Neofeudalism: Hierarchical Mimetic Networks in An Unfair Society

In 2020 the West has rediscovered political and economic chaos after at least 30 years of illusory peace, and many of the concepts not previously in question are now active targets of vitriol and civic revolt. While Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party in 2010 were the first crack in the post-Cold War civic order, Trump’s election, Brexit, and the subsequent breakdown of institutional credibility following 2016 have left us in a dark wood with little to connect us as a country politically. This effect has been compounded by increasing concentrations of wealth and a civic intuition that wealth and power are unfairly concentrated, leading to political instability and mimetic cults on both sides of the political spectrum.

In more explicit terms, we’re lacking both a hermeneutic means of interpretation and a heuristic set of practical rules involved in responding to this civic ambiguity. Having such things is extremely important, as there are multiple rival successor ideologies at play in the present — nationalism, anti-nationalism, ethnonationalism, globalism, anti-globalism, classical liberalism, and Marxian identitarianism are all actively fighting to gain a political foothold, each with foreign and domestic backing.

It’s very clear that our economic system is not serving members of my generation, who have been saddled with copious student debt, stagnant wages, and limited career prospects, all of which are causing severe political angst that will only intensify in the 2020’s. This is not merely a left wing talking point; financial influencers such as Stephen Schwarzman and Ray Dalio have both intoned that the American system of political economy is increasingly fragile as a result of a concentration of ownership and participation. Millennials are thus far the worst off generation in American history, having been raised by the best-off generation whose leadership has gotten us to this civilizational cul-de-sac. There is no readymade Virgil to guide us out of this dark forest.

From a more philisophical perspective, many of the schools of thought in play deliberately deny or sideline human nature, and operate from an absolutist standpoint — be it the moral ambivalence of libertarianism or the Hegelian notion of “progress” affiliated with end-of-history liberal internationalism, which has been the reigning order of the last three decades.

Marxian thinking, now in vogue and equally Hegelian, operates on the singular faith that those in power can shape human nature to their own ends, and that political will is malleable. Liberal internationalism has focused on deracination and transforming people groups into strictly economic entities, where identiarianism has risen on both the right and the left in reaction to the ills of globalization. People are rediscovering religion, both orthodoxy and new takes on paganism, as reactions to the present chaos. One might argue that current secular cults (which I won’t bother to name) are equally predicated on dogmatic faith centered on race and sex, rather than cosmogony.

These newer ideological bents are wrong-headed and alienating because they fail to take into account the contingency of the present on the past, and the evolution-tested values that past societies gave rise too. As a response, and as someone who believes in the value of classical Western civilization as an explicit product of evolution, I think we can put together basic theory of politics that is a counter to the rotten orthodoxies of critical theory and liberal internationalism, while also rejecting ethnonationalist systems of thought. This political theory focuses on the natural presence of contingency and hierarchy in civilization, as well as the mimetic process that the legitimacy of these arrangements evolve over time.

I call it neofeudalism here, not because I personally want to bring monarchy back a la Moldbug, but because the feudal systems of the high middle ages was a product of significant evolutionary pressure. In effect, the West’s development of different domains of authority that cohesively gelled with each other was the root of its staying power, which survived for much of the last millenia. These systems yielded a technological and political breakout in the West that elevated western power globally above ancient imperial systems, which is why the feudal system is worth reexamining in the present. This is more descriptive than normative, but I don’t think we need to avoid the normative.

There are really two things that I’d like to account for which present ideological movements do not. First, our natural human penchant to operate in and submit to a hierarchical social arrangement, and second, our penchant for interpreting the world in terms of symbols and memes — ideas that are shared and conformed to without necessarily being true. This is the topic of a book I’ve been chipping away at for a couple years, and combines my interest in anthropology, politics, and grand strategy with my experience in counterterrorism and my lifelong interest in philosophy.

