Neofeudalism and its new legitimisers
Today’s oligarchs depend on a modern, overwhelmingly liberal clerisy for legitimacy
With populist parties and movements gaining influence not only in North America but in Europe and Latin America as well, many have been predicting a new era of authoritarianism, such as portrayed by George Orwell in 1984 or by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale. But the more likely model for future tyranny is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where the masters are not hoary Stalinoids or fanatical fundamentalists, but gentle, rational executives known as World Controllers.
The Controllers preside over a World State composed of five biologically engineered social castes, from Alphas at the top to Epsilons at the bottom. Alphas take for granted their preeminence and their right to the labor of lower castes. People no longer have children, since humans are developed in vats. Families have been abolished, except in a few distant “savage reservations.” Citizens of the World State live in amenity-rich dormitories and enjoy pleasurable pharmaceuticals and unconstrained sex without commitment or consequences. This family-free life is similar to how Mark Zuckerberg described his ideal Facebook employees: “We may not own a car. We may not have a family. Simplicity in life is what allows you to focus on what’s important.”
Like those at the top of today’s clerisy, Huxley’s Controllers suppress unacceptable ideas not by brute force but by characterising them as deplorable, risible, absurd, or even pornographic
Huxley’s scenario eerily resembles what today’s oligarchs favour: a society conditioned by technology and ruled by an elite with superior intelligence. The power of the Controllers in Brave New World resides mostly in their ability to mould cultural values: like those at the top of today’s clerisy they suppress unacceptable ideas not by brute force but by characterising them as deplorable, risible, absurd, or even pornographic. Because their pronouncements are accepted as authoritative, they can run a thought-dictatorship far more subtle, and efficient, than that of Mussolini, Hitler, or Stalin.
In the Middle Ages, the teachings of the Catholic Church on social and cultural values were generally seen as having great moral authority. The medieval clergy preached a value system heavily influenced by St. Augustine, who had sought to replace the values of classical society — materialism, egotism, beauty, ambition — with chastity, self-sacrifice, and otherworldliness. As Pitirim Sorokin wrote, the clerical class turned the “sensate culture” of classical civilisation into an “ideational” one centred on spiritual concerns.
When the cultural role of the clergy diminished in the modern era, their part was gradually taken up by what Samuel Taylor Coleridge termed a “clerisy” of intellectuals. Religious clerics would remain part of this class, though on the whole it grew more secular over time. Today’s clerisy includes university professors, scientists, public intellectuals, and heads of charitable foundations. Such people have more or less replaced the clergy as what the great German sociologist Max Weber called “the new legitimisers.”
The ideal of a cognitive elite
The concept of a governing class whose superior cognitive ability makes them rightful leaders goes back at least to ancient Greece, when Plato proposed a society run by the brightest and most talented — a vision that Marx described as “an Athenian idealisation of the Egyptian caste system.” Later utopian literature, such as Thomas More’s Utopia in the sixteenth century, depicts enlightened people constructing a just and prosperous society, but with strict limits on freedom for the masses.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, H.G. Wells envisioned an “emergent class of capable men” who could take upon themselves the responsibility of “controlling and restricting very greatly” the “non-functional masses.” Wells predicted that this new elite would replace democracy with “a higher organism,” which he called “the New Republic.”
The New Deal era brought considerable support for placing more decision-making power in the hands of university professors and other specialists, and even some well-credentialed journalists. During the Second World War and the Cold War, the idea of relying more on scientists, engineers, and other intellectuals in matters of public policy gained strength. The sociologist C. Wright Mills advocated the creation of a ruling cognitive elite, asking, “Who else but intellectuals are capable of discerning the role in history of explicit history-making decisions?”
As economic competition from Germany, Japan, and other countries grew in the 1970s, some American policy intellectuals argued for establishing a powerful cadre of planners to bring rational order to the “untidy competitive marketplace,” which they saw as weakening the American economy. Today, people such as the journalist Thomas Friedman and the former Obama budget adviser Peter Orszag have called for granting more power to credentialed “experts” in Washington, Brussels, or Geneva, in the belief that our societal problems are too complex for elected representatives to address.
