I return to Joel Kotkin’s essay, “America’s Drift Toward Feudalism“ (American Affairs Journal, Winter 2019), which I quoted recently and favorably. This is from the final passages of the essay:
In the world envisioned by the oligarchs [the ultrarich, especially the czars of Big Tech and financial institutions] and the clerisy [affluent professionals and members of the academic-goverment-information-media complex], the poor and much of the middle class are destined to become more dependent on the state. This dependency could be accelerated as their labor is devalued both by policy hostile to the industrial economy, and by the greater implementation of automation and artificial intelligence.
Opposing these forces will be very difficult, particularly given the orientation of our media, academia, and the nonprofit world, as well as the massive wealth accumulated by the oligarchs. A system that grants favors and entertainment to its citizens but denies them property expects little in return. This kind of state, Tocqueville suggested, can be used to keep its members in “perpetual childhood”; it “would degrade men rather than tormenting them.”
Reversing our path away from a new feudalism will require, among other things, a rediscovery of belief in our basic values and what it means to be an American. Nearly 40 percent of young Americans, for example, think the country lacks “a history to be proud of.” Fewer young people than previous generations place an emphasis on family, religion, or patriotism. Rather than look at what binds a democratic society together, the focus on both right and left has been on narrow identities incapable of sustaining a democratic and pluralistic society. The new generation has become cut off from the traditions and values of our past. If one does not even know of the legacies underpinning our democracy, one is not likely to notice when they are lost. Recovering a sense of pride and identification with America’s achievements is an essential component of any attempt to recover the drive, ambition, and self-confidence that propelled the United States to the space age. If we want to rescue the future from a new and pernicious form of feudalism, we will have to recover this ground.
To reverse neo-feudalism, the Third Estate—the class most threatened by the ascendency of the oligarchs and the clerisy—needs to reinvigorate its political will, just as it did during the Revolution and in the various struggles that followed. “Happy the nation whose people has not forgotten to how to rebel,” noted the British historian R. H. Tawney. Whether we can understand and defy the new feudalism will determine the kind of world our children will inherit.
There is altogether too much reification going on here. Take the final paragraph, for example, where Kotkin says that the Third Estate (the poor and middle class) “needs to invigorate its political will”. The Third Estate is an abstraction, not an actual association of persons united for the purpose of taking collective action.
Individual members of the Third Estate will do whatever it is that they choose to do and are capable of doing. One frightening possibility is that enough of them will take to the polls and increasingly tip the balance toward left-wing politicians who promise to share the wealth. Having followed Kotkin’s blog for some time, I doubt that that is an outcome he prefers, inasmuch as efforts to share the wealth are economically destructive — especially for members of the Third Estate.
For more about the economic status of Millennials (as an abstract group), see Timothy Taylor’s “About Millennials“.