Karl Marx was a brilliant analyst of the capitalist system, but his crystal ball got blurry when he tried to see how ordinary people would react to the extreme inequality he predicted. The idea of a capitalist-worker alliance, that began to emerge most recently in the Reagan era and continues to grow in the Age of Trump, drives the neo-Marxist Left crazy, and suggests we need to understand a lot more about how Americans think and feel if we are ever to get to a more socially just society.
The capitalist economy has always relied on an upstairs/downstairs architecture, which ultimately shores up beliefs about who is worthy of a decent standard of living and who isn’t.
Whether the worthy are defined as those with stronger moral fiber or greater creativity, the governing mythology is that people get what they deserve. Those living upstairs have earned their privilege and those below deserve their deprivation. This architecture is so embedded in our society and so normalized that some of us barely notice it.
The capitalist upstairs is ratcheting up a new/old ruling story to bolster a weakened meritocracy story and win over a downstairs looking at its American Dream disappear. We call it the Security story. It’s a very old story that is perhaps the most common in history, especially in societies built on deep inequality. The Security story appeared in antiquity and in the Middle Ages, justifying the rule of ancient emperors, kings and queens and medieval nobility. It has also been a powerful, emotionally resonating story through most eras of capitalism. But while one of the earliest and enduring ruling narratives, it’s also a new story because it’s been adapted to the still very unequal but unique economy and morality of 21st-century global capitalism.
The long history of the Security story testifies to its intense appeal as an emotional narrative, responding to strong irrational currents in human consciousness and deep visceral feelings involving fear, survival and respect. First, it legitimates the upstairs by “selling” safety to the downstairs. The Security story talks about numerous enemies that threaten the downstairs and the very survival of individuals and the house itself. It justifies the authority of the upstairs as the only force that can guarantee security for all. It identifies the main external and internal enemies that threaten the downstairs and shows how the upstairs protects those below them. It is a new version of a “protection racket” that ruling elites have used throughout history.
The Security story goes beyond identifying enemies to often manufacturing them. Some threats to the house and individuals are real. But inventing or inflating enemies is integral to the American and most other Security stories, which since the Soviet Revolution involved vastly exaggerating the Communist threat and protecting the public from “the evil Empire.”
In the Cold War, US leaders ratcheted this hysteria up to an incredibly high level. Protection from the Communist threat, later to be supplanted by protection from Islamic terrorists, was the hot molten core of the rising American Security story as the Meritocracy story weakened in credibility. It was a fear story about enemies that seemed one of the only ways to distract the downstairs from their economic anxieties.
The Security story works because it not only comforts in the face of fear, real or imagined, but also offers a sense of worth, respect and inclusion in the tribe or nation to all who feel worthless and disrespected. The story helps reconstruct the house as a protective community for all— downstairs and upstairs—who truly belong. It also promises to purge those who are not really part of the tribe or nation—the internal enemy or imposter residents secretly tied to frightening external enemies. The security story is thus also an emotionally riveting story of the tribe and nation—one that builds safety and respect through a process of exclusion and purification, distinguishing the true members of the tribe or house from “those people” who don’t belong. It is intimately linked to an emotional and tribal nationalism that makes capitalism the system we call national globalism.
The Security story has two special dimensions that need emphasis. First, it is a story about the overwhelming importance of strong (if not strongman) upstairs authority. Such authority requires obedience or deference but in exchange it delivers security from terrible enemies and fears, real or imagined. The upstairs insists that its ruling authority be accepted, but its Security story claims that the downstairs is getting more than its fair share of the bargain.
Conservative philosophers have argued that survival requires submission to absolutist authority. Reacting to the beheading of British 17th-century monarch, Charles I, Thomas Hobbes argued the first duty of the sovereign is to protect his subjects by being so brutal that nobody dares challenge him. Only if the king is strong enough to kill you can he be strong enough to protect you and other anxious people downstairs. By being unable to prevent his own beheading, Charles I showed he was weak and therefore unfit.
Aristotle discussed the notion of a great and natural hierarchy that Thomas Aquinas, the medieval theologian, would call “The Great Chain of Being.” It described a hierarchy with God, Angels, Kings/Queens and Archbishops at the top, with Priests, Squires, Pages, Messengers, Shopkeepers and Farmers in the Middle, and Household Servants, Tenant Farmers, Thieves, Gypsies, Birds, Worms and Rocks at the bottom. The Security story plays off the Great Chain of Being, in which upstairs authority rules. The secret to winning downstairs loyalty is promising protection to those unable to protect themselves. The Great Chain of Being is the archetype of all Right-wing legitimating narratives, appealing at a gut level to the needs of the downstairs workers for safety and respect.
