by Mary Harrington
Wednesday, 10
November 2021
Reaction
10:30

San Francisco is living the neo-Feudal dream

Its super-elites, serf class and biosecurity state are a pointer of things to come
by Mary Harrington
Meet your new feudal overlords. Photo by Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images

San Francisco, the cult writer Delicious Tacos observed recently, is an avant-garde city. Whatever happens there will be everywhere else in five years’ time.

If he’s right, three recent San Francisco stories should give us pause: taken together, they suggest urbanist Joel Kotkin was right to argue that we’re heading for a new feudalism — and you won’t like what life looks like at the bottom.

Kotkin’s new class analysis outlines an emerging ultra-rich aristocracy, a ‘clerisy’ that tells the moral and cultural story, and a precaritised, immiserated serf class that serves and is subordinate to both. 

At the top, Vogue‘s breathless account of the San Francisco wedding of heiress Ivy Getty suggests what life for this overclass is like. From the Barbarella-themed pre-wedding party where the bride changed between three different vintage designer outfits; through the description of every designer detail; to the mezzanine hotel floor cleared of other furniture so a ‘styling room’ could be filled with ‘all the extra clothes’; to the Margiela boxes engraved with the name of each bridesmaid; it’s a starry-eyed account of bottomless wealth ordered purely to the whims of one aesthete. 

There were also hints of the 21st century’s emerging biosecurity governance, a regime that’s at worst a minor inconvenience to the ultra-rich. Guests at the pre-party “arrived on the scene in […] ready to party just as soon as their vaccination cards were checked”. They were offered IV drips at the following day’s picnic lunch, and ritually asked to mask up before Nancy Pelosi entered the room — though neither Pelosi nor the bride, groom and bridesmaids followed suit, another indicator of hierarchy also seen at New York’s Met Gala.

The same biosecurity rituals are taken far more literally on the next rung down, which Kotkin calls a ‘clerisy’. This is the class whose role, according to Kotkin, is to report (as Vogue does) on the aesthetic whims of the feudal overclass, and also to mythologise its class interests and follow its shibboleths. 

Consider another wedding story, told recently in The Atlantic. The author, Alexis C. Madrigal, could not more flawlessly embody the political and identity signifiers that mark out Kotkin’s clerisy. He’s a regular in The Atlantic; he’s written a book on green technology; he lives in the Bay Area, and one of his kids already identifies as non-binary. 

And he leans right into the clerisy’s now characteristic bio-puritanism: a mindset that, especially since Covid, conflates physical safety and moral purity with startling literalism. Watching people standing, maskless, at his friend’s wedding pre-drinks, he describes himself as “shocked”. He’s also clearly transmitted this attitude to his children: when he catches a mild breakthrough case of Covid, the non-binary 8-year-old is “so mad and maybe so scared that they could barely look at me”.

Meanwhile, what of the Bay Area’s serfs? Well, last year fentanyl killed more people in San Francisco than Covid. But this hasn’t triggered a push to eliminate fentanyl equivalent to the fantastically neurotic Covid precautions Madrigal describes. Just billboards advising people to take drugs with friends rather than alone. 

Meanwhile shoplifting has soared, but it’s also been effectively decriminalised. And if a recent post from the clerisy who staff the San Francisco Chronicle is anything to go by, the best response to rising burglary rates isn’t tougher enforcement but better locks, and redoubled efforts to devise therapeutic measures capable of eliminating evil from the human soul. 

Welcome to the future, San Francisco style.

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Rocky Rhode
Rocky Rhode
1 year ago

It’s all starting to feel very similar to events in the run-up to the French Revolution.
The Marie Antoinettes of today had better watch out.

Paul Sorrenti
Paul Sorrenti
1 year ago
Reply to  Rocky Rhode

seems to me like a zombie-antoinette with just enough self-awareness to shake off her old titles is claiming the guillotine for herself

George Glashan
George Glashan
1 year ago
Reply to  Rocky Rhode

At least this time the revolution really will be televised, the modern day Antoinette’s will be instagraming / tweeting right up to the fall of the guillotine. So the events will be preserved for prosperity .

