Cover image for Feudal America: Elements of the Middle Ages in Contemporary Society By Vladimir Shlapentokh and Joshua Woods

Feudal America

Elements of the Middle Ages in Contemporary Society

Vladimir Shlapentokh, and Joshua Woods

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$61.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03781-3

$41.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03782-0

184 pages
6" × 9"
2011

Feudal America

Elements of the Middle Ages in Contemporary Society

Vladimir Shlapentokh, and Joshua Woods

“Shlapentokh and Woods have not merely shed new light on American society, but have also contributed to an emerging way of theorizing. What they have done is analogous to what Impressionism did for art, showing that the same landscape might be revealed in different ways when viewed from multiple perspectives. And, like those of the Impressionists, their insights will challenge the status quo in sociological theory. In particular, they argue against the totalizing tendencies of most theorists. In place of an all-encompassing theory, they propose a ‘segmented’ neo-Weberian approach that is historically grounded but also self-limiting. Thus, the feudal model is proposed as one among several ideal types—other major types are authoritarian and liberal—that might fruitfully be used to interrogate American society.”

 

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Do Americans live in a liberal capitalist society, where evenhanded competition rules the day, or a society in which big money, private security, and personal relations determine key social outcomes? Vladimir Shlapentokh and Joshua Woods argue that the answer to these questions cannot be found among the conventional models used to describe the nation. Offering a new analytical tool, the authors present a provocative explanation of the nature of contemporary society by comparing its essential characteristics to those of medieval European societies.

Their feudal model emphasizes five elements: the weakness of the state and its inability to protect its territory, guarantee the security of its citizens, and enforce laws; conflicts and collusions between and within organizations that involve corruption and other forms of illegal or semilegal actions; the dominance of personal relations in political and economic life; the prevalence of an elitist ideology; and the use of private agents and organizations for the provision of safety and security. Feudal America urges readers to suspend their forward-thinking and futurist orientations, question linear notions of social and historical progression, and look for explanations of contemporary social problems in medieval European history.

“Shlapentokh and Woods have not merely shed new light on American society, but have also contributed to an emerging way of theorizing. What they have done is analogous to what Impressionism did for art, showing that the same landscape might be revealed in different ways when viewed from multiple perspectives. And, like those of the Impressionists, their insights will challenge the status quo in sociological theory. In particular, they argue against the totalizing tendencies of most theorists. In place of an all-encompassing theory, they propose a ‘segmented’ neo-Weberian approach that is historically grounded but also self-limiting. Thus, the feudal model is proposed as one among several ideal types—other major types are authoritarian and liberal—that might fruitfully be used to interrogate American society.”
“In this provocative study, a pair of sociologists—one Russian and one American—brings a novel framework to the analysis of contemporary American society, one they call the ‘feudal model.’ It is a framework that addresses phenomena not well explained in the more traditional ‘authoritarian’ and ‘liberal’ models of society. This approach is not a substitute for, but rather a complement to, these other models, one that facilitates a new perspective on numerous phenomena in contemporary America. The authors draw on a vast array of sociological and journalistic work and make extensive use of creative analogies to challenge preconceptions about the structure and functioning of American society. Reading this monograph will reward anyone seriously interested in understanding contemporary society in America.”
“In this ingenious and imaginative work, Shlapentokh and Woods point to aspects of the social life of the Middle Ages that are found in the present. A sizable minority of us live in castles, or gated communities, and are protected by our modern-day knights—private security officers. We elect mini-dynasties to provide continuity in political life, and we celebrate our warriors. While modernity illuminates feudal societies, feudal patterns illuminate modernity as well. Differences in societies abound, but there are some universals in the social order that are revealed by this careful, comparative historical work.”
“When I read Vladimir Shlapentokh and Joshua Woods’s application of the concept of feudalism to American society, I realized that they had hit upon something important, something that helps overcome the difficulties of understanding American society within the confines of existing models of ‘democratic’ or ‘authoritarian’ societies. As the authors argue, ‘feudalism’ is a very useful complement to the standard analysis of American society. It helps greatly, for example, in explaining the recent U.S. financial crisis and the role of the ‘princes of the financial world’ in that crisis.

