The Future of Capitalism: Neo-Feudalism?

May 2, 2024 - May 3, 2024
University of Chicago

United States

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Contemporary economic developments have led many to reflect upon the current nature of the global economy and its distinction from earlier and more traditional forms of capitalism. Labels like “crony capitalism,” “managerialism,” or “neoliberalism” have, in the past decades, been introduced to describe the present situation. But some contemporary voices have raised the provocative question of whether we are still in capitalism at all. Sociologists and political scientists like Joel Kotkin and Jodi Dean as well as economists such as Michael Hudson and Yannis Varoufakis have begun to speak of a resurgence of novel forms of “feudalism”—“neo-feudalism” or “techno-feudalism.”

The purpose of this conference is to bring humanists and social scientists together to reflect on the nature of the contemporary situation and to evaluate the applicability of the concept of “neo-feudalism” to the present moment. Is “neo-feudalism” in fact what Lenin might call simply the  “latest stage of capitalism,” or do we already find ourselves in a nascent post-capitalist situation?

Proponents of the concept of “neo-feudalism” do not mean to suggest that western societies are literally devolving into a pre-capitalist feudal regime. As an economy based fundamentally upon fees, “feudalism” indicates the preponderance of rent-seeking over the industrial profits which classically defined capitalism. Accordingly, proponents of the concept of “neo-feudalism” point to the high degree of monopolization, high overhead costs, and the contemporary dominance of non-productive sectors and activities in the economy — above all, the finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) sector. So, they suggest, a novel political economy is emerging in which characteristically feudal features have reappeared in prominent ways.

In addition to the more obvious cases of housing rentals and individual debt peonage, other contemporary examples of a fee-based economy include modern, tech-based services such as Netflix, Spotify, Amazon Prime, zip-cars, divvy-bikes, Airbnb, databases and servers (Facebook/Google). The concept of “neo-feudalism” suggests that the economic ruling class increasingly consists of financialized corporations and asset management companies (e.g., Blackrock, Vanguard, State Street, Blackstone), rather than traditional feudal landlords or industrial capitalists. These companies are not immediately involved in industrial production of commodities, but passively receive the income to which they are entitled by ownership of real or financial assets in question. 

Others, however, are skeptical of the concept of “neo-feudalism” and see these economic changes as consistent with more traditional models of a capitalist economy. Hence advocates of that notion raise a basic question: Does the modern economy fit that mold in a new way, or have more “traditional” models become obsolete? 

While a rigid dichotomy between the humanities and social sciences is often taken for granted, we invite accounts which extend beyond customary disciplinary boundaries. The effects of the purported transition away from capitalism are not confined to the domain of economic life, and we welcome attempts to understand the present situation from any number of perspectives, whether through political theory or humanistic media such as art, literature, poetry or film.  

We invite submissions from various disciplines to address the following possible (but not exhaustive) topics:

  • Financialization, deindustrialization, neoliberalism

  • Asset management companies

  • Digital/platform economies and their impact on aesthetic production

  • Aesthetic representations of life in feudalism, capitalism, and neo-feudalism

  • Subjectivity and identity formation in an age of transition 

  • Conceptual histories of capitalism

  • Critical urban theory, urban enclaves

  • Labor history of the present

  • New social movements

  • Science and technology studies

  • The distinction between profit and rent

  • Engagement with contemporary views of Neo-feudalism

  • Monopolies, rent-seeking, profit-seeking

  • Tech and FIRE sectors

  • Migrant labor exploitation

  • Money, credit, debt

  • Intellectual property and royalties

  • Automation, artificial intelligence, and the service sector

  • The state and privatization 

  • Gated communities

  • Foreign direct investment & resource extraction

  • Cryptocurrency, political decentralization, and sovereignty

  • Theories of imperialism, monopoly, and finance 

  • Theories of Class

  • Universal Basic Income (UBI)

  • Race, gender, and sexuality in post-capitalism

Please submit an abstract by email with the subject “conference abstract” in the header. Please make sure to remove any form of personally identifying information from the file and send it to [email protected].

The deadline for submissions is March 1, 2024.

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