Joel Kotkin. The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. New York: Encounter Books, 2020. 274 pp.
David A. Kopp (email@example.com)
In today’s parlance, Feudal is the pejorative term of choice when deprecating a modern economic or political situation by analogizing it with an oppressive and stratified society of the medieval past. In his recent book, The Coming of Neo Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, Joel Kotkin adopts the term to describe what he sees as a disturbing concentration of wealth in the high-tech economy that has created a modern serfdom “with decreasing chances of upward mobility for most of the population.” If left unchecked, argues Kotkin, this new feudalism threatens Democracy and Liberal Capitalism.
Kotkin defines medieval feudal structure using Marc Bloch as his guide: “a strongly hierarchical ordering of society, a web of personal obligations tying subordinates to superiors, the persistence of closed classes or ‘castes,’ and a permanent serflike status for the vast majority of the population.” Kotkin’s new feudalism looks different (“no knights in shining armor, or vassals doing homage to their lords”) but has produced the same economic result. Today’s nobility are the tech giants like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft which control more and more of the job opportunities in the modern technology and “data landscape” much as the nobility of the medieval past controlled the agricultural means and land of the enfeoffed peasant laborers. Collectively, these tech companies represent our modern First Estate, and like their medieval parallels, they work to control cultural messaging to their advantage through their manipulation of media content. In this effort, they are aided by the new Second Estate – the modern clerical class.
Kotkin borrows from S. T. Coleridge for an updated term for the medieval clergy – in modern times they are the “clerisy” of intellectuals. Their numbers include university professors, scientists, public intellectuals, and heads of charitable foundations. Kotkin calls them the “cognitive elite” and “legitimizers” of the agenda of the new nobility. Like their medieval counterparts, they issue the “correct” worldview and can “excommunicate” those who hold a heterodox opinion. New faiths replace old. In the Middle Ages, Christianity was the accepted ethos with its emphasis on the afterlife and the Last Judgment warning of the grave consequences for those who sinned. Now there is the “green faith” predicting the impending doom of the planet caused by human activity. It is literally a new apocalypse. Like St. Norbert in the twelfth century who predicted the end of the world in his lifetime, “the environmental movement – whether religious, scientific, or leftist—routinely traces a direct line from human materialism to looming catastrophe.” Kotkin believes that the burden of this new green orthodoxy to be borne principally by the working and middle classes. Much like the wealthy prince bishops of the Middle Ages who lived in luxury while preaching austerity, the modern clerisy “urge everyone else to cut back on consumption, while the ‘green rich’ buy a modern version of indulgences through carbon credits and other virtue-signaling devices. This allows them to save the planet in style.”
The clerical elite and the nobility shared power in the medieval feudal era, just as the nexus between the modern clerisy and the tech oligarchy share the power in today’s Neo-Feudalism. They attend the same schools. “On the whole, they share a common worldview and are allies on most issues.” Their joint mission as the First and Second Estates is to secure the submission of the Third Estate – the middle and working classes. This they do by causing an erosion in the faith of Liberal Capitalism or Liberal Democracy. “They seek to replace the bourgeois values of self-determination, family, community, and nation with ‘progressive’ ideas about globalism, environmental sustainability, redefined gender-roles and the authority of experts.” An ensuing pessimism within the Third Estate is the result of this effort, and, argues Kotkin, it can be found in advanced economies worldwide.
According to Kotkin, wealth stratification over the last ten years has accelerated exponentially in nearly all the developed economies of the world – U.S., Europe, Japan, China, and India. It is undoing the centuries of gains made by the middle class (who Kotkin calls the new Yeomanry) when they emerged as the merchant and artisan guilds “to challenge the aristocracy and even the clergy to drive democratic reform.” Homeownership rates are down among younger generations across the globe, particularly in high population densities, where more and more middle-class and working-class residents now live in tiny rental spaces, in some cases created for them by the tech companies who want to keep their employees on campus as the medieval peasants were kept on the demesne of their overlords. The “green faith” helps cultivate this “rental generation” by preaching against the “material trap of suburban living and work that ensnared their parents.” Loss of data ownership is another sign of the encroaching new feudalism. By handing over large amounts of personal information to the big tech firms in exchange for free services, the Yeomanry are becoming “digital serfs” living and working in a world of data without any assets of their own.
The working class (the “New Serfs”) is also suffering in Kotkin’s Neo-Feudal dystopic vision. The original high-tech pioneers – Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and IBM – who were praised for the treatment of their lower-level workers have been replaced by a newer generation of feudal tech giants like Amazon which have turned the proletariat into the “precariat” with limited control over their working hours, forcing them to live on barely subsistence wages. Kotkin sees in the working class a simmering revolt as the bulwarks of their life are eroded by the new left of the clerisy who care more about immigrations, globalization, and green-house gases than the plight of the working class. Deteriorating family values, the influx of migrant workers, lower education achievement of children, decline of unionization, and lack of upward mobility are all contributing to a modern rebellion. In a chapter titled “Peasant Rebellions,” Kotkin links the current times with those that led up to the noteworthy uprisings of the Middle Ages. “Democratic capitalist societies need to offer the prospect of a brighter future for the majority Without this belief, more demands for a populist strongman or radical redistribution of wealth seem inevitable.”
Throughout his book, Joel Kotkin brings evidence from global sources to support his claim that the entire civilized world is facing the same threat. The breadth of his undertaking is impressive and his knowledge of the history of class struggles in China, Japan, India, South America and Europe helps to support his belief that wealth stratification caused by super powers in the tech economy is reshaping the global workforce. It is an interesting and well-annotated read (there are end-notes for each chapter) for the student of medievalism as applied to the modern social and economic landscape. The primary weakness in the book is what appears to be a confusion by the author as to whether he believes Feudalism to have been a one-time historical occurrence that is now “revived” or a continuum of practice that persisted in various forms after the end of the Middle Ages. Though he posits at the start, “Feudalism is making a comeback, long after it was believed to have been deposited into the historical dustbin;” he also acknowledges “the persistence of feudal attitudes” in the Modern Era which continue to undermine democracy and freedom. In this, he seems to agree with Voltaire that “Feudalism is not an event; but rather a very old form which, with differences in its working, subsists in three-quarters of our hemisphere.”
David A. Kopp, Drew University