There are works in science fiction (the Dune saga probably being the most famous of them) where in the future, a space-faring human society has somehow, instead of being a republic (at least in name, if not in fact) or turning into megacorporate entities, has reverted to feudalism with clear-cut castes of nobility and common-folk. Can anyone come up with a 'realistic' explanation for how such a cultural shift could take place?
Has it ever left?
I've worked at a lot of high end places, or mingled on my own. I've noticed that many (ultra) rich people already think of themselves as something different. As one example: at a millionaire fair someone was smoking on my coffee stand inside. When I told her it was forbidden she grabbed my arm and earnestly told me that "those rules are for the common people".
Although we officially don't live in a feudal society it still has many hallmarks of ut. The very rich can do whatever they want. Their money allows them to travel, do activities or whatever they want to do within a legal frame. It also allows servitude of the 'common people', as long as they pay them wages. Their wealth brings power that allows them to coerce, convince or force people what they want to do. Many ultra rich even find ways to pay less taxes percentage wise than the 'common folk'.
But also in the illicit area they can do more. They can create more privacy, allowing them to do such operations in more secret. We can see some high profile cases where murder, pedophilia, slavery and other horrible crimes that were hidden for years. Their influence definitely helped a lot here. Though I would say most conspiracy theories are unlikely, it is statistically likely we are missing a bunch of offenders.
In the lower brackets of crime they also can do more. Few countries put higher fines for wealthier people. Though fair seen one way, the impact is insignificant for many. If you're a billionaire a fine for driving too fast is something you won't even notice. They probably pay more to heat their private airplane.
With the wealthy getting an increasing amount of money they can do more what they want. Space flight used to be only for the few rich countries. Despite still heing hellishly expensive some rich guys now have their own sace programs.
In space it'll be easier to have such rules. Why would you go against the wealthiest guy who supplies the colony? Maybe owns the police? The judicial system? It seems that planets and colonies can get more dependant, allowing rich to do more what they want. The caste system might be reinforced again just through economics.
Feudalism is Infinitely Scalable, Republics are not.
The big difference between Feudalism and a Republic is that feudalism has many layers of leadership whereas a Republic is a straight line between the citizen and the top layer of leadership. The problem is that as a population grows and expands, Republics either become less and less representative as each leader is expected to oversee a larger and more diverse group of people, or the Congress becomes so large that there are too many voices talking on each subject to actually make progress.
In the modern world most larger nations have tried to solved for this through the practice of federation, the idea of making a Republic up of many smaller republics (states), which are made of even smaller republics (counties/parishes), which are made of even smaller republics (city councils)... but with each layer you add, the more disconnected the citizen becomes from all the layers as it quickly becomes too many political levels to even keep track of.
What made Feudalism work so well is that you only needed to participate in the level of government you were involved in. If you were a Barron, you needed to taking in feedback from your Serfs, summarize it, and pass it up to your Count. The Barron did not need to know what was happening at the Royal levels of government, just like the King did not need to know the opinion of every Baron because all information passed though the tiers of management responsible for them. This leads to trickle up representation.
Why Hereditary Leadership instead of elected officials.
Western society has a very demonized view of hereditary leadership that is not at all consistent with how most people throughout most of history have thought. The reality is that most people are good at what their parents are good at, especially if their parents are around to raise them with their skills. So a hereditary leader is not just leader because their dad was leader, but because that person has been raised from birth to be a leader. This makes them the most qualified person for the job, at least in theory.
- An ideology worshipping property rights.
Members of your society are being taught from birth to respect contracts and property rights. Anyone who questions that is a "Commie" and "Commies" are evil and godless. Everybody believes that switching over to a different system would leave them, personally poorer. Even if they are already at the bottom of society.
- Ownership of planets.
The property rights of a planet go to the discoverer. If it is not economical to exploit that planet, that's a nice certificate they can frame on the wall and tell their grandkids about. If it is economical to exploit, even marginally so, the discoverer is a trillionaire. (Almost any number greater than zero, times a planetary surface, is a lot of money.)
- How to assure that tenants rent and do not buy?
All (or almost all) planets need a bit of terraforming to make them shirtsleeve environments for humans. At the very least, adapt Terran crops and eradicate the apex predators. With the technology you have, that requires a big, ongoing investment over decades or centuries, with centralized decisionmaking. Planetary settlements where each continent, each valley has a different owner tend to fail.
- Think of some twist to discourage spread of ownership via investment.
That kind of clashes with the first point. Lots and lots of legal precedents to favor partnerships over stock companies? Perhaps a legal precedent prevents limited liability corporations, so it is unsafe to invest in a companies without taking a serious interest in their management?
- The safety valve.
Points 2 to 4 do not apply to asteroid settlements. So this is your Sherwood Forest where the non-conformists go and eke out a precarious living apart from mainstream society. Until some seal blows and their habitat dies.
So now you have a tiny class of planet owners, while the rest are tenants.
It may be impractical for tens, hundreds of millions of settlers to sign their individual contracts with the owner of the planet. So there is a chain of subcontractors between the individual settler and the planet-owner, each owing rent to the layer above. Not quite feudalism in theory, but close in practics.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neo-feudalism argues that unofficially feudalism already exists in a new form. I agree based on my own personal definition of feudalism. If you think about this, we are serfs of this world building site. The moderators and so on are the vassals and the company running the show are the high lords. This is not limited to websites. Major corporations act like feudal lords too. Tech companies can pay for scientific research that is unaffordable for universities. This gap grows, and it is just a matter of time before the billionaires will have their private armies and cities. If Elon Musk or others like him manage to set foot on Mars, I doubt that they will want a republic that limits them. Those in power with money will do everything they can to block those who they do not like.
