Adapted from The Coming of Neo-Feudalism (Encounter Books).
The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating the global shift already underway towards a neo-feudal society. With the middle-class economy largely shut down and, in the best-case scenario, in for a long and painful recovery, the population that is barely hanging on is expanding rapidly in America and around the world. In the U.S. alone, the ranks of the poor are projected to increase by as much as 50 percent, to levels not seen in at least a half century.
Neo-feudalism is reprising the kind of society that existed in Medieval times, characterized by declining social mobility and greater concentrations of power. In the neo-Feudal world, as in the original, the middle class loses its primacy, as small businesses fail and even affluent families face the prospect of joining the ranks of ever expanding class of property-less serfs.
Yet not all will be losers—the tech oligarchs, whose net worths have surged during the pandemic, are now positioned to pick up the pieces of a devastated analog economy. But the class that may benefit most may be the Clerisy, encompassing professions such as teachers, consultants, lawyers, top level government officials and medical specialists. Their share of the labor market has grown while those of the traditional middle class — small business owners, workers in basic industries and construction — have shrunk.
Many in the Clerisy has barely been discomfited by the pandemic as they continue to have checks deposited while working largely from home. Some members of the “expert” class — medical professionals in white coats, empowered bureaucrats and the media that interprets their prognostications — have emerged as “the privileged stratum”, in the words of the French leftist Christophe Guilluy, operating from an assumption of “moral superiority” that justifies their right to instruct others.
Just as the tech oligarchs, having conquered and consolidated the digital economy, have assumed the predominant role of the old feudal aristocracy, the Clerisy reprises the role once played by the Catholic clergy. Samuel Coleridge coined the term in the 1830s to define a class of people whose job it was to instruct and direct the masses, as traditional clerics were joined by university professors, scientists, public intellectuals and foundation heads.
Like the elites of Medieval times, today’s clerisy has become increasingly hereditary in part due to the phenomena of well-educated people marrying each other; between 1960 and 2005 the share of men with university degrees who married women with university degrees nearly doubled, from 25% to 48%. “After one generation,” Daniel Bell noted in 1972, “a meritocracy simply becomes an enclaved class.”
How big is the Clerisy? One analyst, Michael Lind, using professional and graduate degree holders as a proxy for the managerial elite, puts what he calls the “overclass” as no more than ten to 15 percent of the American workforce, far larger than the membership of the old First Estate, which was closer to one percent of the French population. Another estimate describes the modern clerisy more narrowly as the top echelon in law, the government and the universities, accounting for roughly 2.4 million people out of a country of nearly 330 million.
Until recent decades, education was associated with open competition about ideas and public policies. But over the past 25 years the Clerisy has almost fully reprised the despotic traditions of the Medieval Catholic Church, whose priority was the defense of orthodox doctrine against everything from demons to religious dissenters.
Climate change has set the pattern here. Anyone, however credentialed, who challenges the apocalyptic predictions and draconian solutions advocated by esteemed experts like Al Gore or Greta Thunberg risks being demonized; even long-time climate scientists like Judith Curry have been proscribed for failing to adopt an overly “monolithic” approach to the issue of climate change. Today, open discussions on the environment and how best to preserve the planet are nearly as rare as open debate over God’s existence would have been in the Catholic Church of the eleventh century.
Despite their belief in “science”, the Clerisy holds to its dogma despite decades of exaggerated predictions of impending environmental doom, including claims made in the 1970s that natural resources, including energy and food, would run out, leading to mass starvation. Now the same sense of omniscience is sometimes extended to the pandemic, despite dubious, often inaccurate projections about the extent and severity of the outbreak.
Rather than a catastrophe ruining lives, some modern day clerics see the pandemic and the lockdowns as a “test run” for their dreams of achieving “degrowth” by essentially wiping out much of current discretionary spending. Psychology Today suggests the lockdown can help cure “the human beast”, a phraseology not too distinct from early Christian assessments of humanity’s capacity for sin. This view, best labelled as “eco-medievalist,” sees the pandemic as just another smackdown by an increasingly distressed Mother Nature. This sense of righteous certitude, no doubt, has been amplified by the blithering Donald Trump and some of his supporters who doggedly assert that anything, including a very real pandemic, threatening to his presidency must be a “hoax.”
That in turn has led to furious claims in places like the Atlantic, the Lorraine Jobs-backed house publication of the clerisy, about how opening up the economy amount to “human sacrifice,” and about how in the “debate over freedom or control” China “was largely correct and the US was wrong. “
In the near term, the pandemic and its aftermath, seem likely to expand the power, and privileges, of the Clerisy. As the yeomanry and the serf class suffer, those demanding that suffering — like LA’s top health official, who continues to collect her nearly $500,000 salary — remain highly insulated from the ill-effects of their demands. Vice President Biden’s medical advisor, Ezekiel Emmanuel, would keep these regimes in place as long as twelve to eighteen months; he won’t likely be missing meals or paychecks.
As of now, the Clerisy has shared a common interest in the lockdowns with the tech oligarchy, who benefit mightily by a world characterized by surveillance, on-line shopping, zoom meetings and food delivery. Yet over time, some oligarchs may find the restrictions embraced by the Clerisy threatening to their own interests, as evidenced by Elon Musk’s frustration with northern California’s lockdown regime, something that has transformed him into a villain among the “lockdown left” and a perhaps unlikely hero of the “open up” right.
Similarly, the push towards on-line learning threatens even the most elite universities, particularly in big cities hit hard by the pandemic. Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen says that half of all colleges could be out of business in the next 10 years. The combination of poorer parents, decreasing rewards for education and distaste among many Americans for the agenda of the academy could see many schools, particularly small liberal arts ones, shutter. Similarly, the proliferation of non-establishment media, both right and left, could undercut the Clerisy’s near monopoly on culture and news coverage.
Yet without a concerted move by the traditional middle as well as the working class, the power of the Clerisy, like that of the tech Oligarchs, seems likely to grow. Bad times ahead could even strengthen their hold. Much as in the middle ages, the pandemic and an economic upheaval could prove a rosy dawn for an overclass of influencers imposing an agenda of spiritual uplift and material sacrifice on an increasingly anxious, terrified and malleable population.