July 27, 2013
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One of the most fascinating phenomena of the current day is the odd structure of government with regards to international relations and national politics, one in which it is local government that is more innovative and more open to concrete international exchange. The waning nation states are suggesting in their action a form of “inverted feudalism.” I formulated this term to describe the current relationship between the central government and local government, drawing on Benjamin Barber’s innovative writings about the new global role of cities and his proposal for a Parliament of Mayors.
In a nutshell, inverted feudalism refers to the tendency of national governments to behave in an increasingly feudalistic manner, inflexible to institutional change and hostile to international exchange except in the extremely limited form of high volume international trade via container ships between multinational corporations. Increasingly, central governments are closed to the outside for any significant exchange, limiting relations to formal rituals that are designed explicitly to avoid any long-term engagement. There are significant exceptions, but as a general role those organizations that seem to be meant to handle international relations are in fact institutionally adverse to doing so in a substantial manner.
By contrast, local governments show a willingness and an institutional flexibility, when it comes to international relations and the flexibility to enter into effective long-term relations with peers around the world. Although it was the central government that served as a place for the drive to become more international in perspective, and led the move away from feudalist practice in the 19th and 20th century, the opposite may be the case in our own time.
I formed the term inverted feudalism based on Sheldon Wolin’s term “inverted totalitarianism” which refers to the manner in which an impenetrable corporate culture can create a completely inflexible environment for the practice of politics at the ground level even though there is no dictator or strong man at the top. I do not completely agree with that argument, although I think that it helps us to understand certain limits in current discourse.