The Coming of Neo-Feudalism; by Joel Kotkin; Encounter Books; 244 pp., $28.99
In the summer of 2003 my bride, our three little kids, and I headed to Chicago for that all-important summer job after my second year of law school. We acquired a “summer lease” for an apartment on North Orchard Street in the highly sought-after neighborhood of Lincoln Park.
As I whiled away the hours reading civil procedure in a downtown office, my wife would walk the kids down the tree-lined streets—two in a stroller, one walking alongside her—to the various parks in the neighborhood. This raised eyebrows from residents and onlookers in this trendy part of town. The neighborhood demographics consisted of recent college grads, young professionals, an increasing gay population, and the wealthy—whose children were cared for by others. Nearly all our neighbors were homogenous in their political liberalism.
Needless to say, the near ubiquity of the question “are these all yours?” to a young mom walking down the street with her children in Lincoln Park demonstrated that neighborhood’s transformation. While there was no outright disdain, people were incredulous at our having three children all under the age of five.
This vignette illustrates several aspects of a new reality that has been developing in America over a number of decades, one which Joel Kotkin discusses in his book The Coming of Neo-Feudalism. Kotkin, an accomplished scholar and author, says he is attempting to find out what is creating across the world “a more hierarchical and more stagnant society,” which he calls “neo-feudalism.”
A new oligarchy is quickly developing into the world’s dominant force, Kotkin writes. This force is composed of the über-rich, primarily those from the tech sector, and is given intellectual cover by the “clerisy,” a term Kotkin uses for the cultural creators in academia, media, and religious institutions. The priorities of this new elite, their manners and mores—or lack thereof—increasingly serves to change the cultural, demographic, and political landscapes, not only of the United States, but of the whole world.
Kotkin’s thesis follows in the wake of a number of other books in the last 20 years that seem to chart the rise of these new elites, and their increasingly determined efforts to exert influence over the rest of the citizenry. One need only recall Angelo Codevilla’s The Ruling Class (2010), Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes (2017), and Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society (2020), among others, for further evidence of various aspects of this phenomenon. A brave new world emerges that is the very ancient story where the whisper of the tempter is heard once again to say “ye will be as gods” (Genesis 3:5).
Kotkin’s augury analyzes this new version of feudalism in terms of its players, who bear familiar names: the “oligarchy,” the “clerisy,” the “embattled yeomanry,” and the “new serfs.” He also analyzes the environment where this neo-feudalism takes place, and what the middle class might be able to do to resist this shift in society. The evidence for his case consists of an analysis of trends both in the U.S. and across the world, and his command of the data is superseded only by his distillation of it.
Kotkin identifies a very specific geographic location for these new oligarchs: California’s Santa Clara Valley. From the end of World War II, it has been the hub for technological innovation and expansion amidst the environs of some of the nation’s top universities. In its early days, it was a place where the wealthy would buy beautiful country estates and where middle-class tech experts raised their families and conducted their business. But as mores changed and technological advances began to reshape the economy, new tech titans moved in and “Silicon Valley” was born.
Achieving an enviable economic status, these tech titans were afflicted with a particular malady of the wealthy: believing that their material success was indicative of their brilliance in all areas of life. The belief system of these new oligarchs is based on a “scientific caste system” which bears more resemblance to Soviet central planning than any inherited tradition or philosophical acumen.
In “The Belief System of the New Oligarchy,” arguably the most insightful chapter of this book, Kotkin makes the case that these new tech wunderkinder desire an oligarchical socialism, citing their support for an expanded welfare state as one example:
The redistribution of resources would meet the material needs of the working class and the declining middle class, but it would not promote upward mobility or threaten the dominance of the oligarchs. This represents a sea change from the old industrial economy. Rather than acquiring property and gaining a modicum of self-sufficiency, workers can now expect a serflike future of rented apartments and frozen prospects. Unable to grow into property-owning adults, they will depend on subsidies to meet their basic needs.
Unlike past eras, this new elite does not seek to improve life or create opportunity for its neighbors. Rather, in the words of The Serpent in George Bernard Shaw’s play Back to Methuselah (1922), it seeks to “imagine things that never were and ask: why not?” The dogmas of their new religion include environmentalism, urbanism, and social justice activism.
Of course, those who are blessed enough to work directly for the oligarchy will be expected to live out a new, efficient monasticism—in a clean, hip, urban environment; dwelling in an apartment with others of similar ages and prolonging their collegiate experience, which includes being permanently stuck in an economic underclass. No walks down the block with three little children will intrude upon the jaunt from work to the gym and then back to the office.
Those who aren’t fortunate enough to work directly for the oligarchy will nonetheless be forced to subscribe to the new religion—mainly because our newly developed technology has become the fabric of modern life—with loving enforcement through surveillance which also employs agents in the government, the academy, and all manner of social and other media. In this, China is the model.
Although it’s an excellent book overall, there are some deficiencies. Kotkin is repetitive, leading one to surmise that this book was at least partially compiled from his previous work over the last number of years. More importantly, the medieval analogy that forms the major framework for Kotkin’s work is both inexact and seems less convincing than had he choosen another historical antecedent.
One of the marks of the modern mind is a certain sloppiness of historical perspective and a repetitive aim at safe, acceptable targets. One of those is the medieval era. There was a tremendous development in European society in the roughly 1,000 years that separate the classical era from the Reformation and Enlightenment. It was taken for granted that slavery was a norm in polities of the ancient world. In comparison, the feudalistic system allowed for more upward mobility for serfs and their families and for a more dispersed population of freeholders. The wide distribution of private property varied across parts of Europe at different times during the medieval and early modern periods, but this era represented the start of the true development of what would come to be called the middle class.
Kotkin seems to lack this historical perspective, preferring to see the analogue to today’s oligarchs in the ecclesial hierarchy of the High Middle Ages. While not discounting the greed, criminality, and sin of some of these ecclesiastics, the totalitarian impulse of today’s oligarchs seems to be more reminiscent of the Henrician despoiling of the monasteries in 16th century England. This produced, in turn, a consolidation of wealth in the hands of a richer few; whereas before it was more widely dispersed in a freeholding yeomanry.
While this lack of precision doesn’t lessen Kotkin’s rightful concern and warnings to the shrinking middle class, it does seem to read modern assumptions and prejudices onto the medieval past. An honest examination of the record might reveal better analogues.
Kotkin concludes his book with the observation that, “We are moving toward a future that most of us may not desire, with highly concentrated property ownership, a concerted drive for ever greater urban density, fewer families, and a declining middle class.”
What can we do about it? Kotkin’s prescription is to awaken the will of the “Third Estate”—politically vigorous town-dwellers and those who build their businesses around families and communities. This class must band together to resist the new oligarchy and its clerisy and to expand opportunities for the middle and working classes. Perhaps such a resistance might include having a family; perhaps it will even involve walking with your kids down the tree-lined streets of trendy neighborhoods.