Its super-elites, serf class and biosecurity state are a pointer of things to come
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.