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Rocky Rhode

Can I be first to offer to operate the guillotine

JP Martin
JP Martin
1 year ago

If you need an assistant, I am at your service.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  JP Martin

Thank you for your kind offer. You can hold the basket if you will

Mark Knight
Mark Knight
1 year ago
Reply to  Rocky Rhode

I thought the same thing looking at photos from the Met Ball; excessive, extravagant, and time limited.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
1 year ago

And of course with a centralised, bureaucratic “clerisy” in charge, the threat of punishment to any “cleric” who steps out of ideological line is massively increased – for he can be denounced, ostracised and deprived of income so much more easily than in a decentralised, free market democracy.
And here’s the point – we are not, repeat not, looking at a natural development of “capitalism” or the market; this elite has invented itself and recruited its personnel as a parasite on the state.
They have not moved, in the old way, from industry and production into administration or “the arts”; rather they have taken over the “soft tissues” of culture and from there infected the skeleton – the hard structures of business and commerce.
In principle, then, the solution is – as Trump always said, using a different metaphor – to “drain the swamp”: abolish the quangos, slash the size of government, prune regulation back to common sense, sack ninety per cent of the “regulators” and repeal all laws which intrude upon liberty of conscience and thought.
It is only because we live in a centralised, semi-socialist state that the lumpen-intelligentsia, scratting away in government, infesting and perverting our bloated institutions, can coordinate its programmes of “cancellation”.
Were Johnson really a Churchill, or – better still – a Thatcher, he would have seized the chance his majority gave him to effect this liberationist agenda. But he is no more than a sub-Macmillan – empty, opportunistic and spineless.

Last edited 1 year ago by Simon Denis
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

I don’t disagree with much of what you say, but I feel it is off the mark now. Would a Thatcher or Reagan have opposed the aristocracy of the social media companies for example? (They started off at least as small start ups). And the uber-rich don’t really need the government, they just need to keep on the right side of it, as Putin’s Russia shows. They can afford to live in gated communities remote from the lives of ordinary people, any amount of security and staff they need while continuing at no cost to themselves, performatively virtue-signalling as ‘liberals’. As this article so persuasively argues, they in reality evolve into a new aristocracy. Such an elite you will recall, existed for most of the history of states and was indeed largely parasitic, but, crucially, had the power.
I am interested more in the socio-cultural evolution than the yah-boo partisan politics. This phenomenon has been evolving for a long time, and Republican administrations certainly have done little if anything to counter it, any more than have the Democrats.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Fisher
Simon Denis
Simon Denis
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Aristocracies were indeed parasitic, first on slave labour and second through monopolies. I would argue that the most fruitful societies are those in which monopolies, bureaucracies and aristocracies are diminished or abolished in favour of competition among small to medium sized agents, lightly regulated by a minimal state. Nevertheless, these agents must be held together somehow, for purposes of custom, law and defence. The abiding weakness of the classical Liberal case is the one first mooted by the protectionists towards the close of the Victorian era: how to keep yourself safe, if you are relatively disunited, reliant on others for raw material and incapable of building weapons or sustaining an army? The answer they supplied was nationalism – apparently discredited by world wars one and two; but it remains, in my view, the only alternative to imperial, ideological and top-down control; and the philosophies which create and justify those conditions, socialism, communism, “woke” – are themselves aggressive and unstable. We are living at a time when the elite is proceeding, through the sly connivance at de facto monopolies and cartels; through absurd levels of regulation; through winking at transformative levels of migration, to dismantle the Liberal / Nationalist compromise in favour of a new version of old collectivist orthodoxy, with all its stifling convention and petty minded censorship. I feel that Reagan and Thatcher would have recognised the degree to which the market and the creatures of the market have been co-opted and corrupted by this project and acted accordingly – but one can never tell…

Warren T
Warren T
1 year ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

I think you are correct and it’s important to recognize that aristocracies have always existed. After reading the Vogue article, I felt the urge to vomit.
The filthy rich have always lived in a different sphere, hence the reason why the phrase, “Let them eat cake.” continues to be part of the lexicon.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
1 year ago
Reply to  Warren T

Quite so. They are an inevitable feature of human society, first because it starts “top down”; second because we can never entirely transcend our “top down” instincts and third because even within the world of competition and small government the successful will naturally grow rich and influential. The only thing to be done, therefore, is a) to keep society so open and so fluid that talent and effort can swim to the top and refresh it, making the influence of the rich a beneficial thing, because intelligent; b) to limit through customary separation of powers and legal limits to authority the directness of that influence. By allowing society a slim backbone of natural, human authority we stabilise and accumulate all the goods of liberty.

