InternationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 13

The unmistakable musk of feudalism

Ever since his takeover of Twitter, Elon Musk has been running the social media company like a medieval nobleman lording it over his own personal fiefdom.

The tech billionaire clearly believes he knows everything better than everyone else at Twitter, and treats the employees of his new company as though they are modern-day serfs. Anyone who is unlucky enough to work for Musk’s Twitter has only two options: submit to his “extremely hardcore” working conditions and accept his passing fancies, or be fired.

Musk’s reign at Twitter has been defined by a combination of eccentricity, overconfidence and lack of care for community welfare. Giving the maddest overlords of the past a run for their money, the tech billionaire entered his newly conquered realm carrying a kitchen sink and almost immediately started firing employees for correcting his mistakes or daring to publicly criticise him. He reinstated the account of a former US president, who was banned for “inciting violence”, after conducting a poll among the platform’s users on whether he should do so. He tried to make the influential microblogging app profitable by putting its blue tick verifications on sale for $8 per month, with foreseeably disastrous consequences, and by unceremoniously getting rid of employees who he believed were doing superfluous jobs.

The arrogant incompetence Musk has displayed since taking the helm of Twitter disproved yet again the myth that billionaires are extraordinary people with extraordinary minds and extraordinary ideas – that they are “superheroes” a cut above us mortals. In fact, Musk’s Twitter antics proved that, much like the feudal lords of the past, today’s billionaires are, for large part, nothing other than ordinary people with ordinary shortcomings who have been given extraordinary powers.

Of course, there are some significant differences between the likes of Musk and the suzerains of the past. Our 21st-century overlords possess more wealth, in absolute terms, than anyone who came before them but must submit, at least in theory, to greater democratic checks and balances. Nevertheless, the power they exercise is not confined to a manor or even a state – their fiefdoms are their global corporations and unregulated or under-regulated areas of the globe.

Thus, today’s billionaires have a much larger influence over our collective future, and the future of our planet, than any of their medieval counterparts. The likes of Musk not only have near complete control over the fates of their employees, but unmatched indirect influence over all our lives. They can, for example, decide whose voice gets amplified and who is banned from the commercialised end of the public sphere, which is rapidly expanding. They exercise a disproportionate influence over where humanity’s attention and resources are directed – towards a commercialised space race and colonising Mars rather than feeding the poor and combating the climate and ecological crises.

Our current social order – where inequality is rife and billionaires have absolute power over corporations that are challenging the authority of states, where our collective ability to keep the powerful in check resides –  has led some academics to dub our current system of governance dominated by the likes of Musk “neo-feudalism”.

The neo-feudal arrangement we have found ourselves in became more obvious and much more extreme than ever before in the past few years, when the majority of humans on the planet have been hit by several interconnected crises, from the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate emergency to devastating conflicts and disruptions to the energy market. While all these, and the consequent global economic downturn, made most of us significantly poorer, they somehow added to the wealth and power of the modern overlords – the superrich.

Indeed, according to Oxfam’s recent report “Survival of the richest”, the richest 1 percent gobbled up some two-thirds of the $42 trillion in wealth created around the world since 2020.

“A billionaire gained roughly $1.7 million for every $1 of new global wealth earned by a person in the bottom 90 percent,” the report found. “Billionaire fortunes have increased by $2.7 billion a day.”

And all this came on top of decades of historic gains for billionaires. For instance, in Britain, billionaire wealth mushroomed by a jaw-dropping 1,000 percent in the three decades between 1990 and 2022, according to an estimate by the UK’s Equality Trust.

The dramatic nature of this upward redistribution becomes apparent when you consider that, in the space of a few short decades, we went from one of the more egalitarian periods of recorded human civilisation to one of its most unequal.

Despite getting off to a highly unequal first decade and finishing with an increasingly unequal last decade, the 20th century was, in many parts of the world, one of the most egalitarian periods we know of, with some countries experiencing a narrowing of inequalities on a scale never seen, or at least measured, before. Part of the reason for this growing equality was the devastation wrought by two world wars and the desire to build a better world these global conflicts invoked.

Other factors include political empowerment, the rise in mass democratic political participation, egalitarian political ideologies entering the mainstream, including social democracy and socialism, as well as communism and the reaction to it by affluent societies. In many developing states, economic equality initially improved in the early years of independence, in part inspired by a quest for postcolonial justice and development, but the situation worsened significantly in many countries as new elites emerged or old ones returned and consolidated their privileged status.

So what caused the fortunes of everyone but the most fortunate to take such a relative battering in recent decades and how did the wealth gap become a chasm?

One major factor was the neoliberal economic model that has conquered much of the world. This eroded social safety nets, reversed or reduced the rate of progressive taxation, deregulated markets and weakened labour protections. In this deregulated Wild West phase of globalisation, unscrupulous corporations are able to locate their production facilities where labour is cheapest and workers most abused and underpaid, while selling their wares in markets where profits are highest and headquartering themselves where taxes are lowest or non-existent.

But there are other causes too. One is the quasi-feudal rentier economies that have emerged, which extract their income from the rent they impose on the assets they control.

A prime example of this is petrostates, which are not reliant on the labour of their populations for their revenues, and fossil fuel companies, which can extract enormous value with relatively little need for labour. This helps explain why some studies have found, in spite of the paucity of accurate data, the oil-rich Middle East to be the most unequal region in the world.

Despite its sleek, empowering and futuristic image, Big Tech has also developed its own version of the rentier model: many apps and platforms – Amazon, Apple and Uber, for example – produce no real products themselves but extract hefty rents from suppliers.

Automation is another major factor in wealth inequality, as computers, robots and apps make up what functions as the new slave or serf underclass – which works relentlessly, accurately and obediently without needing sleep, paid holidays, health insurance or organised unions – upon whose back so many billionaires have built their empires.

Tackling this gross inequality and bringing us back to the heyday of the mid-to-late 20th century, or even better, requires tackling all these myriad issues. We need progressive taxation, global regulation to tackle the tax avoidance of multinationals and the superrich. We also need to rethink how wealth is distributed at source by, for example, giving workers a fair slice of profits in highly profitable sectors and by distributing the huge gains from rising productivity to workers not just shareholders and top executives. We also need to ensure that automation serves to liberalise and enrich everyone by distributing the gains more fairly and evenly, through higher salaries, shorter working weeks and universal basic incomes.

Despite what some claim, there is nothing natural, inevitable, let alone desirable, in the massive inequalities the world currently suffers. Throughout most of human pre-history, egalitarianism was actually the normal order.

And this quest for egalitarianism has never gone away and will never go away, even at the most unequal of times. Moreover, egalitarianism is not just a question of high principles, it is also a pragmatic choice. Given the instability and conflict that is triggered in times of extreme inequality, it is in everyone’s interest to build a fairer and more equal world.

Just as we reject and resist the tyranny of political autocrats, we do not have to, and must not agree to, live in the modern-day corporate-dominated fiefdoms of the likes of Musk. Feudalism belongs in the dustbin of history, and we should work to dump its latest iteration there as soon as possible.