By Joel Kotkin
In a way not seen since the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, America is becoming a nation of increasingly sharply divided classes. Joel Kotkin’s The New Class Conflict breaks down these new divisions for the first time, focusing on the ascendancy of two classes: the Tech Oligarchy, based in Silicon Valley; and the Clerisy, which includes much of the nation’s policy, media, and academic elites.
The New Class Conflict is written largely from the point of view of those who are, to date, the losers in this class conflict: the middle class. This group, which Kotkin calls the Yeomanry, has been the traditional bulwark of American society, politics, and economy. Yet under pressure from the ascendant Oligarchs and ever more powerful Clerisy, their prospects have diminished the American dream of class mobility that has animated its history and sustained its global appeal.
This book is both a call to arms and a unique piece of analysis about the possible evolution of our society into an increasingly quasi-feudal order. Looking beyond the conventional views of both left and right, conservative and liberal, Kotkin provides a tough but evenhanded analysis of our evolving class system, and suggests some approaches that might restore the middle class to its proper role as the dominant group in the American future.
We’ve heard a lot of election-year class warfare talk, from makers vs. takers to the 1% vs. the 99%. But Joel Kotkin’s important new book, The New Class Conflict, suggests that America’s real class problems are deeper, and more damaging, than election rhetoric.
Kotkin is not as pessimistic as this summary suggests. He thinks that America has a vast latent capacity to adapt, and to change the rules democratically, as we’ve done in the past. But, he says, “the most fundamental challenge facing the U.S. is the growing disenfranchisement of the middle and working class from the benefits of economic activity.”
Some people — like the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm that addresses absurd occupational licensing rules — are working on addressing that. But if the middle class is to have a future in America, we need to return power to it, at the expense of oligarchs and their secular clergy. Given that the uppermost strata of American society are still doing fine, expect the impulse for change to come from somewhere else.
What do government-induced spikes in energy prices, ideological purges at major American universities and companies, and the “Life of Julia” slideshow from the 2012 Obama reelection campaign have in common? According to demographer Joel Kotkin, aspects of class politics in the contemporary United States explain these three things — and many more. In his latest book, The New Class Conflict, Kotkin turns his demographer’s eye to the crisis of the middle class in the 21st-century United States. Kotkin argues that the hollowing out of the middle class is a central political, economic, and social issue of our time, and the disruption brought about by the crisis of the middle class could scramble the political coalitions of both Republicans and Democrats.
In the past, Kotkin has advanced the thesis that the United States is at risk of degenerating into a condition of neofeudalism, and The New Class Conflict offers a series of sustained reflections on the qualities of this neofeudalism. According to Kotkin, American society sees itself dividing into four neofeudal classes: the Oligarchs (the super-wealthy, especially in technical fields), the Clerisy (the opinion-makers and enforcers of consensus in the media, academy, and government regulatory bodies), the Yeomanry (the middle class), and a serf class with minimal economic assets and perhaps even less economic hope. Kotkin argues that, over the past few decades, power has increasingly shifted to the Oligarchs and their allies in the Clerisy, thereby weakening the middle class and swelling the masses of the poor. Throughout The New Class Conflict, Kotkin uses California as exemplifying a broader national trend; once a citadel of the dynamic middle class, the Golden State now witnesses broad (and growing) economic and cultural divides.
The vision embedded in the Founding documents of the United States was of a free and equal people. At the time of the nation’s founding, this was not so much a fantasy but—with the obvious and inhumane exception of slavery—empirical reality. Class distinctions were extant, but they were not necessarily pronounced. The same was true of inequality in wealth and status. Northeastern financial families like the Schuylers had an edge over the yeoman farmers of Shenandoah Valley, of course, but it was nothing compared to the rigid class divisions in continental Europe.
The same seemed true for the nation for 30 years after World War II. A broad-based economic boom elevated the working class—especially second-wave immigrants such as the Italians and Polish—into the middle class.
But it was not always this way. The industrial revolution wrought fundamental changes in society and politics and created sharp divisions between classes. This was further reinforced by the seemingly endless waves of penniless immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.
And, according to Joel Kotkin of Chapman University, so it goes today. He has just published an important book, The New Class Conflict, which is essential to understanding the “new class order” that is undermining the republican ideals of this nation.
While Kotkin might not follow through precisely on how his various classes interact, his book is nevertheless illuminating. The chapter on the tech class is worth the purchase price alone. Kotkin is to be commended for seeing past the daily bric-à-brac of American politics to perceive the newly emerging class divisions. More work must be done on what to do about these issues, but this book is an enormously important first step.
Any serious attempt to understand the US’s current impasse by moving outside the conventional framework should be welcome. The stale pairings of liberal and conservative, right and left, no longer cut it.
Joel Kotkin, an American academic and author, has come up with the unlikely proposal of understanding the country’s predicament in terms of class conflict. But his conception is a world away from the old socialist notion of a combative proletariat battling against an intransigent ruling class. Instead, his is an innovative attempt to rethink the main contours of US society.
Although his framework is superior to the platitudes of liberals versus conservatives, it has weaknesses. It does not sufficiently explain why an elitist technocratic outlook has such a grip on American life. The ever-increasing role of government is only part of the story. Nor does he acknowledge how many leaders in traditional industries, not just the tech oligarchs, have embraced notions such as sustainability.
But in having the courage to junk the old nostrums, he has taken an important step forward. The challenge is for others to go even further.