There are worlds where the dominant race sallies out into space to colonize and conquer. These people are the nobles. Species on conquered planets are the serfs.
Space is big. Sometimes a conqueror species will come after a new world that has already been claimed by a similarly aggressive species. A reckoning ensues once the two sides realize what is going on and one side might get added to the others empire. Or they might have a sort of detente. If an empire gets added to another empire the former nobility stay nobility but get demoted.
An uber conqueror might preside over them all. I envision this as a machine race or something different from the various conquering races. It keeps the peace according to its own interests. It can muster forces from its various vassal empires in time of need.
In my experience, in certain cases, having a feudal space faring society makes sense. Like how a republic has governors and such a monarchy would have lords and other such class-based overseers for regions. In space you will ultimately need more and more people to oversee expansion, industry and commerce which can lead to a society similar to or identical to a feudal state.
I rationalize it as such; an emperor would not want to have to manage everything, so they dish out sectors and planets and star systems to people related to them or part of other important families and groups in the political dynamic, eventually as the empire expands those people need to manage things within their own regions and dish out things within their region to other people. Eventually you have a heavily entrenched class of political "royals" acting as caretakers and doers for their higher ups leading all the way to the emperor or whoever "runs" the entire region of space.
Nothing that says you can't. The type of government is only a type of government. It does impact things. But scientific output and research is a product of a group or groups of people.
While we are used to scientific publications, sharing some information, institutes of science...etc. Nothing says you can't do some of that inside a feudal system.
All system of governance will have drawbacks, that's just how things work.
Tech and feudalism
Thankfully in Dune "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind." But what about your world? What if your noble house is just few humans and many many machines and AI? How much will that effect your world and noble family?
Will that mean that some houses will still value humans and use them while other go full machine? How about other houses that uses cloning technology to make people.
All that kinda makes your system different. Since in a feudal system you say had a lord who is supposed to provide X amount of resource when needed. But with machines or AI or cloning or a combination of both. There is no need for lords, no need to peasants, no need for slaves or servants or anything. You own machines. Sure. Humans will be fun to be around with.
Existence of such things can mean that your system looks feudal but in reality it's just a guy with a lot of robotics factories an taking on the guise of feudalism while in reality it's something else.
Dictatorships in the modern era
Completely ignoring the politics and "evil" of such states. The USSR, Nazi Germany, even modern day China has all produced some scientific contributions, even military vehicles are part of science. Advanced surveillance systems or going to space. All under a dictatorship. You simply need to find the appropriate institutes and they can produce science.
Sure. Incompetence and corruption can cause troubles for you down the line. But it's not like those don't happen in democracies.
Dictatorships in history
Sure. Nobody sent anyone to space before or made a PC. But then what we made we built on works of previous generations. Each adding a small part to the whole.
But they also many earlier civilizations had things that are truly advanced and if you think about it they were, relatively, as advanced as what we have. Sure. Running water might not be a big deal. But back in the day, it is. Building a giant pyramid is an engineering challenge 4500 years ago.
And so on with the rest of human inventions and advances. Not to be political, but even now some parts of the world lack some advanced technologies or even basic stuff like running water.
Interestingly the scale of feudalism in such works is gigantic. Certainly much larger than what we had. With such scale I feel it's much more reasonable to assume that the states will actually function well.
Unless pressed for some super doper important resource. Your great house will need to work hard to keep it's edge. Sure. Some will be a bit cruel, some bit too weak, some too noble...etc.
But with competition and possibly war. Only those who overall manage their house well are those who will stay in power. Since you have to keep your military edge, your agricultural edge, your medical edge..etc.
So. Head of the house works hard to make sure things are smooth. I'm talking in general, since setting is not specif, but does not take a genius to figure out that failing to work and invent and properly manage things will mean your doom.
It's like if you are 1 of 2 restaurants in town doing the same thing. You, at least, gotta keep your edge and retain costumers, otherwise they have an alternative.
All in all those writers were right. And history as well points to that. Republics are just a system of governance of many. Not just because it became the universal standard system in the last 100-150 years it means that nothing can be done unless under a republic.
It's all about how you set your world.
It actually can happen very naturally.
As your starfaring society expands, it sends slower-than-light colony ships out to new worlds. These colony ships will be in deep space, unsupported, for decades, even centuries.
Necessarily, the crews of those ships are not the same people who will create the colony, or if they are, they're a breed apart. Perhaps the colonists are asleep in cryo-stasis for most of the journey to save resources. Perhaps they're living in their own compartments, but it's necessary to keep the village idiot, or children, or senile elders away from the command-deck of the ship.
There are going to be a few individuals controlling the fates of everyone. That's a reality of running a colony ship.
What happens when that heirarchical structure arrives at its destination? Does the captain of the one-way colony ship consent to be a citizen? Does he or she want to be leader? They've got decades of experience in leading and command. Why should they give that up?
When the ship arrives, the colonists (already totally dependent on the crew of their ship) will still be dependent on their ship for a good while for power, medical treatment, supplies and all sorts of things. If the crew choose to remain in charge, it'll be very easy for them to maintain control.
A Gift from Earth - Larry Niven : Where the "slowboat" colony ships arrived on their world and the Crew formed an Elite element in their society based on their absolute control of medical technology, particularly organ-transplantation. Allowing themselves to live extended lives and to reward and punish the Colonists by providing or withholding medical treatment.