Aristocratic Realism: Within and Against Feudalism in English Future Fiction

By Joe P. L. Davidson

After forty years of neoliberalism, it might be expected that dystopian imaginaries of future Englands would be determined by capitalist realism. If, as Mark Fisher notes, the dominant economic coordinates of actually existing society have ‘colonized the dreaming life of the population’ (8), then the future promises more of the same: commodification, inequality, precarity. However, in this article, I argue that visions of turbocharged neoliberalism in the English context are often accompanied by the rejuvenation of an older, feudal tendency. The peculiar form of gentlemanly capitalism that has developed in England, where the rising bourgeoisie never toppled the old aristocracy, is registered in speculative images of the country’s future. Feudalism and neoliberalism jostle together, each reforming and changing the other.

Carl Neville’s alternate history Eminent Domain (2020), whichimagines a world where the Cold War ended not in the triumph of neoliberal capitalism but instead democratic socialism, is instructive here. The action of the novel takes place long after the transformation, but we are offered snippets of this period, which are described in a curious manner. One of the protagonists, Julia, recalls watching a documentary on the transformation that occurred in Britain:

One of the interviewees used a phrase that struck and stuck with her, “the Feudal remnant”. She asked her mother to explain but it was hard for her to grasp and somehow it transformed into one more creature in her childhood bestiary of fantastic, imaginary evils: some undead, ancient force, like a mummy or a vampire stalking the land. […] Whatever it was it seemed, if she understood the documentary at all, that the Brits had killed it off at last, lifted the spell, the curse, driven a stake through its heart. (74)

The socialist revolution, on Neville’s account, is not only directed against capitalism but also something older, a feudal remnant that stretches back before the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century.

There is nothing arbitrary about Neville’s invocation of a final struggle against the aristocracy in Eminent Domain’s speculative revolution. English capitalism is a strange, untimely fusion. The development of capitalism in England did not involve a straightforward break from the past; there was nothing equivalent to the French Revolution, a moment when the bourgeoisie decisively triumphed over the feudal order. Instead, as Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn outlined in a series of influential articles in the New Left Review in the 1960s, development took place in a more hesitant, stumbling way, with the rising bourgeoisie accommodating the old aristocrats.[1] We do not have to scratch far below the surface of the English economy and polity to uncover phenomena that have their origin in an earlier moment of history. For example, the industrial capitalists of the North of the country have historically competed with the aristocrats of the South, whose economic activities have traditionally centred on land ownership (at least until the late nineteenth century) and the mercantilism associated with the Empire and City of London, all of which developed prior to the industrialism of the nineteenth century. The political system, in a similar fashion, contains relics from this older period, the clearest examples being the Monarchy, the House of Lords, and the elitism fostered by the public schools and Oxbridge.

The key word in the account of capitalist development offered by Nairn and Anderson is ‘premature’. Everything happened in England a little bit too soon, meaning that the capitalist mode of production had to compete and reconcile itself with the residues of older economic models. For example, the closest that England has experienced to a bourgeois revolution were the political transformations of the seventeenth century, reaching a high point with the Civil War of the 1640s and so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688. However, the capitalist class was a mere embryo in the seventeenth century, meaning that the struggles of this time did not challenge the leading class of feudal society. Something similar can be said of the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century. Again, England had the misfortune of experiencing the first shift to industrialism, its emergence never able to properly challenge the already embedded power of the aristocracy. As Anderson puts it: ‘There was thus from the start no fundamental, antagonistic contradiction between the old aristocracy and the new bourgeoisie. English capitalism embraced and included both. The most important single key to modern English history lies in this fact’ (“Origins of the Present Crisis”, 31; emphasis in original). English state and society are caught in a condition of gentlemanly capitalism, two moments of history – feudal and capitalist – sitting together in its institutions, practices, and mores.