Today’s “knowledge class”
Half a century ago, Daniel Bell recognised an emerging “knowledge class,” composed of people whose status rested on educational attainment and access to knowledge in a postindustrial society. Theoretically it represented a meritocracy, but this class has become mostly hereditary, as well-educated people, particularly from elite colleges, marry each other and aim to perpetuate their status. Between 1960 and 2005, the share of men with university degrees who married women with university degrees nearly doubled, from 25 percent to 48 percent. As Bell observed, parents of high status in a meritocracy will use their advantages to improve their children’s prospects, and in this way, “after one generation a meritocracy simply becomes an enclaved class.”
Michael Lind uses “professional and graduate degrees” as a way of measuring what he calls the “managerial overclass,” which includes “private and public bureaucrats who run large national and global corporations” as well as directors of nonprofits and university professors. He estimates the “overclass” to be some 15 percent of the American population. Charles Murray defines a “new upper class” more narrowly, as the most successful 5 percent in managerial positions, the professions, and the media, and he estimates it at roughly 2.4 million people out of a country of over 320 million. (By comparison, the First Estate in France was around 1 percent of the population on the eve of the revolution.) In France today, Christophe Guilluy identifies a “privileged stratum” of people who gain from globalisation, or at least are not harmed by it, and who operate from an assumption of “moral superiority” that justifies their privilege.
What I designate as the clerisy is a group far larger and broader than the oligarchy. It spans a growing section of the workforce that is mostly employed outside of material production — as teachers, consultants, lawyers, government workers, and medical providers. These professions are largely insulated from the risks of the marketplace. They also make up an increasing proportion of the workforce in the high-income countries: many of the fastest-growing occupations since 2010 have been in the arts, personal care, and health care, usually tied to nonprofits or the state. Meanwhile, those in private-sector middle-class jobs — small-business owners, workers in basic industries and construction — have seen their share of the job market shrink.
The picture is similar in Europe. In France, well over a million lower-skilled industry jobs have disappeared in the past quarter century, while the numbers of technical jobs have increased markedly in both the public and private realms. Those who work for state industries, universities, and other clerisy-oriented sectors enjoy far better benefits, notably pen- sions, than those working in the purely private sector.
Many of the people in these growing sectors are well positioned to exert a disproportionate influence on public attitudes, and on policy as well—that is, to act as cultural “legitimisers.”
“Engineers of the soul”
The clerical estate in the Middle Ages could mould cultural attitudes through its power over education and the written word. In modern times, this role is often played by what Stalin famously recognised as “engineers of the soul” — journalists, novelists, filmmakers, actors, and artists.
Writers and other creative people are often portrayed as being resistant to authority and tolerant of differing viewpoints, but history often reveals them to be no more willing to oppose orthodoxy than anyone else. Many of Russia’s most brilliant minds endorsed or assisted the Bolshevik efforts to remake the culture, and were often rewarded with comfortable lives while the masses struggled to survive. The new ruling elites helped themselves to the property and possessions of the old aristocracy.
In Germany, right-wing intellectuals such as Oswald Spengler, Carl Schmidt, and Edgar Jung helped plow the ideological field ahead of the Nazis. Many prominent creative people welcomed the Führer as a fellow artist — albeit one who had failed miserably as such in Vienna — and avidly assisted Hitler’s efforts to “cleanse” German culture of foreign contamination. In the first months of the regime, “testimonials of loyalty rained down upon it unrequested,” writes the historian Frederic Spotts. Some of those testimonials were self-serving, he suggests, since Nazi policies were hostile to leftist intellectuals and artists, as well as gays and Jews. Whether on the left or the right, totalitarianism “represents the twentieth-century version of traditional religiosity with its own dogmas, priesthood and inquisitions,” notes the historian Klaus Fischer. The priests of totalitarianism have often been academics or artists or intellectuals — representatives of a modern clerisy.
The priests of totalitarianism have often been academics or artists or intellectuals — representatives of a modern clerisy
Toward a new orthodoxy
In the decades following the Second World War, a healthy debate about culture and society took place in the United States—albeit within limits— between conservatives and liberals, and even Marxists. In contrast to the brazen propaganda of the Soviet and Fascist regimes, the US news media embraced an ideal, though not always followed in practice, of impartiality and respect for the validity of numerous viewpoints.