Douglas Proudfoot
Douglas Proudfoot
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

As someone who voted for Reagan twice, let me say that Reaganites distrust concetrations of power, whether private or government. I think it’s clear that Big Tech has to be broken up. Privatizing the Ministry of Truth doesn’t make it acceptable.

Censorship of news and social media in the US is widespread. The biggest example is the Hunter Biden laptop story. The laptop’s contents showed Hunter took bribes from both Ukrainians and Chinese “investors.” Hunter even made comments to these “investors” about the cut the “Big Guy” was going to get. However, the story was blacked out on all mainstream outlets and major social media for the month preceeding the 2020 election. After the election, a poll found 7% of Biden voters would have changed their vote to Trump if they had seen the story before the election.

The excuse for the censorship was that the laptop was a Russian disinformation plant. That was ridiculous on its face. The laptop was abandoned in a Deleware computer repair shop. The repair ticket was signed by Hunter Biden. The censorship was collusion to help Biden defeat Trump that either was, or should have been, illegal.

I am 100% positive that Republicans will break up Big Tech when they are in power next. I am also positive Democrats will try to preserve Big Tech’s censorship power as much as possible. The way I hope the breakup will work is new requirements on span of control based on capitalization. There’s no reason Google, a multi-trillion dollar company, should control both 90% of web search and 90% of web advertising, for example. They should be forced to spin off the advertising, and Youtube as well.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
1 year ago

I really do fear the future. Not for some poxy virus, but for the reaction to it. The more I experience what Mary calls “the clerisy”, the more I hate them. And I don’t mean I hate them the way I hate coffee or some people hate marmite, I mean real, actual, visceral hatred. I despise them and everything they claim to stand for. Sooner or later, this society is going to catch fire if they don’t grow up and start acting their age. All they ever do is make life progressively more miserable for everyone around them and it simply cannot go on.

aaron david
aaron david
1 year ago

My father was born in San Fransisco, at St. Francis hospital 10 months after Pearl Harbor. Though I have never lived there, my whole life has been in and out of that city, visiting family and friends, watching the changes. It has gone through this before, and Dirty Harry was the popular take on how the solve this; kill all the miscreants. New York also has gone through this, and, again, in popular culture of the time was a reflection; The Whimper of Whipped Dogs by Harlan Ellison.
Growing up in the eighties, I was taught by my liberal peers and family members to hate Regan and the conservative course correction that he brought. But I am in my fifties now, and I turn around and see that it was the left who has brought all the social horrors that we were so, so scared of and railed against.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  aaron david

It is Sodom and Gomorrah, and that never ends well. Or is mourned.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago

Strange that California is so strict on vaccination mandates, but recently decriminalized knowingly passing on HIV/AIDS to another person through intercourse.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
1 year ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

It’s only strange if you’re assuming logical consistency.

Douglas Proudfoot
Douglas Proudfoot
1 year ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

It ain’t about public health. If it was, they would stop defication on the streets and control the homeless population. It’s about the arbitrary use of raw power. The inconsistency is a feature, not a bug.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
1 year ago

And who presided at the garish, over-the-top Getty fete? The most powerful Democrat in the USA – Nancy Pelosi. It’s ‘rich’ is so many ways.

Last edited 1 year ago by Cathy Carron
Douglas Proudfoot
Douglas Proudfoot
1 year ago

To carry this analogy slightly further, I view environmental restrictions on fossil fuel and nuclear energy as the modern equivalent of England’s Medieval Forest Laws.

Under restrictive Medieval Forest Laws, serfs weren’t allowed to hunt the King’s deer, fish in the King’s streams or even cut wood in the King’s forrests. Only the King’s noble friends could do that, even if it meant that the lower classes starved or froze to death.

