It has been said that every great nation has its rise and fall; that its rise occurs as a result of the population (in general) becoming determined to work hard to create a better life, and that its fall occurs when the population becomes spoiled, then complacent and then finally, apathetic.
Much of the First World has reached this latter stage, all (to varying degrees) at the same time. Unfortunately, from a historical standpoint, the period of apathy is almost invariably followed by a period of bondage – a marked social and economic decline in which the people of the nation become little more than serfs of the state that rules them.
While most readers would agree that this describes the First World in its present state, they would likely argue that this time around, bondage will not be the end result. While reason might tell them that this is exactly the predictable (and historical) outcome, the idea of bondage is too frightful to consider as being a possibility. While a few seem to be railing against this eventuality, the great majority simply open a beer and turn on the TV. A very comfortable form of apathy, but apathy just the same.
Feudalism, Past and Present
So, are there any differences this time around? I would say that there is one major difference, and that is that the packaging is more sophisticated.
In days of yore, the Sheriff of Nottingham and his men rode into your village and demanded what few silver pennies you may have earned recently. This was clearly a dictatorial government – one which was ruled by force, so that the people were clearly serfs and had no real say. Punishment was simple: If you did not pay, your hut was burned, your possessions confiscated, and you were thrown in prison to remain until the debt had been paid. (Nobles fared a bit better: In the 15th century an ancestor of mine, Lord James of Dartmouth, spent several months in the Tower of London until he could pay King Henry IV a sum of 2000 pounds, literally a “King's ransom” – in spite of the fact that Lord James was said to have been a favourite of the King.)
Now, of course, things are entirely different. Today, the Sheriff does not ride into your village demanding your money. You are required to send it in yourself. If you fail to pay, your house is not burned. It is confiscated, along with your other possessions, and you face prison. Increasingly, people are ruled by force just as in the 15th century. But in spite of this, citizens of many First World countries still claim to have free elections – the last bastion of the democratic system.
The Democratic Process
The idea of the democratic process is that the people may elect their leaders and thus control their destiny. However, running for office is quite expensive, and this means finding donors. Understandably, anyone who provides a donation does not regard it as a gift. He seeks something in return. In national elections, this means very large donations, translating into very large compensations. Those who contribute the most (Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Banks, the Military Industry, etc.) can demand quite a bit in return.
In any “democracy” that has been in existence for a long enough time, the relationship between donors and candidates has become circular; that is, after the candidate is elected, he repays the donor, by providing either tax dollars or rights to operate that others do not enjoy. Once the circular relationship is fully cemented for a period of time, the returns to the donor grow to far exceed the donations. As a result, voters are, unwittingly, actually paying the donors and the government to dominate their lives.
Not surprisingly, donors come to regard these tax dollar infusions as a regular source of revenue and seek to have them grow regularly. (If voters could understand this circular relationship, they would be less surprised when their legislators – whether they be conservative or liberal – consistently fail to diminish the government need for tax.)
So we are left with the remaining advantage of democracy: the ability to vote for those who will protect our freedoms, as we see them.
The Two Party System
In the majority of First World countries, there are a host of political parties (America is a notable exception), each claiming to represent a specific point of view. Most of the parties are fringe parties, and voting generally comes down to the two main parties: liberal and conservative. Liberals claim to champion the social freedoms (gay rights, abortion, etc.) whilst trying to limit economic freedom. Conservatives claim to champion the precise opposite.
Most voters seem to see the system as alternating between the two parties. For example, first the liberals win and increase the social freedoms of the country. Then after awhile they are voted out and the conservatives have their turn, increasing the economic freedoms. Described in this way, it would seem that the “two-party system” provides an ideal balance, moving ever-forward with increased freedoms for all.
However, if this attractive image were the case, liberal voters would not be filled with disappointment at the end of a liberal term in which their social freedoms somehow had not increased. (Their party somehow “needed to compromise” with the evil conservatives.) However, if the liberal party was successful in diminishing economic freedoms, this distraction would serve to keep these voters loyal to the party.
At the end of a conservative term, it is the reverse. While their stated objectives for regained economic freedoms somehow failed to come to pass (again, “compromise” was somehow necessary), the leaders still managed to limit social freedoms in some way. (The Patriot Act in America is perhaps the most extraordinary example in recent years.)
What voters seem to miss is that, along the way, far from increasing one type of freedom under one party, then increasing the alternate type of freedom under the other, the net effect is the exact opposite. Under a liberal government, economic freedom is diminished, and under a conservative government, social freedom is diminished. Freedom, in general, therefore, ratchets downward with each term.
It does seem that voters throughout the First World are beginning to recognize that they are getting short shrift no matter which party is in power, and that their country is headed inexorably downward (while the leaders seem to be doing rather well.)
Will the voters ultimately rebel?
Will the minor demonstrations of discontent evident now in the First World escalate into something more organized and more violent?
What do the politicians think is likely to happen? Whilst they are not commenting on the subject, we should be able to guess their predictions based upon their actions. If they plan to increase freedoms in the future, they would be providing a calming effect to the present frustrations. However, if their true goal is a return to a kind of modern serfdom, they would be preparing for it by increasing their controls, both economic and social. In much of the First World, the latter seems to be the intended direction. Nowhere is this more evident than in America, first with the renewal of the Patriot Act in May of last year, and more recently with the passing of the National Defense Authorization Act.
Modern Day Feudalism
As stated above, the main difference between the feudal system of five hundred years ago and the feudal system that is developing in the First World today is that the packaging is more sophisticated. Instead of having identifiable kings whom we may all hate, we have the distraction of two political teams that we may “choose” between. While we praise the good guys (our preferred political party) and hope that they will vanquish the bad guys (the opposing political party), they are in fact one and the same, and they both work for the kings.