought to be given the unchecked power to do so. Those of my readers who can’t see in this the potential seed of a future green fascism may want to compare works such as Korten’s to the early manifestoes of the fascist parties of the 1920s and 1930s. Of course there are also plenty of would-be leaders invoking Führerprinzip on the right as well, and there’s a certain morbid fascination to whether one side, the other, or some fusion of the two will attempt a grab for power first.

Feudalism, if it is to happen, lies further in the future. If the spiral of catabolic collapse now beginning to pull at industrial civilization succeeds in dragging it all the way down to complete social disintegration, some form of feudalism is pretty much a given. If the only alternative is the reign of unchecked violence, most people will settle for basic physical security and the rule of law, however unequal the laws in question might be.

Only if some semblance of a functioning government still exists at the bottom of the curve, and holds the war of all against all in check, can we count on skipping a feudal period in the deindustrial future. Equally, it’s only the survival of a constitutional government, however flawed this may be, that can keep fascism at bay in the early stages of decline and fall. Neither of those goals will be furthered in the least by pouring rhetorical napalm on the fires of partisan hatred, insisting that one’s political opponents must be motivated by sheer evil, and projecting one’s own unresolved issues onto the nearest convenient enemy.