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2020 and the coming of neo-feudalism

June 17, 2020 - 2:32pm

Joel Kotkin’s latest book ‘The Coming of Neo-Feudalism’

I’ve just started reading a book that, annoyingly, I planned to write someday. Joel Kotkin got there first with the The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, about the decline of the middle class, falling social mobility and the return of something like a pre-modern caste system.

This is not feudalism in a literal sense, but it is in some ways a return to the tripartite division of the Middle Ages — those who pray, those who fight and those who work.

The new castes are the oligarchy — a small number of very rich people, getting richer, and mostly in finance — and what Coleridge called the clerisy, the wider university-educated, especially those who work in media, academia and education. I’d categorise it as FT readers and Guardian readers. Kotkin writes:

Just as the clerical elite shared power with the nobility in the feudal era, a nexus between the clerisy and the oligarchy lies at the core of neo-feudalism


On the whole, they share a common worldview and are allies on most issues, though there are occasional conflicts, as there were between the medieval nobility and clergy.

- Joel Kotkin, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism

These two castes, similar to Picketty’s Brahmin Left v Merchant Right, are respectively progressives and liberal, but despite those differences, they all fear the third estate, ‘the people’.

I would add to this a fourth caste, the legion of low-skilled migrant workers who form an underclass in most western cities. The top two castes have an interest in promoting both this fourth caste’s interests and numbers (even though these two things clash), one for emotional and moral reasons, the other for financial gain.

The bad news is that, and I think he gets to this later, all the good things we enjoy, like democracy and political moderation, depend on a strong middle class, because countries with hour-glass social structures are prone to extremism and various sorts of political madness.

The whole woke movement is probably not unrelated to America’s growing inequality, for example. It may in one sense be a way to distract from poverty-related problems, and certainly concepts like ‘white privilege’ appear to reduce sympathy for the poor.

I also suspect that, as the middle class declines in fortune and graduates increasingly find it hard to buy a home and form a family, so the need grows to take comfort by identifying against the third estate. The statue unveiled in Bristol this week, of a fat man in a wheelie bin next to the tedious James O’Brien-level talking point about St George being Turkish, is an example of that compensating mockery.

I appreciate it sounds disingenuous for a Conservative voter to talk about snobbery; and having grown up in the waters of Thatcherism I can see how the idea of getting on your bike led to the current disdain about Brits not doing the jobs immigrants do. But in the end a lot of politics comes down to class interests. Marx wasn’t wrong about everything, after all.


Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable

edwest

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Yes, I’ve seen Kotkin interviewed on one of the US podcasts and there is, plainly, a lot in what he says. And it strikes me that for the first time in history we are combining feudalism with democracy. The outcome can only be, surely, a popular revolt as manifested in the votes for Brexit and Trump, or an end to democracy.

Of course, to some extent we have already witnessed the end of democracy in the form of the EU, which has replaced various leaders in southern Europe over the last 10 years.

Not the least revolting aspect of it all is, of course, the relationship between the oligarchy and the clerisy. Hear, again, the EU offers a good example.
I write as one who has been, and to some extent still is, part of the clerisy. And I can see how my interests have been and are, to some extent, aligned with the oligarchs. But for some years now I have come down on the side of ‘the people’ and I desperately hope that, one way or another, they win.

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Fraser, I tend to agree with you.
It amazes me that the disrespect shown for democracy from the so called elite, has happened without more kick back. Indeed I think that both Trump and Brexit were a response.
Although being a keen supporter of democracy, one think I have neither been able to reconcile in my own mind about democracy, is what happens when people vote for more government spending and lower taxes?
Are Italy and Greece a result of this problem?

Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
3 years ago

“is what happens when people vote for more government spending and lower taxes?”

If that is what the mighty GBE wants, give ’em it…or are you arguing the the GBE can be wrong?

You know how like Remainac C78ts tell me that I didn’t know what I was voting for when I’ve voted Leave and would keep voting leave and for chopping immigration.

Robin Taylor
Robin Taylor
3 years ago

Isn’t more government spending and lower taxes/rates (even rebates in the form of handouts) exactly what we are experiencing at the moment? Not sure we voted for it though.

Clive Mitchell
Clive Mitchell
3 years ago

The thing about being in the ruling elite, is that for an awful lot of them, being part of it is not enough, being the head becomes the aim. For that you need supporters. And those will be found both inside and outside the group. The middle classes may have some leverage yet.

Btw in what way are Guardian readers not middle class? Ok they are likely to feign working class roots, but I think we all know the truth.

