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Stanislav Markelov: the new feudalism

As part of our project to bring the thought of Russian activist lawyer Stanislav Markelov (1974-2009) to international readers, we present his reflections on the “New Middle Ages” and the current crisis.

Photo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0: Daniel Mennerich / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Ten years ago this January, activist lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova were murdered in downtown Moscow. As it became clear later, this was a pinnacle moment in Russian ultra-nationalists’ campaign of terror. As a human rights lawyer, Markelov defended a series of high-profile cases throughout the 2000s, often connected to police and security force violence.

But what has been left out of the picture is Markelov’s engagement as a public intellectual. In particular, Markelov was committed to making a new left-wing tradition in Russia – one that departed from Bolshevism and could channel the pain caused by the socio-economic shocks of the 1990s. At the same time, he was concerned with the rise of national feeling in Russia – and the way it could be abused by those in power.

The following text (“The New Middle Ages: will the dead monsters come back to life?”) was written as a response for an April 2008 conference (The Strategy for Russia: a knowledge society or a New Middle Ages?) organised by Russian Marxist thinker Alexander Buzgalin.

This text addresses both Buzgalin’s 13 theses and Umberto Eco’s influential text on the New Middle Ages. The text uses the idea of a New Middle Ages to question what are the real processes happening in contemporary. As well as rejecting the central idea that contemporary society has very many commonalities with the Middle Ages, Markelov also questions the validity of the concept of the post-industrial society. While in the introduction Markelov clearly characterises the crisis as one of capitalism (before the full onslaught of the crisis made it obvious to all), by detailing the differences between the Middle Ages and contemporary society he manages to draw a very comprehensive picture of both. This text shows the extent of Markelov’s reflection upon contemporary society and sociological realities far outside the context of post-Soviet Russia, demonstrating his ability to highlight Russia’s location globally. As Alexander Cherkasov concluded in his foreword to the original, the text’s conclusion is clear: a “maximum variety of resistance” is necessary as part of any solution to the current crisis.

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The pendulum has swung. The decline of capitalism is no longer considered a wild heresy against the background of economic prosperity and the spectacle of liberal freedom. Freedom and prosperity, indeed, are visible only on the decorative screens of capitalist society – the most developed states. In much of the rest of the world it is pointless even to talk of a post-industrial society when these states have not even entered the industrial stage. And yet it’s these beautiful screens that the TV cameras shoot, contenting themselves with the Potemkin village of the consumerist paradise in the big megapolises. But decorative screens cost less than houses and, as we know, the Potemkin villages were dismantled immediately after Catherine the Great passed through them; the chilling cardboard station that the Nazis built with ostentatious cruelty at Treblinka collapsed at the very approach of the liberating army.

We can no longer hold on to the idea that we are living in a consumer society. This image of society does not live up the ideological weight put on it, with its attendant promise of the “end of history” and consumerist paradise. Not a single global challenge has been resolved; the ruling oligarchies will not contemplate any more social intervention than postponing the resolution of problems, shifting the burden of the ills onto future generations. The joy that the worst prognoses of the Club of Rome have not yet materialised is immediately cancelled out by a new raft of overwhelming challenges – which Club participants are yet to even suspect.

The transition from a dynamic capitalist society to static social relations is so obvious that few deny this anymore, apart, perhaps, from the most orthodox neoliberals. The name for this regression has already been coined: namely, the “post-industrial society”. The idiocy of this cliché is obvious at first glance: we do not call feudalism a “post-slave society”, and capitalism “a post-feudal” one. It seems, a more comprehensive and precise definition (the “New Middle Ages”) is preferred to social criticism of the ruling left-liberal ideology. Professor Alexander Buzgalin has very comprehensively set out the criteria from which the approach of the “dark ages” are clearly visible in his 13 theses.

