The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Wednesday, December 4, 2019
Economics/Business ... Society ... Technology ...

I sometimes expend some mental energy pondering where America seems to be going, from the perspective of a social and economic historian. (OK, I’m not a professional social and economic historian, but I find it interesting and I have previously shared some thoughts on this blog about that). Yes, I know that sounds awfully boring. But it does relate to how people will be living their lives in the future. It also helps us to see some things that are already happening to ourselves.

So, a recent article on the American Affairs Journal website (yes, sounds very boring) caught my eye. The article is entitled “America’s Drift toward Feudalism”, and was written by Joel Kotkin, a fellow in urban studies at Chapman University in California. So what the heck does it mean to “drift toward feudalism”?

Well, feudalism was a social and economic system that dominated Europe during much of the Middle Ages. In feudal Europe, the economy was basically agrarian, land was the most important asset, and the great majority of the land was owned by a small handful of rich people, sometimes known as the lords or barons. A fair amount of land was also owned by churches and monasteries in the Catholic fold. The great majority of the population was quite poor (the “peasant class”) and didn’t own any land, nor anything much else. They tried to stay alive (barely) by farming the land for the rich owners.

The land and most other major assets were held by that very small group of kings, barons, bishops and abbots. All power, including military, economic, social and even spiritual, were concentrated in their hands. They and a small class of high-level vassals, priests and craftsmen who served them were the keepers of education, knowledge and culture. There was basically zero social mobility, no opportunity to work your way up from one class to another. You were pretty much born into your life, and most people were born into the impoverished life of a serf or peasant.

Yikes! Is that where modern America is heading? Well, not exactly. Our high-tech economy will never return to an agrarian base (today, information has taken the place of land and later machines as the most important social and economic asset). Farming will remain a small and highly efficient industrial sector that will continue being increasingly mechanized. And the Catholic Church and its monastic orders are unlikely to make a big comeback and be feared by all for having the power to condemn you to an eternal afterlife in hell.

But as to the increasing concentration of income, wealth and opportunity over the past 40 years or so. . . the trends in modern America appear to be moving us towards a world where a minority are rich and secure, while the majority remains poor and struggling. Since the 1980s, the political, technical and economic trends of American society have worked to make the rich richer while taking away from everyone else, except the minority (and future majority) who are already poor. E.g., back in the 50s and 60s, a store manager, garbageman, or factory worker could afford to buy their own home on a small plot of land; today, that isn’t true.

OK, we still have a long way to go until America starts to look like France in the 12th Century (and we clearly aren’t going to return to the historic American twist on agrarian feudalism, i.e. chattel slavery). But with the galloping advances in computer and robot technology and the Artificial Intelligence revolution just around the corner, it’s starting to look like a whole lot of jobs are going to be eliminated and a whole lot of workers (even highly educated workers) are no longer going to be needed before too many more years passed. In the past, new technologies such as steam power, electric motors, the telegraph and telephone, combustion engines, etc. caused some workers to lose their jobs. But other new types of jobs rose up almost immediately, often paying more and offering better working conditions. On the whole, things didn’t get much worse and sometimes even got better for workers, especially once industrial unions arose and gained political power.

However, we now seem to be reaching a point where technology and information accumulation is advancing so quickly that this process will not keep up. Those humans that are still required to work for a boss will usually need very high levels of technical education to remain relevant and demand comfortable salary levels. Of course, there will always be some need for humans with higher levels of “interpersonal” skills, even if their technical skills are limited. The rich and highly trained classes aren’t going to want robots to take care of all their needs; they will want human teachers and doctors and nurses and chefs and investment advisers to tend to them. Along with creative people to provide them with art and entertainment.

But the rest of us will be stuck dealing with robots, as we already are at banks (ATM’s) and supermarkets (automated checkout) and when we need information or assistance (automated phone information numbers). We may soon be consulting with AI medical programs and not human doctors for many of our ills. There will be so many people competing for those few human service jobs remaining that those lucky enough to land a job won’t be paid all that much. They will need to be content with a very modest lifestyle and little security (these jobs may be filled mostly on a temporary contractor basis, i.e. a “professional gig”). It’s just market economics at work in a world of accelerating technology.

Therefore, those who do retain some form of work that doesn’t require a PhD in math or science or engineering or information technology won’t be all that much better of than . . . “the masses”. And just what will it be like to be one of “the masses”? Mr. Kotkin does not detail that in his article. But he does recognize that these masses have a problem!

