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Defending Western democracy

The threat of neo-feudalism to classical liberalism


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Defending Western democracy

Urbanologist Joel Kotkin contends that Christian leaders before the Protestant Reformation often opposed a dynamic economy and were content with poverty and social immobility. He rightly contends that capitalism gave multitudes the opportunity to improve their condition and build a solid middle class, yet contemporary leaders in media and academia ignore the need for broad-based development and are content to praise high-tech ascendency.

Kotkin sees more gated cities coming, along with the prospect of authoritarian overlords facing peasant rebellions. He’s on the side of a modern yeomanry made up of small business owners and skilled workers, and opposes environmental leftists who fly their private planes to conferences that lament climate change. Here, reprinted by permission from Encounter books, is an excerpt from The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, an honorable mention in WORLD’s 2020 Books of the Year list. —Marvin Olasky

The hope that we might see a global convergence toward democracy, as was once predicted by Francis Fukuyama and Thomas Friedman among others, seems increasingly remote. As China has grown both richer and more powerful, it has not become more like us, but instead has developed an authoritarian form of state capitalism. Globally, democratic governance appears to have peaked in 2006, and many countries—including Turkey, Russia, and China—have become far more authoritarian. Even democratic India and many European countries have seen their own constitutional order frayed by internal dissension and racial and religious divisions.

China’s “civilization state,” deeply rooted in thousands of years of history, represents the most profound philosophical challenge to liberal values since the end of the Cold War. Jorgen Randers, a professor emeritus of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School, predicts a Chinese-dominated global future, despite the country’s many environmental and other challenges. “Western nations are not going to collapse, but the smooth operation and friendly nature of Western society will disappear, because inequity is going to explode,” Randers argues. “Democratic, liberal society will fail, while stronger governments like China will be the winners.”

Even without the Chinese challenge, Western countries are already seeing more economic centralization, albeit in private hands. Over the past few decades, a small group of oligarchs, like Warren Buffett, have made vast fortunes by buying up businesses with little competition as a way to ensure monopoly profits. More important still, the technological elite, highly adept at manipulating the tax code for their own benefit, continue to consolidate power in critical market sectors, making themselves into overlords more influential and powerful than most governments.

The Importance of the Third Estate

How can those who believe in liberal democracy respond to the challenge of a rising oligarchy and clerisy? The nascent “peasant rebellions” in North America and Europe generally lack a coherent program to challenge the power of the dominant estates. All too often, they resort to a primitive nativism and cultural nostalgia that have little place in a twenty-first-century democracy.

The key to resisting neo-feudalism today lies in the same kind of people who brought the first version to an end: what the leftist sociologist Barrington Moore described as “a numerous and politically vigorous class of town dwellers.” In other words, people who tend to own some property, and often their own business, and who build communities around the needs of their families. In the late eighteenth century, such people joined with independent peasants to challenge the hereditary aristocracy and the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Later on, the working classes successfully restrained the predatory power and disproportionate wealth accumulation of monopoly capitalists in the Gilded Age.

What is needed today is a new kind of politics that focuses primarily on fulfilling the aspirations of the Third Estate—on expanding opportunities for the middle and working classes. The current emphasis on social justice through redistribution and subsidies does not increase opportunities for upward mobility, but instead fosters dependency while consolidating power in a few hands.

Off with Their Heads?

Today’s oligarchs are the people who have benefited most from free markets, protection of property rights, and the meritocratic ideal. But their arrogance and greed could provoke a backlash against their privilege.

Consider the popular outrage over the recent college admissions scandal in the United States, with Hollywood and business elites cheating, bribing officials, and falsifying records to get their unqualified children into top colleges.

Yet the oligarchy could be undermining the basis of their own good fortune. Much of the oligarchic class is allied with militant progressives whose basic agenda is hostile to classical liberalism and capitalist enterprise. This is similar to what happened in the run-up to the French Revolution, when many French aristocrats not only lived dissolute lives but supported writers whose polemics ended up threatening “their own rights and even their existence,” as Tocqueville noted.

Much of the oligarchic class is allied with militant progressives whose basic agenda is hostile to classical liberalism and capitalist enterprise.

Up to now, policies advocated by the progressive left have come mostly at the expense of the lower and middle classes. But the new breed of progressives are growing bolder and coming to resemble the Jacobins of the French Revolution, or the Red Guards unleashed during the Cultural Revolution in China in the late 1960s. In the future, young activists may not tolerate the oligarchy’s excesses as did earlier generations of environmental campaigners. After all, if the world is on the verge of a global apocalypse, and also suffering elevated levels of inequality, how can the luxurious lifestyles of so many of the world’s most public green advocates—from Prince Charles and Richard Branson to Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Gore—be acceptable? The environmental left may well turn against the billionaires who lament climate change but fly their private jets to discuss the “crisis” in places like Davos.

The activists who are melding environmentalist green with socialist red do not distinguish between good billionaires and bad ones. Some, like Bernie Sanders, believe that billionaires should not exist at all. The red-green contingent generally agree with the view of Barry Commoner, a founding father of modern environmentalism, that “Capitalism is the earth’s number one enemy.”

Over time, our fashionably left-leaning oligarchs may discover that their apparent political allies and even their own employees are rebelling against them. While oligarchs give heavy financial backing to Democrats, some surveys indicate that more party members now support socialism than capitalism. There’s even a growing socialist movement among tech employees in Silicon Valley who have little chance of replicating the wealth accumulation enjoyed by prior generations in the Bay Area.

