NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE F or weeks on end, Americans were told to stay indoors. And for weeks on end, Americans listened (for the most part). For every social-media story and maudlin advertisement feigning concern and peddling social cohesion, heroism, and sacrifice, a governor, public-health official, talking head, Hollywood celebrity, or tenured university professor warned Americans in a very stern tone: Millions will perish if we do not continue the course.
That is, until the tragic death of George Floyd. The subsequent protests (peaceful though no less in violation of social-distancing guidelines) and the pillaging mobs (dismissive of social distancing and the precepts of civilization) have undermined months of public-health policy, and the “stay home, slow the spread,” “don’t wear a mask” — oh, wait, “wear a mask” — doctrine has been rendered meaningless, at least for the godless kneeling at the altar of wokeness. Looted small businesses, already bearing the crippling costs of lockdowns, now face property damage and depleted inventories. Economic growth and crime reduction in urban neighborhoods could be set back years, if not decades. And this is to say nothing of the families who will flee for the suburbs.
Why in the supposedly enlightened time of 2020 does the United States feel like a kingdom of hopeless serfs who must obey their hypocritical lords without dispute? If there was ever a time when we needed an investigation into the economic and social conditions that have literally and metaphorically fanned the flames of the riots, that enabled the hypocritical abandoning of lockdowns, and that set the stage for urban anarchy, it’s now. And thankfully, Joel Kotkin’s latest, The Coming Age of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, is one such book. Among the books that could end up defining the times in which we find ourselves here in the United States and throughout the world — from South America to Italy to the South China Sea — Kotkin’s work is not as widely read and discussed. But it ought to be.
Perhaps it is only when one stands before what appears to be a particularly unnerving precipice can he ask the following questions. Will tribal riots, egged on by multiculturalist doctrinaires and progressive journalists, flare up more and more often in densely populated, gentrified cities? Could a Bernie Sanders– or Jeremy Corbyn–style socialist lead the free world within the decade? Are future generations bound to become serfs in a zero-sum gig economy, toiling under surveillance systems and Chinese manufactured drones? Will they actually own anything, like a three-bedroom home? Are we misguided, conspiratorial even, to consider this future seriously?
In The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, Kotkin answers: You are not conspiratorial. We are in for revolution, but we are not doomed. Plodding through studies and demographics, he supports a thesis that is at once frightening and galvanizing: Feudalism is making a comeback as liberal capitalism loses its appeal.
A professor of urban studies at Chapman University, Kotkin describes his impetus for writing the book as neither ideological nor partisan. It was born of a concern, a genuine if somewhat distressed concern, for the middle and working classes, and the alarming economic and cultural trends — the same ones that precede tumultuous upheavals such as the French and Bolshevik Revolutions — that are shaping the 21st century. The cultural chasm between elites and the working and middle classes is nearly too wide to fathom. Bread and circuses has become weed and Netflix. And a ruling class builds Versailles in Marin County. So his story goes.
Consider the rise of a new oligarchic class, the tech billionaires, the modern-day equivalents of the pre-revolutionary monarchs of France and Russia. In Kotkin’s telling, they represent the First Estate. Having amassed staggering fortunes, the oligarchs are celebrated as animated entrepreneurs or “disrupters,” righteous masters of the universe, pioneers for the Brave New World. In business and politics, their influence is dizzying. At the moment, they’ve escaped antitrust laws. Kotkin also reminds us that today’s oligarchs — unlike the Gilded Age barons who built steel factories and transnational railroads — haven’t quite lived up to their own manifestos of technological innovation: of making the world, the tangible world, a better, more “connected” place. “The recent tech revolution was once widely seen as not only transformative but generally beneficial,” he writes. “Some have envisioned a new civilization with great opportunities for human development. Yet today we see diminishing social mobility and little real material progress for most people.”
You might ask: Where are the self-driving cars, and will there ever be a cure for cancer? Zuckerberg transposed natural social interaction onto a digital interface, accelerating analog; likewise Bezos, with his online Sears Roebuck catalog, and Travis Kalanick, who created a de-unionized taxi company. The quarantined middle class can order takeout with an app while hedge funds trade with algorithms. “Our daily lives no longer belong to us alone but are relentlessly commodified,” Kotkin writes. “This is, of course, the natural goal of all major tech firms.” Personal habits and behaviors translate into data points. More robust data is more advertising is more revenue. Kotkin concludes, as did Peter Thiel before him, that we are living through technological stagnation touted as progress. Elon Musk and SpaceX’s successful launch of Falcon 9 remains, thankfully, an uplifting exception, though not the rule.
