Over the past several decades, corporations have steadily increased their power and control on society. One cannot fail to notice the symbols of this control everywhere around us. While driving down the interstate, flipping through television channels, or surfing the internet, one is bombarded by billboards, television ads, and sponsorships pushing products or services. Corporate logos are so commonplace in American society that we drive, click, or scroll by them without intentionally noticing them at all. Like great religious art, much of the messaging is subliminal. These venerated icons of profit attest to the influence that corporations exert in our materialist culture.
As we enter the adolescent phase of the digital age, the corporate chokehold on society has progressively tightened with the broad reach and scalability of the internet, government collaboration, and new business models that create everlasting, efficient sources of cash flow. As the American republic weakens and the clamor celebrating our faux democracy grows deafening, a subtle yet steady shift in power has taken place bringing forth a new system of economic control: corporate feudalism.
What is Corporate Feudalism?
Corporate Feudalism is a system where citizens become hyper-dependent on a few, powerful ultra-monopolies for most aspects of everyday life. Through this dependency, the controlling monopolies are able to exert increasing influence on aspects of society that are tangential to the products they sell. Basic needs like food, housing, and transportation are controlled by a multinational corporation. Even entertainment and social activities like dating can be corporately controlled. In essence, the multinational corporation will underpin society.
Just as in medieval feudalism a peasant was tied to the land and dependent on a lord for protection, in corporate feudalism a citizen is largely beholden to a series of corporations for their needs and quality of life. Whereas in the past citizens shared common bonds based around religion, community, and family, in corporate feudalism a for-profit entity will either replace or control those institutions altogether.
So how do we know we are headed toward this new system? Let’s take a look at some of the factors indicating that our society is headed toward corporate feudalism.
A Culture of Cronyism
One reason we will continue to see an increase in corporate power in the near future is that governments have proven to be unable, or unwilling, to exercise proper authority and restrain large corporations from becoming monopolies. Ideally, the U.S. government would break up or place limits on a corporation once it has reached monopoly status in order to create a fair playing field. The idea is that placing these limits on companies will prevent one from controlling the entire market share of an industry and then demanding unfair prices for their services. In the late 19th and early 20th century, large steel and rail corporations had monopolies over their respective industries, so anti-monopoly regulations were passed to restrict them. Teddy Roosevelt, nicknamed the “Trust-Buster”, championed the anti-monopoly cause and pushed for fair competition and pricing through his Square Deal legislation.
Though I would normally argue for a more hands-off approach toward regulation, I believe we are entering into unprecedented and dangerous territory where a few corporations, namely Amazon and Google, are able to dominate multiple sensitive industries. With over 85% of the market share of internet search engines, Google essentially controls what information the public has access to. In the age of information, this affects anyone with an internet connection. Likewise Amazon now has over 50% of the market share for e-commerce , another industry whose effects ripple throughout multiple other sectors.
Many have called for the internet to be made a public utility so that free-speech laws could be properly enforced and social media companies would be bound to the first amendment rather than the arbitrary rules laid out in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 gives social media companies free reign to ban users and contour their content while being free of the legal obligations that traditional media companies are bound .
Despite the U.S. government’s present options, they have shown very little interest in limiting monopolies. In the case of tech companies, they have shown complete ineptitude toward understanding the complex issues and ramifications involved.
Not only are legislators apathetic toward corporate overreach, but they actively pass laws to benefit certain companies over others, allowing some to thrive while others fail. One example of corporate favoritism is the recent shutdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the past two years, federal and state authorities used emergency powers to shut down businesses deemed “unessential” while leaving others open. The major retail corporations like Walmart and Target were allowed to stay open while mom-and-pop small businesses were forced to close for months on end, with many ultimately going out of business forever. An estimated one-third of businesses closed down during the pandemic , benefiting larger companies by eliminating their competition. Internet corporations like Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and Google all had record profits during the pandemic as entire populations were now almost completely dependent on the internet for basic items and entertainment. For many, the government’s unequal policies in reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic pulled back the curtain on our major institutions’ priorities, proving that the interests of mega-corporations take center stage.
Another factor contributing to the march toward corporate feudalism is that corporations are increasingly becoming the administrators and enforcers, or “henchmen,” of legislative and executive authority. They have begun to fill a role that makes them indispensable to the government. Orders and decrees that the government are prohibited from enacting via the constitution are simply “offshored” for the corporations to administer.
The recent vaccine-or-test mandate during the Covid-19 pandemic is a prime example. Although the United States government has no power to order its citizens to submit to a medical procedure, employers are more free to institute these types of mandates on their employees. Thus, as long as the government can incentivize companies to require vaccinations for their employees, the goal of mandating vaccines across the nation is largely achieved since almost everyone needs a job to survive. This isn’t an argument for or against vaccine mandates, I’m simply pointing out that due to the restrictions placed on the federal government by the constitution, separate entities have stepped in to do their bidding.
Another example of this offshored approach to authoritarianism is social media censorship. Again, the constitution limits federal powers from restricting free speech; however private internet websites can limit what goes on their platforms. Given the unique protection provided to them by Section 230, social media companies can ban or limit the reach of users who hold opinions contrary to the “correct” narrative. Due to the growing relationship between government and corporations, their interests tend to align more often than not.
