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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Wednesday 25 September 2013

Neo-Feudalism: Backing Into the Future

(5) Tumblr on We Heart It.

Where lies the future?

We tend to think of it as resting before us, an undiscovered country we explore either timidly or with bold intention.  

For speakers of Quechua, the language of the Inca Empire, it's the past that rests in front of us; after all, we know what happened in the past, just as we can see the world before our eyes.  The future lies behind, unseen; we back into our tomorrows at a petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time.

There's something to this.

You've probably heard the phrase "past behaviour is the best indicator of future behaviour."  We also have expressions about apples not falling far from trees and what has happened before shall happen again.

It's like there's a mirror in front of us; we project the past onto the future.  As often as not, we see but through a mirror, darkly.

Which helps explain why politics today looks so much like feudalism past - and why the system progressive-loathing Conservatives want to impose on society looks less like Capitalism and more a form of Neo-Feudalism.

Canada's conservative politicians (and many of the so-called "liberal/socialist" ones as well) have no interest in working with anyone else.  Winning is the only thing that matters; success is individual, not something to be shared.  After all, they need absolute power to be able to shape tomorrow's reality.

Stephen Harper and Rob Ford believe this so strongly that they're willing to go to war with their competitors to achieve victory.  Dirty tricks (like robocalls or fake calls to radio shows), political canny but structurally unsound funding announcements and ridiculous amounts of time, energy and money spent on propaganda are the tools of their trade.  For them, social media isn't a forum to connect with others; it's the latest siege weapon.

Does this picture remind you of anything?

The more leader-centric, partisan and aggressively competitive our politics becomes, the more it resembles Feudalism.  Party leaders are modern-day kings building tall, opaque walls of defense, relying on courtiers to inform their unilateral decisions and seeing every-day citizens as subjects to be ruled, not constituencies to be represented.  Power is the ultimate goal - everything else is mere justification.

Harper has never hid his partisan ambitions - he wants to destroy the Liberal Party entirely, creating a Two-Party State where the NDP serve as a straw man in much the same way Communists did for Joseph McCarthy.  He wants a secure line of succession that sees his country (now known as Harper's Canada) ruled by his political progeny in perpetuity.  Rob Ford, for his part, has Ford Nation, which has at its head the Ford Brothers and a few stalwarts like Doug Holyday.  They don't like Council, who they apparently feel should serve as courtiers to a strong mayor; they also harbour ambitions to spread their influence beyond Toronto government into provincial and federal jurisdictions.

Absolute power serves as absolute justification, just as it did in the Dark Ages.  There's another parallel to be had; not a lot of innovation emerged from Feudal Europe - in fact, what advances they did employ were cribbed from the Islamic Empire that brought a sea of troubles to their shores.

Canada has an innovation deficit.  We're also having a real problem getting corporations to invest in R&D; why would that be?  The latest transit craze provides a clue.

Despite the multi-lateral focus on building a subway to Scarborough, I don't know anyone who actually believes it'll happen in our lifetimes.  The general assumption is that tens of thousands of dollars will be spent on announcements, studies and the like without anything actually happening; there'll be lots of heat but little light.

That's the general impression people and corporations have of our politics as a whole; it's a lot of gamesmanship that, at best, will lead to some progress during one government's tenure that will be undone by the next.  They see politicians circling their wagons and lobbing missiles over each other's walls while the rest of us try not to get caught in the policy-shifting crossfire.  

This lack of stability and predictability has everyone treading cautiously, hoarding what resources they have and backing carefully into the future.  It doesn't really matter what tax incentives the government offers - financial incentives don't foster innovation.  Inspiration does, and that's something sorely lacking at the political level. 

Neither Stephen Harper nor Rob Ford believe in inspiration, collaboration or diversity of ideas as essential for innovation.  They hold to the myth of the lone innovator who simply needs to be freed of rules and taxation; they feel the future should look something like a mythical version of the past where socially conservative values rule and strong, independent individuals compete and carve out strong, independent successes.  

A man's home is his castle, his to protect as he will.  Regulation and social enabling hinders risk-taking and personal growth; it's competition alone that leads to advancement of both people and nations.

In short, not only are they practicing Neo-Feudalism at the political level, but they are pining for a future that embraces a model of Neo-Feudalism for society as a whole.   

They're intent is noble, of course - they pursue this path in good conscience.  It's just that, by looking through the mirror of a mythic past, darkly, they aren't seeing the whole picture.

Historically, the pursuit of wealth isn't about offering more - it's about offering less for more if you're selling but demanding more for less if you're buying.  When financial wealth is the goal, the consumer focus is on spending less; cheaper goods made by cheaper labour offer more immediate ROI than spending more for something that might be more durable in the long run.  Look at the lifespan of modern vs. older houses/apartment buildings/office towers as an example.

Feudal kings didn't offer value to their peasants any more than plantation owners of old offered value to their slaves.  Factory owners at the start of the Industrial Revolution weren't inspired to give more to their employers; modern employers prefer contract positions (low wages, no benefits) for the same reason money-conscious consumers prefer cheap foreign imports and study discount flyers judiciously.  
Risk taking leans towards picking stocks and buying lotto tickets, not innovating new products and services.  Conquering your neighbour to take their resources (or voters) wasn't very original, but it was pretty expedient - as was colonialism.  As was indentured servitude.  The goal is never to finding and retaining a few, wickedly talented but expensive people - it trends towards having more, less expensive and disposable ones.

