This ain’t capitalism, this is neo-Feudalism

By John Higgins and Mark Cole

Absolute power corrupts absolutely
But absolute powerlessness does the same
It’s not the poverty
It’s the inequality that we live with everyday that will turn us insane

Akala – Absolute Power

The Age of Management

When we had managers and employees we all knew where we stood. Work was a contract and you gave or took what you could. Managers had contractual authority to back up their instructions, employees had a legal reference point they could (in theory) use to police the boundaries of what counted as legitimate or illegitimate managerial power.

Managers and employees worked together but stood apart. This view of the workplace conceded that these two positions would have different agendas; sometimes they overlapped, and at other times they didn’t. When they didn’t, there was a potential for industrial conflict. Workers combined in trade unions so that they – like the managers – could speak with one voice.

This was a time when the Personnel Department was the lynchpin of this corporatist construct. Personnel presented itself very often as a presence that sat between managers and employees, seeking to manage that relationship and any burgeoning conflict. Not neutral but aiming to be a mediating force.

In his time as an intemperate shop steward at Bromley Hospital, Mark recalls the Personnel Officer there – newly recruited from British Airways, as the NHS enacted the 1983 Griffiths Report and threw open its doors to managers from other sectors – inviting him in for a chat. Mark’s trade unionism was disruptive and political. After a lengthy preamble, the Personnel Officer got to the point: “I’ve negotiated with Militant Tendency and all sorts of people. But what is it that you want?” Here was the Personnel department fulfilling a mediating role between the two large and potentially antagonistic blocs in the workplace.

The emergence of neo-feudal leadership

Then the leader-follower construct emerged, a world view that established the leader as the owner of all that is agentic and purposeful, while followers are a pacified blob willing to do the leader’s visionary bidding. This smacks of Feudalism in that there is an assumption of god-given rightness about the status of the leader – the ruler over all resources, which followers are allowed to put to use with the understanding that what is good for the leader/Lord is good for all, as it preserves the divinely ordained great chain of being.

What sustained the original Feudal contract was the custom and practice of sustained reciprocity – a set of mutual obligations that could not be overturned at the drop of a hat. What we now have with our neo-Feudal model of leadership are arrangements that are unconstrained by either contract or custom – the Lord’s word is final and the follower has no recourse to any outside body or example. And our Personnel Department now manages the Human Resources, with an emphasis on resource and a pretence of being focused on the human.

We tend to think of feudalism as a socio-economic phase through which we passed, thanks to both traditional and Marxian historiography. Others have focused on it as a bundle of practices and relations, which can appear at any time. Feudalism in that reading becomes not something that humankind lived through so as to reach capitalism but instead something that can appear as and when its components come together.

In 1960, Robert Koehl wrote an influential paper that argued that Nazism in Germany was best understood as a feudalist system. Explaining this idea, Koehl points out that ‘Feudalism, above all, is a power-relationship. Its essential ingredients are vassalship and the fief. Vassalship is based on personal dependence and loyalty, while the fief represents a conditional proprietary right, often to landed property. The fief is the basis of personal power; it is presumably held subject to limits defined in terms of service to superiors.’ (921)

The article suggests that Nazism can be said to be feudal because of the nature of leadership in the ideology, its recasting of property rights, its efforts to de-bureaucratise the state, and its reliance on personal loyalties.

In modern capitalism – with its leadership fixation – we find many feudal elements. In a recent development the CEO of an organisation known to John announced a significant cut in head count, with no explanation. Was it whim? Strategic imperative or an expression of executive ego? Who knows? But what was clear, as demonstrated by an all-hands email from the second in command, was that people should ignore the tittle-tattle of their colleagues and trust to the universal wisdom and truth of the CEO.

The leader has spoken, followers have been told – and now they must accept and adapt to this neo-Feudal arrangement where the fiat from on-high cannot be questioned. Their job as powerless followers is to suck it up – because what else can they do?

This very idea of followership has feudal overtones. The leader must be followed by virtue of their position. This has echoes with the Divine Right of Kings, the idea that a monarch occupied their position because of their relationship to God. And, if God puts someone wearing a crown in charge, then the godly are obliged to follow that person, regardless of who they are and what they do.

A technocratic neo-feudalism?

Whilst these feudal elements are the cultural underpinnings of contemporary corporate life, they are supplemented by a raft of technocratic practices. Observing their emergence in the 1980s, under the political stewardship of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, one author christened it as neo-Taylorism, suggesting that:

‘The chief features of both classic Taylorism and its 1980s descendent were that they were, above all, concerned with control and this control was to be achieved through an essentially administrative approach – the fixing of effort levels that were to be expressed in quantitative terms. Rewards, narrowly conceived as direct financial remuneration, were then to be geared to above-average performance in respect to the newly-established norms for effort. In parallel with this increasingly detailed control of measurable activity went a de-control of the employment relationship, at least in the sense of a move away from “standard terms and conditions” across large groups of employees. Managers were to have greater discretion to negotiate, or impose, local terms which would more closely reflect local labour market conditions, and the particular performance achieved by the individual employee.’  

Pollitt C (1990) Managerialism and the public services: The Anglo-American experience. Basil Blackwell: Oxford. pp177-178

This the author takes to be the triumph of managerialism, riding on the coat tales of a political reading of what was taken to be the fiscal crisis of the state and the forced emergence of specific ideas like New Public Management, which in turn arose out of the ideological seedbed of neoliberalism.

By moving down a layer to look below the surface we find two things that run counter to that world view and are glossed over by it: the neo-feudalism of modern thinking around leadership and the neo-Taylorism of so much that passes for management these days. Both are throwbacks to the past – and both exist in plain sight, shrouded by the politesse of modern organisational life.

And the consequence is an organisational world riven with over-controlled passivity. Neo-Taylorism plays out in an excess of measurement and the Feudal habit can be seen in the glorification of the leader-follower construct. Passive, measured order is the order of the day.

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