by Mary Harrington
Wednesday, 10
November 2021

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.

Join the discussion

  • 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.

  • 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.

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

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