A Security story that surrenders too much power to authority can undermine capitalist rhetorical ideals of individual empowerment and democracy, taken seriously by the majority of the population. In 21st-century America, many millions hate the authoritarian bullying of President Trump, who acts like a King unchecked by anybody. But leading groups on the upstairs are more than prepared to expand authority at the expense of freedom when its profits and very survival are at stake. Moreover, these elites recognize that many in the downstairs feel more secure with a “strong man” who would enshrine new respect for ruling power in a society that seemed to be declining and facing chaos.
While cautious not to explicitly throw out all reason and democracy, the rising Security story makes the upstairs authority—the 21st-century capitalist Aristocracy—the indispensable rock of Gibraltar, protecting all of us. As the Meritocracy story weakens and the Security story becomes the stronger legitimating narrative, the entire capitalist house becomes vulnerable to a shift toward ancient, more authoritarian systems. The Security story helps guide capitalism toward a new/old model: perhaps a modern aristocratic feudalism or even fascism, a prospect that increasingly terrifies many in both the US and Europe.
The rising Security story rests largely on an appeal to emotions, especially fear and the need for respect. It resonates with the downstairs because it promises an antidote to paralyzing fear from external and internal enemies in the house. And it also delivers respect—by protecting and purifying the tribal house—not only by delivering national security from terrifying foreign enemies but purging imposters and internal enemies who have been disrespecting the downstairs. The Security story always involves “purification”—a story of excluding the imposters contaminating the greatness of the tribe.
These internal enemies—targeted for purging and exclusion by the US Security story—are racial outsiders of the American tribe. They are people of color and immigrants flooding over the border, and also the liberal Democrats and the highly educated professional managerial class on the mezzanine who ally with these outsiders and dismiss many white workers downstairs as uneducated bigots or know-nothings.
Republicans use the Security story to champion the white workers as the true tribe. They point to President Obama’s famous disparaging comment in 2008 about them:
“They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Hillary Clinton labeled them “deplorables.” Many analysts believe these words turned the 2016 election to Trump, a sign of how liberal Democratic arrogance and “disrespect” cuts deep into working-class sensibilities and how the Security story restores feelings of dignity to them.
The Right has historically understood—better than the Left—the irrationality and emotions that govern politics, spinning legitimating stories that emotionally resonate deeply to the fear and need for respect in large parts of the capitalist downstairs.
It is worth looking briefly at feudalism and its Security story in the Middle Ages because it tells us much about how the Security story plays out in our time. This was the era from the 9th century to the 15th century—where aristocrats ruled and merchants were seen as unwashed heretics. The feudal Security story is worth telling because it offers insight into the narrative itself and why it is so emotionally resonant to the downstairs even today. Furthermore, capitalism itself grew out of feudalism, largely as a rebellion against it but perpetuating covertly many feudal residues.
Feudalism evolved into capitalism, as medieval baronies eventually were consolidated into the first large modern nation states subject to kings and queens. Beginning in early 16th-century England when Henry VIII confiscated church property and forced nobles to swear loyalty to the crown or lose their heads, a transitional era of “absolutism” developed. It melded feudal and capitalist attributes, since it saw the emergence of the modern capitalist bourgeoisie, as merchants of commerce began taking over resources from feudal landholders, as well as the growth of all-powerful state monarchies. The absolutist era— which some historians call “late feudalism” and lasted from the 16th to the 18th century—had a Security story derived from and similar to the medieval feudal story—and then passed on in new form to us today.
While feudalism and capitalism are profoundly different systems, they are both upstairs/downstairs societies based on extreme inequality. Power and wealth are overwhelmingly concentrated in the upstairs, though in capitalism the rhetoric is democratic and the downstairs can aspire to some social and political influence.
The capitalist aristocracy upstairs have long crafted their own Security story with strong feudal and absolutist elements to win over its “plain folk” downstairs. Moreover, the capitalist Security story, as in feudalism, is an emotionally resonant narrative, playing off of eternally powerful and mysterious experiences of enemies, fear and protection.
The medieval feudal world was made up of baronies or principalities ruled by aristocrats before kings and queens consolidated larger sovereign nation states in the absolutist era. Each feudal barony was composed of one or many “manors,” estates ruled by the lords—who were often Church officials—that constituted the major economic feudal unit.
The lord supervised all production—essentially the “boss” in modern parlance—and also held strict political and judicial control. He had powers of taxation and imprisonment. He had the right to appropriate lands when serfs died without heirs, and controlled courts, able to thus personally decide any conflicts on the manor, an early form of absolutism and also appearing in new dress in modern fascist and authoritarian capitalist societies in Europe and the US.
The manor was the upstairs/downstairs medieval feudal house. The lords lived upstairs in “courts” with large land holdings reserved just for themselves, while the downstairs was occupied by peasants who had small homes and land plots on the lord’s great estate. The manor was an early paradigm of the extreme inequality that is the headliner of today’s capitalist economies.
