The Specter of a New Serfdom

On Joel Kotkin’s The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class

As the age of the nation-state may very well be lurching toward an untimely end, eclipsed by the rise of mega-rich corporate titans with their private fiefdoms, and by the fragmentation of civil society into warring identities, more and more commentators and politicians have been reaching for a positively medieval metaphor to describe our current predicament: feudalism. This should not surprise us; after all, the last time America experienced such spiraling levels of wealth inequality and corporate autonomy, we referred to our overlords as “robber barons.” Moreover, the feudal political and economic order holds some fascinating analogues for current social conditions, whether it be the weakening of national bonds, the rise of private governance, especially in Big Tech, or the re-emergence of pre-Lockean concepts of property on the digital frontier.

Unfortunately, the first book-length treatment of the subject, Joel Kotkin’s The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, explores almost none of these deeper analogues between the medieval political order and our own. Instead, Kotkin contents himself with an impressionistic grab-bag of often superficial and sometimes contradictory grievances. Medieval society was profoundly unequal and oligarchic; so is ours. Medieval society was dominated by a “clerisy” who preached an otherworldly faith that propped up the worldly ambitions of the powerful; so is ours (in the form of wokeism and radical environmentalism). Medieval society locked people permanently into their social and economic class; and with the decline of the economic mobility that used to characterize American society, so does ours.

These are among the book’s more convincing analogues. Others seem like a bit of a stretch, such as his attempt to blame plunging birthrates on a feudal revival: “Another characteristic of the neo-feudal city is a dearth of children and families….The neo-feudal urban order appears to incubate not only an aversion to having children, but also difficulty in relations with the opposite sex” (141). Medieval society was not known for its low birth rates, but simply for high infant mortality, and although a significant proportion of the population embraced celibacy, this was due to a total renunciation of sexual desire, not, as in our world, because the wholesale pornification of culture had rendered young men incapable of sexual relationships. And in a section entitled “The New Geography of Feudalism,” he laments the rise of “superstar cities” like New York and Shanghai, noting that “Fifteen cities together hold roughly 11 percent of the planet’s total wealth” (131). It would be difficult to think of a feature of modern society less like medieval feudalism than the intensely urban concentration of wealth, power, and population.

Don’t get me wrong—Kotkin’s book is an important and valuable survey of the new economic, social, and political landscape that is taking shape in the twilight of the golden age of liberal capitalism. Ranging extraordinarily widely over phenomena as diverse as housing policy, education, Big Tech, climate change, and surveillance, Kotkin has clearly done his homework, with the endnotes occupying a third of the book. And Kotkin is certainly right to sound the alarm. The past few decades have witnessed a frightening concentration of wealth and power in fewer and fewer private hands, upsetting the delicate balance needed for a well-functioning market economy and democratic nation-state. From 1980 to perhaps 2015, conservatives tended to turn a blind eye to these changes, or actively cheer them on, anachronistically thinking of big business as their ideological and moral ally against a Marxist left. Only within the past few years have the scales fallen from conservative eyes as it has become clear that many of the new barons that dominate our economy are in the pocket of radical progressive ideology. Kotkin’s book is a helpful primer on these trajectories, promising to help us beyond the stale and outdated “market vs. state” paradigms of Reagan-era politics.

However, what he achieves in breadth, Kotkin sacrifices in depth. His use of the “feudal” metaphor is unimaginative and for the most part unilluminating, and his proposals for how to escape our current oligarchic spiral at the end of the book are scattered and vague. Worst of all, Kotkin appears to have no better model of the kind of society we ought to return to than 1960s America. Liberalism, democracy, individual Lockean property rights, and freedom of thought—these he offers up as the elements of the lost golden age to which he hopes we may return. Indeed, he actively pours scorn on the more interdependent, organic model of society that characterized our pre-liberal past, deeming it one of the elements of “feudalism” to be shunned. Any thoughtful reading of our current cultural predicament will show that we will need something stronger than warmed-over post-war liberalism to escape the dystopian future that Kotkin so vividly portrays.

*Image Credit: Pixabay

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Bradford Littlejohn

Bradford Littlejohn is a Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and President of the Davenant Institute. He has published extensively on Protestant political theology, Christian ethics, and the Anglo-American conservative tradition. He lives in Landrum, SC with his wife Rachel and four children.

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