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The Quiet Return of Feudalism

Silicon Valley oligarchs are ushering in a new age of serfdom, aided by the left.

Medieval illustration of men harvesting wheat with reaping-hooks, on a calendar page for August. Queen Mary's Psalter, 14th Century. (wikipedia/public domain)

The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, by Joel Kotkin, (New York: Encounter Books, 2020), 224 pages.

Few policy items have more ominously heralded the ongoing realignment of our politics than Universal Basic Income. That its proponents and detractors can’t seem to agree on what UBI is intended for in the first place is merely a measure of that omen. 

Take Spain. The country’s far-left government was an early fan of the policy, and when it leaped on the unemployment caused by lockdowns to implement a version of it, the handouts were popularly mocked as la paguita—Spanish for pocket money. The derisive analogy was swiftly censured as xenophobic—the potential pull effect for illegal migrants deemed a red herring—or more creatively still, as aporophobic, a made-in-Spain woke neologism for aversion towards the poor. Yet it was fresh college graduates, not illegal aliens nor the destitute, that users of la paguita fretted UBI would put on the dole. UBI-skeptics fear this more than any potential loopholes for migrants or layabouts: namely, further untethering the over-credentialed young from the demands of the labor market, directing them instead towards “more creative pursuits” of dubious societal interest while turning the self-sufficient lower-middle classes into their unconsenting patrons.

The dissonance over who exactly UBI is meant to assist is extremely revealing. The policy was initially designed in Silicon Valley to make automation painless, but liberals on both sides of the Atlantic have hailed the insurance it provides against labor market disruptions. The reckoning with the need for a larger safety net is actually widespread, but the unalloyed welfare that UBI would afford entitled millennials remains a no-go across much of the right. By embracing UBI, the left seems to have made peace with our tech-induced drift away from self-sufficiency and towards generalized dependence. But creating a dependent class out of the supposedly “best and brightest” is still deemed profoundly perverse on the right.

This realignment around work and welfare is but one instance of what Joel Kotkin describes in his latest book as The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, the surreptitious supplanting of liberal capitalism—a blend of economic opportunity, pluralism and dispersed political power—with a new regime dominated by tech oligarchs, enabled by their legitimizers in the so-called “progressive clerisy,” and so far acquiesced to by most everyone else. The proposition that a class of tech overlords is infiltrating liberal institutions will sound far-fetched to most of Kotkin’s readers, but that’s only because our connotations of “feudalism” suffer from recency bias. This f-word often calls to mind pre-revolutionary France, where a monarchic nobility and a conservative priesthood united to preserve their privileges at swords’ point until 1789.

That late form of feudalism is displayed in Kotkin’s choice of cover—an engraving of a nobleman and a priest riding a peasant’s back printed two months before the storming of the Bastille. But what the book warns about is feudalism at an embryonic stage, one where the interests of nobility and clerisy may not jibe all the time, and where the third estate’s submission is still unknowing. Similarly, it took centuries after Rome fell for medieval feudalism to fully take shape, with the Church emerging first as a check on kings’ earthly power before becoming their geopolitical ally, and the servants toiling in the rural estates of the post-Roman nobility barely conscious of their evolving towards serfdom. Then as now, Kotkin argues our feudalization is slow but steady, with ever more power concentrating among fewer hands. Kotkin is better known as an urbanist than as a historian, which is precisely how he garners the historical savvy and prescience to discern the trend stealthily unfolding—for unlike in the early Middle Ages, cities and not rural areas are the microcosm of the neo-feudal order.

Big tech CEOs and the “progressive intelligentsia” form an unlikely coalition, corporate power being a classic progressive gripe. So what about today’s tech overlords makes them more palatable than the bankers and utility oligopolists they’ve replaced? Hipness and woke capitalism surely play a part, but their primary appeal to the wider society is in Kotkin’s view technical, grounded in the growing premium our economy places in technological skill. More than a technocracy, this is a technocratic ratchet—the techies hold the keys to an economy they’ve ushered in and keep making more complex. Progressive opinion-makers have largely acquiesced to the concentration of productive know-how in ever fewer hands, even as the less affluent are shut out of the pathways towards acquiring it. Worse still, the societal benefits from technological innovation reaped by everyone else keep diminishing—where innovation was once concerned with productivity, transport or housing, its link with improved living standards has all but broken under society’s hype over social media and artificial intelligence.

Atop the neo-feudal order sit these two powerful blocks, and the economic disruption their alliance portends is correspondingly far-reaching, not limited to a single set of policy wins for tech companies. Even if their tax evasion or greedy data collection practices are reined in with transnational digital taxes and ambitious privacy rules, for big tech these will amount to little more than inches on the margin, mere bumps on the road towards neo-feudalism. To work out the contours of the new economic order, Kotkin proposes instead to size up the larger tenets of liberal capitalism undergoing erosion. This starts with property, the ladder through which a majority could once reach middle-class prosperity but that is being pulled up before our very eyes.