Neofeudalism is a combination of thinking on the human tendency towards hierarchical social arrangements with the tensions that rent-seeking activity creates. This general organizational tendency is carried forwards in time by mimetic systems — which are re-used and evolve over time, but are path dependent and progressively codify the legitimacy of ownership and authority (both deeply in question in the present). In the book I refer to this system as “titles” since titles were means of conferring ownership and authority in a medieval setting, and continue in use to our present era. The book outlines a specific ontology for these things, which I won’t bore you with here.

Once these systems of authority become sufficiently economically unjust, there is incentive for new movements to form. There are dozens of examples of this in medieval history, but my favorite comes from Norman Cohn’s book The Pursuit of the Millenium, which chronicles the evolution of cults and sects in medieval Europe. These movements frequently channeled economic and security frustration into the metaphysical claims of new religious movements — new messiahs and the like. We’re arguably experiencing this same process now, with the rise of political cults — QAnon Gnosticism, Patron Saints of Racial Injustice, and so on, driving the narrative.

Because economic instability is a major cause of general societal instability, it makes sense to start there.

Olson and the Natural Tensions of Hierarchy

Hierarchy is part and parcel of any social arrangement, and most egalitarian political movements are only egalitarian until they have control of the levers of power enough to benefit their leaders. To borrow from Animal Farm, ultimately some animals become more equal than others.

Despite many egalitarian movements over time, especially as regards religion, hierarchy would appear to be the primary organizational factor that allows ideas and institutions to scale and persist. Hierarchy is also tied to what is broadly called “rent seeking” — using established positions of power to draw benefits without necessarily providing new value. In a state of pure competition profits tend to evaporate, and it is organization and the establishment of barriers that prevent the diffusion of value, with differentiation and protection required to maintain a profitable arrangement over the long-term. Differentiation can include things like scale, quality, and branding, where protection includes having the legal or tactical capacity to hinder a competitor, or the mimetic loyalty of a brand. Examples of the later include patents, a dominant position in a market, or ownership of technical infrastructure that walls out new competitors and ossifies the technical backbone for an economy.

Mancur Olson (1932–1998) is among the best known political economists to have tackled this issue from a game theory perspective. Olson’s 1965 monograph The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups outlined a theory of collective bargaining and social alignment according to economic interests, and this thread is continued in his later work.

The kernel of Olson’s theory is that stakeholders are incentivized towards collective action to protect their benefits and way of life. These incentives give way to what Olson calls “distribution limiting coalitions” — a union that prevents production in a market or institution in order to maximally preserve the benefits for existing stakeholders. Barber’s licenses are costly because hairstylists would struggle to make ends meet if anyone could go into business with a $30 dollar pair of clippers and a folding chair. Academia is not immune. Tenured professors draw professional salaries while an army of adjuncts and grad students do the work of teaching, grading, and research without meaningful pay and without hope of moving into tenured roles. Similar analogies could be drawn with U.S. housing markets in many states, where new housing construction is deliberately hindered to increase the asset price and rents of existing properties, and where economic opportunity is ossified by a clerical class who legitimizes the arrangement.

What distributing limiting coalitions mean in practical terms is that there is incentive for hierarchical systems to ossify over time and to protect the gains of stakeholders over and above those who would replace them. Schumpeter called this creative destruction, where new industries undermine old ones. This is the same core logic powers what Clayton Christiansen termed the “Innovator’s Dilemma” — where incumbent businesses ossify and refuse to adopt new technologies and methods, not necessarily because they believe their own methods represent the end of history in their category, but because their existing profit model is already established and reworking their offerings would threaten their established modus operandi.

Examples could easily be borrowed from history, such as the ossification of authority in Venice during the late rennaissance, where existing stakeholders used their power to prevent new competitors and end the cycle of creative destruction. Ending creative destruction effectively ended Venice’s political and financial power. Innovation went elsewhere.

This dynamic extends beyond business to politics and religion, which are far more naturally ossified systems and more prone to violent upheaval when they do break. Circumstances where growth and franchise have slowed, and where people’s impulse is to fight over things that exist, rather than discover, create, or conquer new things naturally lead to upheaval. Among the best scholars of this dynamic is Stanford professor Walter Scheidel, whose work has focused on demography and the political effects of stagnation, with case studies focused on the Roman Empire.