However, not everything is so simple. Having worked hard for several centuries in plants and factories, we and our families will have to go into serfdom to the feudal lords and masters once again. Or, on the other hand, we will settle back down on the land and revive peasant culture, fully fencing ourselves off from the horrors of the megapolises with their total domination and unlimited ecological expansion. Do the Middle Ages await us? After all, with the emergence of capitalist relations, everything suggested the approach of a New Antiquity. Under the sign of New Antiquity, both the Renaissance and the French Revolution emerged. But you can evaluate today’s society however you like, no-one would ever think of calling it ancient.

“The New Middle Ages” would be too simple and obvious. But, rather than making mere assertions, I will present my argument by refuting Professor Buzgalin’s 13 theses in support of the idea that what awaits us is a “New Feudalism”.

1. Globalisation

The Middle Ages embraced globalisation only in the spiritual realm, and even then each civilisation had its own global spiritual idea. In terms of society, the entire Middle Ages passed strictly under the opposing trend of localisation. The emergence of absolutist regimes meant the decline of the Middle Ages, and absolutist emperors with their earthly omnipotence put an end to medieval values. The short-lived empires of the early Middle Ages, whether they were the kingdom of the Franks under Charles the Great or the Arab Caliphate, did not destroy this system insofar as their role was mainly reduced to instilling common cultural and spiritual values within large spaces. Politically, they fell apart almost immediately after the death of their founding leaders.

The trends of contemporary society are almost exactly the opposite. For this new society, the globalisation of spirituality is attractive only as a last resort given the erosion of these values, whereas political globalisation is a top priority aspiring to a universal and global reach, independent of state borders and specific cultural features. In the Middle Ages, the penetration of public institutions and values could only occur through the destruction of cultural specificities (Zoroastrians in Iran, Jews in Spain and so on). This was an extremely cruel practice, however, it managed to unify small societies by force, fully preserving them as they were.

Nowadays, subordination is carried out without paying attention to values, indeed with the goal of liquidating them. Cultural differences are vanishing by themselves and at a much faster rate than during the Middle Ages. Degradation turns out to be more effective than elimination. Globalisation is stronger than localisation and soft power better ensures global unity than an inflexible vassalage based on global spiritual values.

2. Centralisation

Generally, in the Middle Ages the inhabitant of a village could understand the language spoken in the neighbouring region, but could only understand with difficulty that of the next region, while languages beyond that were absolutely incomprehensible to him. The literary language – Latin in Europe or classical Arabic in the Middle East – was understood only by a narrow layer of the elite. As a rule, national languages did not exist.

This linguistic situation reminds us of the contemporary situation in Papua New Guinea, where a similar chessboard-like linguistic situation means it is impossible to separate the main language from the dialects. Accordingly, information about individuals is distributed by an identical principle - exclusively horizontally on the level of contact with one’s neighbours without any centralisation.

Centres and towns in the Middle Ages appear as if closed communities, ones that do not permit anyone external to enter. Wanderers and pilgrims were bearers of religious consciousness, who were more likely to contribute to the spreading of religious ideas and myths than of any real knowledge of other lands. Another group of wayfarers were merchants, but they were scarcely subject to religious exaltation, and out of fear of competition they consciously concealed any knowledge they had of other lands. 

In the coming society, centralism is the key pivot for society, dictating life even in the most remote settlements. The mass media is literally jammed with news and information from the megapolises, including purely ordinary and entertainment news. As a result, an inhabitant of a small town knows what is happening in Moscow, New York, etc better than what is happening in their neighbouring region. Moreover, horizontal ties are deliberately severed for the sake of the absolute monopoly that the megapolis has in relation to the remaining territories which serve it. Now it is cheaper to phone from Moscow to the US than it is to phone to a neighbouring republic in the Commonwealth of Independent States. Purchasing an air ticket to Europe turns out to be more advantageous than one to the Russian Far East or Siberia. The quantity of tourists setting off to foreign tourist centres is incomparably greater than those going to the Russian hinterlands. Moreover, this is not solely a Russian situation, the conscious severance of horizontal ties in favour of establishing a monopoly relation of “centre and periphery” has become one of the main indicators of the new society.

