With the 2024 election looming on the horizon, the Democratic Party faces a contradiction. By some important measures, the US economy is booming—third-quarter GDP growth figures were recently adjusted upward to a whopping 5.2 percent—but these numbers aren’t translating into political support for the current administration. A mere 32 percent of respondents approved of President Biden’s handling of the economy in a Gallup poll last month.

The disconnect between the economy as reported in quarterly figures and the economy as experienced by ordinary people is another reminder of the class divisions that increasingly define American life in the 21st century. Tech oligarchs, with support from a subset of well-compensated white-collar professionals, now preside over an economic order in which rising costs and expanding social control are justified as the necessary price of the green transition. It should be no surprise that those seeing stable jobs and affordable housing evaporate aren’t thrilled by this sort of progress.

The internet revolution brought with it many conveniences, but greater equality or widespread prosperity weren’t among them. On the contrary, the web has created a corporate aristocracy that is increasingly unmoored from its surroundings, as well as an expanding class of precarious, low-wage workers. Private jet-flying tech oligarchs are thriving, but the gap between them and everyone else continues to grow, and real incomes continue to fall. At the bottom of the income scale, according to The Wall Street Journal, the United States “has seen a record increase in homeless people this year.”

The majority of Americans still consider themselves middle class. However, this default identification obscures the growing divide between those white-collar workers who benefit from expanding government power—whom I call the clerisy—and the traditional middle class made up of small-business owners, shopkeepers, and skilled artisans and mechanics. The clerisy’s numbers continue to grow; under Biden, most employment growth has been concentrated in government and publicly funded health care. The limited appeal of Bidenomics results in part from its heavy focus on subsidizing the clerisy, often at the expense of traditional energy, manufacturing, and logistics workers and businesses. The traditional middle and working classes stagger under growing monopoly power. Regulations increasingly imperil smaller firms, whereas larger firms are far more adept both at attracting big capital and coping with big government.

Once the epitome of competitive capitalism, the tech industry, as one Silicon Valley wag put it, now resembles “feudalism with better marketing.” In 2023, six of the world’s eight most-valued companies are tech firms; Apple, the first $3 trillion company, has a market valuation just below the GDP of India and the United Kingdom, and larger than those of Italy, Russia, or Canada.

“The pursuit of the green agenda … marks a new phase of feudalization.”

The pursuit of the green agenda, accelerated under Biden, marks a new phase of feudalization. Nonprofits funded by green-tinged oligarchs to push renewable energy raise four times the amount of funding spent by advocates for nuclear or fossil fuels. Elon Musk, green capitalists in Silicon Valley, and Wall Street investors share the notion, as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen put it, that climate change provides “the greatest economic opportunity of our time.” The green gold rush is on; the Financial Times estimates there is more than $200 billion invested in “cleantech” projects in the United States alone. It is doubtful how much of this would occur without government subsidies.

For the clerisy, climate change yields psychic rewards, as well as new means of exerting power over citizens. As in the Middle Ages, when the Church encouraged the belief that human sin was the root cause of our troubles, the green clerisy now preaches that humanity must atone for its crimes against nature by accepting a new regime of pervasive social control and diminished opportunity. During the pandemic, unelected bureaucrats in virtually all major countries gained enormous power over the conduct of daily life. The pandemic was celebrated by the chief of “sustainable development” at the United Nations as “a fire drill” for regulating society.

At the same time, green policies threaten large parts of the middle and working class. Most vulnerable are those who work in industries like manufacturing, agriculture (particularly ranching), logistics, and construction. In Texas, the price could be as many as a million generally good-paying jobs. According to a Chamber of Commerce report, a full national ban against fracking would cost 14 million jobs—far more than the 8 million jobs lost in the Great Recession. Will “green jobs” come to the rescue? Unlikely. Barely 1 percent of people who lost “dirty jobs,” notes a recent University of Pennsylvania study, find work in a “green” one.

In adopting the “net-zero” agenda, the West accelerates the demise of its industrial base while making conditions worse for much of its middle class. In places like Germany as well as New York and California, the population endures high rates of “energy poverty,” and is forced to spend more than 10 percent of household income to keep the lights on and homes heated.

At the same time, the green regulatory onslaught has accelerated the industrial supremacy of China, which already emits more greenhouse gases than the entire high-income world. At the same time, the Middle Kingdom dominates the battery and electric-vehicle markets. Chinese-made EVs, roughly half as expensive as their Western competitors, may well displace the US Big Three as well as German and even other Asian automakers. Despite the Biden administration’s embrace of “Made in the USA,” American manufacturing recently dropped to its lowest point since the pandemic. Meanwhile, coal-dependent China expands its market share in manufactured exports to roughly equal America, Germany, and Japan combined.

The climate agenda contributes to the decline of class mobility. Since at least since the 2007-2008 financial crisis, the biggest winners have been the tech giants and the large financial institutions that helped create the crisis. Main Street businesses, traditional industries, and ordinary homeowners haven’t fared so well. House prices and rents have raced ahead of incomes. Housing costs are now near record levels and rising interest rates have exacerbated the affordability crisis. Research by Matthew Rognlie at Northwestern University demonstrates that over the past decade, the proportion of real-estate wealth held by middle and working class owners fell substantially, while the proportion controlled by the wealthy grew from under 20 percent to nearly a third. Over the last decade, high-income households enjoyed 71 percent of all housing gains, while the shares of middle- and lower-income families declined precipitously.

