K-12 Tax & Spending Climate: Joel Kotkin Q&A on ‘The Coming of Neo-Feudalism’

Carl Cannon:

Let’s start at the beginning, Joel. In talking about your new book, “The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class,” do you literally fear that liberal capitalism is losing out to economic “feudalism”? And please put that word feudalism in a modern context for our readers.

The parallels are striking. In the long centuries after the feudal era — let’s say starting around 1200 ACE — there was a slow, but gradual rise of upward mobility and growing power to the middle class. In the 20th century this progress was extended to the working class. Despite its many crises, liberal capitalism provided a better way of life and higher expectations not only for Americans, but also Europeans, Japanese, east Asians, including China, Canada, Australia and even some developing countries.

That progress stalled in the 1970s in the West, as wealth began to concentrate in fewer hands and income growth all but ended for the vast majority. Instead, we see the rise of two classes that parallel the feudal structure. One is the oligarchy, notably in Silicon Valley, and the other is a modern version of the clerisy; one replicates the military aristocracy that rose after the end of the Roman Empire; the other, the powerful priesthood of the Catholic Church. Meanwhile the middle class, what I call the property-owning yeomanry, has declined while the ranks of the new serf class — essentially those with no hope of achieving property ownership or a shot to move into the middle class — have expanded.

This is the essence of neo-feudalism.

You sound the alarm about the fate awaiting the “global” middle class, but the book’s epicenter is in California. You have a contrarian opinion of the prevailing view, which was recently expressed this way by progressive writers Peter Leyden and Ruy Teixeira: “Cali­fornia is the future of American politics.” Apparently, you no longer believe that’s something to celebrate. 

I have lived in California for nearly a half century. When I came here, it was the land of opportunity. Sure, there was poverty but also a lot of upward mobility. People came here to make their lives better. Now California suffers large-scale middle- and working-class out-migration and the highest poverty rate, adjusted for costs, of any state. Inequality, as James Galbraith and others have found, is about as steep as anywhere.

Our once-dynamic politics are frozen in place. California’s thriving two-party system morphed into a one-party state dominated by tech oligarchs, public employees, and green activists. The state’s Republican Party, which once loomed over the nation, has withered into a small Trumpist cult with perhaps 40% support at best.