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Refeudalization is the process of recovering mechanisms and relationships that used to define feudalism. Because the term "feudalism" is slightly ambiguous, "refeudalization" is ambiguous, too.
In the modern era, the term "refeudalization" is used for policies that give special privileges to organized groups such as NGOs.
Refeudalization in seventeenth-century European historiography
The process of refeudalization is also used in seventeenth-century European historiography. The term was made famous by Italian Marxist historians Ruggiero Romano and Rosario Villari, to illuminate the social conditions behind the Neapolitan Revolt of 1647. The concept was influenced by Gramsci's ideas, the historigraphical debates during the 1950s and 1960s that centered on Eric Hobsbawm's seventeenth century "General Crisis" as well as 1960s Italian politics. Villari used it quite specifically in reference to the increasing pressure in the six decades preceding the revolt of 1647, in which the peasantry and the lower-middle classes revolted against the feudal aristocracy and international financiers. The process was triggered by the royal state's need for money. The Spanish crown ennobled the bourgeoisie of rich merchants and financiers, who infiltrated and reinforced the noble order. Fernand Braudel found the “clearest case of refeudalization” in Spanish Naples. The monarchy had raised capital by selling feudal titles, which in the long term increased the fiscal burden that the seigneurial regime imposed on the rural poor, since the nobles were exempted from paying taxes to the viceroyal regime. Refeudalization in a more general sense has been used to explain Italy's failed transition to modern capitalism. Though Italy had pioneered the commercial revolution, feudal barons neglected business opportunities to innovate and further rationalize the processes of production.
Refeudalization in Habermas's theory of the public sphere
Jürgen Habermas’s theory of the public sphere is based on his research into the bourgeois class of the eighteenth century in Great Britain, France and Germany; his key work on the theme is The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962). Habermas saw space that had been gained for the public around the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries returning to private hands, a process which he called 'the refeudalization [Refeudalisierung] of the public spehere': 'Habermas discussed the pincer-like movement in which late modern consumer capitalism attempts to turn us into unthinking mass consumers on one hand, while political actors, interest groups, and the state try to turn us into unthinking mass citizens on the other'.
Habermas's idea of the 'public sphere'
For Habermas, the 'public sphere' is 'a space in which all citizens can critically, substantively, and rationally debate public policy' (though this does not necessarily exist in any single physical space: it can also be constituted, for example, by newspapers). In its ideal form, the public sphere is "made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state". The public sphere is the source of public opinion needed to "legitimate authority in functioning democracy". Habermas made a distinction between lifeworld and system. The public sphere is part of the lifeworld and it is the immediate setting of the individual social actor, and Habermas opposed any analysis which uncoupled the interdependence of the lifeworld.
Habermas's analysis is based on an oral bias; he believed that the public sphere can be most effectively constituted and maintained through dialogue, acts of speech, debate and discussion. In his further reflections, Habermas claims that public debate can be animated by “opinion-forming associations” which are voluntary associations, social organizations such as from churches, sports clubs, groups of concerned citizens, grassroots movements, trade unions – to counter or refashion the messages of authority. This public sphere began to form first in Britain at the end of the seventeenth century. It resulted in the Licensing Act (1695), which allowed newspapers to print what they want without the Queen’s censorship. However, there were still strict laws. But the sphere is seen as a crucial enabler for this to happen.
The refeudalization of the public sphere
For Habermas, a key feature of the feudal is that small numbers of individuals embodied the public state: a king or similar officer was the realm (what Habermas called 'representative publicity'). Habermas saw the eighteenth-century bourgeois public sphere as a positive contrast to this situation. But in the twentieth century, he perceived the rise of advertising, marketing and 'public relations' trying to manipulate the public and discourage critical thought, and he perceived the state, political parties, and interest groups increasingly using the same approaches to win votes. This is 'refeudalization' because 'the public sphere becomes the court ''before'' whose public prestige can be displayed─rather than ''in'' which public critical debate is carried on'.
"Publicity once meant the exposure of political domination before public reasoning; publicity [here Habermas uses the English word] sums up the reactions of a non-binding goodwill. The bourgeois public sphere readopts feudal qualities in proportion to its formation by public relations [in English]: the "offering agents" display representative expenditure in front of compliant customers. Publicity imitates that aura of personal prestige and preternatural authority which the representative public sphere had once imparted.
A "refeudalization" of the public sphere must be discussed in another, more exact sense. The integration of mass entertainment and advertising, which in the form of public relations already assumes a "political" character, subjugates namely even the state under its code. Because private companies suggest to their customers in consumer decisions the consciousness of citizens, the state has to "appeal to" its citizens like consumers. Thus the public use of violence also solicits publicity.
Refeudalization in sociology of neoliberal globalization
There is a third context which sociologists, drawing on Habermas, refer to contemporary socio-economic processes in the global economy as refeudalization. The concepts overlap with discussions of neomedievalism. The Swiss sociologist Jean Ziegler uses the German expression "Refeudalisierung der Gesellschaft" to illuminate the forces behind neoliberal globalization. In his pamphlet "The Empire of Shame", he criticizes the new system of "Refeudalisierung" based on scarcity and debt. However, the concept in English is typically translated as the "new feudalization", which here means the subversion of Enlightenment values (freedom, equality and brotherhood) and the radical privatization of public goods and services. Comparable ideas have been developed by Sighard Neckel.
- Jamie Warner, 'The New Refeudalization of the Public Sphere', in The Routledge Companion to Advertising and Promotional Culture, edited by Matthew P. McAllister and Emily West (New York: Routledge, 2013), pp. 285-97 (p. 285).
- Habermas, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1962 (1990), p 292. ("The Structural Change of The Public Sphere"), translation Walter Kastorp (expressly for Wikipedia)
- Habermas, The Transformation of the Public Sphere, p. 201, quoted by Jamie Warner, 'The New Refeudalization of the Public Sphere', in The Routledge Companion to Advertising and Promotional Culture, edited by Matthew P. McAllister and Emily West (New York: Routledge, 2013), pp. 285-97 (p. 287).
- Jamie Warner, 'The New Refeudalization of the Public Sphere', in The Routledge Companion to Advertising and Promotional Culture, edited by Matthew P. McAllister and Emily West (New York: Routledge, 2013), pp. 285-97.
- Jamie Warner, 'The Smugglers: The Rationality of Political Satire in the 2014 Elections', PS: Political Science & Politics, 49.1 (January 2016), 48-52. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S104909651500126.
- Alain Supiot; The public–private relation in the context of today’s refeudalization, International Journal of Constitutional Law, Volume 11, Issue 1, 1 January 2013, Pages 129–145, https://doi.org/10.1093/icon/mos050
- Jean Ziegler, L'empire de la honte (Fayard, 2005), ISBN 978-2213623993.
- Jürgen Schutte, 'Was ist: »Refeudalisierung der Gesellschaft"?', attacBerlin (26.2.2008).
- Sighard Neckel, 'Refeudalisierung der Ökonomie: Zum Strukturwandel kapitalistischer Wirtschaft', MPIfG Working Paper 10/6 (Cologne: Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, July 2010).