Yuri Tarnopolsky
5. On Medieval America

quasi-feudalism. evolution of humans and things

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Essay 5.  On Medieval America


Nothing on earth seems more dramatic than geological transformations: appearance  of atmosphere, origin of minerals, waves of changing climate, Ice Age, rise and drop of large areas of land, like in Grand Canyon, and the continental drift. The next in scale is biological evolution: rise and extinction of species. Evolution continues into history where participants are not atoms, rocks, and animals, but every person who ever lived.

Humans perceive their own history through the glasses tinted with human emotions.

In human eyes, very slow processes have an advantage of being predictable. We expect the geography of continents to be practically the same for the next thousand years. Only long after that, North America will divorce South America and join Asia.

Historical change still comes as a surprise within a generation. People who lived in feudal Middle Ages did not know anything about feudalism. We don't know whether the twentieth century would be labeled as Dark or Golden Age. Today we don't see anything gold in the past, just misery, violence and death that overshadow heroism, magnanimity, and devotion.

Middle Ages have a bad fame: dirt, diseases, wars, illiteracy, ignorance, violence, poverty, and enslavement. They were called Middle by the humanists of Renaissance (which means rebirth) because they separated the classic Greco-Roman culture from its assumed rebirth. For a long time Ancient Greece seemed to be the Golden Age and the only way to culture was through studying Classical Greek and Latin. Of course, the Roman Empire and Renaissance Europe had little in common. But the parallel seemed flattering and empire remained an ideal, with trade as possible substitute for military power.

In a sense, everything is Middle Ages between two resonant cultures and everything is a Renaissance of something long gone.

The Ancient World has lost its glitter after the century of the two hot and one cold world wars, but before that, war had been regarded a noble occupation.

After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Europe lost the source of order. It was similar to the power outage in an inner city during the night.  People lost the sense of security and feared their neighbors. History seemed to get a restart from its Darwinian prehistory. Anarchy and looting took advantage of the darkness of  the Dark Ages.

Immediately, a new order started to take shape because its alternative was, most probably, extinction. The only force that could protect and pursue expansion was weapon.

Feudalism was based on a contract between the lord and his vassal, both being legally equal but economically different. The lord granted the vassal land and its protection, while the vassal offered military service to the lord.

Feudalism does not mean serfdom and slavery. Those were features of  seignorialism, the system of enforced relationship between the free and the dependent persons, the boss and the laborer on the bosses' land. The two systems perfectly complemented each other because the sides in the feudal contract always wanted to combine it with the advantages of being the seigneur, and thus human emotions and ambitions were bringing the social medium to constant simmer and circulation

Well, it looks like something familiar. The owner or CEO of a company grants the employee more stable and regular means of subsistence than a piece of land can provide. The employee offers professional services to the lord, sorry, owner, whether individual or collective. Both sides are theoretically free and legally equal.

While the boss and the employee are both ruled by the current law, the only way Medieval Europe could have something similar to the unifying laws of the Roman Empire was to have a common boss, named the King. And so Europe became an arena for imperial competition, with more and less lucky contenders none of whom left anything lasting from the current point of view except cathedrals.

It looks like the combination of feudalism and seignorialism has been resurrected (an unexpected Renaissance!) in modern capitalism. To follow all the lines of similarity would take a lot of time, but this is not necessary. I am not going to convince anybody or to prove a point. Anyway, Middle Ages here are just a metaphor. What it signifies is the very natural situation with many bosses wanting to be even bigger bosses and the free employees being not so free in hard economic times. Real freedom is the freedom of being unemployed, and this is something a significant part of the US population cannot afford. It is, probably, different in the most developed European countries.

“Be nice to your boss.”  I had heard this advice on TV among talks of recession in January 2001, and it became the initial impetus to this Essay.

Something else comes to mind: “A horse, half kingdom for a horse!”

The same invasions of barbarians and nomads that created the need for the new feudal order made Europeans feel like backward barbarians: the nomads had horses. The horse was the automobile and tank of Middle Ages. In one aspect it was even more advanced than a modern airliner or supercomputer: it naturally reproduced itself with little mental effort on the part of humans, quite like the humans themselves used to do.

Like modern machine, the horse could do a lot of work, but only because it consumed a lot of food. It needed land to graze and multiply. Land, therefore, was like mineral oil today. Automobile is the renaissance horse and gasoline is, actually, a piece of land that immediately becomes useless after a ride.  If you wish, it is a three-dimensional land which is consumed slice after slice.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde and the earlier La Peau de Chagrin  by Honoré de Balzac read today as metaphors of the limited nature of land, mineral, and other resources, including time. A piece of shagreen leather in the Balzac's novel had magic powers, but with every fulfilled wish of its owner it shrunk like the value of an oil field . On the contrary, the living nature is, in principle, renewable for as long as the sun lasts, and this is why we have history. Humans are a form of biological life and they can mostly take care of themselves, feeding on natural resources. They can not only own a horse but also be somebody's horse—a commendable versatility.  

In the turbulent times of invasions and chaos, however, one needed more than food, clothing, and shelter to survive.

