Feudal Gestures

Why the Middle Ages are something we can still look forward to

With a mixture of distaste and satisfaction Americans last July took in the news that U.S. forces in the city of Mosul, in northern Iraq, had surrounded a house harboring the two sons of Saddam Hussein, Uday and Qusay, and after an intense firefight lasting several hours had succeeded in killing them both. The Hussein boys were abominable people by any standard, and few expressions of regret were heard. No world figure sought to reprise the role of Ireland's Eamon De Valera, who in May of 1945, upon receiving the news of Hitler's death, visited the German embassy in Dublin to offer his formal condolences.

What did prove to be something of a surprise was the degree to which ordinary Iraqis refused to believe that Uday and Qusay were dead. Faced with this reality, American officials allowed photographs of the bodies to be made public. Shortly afterward the former CBS and NBC newsman Marvin Kalb, in a radio interview, observed, "In a funny way it's similar to what used to happen in the Middle Ages when, say, a conquering army would come into a town. And they would behead the leader of the old regime and then put that head on a spike and put the spike right in the middle of town so that all of the people could see that the old regime was truly gone."

Kalb's analogy was apt. But insofar as latter-day parallels with the Middle Ages are concerned, he could have gone a lot further. To be sure, the self-perception of people in the developed world has very little of the medieval about it. We inhabit the Information Age. We proclaim the Era of Globalization. We consider ourselves postmodern, maybe even posthuman. But it is also true that elements of a prior regime were never quite eradicated, and in some cases are growing back. The geographer David Harvey once wrote that "modernity is not a time—it's a place." The Middle Ages, one might add, are not an epoch—they're an outlook.

What are some of the medieval characteristics of the present day? Looking about idly, one could point to the growing prevalence of barter as a form of economic transaction. One could note the emergence of something akin to heresy trials, as outspoken people in academe and other areas of public life are subjected to harassment or worse for their political and cultural views. One could cite the new federal insistence that able-bodied people in public-housing projects devote time to community projects—a dusting off of the ancient corvée, which entitled an overlord to acts of service from those living on his estates. Although there is no longer a single Church, as there was in the Middle Ages, some powerful corporations are setting themselves up in its absence as enforcers of social morality. Home Depot is enacting a ban on wood harvested from endangered rain forests. Wal-Mart has banned Maxim and similar magazines from its shelves, and offers only cleaned-up versions of some videos and many CDs. Its drugstores don't stock the Preven "morning-after" pill.

The manner in which movers and shakers wind down their careers frequently has a medieval flavor. Aristocrats of yore often forsook their earthly obligations in late career, entering the cloister and devoting the rest of their lives to study and prayer. In much the same way, modern grandees seek monastic solace in the nonprofit world. Isn't this what the former senator Bob Kerrey has done, taking over the presidency of New School University? And Walter Isaacson, leaving the chairmanship of CNN News Group to become the president of the Aspen Institute?

Medieval society was essentially an oral one, dominated by the spoken word rather than the written text. Words on paper surged in influence during the first several centuries after Gutenberg, but in recent years technology of various kinds has greatly enhanced the capabilities of speech. Nowadays people never have to stop talking. One of the iconic sights in airport men's rooms is a line of well-dressed gentlemen standing at urinals, all of them conducting phone conversations, wires dangling from ear to chin. This post-flight ritual stands as a contemporary analogue, possibly, to the chanted refrains of ancient monks in their stalls at Westminster or Chartres.

But these examples are frankly trivial. There is a far more basic parallel between medieval times and our own. The precise definition of "feudalism" is one of those things on which medievalists can't quite agree—the field is divided into warring fiefdoms—but the historian F. L. Ganshof discerned in feudal society "a dispersal of political authority amongst a hierarchy of persons who exercise in their own interest powers normally attributed to the State." In the West the path away from the Middle Ages was marked by the evolution of governments and nation-states with a sense of responsibility for the public interest rather than merely private interests. Power was no longer a form of property. Social services and protections became a consequence of citizenship, not a private deal between a lord and his vassals, or between a private entity and its clients.