We see the same trend away from expansion in Neo-Feudalist approaches to education, too.

Conservative commentators are telling us too many kids these days have too much book-learning; when everyone has a post-secondary education and expects to find work of equal value to the amount of money they spent on their education, expectation doesn't match the market.  The majority of kids should put their ambitions on hold and aim lower; less people should get higher learning and instead focus on lower-paid trades skills and positions.  Success isn't about reaching higher, it's about setting low, realistic goals.  Of course the more competitive, aggressive people will ignore this advice and instead look to discourage competition, but that's the whole point, isn't it?

At the same time, from a Neo-Feudalist perspective individuals should bear more direct responsibility for their own training; companies should be hiring the best people, period, not spending money on training them.  The theory goes that money-focused employers will focus on finding and retaining the best-skilled labour but again, in practice, what actually happens is that money-focused employers will look at the discount bin for cheap, replaceable labour that saves on costs rather than adds value to brand.  

If they want quality, they'll go with known commodities (like their own kids or the kids of their friends); big-picture financially beneficial ones (like the kids of shareholders) or those that just for some reason feel right (ethnic bias, beauty bias, gender bias).  If they go beyond this, though, they're going to hire those individuals who sound and look like winners, meaning those who have the greatest confidence, sales ability and soft-skills (networking, diction, social graces, etc) that are often determined by nurture, not nature.  Lots of wickedly smart, capable people are naturally introverts; just because they can't sell doesn't mean they can't do the job.  Others are so wickedly competent that communicating in simple sound-bites is impossible for them.  How well would Einstein have done at an entry-level interview?

The focus on competitive ability is in turn puts increased pressure on individuals to work hard, work earlier and make the cut.  Where Neo-Feudalists draw the line between "not trying hard enough" and "unable to compete for reasons of external bias or individual capability" never seems to be clearly defined.  There's a reason for this; having a bottom limit of any kind limits competition.  It's an unspoken, probably unrealized fact, but a strict focus on competition is a race to the social bottom (there's a reason Feudal Europe gets referred to as The Dark Ages).  Again, social advantage will trump and many people will never have the chance to realize their full potential, as doing so would take resources and mentorship they simply don't have access to.  

A child born with developmental disabilities to a family with wealth and education is far more likely to get the help they need to succeed than will the same child born to day-labourers struggling to pay the bills.  At the same time, a gifted child born to a poor family won't have the same chance to contribute as will a middling child from a wealthy family, to the detriment of all.

So what would a singular focus on individuals being as competitive as possible, as skilled as possible and to get there on their own merits look like in practice?

At a recent Why Should I Care chat about youth employment and underemployment, a new Canadian from Mexico provided the answer: maybe it's not enough for kids to start part-time jobs in highschool if there is such high competition for skills and experience in the workforce; maybe they should be starting to work in elementary school to ensure they have the abilities they need to succeed.

Not everyone should get higher education.  Some people should set their employment sights lower.  Those without natural advantages of birth, postal code, genetics or luck simply have to start earlier.

This was a notion that made even conservative commentator Michael Hlinka uncomfortable, but the woman had a point.  When the emphasis is on competition, you have to start earlier, work longer and in a glutted market, spend time tearing down your opponents if you want to get ahead.  Unless you have the fortune of being born into a wealthy or well-connected family, or of being born with exceptional beauty, the right ethnicity and latent salesmanship.  

Under a strictly competitive model where money is the goal, there will be winners and losers; the winners will pull further and further ahead of the losers, who will seem more and more contemptible to them.  Meanwhile, those losers will turn towards increasingly desperate measures to get ahead (like joining gangs, selling drugs and killing competitors) or simply languish in poverty, seeing no future at all - just a brutal present that seemingly draws on forever.  I think that would be a reality the lady from Mexico would already be familiar with, which perhaps explains why she was projecting that model onto Canada.

There's some historical precedent for where that sort of trend leads.  

By ignoring the context of the past and trying to map a mythic historical ideal onto tomorrow, leaders like Ford and Harper aren't shaping the future, they're repeating a cycle that we've witnessed through tribalism, feudalism, the failed communist experiments of the past century, various forms of proto-capitalism and modern capitalism - and one we'll witness again at the end of the to-be-branded post-capitalist model, the first blushes of which we are already witnessing.

As Simon Sinek has said, money isn't a purpose - it's a result.  By the same token, leadership isn't about power - it's about empowering.  Innovation isn't developed in isolation and the motivation for creativity isn't selfish, but altruistic.

It's the people who don't have to worry about paying the bills who buy expensive things; money's not the issue for them, brand is.  The same holds true for companies; the ones that do exceptionally well over time don't focus on putting money in the pockets of shareholders - they focus on brand and legacy.

The people developing tomorrow's solutions aren't doing so for money - money's just the base layer they need for stability.  They're not interested in stepping back in time nor in waiting for theoretical systems to produce benefit down the road; like every generation previous, for them the future is now.

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