Excerpted from Joel Kotkin:
“The emerging class structure of neo-feudalism, like its European and Asian antecedents, is far more complex than simply a matter of the gilded “them” and the broad “us.” To work as a system, as we can now see in California, we need to understand the broader, more divergent class structure that is emerging.
The Oligarchs: The swelling number of billionaires in the state, particularly in Silicon Valley, has enhanced power that is emerging into something like the old aristocratic French second estate. Through public advocacy and philanthropy, the oligarchs have tended to embrace California’s “green” agenda, with a very negative impact on traditional industries such as manufacturing, agriculture, energy, and construction. Like the aristocrats who saw all value in land, and dismissed other commerce as unworthy, they believe all value belongs to those who own the increasingly abstracted information revolution that has made them so fabulously rich.
The Clerisy: The Oligarchs may have the money, but by themselves they cannot control a huge state like California, much less America. Gentry domination requires allies with a broader social base and their own political power. In the Middle Ages, this role was played largely by the church; in today’s hyper-secular America, the job of shaping the masses has fallen to the government apparat, the professoriat, and the media, which together constitute our new Clerisy. The Clerisy generally defines societal priorities, defends “right-thinking” oligarchs, and chastises those, like traditional energy companies, that deviate from their theology.
The New Serfs: If current trends continue, the fastest growing class will be the permanently property-less. This group includes welfare recipients and other government dependents but also the far more numerous working poor. In the past, the working poor had reasonable aspirations for a better life, epitomized by property ownership or better prospects for their children. Now, with increasingly little prospect of advancement, California’s serfs depend on the Clerisy to produce benefits making their permanent impoverishment less gruesome. This sad result remains inevitable as long as the state’s economy bifurcates between a small high-wage, tech-oriented sector, and an expanding number of lower wage jobs in hospitality, health services, and personal service jobs. As a result, the working class, stunted in their drive to achieve the California dream, now represents the largest portion of domestic migrants out of the state.
The Yeomanry: In neo-feudalist California, the biggest losers tend to be the old private sector middle class. This includes largely small business owners, professionals, and skilled workers in traditional industries most targeted by regulatory shifts and higher taxes. Once catered to by both parties, the yeomanry have become increasingly irrelevant as California has evolved into a one-party state where the ruling Democrats have achieved a potentially permanent, sizable majority consisting largely of the clerisy and the serf class, and funded by the oligarchs. Unable to influence government and largely disdained by the clerisy, these middle income Californians are becoming a permanent outsider group, much like the old Third Estate in early medieval times, forced to pay ever higher taxes as well as soaring utility bills and required to follow regulations imposed by people who often have little use for their “middle class” suburban values.
* The Political Implications of Neo-Feudalism
As Marx, among others, has suggested, class structures contain within them the seeds of their dissolution. In New York, a city that is arguably as feudal as anything in California, the emergence of mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio reflected growing antagonism—particularly among the remaining yeoman and serf class— towards the gentry urbanism epitomized by Mayor Michael “Luxury City” Bloomberg.
Yet except for occasional rumbling from the left, neo-feudalism likely represents the future. Certainly in California, Gov. Jerry Brown, a former Jesuit with the intellectual and political skills needed to oversee a neo-feudal society, remains all but unassailable politically. If Brown, or his policies, are to be contested, the challenge will likely come from left-wing activists who find his policies insufficiently supportive of the spending demanded by the clerisy and the serfs or insufficiently zealous in their pursuit of environmental purity.
The economy in California and elsewhere likely will determine the viability of neo-feudalism. If a weaker economy forces state and local government budget cutbacks, there could be a bruising conflict as the various classes fight over diminishing spoils. But it’s perhaps more likely that we will see enough slow growth so that Brown will be able to keep both the clerisy and the serfs sufficiently satisfied. If that is the case, the new feudal system could shape the evolution of the American class structure for decades to come.”