But at some point in the late twentieth century evolution's arrow began changing direction—toward the re-privatization of everything. It was not until the nineteenth century that governments, through local police forces, managed to make an ordinary citizen's personal security a matter of public responsibility. This was a major, if temporary, advance. No one with money relies on such guarantees any longer. More and more people have withdrawn into moated, or gated, communities. Private security is a huge growth industry; in 1970 America had about one and a half police officers for every hired security guard, whereas today the private guards outnumber the police by three to one. Individuals may give titular allegiance to a town or a state, but their oath of fealty is to Securitas or Wackenhut.

In the Middle Ages one of the chief obligations of a seigneur was to "give justice"—to resolve disputes, oversee legal business, mete out punishment. These functions gradually migrated out of private hands and into those of what we recognize as governments. Now they are migrating back. Lawyers and clients increasingly shun the civil court system and instead buy themselves a bit of private arbitration, provided by a growing list of profitable "rent-a-judge" companies. In medieval times education, too, was almost exclusively a private—indeed, an individual—matter; Joan of Arc and Ethelred the Unready were entirely home-schooled. These people turned out to be ahead of their time. Almost a million children are being home-schooled today—including two of the top five finishers in the 2003 National Spelling Bee—and have opted out of the public school system it took so long to build. Another 700,000 are in charter schools, which represent a step away from public status. The very idea of a "charter" is medieval.

What some might call the New Feudalism, sociologists call the "externalization of state functions." Whatever one calls it, the phenomenon is accelerating. Public airports are being privatized, as are water and sewage systems, and prisons and hospitals. Portions of Social Security may eventually become privatized. FedEx and UPS and DHL have already gone a long way toward privatizing reliable postal service. One study from the late 1990s suggests that the "privatization rate"—the rate at which public functions are being "outsourced," or turned over to private ventures—is roughly doubling every year.

The most astonishing surge in outsourcing has come in the realm of military power, with the partial displacement of standing national armies by corporate armed forces. The monopolization of military power by the central government was one of the signal characteristics of the emerging nation-state. Before that medieval rulers depended on armies raised privately, by their vassals. During the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, warfare in Italy was largely in the hands of mercenary armies whose fighting men were known as condottieri, from the Italian condotta, or "contract." Throughout Europe private entrepreneurs formed what were known as "companies," available to fight on a freelance basis, and demanded not only a fee for service but also a share of the spoils. "Frankly, I'd like to see the government get out of war altogether and leave the whole field to private industry": Milo Minderbinder's remark in Joseph Heller's Catch-22 was meant to be absurd, but it actually describes the military system that existed through much of history.

And more and more it obtains once again. The examples above are drawn from a new book, Corporate Warriors, by the Brookings analyst P. W. Singer, which provides a sweeping survey of the work of MPRI, Airscan, Dyncorp, Brown & Root, and scores of other firms that can variously put troops in the field, build and run military bases, train guerrilla forces, conduct air surveillance, mount coups, stave off coups, and put back together the countries that wars have just destroyed. Those medieval "companies," like the famous White Company of Arthur Conan Doyle's novel, are the lineal ancestors of ArmorGroup and Halliburton, Saladin Security and Sandline. The finances of these entities often lack transparency, to put it mildly, but Corporate Warriors estimates that $100 billion is spent on private military forces every year, and that the amount will double by 2010. In his classic study The Soldier and the State, written nearly half a century ago, the political scientist Samuel Huntington observed, "While all professions are to some extent regulated by the state, the military profession is monopolized by the state." He could not write that sentence today.

"I am unabashedly an admirer of outsourcing," General Barry McCaffrey, the nation's former drug czar, once stated when asked about the American use of private military forces in Colombia. "There's very few things in life you can't outsource." By now there seem to be none that we don't. Well, wait, there's one: tax collection by the Internal Revenue Service. This is still a government monopoly, though precedent exists for a vastly different regime. Under the system known as "tax farming," a monarch sold to entrepreneurs the right to collect the crown's taxes; the entrepreneurs contracted to pay the king a certain sum, but could keep anything raised in excess of that sum. How commoners loved this system! A modern version would turn tax collection over to, say, credit-card companies and trial lawyers. It wouldn't be long, I suspect, before we saw some heads on spikes in the town square.