The Nairn-Anderson thesis has not been unchallenged since it was first proposed in the 1960s. Whether it be its association with questionable ideas of British economic decline or the implicit assumption that there is a pure path of capitalist development (generally modelled on France), care should be taken not to overestimate the distinctiveness of English history.[2] Nevertheless, there is still something about the Nairn-Anderson thesis that appeals. When we witness events such as the Queen’s Opening of Parliament and royal weddings, the continuing disparities between the post-industrial North and finance-infused South, or the ascendency of Eton and Oxbridge-educated politicians such as Boris Johnson, it is difficult to deny that there is something archaic at the heart of English society. The recent tussle between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, on the one hand, and the so-called Firm of Queen Elizabeth II and her entourage, on the other, has only reinforced this feeling that the residues of feudalism stalk the land.

These aristocratic hangovers are not only a matter of history. The future is haunted by the feeling that England will never be entirely free from the aristocrats. Accompanying the familiar form of capitalist realism, in which the neoliberal economic structures of the contemporary moment stretch infinitely forward into the future, is an aristocratic realism, where something deep in the nation’s past moves through the present and into the future. The fear is that England cannot escape from the grips of feudalism; the completion of its bourgeois revolution (let alone the beginning of its proletarian one) will be constantly deferred. As Richard Seymour comments, while Harry and Meghan could leap across the Atlantic to loosen (if not entirely escape from) the hold of the Royal Family, it is unclear how a societal exit from the archaic structures of the United Kingdom can be achieved:

[…] the message states, the Firm is eternal. It is not stamped with temporality. It reproduces itself, through birth (bloodline), and through marriage (property), each spawning a proliferation of imperial bunting as the media pipes patriotism into the mainline, and that is our image of the everlasting.

This feeling of eternality is confirmed by the narrative of Neville’s Eminent Domain. It seems, at the beginning of the novel, that the revolution has defeated the aristocracy. However, one of its number, Dominic, ‘refused to be crushed, to allow his inherent nobility, the nobility of his class, to be destroyed’ (408). He begins to undermine the People’s Republic from within, dealing a decisive blow to the socialist transformation by the end of the text.

The ghostly presence of feudalism in Eminent Domain, that even a bloody proletarian revolution fails to lay it to rest, is registered in a number of English future fictions of recent years. Part of the dystopian quality of the future Englands imagined in Laurie Penny’s novella Everything Belongs to the Future (2016) and Claire North’s novel 84K (2018) is that the hybrid form of aristocratic capitalism, rather than being blown apart over the course of the twenty-first century, becomes further ossified. In one sense, Penny and North continue a tradition, which began with texts such as Zoë Fairbairns’s Benefits (1979) and Miranda Miller’s Smiles and the Millennium (1987), of imagining a thoroughly neoliberal England of the future. Everything Belongs to the Future posits a world of the year 2099 where the rich, via a new medical technology, are able to secure greatly increased life expectancies, while the vast majority of the population are condemned to precarious poverty and early death. Similarly, in 84K, criminal punishment takes the form of a monetary indemnity, such that those who can afford to pay can literally get away with murder. Those who cannot afford to pay are condemned to working on the so-called patty line, providing largely unnecessary services — such as writing five-star reviews for companies online – for no pay. Both texts extrapolate from the neoliberal policies of recent decades, offering satires of the burgeoning inequality of contemporary society.

However, the intensification of capitalism in these texts, the almost complete commodification of health and crime, is accompanied by a return of archaic elements within English society. The action in Everything Belongs takes place in and around the University of Oxford in the late twenty-first century. On the one hand, Oxford stands for everything that is new and bad about the world of the future. Its laboratories, which are now under the private control of the company TeamThreeHundred, are responsible for the invention and manufacturing of the life-extending drug that allows the wealthy to live for centuries. On the other hand, there is a pervading sense in the novella that the university – particularly its ancient architecture and ossified traditions – link the world of the future back to something very old. Oxford, in the future, is much as it is today and has been for centuries: a site for the production and reproduction of the ruling class, training them in certain gentlemanly habits appropriate to their position. As Penny writes: ‘People who could afford the treatments lived for a hundred years and more, but Oxford – Oxford changes slow. Oxford is ritual and tradition, and sandstone worn by the wind’ (39). A contrast is thus established between the time of the body and that of the building, the rapid changes that have occurred in relation to the former checked by the medievalism (both real and faux) of the latter.

