top of page

How the Covid-19 Pandemic Reveals American Corporate Feudalism

I spend much of my time studying the feudal societies that existed in medieval Europe, and due to this knowledge I have since started to recognize a troubling, perhaps too-reminiscent current in modern economic and political structures. Various economic and political thinkers have described this development as corporate feudalism or neo-feudalism. As the coronavirus spread through the world and to the United States, our country’s response increasingly revealed how dangerous and pervasive this strain of thought has become, especially in the minds of certain conservative politicians, though liberals are by no means immune to it.

Before I can discuss corporate feudalism, I must define its good, old-fashioned, medieval antecedent. Though misinformation about this complicated economic and political system plagues our modern world, and many feudalisms existed throughout the Middle Ages, I will attempt to quickly explain the system as quickly as possible without simplification. Feudalism is, essentially, a system of obligations [1]. Knights paid homage and swore fealty to lords, who in turn often did the same for kings. Paying homage and swearing fealty made one a vassal, obligated to support their liege-lord in war in return for protection. Lords each controlled one or more hereditary fiefs, plots of land, which provided them with food and wealth.The peasants who lived on these fiefs found themselves in one of two positions: they were either free farmers or they were serfs, unfree people bound to the land they worked. In either case, they gave their lord a percentage of everything they produced in return for the right to use the land and, in theory, protection as well, though peasants often needed more protection from their lords than any outside force. Legal status was determined by class, and peasants were afforded much fewer rights and privileges than their lordly counterparts.

The most glaring similarity between this system and our own, especially in light of the pandemic, is the class division. From the wealthy actors, actresses, and others somehow receiving tests long before the rest of us [2] to the multiple reports of senators selling stock in the months before the crisis truly struck [3], it is clear that some of us are awarded more privileges than others. Even worse, in places that did not pass laws banning evictions or suspending rent payments, landlords still hold the power to evict over an increasingly unemployed populace [4]. In return for requiring payments from people who clearly cannot pay, they supposedly provide the “service” of housing. Despite the blatant falsehood of calling housing a service--the U.N. lists it as a human right--by evicting people in a time of crisis, threatening them with homelessness due to an inability to pay, landlords’ overtures of providing a service become as empty as the lord’s promise of protection [5]. Sure, I’ll stop those nasty Vikings from stealing your pigs, as long as you give me all the pork. But if you’re paying any attention to modern America, you’re already aware of class issues, so I’ll spare you too much more of that.

Now the “corporate” part of corporate feudalism. We now live in a world where corporations increasingly occupy social positions reminiscent of feudal lords. They have the rights of a person, but none of the responsibilities [6]. They enter into reciprocal relationships with our politicians, using their incredible wealth to fund campaigns in both parties in return for legislation that benefits them rather than the electorate [7]. Much like the relationship between the lord and his vassal, this relationship is not equal: it is corporate money that makes the politician, not the other way around. Through this method, the corporations also usurp the state’s right to legitimate violence, wielding police forces and the military as their tools, once again moving us closer to a feudal reality in which any lord had the power to do violence through sheer merit of his military might, not to mention the myriad private security firms and military contractors [8]. Though our society still theoretically provides greater upward mobility than medieval feudalism, the myth of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps becomes increasingly distant as unequal education, food, and other opportunities decided by our place of birth and position in the socio-economic hierarchy come to exert more and more control over where in the class system we will find ourselves.

The events of the pandemic, and especially the response of various media outlet and politicians further display these disparities and the increasing legal gulf between the “serfs” and the “lords” of modern-day capitalism. The average age of Fox News viewers is 65 and it is clear at this point that elderly people are at greater risk from the virus [9]. Despite this, Fox hosts, especially Sean Hannity, have consistently minimized the danger, accused Democrats and the media (as if they are not themselves part of the media) of inflating the virus as a method of discredit Trump, and compared the virus favorably to the flu [10]. In fact, a study shows Sean Hannity’s viewership is more likely to die than another Fox host, Tucker Carlson, who has generally kept a more serious view of the crisis [11]. The political schemes of the 1% apparently have precedent over the rest of our lives.