Under feudalism, serfdom was the norm—toiling on the land of someone else who robbed you was the only path to subsist. Similarly, as the clustering effects of today’s knowledge economy keep driving capital and labor towards already cramped cities, property has concentrated in ever fewer hands, with home renters left similarly property-less. Cities used to be hotbeds of opportunity, today they are segregated dystopias. Where strivers could once take jobs that afforded spacey homes, amenities and savings, today the squeezed middle is driven out of cities altogether by skyrocketing housing, transport and childcare costs. Where suburbia once stood to pick up the pieces of our urban dysfunctions, today that last redoubt of the property-owning middle is reaching full capacity in turn, with the comfortable lifestyle it affords shunned by the environmentalist clerisy.

This crisis of property is behind the mantra that “today’s young are the first generation to face dimmer prospects than their parents,” borne out in endless surveys. A married couple of first-generation college graduates today struggles to buy a home even at the age their non-college educated parents did, effectively delaying the age at which the upward mobility both generations worked so hard to chase can take its effect. Even as it remains the only real launchpad to wealth accrual, homeownership is increasingly the monopoly of those lucky to inherit it, which further tilts a playing field at birth already more uneven than ever. And all this concerns only what Kotkin calls the modern “yeomanry” of financially insecure but credentialed professionals. Even grimmer are the prospects of the neo-feudal serfdom, that netherworld of low-skilled jobs in the service precariat. Devoid of technical skills, these neo-serfs live paycheck to paycheck in what former Labor Secretary Robert Reich once called the “share-the-scraps-economy”—a wordplay on the “sharing economy”—with not a whiff of any real economic opportunity.

But just like medieval serfs felt bound to the feudal system through the Christian hope of redemption, so is our neo-feudal order held together, as much as by economic relationships, by the cultural values evangelized from the clerisy downwards. Yesteryear’s societal ethos was one of dynamism, creative destruction and widespread opportunity for all, which, when sincerely embraced by those at the top, gave the entire system a buttress of legitimacy. For the managerial class holding the reins, living out these values and leading by example reinforced their position atop the system—creating jobs meant supporting middle-class livelihoods, reneging from corporate welfare and accepting the diktats of antitrust enforcement meant playing by the rules.

The values underpinning today’s neo-feudalism, rather than allowing for elites to be renewed through competition and merit, serve to entrench the ones we’re stuck with. Pluralism in online discourse is on the way out and any talk of breaking up the tech giants is defamed as antitrust heresy, effectively enshrining their natural monopoly over the digital space. As for philanthropy, today’s tech overlords truly see their lot as the kindest hearted in society, but their foundations no longer seek to align status with merit but to refashion our political economy entirely by normalizing dependence. UBI is to philanthropy what giving away fish is to fishing education. 

Whenever economic opportunity is invoked by big tech’s allies in the clerisy, it is most often in the discourse of identity politics, which derives policy prescriptions that fail to create more of it, resorting instead to shoving ethnic minorities amidst the ranks of the technocracy. Instead of expanding access to high-quality education, vocational training or urban property, the siren song of identititarianism calls for numerical quotas and affirmative action. If anything, economic opportunity stands to lose even more ground if the shibboleths promoted from atop are pursued à la lettre, to the extent they pose further penalties on the less fortunate, such as through environmentalism or multiculturalism. And this is where policies such as UBI come back into the picture—their aim is to make the lack of economic opportunity less painful and politically costly, not to reverse our direction of travel towards neo-feudalism. Evangelized with the brimstone of religion, these values are ushering in a new regime of what Kotkin calls “oligarchic socialism,” with productive work increasingly the province of a fortunate few, while everyone is left to battle out for the scraps but numbed with progressive piety.

The alarm Kotkin sounds is all the more courageous and credible coming from an old-school progressive like him, and shows that the left’s realignment around the interests of tech oligarchs and the gospel of wokeism won’t go without internal pushback. Kotkin has even earned an audience on the right—the book is published by Encounter. If his Warning to the Global Middle Class is to be heard widely, it will need all the support it can get from conservatives, whom are undergoing a realignment of the kind Kotkin advocates for his own side. Which calls to mind the ominous words of the abbé Sieyès in 1789—“what is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been in the current political order? Nothing. What does it desire to be? Something!”

Jorge González-Gallarza Hernández (@JorgeGGallarza) is a senior researcher at Fundación Civismo.

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