A Nouveau Aristocracy?: We will in our arse!
One of the most timely books of 2020 painted a bleak picture of the emerging cleavage of the post-equality, post-democratic, post-Christian West — a rich-poor divide never seen before.
I’ve detected of late some interesting and unexpected stirrings in the undergrowth of American leftism. In the Era of Wokeness, in which the conch of social solidarity has been stolen by pseudo-progressives interested only in harnessing the victim classes to promote the interests of the most powerful, there are the slightest signs of the old left beginning to reassert itself. As though finally waking up to the smell of burnt coffee, some of these dozing followers of Marx are beginning to emerge not so much to confront or even question the faux leftism of such as the Democratic Party, but simply to sharpen some old saws about reality, economics and the common good.
I’m thinking of an economist like Richard D. Wolff, a Marxist visiting professor in Massachusetts and New York, who, if you can sidestep his intermittent disdain for President Trump, is a source of some of the most dependable available analyses of current economic drifts, in particular regarding the continuing stock market bubble that obscures the underlying reality that the already crumbling economic foundations of the West have been hollowed out by the Covid scam.
Another such figure is Joel Kotkin, a New Yorker currently living in Orange County, California, who specialises in demographics and urban planning — another old-style leftie who now insists that left-right paradigms are no longer up to capturing the shapes and drifts of the emerging world. Kotkin published one of the most interesting and timely books of 2020: The Coming of Neo Feudalism: A Warning to the global Middle Class (Encounter Books), perhaps the most up-to-date account of the present sociological, economic and political moment to appear in the recent traumatising months.
Most of what Kotkin relates is not particularly new, but it is subject matter that, for reasons of ideology, is often concealed or sotto voce-ed by the legacy media, in favour of misleading narratives about racism and a certain limited interpretation of concepts like ‘equity’ and ‘equality’.
Kotkin paints a picture of a future of unprecedented inequality, but not the kind that the Woke agitators bang on about. He describes a world in which a new cleaving is imposing itself — has pretty much already done so — between the top 1 per cent and the rest, in effect eliminating what we used to call the middle and working classes. That this has happened during a period in which, on the face of things, the left was in control of the vast majority of media platforms, of both the legacy and newer kinds, is a matter we would be paying more attention to were it not a verboten topic. This cleavage is the topography of the ‘neo feudalism’ of Kotkin’s title.
The book is remarkable for the fact that it contains almost none of the conventional landmine Woke irritants you tend to stumble over in almost any book or article purporting to describe the world as it is today. There are occasional flashes that betray the colour of Kotkin’s politics, but in general this is a book that might be read without discomfort by any populist or Deplorable. The book deals with Trump in just two brief sections, and does so fairly; in interviews, generally with leftists less sentient and open-minded than himself, Kotkin invariably gets down to genuflect at the alter of Never Trumpism, whereas in his analysis he invariably goes on to extend credit to the President for his perception of the core problems of America and the steps he has already taken to ameliorate them.
Kotkin describes a world that has actually ceased to progress and started to regress, that is shucking off many of the developments that accompanied the growth of Western civilisation in the past 2,500 years — the universal franchise, the rule of law, bills of rights, privacy, free speech and individualism, as well as even more crucial entities like the nuclear family and the private motor car.
Kotkin confides the disturbing theory that, whereas those of us who have arrived in the recent years of this period tend to regard it as no more nor less than naturalistic normality, it may in time reveal itself as an aberration in human history, about to be strangled by the ideological weeds we carelessly allowed to catch hold of our culture. Freedom, sang Kris Kristofferson, is ‘just another word for nuthin’ left to lose’, but could soon become a word denoting everything we’ve lost. Unless, unless.... But what if there is no ‘unless’?
Kotkin takes us to California, once the leftist utopian showroom, now the American state with the most wealth and the worst poverty, where the divide is currently being played out in the widening chasm between Silicon Valley and the new slums of San Francisco, where diseases like typhoid and possibly the bubonic plague may be on the point of a comeback. Meanwhile, Western demographics have been in rag order for decades, while its political class continues fondly to imagine that replacing Europeans with economic migrants from alien cultures amounts to a strategy for future equilibrium.
I don't think so. The future of the West, according to Kotkin’s persuasive analysis, will include the collapse of the nation state, the virtual eradication of family homes, the elimination of most paid work, the emergence of new caste systems and gated cities, the decline of sexual activity, the explosion of loneliness, creeping censorship arising from the increasing leftward tilt of academia and media, the exponential growth of state power and authoritarianism, and the return to nature of vast swathes of the cultivated world.