Sheidel points out early in his latest book, Escape from Rome, the common tension in societies that arose clearly in the Roman Republic, with an initially expansive state succeeding because it enfranchised conquered peoples to conquer new lands on behalf of Rome. This model of governance involved an embedded growth obligation (credit to Eric Weinstein for the term), where the legitimacy of the regime was directly tied to the state’s capacity to expand.

In absence of expansion, the Roman polity began to break down, with conflict emerging among the different classes of society and economic incentives turning inward, where those with land were increasingly inclined to seek greater rents at the expense of plebes, who had greater incentive to overthrow their masters in rebellion. Where growth is an escape valve, a static world leads to fights over who owns what in a zero sum (or negative sum) setting.

This concept applies to the discovery of the new world as well; Columbus shopped his venture to multiple sovereigns before Isabella consented to fund the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria’s voyage, not out of some sense of cartographic curiosity but because access to new trade routes (and unbeknownst to investors, new lands) would tip the balance of power in Europe, which had only recently concluded crusades against a stronger Islamic force, who had prevented the eastward expansion of Christendom. In feudal settings, including much of Northern Europe and Spain, rulers embraced primogeniture as a mechanism to preserve titles and monarchical rule, meaning the firstborn son was legally slated to inherit the full kingdom, because dividing the kingdom’s duchies and baronships would bring an end to the kingdom over time. This method was often used for family estates, with the oldest son inheriting the title and younger sons (and of course daughters) inheriting little, often led into military service or religious occupations in the absence of opportunity. European dissidents, my ancestors very much included, could not sustain family farms under a gavelkind (even division) inheritance process, since after one or two generations the farms would be too small to serve as viable commercial enterprises, or even provide for sustenance. This created external pressure in the form of the incentive to expand, but it also yielded significant internal social pressure, with dozens of ideological sects emerging in 1600’s England, such as the Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, and more famously the Puritans. This dynamic continued in the English colonies, where sons of Massachusetts Bay and Virginia colonists had few economic and political options but to expand westward.

To borrow from Mancur Olson again, primogeniture and other inheritance laws based on agriculture and inherited wealth were a straightforward example of distribution limiting coalitions. Over time this concentration of wealth and power was destabilizing, and gave fertile ground to ideological movements who rejected established sovereignty and sought to entrench themselves. This is interesting as a historical pattern, it is more important as a lesson that applies to our own era. We could cite Roman or medieval history to further illustrate this impulse; one could cite the emergence of Christianity in the Roman Empire, or protestantism, among other sects such as the Waldensians and other proto-protestants during the high middle ages.

Rene Girard and Mimetic Desire

Rene Girard (1925–2015) was a French philosopher and historian responsible for advancing the concept of mimetic desire. As Girard observed, from our infancy our first instinct is to imitate our caretakers. This is how we learn speech, it is also how ideas and concepts are passed down from generation to generation. Mimetic desire is, simply put, the innate human impulse to imitate others in their beliefs and desires. A meme is an idea, image or trope that participates in this process. We have both a natural impulse to mirror others minds, as well as a drive that will have us believe as others believe before we seek “true” beliefs ourselves. It describes the natural tendency of our minds to gravitate towards a shared orthodoxy. Girard wrote prolifically on the topic, and employed the hermeneutic of mimetic desire to the origins of language and religion, notably with the observation of the scapegoating mechanism among societies who offload their internal tension on a third party and engage in symbolic sacrifices to cleanse themselves of sin and resolve in-group conflict.

At a basic level, we want what others want. In a world that experiences scarcity, we simply cannot have all the things we want, as the interest of others both increases our desire and increased the conflict over that scarcity. Naturally, this creates an adversarial setting, with the adversarial relationship itself leading to greater and greater conflict as parties at odds with each other mirror hostility. Without a means of resolving this, such conflicts naturally proceed to violence. To prevent violence and social breakdown, individuals face incentive to adopt and share symbolic systems that minimize violence and lead to cooperation and externalization of the energies created by conflict.