This tension between the new and the old becomes even clearer in North’s 84K. In the novel, the commodification of criminal justice is justified as a modernising measure, the introduction of indemnities a way to avoid the inefficiencies and cruelties of the old prison system. However, it quickly leads to the reactivation of some very ancient practices in the apparently thoroughly capitalistic England. Again, the University of Oxford is at the centre of the action, symbolising the coming together of past and future. The protagonist Theo Miller, by virtue of his father’s criminal connections, wins a place at Oxford. Now fully privatised and with the ability to charge exorbitant fees, Oxford has become the sole preserve of the very wealthiest. Theo is thrown into a world where masculine honour is negotiated using a classic aristocratic method: the duel. The introduction of indemnities has allowed wealthy individuals to return to duelling, with special contracts outlining the money to be paid should one dueller be killed during the course of the struggle. While at university, Theo witnesses a duel between one of his friends and Philip Arnsdale, an heir to the stately home of Danesmoor and the ‘family seat of the Marquess of Mantell’ (137). Philip, who kills his opponent, later becomes a key member of the government that oversees the indemnity system, moving seamlessly from his ancestral home to the highest rungs of power. Like his ancestors before him, Philip is ‘a king, born to rule, and nothing stands in his way’ (139).

Both dystopias thematise the parasitic relationship between capitalism and aristocracy. Yet, there is something more at stake here. Everything Belongs and 84K dramatize the difficulty of escaping from the feedback loop between the two forces. Penny’s novella concludes with a group of so-called anti-gerontocracy activists, who are opposed to the injustice and inequality of the unfair distribution of life expectancies, detonating a Time Bomb. The activists have succeeded in reverse engineering the medical technology that allows for greatly extended life, concocting a device that ages people dramatically, such that someone can age ‘eighty years in two minutes’ (82). The Time Bomb is detonated at an alumni event for Oxford students, dramatically increasing the mean age of the ruling class of a future England. However, the Time Bomb, unlike almost all other bombs, discriminates between the organic and the architectural, taking aim at the former but not the latter. Everything Belongs associates the aristocratic vestiges of English society with the physical structures of Oxford University, but it is precisely these that are left untouched by the detonation of the Time Bomb. As Penny informs us: ‘Time works its wizardry on everything that breathes, fixed or free, but Oxford never changes’ (57). While the inequality inaugurated by the commodification of medical technology is shaken, aristocratic symbols of power are strangely unmoved.

Something similar occurs in 84K, where the imagination of resistance to the unpaid labour associated with the indemnity system remains within the world of the aristocracy. As the novel progresses, the horrors of the indemnity system slowly begin to leak into the public domain, thanks to the investigative work of Theo. However, a key player in these revelations is Philip’s mother Lady Helen Arnsdale, who discovers documents at Danesmoor detailing the abuse of the labourers on the patty line. The opposition to the indemnity system thus occurs from within the aristocracy, with Lady Helen partly motivated by the desire ‘to carry the family name’ and maintain ‘the trust that spans the generations’ (296). If Philip is bringing the ancestral home of Danesmoor into disrepute, he must be exposed. This is confirmed when Theo meets Bess, a labourer known as the ‘queen of the patties’ (327). Queen Bess, who has been raised to almost mythical status by the victims of the indemnity system, leads the resistance of the unpaid labourers and has succeeded in forming a semi-autonomous community. Yet, Bess’s monarchic moniker suggests that she has more in common with Lady Helen than it might first appear, something reinforced by the closeness of her name to a familiar figure from our own polity: Queen Elizabeth II. In fact, when Queen Bess and Lady Helen meet, there is a moment of affinity, with Bess commenting: ‘I don’t know about you, boy. But I like Helen. She’s got class. They don’t teach that, class, they don’t teach it at all. […] It’s that sorta attitude that makes the aristocracy so goddamn sexy’ (328). To adapt Fredric Jameson’s overworked phrase, the deference of Bess suggests that, at least in England, it is easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the aristocracy. Even the resistance to the former involves the retooling and reworking of the latter.