In The New Class Conflict, Joel Kotkin argues that the socially and politically ascendant groups in contemporary America are the oligarchs of Silicon Valley and a complex of elite journalists, think-tank pundits, and academics that he dubs the clerisy. The nouveaux riches of the tech world are increasingly intent on remaking society in accordance with their own passions, reports Kotkin, an urban studies scholar at Chapman University. The clerisy, meanwhile, promotes and provides ideological legitimation for elite goals. The effect of the two groups’ efforts, he concludes, is to concentrate wealth and power in a shrinking number of hands, leaving the middle class stranded and subject to ever more evident economic decline.
Kotkin does not claim that either group is a monolith. Different factions within each class compete for access to wealth and political influence, and they also exhibit some differences in cultural commitment. But overall, Kotkin suggests, there is a persistent pattern: Contemporary elites are socially liberal but relatively blasé about the bread-and-butter impact of a broad range of policies that drive a growing wedge between those at the top and everyone else.
The result is a provocative and useful contribution to the literature on class. Libertarians should happily join Kotkin in his challenge to the tech oligarchs and the clerisy, even while pressing for solutions still more radical than his.
Ever get the sense that the middle class is downwardly mobile, being pressed to the floor and squeezed to the limit? It’s not happening by accident. Someone is doing the squeezing: a new class of entertainment and tech plutocrats, cheered on and abetted by a priesthood of media, government and academic elites.
Joel Kotkin’s “The New Class Conflict” (Telos Press Publishing) paints a dire picture of the undeclared war on the middle class. What he calls the Oligarchy (Silicon Valley and Hollywood) and the Clerisy (the media, bureaucrats, universities and nonprofits) enrich themselves and gratify their own strange obsessions at the expense of the middle class.
When Samuel Coleridge first used the term in 1830, he said the clerisy were the bearers of the highest ideals of society. Their mission was to transmit them to the less enlightened orders.
What if the rest of us don’t necessarily agree with all those ideals? What if we don’t want to be enlightened? What if what we really care about is our jobs and our paychecks?
Reply the Clerisy and the Oligarchy: Shut up and listen to your betters.
For many years, Joel Kotkin has analysed what holds back the advancement of the American ‘middle’ class, which for him includes the working class, the self-employed and small business owners. In this pursuit, Kotkin’s willingness to look beyond conventional labels and challenge trendy theories has made him stand out. As a leading geographer, he has long defied fashionable criticisms of suburbs, highlighting how such criticisms are often thinly veiled attacks on the working families who prefer not to live in urban downtowns. Now, taking on a broader role as social commentator, he overturns received wisdom about the elites and the masses in his book, The New Class Conflict.
Right away Kotkin says that, to understand the dynamics of the current political era, we have to ditch traditional notions of ‘left’ and ‘right’. He takes as given that the old corporate ‘plutocracy’ remains behind the Republicans. But he finds that the Democrats — a party that many still uphold as being on the side of the people, or the ‘99 per cent’ — are equally elitist, not least because they are backed by Silicon Valley ‘tech oligarchs’ and Wall Street bankers, among other high-rollers. Indeed, the ‘1 per cent’ seems pretty solidly behind the Democrats: eight of the top 10 recipients of donations from the rich were liberal groups like Emily’s List or Moveon.org, and in the past two presidential elections, the wealthiest areas of the country voted for Obama.
As he writes in the conclusion, the Clerisy may dominate the airwaves, but it remains a minority, and one that is out of touch: ‘Perhaps nowhere is there greater dissonance between the populace and the leaders of the new class order than in perceptions of the desirability of economic growth and widespread social opportunity.’ His book is an important contribution towards exposing the gap between this patronising, know-it-all secular priesthood and the rest of us.
This original and provocative book should stimulate fresh thinking — and produce vigorous dissent. In essence, Kotkin argues that an alliance between superwealthy elites in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street and what he calls the “clerisy” of upper-middle-class professionals is driving the American middle class proper to the brink. The middle class, Kotkin argues, depends on things such as cheap energy, heavy industry, land-use rules that favor single-family housing, regional-planning policies that reduce the cost of homeownership, and more effective border control to protect lower-skilled workers from wage competition. Those policies are anathema to climate change activists, conservationists, and “new urbanists” (who see a revival of dense urban cores as good social and environmental policy). Kotkin foresees bitter political conflict between populists and environmentalists, and if The New Class Conflict is even partly right, interesting times lie ahead. Populism has always been one of the driving forces in U.S. politics, but as Kotkin reminds us, neither the liberal left nor the Tea Party right fully captures populist aspirations.
In Joel Kotkin’s excellent book The New Class Conflict, he calls the intellectual leadership of the party the “liberal gentry,” a group equally made up of Silicon Valley and Wall Street hedge fund types. The Democratic mantra has shifted from “growth” to “sustainability.” This change is not so much a difference in emphasis as a reversal of direction. Despite dreams of green jobs, the environmental policies of this administration impede growth, particularly in the manufacturing sector.
The Wall Street ties of the new Democratic Party have led to massive income inequality. Kotkin notes that under President Obama, 95 percent of the income gains have accrued to the top 1 percent of the country while 93 percent have experienced no income growth. Under former President Clinton, 45 percent of the income gains went to the top 1 percent. Under George W. Bush it was 65 percent. Kotkin notes that the disaffection of blue-collar working-class voters stems from the preoccupation of the Democrats with the views of their elite donors rather than of their lower- to middle-income voters.