“Feudal America is an important book, one that forces the reader to reexamine existing assumptions about U.S. society. It should be read by every analyst of U.S. politics as well as by a broad range of involved citizens.”
Feudal America: Elements of the Middle Ages in Contemporary Society is a good book for the general reader who has an interest in the Middle Ages and elements of the Middle Ages in contemporary corporate America.”

Vladimir Shlapentokh is Professor of Sociology at Michigan State University.

Joshua Woods is Assistant Professor, Division of Sociology and Anthropology, at West Virginia University.

Contents

Preface

Acknowledgments

1. The Feudal Model in Social Analysis: From Medieval Europe to Contemporary America

2. Feudal, Liberal, and Authoritarian Models as Tools for Analyzing the Middle Ages and Contemporary American Society

3. Big Money and Corporations as Promoters of Feudal Tendencies

4. The Feudal Model and the Organizational Level of Analysis

5. Private Coercion: A Feudal Aspect of Contemporary American Society

6. Personal Relations in American Politics and Business: A Feudal Phenomenon

Conclusion

References

Index

Judging by their commentary on American public opinion, their sharp debates on key social issues, and the wide variety of labels they place on society, the critics and observers of the United States seem to be talking about several different countries. Indeed, their portrayals of the country range from fascist state to ideal democracy.

The United States is certainly not the only country to have stimulated debate over its defining characteristics. The Soviet Union, for instance, was the subject of a wide range of commentary and analysis. Until its collapse in 1991, many observers—both inside and outside the country—treated the USSR as a true socialist society, while others regarded it as a brutal totalitarian regime (Shlapentokh, Shiraev, and Carroll 2008). In the post-Soviet period, debates over Russia and other postcommunist countries continued. If some were eager to accept the official definition of Russia as a “normal” liberal capitalist country, others were no less insistent that labels such as “authoritarian” and “oligarchic” should be applied (Shlapentokh with Woods 2007).

Similarly, is France the motor of European integration, a deeply nationalist country in search of “grandeur,” a true democracy, a champion of egalitarianism, or a society with growing authoritarian and discriminatory tendencies? Italy, in its turn, has been described as a “normal” democratic society and an oligarchy, as well as a criminal society ruled by mafias. Iran is seen by some as a healthy Islamic democracy and by others as a highly repressive theocracy. Popular labels for China range from a “normal” totalitarian regime to a fledgling liberal capitalist society.

Returning to the United States, we see sharp disagreements among journalists, scholars, and politicians on whether or to what extent the term “liberal capitalism,” including genuine political and economic competition, accurately describes U.S. society. It is difficult to deny the considerable influence of corporations and political clans on the election process, the importance of personal relations in business and politics, the frequent disregard of merit in the hiring and selection procedures of public and private organizations, the privatization of public space, the walling of wealthy American neighborhoods, the widespread use of private security, and the independent control of violent force. While there is agreement that deviations from ideal liberalism exist, there is general disagreement about the seriousness of these problems, how long they will persist, and how they became problems in the first place.

One camp, the true believers in liberal capitalism, suggests that all such problems are temporary, accidental deviations from the liberal model. While every society faces considerable challenges, U.S. society is led, for the most part, by honest and able people who can meet these challenges. In other words, the problems derive not from the barrel, but from a few bad apples.

This optimistic vision of liberal capitalism has been attacked from all sides. Those on the far right believe that the country has moved toward an authoritarian model, in which corrupt bureaucrats and government officials violate the principles of liberalism in all spheres of life, while those on the far left insist that American society has never fit the liberal mold and is currently dominated by big corporations that use the government as a tool for achieving their private interests.