Today the news media are increasingly inclined to promote a single orthodoxy. One reason for this is a change in the composition of the journalistic profession: working-class reporters, many with ties to local communities, have been replaced by a more cosmopolitan breed with college degrees, typically in journalism. These reporters tilt overwhelmingly to the progressive side of politics; by 2018, barely 7 percent of U.S. reporters identified as Republicans, and some 97 percent of all political donations from journalists went to Democrats. Similar patterns are found in other Western countries too. In France, as two-thirds of journalists favour the socialist left, and sometimes spend considerable effort in apologising for anything that might offend certain designated victim groups. The political tilt in journalism has been intensified by a geographical concentration of media in fewer centres — especially in London, New York, and San Francisco.
At the same time, as a 2019 Rand report shows, journalism is steadily moving away from a fact-based model to one dominated by opinion. Usually it is left-leaning opinion that dominates, but a shift toward opinion also appears in the residual media institutions on the right. The Rand study suggests that the result for society is “truth decay.”
Over 99 percent of all political donations by major entertainment executives in 2018 went to Democrats
Entertainment media are also turning into bastions of left-wing orthodoxy. Once divided between conservatives and liberals, Hollywood now tilts heavily to the left, as do its imitators elsewhere. Jonathan Chait, a liberal columnist, reviewed the offerings of major studios and networks, and found “a pervasive, if not total, liberalism.” This tilt reflects the political views of the executives: over 99 percent of all political donations by major entertainment executives in 2018 went to Democrats.
There is a conservative branch of the “clerisy” today: some journalists and academics and residents of think tanks. But they have little influence in the dominant mainstream media, the universities, or the wider culture. The real cultural power and influence are in what Thomas Piketty calls the “Brahmin left” rather than the “Merchant right.”
The modern clerisy tend to believe themselves more enlightened than the average person — on attitudes about the family, for example — and seek to impose their own standards through the media, the education system, and various arenas of cultural production. Their judgments about such issues as race relations and “white privilege” can be even more unforgiving than traditional religious teaching on homosexuality, divorce, or birth control. People who venture outside the “correct” worldview may be made to feel they have committed a kind of “original sin,” for which they can ask forgiveness but will nevertheless remain excommunicated.
Those who harbour a sense of natural superiority tend to support strong governmental action in line with their personal values and an overconfidence in their own competence, according to research by Slavisa Tasic of the University of Kiev on decision making in government. But the history of unaccountable rule by “experts,” or those claiming intellectual superiority, is less than encouraging for liberal democracy.
Mussolini’s Fascist ideology is now viewed as reactionary and clownish, but it highlighted the idea of a society governed with scientific principles by a cognitively superior ruling class. Soviet Communism, the sworn enemy of Fascism, followed a similar technocratic course. In the late 1890s, Engels saw technology as the key to achieving the productivity gains that could transform societies without the need for capitalism. Marx believed utterly in the crucial role of technocratic administrators and scientists in society. He even offered to dedicate Das Kapital to Charles Darwin. Marx’s first successful acolytes, the Bolsheviks, believed that a small, ideologically motivated elite could turn a backward Russia into the most advanced and progressive regime on earth. The Bolsheviks would replace the old aristocracy with their own ideological elite, whom they believed could orchestrate a more egalitarian society. “If 10,000 nobles could rule the whole of Russia,” Lenin asked. “why not us?”
At the time of the USSR’s collapse, the nomenklatura constituted a true elite of 750,000 people. They and their families were a mere 1.5 percent of the population, not far different from the nobility’s percentage in fourteenth-century France. While Stalin had hoped they would come from a “special mould,” they showed themselves to be “ordinary mortals as fallible as other men.” After the fall of the Soviet regime, some members of the nomenklatura used their influence to gain control of privatising industries, emerging as powerful oligarchs.
The most powerful clerisy on earth today is in China. Intellectuals and scholars long played an influential role in Chinese politics and administration—similar to the role once played in the West by clerics when they were by far the most literate element of the population. Traditionally, the Mandarinate followed Confucianism, which celebrates learning not “for the sake of the self ” but as a way to cultivate “the communal quality” that could help shape the society, as the Chinese scholar Tu Weiming writes.