Today, the lower classes won’t be allowed to own cheap cars running on gasoline or diesel. The masses won’t be allowed affordable reliable electricity for their homes, or heat for their houses, all in the name of preventing climate change. Meanwhile, the elite will continue to have individual carbon footprints the size of small towns. Our betters live in huge mansions, fly all over the world on private jets, and are driven to their events in huge, gas guzzling limos.

Obviously only a few get to be the rich eleite, or in Socialist terms, party members. Everyone else will be impoverished. Socialist income equality is accomplished by bankrupting everyon, except party members of course.

John Shaplin
John Shaplin
1 year ago

It’s not a new theory, you can find it in the works of Hayak and Michael Hudson:
“You have to realize that what they are trying to do is to roll back the Enlightenment, roll back the moral philosophy and social values of classical political economy and its culmination in Progressive Era legislation, as well as the New Deal institutions. They’re not trying to make the economy more equal, and they’re not trying to share power. Their greed is (as Aristotle noted) infinite. So what you find to be a violation of traditional values is a re-assertion of pre-industrial, feudal values. The economy is being set back on the road to debt peonage. The Road to Serfdom* is not government sponsorship of economic progress and rising living standards, it’s the dismantling of government, the dissolution of regulatory agencies, to create a new feudal-type elite.”
Statements like this are more polemical than an accurate representations of the complex and evolving character of Feudal Society.in history..

Liz Walsh
Liz Walsh
1 year ago

When I was a child, we smiled in pity, reading of the 19th century clergyman/statistician who had projected that by the end of his century civilization would be covered under horse manure. Thank God, saved by Henry Ford, we thought! But now, living less than an hour’s drive from SF, I see just how right he was…

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
1 year ago

A lot of people on this thread blaming it all on The Left.

Firstly, the clerisy are liberals, not Leftists – that is, they are anything but Left on the issues that actually matter, the ones surrounding Money and the Economy. Though they are Marxist when it comes to irrelevant toot like BLM or Critical Race Theory.

Secondly, the clerisy are hangers-on of Capitalism, its parasites, jesters and sycophants.

Moreover, it is globalised Capitalism that is creating global neo-feudalism, where Big Business controls everything and small and medium businesses are reduced to living on the crumbs.

And of course, it is small shops – not luxury stores ! – that are being pillaged by shoplifters.

Last edited 1 year ago by Tony Buck
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

It is not Capitalism really – which the elites grow powerful from. It is Plutocracy and financial slight of hand and criminality.

They do not create anything, Iron ore mines, cars, buckets, televisions, food, great buildings and works – NO, they do Bitcoin, Hedge Funds, social media advertising monopolies, Banking money creation, and political patronage and insider trading.

They are true parasites, like wasp grubs growing inside the body of a caterpillar, they do no good for any but themselves.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Yes, it is Finance Capitalism – parasitic, certainly, but no less certainly capitalist.

Karl Schuldes
Karl Schuldes
1 year ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

You’re confusing corporatism with capitalism.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
1 year ago
Reply to  Karl Schuldes

Reasonably enough, as the corporatists are fierce defenders and eager practitioners of Capitalism, from which they have emerged.

And a distorted, corporatist form of Capitalism is still – indisputably Capitalism

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
1 year ago

The big point here is COMMUNITY. Human beings like belonging to a community, where the strong help the weak, the wise are leaders, everyone has their acknowledged place and is respected. But there is nothing communal about The New Feudalism, which is all about being in a small elite and not one of the unwashed masses. We don’t have to wait for The New Feudalism to get to Europe, because it arrived some time ago. Hence the rage about Owen Paterson and Tory sleaze, the House Of Lords and privilege generally taking advantage and not sharing. I don’t think Americans have much of a tradition of community. Over there, getting rich and enjoying your wealth is what everyone wants. But in Europe, (and we learn, in China), it’s different. Watch this space.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
1 year ago

Whatever happens there will be everywhere else in five years’ time This is not going to happen. There is way too much resistance. California and New York liberals have always thought the run the US. “flyover” country and red states hate everything about them. This is going to fail. It is the last grasp of a declining super power. This is all that is going on.