Drawing on sociologists, novelists, and other sources, Girard argued that the dynamics created by mimetic desire in early human history likely served as the origin point for language and the various social systems that early man evolved, down to our present institutions. This concept is best explored in his book Things Hidden Since the Beginning of the World, which applies his insight to fundamental anthropology. In this respect Girard’s theory reflects Darwin’s, in that it is a theory which cannot be tested by the scientific method, but which holds substantial explanatory power — itself a demonstration of mimesis. One could naturally expand the tensions that mimetic systems solve to the origin of several ontological concepts, such as conceptions of time, identity, responsibility, and reciprocity in dealings. More broadly, Girard argues that mimetic desire part of the source code for human nature, much like adaptation to the forces natural selection affects biology.

Importantly in line with Darwin, these systems have their origins in our biological needs and drives. Our metaphysical systems are not alien to our evolution, but are an expression of it. Like evolution, there are various niches in a mimetic system that individuals can carve out, as well as an internal mimetic hierarchy of those who put forth memes and those who simply accept or participate in them.

For our purposes here, Girard’s work is inspiring for its descriptive power and notable for its top-down impact on the evolution of political systems, where memes override or direct evolutionary impulses and take on a life of their own. Carl Jung’s genius was to outline the mimetic systems the human mind gravitates towards. While these forces are not neurological or mechanical, they are undeniably influential in the course of human evolution. Stories are software for the human mind, and to borrow from another philosopher, people don’t have ideas, ideas have people. Further, if we are uncomfortable grounding politics in genetic fitness and social darwinism (i.e. race) we should arguably become much more comfortable with the question of mimetic fitness. Software and hardware can both be relevant, but to ignore human software is to ignore the primary ingredient in civilization.

Among the most grounded takes on this topic comes from Roko Mijic, who makes the argument that the current woke model is a lateral mimetic system, rather than a vertical one. In a vertical mimetic system, like religion, values are passed down from one generation to another, and are subject to evolutionary pressure. In a lateral system, values are imposed against the grain of reproduction, meaning they can and often do have effects that run counter to evolutionary survival. Antinatalism (dislike of children and devaluation of reproduction and the family unit) is one such clear cut example.

Human societies are both hierarchical and mimetic. The next natural step is to ask what structure this mimetic hierarchy takes, and for this we turn to Gorges Dumezil, likely the most overlooked structural anthropologist of the 20th century.

Dumezil and the Trifunctional Hypothesis

French philosopher and philologist Gorges Dumezil (1898–1986) was a well-traveled academic focused on Indo-European philology. Dumezil notably worked at a professor at the University of Istanbul during Mustafa Kemal Attaturk’s cultural reshaping of post-Ottoman Turkey early in his career, was a friend and colleague of Claude Levi-Strauss (one of the founding fathers of Structuralist anthropology) and a professor and mentor to Michel Foucault, notably helping Foucault secure a teaching position at the University of Uppsala early on in his career. Dumezil could, along with Levi-Strauss, be classified as a structuralist in that he observed and argued for a typological analysis of human societies that emphasized their commonality, rather than their differences. In this respect, the far more influential Foucault’s work (classified as post-structuralism) can be read as commentary and opposition to that of Dumezil and Levi-Strauss.

Dumezil’s core idea, which appeared in many of his more famous works, was known as the trifunctional hypothesis, the precept being that Indo-European civilizations had extremely similar structures for the needs of society. Dumezil pointed out in Flamen-Brahman (1935), as well as Mitra-Varuna (1940) the common division of mythological systems into three core subsystems, represented by gods as well as human institutions. These three are a system for metaphysical sovereignty, embodied by the highest god (Zeus, Odin, and so on) with specific gods associated with 1) warfare and the preservation of order, and 2) productivity, fertility, and domestic flourishing.