While Mao Tse-tung was hostile to the old Mandarinate, he placed a high value on technical expertise, with a typically Marxist faith in science. “We shall teach the sun and moon to change places,” he predicted, and he needed the brainpower of his nation to do so. Yet the scientific and technical experts either respected or feared the ruling authorities so much that they did not openly confront the insane policies of the Great Leap Forward that led to a famine and killed as many as 36 million people. One witness, the journalist and author Yang Jisheng, writes that the Party cadres viewed the peasants as “expendable.” The cadres “became over- bearing and vicious in imposing one campaign after another, subjecting disobedient people to beatings, detention and torture.”
After Mao, the Chinese government opened itself up to more grassroots input, particularly in the economy, and welcomed some diversity of viewpoints. But as the horrors of the Maoist period receded into the past, entrepreneurial skill became less valued and a higher importance was given to academic credentials. In contemporary China, and indeed throughout East Asia, an elite college degree often determines social status, the ability to earn enough for a decent apartment, and whom one can marry or even date.
Academic credentials are the ticket into the “professional and managerial class” that staffs the most powerful bureaucracies of the Chinese state. According to a recent survey, this highly educated class does not constitute a potential opposition to the Party state, but instead serves as a bulwark of the authoritarian regime. David Goodman suggests that highly educated Chinese would likely oppose any democratising reform that could allow the less-educated masses to assert their voices. Even the Chinese students who study in the United States and elsewhere in the West support the regime, as it will benefit them when they return. The modern Mandarinate is helping to direct society and regulate the lives of citizens with the aid of intrusive technology. As we have seen, for example, a “social credit” system is used to award various rights or privileges, such as the right of travel, to those who show proper behaviour.
Who watches the watchers?
Members of the contemporary clerisy who hold positions of power like to be seen as disinterested actors, making rational choices for the good of society. But they are people with their own prejudices and self-interest. Japan’s much-lionised public bureaucracy has been portrayed as a model of selfless, patriotic bureaucracy, dedicated to the public good, but in reality many top bureaucrats move on to high-paying jobs in the very industries they once monitored, under a system known as amakudari or “descent from heaven.”
In the United States and Europe, elite bureaucrats tend to deny any ideological bias or class interest. But as James Burnham noted, they generally share an ideology of “managerialism,” centred on efficiency in producing the results desired by managers themselves. As the managerial class grows in power, it becomes more self-referential. Its members are responsible not to the citizenry, but only to other managers and to those regarded as part of a qualified peer group.
The complexity of problems facing our society — climate change, mass migration, or the effects of technology, for example — may often seem beyond the competency of elected representatives. If higher education made for better people with wiser judgment, it might be tolerable to hand great powers for controlling society to highly educated experts. But as Aldous Huxley observed, scientists and other experts do not own a monopoly on either virtue or political wisdom.
There are clear dangers in ceding too much power to unelected and unaccountable elites who claim moral authority or expertise backed by higher education. Rule by the most educated and highly credentialed people is profoundly illiberal, observes Yascha Mounk, a Harvard progressive. Many elite progressives — the core of the clerisy — might prefer such a model for society, but it would endanger political pluralism, especially when the credentialed elites are overly sure of their own correctness. A survey commissioned by the Atlantic notes that the highly educated are now arguably the least politically tolerant group in America.
In coming decades, the clerisy could employ “new intellectual technology” as a means of “‘ordering’ the mass society,” as Daniel Bell predicted. Technology might be employed to reprogram attitudes on everything from the environment to the notion of “unconscious bias” against racial and sexual minorities. Companies like Google as well as college campuses already use technology to monitor and “correct” the thinking of employees. The Chinese government’s efforts to monitor thoughts and regulate opinion, sometimes assisted by U.S. tech firms, could prove a harbinger of things to come in Europe, Australia, and North America.
Before we permit the clerisy to have such powers, we may want to consider the gold Latin phrase: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes—who watches the watchers?
This essay is an extract from Joel Kotkin’s new book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, published by Encounter Books.
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