3. Fundamental material values

The economy of Medieval society was exclusively monetary. But this was not the monetarism of trade, it was the monetarism of accumulation. Everywhere in the Middle Ages, wealth was calculated in gold, silver, precious stones or the jewelry derived from them and from the possession of tracts of land. All other criteria for wealth were temporary and unreliable; even food and wine, the fetish of the Middle Ages, in the event of overabundance becomes a disaster insofar as there are no ways of preserving them, and the market prices will fall to unacceptably low levels. The wealth of the Middle Ages is the wealth of accumulation in a very literal sense. Any virtual criteria for luxury are not accepted. Non-material values in the Middle Ages are a synonym of spiritual values which are not related to economics.

Only followers of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman nowadays speak of this level of orthodox monetarism, and then very quietly – their views in no way coincide with reality. Economic wealth has long since been completely unrelated to real values and to a greater extent revolves around the bases of speculative quantities. The mafia-like proverb of 1990s Russia, “Making a splash is better than cash” [“Ponty – dorozhe deneg”], very clearly characterises the criteria for wealth in emerging social relations. The degree of influence is more significant than the possession of concrete material values, including money. Further, significance here refers to the economic sphere, a synonym of wealth. Now wealth is not an equivalence of luxury, which has remained a secondary symbol, but a signal of influence. Correspondingly, the measures of this wealth are virtual, speculative amounts.

4. The ownership of the instruments of labour 

The feudal economy was unique in its organisation in the sense that workers fully owned the tools of their labour. It could take away the object of their labour (land, grain), disenfranchise the worker, impose on the worker senseless labour obligations but no feudal lord would impinge on the rights of the labourer to own his plough. Moreover, the main production unit of the Middle Ages, the peasant, was considered simply a continuation of their tools, as an element of the application of physical force. Therefore, the man was valued incomparably greater and the woman was not considered as possessing productive potential at all. 

Many will remark that today, too, the tools of labour (computers) and the objects of labour (information) may also belong to the worker, but this is the workers’ relative ownership of the manufactured machine. Yes, the worker may possess a computer but, without the internet, his labour has no output, and unified informational and technological networks are precisely that which the workers do not, and will never, own. It turns out that without the property of the information oligarchy, an individual’s personal computer is no more than a typewriter. On the other hand, the information market, the degree it is in demand and the criteria of distribution exclusively belong to the oligarchy. And this ownership now appears to be absolute insofar as even weak attempts to demonopolise encounter a harsh and unequivocal reaction. The so-called alternative media space in terms of their significance remind one of the alternative religious communes in the Middle Ages and appear like rather interesting social projects without influencing in any way the domination of the ruling oligarchy.

5. Ideological values 

Regarding the Middle Ages, one does not usually speak of ideological, but spiritual values that lay at the basis of the world outlook at the time. People in the Middle Ages did not waste its energy on trivia, preferring extremes.

It was clear that the permanently marginal state of society, ready to fall into famine, plague or into unceasing wars and provoking both the former and the latter, drove people to a radical search for contentment in another world. A person living in the medieval world would so often find themselves on the verge of destruction that the apocalypse would represent something desirable. All that was worldly would a priori be subject to destruction as something that came from the devil. Such an approach was typical not just for the grassroots but even for the most enlightened part of society. The great Botticelli burnt his works after hearing the sermons of Savonarola. Under the slogan of the “bonfire of the vanities” ladies destroyed their jewelry and threw away their expensive clothes. If worldly life was ruled by the devil then the only vent was in the soul, and the soul was only on high. The ideological dispute of the Middle Ages was whether the spirit was stuck in the churches like islands of piety or was the spirituality of the priesthood on sale along with the indulgences. 

And now imagine some “new Russian” Matryona burning their jewelry?! Even in a drunken stupor, a newly appointed boss would not allow himself the mercantile audacity of burning money, and a court artist like Alexander Shilov would never listen to any sermons, except those “sermons” of his stockbroker or a representative of the regime. And Zurab Tsereteli would be more likely to destroy everyone else’s sculptures rather than wipe a speck of dust from his modest offerings. Their creations are ready cash, and money is a measure of pleasure and pleasure gives enjoyment. It is precisely enjoyment that is the main fetish of contemporary society, radically distinguishing it from the Middle Ages. Even if you do not possess significant wealth, a range of enjoyment is accessible to you, making you part of the fundamental values of contemporary civilisation. The entire Middle Ages fought against enjoyment, now it is enjoyment that struggles with us.

