Today the richest 40 Americans have more wealth than the poorest 185 million Americans. The leading 100 landowners now own 40 million acres of American land, an area the size of New England. There has been a vast increase in American inequality since the mid-20th century, and Europe — though some way behind — is on a similar course.
These are among the alarming stats cited by Joel Kotkin’s The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, published earlier this year just as lockdown sped up some of the trends he chronicled: increased tech dominance, rising inequality between rich and poor, not just in wealth but in health, and record levels of loneliness (4,000 Japanese people die alone each week, he cheerfully informs us).
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Kotkin is among a handful of thinkers warning about a cluster of related trends, including not just inequality but declining social mobility, rising levels of celibacy and a shrinking arena of political debate controlled by a small number of like-minded people.
The one commonality is that all of these things, along with the polarisation of politics along quasi-religious lines, the decline of nationalism and the role of universities in enforcing orthodoxy, were the norm in pre-modern societies. In our economic structure, our politics, our identity and our sex lives we are moving away from the trends that were common between the first railway and first email. But what if the modern age was the anomaly, and we’re simply returning to life as it has always been?
Inequality was almost universal from the agricultural to the industrial revolution, and medieval Europe would have had a GINI index higher than modern Latin America, with a handful of families owning up to a quarter of land in England, and the monarch a similar share.
Most of the medieval left-behinds would have worked at home or nearby, the term “commuter” only being coined in the 1840s as going to an office or factory became the norm, a trend that only began to reverse in the 21st century (accelerating sharply this year).
Although I imagine most people will return to the office after the vaccine, unemployment patterns will continue on their pre-modern course. One of the peculiar features of the modern world is the shortage of labour, while the medieval era was characterised by mass underemployment, except in times of harvest, which is why land was so valuable relative to labour.
The industrial revolution increased the demand for labour and helped drive up wages, which rocketed in the 18th century, but with automation increasing numbers will be unemployed or underemployed; while government policies used to focus on creating work, the seemingly inevitable logic of Universal Basic Income reflects the fact that we may have to give up on that dream.
Along with income stratification, another pre-modern trend is the decline of social mobility, which almost everywhere is slowing (with the exception of immigrant communities, many of whom come from the middle class back home).
Social mobility in the US has fallen by 20% since the early 1980s, according to Kotkin, and the Californian-based Antonio Garcia Martinez has talked of an informal caste system in the state, with huge wage differences between rich and poor and housing restrictions removing any hope of rising up. California now has among the most dystopian of income inequality, with vast numbers of multimillionaires but also a homeless underclass now suffering from “medieval” diseases.
Unfortunately, where California leads, America and then Europe follows.
Social mobility was not unknown before the modern age, but it was rare and mostly only possible through the Church or war. William of Wykeham was the son of a Hampshire freeman and rose to become Bishop of Winchester and also Chancellor of England, founding Winchester College, the oldest public school in England, with its famous motto “Manners makyth man”. But Wykeham was fortunate to have received patronage from two wealthy men, which was necessary before the age of welfare and free education.
Patronage has made a comeback, especially among artists, who have largely returned to their pre-modern financial norm: desperate poverty. Whereas musicians and writers have always struggled, the combination of housing costs, reduced government support and the internet has ended what was until then an unappreciated golden age; instead they turn once again to patrons, although today it is digital patronage rather than aristocratic benevolence.
A caste system creates caste interests, and some liken today’s economy to medieval Europe’s tripartite system, in which society was divided between those who pray, those who fight and those who work. Just as the medieval clergy and nobility had a common interest in the system set against the laborers, so it is today, with what Thomas Piketty calls the Merchant Right and Brahmin Left — two sections of the elite with different worldviews but a common interest in the liberal order, and a common fear of the third estate.
This new age of liberal inequality is dominated by and defined by tech, with the four big firms, Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook, having a GDP equal to France. Tech accounts for eight of the 20 richest people on earth, as well as nine of the richest 13 under-40s, all of them based in California.
Tech is by nature anti-egalitarian, creating natural monopolies that wield vastly more power than any of the great industrial barons of the modern age, and have cultural power far greater than newspapers of the past, closer to that of the Church in Kotkin’s view; their algorithms and search engines shape our worldview and our thoughts, and they can, and do, censor people with heretical views.