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
1 year ago

asset prices soar. the rich get richer. the slaves eat mud.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

The Great Plandemic doubled the wealth of the elites – no wonder they push the mask – it was the weapon they used to plunder trillions from the working people.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
1 year ago

In the 1960’s, Abbie wrote a book entitled “Steal this Book.” Later, the anarchists took over a whole city with a modus operandi of Take this City, or, as Johnny Payday sang it, Take this hit and Snort it.
In the old Monopoly board game, passing Go afforded you a $200 cash collection. Opposite that corner, on the other side of the board, was Free Parking where you could hang out for nothing.
In contemporary SF, Free Parking means Free Sleeping and passing Go gets you another free needles ride to nirvana, as long as you can find a spot where some passerby will not stumble over you in passing.
As we starry-eyed boomers use to say back in the day, if you’re going to san francisco, be sure to wear some poppies in your hair, or something like that. I can’t really remember . . . anyway best wishes to all ye fellow travelers. Far out man!
Or, as wavy gravy said at woodstock, “three days man!” that morphed into “three decades man” (x2)
Or as Slick advised us at the time: Call Alice when she’s ten feet tall (high); she’ll get up and tell you where to go, while talking backwards.
Over in Altamont, fall ’69, is where the real shit went down– and one formerly-alive person. while Mick sympathetically escorted the ancient guest of honor into the Bay area while we watched in wonder cuz the revolution wouldn’t be televised. Life mag was all it took to get the word out about the heights of ass-bearing.
Piece and RideOn, into the sunset. Timothy Leary’s dead . . . no, no nonon no. he’s in sf, looking sin.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
1 year ago

“ritually asked to mask up before Nancy Pelosi entered the room”
Did anyone tell them “NO”?

Julie Blinde
Julie Blinde
11 months ago

Just like Johannesburg in 1985

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
1 year ago

The Right is so palsied by its old fears of the Left and Revolution, that it’s unable to see that they’re no longer a threat.

And that now the threat to the Right and their affluence is – they themselves, the Right !

They are making their money by destroying their societies, forgetting that the market-place perishes when society does.

And perish it will – for how can a society upheld by Capitalists, and their liberal sycophants, do anything else ?

It is Capitalism that has destroyed the American heartland and American greatness.

Last edited 1 year ago by Tony Buck
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

hahaaa,

Bogman Star
Bogman Star
1 year ago

Trite article. The homeless in SF are the detritus of capitalism, not of wokeness.

aaron david
aaron david
1 year ago
Reply to  Bogman Star

Read San Fransicko, and you will be quickly disabused of that notion. It has nothing to do with capitalism and everything to do with the Wolk and their new religion; victimism.

Warren T
Warren T
1 year ago
Reply to  Bogman Star

You need to do a little research on this Bogman. Capitalists didn’t insist on closing the mental institutions, called Deinstitutionalization at the time.
Here is a quote from the Carter Administration about where their ideology came from:
“the objective of maintaining the greatest degree of freedom, self-determination, autonomy, dignity, and integrity of body, mind, and spirit for the individual while he or she participates in treatment or receives services.”
Here is the original article:
https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/asylums/special/excerpt.html
All further proof that whatever the Left touches, rots.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
1 year ago
Reply to  Bogman Star

Most of the homeless are drug addicts….

Last edited 1 year ago by Cathy Carron
Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Bogman Star

Wokeness is the moral arm of crony capitalism.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Bogman Star

I am someone who knows the scene – I lived homeless, even slept on the streets of San Francisco in the late 1970s. Old school homelessness was ‘Rock Bottom’ where disaster, mental health, and addiction put people, and was rough, and most but the exceedingly lost recovered from it and moved back into housing eventually.

Today’s homeless is from a degeneration of social norms. It is mostly from Liberal/Left tolerance of degeneracy, enabling it, supporting it, so the ones who hit rock bottom stay there instead of getting back up and climbing their way back out of the hole they dug them selves into. The Liberals have made it into a viable way to live as they fund that hell, and so TRAP the fallen into it for good.

Liberal/Lefty – you are a wicked group, your permissiveness destroys, not helps.