6. The penetration of ideas

One senses that during the Middle Ages, the church pulpit spilled out onto the street.

Sermons are followed by more sermons, and the itinerant disciples create the fundamental media space of the Middle Ages. To ward off the largest heresy – that of the Cathars – the Vatican sent, apart from its army, its best preacher: the importance of his speech was almost greater than the military campaign against the heresy. In the most famous episodes of the Crusades, preaching completely prevails over politics. “The Children’s Crusade” was the very peak of medieval spirituality. As we know, society rebuked those adults who refused to give up their progeny for the Crusade to a certain death. Even the inevitable death of these children acquired a certain sermonic character, but already by now there was a certain folk sermon in the medieval legend of the Pied Piper who led children under water because of unpaid remuneration. Ideas dominate over any military and political significance. When the Saracens offered what the Crusaders most desired – Jerusalem with the Lord’s tomb – the latter refused this offer because their spirit did not permit them to make a deal with the Saracens.

And now try to imagine the Americans sending not only an army but also preachers and spiritual pastors to Iraq? Or imagine them refusing to control the oil because they would not make any agreement with those who backed terrorists? The very assumption would appear ridiculous. Preachers have disappeared even from the church, they have been replaced by sectarian banners: “What kind of God do we have?” The preacher of the new civilisation is the entertainment industry, and all the coming wars are seen as newfangled militaristic shows. Nowadays all values are hammered into people’s heads not through sermons, but advertisements. No ecstatic outbursts are required for their acceptance but, on the contrary, complete relaxation so that people can be sucked into the swamp of entertaining consumption.

7. Opposition values

In the Middle Ages, morals were always very harsh and in irreconcilable opposition to alien cultures. For centuries, the struggle between mainstream morality and minority culture was a struggle to the death. If the church, the authorities and the reigning values managed to destroy the head of paganism, then the roots and the shoots had not gone away. The forbidden, the personal, the bodily, the material would always force their way through into popular rituals. Minor concessions such as the “stretching” of religious festivals to the days of pagan revels seemed no more than acceptable compromises. One needed to move just five kilometers from the cathedrals for Church songs no longer to be heard, for the bells to fall silent and the natural calendar cycle comes into its own rights requiring the observation not of speculative but of material rules. Folk culture had begun to wane and die out. Thus, the shadow began to wither along with its elderly owner. 

And now recall what you know from folk culture apart from a couple of bawdy ditties and performances, so to say, of a folklore ensemble knocking their operetta heels on the stage of the vaudeville? Previously this question did not arise, and the prelates of faith were forced to leave the world so as to cleanse themselves of the knowledge of popular folklore and popular values. It was precisely the latter which were termed “worldly”. But surely did not a new society have its own antitheses?

Undoubtedly it did, but the hourglass has turned over and the ideological alternative to the emerging civilisations has become fundamentalism. Not just a religious fundamentalism. This is in plain view as the most radical and noticeable one. Fundamental science, fundamental classical culture, fundamental values these are the direct bastions of the opposition to the reigning views. And the more the new relations emerge, the more clearly the bastions of fundamentalism will be visible. Just like in the Middle Ages, an attempt to reconcile fundamental values and consumerist culture will look far-fetched and will only temporarily save us from direct conflict. These two poles will struggle with each other ceaselessly until they perish along with the society which they are tearing apart.

8. Expansion and closure 

Society in the Middle Ages is a society of “one court”, which can be extended to the level of the city or region but no further. Going beyond these limits is not merely something that one could be reproved for, but it was even considered an aggravated crime. This was a departure from the system of traditional values, a departure from that world which was the foundation of everyone’s existence and which protected everyone.