The feudal system took care of the needs of the time by establishing a multitude of contractual relations instead of the unifying rule of Rome. If you want another paradox, democracy is a renaissance of feudalism. Coming after the collapse of monarchy, oligarchy, and dictatorship, it is based on contractual relationships between legally equal individuals.

The lord expected an actual service from the vassal in exchange for the actual land. As soon as money became capable of buying everything, including horse, land, service, and even the position of a boss, the feudalism gradually turned into capitalism. With the pop, sports, and movie stars, we are right in the renaissance of cultural monarchy: we have our royal court and royal jesters.

The difference between the developed feudalism and modern times is that neither the position of lord boss nor the position of vassal employee is legally inheritable, and if it is, then only as exception and coincidence.

The parallel between modern capitalism and early feudalism extends also over the phenomenon of fragmentation: the number of companies is, probably, not dramatically larger that the number of European principalities or manors after the beginning of the feudalism: they were counted by thousands. Today a powerful force drives the process of consolidation of business principalities into industrial and financial empires, as it was in times of Charlemagne and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Bill Gates and George Soros have demonstrated power largely exceeding the power of an average size state. True, another force crumbles them.

Here I am interested only in one question. Suppose, there is a parallel between feudalism and modern capitalism. We know that feudalism evolved into capitalism. What can come out of the modern quasi-feudalism? What could future historians write about our times? Can we know today what is going on with us in terms of the future perspective?

This question is as irresistibly attractive as all the useless questions that have been driven the human imagination—mostly, childish—for ages. To ask such questions means to be forever immature—a substitute for eternal youth.

The previous discourse implies that our times will be interpreted  differently, depending on the contemporary environment of the historian, but facts could better resist the winds of time than interpretations.

Here is what I would write in 2300 about the year 2000.

The entire period of 1000-2000 shows a consistent trend. In 1000, the main problem of a human was to stay alive and take care of the progeny. By 2000, the main problem of society was to keep Things in the process of self-reproduction and evolution. In exchange, Things took care of human health, reproduction, well-being,  transportation, entertainment, and means of subsistence—not everywhere, of course.

From 1800 to 2000, the Things underwent an explosion in diversity greatly exceeding that of the Cambrian Explosion, about 500 million years ago, when complex organisms with hard structures such as shell and calcium carbonate skeleton appeared.  It was the first great revolution since the birth of Things in the hands of Homo Habilis.

As with all our fundamental concepts, we have here a circular definition: Homo Habilis  is a Thing-making primate, our evolutionary ancestor. The Things (i.e., man-made objects) did not exist before humans. They  are objects made by humans, starting with  Homo Habilis, tool-making human ancestor. This kind of logical circle happens all the time when both concepts are just two sides of a coin. Things have accompanied Thing-making humans since their twin birth about 2 million years ago. The first known Things were tools, i.e., Things for making other Things, such as stones given a particular shape by striking against other stones. For 2 million years, the tools and all the Things were made either by bare human hands or with other natural or man-made object held in human hands. The humans controlled every step of the process. The making of a Thing was limited by the abilities of a human, so that tools were nothing but extensions of human hands.

Human hands have an important counterpart in the very foundation of life. They work as enzymes, which is more than just a metaphor. The function of an enzyme is to assist in assembling or disassembling parts of a biologically important molecule. An enzyme briefly sticks to different spots on the same molecule or to two different molecules and either separates or joins them, using the same reversible mechanism for both opposite actions .

The enzyme has neither brain no muscle. It works because it increases the probability of an event that can occur without enzyme's intervention only with low or negligible chances.

Chemical reaction is somewhat like sex. As was codified by Kama Sutra, the couple has to take a certain type of position to perform it, with most other possible positions leading nowhere. Same with molecules, especially the big ones. Molecules, however, are madly dashing all around so that an accidental collision of two of them in exactly the necessary position for reaction is highly improbable. Enzymes fix them in such a position, very similar in nature to human hands holding a nail and a hammer on the right  spot, and as soon as the position is taken, only a short time is needed to complete the act.

Hands are the social enzymes of humans. Conversely, enzymes are molecular hands of life.

What preceded what, enzymes or other proteins and nucleic acids? This is the same question as what came first, the chicken or the egg, Homo Habilis or his tools.

The Industrial Revolution that happened around 1800 consisted in the appearance of Things making Things with productivity greatly exceeding that of humans. With a power loom, fabric could be woven without human touch for extended periods of time. Tableware could be stamped out by millions. Clothing was sewn with machines fed by human hands. Rail was rolled out with only an occasional human touch. An entire big class of new machines was no good for immediate human use: their only function was to make other Things.

With  the Industrial Revolution, Things made the crucial first step toward their own biology. Moreover, the very term biology became split: life of Things and life of species, as well as life of societies, found a joint umbrella in meta-life—the way of existence of complex objects through evolution, coding, mutation, and selection, for which the reader should consult a future course of meta-biology.

Things making Things are like molecules making molecules and, with the current progress of molecular biology, like humans making creatures other than themselves. We can only guess what kind of natural hands had made the first enzymes and their substrates, but those hands stepped back  into shadow since. Some scientists, for example, believed the primeval hands to be particles of clay.