In his article, Mr. Kotkin begins by outlining who the rich and powerful will be (the oligarchy), and who will take on the role of the clergy and aristocrats of feudal Europe. The first group is not so hard to identify; the second function, according to Kotkin, will be filled by “the new clerisy”, America’s evolving progressive and highly educated class of professors, elite government bureaucrats, writers, media figures, and entertainers. One group will dominate economically, the second group will dominate culture. Just as the medieval barons looked to the bishops and priests for salvation after death and to the aristocracy for cultural and intellectual approval while still alive, the oligarchs need the clerisy to bolster their own sense of cultural, intellectual, and maybe even spiritual legitimacy. Who cares what the masses think, so long as the grads of Harvard, Yale and Oxford say that we’re good!

According to Kotkin, the biggest issue for these two groups will be:

. . . a conflict between the oligarchs and the clerisy over the appropriation of wealth. The way things look now, the battle will be over who pays for an ever-expanding welfare state—not how to expand the middle class. This is likely to shift our politics increasingly in an authoritarian direction. As the great historian Barrington Moore noted, “No bourgeois, no democracy.” In a country where the middle ranks are shrinking, the elites more powerful, and ideological polarization is on the rise, the prospects for democracy, even in its greatest homeland, could be grim indeed.

In the world envisioned by the oligarchs and the clerisy, the poor and much of the middle class are destined to become more dependent on the state. This dependency could be accelerated as their labor is devalued both by policy hostile to the industrial economy, and by the greater implementation of automation and artificial intelligence.

Opposing these forces will be very difficult, particularly given the orientation of our media, academia, and the nonprofit world, as well as the massive wealth accumulated by the oligarchs. A system that grants favors and entertainment to its citizens but denies them property expects little in return. This kind of state, Tocqueville suggested, can be used to keep its members in “perpetual childhood”; it “would degrade men rather than tormenting them.”

I said above that Kotkin does not detail who “the masses” are and what their lives will be like. However, he does say this much about where the current American middle-class seems to be going as Baby Boomers give way to the rising Millennial generation:

Wired magazine’s Antonio García Martínez describes the contemporary [Silicon] Valley as . . . a plutocratic elite of venture capitalists and company founders [sitting] above the still-affluent cadre of skilled professionals—well paid, but living only ordinary middle-class lives, given taxes and high prices. Below them lies a vast population of gig workers, whom Martínez compares with sharecroppers in the South. And at the very bottom lies an untouchable class of homeless, those addicted to drugs, and criminals.

Martínez describes a society that, as in the Middle Ages, is “highly stratified, with little social mobility.” High prices make it all but impossible for anyone except the very affluent to own their homes. Workers in the gig economy, much less the “untouchables,” have little chance to improve their lot but struggle to barely pay their rent, or are forced to sleep in their cars, on friend’s couches, or commute long distances from the outlying periphery . . . the fading prospects for the new generation are now painfully obvious. Three-quarters of American adults today will not grow up to be better off than their parents. According to Pew, a majority of parents think their children will be financially worse off than themselves.

Unlike their parents, most of whom joined the middle-class yeo­manry, many young people face a future as property-less serfs. By 2030, according to a Deloitte study of U.S. trends, millennials will account for barely 16 percent of the nation’s wealth. GenXers will hold 31 percent, but even in 2030, when they will be entering their eighties and nineties, boomers will still control a remarkable 45 per­cent of the nation’s wealth.

This erosion of the “American dream” centers largely on property. Since the end of feudalism, the rise of market-oriented democracy has accompanied the rapid dispersion of property ownership . . . Yet in the new generation, this prospect is fading. In the United States, homeownership among the post-college cohort (ages 25–34) has dropped from 45.4 percent in 2000 to 37 percent in 2016, a drop of 18 percent, according to Census Bureau data.

Some pundits suggest the decline of homeownership stems from changing preferences among younger people. Planners, social pundits, and urban intellectuals within the clerisy repeatedly make this assertion—one echoed by investors who seek to create a “rentership” society where people remain renters for life, enjoying their video games or houseplants. Yet virtually all surveys show that the vast majority of younger people would like to own a single-family home, and most want to raise children. The reason for not doing so lies with high housing costs.