This approach was ubiquitous, recall Kurosawa’s famous film Kagemusha (Shadow Warrior) where the common thread running through the film is that the “mountain is invincible as long as it stays where it is”. As soon as the ruler engages his troops beyond his lands, he suffers a crushing defeat. The only things which gave one strength to break off from the habitual circle of existence was religious decline. This stimulus worked both at the individual level of the pilgrims as it did for whole social movements (it lays at the basis of the Caliphate, the Crusaders). Accordingly, each journey turned into a feat and was painted into the prism of mystical religious experience, even though it was accompanied by very real predatory outbursts. All the others who linked their destinies with considerable movement were considered marginal – whether social outcasts (bandits, itinerant students) or national ones (Scandinavians, Mongols, Hungarians in the early Middle Ages), even though the latter had conquered enormous and more civilised territories. Even itinerant merchants, who experienced the natural material envy of many, were discriminated against in the social sphere and keenly felt societies quasi-contemptuous attitude towards them. 

Expansion is the God of the new society. But unlike under classical capitalism, it rarely reveals itself directly. Only when this is very necessary and is dictated by the necessity of controlling resources, above all oil (Iraq, Somalia). Direct expansion, just like the support of colonial regimes, is very costly and provokes the direct antagonism of local populations and the danger of the self-willfulness of local bosses. Contemporary society hinges on soft power, though it is true that it holds this “soft power” rather more harshly than any dictatorship. A soft expansion is harder to resist because it is conducted by someone else’s hands from a distance. The convenience of expansion from afar was manifest already in the colonialist era when the metropolitan peoples never suffered from the colonial wars, leaving minimal risk to their well-trained armies.

Nowadays, they do not even risk their army since expansion takes place through monetary means, through mass information, the drumming up of common values, through local power and the complete economic dependence on the outside world. Expansion is a constant process, one unconnected to any outburst and even less to any religious ecstasy. Unlike medieval society, contemporary society collapses not from some external direction but, on the contrary, from an interior short circuit. For the post-industrial world to exist, it needs to conduct a permanent expansion, siphoning off resources from others and realising their own political and social potential.

9. Criteria of identification

The major asset under feudalism was land. People were tied to the land no less than they were to the village. Accordingly, each is of value according to their roots, namely their ancestry, their origin, in its narrowest understanding of the blood-tie. Nations do not play a fundamental role, the neighbour of completely another bloodline turns out to be closer than a person of the same nationality living in other lands.

The Middle Ages are filled with examples of interethnic (multinational) states. The largest states in feudal times (Byzantium, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Holy Roman Empire, the Mongolian Hordes) are absolutely without national core group. When Russian scientists provoke some completely idiotic dispute about what blood some invited prince held, they do not pay attention to the fact that these princes were called as representatives of Eastern Slavic and Finnish tribes, who completely differed in both the language they used as well as in their origin. Identification in the Middle Ages came from the land and not from the nation. “We are from Lorraine”, “We are from Alsace” “We are from Provence” and not “We are French”. “We are from Suzdal, Vladimir, Novgorod” and not “We are Russian”. The clearest definition of the idea of the “Medieval individual” is of a local who understands the language, customs and who has relatives and, accordingly, will protect his kin. Religious identification is fundamental and not only in the moment of acute religious conflicts. Medieval society is ecstatic but in the question of faith it is so tightly intertwined with household pagan rites that official religion is bogged down by needing to observe the norms of the natural and calendar cycles.

In bourgeois society, the nation decided everything. A French or British citizen, even if they were born in the colonies remained a representative of the colonial state and not a native. The Boers, descendants of the Dutch in South Africa, considered themselves to be the indigenous people of the country but they would not in any circumstance mix with the Black Africans. Religion took a back seat, religious preferences could split Americans, Germans, Ukrainians, Koreans and Japanese into as many separate groups as one liked, but this did not prevent them from having a sense of national unity. In contemporary society, the issue of nationality is often one of choice, but that does not make it any less harsh.

