Neo-Feudalism or New Class War?

Our Future in the eyes of Joel Kotkin and Michael Lind 

Michael Lind in The New Class War and Joel Kotkin in The Coming of Neo-Feudalism both demonstrate the defunct nature of the ‘socially liberal, fiscally conservative’ worldview that dominated post-Cold War politics. Lind’s central contention is that, because it creates vast power inequalities, class matters as much now as in pre-modern politics, in spite of our democratic aspirations. Kotkin, on the other hand, argues that class divisions now resemble the Middle Ages specifically. Both books herald a society we should strive to avoid.

The most obvious political efforts to forestall the rise of this new class was the election of Donald Trump in 2016. The four years of his presidency have seen the denizens of the professional-managerial class screeching about impending fascism and a rising tide of white nationalism surging to sweep away the good, nice people in cities and who work with words and ideas on laptops in desirable zip codes. The awful, mostly white hinterlands, they wailed, were rising up in a rebellion against all that was ‘good and beautiful in the world’, threatening the openness of absolutely everything, daring to get above their positions in the social hierarchy and voice their discontent through democratic means.

But why wouldn’t these denigrated, unwashed masses express their dissatisfaction? In The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, Kotkin outlines the unfolding societal catastrophe in which we find ourselves. The book is a statistical compendium of very bad news for democracy: the richest 40 Americans control more wealth than their poorest 185 million fellow countrymen. Meanwhile, on a global scale, the share of wealth held by the top 1 percent of the world’s population increased from 7 percent in 1978 to 22 percent in 2012. By 2030, the top 1 percent is expected to have two-thirds of world wealth. Half the world’s assets are owned by 100 billionaires.  

For Kotkin, this economic reality has turned increasing numbers of the working class into a new renter class, often locked out of homeownership and steady, well-paying jobs, instead reliant on the unstable gig economy and/or welfare handouts. They exist to serve, and are tied to, those with economic power, the masters of our emerging digital economy. Kotkin compares this class to the serfs of medieval times.

These are not times for euphemism. Kotkin thus has no qualms in calling our new economic overlords the Oligarchy, “grafted onto a powerful central state,” comprising monopolistic tech companies such as: Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft. These companies dominate the means of communication and the media channels we use to make sense of the world, along with the search technology we use and the devices on which this software operates. Combined, their wealth is equal to the GDP of France, the world’s seventh-largest economy. Their feudal power, Kotkin argues, means that “today’s tech leaders increasingly resemble an exclusive ruling class, controlling a few exceptionally powerful companies, and like aristocracies everywhere they are often resistant to any dispersion of their power.”

The new tech Oligarchy, he describes, is empowered and legitimated by “The Clerisy,” a class comprising the cultural, media, academic, and professional elites that act as its ideological enforcers. It holds “dominance over the institutions of higher learning and media, aided by the Oligarchy’s control of information technology and the channels of culture.” This allows them to disseminate their cultural products with totalitarian levels of ideological conformity to the serf class they both despise and depend on for revenue.

In sum, Kotkin’s neo-feudal world is made up of The Clerisy, Oligarchy, and Yeomanry the small business-owning middle class, increasingly, he argues, at risk of proletarianization. They are analogous to the three Estates General in pre-Revolutionary France priests, aristocrats, and peasants, and typical of ancien régime Europe. Kotkin’s Yeomanry is being crushed between these two forces, sped up by the Covid-19 pandemic. He writes about them with a sense of mourning. The book is important not just because of the political-economic reality it describes with pitiless thoroughness, but because of the social turmoil we can see all around us: anarcho-tyranny, with anarchy for the serfs, tyranny for the middle-class yeomanry, and liberty-as-license for the Oligarchy and their Clerisy enablers.

In a similar vein, Michael Lind skewers the delusions of this new class structure in The New Class War. The moribund right needs less William F. Buckley and more James Burnham, he argues. Our present turmoil is the sequel to the industrial-based class conflict typical of 19th and 20th-century capitalism. The war is between disempowered and disdained working and middle classes that still cling to attenuated communitarian social values and forms of place and belonging, and a technocratic managerial elite soaked in progressive liberalism and wedded to an atomizing individualism and utilitarian economism.

The political result, he writes, is technocratic neoliberalism, “a synthesis of the free-market economic liberalism of the libertarian right and the cultural liberalism of the bohemian/academic left,” growing out of the ruins of the post-War consensus. What Lind sees as an achievement of class peace was progressively dismantled by Thatcher in Britain and Reagan in the US. The end of the Cold War brought this double liberalism into our lives as the way forward after History’s end, through a “revolution from above.”

The professional-managerial class built efficient global supply chains through multinational corporations, disempowering labor unions and workers in the process. Political power was transferred from national governments to transnational agencies and bureaucracies, enforced by unelected and largely unaccountable national and international judiciaries. The increasing transfer of law-making ability from the UK government particularly when it comes to human rights and laws concerning state-aid to industry to the EU, is a prime example of this.

This had the effect of removing large parts of the realms of political and economic value from democratic debate and contention. These were seen as beyond negotiation, settled and therefore off-limits. Technocratic rule of expertise was seen as the guarantor of success and prosperity. All of this engendered and accompanied a stark decline in social mobility across the Anglosphere in particular, and across the West generally.

Our contemporary professional-managerial class is dubbed the Overclass by Lind: the top 10% of Western societies, comprising the elite professions in tech, finance, law, science, consulting, academia, and culture. The economic and value divide between the Overclass and everyone else is reinforced through physical separation. Citing the work of French political geographer Christophe Guilluy, Lind further argues that geography plays a bigger role in determining one’s social status than it has for generations.