These typological systems were embodied in real institutions that pervaded Indo-European societies, and which Dumezil saw as contiguous with the present. In a medieval European setting, these were the pillars of christendom, with a priesthood and the Roman Catholic Church serving as arbiters of absolute sovereignty with authority derived from the Christian god, kings and various armies serving as martial authority, and an emergent merchant class satisfying the material needs of civilization. In pre-revolutionary France — surely a period Dumezil, Straus, and other French academics kept close in mind — this was the Ancien Regime, personified by three estates — the clerisy, the state, and the proletariat, whose title derives from the Latin proletarius i.e. ”producing offspring”.

It’s extremely notable that this concept has completely fallen out of vogue in secular society and academia, despite being a critical underpinning of Indo-European civilization going back to pre-Christian times up through the Enlightenment. The trufunctional hypothesis is not taught in most anthropology programs, despite a general consensus at the time it was written that it was a very real thing. Notably, the most detailed YouTube video on the concept was produced by a pagan roundtable and only has ~500 views as of this writing.

Following Girard, it is natural to interpret Dumezil’s hypothesis as being based on mimetic desire driving the creation of independent mimetic institutions within a larger system, whose objectives are simultaneously all required by a society ( security, provision, and metaphysical meaning) but whose independent mimetic systems remain somewhat independent — despite gelling well together. In a more modern setting, one can be a Christian, a capitalist, and a statesman (or stateswoman) without arguing that Jesus was a capitalist, or that the state or market must be based on Christian theology. In other words, these naturally evolved mimetic networks overlap with each other resulting in natural tension, but need not fray the sinews that hold a community together.

These institutions are both naturally hierarchical and, to continue an argument, biologically rooted. Dumezil’s core insight was that human beings naturally need a combination of security, provision, and meaning and succeed, and rely on both symbolic and material systems that have been inherited from the past. Further, these systems have natural innate limits to their effectiveness and what domains they can address — they cannot govern by their own power alone, and cannot govern over each other. For example, theocracies naturally stifle commerce and do not govern well (witness the Islamic State). Fascist states stifle commerce and religion (witness mid-20th century Germany), and commercialist states such as 15th century Venice not only failed as empires, they ended up stifling commercial progress to protect the rents of existing stakeholders and industries.

Many critics of Dumezil argued that his trifunctional hypothesis was an oversimplification, and that various tribes have existed that do not fit the trifunctional model. This is fair criticism at some level, and one could cite classical Semitic civilization as a prominent counterexample. In Semitic cultures such as Orthodox Judaism and Islam, the sovereign god takes on the responsibilities of war and fertility, as displayed in the conquest of Canaan and documented in the book of Joshua and other early texts. This can be contrasted with much of the New Testament, which was written in Koine Greek, an Indo-European language family, and was written in a context that included both Roman governance and Greek philosophy. The Apostle Paul quotes Greek philosophers and demonstrates a degree of savvy with Greek thought — arguably laying the groundwork for the acceptance of Christianity in the Mediterranean mind. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which does not make clear mechanical sense, stands in opposition to unitarian models of thought common in Semetic monotheism, including pre-Judaic examples of monotheism. Here, we can make a semantic distinction between the classic pagan polytheist system, where Dumezil observes the trifunctional hypothesis, and a Trinitarian hypothesis, where believers maintain the sovereignty of one deity while embracing different aspects of that deity in different forms, where there exists a body of natural laws among different domains that are mutually exclusive in their practices.

Trinitarian civilizations are a blend of the monotheistic hermeneutic, with one creator god over reality, and an Indo-European heuristic for statecraft and commerce, or method of making prudential decisions within a broader world governed by sovereign god.