In the emerging neo-feudal world . . . inheritance, notes French economist Thomas Piketty, seems destined to “make a comeback.” In the next generation, inheritance may play a role unseen since the nineteenth century. In America, a nation with a mythology disdainful of inher­ited wealth, millennials are counting on inheritance for their retirement at a rate three times that of the boomers. Among the youngest cohort, those 18 to 22, over 60 percent see inheritance as their primary source of wealth as they age.

In sum, the children of the once-powerful and once-proud American middle class are being pulled down by modern social and economic forces, which are driven by accelerating technological change.

Over time, the falling middle class will obviously demand and become more and more dependent upon government aid, aid which re-distributes some of the oligarchy’s wealth. The oligarchy will eventually go along with this, so as to keep the masses from revolting (the one thing that the masses will still have is numbers; the Third Estate will strongly outnumber the clerisy and oligarchy). In a way, the surprise Trump victory of 2016 was a sign that the disgruntled middle class can and will fight back, and not necessarily in ways that the progressive, highly educated clerisy would have envisioned. I myself feel that Trump’s presidency will be seen by future historians as a minor revolt, but one that will cause future Democratic-liberal administrations to afford increased attention and aid to the sinking middle.

In a nutshell, it would appear that there is an unspoken visionary plan, an implied long-term agreement between today’s progressive class (i.e., the “clerisy”) and the oligarchy (derisively called “the one percent” by the children of the clerisy not so many years ago), as to eliminate the distinction between the middle class and the poor over time by lowering the middle and raising the bottom a bit, through a revival of activist governmental programs as now endorsed by the strengthening progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Universal health care is strongly demanded by this faction, and Democratic candidate Andrew Yang recently started the discussion about “universal basic income”. UBI is still a long way off, but once it becomes clear that the American economy no longer needs a lot of human participants on the production end, the “UBI” will be the logical devise that the clerisy will impose upon the oligarchy to forgive their sins and maintain cultural acceptance within the intellectual elite. This is not all that different than how the clerical class (the bishops and priests) of the Middle Ages imposed some minimal duty of charity towards the peasant masses upon the land barons, under the threat of eternal damnation in the fires of Hell.

Thus, those who have been known as the lower class or the working poor will slowly merge with those who hail from the once-comfortable families of the middle, becoming the modern equivalent of the feudal “Third Estate”. This will be the great majority of the American populace. Those within this group will not gain extensive work histories within their lifetimes. Many will go through their adulthood in “unemployed” status, with perhaps a few bouts as temporary project contractors (“gig” workers), or intermittent episodes of local entrepreneurship through tiny internet-based businesses (which may earn them some pocket money to supplement their UBI, but not enough to sustain a family). Some of them will be lucky to have some savings or real estate through inheritance and will live a bit better than the rest. But for the most part, this group will be largely dependent upon government aid, especially a universal basic income, to maintain the minimal level of satisfaction needed to avoid political revolt.

As Kotkin recognizes, the new Third Estate will not be tormented by government indifference, but will be coddled just enough to keep them “degraded” politically. Some social commentators say that this may not be such a bad arrangement. Under a UBI and Medicare for all, as supplemented with occasional temporary work-gigs and some family inheritance, people will have time and freedom to express themselves creatively, through group and personal art and music projects, local research and historic documentation, spending more time with family and friends, helping their local church or spiritual community, getting involved in local politics (national politics will no doubt be controlled by the oligarchy and clerisy), raising crops and do their own cooking if desired, and perhaps doing some traveling (although it’s highly uncertain, however, whether a UBI would allow an average couple to take a Caribbean cruise every few years). Perhaps the more entrepreneurial types might make a few bucks selling trinkets or cookies at a local festival or on-line. Arguably we’d be way too busy and content to think about organizing and rallying against the clerisy and the oligarchy that takes such good care of us and keeps us from worrying about the big problems (e.g., assumably we could trust the progressive clerisy to get the oligarchy to do the right things as to control the global warming crisis and provide us with a “green world”).

And yet . . . would some of us miss the days when we were a part of the “real world”, a responsible component of the real economy, however small a part or component that was? A recent article about UBI on the Foundation for Economic Education site says that:

People need stimulating experiences. They need to feel engaged and the stakes have to be real. They need to exercise their bodies and minds in challenging tasks that make a significant difference to something larger than themselves, something valuable. This, it seems, is to be fully human. Venmo payments alone will not suffice . . . Money for nothing threatens us by systematically leveling our purpose. People may not starve, but they will feel useless. Perhaps the government — or whoever owns the robots — will need to launch the greatest make-work project in history. Pyramid building where the robots watch humans stack stones incompetently and more slowly. Or, perhaps, with all of us strapped in Oculus Rifts, virtual reality can suspend disbelief long enough to create a sense of accomplishment. Or maybe humans will invent businesses to create new engaging and adversity-themed experiences for others. But then the robots haven’t taken all the jobs….whatever the case may be, advocates have identified a problem, but they should admit UBI alone is not the answer.

