Corporate Feudalism and Modern America

The purely privatized society which Neal Stephenson presents in Snow Crash is quite plausible; in fact, it nearly mirrors Europe during the Middle Ages. The hackers, a small cadre of highly educated people who speak their own technical language, are like the Latin-speaking, university-educated priests of that bygone era. The owners of the biggest franchises are kings, and the managers and small-business owners who serve under them are the petty feudal lords. The security organizations which serve the franchises, such as Ng’s company, The Enforcers, and the MetaCops, are like the knights of old who sold their services to the highest bidder. Both systems have harsh and inefficient justice systems which employ heavy physical punishments, dank dungeons, and tattooing for repeat offenders. Dictatorships and democracies have disappeared and reappeared throughout history; feudalism can return, as well.

Modern America is not moving towards this society. The Internet has done much to decentralize trade and to expand our knowledge base, but access to this knowledge was not restricted to the technical elite or to the rich as were the Black Sun, Earth, and the Librarian. The federal government is not shrinking or breaking apart; instead, it is growing and becoming more unified, as evidenced by the No Child Left Behind Act, Medicare reform, and the Patriot Act. The Italian crime families are losing power; thanks to improved law enforcement efforts by the FBI, the heads of the five families are in prison. Corporate sponsorship permeates our society, but this is nothing new; advertising has been with us since Greek artisans wrote advertisements on their pots. The middle class, which is non-existent in Stephenson’s society, has shrunk slightly during G. W. Bush’s presidency, but the nation as a whole also suffered a recession during these years, so we cannot say whether the middle class is disappearing or not.

Stephenson’s society is different from ours in terms of business regulation, centralized government, and social welfare. Each change has aspects which make our society better and aspects which make our society worse. Because businesses are not regulated, the market decides which products succeed and which fail, but there is no way to address spillover costs like environmental damage and no authority to keep businesses from abusing individuals’ intrinsic rights to life and liberty. The currency, national defense, and criminal justice systems are less efficient without a centralized government, but people do have unprecedented freedom to choose where and how they will live. Because there is no social welfare system, people have more freedom with their incomes, but they do not have a safety net to protect them if they go broke.

According to Stephenson, the United States of America changes from a federalist, republican welfare state to a conglomeration of feudal franchise-states after the dollar collapses, and the government sells most of its assets including the military, the highway system, the pipelines, and the parkland. This scenario is possible but not inevitable. It would occur if the national debt multiplied to several times its current amount; a protracted and costly war such as Rome’s war against the barbarian tribes, a massive recession akin to the Great Depression, demographic changes making the current welfare state unsupportable, or an overdose of supply-side economics could do the trick. In this situation, businessmen would still be powerful enough to take the reins of government for themselves. In another possible scenario, the federal government will continue its slow growth, commanding more of its citizens’ lives, dollars, and loyalty with each generation. Children learn in the public schools that the government knows what is best for the people, and the people cannot think for themselves. Eventually, the foundation of capitalism, independent thought, is so diminished that the government takes total control of society, and the common people are willing slaves to it.

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand presents a pure capitalist society as a paradise in which everyone is happy, and man can do no wrong. If the United States tried to totally implement Rand’s vision, however, it would probably resemble Stephenson’s society rather than her own. In some disciplines, such as national defense, internal improvements, and criminal justice, the government can act more efficiently and can safeguard individual rights better than the private sector can. Perhaps government is not purely evil, after all.

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