Suzerainty in Megacorps
I often hear questions about “How is management at FooCorp?” where FooCorp is some massive white-collar firm of 20,000 people. This is a futile question, because like other megacorps, FooCorp is undoubtedly feudal in important ways.
Feudalism, at its core, consisted of three parts: an attitude towards the means of production, an attitude towards religion, and an attitude towards violence and power. It is the last which we talk of today.
The modern Westphalian state, assuming its unitarity (a flattening but indicative assumption) has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence in a territory. But the signature feature of vassalism, the violence-military-power portion of feudalism, is that there is no such monopoly, but oligarchy instead. Each nobleman swears fealty of his armies to whomever (and often more than one liege - feudalism was a DAG, not a tree), but each significant noble in turn had the right to have weapons and armor, to raise a small or large armies, to build castles, to enact laws and to put peasants to death and so on.
Because each party is armed, every relation between liege-lord and significant vassal was materially negotiated, idiosyncratic and often fraught. Some of those above-mentioned rights would not actually exist. Others would be taken de facto despite not being given or bound by idiosyncrasies. In addition, because of the negotiated and idiosyncratic nature of each relation, each relation was deeply personalistic, and wars really could break out based on the whims of military noblemen.
Wars do not break out for personalistic reasons anymore with the modern Westphalian state. That’s casus belli for drunken fistfights, not for artillery and drone strikes. Even deeply stupid wars such as the current Ukrainian-Russian war or the second Iraq-American war had considered casus belli which were claimed to be non-arbitrary. But when we see modern Westphalian states fail, something like that dense oligarchy of violence often quickly results.
One facet of modern life, however, always has a straightforward dense oligarchy of violence: the large corporation. Of course the violence is milder than getting chopped to death, but there is still some violence. People get disciplinary action, people get dismissed and so on. But it is in the nature of this soft violence that there is no monopoly on its legitimate form.
In a 20,000 person white-collar company, there must be some oligarchy of capability to enact dismissal, to commit to disciplinary action. It cannot be a real monopoly because even authorizing it is just too much for one person and the capability is not spread evenly. Just because there is a formal hierarchy doesn’t mean it has any reality, just as ostensible feudal hierarchies were often flimsy negotiated things.
Given that, by the mere lack of a monopoly on violence, all the consequence of vassalism ensue.
Chief of those consequences of vassalism is the personalism and idiosyncrasy of every last thing. When you enter a modern vast white-collar company, there is no there there as to what you can take away from the experience as to any other part of the company. No uniformity of relation can ever be assumed for anything, simply because of the lack of a monopoly on violence.
Suppose you are a peasant in rural France in 1180 AD. You couldn’t say anything coherent about your life based only on this information: even the notion of a France was created centuries later. What would be cogent information would be that you are some smallholder in an specific small area, paying fealty to the Baron Such-and-Such, who demands some precise (the exact volume engraved in stone) amount of grain in taxes (and the Baron one day wishes to better his finances and starts whittling out the bowl carved in stone more…) and corvée labor as negotiated by your ancestors hundreds of years ago (that you spend serious effort and time avoiding), with soil of exactly this fertility and which needs to be fallowed this exact amount and… and… and…
And, of course, do not forget that they’ve never heard of and probably never care about the king who the history books remember about the period, except in some coins or something.
This is the grand level of lack of abstraction of a situated feudal life. Expect it of any mention of a white-collar megacorp with such a lack of monopoly on violence. And when you hear “Oh, BarCorp does this or that”, of something that deals with people, dismiss it entirely and just know that some merry band of people at BarCorp do it. And the CEO of BarCorp certainly doesn’t have anything to do with your life as a BarCorp employee, except on some meaningless trinkets or by some vast flailing wave he or she makes which wrecks you after many layers of indirection.