The Industrial Revolution had at least three dramatic consequences.

First, it elevated the social value of educated and qualified humans capable of handling and directing machines. Such individuals became themselves being stamped out by public and private education in millions of copies. The social status of former slaves, peasants, crude enzyme-like laborers, and cannon fodder changed into the status of attendants of machines and their blueprints—the DNA of  Things. The blueprints became digital by 2000, which was yet  another radical step of Industrial Revolution.

Second, it generated a mass production of Things in numbers exceeding the demand for them. Things multiplied like bacteria and rats. Things, therefore, became involved in the same Darwinian evolution that produced the entire variety of life on earth. They had to struggle for existence of their species. They were coded in descriptions of their technology like cookies in kitchen recipes.

Third, it democratized the society because everybody became a consumer, a respected member of society capable of buying Things, and, therefore, supporting the existence of the Thing-making human neighbors. Humans had to be produced and pampered (and not just killed by war, hunger, and epidemics) in order to make Things. Things needed huge resources of energy and ingenuity to compete for the attention of humans. They acquired bright petals, fragrance, as well as barbs, fangs, and claws.

All that  had some secondary consequences.

The value of human life now included all the Things he or she possessed, all the education, and all the health care needed to keep a consumer (and enzyme) in good shape. No wonder, it skyrocketed because swarms of short-living Things now had to serve a single human and die afterwards or be bought for a penny at a yard sale. Everybody became a king, but some were more royal than others.

The entire culture became standardized and globalized because all Things knew man as the only god and all spoke the same language of electronic files. They knew no borders and no other bad blood between themselves that could be remembered after the daily closure of the stock market.

Money, which became a currency of energy, bringing the wheels of meta-life into motion at all levels, turned into a truly ecumenical religion uniting humans and Things.

Make more Things for less money! Sell less Things for more money! Buy more Things for less money! Those were simple commandments of meta-life.

The essence of the new contract between humans and Things, embodied in the laws of the land, was that Things, through corporations, granted the humans (who by that time lost the ability to feed and clothe themselves from the fruits of the land) protection from hunger and premature death in exchange for the physical and intellectual service offered by humans to Things.

It looked only on the surface that capitalism was driven by money: it was driven by Things. People could hardly see it because Things were represented by the same governments as humans, elephants, and whales, while money in private pockets was not represented by anybody but its owners.

It was a renaissance of feudalism, and the same laws of nature  that brought to existence national states by 1500 had now to drive history toward a new economic geography having little to do with the shape of continents and distance between them.

But was there a new Industrial Revolution?

Yes, it was: the Intelligent Revolution of 2100, when Things got their brains and surpassed humans in autonomy and intelligence.

In 2300, the equality of Things and humans was legally recognized and the new hyper-racial status of  Things was reflected in the capital T of their name.  The racial relations are not typically harmonious. They are harmonious when there are no races. Each time I was asked to indicate my race in an official form, I was reminded about that.


Here I must stop because I cannot predict a distant future from the position in an even more distant  future. This would mean the loss of connection with the present. It is a forbidden trick. I have to keep at least one foot on the firmer ground of the present.

From this point on, the future historian would continue differently, depending on whether the year of 2000 was regarded as golden or dark age, whether human-enzymes (called derogatively huzymes by Things) stepped back into the shadows of history by that time,  whether humans (or Things) cursed or blessed their new place in the kingdom of meta-life, whether Things treated humans as serfs, whether the historian itself was a Thing, and whether humans (or Things) finally restored democracy (for themselves).

By no means am I a pessimist. Watching the process of humans taking care of and representing animals, forests, and pristine land, I believe that sooner or later Things would take care of humans, whatever happens to the latter. Anyway, we all have only one meta-life to live.

The course of our history, from the point of view of the most basic laws of nature, ultimately depends on the sources of energy. When the peau de chagrin, the Balzac's leather of mineral resources, shrinks to a microscopic size, Things will have an enormous evolutionary advantage over humans. Things, from solar calculator to computer, can consume very little energy, they don't need a narrow interval of body temperature to exist, and they do not need to gallop all around the world. They can even reduce themselves to molecular level and start evolution anew. The only alternative for humans would be either becoming more like plants and animals and live on renewable sources in ecological balance, or becoming more like Things, which is not that bad, taking to account that Things have the infamous brevity of life only because they have to cater to humans. Of course, humans could revert to the virtues of the Golden Age, whatever would be meant by that at the moment.

Are there any signs of the future today?

In any industrial society, Things and children compete within the household. The more Things, the less children, as an average.

The Industrial Revolution was preceded by the explosion of people driven off the land and migrating into cities as paupers and workforce.  People and sheep competed for the land because sheep provided a valuable Thing: wool. The sheep won, for a while. Modern family presents a landscape where children and Things are in a tug of war. Things are extensions of human hands no more. They enter their own capitalism where humans are bulky, cumbersome, expensive, voracious, moody machines that stubbornly refuse to evolve by the day, not by millennium, stupid horses they are.

And this is why some humans, more equine than others, begin to revolt and gallop all around the world, raising Cain.

Page created: 2001 .                                Revised: 2016

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