Our Future is Our Past: Corporate Medievalism in Dystopian Fiction
By Amy S. Kaufman
Studies in Medievalism XXII (2013)
Introduction: When economists and political scientists warn of the “new medievalism,” they are referring to a new feudalism governed by a corporate-government hybrid to which the whole world is doomed to be enslaved. Companies like Google create “villages” for their employees while banks indenture us through escalating interest rates on credit cards, mortgages, and loans. Monsanto’s iron-fisted control of land, water, and seed echoes injunctions against hunting on the king’s land. As corporations consolidate power at an alarming rate, the onset of a new Middle Ages seems all but inevitable.
Predictions of a return to the past have also inspired the dystopian visions of Octavia Butler’s Earthseed duology, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake duology, and Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy, all of which predict dark worlds where corporation, state, and church have merged into ideological, financial, and agricultural conglomerates, manipulative institutions whose power structures mimic medieval feudalism and whose abuses of power have created neomedieval societies.
The novels also critique the myth that free-market capitalism is permanently sustainable and self-regulating, suggesting instead that feudalism is capitalism’s logical conclusion. Each author offers us a highly plausible scenario in which water, food, medicine, and jobs are scarce, owned by corporations that have subsumed government. The people of the future are obliged to barter their autonomy for survival. Elites consolidate within walled, wealthy capitols to which the peasants (aptly named “pleebs” in Atwood’s novels) have no access.
Medieval economic and transportation systems abound: most people walk because only the wealthy have cars or fuel; people trade goods and services because currency is devalued; and peasants survive by farming, hunting, foraging, or stealing. Vengeance has replaced law, since corporate authorities are ineffectual unless their own interests are at stake. Inquisitions and torture, distinctly medieval in inspiration, are prevalent in each dystopian world but are also distinctly neomedieval: totalizing power structures utilize contemporary information systems to enforce ideological homogeneity and quell resistance. The world outside corporate-protected walls seems brutal and lawless, and yet the neomedieval corporate political structure remains panoptical, able to exercise seemingly limitless power against those who transgress borders or whisper blasphemies.