Unsurprisingly, some tech titans and Wall Street oligarchs are already making emergency escape plans in case of civil unrest.

The Rebellion We Need

To date, opposition to the neo-feudal order has all too often morphed into hatred of minorities, such as immigrants, Jews, and Muslims, and a belief that the society is threatened by migrants from different cultures. Given the demographic trends not only in Europe but also in North America and Oceania, such a xenophobic agenda is likely to be counterproductive, and is incompatible with a liberal society that can successfully integrate newcomers into the national culture.

Great societies are by nature expansive, not closed in. Rome became great, Gibbon suggested, in part because it permitted religious heterodoxy and provided outsiders, including former slaves, a chance to rise above their station. In contrast to Athens, where citizenship was restricted, Rome extended citizenship to the farthest boundaries of its empire, and by 212 all free people were eligible to be citizens. “The grandsons of Gauls, who besieged Julius Caesar at Alesia, commanded legions, governed provinces and were admitted into the Senate of Rome,” wrote Gibbon. Just as diverse peoples found much to emulate in Roman civilization, the liberal institutions that developed in the West appeal to people from radically different backgrounds. These institutions and their underpinning ideals are not tied to any set of racial characteristics. Chinese, Muslims, and Latin Americans migrate mostly to countries that have embraced the liberal values of citizenship, tolerance, and the rule of law. China under the autocratic Xi Jinping may offer “the Chinese dream,” but the number of immigrants from China living in the United States more than doubled between 2000 and 2018, reaching nearly 2.5 million. Similar patterns have been seen in both Canada and Australia. There is little such movement to China or most other Asian countries.

Those with the good fortune to live in pluralistic Western-style democracies, rooted in classical culture, should recognize how rare such open societies have been through history, and how much the vitality of these societies is threatened today. Historically, democracy has been like a flame that shines bright for a while—as in Greece and Rome—and then succumbs to autocracy or ossifies into hierarchy.

The Values Proposition

“Civilizations are fragile, impermanent things,” wrote the historian Joseph Tainter. Amidst our civilization’s long period of success and stability, we may not recognize that things are shifting dangerously until it’s far too late. We are no more prepared for a regression to a less enlightened, less mobile society than the citizens of ancient Rome were prepared for the collapse of their empire.

A civilization can survive only if its members, especially those with the greatest influence, believe in its basic values. Today our key institutions—the academy, the media, the corporate hierarchy, and even some churches—reject many of the fundamental ideals that have long defined Western culture. Activists on both left and right, instead of emphasizing what binds a democratic society together, have focused on narrow identity politics that cannot sustain a pluralistic democracy.

A civilization can survive only if its members, especially those with the greatest influence, believe in its basic values.

A loss of faith in the basic values of our society is particularly marked among the young; nearly 40 percent of young Americans think the country lacks “a history to be proud of.” Far fewer place a great emphasis on family, religion, or patriotism than in previous generations. Europe is, if anything, moving faster toward cultural deconstruction by anathematizing its own heritage. The “Paris Statement” put forward in 2017 by a group of scholars from several European countries, titled “A Europe We Can Believe In,” says that the EU bureaucracy is invested in an “ersatz religious enterprise” based on postnationalism and the rejection of a distinct, historical culture in favor of multiculturalism.

Given the high-level commitment to cultural deconstruction in Western societies, it isn’t surprising that we are seeing decreased cultural literacy and a greatly reduced interest in history among the young. Maybe we won’t quite see a reprise of the early Middle Ages, when “the very mind of man was going through degeneration,” as Henri Pirenne put it, but we could be creating what Roderick Seidenberg called “post-historic man,” cut off from the traditions and values of our civilizational past. If one doesn’t know the foundational principles of our democracy, including individual freedom and open discussion, one is not likely to recognize when they are lost. Regaining a sense of pride in Western culture and its achievements—while remaining open to newcomers and influences from elsewhere—is essential to recovering the ambition and self-confidence that drove the West’s ascent, from the Age of Exploration to the Space Age.

Some scholars believe that Japan now provides a model for high-income countries that can dispense with growth and instead focus on spiritual or quality-of-life issues. Japan will not conquer the world, one observer suggests, but it could settle into being something like an Asian Switzerland with a rapidly aging but comfortable population.

Similarly, the neo-feudal order would replace a focus on upward mobility and family with a desire for a comfortable, subsidized life, indulging in the digital mind-sinks that keep the masses in their metaphorical basements. Already, roughly half of all Americans support the idea of a guaranteed basic income of about $2,000 a month if robots put them out of work. A universal basic income enjoys even stronger support in most European countries, particularly among younger people. To slow or reverse neo-feudalism, with its constraints on upward mobility and creation of more dependency, requires awakening the political will of the Third Estate to resist it. “Happy the nation whose people have not forgotten how to rebel,” wrote the British historian R.H. Tawney. Whether we can muster the resolve to assert our place as engaged citizens will determine the kind of world our children inherit.

From The Coming of Neo-Feudalism by Joel Kotkin. Copyright © 2020. Published by Encounter Books. All rights reserved. Used with permission.


Joel Kotkin Joel Kotkin is the presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. He is executive editor of NewGeography.com and a regular contributor for numerous publications. He has published reports on topics ranging from the future of class in global cities to the places with the best opportunities for minorities.

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