Throughout the crisis, many conservative commentators have prioritized economic costs over cost of human lives. Texas’s Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, himself 69 years old, told Fox News that old people should volunteer themselves to die to save the economy, Indiana congressman Trey Hollingsworth said that people dying due to reopening the economy was the “lesser of two evils,” and Dr. Oz told Sean Hannity that we should consider sacrificing 2-3% of the nation’s children to get back to everyday life [12]. Trump has consistently waffled on how he chooses to handle the crisis, at times appearing to take it seriously and at other times saying things like “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” in reference to economic damage, as he did about a month ago [13]. Georgia governor Brian Kemp, who won his seat through a deeply flawed and suspect election a few years ago, reopened large swaths of the state’s economy after recently mentioning that he was unaware that the virus could spread asymptomatically [14]. Worse, he has taken away local governments’ powers to implement their own shutdowns, and despite warnings from the Athens-Clarke county government, I have already seen at least one gym open for business, with a parking lot full of cars [15].

This decision was certainly empowered by the many reopen rallies held by conservative protesters around the country. These protests are both tragic and farcical at the same time. Emboldened by a sense of false consciousness and distrust in science imparted onto them by conservative media outlets, people have gathered against the advice of almost any respected medical authority to protest the fact that, essentially, they can’t get a haircut. I’m getting a bit shaggy these days too, but I’m not willing to die over it, are you? Worse than putting their own lives at risk, however, their actions endanger the many working-class people who would be forced to return to work in dangerous conditions were economies to reopen. The protests have been astroturfed by the wealthy to open the economy at our expense and fueled by the false information prevalent in conservative spheres. However, at least one concern the protestors often raise comes from an interesting place. In a society with lacking social welfare programs, many people, especially those in low-paying service jobs not deemed essential, cannot live long without their salaries. A single payment of $1,200 only lasts so long. Some people are asking to return to work because, if they cannot, they will face starvation just as much as Covid-19. Much like a serf bound to the land, they are bound to their jobs, requiring the income to pay rent to landlords that can still evict them and buy groceries that come from corporate farms, returning all the wealth they made to the same sources they received it from. The worst part is that, unlike the serf, who was forced into their position by circumstance, the corporations have gotten some of us to ask for it outright.

My final point is the incredible plight of essential workers. Workers at Target, Walmart, Kroger, Taco Bell, Subway, Burger King, and many others have come forward to announce that they are not receiving any paid sick leave [16]. Though egregious enough normally, during a pandemic like the one we are currently facing, it is downright criminal. Workers are, essentially, forced to choose between dying of starvation and the possibility of dying of coronavirus or infecting their loved ones and fellow employees. Aside from putting all of their employees at risk, they are also putting all of us at risk. 47% of nursing, psychiatric, and home health aides aren’t offered a single day of paid sick leave [17]. Many of these people are not even working with a living wage [18]. They are being held, essentially, at economic gunpoint. As many of them live paycheck-to-paycheck, they simply cannot afford to take days off. Once again, we are in a reality where people are bound, as unfree serfs, to their jobs, even in a time of crisis. They return the costs of their own life to those who pay them, much as a serf pays his lord for the right to the land.

Corporate feudalism has always been the secret goal of capitalism. The complete subjugation of the working class for the single, unerring purpose of profiting the elites. Conservatism and, yes, American liberalism are both at fault for allowing things to get this bad. By destroying the strength of unions through euphemistically titled right-to-work laws, systematically disempowering workers, and promoting false consciousness amongst the white working class, the corporate elite have successfully maneuvered themselves into total dominance. The success of the stock market has become more important than the lives of the workers whose labor sustains the companies of which shares are bought and sold, and the pandemic has only made this fact more obvious. The masks of the American political and economic elite have been removed, and they have openly taken their stance. If we do not take action to stop it, this virulent strain of corporate feudalism will continue to infect the body of modern America, much like a certain virus.

Also, Trump saying we should inject disinfectant into our lungs to cure the coronavirus sounds like something out of a sketch from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, so there’s that similarity too [19].

[1] David Herlihy, The History of Feudalism, xix.

[8] James A. Nathan, “The New Feudalism,” in Foreign Policy 42 (1981): 156.


bottom of page