Electing Your Lord Is No Substitute For Actual Democracy

If you look at how American communities work, there are basically two models, with a lot of mixing-and-matching between them. I have thought of them in my head as “The Samurai Village” model, and the “Logging Camp” model.

If you watch the Tom Cruise movie “The Last Samurai,” there’s a spot about halfway thought where Cruise’s character is injured and captured by the Samurai and taken back to a village, where he’s nursed back to health while learning The Samurai Way. In the Samurai Village, everything is in balance, all things are done with care and attention, and even though there are obvious rank differences between the Head Samurai Dude and the villagers, everyone is treated with respect and valued for their contribution.

This is a good sort of shorthand for an idealistic theme in American small-town culture, especially Northern small-town culture: Everything is about everybody working together to make the town better, and the basic assumption is that making the town better is better for everyone. This is the ideal that is left behind in the “going off to college/the city” coming of age myth.

Compare this model with the model of the Logging Camp, the Company Town, the Plantation: This is a hierarchical live-work environment in which every activity is centered around one (generally profit-driven) activity, and there’s one person in charge and a series of hierarchical down-steps from there.

Basically every military base has this model; every university has this model; it’s the Americal lifestyle model for People Who Really Care About Their Work.

The thing is, when you start to look at these models, it turns out that they’re the same model, with a couple of variables changed; and those changed variables are at the heart of two models of America that have been at war with one another from the beginning.

The Samurai Village and The Logging Camp are both descendants of the Manor model (or, on the European continent, the Villa model). This is a system that emerged late in the Roman empire and was the dominant system for human communities throughout the Middle Ages and from which we escaped into the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

It works like this: There’s a Manor, which is a big plot of land. It’s divided into three roughly equal sections: One section for the use of the people who live on the Manor (generally serfs), divided up into plots farmable by an individual farmer or family; one section for Common Use, eg forrest, grazing land, et cetera; and one section for the Lord of the Manor.

The Lord of the Manor was the Guy in Charge; he inherited the manor, or was given it as a reward for service or whatever. He’s responsible for making sure everything works — eg, all the serfs are doing their part, all the laws are being followed, et cetera. In the mideval model, the Lord of the Manor was subservient to a Baron or similar, who would have 10–20 Manors in his Barony, and who was in turn subservient to a Count, who ran a County of 10–20 Baronies.

The Lord of the Manor charged his serfs rent, payable usually in the form of labor or produce, and was in turn responsible for passing on rent and obligation to his Baron, who passed it on up the chain, et cetera.

I mentioned above that the Manor system was called the Villa system on the continent; a Villa is basically the French or Spanish or Italian version of the Manor House. The name echoes in English with the name of the cluster of houses belonging to the people who live on the manor: the Village, and the name for the people who live on the manor: Villains (or “villeins”). That’s right, when Shakespearean characters called one another “villain,” they weren’t calling them “bad guys,” they were calling them “low class.”

Lots of people hated the Manor System, for a lot of good reasons: Most serfs weren’t allowed to leave, many Lords were terrible people, et cetera, et cetera. When people began Coming To America, which is to say Colonizing North America, in the middle 1600s, they began setting up communities along familiar lines: The new communities looked, in many ways, surprisingly like Manors, with villages and surrounding fields and et cetera et cetera.

Many people basically came to the conclusion that Manor life wasn’t so bad, provided that you didn’t have that fucking Lord guy hanging around telling everybody waht to do and siphoning off all the profits.

In other parts of the country — the South, natch — things went a different way.

In throwing off the old feudal system, Southern colonists didn’t draw the conclusion that village life is lovely if only there wasn’t a Lord; they instead came from the position that they all wanted to be the Lord, and more generally the problem was that you couldn’t become Lord by virtue of being the best person for the job, you had to be born into it etc etc.

So this alternative vision of Building A Better Manor basically opened up Lord Of The Manor to anybody who could raise the capital, and made available a new and improved line of serfs: actual slaves, who were visually distinctive and legally unprotected, and widely regarded as not really fully human.

It’s tempting to talk about Slavery as the defining factor of this kind of Manor-esque community building, but it’s not. What a Plantation is, is a free-market Manor: Slavery is just a consequence of not imposing moral standards on our prospective Lords.

Recently, in Hawaii, I took a tour of the Dole plantation, which was not done with slaves but instead with indigenous and imported ultra-cheap labor. Here in California, the Missions and the Ranchos were run much like vastly upscaled versions of the old Manors.

The thing is, all through my lifetime, I’ve heard about these forms of local governance as though they were unfortunate features of a past that we’re largely over now. Lincoln freed the slaves, Martin Luther King solved racism, Cesar Chavez made farms happy.

But at the same time, I can’t help but notice that there’s less and less places where actual decisions get made at the local level. Sure, there are elections, but then once we elect people, they go off and do stuff in distant boardrooms and whatnot.

I guess the point of this whole little screed is that yeah, we’ve heard a lot about wage slavery and unaffordable housing and the great resignation and the need to find an end to Industrial Revolution era work culture, but I haven’t heard enough about the actual work that needs to be done: We need to do less work in specialized assembly line worker-bee environments, and more work on self-governance, on community building and institution growth. These are hard things that we’ve seemed to be OK with outsourcing to professionals; but it turns out, that’s the road to slavery.

Electing your Lord is no substitute for actual democracy.