Of course, it has happened before: Enormous concentrations of wealth and political power amass, beneath which a neutered working and middle class scrapes by. “A new generation, in the United States and much of the high-income world, faces diminishing prospects of owning land or advancing into a comfortable middle class life,” Kotkin claims. “Instead of a progressive, woke, egalitarian age, we may be entering an era that is more feudal in its economic and social structure.” Manufacturing jobs are shipped overseas. Opioids kill tens of thousands every year, and the epidemic ravages the small towns most ravaged by outsourcing. Rent and housing prices soar in urban areas while wages stagnate. Fertility rates drop. Families aren’t formed. When the very same people whose low-income jobs disappear, whose children overdose, whose futures are saddled by debt, vote for a candidate named Donald Trump, the term “democratic” sneakily becomes “populist”; “citizen” into “deplorable”; and “fascist” into “anti-fascist.”
This is a tenet of Kotkin’s book: that we’ve seen these conditions reiterated throughout history; that the average Joe and Jane do not take well to mendacity, hypocrisy, and condescension; that the wealth gap and an inability to own assets, if left unaddressed by political and business leaders, can inevitably beget violent revolution and a reactionary clampdown by the regime in power. Like a pandemic, the phenomenon is not a Black Swan event but a Gray Swan.
To complicate matters for the working and middle classes, Kotkin argues that the new Second Estate protects the divinely appointed oligarchs: “Today’s clerisy includes university professors, scientists, public intellectuals, and heads of charitable foundations. . . . it spans a growing section of the workforce that is mostly employed outside of material production — as teachers, consultants, government workers, and medical providers.” The Second Estate forms a “progressive” and elitist clerical class who, like the medieval Catholic Church, lecture from high, dictating by fiat society’s cultural and moral norms. Behind closed doors, however, they indulge in all sorts of hypocritical behavior. Leonardo DiCaprio flies private to Sicily for a conference on climate change; scolds benighted Americans for burning precious resources. Chelsea Clinton tweets about white privilege; works at McKinsey. A journalist calls for race war; sleeps through the night comfortably in a plush D.C. apartment. If there’s one thing social media do well, it’s this: exposing the mendacity. No one can escape video and audio recordings, the amplification of Twitter; no one can untangle themselves from the coils of their own hypocrisy.
But even if they do not live up to their prescriptions, even if the majority painstakingly cite bald lies ad nauseam, the elites still throttle the culture. By handing out titles and privileges, Hollywood, corporate media, and academia — the bastions of multiculturalism and radical progressivism — simultaneously invite the rich and pious into their temples, cancel the heretics, and distract the majority with woke programming. More cynically, the unelected Second Estate has the power to frame political narratives in order to avoid questions on the failed policy they supported or legislated. Kotkin writes, “Many of the people in these growing sectors are well positioned to exert a disproportionate influence on public attitudes, and on policy as well — that is, to act as cultural legitimizers.” One suffers because of his skin color — “systemic racism” — not because politicians and billionaires exploited his class and couldn’t give a hoot how he fared in life. As long as the oligarchs and clerics appear woke — and get rich and powerful doing so.
According to this worldview, the future seems a tad bleak; feels inevitable. But in the final section, Kotkin proposes a manifesto for future generations who aren’t on board with the status quo and still yet believe in liberalism and capitalism. It is at once a stringent warning, that technological innovation such as artificial intelligence, though tempting as salvation, would strip away our humanity beyond recognition. Equally as destructive, regressive climate policies, and “the current emphasis on social justice through redistribution and subsidies,” which, Kotkin argues, “does not increase opportunities for upward mobility, but instead fosters dependency while consolidating power in a few hands.” In light of the riots and the ensuing political aftermath, the phrase “current emphasis” could become an understatement.
Is there a middle road between innovation and prudence? Are the oligarchs too strong to challenge? For Kotkin, our future lies in the rhetorical, the political, and most importantly, the existential reassertion of values traditionally embodied by the Third Estate: family, property rights, faith, and faith in Western civilization. “The key to resisting neo-feudalism today,” Kotkin writes, “lies in the same kind of people who brought the first version to an end . . . people who tend to own some property, and often their own business, and who build communities around the needs of their families.” An engaged and prosperous Third Estate forms the ballast upon which democracy rests. When the Third Estate shrinks, as it has in the United States and the West, when too few citizens buy into the system — by purchasing property, raising families, and finding meaningful work — we just might slide right into the revolutionary abyss. A world Huxley could only trip about.
“Let them eat plant-based protein! Let them buy cheap goods!” Americans were told.