The social/idological division Kotkin describes is, in effect, between the ‘hubs’ and the ‘heartlands’, between the cynically ‘woke’ exploiters of the internet Wild West and the people who make and mend the world on a day-to-day basis, between the Able Men of Greek mythology and the metrosexual soyboys of the networks and the lycra-lanes. He describes a world increasingly in the grip of tech oligarchs hiding behind wokist slogans to further a deeply reactionary power structure, one that, if allowed to continue, will bury democracy and make of the vast majority of non-trillionaire humans a new underclass of chattel-less serfs. The new oligarchs are served by a secondary class Kotkin calls the ‘clerisy’, mainly the buffer layer of ‘experts’ and mediators like journalists and academics, who, in return for crumbs from the oligarchic tables, provide the new aristocracy with ideological air-cover. The ranks of this clerisy are dotted, bizarrely, with refugees from traditional leftism, unable to figure out why they have been caught offside by history, and mostly not that bothered to find out; where once they railed against the capitalist exploiter, now they bow down before his successor, the baseball-capped, T-shirted geek who spouts communitarian slogans while looting and ransacking everything of value in the world that is not nailed down. The core of this ideology is the hoax of progressivism, really no more than a smokescreen to conceal the studied further enrichment of the already obscenely wealthy, a Trojan horse to take the oligarchs past the madding crowd at the gates of the New Jerusalem. The combination of globalist anti-values, technologised reality and postindustrial capitalist actuality will, Kotkin predicts, create conditions in which the majority will be reduced to subsistence living in hive cities, as the West moves inexorably towards a Chinese model of constant surveillance and social control schemes.
Kotkin’s book hit the streets just as the Covid shitshow was kicking off, and so reads from start to finish as an exercise in ignoring the elephant in the elevator. This might seem merely bad luck, except that, judging from his interviews, the author appears not to have noticed that the Time of Covid is, in effect, a pilot study for the now scheduled feudal ‘new normal’. He speaks of the virus as a dangerous bug that has randomly disrupted the world — seemingly oblivious that it represented the culmination of his analysis even while the print was still wet on his pages. Yet, an updated online blurb for the book begins: ‘Our society is being rapidly reduced to a feudal state, a process now being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.’
For real. According to a report from UBS and PwC Switzerland, the wealth of the world’s billionaires grew by 27.5% in just the four months from April to July, 2020, bringing the total wealth of a handful of unfathomably wealthy individuals to an unprecedented $10 trillion. The four biggest tech firms, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, have a combined ‘GDP’ equal to that of France, and increasingly act like global powers rather than mere companies. Meanwhile, millions of the world’s most economically exposed people were losing their livelihoods, perhaps permanently, with more and more people pushed into extreme poverty. In the face of this calamity, the trad left has been studiously looking the other way, while maintaining a constant prattle about trans rights and spurious BLM victimology.
Even as things stood before, the richest 40 Americans had more wealth than the poorest 185 million, and both groups were already expanding disproportionately. Those will soon be the good old days. Kotkin charts the decline of meritocracy as a valued ethic and the resulting arrest of the upward mobility that has been America’s unique selling point in the economic firmament, with US social mobility having fallen by 20 per cent in the past four decades. Europe is trailing under these headings, but not by much. Ireland, by virtue of its now almost total dependence on American corporations, is likely to be among the frontrunners in taking the fast lane to the new feudalism.
Is this, then, our civilisations’s destiny? Perhaps, perhaps not. In spite of the best efforts of the corrupt legacy media, the world is beginning to awaken to the dire threats confronting the existing freedoms and ways of life of normal people. The populist revolution of the past five years has represented an awakening to the fact that the world is no longer being run for the benefit of its population. Those who have risen up in response to Trump, Salvini and the others do so in defence of their way of life and the birthright they had presumed the right to hand on to their children. Despite Joel Kotkin's skepticism, I do not imagine that Zuckerberg, Gates and Bezos have much chance against these people with their dander up.
The late journalist, Breandán O hEíthir, in his 1986 book The Begrudger’s Guide to Irish Politics, relates a story from the West Cork of Ireland’s childhood in independence, in which, on the morning after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, the local parish priest encounters the doughty local blacksmith on the roads and hails him with the greeting, ‘We're going to have our own gentry now!’ He is met, without a missed beat, by a spirited, ‘We will in our arse have our own gentry!’
Little did we imagine that, after all our days of struggle and growth and setbacks and progress and moral victories and disappointments, we would find ourselves threatened with being back again where we started on that December morning: bowing down not before a crowned royal but a baseball-capped soyboy with a secret desire to rule everything and everyone that crossed his path.
But I have news for Jack and Mark and Jeff: Underneath the propagandised mind of the modern Paddy lies a reservoir of spirit and ferocity that will burst out like a flash flood once the tipping point is reached.
Nothing fundamental has changed. If they think Paddy a soft touch, they think wrong.
A neo-feudal Ireland? A nouveau aristocracy?
We will in our arse.