Personally, I’m not sure what the answer is to all of this; nor even if there is an answer. We might just have to sit back and see what happens. Kotkin says at the end of his article that:

Reversing our path away from a new feudalism will require, among other things, a rediscovery of belief in our basic values and what it means to be an American . . . Recovering a sense of pride and identification with America’s achievements is an essential component of any attempt to recover the drive, ambition, and self-confidence that propelled the United States to the space age. If we want to rescue the future from a new and pernicious form of feudalism, we will have to recover this ground . . . To reverse neo-feudalism, the Third Estate—the class most threatened by the ascendency of the oligarchs and the clerisy—needs to re­invigorate its political will, just as it did during the Revolution and in the various struggles that followed. “Happy the nation whose people has not forgotten to how to rebel,” noted the British historian R. H. Tawney. Whether we can understand and defy the new feudalism will determine the kind of world our children will inherit.

I myself doubt that a UBI-supported new feudalism would trigger a spirit of rebellion and nostalgic patriotism, as Kotkin would imagine. The trend towards feudalism will probably continue to occur slowly over decades, and like the frog slowly being boiled, the “masses” might never really notice what is happening. By the time they do, a UBI with free healthcare and education (however dumbed-down that education will be, given that the masses will no longer be needed for productive employment) might be the only practical alternative in a world where few real jobs still exist and most people don’t have the qualifications to hold one.

Kotkin seems to imagine that the new feudalism is a political and social matter, but it is ultimately driven by hard-edged science, technology and economic incentives. Anyone who would propose to stop technical innovation and freeze the existing economic system in place, or even worse go backwards so as to re-institute a large cadre of human workers, would be condemned as a neo-Luddite. I doubt if the highly educated clerisy, despite their progressive affectations, would turn against the oligarchy and support a less efficient but more human-involved economy. That has never worked in the past.

Sorry to be fatalistic, but perhaps it’s best to start thinking about how common people might adjust and still find some meaning within a new techno-feudalism, and how we can avoid having large numbers of people lapsing into a sense of worthlessness that promotes substance abuse, poor health and other negative and destructive behaviors. Humans are known for being innovative and adaptable.

Perhaps we will learn to adapt to a limited but guaranteed level of economic support that makes very few social demands upon the great majority of people (but at the same time only gives them limited freedoms and opportunities). Perhaps the oligarchy and clerisy might even voluntarily allow the masses some involvement in the “real world” and in the use and management of its resources, so as to help maintain their self-esteem and wellness, and avoid their degeneration (e.g., perhaps some people with sufficient abilities and interest might be allowed some involvement in real scientific and technological research, or in planning space exploration, or in addressing international conflicts).

Whatever . . . it looks like some big changes are coming to the way we live. So maybe taking the view of a modern economic and social historian / analyst ain’t so boring after all!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:20 pm      

  1. I have thought about Feudalism in recent months too. And I imagined how its defenders at the time are similar to the defenders of capitalism today. some people cannot imagine a different kind of economic system than what we have in the present.

    The United States has been losing its middle class since the 80s, and perhaps earlier than that. The trend has happened in both Republican and Democratic administrations – and in truth it will likely continue for the reasons you cited into the foreseeable future – regardless of whether Biden is elected president in 2020. The fairness of capitalism was questioned when I was a college student in the 70s. Yet clearly, it is a far, far, greater issue today than it was in the 70s.

    Yet both political parties continue to propose capitalistic solutions to our problems. Perhaps the best example is healthcare. Our healthcare system is by far the most expensive in the world, but we don’t have much to show for that, other than if you have a lot of money, you will get the best healthcare in the US. but that is clearly not true if you don’t have a lot of money. Regardless how inefficient the US healthcare system has been proven to be, politicians of both parties continue to propose capitalistic solutions to fix its problems. It is past time that we start considering other solutions.

    Comment by Zreebs — April 12, 2020 @ 10:39 am

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