In addition, the choice of nationality is not a result of the progress of the most developed countries but is often a product of dire necessity. During the Georgian-Ossetian war, one brother could identify himself as an Ossetian, another as a Georgian and they could fight each other fanatically. In the most acute conflicts, nationality denotes a moment of challenge and a choice of a particular side. Remember, at the very least, the conflicts in Yugoslavia and the unending war in Kurdistan. Your ancestry is no longer important, religion plays merely a supplementary role to nationality which plays a fundamental role. Post-industrial society permitted the freedom of choice of nationality, but this freedom implies a rigid self-definition in the conflict or at least over one’s place under the sun.

10. Concentration of power

The issue of power in the Middle Ages was canonical and sanctified; the aristocracy was a symbol of nobility of character, knighthood from military mercenaries turned into a synonym of the merging of the best human traits. To pass from one class to another was impossible or only by the highest command of the ruler who held the highest God-given power in his hands. It was sacrosanct and any attempt against it bore a sacrilegious character. The concentration of power doesn’t always occur in the same hands, but it is monopolistic precisely in terms of the accepted conception of leadership. Even if the ruler has no authority left, except for ritual functions, these ritual functions are demonstrated and publicised in every possible way. Power is the most conspicuous political institute in the Middle Ages. Only the Church is comparable, but the Church transcends politics, losing its cupola in the vast borders of its spiritual and heavenly fields. A secular ruler does not go as far so as to be able to reach his subjects with his own hands and remind them of his own omnipotence.

The fundamental ideological aspiration of the Middle Ages is to unify the spiritual and the secular cupolas of power. To create a ruling aristocracy of the soul. The monastic orders and the Sufi Brotherhood, the samurai clans and the knights banners. Each of these privileged groups would create their own code of honour which were of greater effect than any common state laws. The idea of “honour” is filled with unprecedented substance, dominating one’s whole way of life. The fact that all these noble classes were always social parasites is naturally not taken into account, because their very parasitism gave them the opportunity to be noble.

Contemporary aristocracy of the spirit in the guise of intellectuals recalls those old hunted bison putting out its horns to save itself from inevitable extinction. Like the bison of the Bialowieza forest, there arise problems of mutual conversion, only instead of inbreeding there occurs a mixture of ideas, more and more removed from the needs of society and from any understanding whatsoever. Real power does not burden itself with ideas like honour, valour, nobility and other motley clichés. It is more candid, not concealing its parasitism from society, giving it a final opportunity to laugh at itself – though power in the post-industrial context is in no rush to announce itself. If during the Middle Ages there were puppeteers and aristocrats visible behind the weak rulers, now the oligarchical puppeteers are so concealed in the shadows that their chance demonstration is tantamount to defeat and the loss of any influence. The source of power is not sacralised, but at the same time the levers of power, namely the possession of resources, information, markets are turned into absolutes. The current government is no less cut off from society: instead of the heavenly thrones, it prefers to sail away from us on luxury yachts. This is indicative – we do not see it every day, we are not in the splendor of its grandeur, but are increasingly dependent on its levers.

11. Legitimating power

In the Middle Ages, the idea of power was stronger than the regime itself, especially in the early medieval period, but this situation was on the wane.

In the earliest days of the Dark Ages, the figure of the ruler was so sacrosanct that they could undergo a ritual murder or a ritual replacement, which for the authorities was one and the same. The real rulers were the generals who very soon fell under the light of the rays of divinity. Even uprisings did not encroach on the sacred function of power. One of the most significant uprisings, that of the “Red Eyebrows” in China in the first century AD, ended in total victory and this led only to the appearance of a new dynasty. The idée fixe of any feudal uprising was that the authorities had violated the succession principle, the throne had been seized by impostors and, consequently, one should restore divine order. The need to legitimize the power of true impostors led to extraordinary deeds. In the same China under the leadership of Zheng He the largest sea voyages and geographical discoveries were made so that the emperor who had seized the throne was recognized by as many territories and local princes as possible, including those who had no idea of where China was located. The sovereign won the gratitude of his subjects also by original deeds which were characteristic of, if not Gods, then divine protagonists. This may have been highlighted many times in elegies to their courage on the battlefields, their royal mercy or, on the contrary, their ruthlessness. Even when the aristocracy actually seized power, the ruler was only formulaically the “first among equals”, in reality this assumed that he was the “first among the best”, for at that time sacrosanct power was shared among many of the ‘best’ who separated themselves in every possible way from the people.

