Tag Archive for: democracy

Welcome to the End of Democracy

We bemoan autocracies in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Russia and China but largely ignore the more subtle authoritarian trend in the West. Don’t expect a crudely effective dictatorship out of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: we may remain, as we are now, nominally democratic, but be ruled by a technocratic class empowered by greater powers of surveillance than those enjoyed by even the nosiest of dictatorships.

The new autocracy rises from a relentless economic concentration which has engendered a new and fabulously wealthy elite. Five years ago, around four hundred billionaires owned as much as half of the world’s assets. Today, only one hundred billionaires own that share, and Oxfam reduces that number to a mere twenty-six. In avowedly socialist China, the top one percent of the population holds about one-third of the country’s wealth, up from 20 percent two decades ago. Since 1978, China’s Gini coefficient, which measures inequality of wealth distribution, has tripled.

An OECD report issued before the Covid pandemic finds that almost everywhere, the non-rich share of national wealth has declined. These trends can be seen even in social democracies like Sweden and Germany. In the United States, as the conservative economist John Michaelson put it succinctly in 2018, the economic legacy of the last decade is “excessive corporate consolidation, a massive transfer of wealth to the top 1 percent from the middle class.”

This process has developed both in the tangible and digital economies. In Great Britain, where land prices have risen dramatically over the past decade, less than one percent of the population owns half of all the land. On the European continent overall, farmland has fallen increasingly into the hands of a small cadre of corporate owners and the mega-wealthy. In America, the largest farmland holder is Bill Gates, with over 200,000 acres, while Ted Turner and John Malone preside over lordly estates of over two million acres each — larger than several American states.

As property has concentrated, small-holders have come under increased pressure. Australia historically has enjoyed high rates of homeownership, but the rate among twenty-five to thirty-four year-olds dropped from more than 60 percent in 1981 to only 45 percent in 2016. The proportion of owner-occupied housing in once-egalitarian Australia has dropped by 10 percent in the last twenty-five years. Morgan Stanley predicts that the US will soon become primarily a “rentership society” where Wall Street firms seek to turn homes, furniture and other necessities into rental products.

The digital economy is similarly dominated by a small group of giant firms. These overlords together exercise control of up to 90 percent of critical markets such as basic computer operating systems, social media, online search advertising and book sales. No longer satisfied with controlling the pipelines, the tech oligarchy increasing buys up old news outlets and “curates” the news to its tastes. It increasingly dominates mainstream entertainment too: the pending sale of MGM to Amazon is just the most recent example of its conquest and consolidation of the means of communication.

Like the barbarian princes who shaped the Middle Ages, the new oligarchs have been able to seize their fiefdoms with little resistance from weak central governments. The pandemic accelerated this process; its lockdowns and restraints on mobility proved a bonanza for tech companies like Google, whose profits doubled during the period. In this highly regulated environment, the tech-rich have simply gotten richer: seven of the ten richest Americans come from the tech sector. Apple, by some calculations, is now worth more than the entire oil and gas industry. The already obscenely rich have become richer still. Jeff Bezos alone saw his net worth jump by an estimated $34.6 billion in the first two months of the pandemic, while his company has enjoyed continued revenue and profit growth.

As executive compensation reached the stratosphere in Big Tech and finance, small businesses face what the Harvard Business Review calls “an existential threat.” Experts now warn that one third of small businesses, which comprise the majority of US companies and employ nearly half of all workers, could ultimately shut down for good. Hundreds of thousands have already disappeared, including nearly half of all black-owned businesses. Particularly damaged have been the small merchants along Main Street and those working for them, such as restaurant and hospitality workers.

Read the rest of this piece at The Spectator World.


Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Homepage photo: Chris Devers, via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

Is This the End of Progressive America?

Over the past several decades, the progressive Left has successfully fulfilled Antonio Gramsci’s famed admonition of a “long march through the institutions”. In almost every Western country, its adherents now dominate the education system, media, cultural institutions, and financial behemoths.

But what do they have to show for it? Not as much as they might have expected. Rather than a Bolshevik-style assumption of power, there’s every chance this institutional triumph will not produce an enduring political victory, let alone substantially change public opinion.