Trinitarian societies are an evolution of the trifunctional model, but rather than having each deity express his or her independent will in dynamic tension and at some times in opposition, the trinitarian system focuses on a compatible synergy between the different pillars. It is this particularly Greek mindset, which blended rationality and philosophy with theology and “revelation” — inherited religious text and tradition — that gives us natural law philosophy. This tradition is embodied in Catholic natural law scholarship and the scholastic tradition, with writers such as Thomas Aquinas using an Aristotelian ontological framework to unify faith with other traditions such as statecraft and commerce. The tension of adding a wholy sovereign God to the competing sectors of society was arguably extremely fruitful, as it resulted in norms, education, orthodoxy, and intellectual tensions giving rise to creativity and scientific inquiry. Where many great minds existed in Islamic, Chinese, and other civilizations, it was orthodoxy and challenges to it that arguably empowered the staying power of the scientific method.

The Western system of government evolved in this intellectual milieu, and there are several arguments to this effect. Russel Kirk argues in The Roots of American Order that the American system of government is a blend of these different traditions; the Judeo-Christian model as inherited from Jerusalem, the Greek philosophical ontology, and the Roman model for law and governance. In Kirk’s argument, these traditions were gradually integrated until they became a cohesive mimetic system, which we today refer to as Western Civilization.

Prehistory’s Revenge

Historical feudalism clearly had great sticking power but failed to scale. It was both an organizing principle and a level cap. From the Magna Carta through the Enlightenment and on the the American Revolution Western societies have sought to strike a bargain between the inherited order and opportunity for innovation and disruption.The only monarchies that continue to exist in the West are constitutional, meaning they have met some form of compromise with the past and have embraced democratic authority alongside their inherited sovereign system.

Conversely, totalitarian movements are notable for rejecting the West’s segmented political order in favor of absolute authority based on an imbalance in these systems; Marx’s work specifically was a pointed commentary on the existence of inherited order, and marxian thinking subsequently fought to marginalize and destroy inherited order in an effort to dethrone classical sovereignty and commerce with force, based on resentments arising from ossified, rent-seeking political arrangements.

The current neoliberal order has relied on deracination and reduction of people to their economic production, rather than their identity as a part of creation or as part of a polity with civic objectives and values. There are riots in the streets because the classical means of governing a hierarchical mimetic system have broken down, with humans reduced to their economic value. Today we have political cults in lieu of a shared civic religion. People want to be safe, prosperous, and have meaningful lives, but deracinated neoliberalism has — advertently or inadvertently — undermined that balance. We cannot oppose marxian revolution by being good neoliberals: neoliberalism and marxism are the problem because they fail to satisfy human needs for security and meaning.

Human society is a hierarchical mimetic system, expressed through time and with certain emergent structural patterns, which are both mimetic and path-dependent. These systems codify the legitimacy as well as the ownership status of a given civilization. Their natural inclination to instability over time due to distribution-limiting coalitions leads to the emergence of new mimetic systems, which compete for power and attempt to assert themselves as the new orthodoxy. In some cases these revolutions are successful, in many cases they simmer, sometimes for centuries, until conditions arise in which they can seize power.

Neofeudalism need not be in tension with progress. If we’re going to survive as a civilization, it would seem that we need to restore something akin to a Trinitarian Civilization that takes care of human mimetic needs while also allowing for creative destruction and economic opportunity. A civilization with borders, internal systems of authority and justice, broad economic opportunity, and a capacity to provide or at least allow for shared meaning and identity is critical, and only having one or two of these three creates immense social instability. This method builds on inherited systems from the past, which have been subject to evolutionary pressures capable of being analyzed in historical context, rather than a search for some new values set untested by human nature. A trinitarian civilization is the only defense against mimetic systems that would like to replace western order wholesale with models based on race, religion, or economic production, because it denies them fertile ground to grow on.

Beyond inherited mimetic systems and pathways for social survival, this system relies on indivudals having a means of becoming stakeholders. This is a natural cap on the hierarchical impulses of society, which, as Olsen points out, tend to concentrate until they break. In my mind it is the most important thread to pull once we have the groundwork of our inherited system down, and I’ll probably write more about this topic in the future.

American counterterrorism professional, entrepreneur, author; not necessarily in that order. Write mostly philosophy, politics, & economics. @adavidknapp

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