In one of his final pieces of correspondence dated June 24, 1826, an ailing Thomas Jefferson regretfully declined Roger Weightman’s invitation to join him in Washington for the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson lamented his absence from the celebration of “the blessings & security of self-government.” These blessings, Jefferson intones, ensure that “all eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man… the general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god… these are grounds of hope for others.” But Jefferson’s confidence in the rise of equality, liberty, and self-government is now very much in doubt according to Joel Kotkin’s new book The Coming of Neo-Feudalism. To Jefferson’s republican aspirations, Kotkin counters with evidence that a new class of rulers intend to boot and spur contemporary serfs, for their own good, of course.
Kotkin argues that the economic, social, and political aspects of our period compare well with feudalism. And that means, according to Kotkin, that we are stagnant and increasingly ruled by a disconnected elite on behalf of their notions of justice and virtue, regardless of what majorities might actually desire. He describes the feudal period in Europe that existed roughly between the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the rise of independent city-states in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as a static society, governed by Catholic orthodoxy, accompanied by economic and demographic paralysis. I would argue, however, that this period, particularly its legal systems as documented by Harold Berman in Law and Revolution, was illusorily stagnant. It is hard to argue that political and economic modernity built itself anew and on top of nothing, however self-congratulating this thesis has been to many across the centuries. Lest we forget, much of political modernity in the West, from its onset in the sixteenth century, has been absolutist and uncompromising, unlike medieval England, to take one example, which had limits on monarchy, a practice of representation, and the rule of law.
I can still take Kotkin’s point here. Economic growth in England and in the Netherlands really does explode in the late eighteenth century, producing the much-remarked L-shaped hockey-stick expansion that revolutionized living conditions and commerce in the West. Moreover, this manner of existence builds on the notion that commerce is itself a good thing, which requires the extension of a certain liberality by political institutions to individuals and corporations who become free to trade. As Kotkin repeatedly underscores, it presupposes that economic growth, the creation of a middle class, property ownership, capital accumulation, technological development, and the rule of law are positive goods.
Kotkin’s provocative definition of neo-feudalism as “a new form of aristocracy developing in the United States and beyond, as wealth in our postindustrial economy tends to be ever more concentrated in fewer hands” is part of an overarching argument about a malignant inequality that grips us, he claims, along with a new nobility ruling us from its position at the apex of this pyramid. His claims about economic inequality pick up where most do in the 1970s, where he states that the majority of income growth was taken by the top 1 percent “and especially the top .l percent” for the next two decades. In the twenty-first century gains for the top 1 percent have only magnified. Everyone else lost ground. I’ll come back to this observation later because I think it is incomplete and is a striking weakness in his argument. But it is a happy fault, precisely because growing incomes should help counteract Kotkin’s largely accurate observations about the ruling class that does want to herd us in their preferred pins.