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It’s Not Just the Taliban: We in the West are Embracing Medievalism, Too

Many of us have spent the last week glued to our televisions watching the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. A marauding and medieval religious cult, the Taliban are famous for banning education for women, forcing young girls into marriage and vicious corporal punishment or worse for those who fail to adhere to the strictures of their religious fanaticism.

But while we in the West look at the Taliban with horror, a similar kind of fanaticism is taking hold here at home. And while we don’t use whips and American-appropriated weapons to enforce our new Medievalism, the social costs of allowing it to metastasize are enormous.

For years progressives, neo-conservatives, libertarians and business “visionaries” embraced the notion of inexorable progress leading humanity to more enlightened times. Optimistic notions about an “arc of history” bending toward greater prosperity and social justice were embraced by both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. But these days, the arc of progress seems to have done an about face and become something of a circle, bending all the way back to autocracy and intolerance, while the optimism of the Bush or Obama years appears more naïve in retrospect with every passing day.

The Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan is just one illustration of a seventh-century ideology overcoming the power of the neo-liberal world. Autocracies have arisen in countries which once seemed candidates for liberal democracy from Russia and Turkey to Iran. Arguably the most powerful person in the world is now China’s all-but Emperor, Xi Jinping, who has presided over the mass detention and forced sterilization of a Muslim minority, the silencing of Hong Kong’s free press and the arrest and prosecution of protestors and dissidents.

But the West, too, has fallen prey to encroaching illiberalism. America’s intellectual, political, and corporate establishment may not share the ideology of ill-educated Central Asian religious fanatics, but they echo the Taliban by embracing an increasingly medieval dogmatism and—crucial—an ideology that similarly scorns reason and debate. As historian J. B. Bury put it in 1913, the Middle Ages were a time when “a large field was covered by beliefs which authority claimed to impose as true, and reason was warned off the ground.”

Where does our own medieval lurch come from? Developments akin to what followed the fall of classical civilization: growing concentrations of political and economic power, a shrinking middle class, increasing intellectual dogmatism and a global pattern of pessimism about humanity’s prospects. We are also living through a relentless effort to supplant any remaining reverence for the ideals that historically have held our civilization together, and this, too, parallels the experience of the Middle Ages, a period in which, as Belgian historian Henri Pirenne noted, “the very mind of man was going through degeneration.”

Specifically, the West—like Afghanistan—is falling prey to a new form of clericalism. In Middle Ages, the clerical class—what the French called the First Estate— enforced the orthodoxy of the day from the Pope and the Bishops. Today, this discipline is undertaken by university faculties, media outlets, and, most egregiously, social media oligarchs. Once celebrated as forums for debate and open inquiry, our universities function today largely as defenders of orthodoxy.

In this, they are like their medieval and Communist counterparts. In medieval universities, dissenters, like Jews and Muslims, were rare, and barely tolerated. Similar conformity haunts our elite schools, where according to one study the proportion of liberals to conservatives ran as high as 70 to one, and at elite liberal arts schools like Wellesley, Swarthmore, and Williams, the proportion reached 120 to one.

But the similarities don’t end there. In addition to living with droughts, famines, ever-colder weather and political unrest, the masses and even the elites in the Middle Ages lived in terror of eternal damnation. More or less everyone believed that the Final Judgement, brought on by human sin, was not only real but imminent; the period saw a surge of millennialist movements that took it upon themselves to enforce this orthodoxy against dissenters and religious minorities like Jews.

It’s hard not to see that fear mirrored in today’s liberal hysterias, whether over racism, climate change or pestilence. Hysteria has become “the business model of the neoliberal age” as one writer aptly put it. In this environment, even supposed devotees of “science” often adopt attitudes which resemble Inquisitors more than empiricists, marginalizing dissenters and even threatening them with jail, dispossession, humiliation, or just public obliteration.

Read the rest of this piece at Newsweek.


Joel Kotkin is the author of 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. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Photo credit: Minneapolis Institute of Art, via Wikimedia in Public Domain.

Podcast: Joel Kotkin Talks to Brendan O’Neill

By: Brendan O’Neill
On: spiked

Press play below to listen to the podcast, or listen on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or Spotify.

Joel Kotkin, author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, joins spiked’s editor for the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show. They discuss the aristocratic arrogance of the tech oligarchs, the failure of ‘progressive’ politics and the battle to preserve liberal democracy.

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