by Ed West
Wednesday, 17
June 2020
Response
14:32

2020 and the coming of neo-feudalism

by Ed West
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.

Join the discussion


  • June 22, 2020
    "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... Read more

  • June 20, 2020
    Would the "truth" to which you refer be confirmed by genetic analysis? Read more

  • June 19, 2020
    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... Read more

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