One recent example of social media censorship that benefited the federal government was the banning of the lab leak origin theory of Covid-19. The lab leak theory claimed that covid-19 leaked from a U.S. government-funded virology lab in Wuhan, China due to improper safety protocols. Obviously this theory would negatively impact the image of the U.S. government if true. Shortly after gaining traction on social media, companies made a concerted effort to quash the theory. Users on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites who espoused the theory were quickly banned and the reach of shared articles that supported the theory were limited or blocked. Traditional news media sources also published articles that supposedly “debunked” the theory without actually refuting any of the claims themselves. I should note that whether or not the lab leak theory is correct is irrelevant; what is important is the fact that the censorship provided by social media platforms was advantageous to the federal government and abolished ideas that would expose their purported failure. Corporations and media outlets acted as henchmen for the federal government by censoring potentially damaging information.
I am not necessarily claiming there is direct collusion between corporations and governmental bodies. Perhaps as corporations are left unrestrained by an administration, their interests begin to align with that structure in order to keep the status quo. Regardless of the mechanism, it is increasingly becoming the role of corporations to guide citizen’s behavior and police citizen’s speech in ways that are beneficial to governing bodies.
Corporations as Ethical Institutions
Within the past several decades large businesses have made a concerted effort to appear publicly as ethically-minded institutions. In addition to the products or services they provide, corporations engage in charity, civic activism, and often outright political campaigning.
I’m sure we’re all aware of how many companies post gay pride-themed logos in June, ensuring consumers that they are supportive of the latest social trends, and most people have probably undergone some sort of anti-bias or racial orientation training at work as well. Businesses are becoming involved in their employee’s personal beliefs in a way that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago. Gone are the days where you leave your politics and religion at home. If not yet, then soon your human resources department will be informing you under threat of discipline what your politics and religion should, and should not, consist of (at least while at work). Due to their ability to take away one’s primary source of income, corporations are in a privileged position to force their moral beliefs onto their employees. Of course, one could find a job elsewhere, however the options are becoming scarce for someone who disagrees with the acceptable narrative, as the vast majority of corporations, and thus the vast majority of employers, adopt these positions. This makes it difficult for one to reasonably participate in society without at least tolerating the viewpoints pushed by the establishment.
Government institutions who wish to push an agenda look favorably upon the social position that corporations now occupy, since governments can incentivize corporations to influence the social narrative as they see fit. As corporations and governments grow in tandem, the influence they wield over one’s personal beliefs will only increase, and obedience to the “narrative” will eventually be mandatory.
The Subscription Model of Business
One of the most important factors contributing to the rise in corporate influence is the subscription model of business. Modern consumers are well acquainted with this business model as it is the dominant method used for television streaming, software, and cell phone service today. This model requires the user to pay a monthly or yearly fee to use certain services provided by a company. For example, instead of owning movies via DVD, we now simply pay a monthly fee to Netflix to have access to the many movies and television shows they stream. The pros of this model are easy to see: they allow the user to have access to much more content than they could physically store at home and they allow the company to have a consistent stream of revenue. However, since the user owns nothing physically, their access to content is completely managed by the provider. The streaming/software/cell phone provider controls the information flow completely, and can alter content at will.
Not only will the subscription model of business control access to the digital space, but also more tangible products as well. Recently Apple unveiled its plans for a subscription service for their iPhones. The new service would allow users to simply lease their phones until the next model comes out, rather than paying full price and owning the phone . It’s not hard to imagine other industries following this same model in the near future because it allows the provider complete control over the material product while still maintaining a steady revenue stream.
The subscription model of business takes ownership from individuals and puts it in the hands of the elite few, allowing a minority of corporate executives to have control over millions or billions of people. The average citizen will have to comply with the dictates of these executives or risk losing their access to society. As a recent World Economic Forum contributor infamously claimed, “You’ll own nothing and you’ll be happy” . The subscription model is the means by which this dark statement can come to fruition with the consumer’s consent.
The Path Forward
In conclusion, traditional American free-market capitalism has morphed into a new system of economic and political dominance over the past half century. This system places the average citizen at the behest of an oligarchy wielded through corporate entities who share a symbiotic relationship with governments. Though the future laid out in this article is bleak, it is certainly not inevitable. There are steps that can be taken to mitigate the effects of this new system on our own lives.
A call to greater family and communal independence is necessary. Keeping wealth and trust within the circles closest to us will become increasingly important as authoritarians demand more and more of our hard-earned money. Land should be managed within families and passed down rather than siphoned off to the highest bidder. This will ensure that corporate entities are kept at bay from controlling our most important material resource. Business dealings should be kept to those who share your fundamental values, or at least to those whose values are not opposed to yours. What supermarkets we shop at, stores we buy from, and online dealers we purchase goods from should be vetted rather than blindly consuming the cheapest item.
The path forward is surely hard work, and the actions we took for granted in the past will now need to be deliberated upon to repel the creeping control of governments and multinational corporations. This first step is being cognizant of this growing trend, forming communities of like-minded individuals who share freedom-loving values, and making small adjustments in our lifestyle which will snowball over time.
The future belongs to those that deliberately plan it. Gone are the days of mindlessly going about our business expecting our leaders to have our best interest in mind. We must take a conscious approach to the world we want posterity to inherit. Instead of allowing our leaders to plan our future for us, let’s begin planning our own.
2 thoughts on “Capitalism’s Successor: Corporate Feudalism”
A GREAT well written and researched article. A call for hope to counteract our loss of independence but the effort will be worth it the struggle.
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