But unlike today, the feudal “houses” or manors made no pretense of equality or democracy. The lord ran the house and fused in his own person both economic control and political power, a kind of power separated legally in modern capitalist democracies. The power of the lord was often depicted approvingly in ways that evoke the tyranny of a slave-holder: “he is mine from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head,” an abbot of Vezalay said of one of his serfs.
Medieval serfs lived in eternal bondage to this concentrated lordly power. There was virtually no possibility of social mobility and no aspiration for it. There was no stairway to climb in this feudal house, nor was there any reason for it, since both lords and serfs could barely imagine either the prospect or desirability of a more equal order.
The serf’s bondage did come with a certain form of life-long commitment that the capitalist wage worker does not enjoy. The medieval lord could not “fire” the serf, though he could kill him for disobedience. The entire downstairs/upstairs order—based on unquestioned authority and submission and the lack of freedom to change one’s station in life—was ordained by God or nature and was not subject to rational analysis or questioning.
In the evolving feudal order, the aristocrats had a grace given to them by God and nature. They were guardians within the “Great Chain of Being,” grounded in tradition, in which everyone was interconnected but had an assigned place. The defining image of kneeling—or a lower lord to a higher one, or the more brutal slave-like subordination of the serf—affirmed not just a secular political authority but a God that reaffirmed the righteousness of the upstairs-downstairs feudal order and conveyed a measure of honor and respect to all who accepted it, even the lowliest serf. This all-powerful Godly form of feudal authority was passed on to the absolutist-era monarchs, symbolized by Louis XIV who proclaimed “the state is me”—and has been reclaimed today by authoritarian leaders such as Donald Trump who pronounced at the Republican National Convention: “I am your voice. I alone can fix it. I will restore law and order.”
The lords were known as “blue bloods”—a term that some felt developed to describe the beautiful blue veins on pure white aristocratic skin that could not be seen on serfs. Whether that is true or not, it reflects a key part of the medieval Security story: that the upstairs was by God, as well as by history and social norms, permanently superior to the downstairs. The differences created an enduring and blessed chasm between the lords and serfs because the “essence” of the lord and his serfs was so different. The lord is an upstairs caste and the serf a downstairs caste. But the serf gained a certain honor by being connected, if totally subordinated to the lord. In the glory of subordination to the lord, the serf also gained a certain glory.
Caste divisions are different than class differences. In the Meritocracy, people in lower capitalist classes can move up through hard work and talent into a higher class—and earn the right to live upstairs and the power to protect the downstairs. But since feudalism is built on caste rather than class identity, the Meritocracy story is nonsensical. The whole notion of caste is that the inherited nature or essence of the aristocrats and serfs is different, and that no effort or hard work can ever turn the lower caste into a higher caste. While this is drastically different from modern capitalist democratic and egalitarian ideals, remember that the 1% upstairs today is resurfacing as its own form of aristocracy or caste, and that our capitalist classes are becoming more like medieval castes, where you live your entire life in more or less the same station as your parents.
The Security story of the Middle Ages was a protection pact of both physical and spiritual security. At the heart of the feudal world and Security story is the idea that their superior nature obliges aristocrats to protect those incapable of protecting themselves, a notion also reappearing in the Security story of early and contemporary capitalism, where it resurfaces today in sacred concepts such as “national security” guaranteed by our own knights or warriors of honor in the Pentagon.
Elites presiding over great inequality in any era turn to the Security story to justify their rule in the name of the most primitive and emotionally compelling desire: survival. There are always real economic, social and military threats than can create an emotionally resonant Security story. But in feudalism, capitalism and other upstairs/downstairs societies, elites make their Security stories more compelling by constructing on top of real threats a hierarchy of new threats—a material and spiritual world that is populated by enemies they invent or manufacture or inflate.
It is thus hardly surprising that a Security story promising safety and spiritual as well as material protection could create strong emotional resonance, and that extreme inequality might even be welcomed by the medieval downstairs. An ordinary serf would be desperate—and grateful—for an all-powerful authority figure. It would be important that the lord of the manor be extremely strong, even if brutal and a threat to you if you displeased him. Because such an all-powerful ruler would surely have the power to destroy one’s enemies and provide protection in an irrational and frightening world full of evil spirits. The emotional appeal of “strongmen” rulers in today’s capitalist world, also now full of real and invented enemies, is one of the feudal legacies we see resurfacing with a vengeance in the modern age.
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Charles Derber is Professor of Sociology at Boston College and author of over twenty books.
Yale R. Magrass is Chancellor Professor of Sociology/Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts―Dartmouth, an author of six books.
Their latest book together is Moving Beyond Fear: Upending the Security Tales in Capitalism, Fascism, and Democracy.