- Communicative Capitalism and Neo-Feudalism:An Interview with Jodi Dean
You have recently written about neo-feudalism. I was wondering how you became interested in the idea, given your previous theorization of communicative capitalism.
I have been working on this concept of neo-feudalism for a little over a year. It is a thought experiment at this point as I am still figuring out whether neo-feudalism actually names something or whether it is just a metaphor.
I think it does name something, but I may be wrong. I started thinking about this idea because of McKenzie Wark's book, Capitalism Is Dead. She asks us to consider the possibility that we are no longer living under capitalism anymore but something worse.
The first time I came across her concept, my reaction was to dismiss it as stupid. Of course this is capitalism. But it kept eating at me. Usually, if you don't think an idea is a good idea you just forget it. This one just kept sticking to me.
So, I thought, what if I take it seriously? And I found it generative. What does it do to my thinking if I don't assume we are in capitalism anymore, but instead assume that capitalism could become something worse?
Very few of us are orthodox, determinist Marxists anymore. We don't accept a kind of developmentalist logic that is unitary across the whole world. That view has been rightly criticized and, frankly, I think it is basically a parody of what communists under state socialism were actually thinking.
But anyway, we aren't determinists anymore. Capitalism will end at some point; it has a history like any other system. But what its end is is [End Page 191] open, not determined. There are multiple possible ends. Accepting that we are not determinists means that socialism isn't necessarily going to be what happens next. At least, not without a fight.
It has always been within a Leninist conception that the stages don't unfold without a struggle. Politics is necessary. A political party is necessary. Revolution is necessary. In the absence of that—and it isn't looking great across the world now, but the potential is there—what if the unfolding that we are actually seeing is going in the direction of something worse? Neo-feudalism allows us to see tendencies in the present that indicate the limits of what capitalism can do, and what capitalism can name, and how we've got to understand our anti-capitalist struggle. That's the general wager behind the project.
That's very interesting regarding the idea of neo-feudalism. What are the defining characteristics of neo-feudalism?
I think of neo-feudalism as having four basic characteristics. It isn't like European feudalism is coming back in a big way—it would be stupid to think it was. There's not even one European feudalism. And around the world there are all different kinds of feudalism. Feudalism is one of these contested terms and it is going to have all different kinds of meaning. This is why I emphasize four features that identify tendencies in the present.
The first is the parcelization of sovereignty, which is a way of saying that legal regimes are fragmented. States are involved in all sorts of international treaties, corporations can sue states, and state laws are fragmented within themselves and apply differently to rich and poor; they apply differently to races in the United States. While that's illegal that's still the reality of the legal regime. The bourgeois parliamentarian fiction is really apparent as a fiction. We don't have that uniform law. And so sovereignty is parcellated or parcelized. This term comes from the work of Ellen Meiksins Wood and Perry Anderson and their descriptions of feudalism.
The second characteristic is the new lords and new serfs. Particularly with the vast fortunes made in technology, we have an incredible hierarchy and inequality that is much more segmented than the fiction of opportunity under capitalism would have us believe. Over the last twenty years there is less...