Allan Dawson
Allan Dawson
3 years ago
Reply to  Clive Mitchell

Guardian journalists….hypocritical spanners whining about slavery, racism and tax avoidance whilst working for a paper that openly supported slavery and uses extremely aggressive tax avoidance to ensure that it keeps its tax bills as low as possible.

Clive Mitchell
Clive Mitchell
3 years ago
Reply to  Allan Dawson

I noticed today that Greene King is going to pay compensation for its connection with slavery. Will the Guardian I wonder. Not.

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
3 years ago
Reply to  Clive Mitchell

I used to be a Guardian reader, but got banned from commenting when I mentioned that there were only two sexes. I was in no way rude or outspoken, but merely voicing my opinion. I was a little naive back then (2015) and hadn’t realized that ‘the science had spoken’ on there being 63 or whatever it is genders. I was quite taken aback, because up until then I had always thought the Guardian was a champion of free speech and polite argumentation.

It slowly started to dawn on me that I was now considered a right-wing reactionary for questioning the current Leftist dogma on sex, feminism and race.

I think the problem with many Guardian journalists is that a lot of them went straight from college to journalism. They seem to exhibit very little life experience or concept of what life is like outside their own ‘bubble’. Many of them act as though Twitter is the ‘voice of the people’ when most right-thinking people avoid it because of its insanity.

The Guardian is no longer a paper for the working class, but a voice for the upper-middle class. Many of its writers are sexless cultural scolds who believe they have a divine mandate to lecture us plebs on our privilege. The commentators are sometimes worse (most who post on there come across as sniveling and spineless), but sometimes there is a voice of reason among the madness.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Brian Dorsley

The Guardian was never a paper for the working classes. It was founded to represent Manchester’s business class and it evolved to represent the loonie-left.

Paul Dobbs
Paul Dobbs
3 years ago
Reply to  Clive Mitchell

Would the “truth” to which you refer be confirmed by genetic analysis?

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago

Kotkin’s thesis is interesting, but too blunt. I am very much a member of the clerisy, but a lot of the features Kotkin associates with the clerisy are actually imposed on teachers, scholars, journalists, etc – i.e. the people who do the real “clerical” work – by the managers who now hold almost total sway over their activities. In that sense, many members of the clerisy are just as much servants of the managerial oligarchy as are the ordinary workers in the private sector (“the people”, presumably). Note, for instance, how public-sector employers like universities and hospitals have imported neo-liberal employment practices from the private sector, e.g., insecure, short-term, zero hours contracts for many staff – these of course are also instruments of ideological conformity, since one can’t easily be vocal in opposition if one lacks job security.

Parenthetically, I’d observe that it’s remarkable how committed many right-wing people have become to “democracy” since “the people” started voting disproportionately for right-wing causes and parties. When “the people” mostly voted left, it was traditional Tories who tended to be sceptical of democracy and championed traditional, inalienable liberties. But I suppose hypocrisy we have always with us.

Martin Davis
Martin Davis
3 years ago

Re the fat man in the wheelie bin: spoiler alert. Wikipedia says “Saint George also George of Lydda, was a soldier of Cappadocian Greek origins, member of the Praetorian Guard for Roman emperor Diocletian,” Ahistorical to the max! But who really cares…

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
3 years ago

However much the nobility or the clerisy might disdain the people, it is the people that produce, construct, distribute and maintain.

In this respect, and without reading the book, in my speculative mind, a future ridden with resource shortages and multiple ecological disruptions will either result in democratic egalitarianism or technocratic neo-feudalism. In either system, the people will be a foundational aspect of societal survival.

Therefore, it is either how to subjugate the people but at the same time provide for their health and well-being so they can continue with their foundational role or how to align with the needs based concerns of the people without overly compromising the privilages of the capital owning nobility.

In either scenario, the middle class clerisy have most to lose especially if the people have the capacity to largely manage themselves. In this respect, technical information and assistance will be required but will that be in a subservient or in a dominant relationship to the people.

I guess this will largely depend on the nobility and how the clerisy behave.

It will certainly be interesting to know what conclusions you draw from the book and whether the book does contextualise growing resource scarcity, ecological degradation and unmanageable population growth.

David Jones
David Jones
3 years ago

“The new castes are the oligarchy ” a small number of very rich people, getting richer,
and mostly in finance ” and what Coleridge called the clerisy, the
wider university-educated, especially those who work in media, academia
and education. I’d categorise it as FT readers and Guardian readers”

Why not Times and Telegraph readers? Was it not Conservative supporters who voted for the finance-led globalisation that has enriched the oligarchs and undermined the middle class and “people”?