Even before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, America, like most higher-income countries, was already heading toward a neo-feudal future: massive inequality, ever-greater concentrations of power, and increasingly widespread embrace of a uniform (albeit secular) religion. The pandemic, all too reminiscent of the great plagues of the Middle Ages, seems destined to accelerate this process.
This can be seen by looking at something that many Americans, particularly conservatives, often long to ignore: class. In contrast to the post-World War II order, which engendered growing opportunity for the middle and working classes, the last few decades have seen the rapid concentration of wealth in virtually every major country in Europe and Asia.
The oligarchic class now owns as much as 50% of world’s assets. Just five companies—Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft—account for over 20% of the market capitalization of the entire S&P 500 index.
Today’s new oligarchs constitute a modern-day equivalent of the Medieval aristocracy. Like the barbarians who seized control of land during the demise of Rome, they seem well-positioned to benefit from the emerging social distance-driven recession. The dislocation caused by the pandemic has greatly expanded the financial assets of the country’s increasingly hegemonic giant banks. But the biggest long-term winners are the big tech firms that dominate digital pathways at a time when the analog world, already failing, now faces inexorable obliteration.
Today’s other ascendant class is what I call the clerisy, who today fulfill the role played by the clergy in the Middle Ages. Known as the First Estate in pre-revolutionary France, the clerisy today is largely secular but consists of the key influencers in the media, academia, the upper bureaucracy and the ever-expanding “non-profit” sector. This new middle class enjoys something of a symbiosis with the oligarchic elites who mainly finance non-governmental organizations and the universities, and tends to a share a similarly progressive world view.
The people losing out most in the pandemic are the remnants of what was once dubbed the Third Estate: the commoners, long the bastion of democracy and liberal ideas. Millions of owners of small businesses have been devastated by the lockdowns, their lifetime investments allowed to turn to dust because the clerisy has declared them “non-essential” and hopes to keep them in lockdown well into the summer.
Read the rest of this piece at the American Mind.
Joel Kotkin is the author of the just-released book The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute — formerly the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin
Photo credit: Limbourg Brothers Wikimedia under Public Domain