The futural imaginaries of Penny and North tell us something about dystopia in the English context. We generally think of dystopia as involving the extrapolation and intensification of the horrors of the moment, following Bertolt Brecht’s maxim: ‘Don’t start from the good old things but the bad new ones’ (quoted in Benjamin, 99). These bad new things might be the totalitarianism of the mid-twentieth century, neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s, or current fears about climate disaster and artificial intelligence. All of these are well-represented in dystopian fiction, with each new wave articulating the pressing issues of the moment. However, the dystopias of Penny and North do not neatly slip into this tradition. Instead, the work of these authors, as Caroline Edwards suggests of recent literary utopianism, evokes the Blochian notion of non-contemporaneity. This term refers to the coming together of elements that have their right and proper home in a variety of historical periods. In Bloch’s phrase, ‘not all people exist in the same Now’, with some clinging to vestiges of past historical moments, whether feudalism, collectivism, or neoliberalism (97). Everything Belongs to the Future and 84K complicate the temporality of the dystopian form, using it as a means of intensifying the historical contradictions of the contemporary English economy and polity. The dystopian Englands imagined are not about the future per se, but instead the combining and bricolation of the bad old things and the bad new ones in a single representational space. In doing so, they reveal the limits of our ideological horizons: the relationship between aristocracy and capitalism can be reconfigured but not — or at least, not yet — overcome.


Joe P. L. Davidson, “Aristocratic Realism: Within and Against Feudalism in English Future Fiction,” Alluvium, Vol. 9, No. 3 (2021): n. pag. Web 4 June 2021. DOI:

About the Author

Joe P. L. Davidson is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. His thesis is focused on the relationship between temporality and utopia. It utilises a range of utopian texts to develop a critical social theoretical account of the crisis of the future. He has recently published on retrotopian feminist fiction in Feminist Theory, neo-Victorian utopianism in the European Journal of Cultural Studies, and W. E. B. Du Bois’s sociology of the future in The Sociological Review, as well as a review of Courttia Newland’s A River Called Time (2021) in Strange Horizons.

Works Cited 

Anderson, Perry. “Origins of the Present Crisis.” New Left Review, vol. I, no. 23, 1964, pp. 26-53.

Anderson, Perry. “Ukania Perpetua?” New Left Review, vol. II, no. 125, 2020, pp. 35-107.

Benjamin, Walter. “Conversations with Brecht”. Aesthetics and Politics, edited by Ronald Taylor, Verso, 1987, pp. 86-99.

Bloch, Ernst. Heritage of Our Times. Polity, 1991.

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism. Zero Books, 2009.

Edwards, Caroline. Utopia and the Contemporary British Novel. Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Fairbairns, Zoë. Benefits. Virago, 1979.

Jameson, Fredric. “Future City.” New Left Review, vol. II, no. 21, 2003, pp. 65-79.

Miller, Miranda. Smiles and the Millennium. Virago, 1987.

Nairn, Tom. “The British Political Elite.” New Left Review, vol. I, no. 23, 1964, pp. 19-25.

Nairn, Tom. The Enchanted Glass: Britain and Its Monarchy. Hutchinson Radius, 1988.

Neville, Carl. Eminent Domain. Repeater Books, 2020.

North, Claire. 84K. Orbit, 2018.

Penny, Laurie. Everything Belongs to the Future. Tor, 2016.

Seymour, Richard. “Feudal Rhapsody”. Patreon, 8 March 2021, Accessed 2 April 2021.

Wayne, Mike. England’s Discontents: Political Cultures and National Identities. Pluto, 2018.

[1] The Nairn-Anderson thesis, as it has come to be known, first emerged in articles such as Anderson’s “Origins of the Present Crisis” (1964) and Nairn’s “The British Political Elite” (1964), was developed in books like Nairn’s study of the British monarchy The Enchanted Glass (1988), and has recently been restated by Anderson in “Ukania Perpetua?” (2020).

[2] For an overview of the influence and limitations of the Nairn-Anderson thesis, see Mike Wayne’s England’s Discontents (2018). 

Feature Image: “Neoarchaism” by Benjamin Horn

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