We disagree with all three camps. Many aspects of American society fall into the category of liberalism, and the economy is, for the most part, competitive. The problems that plague the country, however, are not temporary or accidental, but are deeply ingrained in the fabric of society. To an extent, we agree with the position of those on the left but disagree with their views on the origin of these problems and their exaggerated claim that liberal elements do not exist. While U.S. corporations weaken the bureaucracy, encourage corruption, and damage the democratic process, the American people still have a great deal of influence on their leaders. The election of President Barack Obama stands as evidence in favor of the democratic vision of society.

We also question the notion that corporations represent a united front in their dealings with government and the public. Some radicals on the left underestimate the rivalries between individual corporations, the autonomy of the state, the role of the media as critics of corporations, the power of the grassroots organizations scrutinizing corporate activities, and the independence of government officials.

While the country’s social, political, and economic ills are endemic and enduring, they do not derive from a fatal flaw in the essence of liberal democracy. The cause, rather, should be traced to the coexistence of other types of social organization. As seen in many countries, past and present, the United States is a hybrid or segmented society, one that comprises several universal social forms. To glimpse the whole—its functions, dysfunctions, and general characteristics—we need multiple models, including liberal, authoritarian, criminal, religious, and others. Each of these ideal types deserves the attention of scholars. In an effort to fill gaps in the literature, this book focuses on the feudal model, and draws primarily on the liberal and authoritarian models for the sake of comparison.

The idea that “feudal” elements can be found in contemporary U.S. society may seem historically discordant. After all, the United States, unlike European countries, did not experience a feudal stage in its history. At the same time, feudal developments need not be associated only with the European Middle Ages. Societies encounter feudal tendencies whenever the egotistical interests of the few challenge democratic principles, and do so within the rules of competition in the political and economic spheres.

Our approach is intended to underscore the weakness of describing American society, or any society, with a single model or system. A tendency among scholars and, particularly, politicians to label societies as either liberal or authoritarian rose to prominence in the postwar period. This dichotomous framework—imbued as it was with cold war ideological leanings—sometimes made it difficult to see other forms of social organization in the United States and elsewhere.

Furthermore, two tendencies—the grand theoretical tradition and the enduring interest in explaining everything in society with a single set of principles—are deeply rooted in the social sciences. Marx in the nineteenth century and Parsons in the twentieth century were notable among sociologists who believed that one theory alone could explain all aspects of a given subject. Scholars of the natural sciences are probably even more eager than social scientists to develop grand theories.

The propensity to simplify information and give straightforward answers to complicated questions was epitomized by the medieval thinker William Occam in the fourteenth century. The rule of Occam’s razor insisted that “entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” As the history of science has shown, the systematic process of reducing complex problems to relatively simple ideas, though a reasonable path for science, can result in serious mistakes. A noteworthy rejoinder to Occam’s razor is Einstein’s famous quip that “theories should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

The trouble with simplicity came to light rather glaringly during the financial crisis of 2008–9, when the public’s trust in market mechanisms was put into question. Even professional economists found themselves in a general state of bewilderment as they watched the faltering financial institutions unravel. During a congressional deposition in 2008, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan said, “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief” (Andrews 2008).

Representative Waxman of California pressed Greenspan to clarify his statement: “In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right, it was not working.”

“Absolutely, precisely,” Greenspan replied. “You know, that’s precisely the reason I was shocked, because I have been going for forty years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.”

The misreading of financial institutions during the economic crisis of 2008–9 is only one of many examples that demonstrate the dangers of relying on the simplistic assumptions of a single model, in this case liberal capitalism. One of the underlying goals of this book is to show how a multimodel analysis—what we call the segmented approach—may help us avoid, at least in part, potential pitfalls. A second aim is to outline, delimit, and apply the feudal model to the United States. While feudalism reveals only one part of this multifarious society, it has been largely neglected by contemporary observers and deserves a careful investigation.

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