Rising inequality and stratification is linked to the decline of modern sexual habits. The nuclear family is something of a western oddity, developing as a result of Catholic Church marriage laws and reaching its zenith in the 19th and 20th centuries with the Victorian cult of family and mid-20th century “hi honey I’m home” Americana. Today, however, the nuclear household is in decline, with 32 million American adults living with their parents or grandparents, a growing trend in pretty much all western countries except Scandinavia (which may partly explain the region’s relative success with Covid-19).
This is a return to the norm, as with the rise of the involuntarily celibate. Celibacy was common in medieval Europe, where between 15-25% of men and women would have joined holy orders. In the early modern period, with rising incomes and Protestantism, celibacy rates plunged but they have now returned to the medieval level.
The first estate of this neo-feudal age is centred on academia, which has likewise returned to its pre-modern norm. At the time of the 1968 student protests university faculty in both the US and Britain slightly leaned left, as one would expect of the profession. By the time of Donald Trump’s election many university departments had Democrat: Republican ratios of 20, 50 or even 100:1. Some had no conservative academics, or none prepared to admit it. Similar trends are found in Britain.
Around 900 years ago Oxford evolved out of communities of monks and priests; for centuries it was run by “clerics”, although that word had a slightly wider meaning, and such was the legacy that the celibacy rule was not fully dropped until 1882.
This was only a decade after non-Anglicans were allowed to take degrees for the first time, Communion having been a condition until then. A similar pattern existed in the United States, where each university was associated with a different church: Yale and Harvard with the Congregationalists, Princeton with Presbyterians, Columbia with Episcopalians. The increasingly narrow focus on what can be taught at these institutions is not new.
Similarly, politics has returned to its pre-modern role of religion. The internet has often been compared to the printing press, and when printing was introduced it didn’t lead to a world of contemplative philosophy; books of high-minded inquiry were vastly outsold by tracts about evil witches and heretics.
The word “medieval” is almost always pejorative but the post-printing early modern period was the golden age of religious hatred and torture; the major witch hunts occurred in an age of rising literacy, because what people wanted to read about was a lot of the time complete garbage. Likewise, with the internet, and in particular the iPhone, which has unleashed the fires of faith again, helping spread half-truths and creating a new caste of firebrand preachers (or, as they used to be called, journalists).
Most of us grew up in the industrial age of politics, when the great divide was over class and economics. But that is something of an anomaly — and the culture wars that were first identified in the mid-90s are just the return to normal, of people screeching at each other about their sinful beliefs.
English politics from the 16th to the 19th century was “a branch of theology” in Robert Tombs’s words; Anglicans and rural landowners formed the Conservative Party, and Nonconformists and the merchant elite the core of the Liberal Party. It was only with industrialisation that political focus turned to class and economics, but the identity-based conflict between Conservatives and Labour in the 2020s seems closer to the division of Tories and Whigs than to the political split of 50 years ago; it’s about worldview and identity rather than economic status.
Post-modern politics have also shaped pre-modern attitudes to class. In medieval society the poor were despised, and numerous words stem from names for the lower orders, among them ignoble, churlish, villain and boor (in contrast “generous” comes from generosus, and “gentle” from gentilis, terms for the aristocracy). Medieval poems and fables depict peasant as credulous, greedy and insolent — and when they get punched, as they inevitably do, they deserve it.
Compare this to the evolution of comedy in the post-industrial west, where the butt of the joke is the rube from the small town, laughed at for being out of touch with modern political sensibilities. The most recent Borat film epitomises this form of modern comedy that, while meticulously avoiding any offence towards the sacred ideas of the elite, relentlessly humiliates the churls.
The third estate are mocked for still clinging to that other outmoded modern idea, the nation-state. Nation-states rose with the technology of the modern day — printing, the telegraph and railways — and they have been undone by the technology of the post-modern era. A liberal in England now has more in common with a liberal in Germany than with his conservative neighbour, in a way that was not possible before the internet.
Nations were semi-imagined communities, and what follows is a return to the norm — tribalism, on a micro scale, but tribalism nonetheless, whether along racial, religious or most likely political-sectarian tribes. Indeed, in some ways we’re seeing a return to empire.
The common theme running through all these trends is the decline of the middle class, a group who were unusually strong in the industrial age but are struggling in the tech era. The mid-century United States may have been the best time ever to be the average man, although as always one form of equality clashes with another; egalitarianism between men went with reduced opportunities for women, as well as racial exclusivity.
The middle-class age meant the triumph of bourgeoise values and the decline of the middle class has led to their downfall, widely despised and mocked by believers in the higher-status bohemian attitudes. Now the age of the average man is over, and the age of the global aristocrat has arrived.