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New Worlds: Once and Future Systems

The New Worlds series is brought to you by my imaginative backers at Patreon! www.patreon.com/swan_tower

If I followed the general pattern of this Patreon, I would write an essay that gives an overview of different basic economic systems. But as I’ve mentioned before, this is an area where my knowledge is sharply limited, and “economic systems” is a nice, tidy-looking phrase for a topic that is anything but: in actual practice, it’s a thicket of overlapping and contested terms that slice up their subject along many different axes. And the interrelationship between different corners of society is on full display here, as it’s nigh impossible to discuss economic systems without dragging other systems into the mix — especially political ones — which only deepens the aforementioned thicket.

Since I’m not qualified to pick apart that tangle into all of its component strands, I’m going to do something else instead. Let’s take a look at two specific economic ideas that often show up glancingly in science fiction and fantasy, but aren’t always properly thought out.

The first is manorialism. You may recall that term from last year, as it’s coupled with the political system of vassalage to make up the amorphous concept we call “feudalism” (when we’re not ditching that term entirely as not very helpful). Manorialism is theoretically the system at work in a lot of fantasy that draws on medieval European society for its inspiration . . . but very little of said fantasy pays attention to its actual structure and operation.

To very briefly summarize: under manorialism, the “manor” — not just a big house but the parcel of land that makes up the estate — is an economic unit, and often one that’s all but self-sufficient. (While the inhabitants, especially the landlord, may trade elsewhere to sell their surplus and buy specialized items and luxuries, most basic food and textiles are going to be locally made and locally consumed.) The lands of the manor are divided up into some mix and proportion of those directly controlled by the landlord, those allocated to serfs, and those leased to free farmers.

The free farmers owe the landlord rent; the serfs owe a percentage of what they produce (in cash or in kind) and service to the landlord, which usually includes working the lands under his direct control. Additionally, the landlord may own important infrastructure like a mill, and the free farmers are required to pay for use of that mill. Sometimes the free farmers may temporarily work the landlord’s fields in exchange for wages, e.g. if there’s a shortage of serf labor — which sounds good to our modern capitalist minds (more income!), but to a farmer with few options for spending those wages and strong social incentive to differentiate himself from the serfs, it might well be an undesirable move.

That’s the general setup. But remember what I said a moment ago, about how economic systems frequently overlap with other types? Manorialism interlinks with the political structure of vassalage, as the landlord received the estate from his suzerain in exchange for an oath of fealty and the military service that entailed. Furthermore, manorialism was also part of the legal system: the landlord ran the manorial court, handling many local disputes (and charging fees for that, too, just like his mill). On top of that, religion can get involved! Not only might a parish be contiguous with a manor and the local priest a crony of the landlord, but religious institutions themselves were often the lords of their own estates, deriving their income from the lands they possessed. So without even scratching past the surface to get into all the nuances of individual laws and customs, we already see a system that intertwines economics, social status, politic hierarchy, law, and even religion — a far cry from the simple depiction of “there’s a nobleman with a fancy house and then some peasants in the fields.”

As an aside, that model may be a thing of the past, but it isn’t hard to see how something like it could re-emerge through a more modern analogue: the company town. This was a setup, mostly found in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where the major employer in a settlement also owned most of the stores and the housing. They didn’t generally get involved in the formal business of religion or law . . . but they were often driven by a paternalistic desire to “morally improve” the residents/employees, which can tread on much the same terrain. When the local authority is that pervasive in your life, it can control your your leisure activities, your drinking habits, and more. The all-encompassing nature of the arrangement strikes a familiar echo.

Manorialist societies frequently operated at the subsistence level, producing very little surplus for trade. Company towns were very much made for commerce, though — and at the far end of the spectrum, we have the idea of a post-scarcity economy, which crops up in a decent swath of science fiction.

We can’t say for certain what a post-scarcity economy looks like, because we’ve never yet had one. The general idea is that goods will be produced so cheaply and with such minimal human labor that most people won’t have to spend most of their time working for the necessities of life. Freed from that requirement, they can devote more attention to hobbies and leisure. Because this concept is primarily seen in science fiction, the lack of need for labor is usually accomplished through robotic automation; I’m not sure who if anyone has written the fantasy version, where magic is the foundation of a post-scarcity world.

Just with that as our starting point, there are a few tentative conclusions we can draw. Chief among them is that in this scenario, we’ve somehow eliminated the scarcity of both raw materials (possibly by mining asteroids, aggressively recycling, or using almost exclusively renewable sources) and energy (again looking at renewables here). After all, automation won’t solve anything if we run out of stuff to work with and power for the robots!

But only one step past that horizon lie a huge number of questions. Our social and political systems have the idea of scarcity baked into them on a fundamental level — so what happens when that’s gone? Of course, even in a post-scarcity economy, some things are still going to be limited. We’ll still have the same number of hours per day; you can’t pack more people into the space of a famous landmark just because getting them there is easy; the undivided attention of another person could potentially be modeled by a program, but it’s not actually the attention of that real live person. How will we decide who gets access to those: random lottery, some form of universal basic income that people spend for non-necessities, other . . . ? Will our society just reconfigure itself to make those the resources we compete over? How will politicians gather support when all their constituents already have everything they need and some measure of what they want?

We genuinely don’t know. Any world like that will likely be as different from the one we live in right now as my world, where I earn my daily crust by pushing small buttons to assemble texts that will be sold in digital and physical formats on the free market, is from that of a serf or free farmer on some medieval manor. Because you can’t just swap out one piece — say, an economy — and not have everything around it shift to a new shape.

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6 thoughts on “New Worlds: Once and Future Systems”

    1. Marie Brennan

      And there really are people talking about planned corporate communities again — as if we haven’t learned anything from the past.

  1. Anthony Docimo

    I think there are a few fantasy stories with post-scarcity…at least for the Main Character and sometimes a handful of other people. Usually they take place in a computer game/simulation, or what some call an isekai with gaming rules, and the main character can summon – instantly or near instantly – anything they want. Normally what they want are weapons, so as far as i know, nobodys explored what that sort of thing would do to ending, say, a famine, or ensuring loyalty via plenty of gift-giving to loyalists.

    If somebody *has* written such a world or story, I’d love to read it.

    1. Marie Brennan

      “Nobody’s explored what that sort of thing would do” is exactly what bugs me about certain kinds of stories. I don’t always need it — in particular, some sorts of exploration are really best rendered as a brief joke, e.g. the best use of Superman would be to have him run on a treadmill and generate infinite power — but when it’s too blatantly discarded in favor of a premise I find much less interesting, it gets irritating.

  2. One other aspect of manorialism matters, too:

    Nobody can buy or sell land. The title is held at the sufferance of the highest ruler — usually the king, but sometimes a duke or prince or ecclesiastical figure. Under the ordinary rules of feodality and vassalage, no merchant could actually buy a country estate; marrying into it, inheriting it, having it granted by the king. But it’s NOT an economic transaction.

    Well, except that one must ordinarily pay bribes and such to smooth the grant. But that’s not economics…

    1. Marie Brennan

      I’d count bribes as part of an economic system . . . (And they’ll definitely get an essay someday!)

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