The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class
by Joel Kotkin.
Encounter Books, 2020.
Hardcover, 288 pages, $29.

Reviewed by Robert Grant Price

Feudal times are here again. This is a thesis Joel Kotkin hammers to a fine point in The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, a clarifying study-of-the-moment presented as sweeping history.

The idea behind the book is simple: Kotkin says the social hierarchy of the Middle Ages closely traces the lines of today. If our society continues down the current path of economic disparity and social disintegration, the feudalism we left behind will return. With force. And it will be the middle class, the benefactors of liberal capitalism, who will suffer most.

Oligarchs sit atop Kotkin’s neo-feudal order. No Charlemagnes among this crowd, the new kingly class is composed of technology-obsessed nerds—the Mark Zuckerbergs and Jeff Bezoses of our age who hold a disproportionate percentage of the world’s wealth and who will grow wealthier in the coming decade. According to Kotkin, these elites—“long on brilliance, but short on hardship”—want to shape the world to reflect their progressive politics. They have the resources to accomplish these dreams, with plenty left over to spend on their extracurricular ambitions, like the transhumanist dream to upload human consciousness into the cloud.

The chokehold tech oligarchs have on the fortunes of others distinguishes them from industrial oligarchs of the past century. In the future, upward mobility will be harder to achieve, contrary to the claims of the techno-utopians and extreme capitalists. Instead of creating opportunities for the underclasses to gain wealth and compete with them, the tech oligarchs favor what Kotkin calls “oligarchic socialism”: schemes like Universal Basic Income that secures this self-dealing overclass from having to pump their vast fortunes into creative capitalism—or employees’ paychecks. Taxes collected from the lower classes will be redistributed to give the most basic support to the lower classes. Get ahead? No, we’re just getting by.

With their commitment to technological determinism, a growing comfort with surveillance of everyone but themselves, and a spiritually vacuous view of humanity, the oligarchs make fine villains, for Kotkin. So do the clerisy, “the new legitimizers” of Kotkin’s neo-feudalism. Where the Middle Ages had the Church to teach social values and shape culture, neo-feudal times have academics, teachers, bureaucrats, and consultants to build a stairway to a new and better heaven. Up, up these stairs we travel by redefining words, standards, and sin to suit the oligarchic mindset, repressing intolerance in the name of tolerance, and evangelizing a new, green, corporate-approved catechism. Kotkin offers the inversion of popular culture as one striking bit of evidence for how the clerisy spreads its gospel: “Cultural creators are inclined to gear their products not so much to the tastes of the mass market as to the particular concerns of the clerisy.” These new clerics serve the masters, but there is no separate “church” to which both oligarchs and commoners need to orientate their conduct, no sense that each will be judged, even if only in the next life. Here, an external standard of judgment is harder to find, other than perhaps “efficiency” or “freedom,” standards whose definitions are in the hands of the oligarchs themselves. Here, the new church is everywhere.

Below the clerisy toil the yeomanry (the middle class) and the serfs (today’s jobbers in the gig economy). The decline of homeownership—in some cities, the impossibility of home ownership for anybody but the wealthy—and the discrediting and dissolution of the nuclear family condition today’s yeomen for serfdom. Despair awaits the middle class, should they find their jobs automated, their debts unserviceable, and their cities unaffordable. Despair always lurks at the edges of fortune, but in the future Kotkin envisions, escape from despair is impossible. Class divisions will look more like strata in a caste system than rungs on a ladder.

Clinging to the lowest rung are the working class, the serfs in the neo-feudal world. Like serfs of the old feudal order, they will live lives fleeced of fortune and certainty. The difference is that today’s serfs have better drugs to dampen despair.

Ultimately, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism warns about the never-ending threat of utopia. This fact makes Kotkin’s disquieting volume automatically prophetic, regardless of whether his prophecy is fulfilled. Utopia will always fail. Last century’s utopians failed to perfect humanity in experiment after bloody experiment. This century’s utopians have already failed. The technophilic gurus who preached a new age of democratized knowledge (so put a tablet in every kid’s hands, already) got it wrong. Broadband paradoxically narrowed the arteries of commerce, birthed the most magnificent disinformation system ever imagined, and diced people into data to be sorted and snorted by advertising firms and governments. Rather than create opportunity, the “sharing economy” steals from creators. The “gig economy,” sold as a path to independence, is a dead-end with a clever name. “Gigging” sounds cool if you’re in a rock band, but if you’re delivering pizza on a bike to support a family, it’s a jig. Few stable families, fewer children, ever fewer jobs—this is our trajectory, and without a course correction, this is destiny. This future is a failed future, one that is already failing, but given the advantage bestowed on the oligarchs and clerisy, it is a future they will try to realize. For unlike utopians of times past, technoligarchs have the means to impose their demented vision of humanity without resorting to direct violence. The problem of tyranny was always an engineering problem, and the techno-kings are among the best engineers society has ever produced.

Words like “dystopia,” “totalitarianism,” and “serfdom” make an appearance in Neo-Feudalism, but by the last page, I wonder how many readers will accuse Kotkin of hyperbole. The data (the book has ninety pages of sources for 172 pages of text in the hardcover), the persuasiveness of Kotkin’s logic, and the realism of the story he tells strikes truer with every page. Is Kotkin pessimistic? Maybe. But nobody listens to optimistic warnings. And as we have seen, the COVID lockdowns support Kotkin’s line of reasoning. The lockdowns have been good for monopoly people like Jeff Bezos, whose net worth has ballooned to $200 billion at a time when governments around the world have forced small and medium-sized businesses to close, many forever. In this regard, Neo-Feudalism fits in a growing literature among conservative and liberal writers who now question the “greed and globalism is good” logic of the last several decades. The power differentials are too stark to ignore much longer.

The stand-out chapter is “The New Geography of Neo-Feudalism,” a study of the decline of great cities, written of course even before the pandemic controls have emptied the business centers of places like New York and Chicago. As Kotkin makes plain, a propertied class sustains urban centers and the middle class. As increasingly unaffordable cities empty, so do the ranks of the middle class. Gorgeous neighborhoods still exist, but those gated communities belong to the few. Imagine a world comprised of San Franciscos. Heaven inside the gates; human feces smearing the roads outside. As Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange, California and executive director of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, Kotkin is the right person to make this argument. This chapter proves the most convincing in transforming his neo-feudal vision from clever thought experiment to documentary photography of life in today’s large cities.

What can society do? Kotkin warns against substituting one utopia for another. The next utopia on the horizon—luxury communism, the fantasy that technology will provide endless plenty for all—will surely sunset in blood like every other utopia humanity has ever imagined.

Kotkin’s unfortunately brief “Manifesto for the Third Estate,” the closing chapter of his book, hints at solutions. The multifaceted problems he outlines demand solutions that defy reduction and slogans. Instead of offering practical solutions, Kotkin reveals sources of hope and strength: peasants, who wield significant power, should they choose to rebel as in yesteryear; yeomen, the propertied middle class who are still wealthy and populous enough to steer society away from neo-feudalism; and families, an oasis in the loneliness of our technologic future.  

Robert Grant Price lectures at the University of Toronto at Mississauga.

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