Bourgeois ideologists discovered an idea that turned the conception of power upside down. Divinity had lost any meaning. The spirit had left the sphere of morality and power emerged through natural order. Toying with the natural and growing closer to nature losing their progressive struggle with the past turned into extremes by transformation into social Darwinism where the regime gave up hiding its bestial essence. It needed the implementation of “natural power” and violence in fascist practice for contemporary society to relinquish the schema of abandoning human relations to the level of nature. But there was no and is no return to the sacrosanct. Nowadays, power is effectively the first among equals and besides the first is not necessarily the best, it can also be the worst. The role of the ruler is defined not by any divine legacy or by their personal qualities, but by their ability to adapt to the interests of society in the here and now and meet the requirements of those who really invest their interest in power. The natural order has been replaced by the natural struggle of monopolies and oligarchs. The contemporary conception of power is the tip of the iceberg of this struggle. Like every pinnacle, it is beautiful and majestic, but it floats nowhere on its own, indeed most of the iceberg controls all the peaks of power. 

Now the differences have been clarified, there arises the question: “Why do we need all this?” We could differentiate between contemporary society from the ancient or even primitive way of life with equal ease. But we need a definition, at least so that we can find ways of resistance and a way of escaping the necessity of submission. It is this which dictates the need to describe these differences. Under feudalism, thanks to the labours of many people at different times and in different places, means of finding freedom were found. Feudal society was harsh, it very often brought people to the brink of life and death, but it was not an all-controlling society. Leaving it deprived people of stability but offered them freedom. Nowadays there is nowhere to escape to, there may be individual impulses but no collective ones, no autonomously existing communities. With their very presence they would undermine the very basis of the system’s monopoly, even if they minded, as for example, the community of Dukhobors in Canada.

Feudalism offered the possibility of localisation, it was enough to close oneself in a city-commune to obtain freedom for its citizens and even attempt to adhere to principles of justice and equality (like, for example, in the Münster commune). Nowadays, such localisation is impossible. In contemporary society all that which is not mainstream is washed out to sea. Unlike feudalism it is not stagnant and, hence, does not offer any possibility for the existence of separate islands of justice.

In the Middle Ages, there was a chance to achieve autonomy through autonomous projects. And autonomous formation of separate guilds lived their independent lives, protecting all its members according to rules accepted only by them. No-one particularly interfered in the internal life of peasant communes, it was important that they fulfilled any obligations imposed on them and paid any their tributes. Today’s so-called “Third Sector”, the world of non-commercial organisations are not autonomous at all. They are rigidly inscribed in the system as a tool of influence and are used by the very circles of power for control over society and for the mitigation of any confrontation in this society.

The peculiarity of the current situation resides in the fact that the glaring sense of hopelessness of local pockets of resistance constrain it to broadening of both its subject matter and its geography. Equally, positive projects, namely those aimed at the appearance of real relations which do not coincide with the values of the contemporary world occur as imperceptibly as possible without consciously flaunting themselves. A unique situation arises where the most vociferous and highly publicised resistance is combined with just as fully hermetic but positive actions which are barely highlighted. This situation is one which is forced, dictated by this very new and so poorly named “post-industrial” society. 

Local protest moods are rarely of interest and are swiftly nipped in the bud if they have no global support. On the other hand, all kinds of attempts to create autonomous structures are immediately harshly suppressed as soon as they declare their relevance, their ability to create an alternative, and their organised character. The post-industrial society bears inside itself autonomous cells, not rushing to announce themselves, for which any clashes with the system is only the external visible contour of their activity. New values are born not in the cultural protests against the monster of the “New Middle Ages”, but in these autonomous networks.

 

About the author

Stanislav Markelov was a human rights lawyer and activist. He was killed in January 2009 by a Russian neo-Nazi. 

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