Accelerating back to the pre-modern age
Updated: Nov 28, 2020
Nobody yet knows what the enduring consequences of the pandemic will be. Amidst all the disruption, some existing tendencies such as the expansion of virtual working have been accelerated for those who can, whilst other well-established long-term trends such as megacities suddenly seem more fragile, perhaps stranding the masses who can’t.
One thing’s for sure, COVID-19 will accelerate one particular trend – futurology. (See what I just did there?)
There’s always been a rich and varied market in books making “grand sweep” predictions and I am an avid consumer of them. Most of them seem to fall by the wayside quite quickly once the initial puff has expired and the immediate projections turn out to be off the mark. The destiny of most is to become mere footnotes in the did-they-really-think-that? annals of debunked forecasts, but a few leave their mark, good or bad.
The classic example is Thomas Malthus’ “An Essay on the Principle of Population” that predicted mass starvation because food production growth would follow a linear path and population growth a geometric one. That there have been events of mass starvation since the book was published in 1798 is indisputable enough. Catastrophic though these have been, varied and specific have been the empirical reasons for them, usually amounting to political malignity or negligence, and Malthus’ dire warnings have not so far been proved right – although his shadow does loom large over policy making across the ages. If interested, see these articles in the Scientific American (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-malthus-is-still-wrong/) and Time magazine (https://business.time.com/2011/07/15/was-malthus-right/) and there are of course plenty more where they came from.
Later examples of futurology are Fukuyama’s “The End of History” and Huntingdon’s “Clash of Civilizations” that I have touched on elsewhere (https://www.baloghblog.uk/post/the-ever-spinning-reel-of-history).
Amongst very recent tours d’horizon that have caught my eye are Ross Douthat’s “The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success”, which I have read, and Joel Kotkin’s “The Coming of Neo-Feudalism”, on which I have so far only read review articles. Both just predate the pandemic and so are undergoing an almighty stress test at the moment, as are all others in the genre, and I notice that Douthat is already planning an updated version of his book to take into account of this virus shocker. (To be fair, he already fleetingly and tantalisingly cites just such a scenario as a mega-disruptor possibility, just not quite enough for him to be fêted as a super-soothsayer.)
I want to return to Douthat’s predictions in a future blog entry because he has many interesting and ultimately hopeful thoughts on civilisational renewal.
But here I want to draw your attention to an article that presents a taster on Kotkin (Joel, that is, not his namesake Stephen, also an author) and has whetted my appetite for reading the actual book, an article by Ed West on the UnHerd platform of ideas entitled “Welcome to the new Middle Ages”, which can be found at https://unherd.com/2020/11/the-age-of-the-middle-class-is-over/.
I’ve had a personal working hypothesis for a while that the settlement of the post-war period, book-ended by the 1 Jan 1942 Declaration of the United Nations (see the image at the top of this blog entry) and the 2008 financial crash (but portended by 9/11) will prove to have been the high water mark of western liberalism, if not western civilisation as a whole, and that the screeching of the last decade or two has been the sound of brakes and a crunch into reverse gear.
According to Ed West, Kotkin trumps that limited horizon by effectively dismissing the entire modern age “between the first railway and the first email”, as he puts it, as an aberration. What we have seen in the last two decades, he argues, are signs of a return to a stratified society of strictly defined castes with declining social mobility.
Borrowing somewhat from but expanding beyond the work of Thomas Piketty (especially his 2013 book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”), another futurologist who captured the public eye, Kotkin forges equivalences between feudal classes and today’s emerging groupings, viz.
Medieval form: “Clergy”, comprising clerics but also encompassing the broader sub- category of academic clerics
New form: “Clerisy”, an intellectual elite embedded within government, the media, universities, and the professions
Medieval form: “Aristocracy”, holders of wealth and power, especially through landed estates but also the wielding of power in army leadership.
New form: “Oligarchy”, principally arising from natural tech monopolies and eye-watering concentration of wealth (California’s Gini Coefficient at 0.49 is approaching levels seen in Latin American countries like Guatemala and Honduras).
Medieval form: “Commoners”, comprising yeoman (smallholders) and the large array of the assetless proletariat.
New form: Everyone outside the Clerisy and Oligarchy formed into two broad groups, the small traders/business people and the dispossessed “precariat”.
So far, so easy and relatively obvious, but so what? It is the trends that undergird this that are the most striking. As well as the concentration of wealth amongst the elite and the mushrooming of the precariat underclass, there are: the polarisation in outlook bordering on a quasi-religious orthodoxy between, on the one hand, the Clerisy and Oligarchy (broadly progressive politics and social justice notwithstanding detail differences between leftish and rightish flavours, including extensive state involvement that happens to amplify their power and wealth) and those of people outside those castes; the increasingly hereditary reinforcement of those castes; the dismantling of social structures such as stable family units and resulting rise in involuntary celibacy.
Drawing on another review, by Adam Wakeling in Quillette (https://quillette.com/2020/06/11/the-coming-of-neo-feudalism-a-review/), Kotkin does not seem to be favouring either left- or right-leaning conventional policy prescriptions and overall gives a balanced view. A large part of an obvious solution might be a latter-day dispensing of grace and favour, crumbs bestowed by the possessed to the dispossessed that meets the time-honoured emollient of bread and circuses. But is that enough to prevent a new and threatening Peasants’ Revolt?
Having had my curiosity sufficiently pricked, I now want to read Kotkin’s book in full. Why do I want to do so? I am far from being an advocate of widespread enforced redistribution especially when inefficiently applied, but I suppose it is because to me the risk of a widening chasm between the emerging castes would seem neither fair nor stable and sustainable and I would want there to be other means than largesse to bridge that gap, lest it turn into a battle of brittle, coercive reinforcement vs. revolutionary dissent.
Final thought. Within this current batch of blog entries is one that considers a challenge to the very concept of "western civilisation" (see https://www.baloghblog.uk/post/civilisation-and-culture-be-damned) in comparison to other civilisations. It strikes me that an interesting follow-up might be to consider whether non-western civilisations are some of them already more closely structured along the caste lines described here. If that is the case, it would suggest perhaps a more natural state of affairs than the aberration of the western world's modern-age interlude. Food for thought.
As to the pandemic: does anyone seriously believe it is reducing balkanisation in society and the concentration of power, even if has encouraged a welcome rediscovery of basic neighbourliness at grass-roots level? The "But who is my neighbour?" corollary was famously once asked. That, I guess, is the real and timeless question we all have to consider. In its day, this was also the question powerfully answered at geopolitical level by the Declaration of United Nations.
At the local level, though, how might the increasingly rich man in his gated enclosure and the increasingly poor man at the gate relate to each other as the gap increases? That was a trick question: I bet most of us will have immediately put ourselves in the shoes of the rich man. I know I did, even in laying the trap.