Those in the metropolitan “Hub cities” are at the political, economic, and cultural center of our world, while those in “Heartland” communities are seen as being on the periphery of life, on the edges of the liberal global society. These marginal populations, like H.G.Wells’s Morlocks, are kept at bay by planning regulations designed to inflate housing values and protect the Overclass’s nice, tidy upscale neighborhoods, what Charles Murray dubbed “super-zips.” One only has to think of the enforced economic and cultural gulf between the US coasts and the rust belt, or the prosperous UK London and Southeast versus the Midland and Northern provinces to see the truth in this dichotomy.

The laws and rules governing how our economies are run, not least planning regulations, are made for the benefit of the Overclass, designed to secure its hegemony. Lind writes with withering scorn for the perpetrators, arguing that the movement of goods and people through our immigration and trade regimes represents a form of rule by divide and conquer of the working class, setting natives and immigrants against each other. But “the only winners are a third group: the mostly native, mostly white overclass elites who benefit from the division of the working class.”

Elite education provides the means to retain this class and moral dominance: “the possession of a diploma tends to indicate birth into the economic elite”, writes Lind. This is redolent of a “conflict among largely hereditary social classe.” These seminaries of the Overclass fulfill their role inculcating the state religion (which Wesley Yang calls the Successor Ideology of extreme identitarian egalitarianism).

Acting as a signifier of virtue, the Overclass ideology is a luxury belief system held by those who can afford it. Elite whites want to dissociate from white guilt and differentiate themselves from low-status whites, as Shelby Steele argues. Politically, they retain class superiority and reclaim their moral authority by allying with people of color, who are reduced to passive blank slates upon which whites write their own redemption. 

Economically, woke capitalism is a way to excuse immoral behavior through the same redemptive exploitation of minorities. And very conveniently, as Lind argues, the division it encourages perpetuates the accrual of wealth to the Overclass while continuing to foment racial and tribal animosity between groups that could otherwise threaten their hegemonic control.

Again, divide and conquer.

***

Reading Kotkin’s book, one can appreciate the more nuanced class structure a more appropriate one for our times. Labeling will always be imperfect, but his division between the Oligarchy and the Clerisy has greater precision and opportunity for in-depth analysis than Lind’s undifferentiated Overclassan amalgam of the two. The division of the lower orders into the Yeomanry and Serfs was a more useful description of the different levels of our societies and how they interact. Lind’s use of Overclass, on the other hand, packs a bigger rhetorical punch for its simplicity. Yet he doesn’t go far enough.

Instead of focusing more on political-economic settlements, past and present, Lind’s work could have benefited from further exploration of the cultural divides between the classes that he described. This is fine as far as it goes, but is insufficient to get to the depths of where the impasse of America and Britain comes from. Kotkin doesn’t have this problem focusing on each of his four classes takes in the cultural as well as the economic divides. Like Lind, he starts with a description of the economic situation but doesn’t end it there. The value divides are just as important, and he spends time considering the cultures of each and why they clash, to the detriment of the Yeomanry. This at least reinforces the fact that man is not just a utility maximising, rational political and economic animal, no matter what the tech overlords say. 

But all of this leads to the problematic matter of finding a solution. Apparently having become overwhelmed by the grimness of the future portrayed, Kotkin is vague about ways out, offering little beyond the message of recovery of the democratic ethic. Here, Lind, on the other hand, is more specific: “Democratic pluralism is the cure [for our problems],” he writes. This means recreating a “countervailing power” that resists the Overclass, which might mean something like “organized labor and business in wage-setting sectoral bodies, or representatives of religious and secular creeds in bodies charged with oversight of education and the media.”

What these books really describe is the failure of liberalism.

The populist wave of our time did not appear from nowhere. Those in our elite classes surprised by it were taken aback, not just because they hadn’t been paying attention, but because they’d blinded themselves to the growing frustration and discontent of millions who saw the drift of their security into an abyss of cultural and economic poverty.

The populist anger Lind describes has, as Patrick Deneen argues in Why Liberalism Failed, “arisen from the spreading realization that the vehicles of our liberation have become iron cages of our captivity.” The destruction of culture chronicled by Kotkin is also integral to liberalism, predicated upon uprooting people from nature, time and place. The Oligarchy or Overclass has no obligation to those tomorrow, nor in turn to those with them today. The erosion of embedded culture and tradition emancipates the placeless, timeless individual, rendering him subject to the all-encompassing market and the all-powerful state. 

As Deneen writes: “the liberal individual demands the dismantling of culture; and as culture fades, Leviathan waxes and responsible liberty recedes.” The exercise of untutored freedom leads to the expansion of the state to fill the void left by the restraining force of culture. Both Lind and Kotkin ignore the fact that “statism enables individualism, individualism demands statism… modern liberalism proceeds by making us more individualist and more statist.”

Lind’s class settlement through corporatist-statism risks empowering the Leviathan controlled by the same people he criticises. The idea of a newly empowered working-class is insufficient. What is really needed is a radical reformation/replacement of the neoliberal elite with its woke civil religion, with one which, at least, recognizes the more culturally conservative working-class as legitimate.

Wedded to the technocratic futurism of Alvin Toffler, Kotkin is a convinced liberal. His faith in technology to enable material progress is shown throughout his book. As Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, this reveals his “faith in man; faith in his capacity to subdue nature, and faith that the subjection of nature achieves life’s final good.” Kotkin’s faith in progress belies life’s tragic nature and the imperfections of fallen humanity. 

Both Lind and Kotkin’s works are essential for understanding the current state of our politics, culture and economies. They are written by serious people for people who take our time seriously; an example of mature thinking in a mostly immature age. For all that, they still rest on the assumptions of liberalism, and prescribe more of the poison as the cure.

Books reviewed:

Michael Lind’s “The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite”

Joel Kotkin’s “The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class”

Henry George is a freelance writer from the U.K., focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture.

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