“The climate agenda contributes to the decline of class mobility.”

The property-led wealth accumulation that made a fifth of baby boomers paper millionaires isn’t likely to be repeated. The dream of home ownership—which nearly 3 in 5 people see as an essential part of the American Dream—is rapidly fading. According to US Census data, the rate of home ownership among young adults between the ages 25 of 34 was 45.4 percent for Generation X, but dropped to 37 percent for Millennials, the generation now entering family formation.

Green policies of “urban containment” worsen these trends by making construction difficult on the less expensive peripheries of cities. Ideologically, the clerisy tends to oppose home ownership and prefers to push people into apartments in dense urban settings. The claim is usually that this will reduce prices, but higher urban population densities are associated with lower housing affordability in the United States, Australia, and Britain.

Like green-energy subsidies, high housing prices reflect both the clerisy’s ideological preferences and the oligarchs’ interests. Wall Street firms like Blackstone and Britain’s Lloyds Bank increasingly buy homes in hot markets, turning them into unaffordable rentals and further boosting home prices. In the United States, the proportion of land owned by the nation’s 100 largest private landowners grew by nearly 50 percent between 2007 and 2017.

The feudalizing impact of all this will be profound for the next generation. When people do buy property, it will be through what one writer calls “the funnel of privilege.” The importance of inherited assets has grown more pronounced in France, Germany, Britain, and the United States. US Millennials are three times as likely as boomers to count on inheritance for their retirement. Among those between ages 18 and 22, more than 60 percent see inheritance as their primary source of sustenance as they age. Amid these trends, it is hardly surprising that only 36 percent of voters in a new Wall Street Journal/NORC survey said the American Dream still holds true, substantially fewer than the 53 percent who said so in 2012 and 48 percent in 2016 in similar surveys.

Perhaps the greatest contributor to feudalization has been the rise of Big Tech. The tech industry, once notable for its hyper-competitive character, has morphed into a sector controlled by a small, fantastically rich oligarchy. For example, Google and Apple account for nearly 90 percent of all mobile browsers worldwide, while Microsoft by itself controls 90 percent of all operating-system software. Three tech firms now account for two-thirds of all online advertising revenues, which comprises the vast majority of all ad sales. Once again, the losers here are the traditional middle and working classes. Amazon has mined sales data from independent sellers who were using the company’s e-commerce platform to guide Amazon’s development of cheaper knockoff products.

“Perhaps the greatest contributor to feudalization has been the rise of Big Tech.”

Venture capitalists like Marc Andreesen envision an impending AI-driven “golden age,” propelled by what the Brookings Institution envisions as a productivity boom. Similar enthusiasm attended earlier stages of the internet revolution, but as economist Robert Gordon has demonstrated, digital advances didn’t spark the expected improvements in productivity or give a major boost to economic growth. Amazon, Microsoft, and Google already dominate the cloud and are also positioned to dominate AI, with firms like Amazon making mega-investments in the area. In 2022, much of the $42 billion invested in AI firms came from Apple, Microsoft, and Alphabet, the parent of Google. Only the best-financed firms can bear the costs of developing AI.

The middle and working class have much to fear from the rise of this new oligarch-dominated technology. Two-thirds of business leaders, in a recent survey, suggest ChatGPT will lead to large layoffs of white-collar workers over the next five years. Eighty-two percent of Millennials fear AI will reduce their compensation, and they are right to be worried. According to McKinsey, at least 12 million Americans will be forced to find new work by 2030. Much of the initial pain will be inflicted upon modestly paid service-sector workers like cashiers, bank employees, and executive assistants. Warehouse workers also stand to become prominent losers. Walmart expects to automate its systems with new software and lay off 2,000 workers by 2026. Factory workers are also threatened. By 2030, Oxford Economics suggests 20 million factory jobs worldwide will fall to automation, 1.5 million of them in the United States.

Yet the true game changer, in class terms, will be the impact on educated workers, many of them already reeling from unaffordable housing and other rising costs. “We may be at the peak of the need for knowledge workers,” Atif Rafiq, a former chief digital officer at McDonald’s and Volvo told the The Wall Street Journal. “We just need fewer people to do the same thing.” Tech firms like Meta and Lyft already have announced major cutbacks in their white-collar workforce, warning that these positions are unlikely ever to return. IBM has put its staff hiring on hold while assessing how many mid-level jobs can be replaced by AI. Recent studies show that within months of AI’s emergence, freelance work in software declined markedly, along with pay.

The potential job losses extend beyond professional coders and “symbolic analysts.” “It’s the end of the white-collar knowledge work,” inventor and AI entrepreneur Rony Abovitz suggests. To be sure, those able to write AI programs will be highly compensated, with salaries as high as $800,000 annually—at least until the machines figure out how to replace them. Even creative jobs like those held by writers, actors, and artists are vulnerable to what economists refer to as “skills-based technological change.” The looming threat of the automation of their work by the major studios was one of the key factors that drove this year’s writers’ and actors’ strikes.

The emerging class structure raises the prospect that many more workers will be rendered economically marginal and precarious or even redundant. In some contexts, unions can perhaps slow this process. In the short run at least, the slower growth of the US workforce provides workers with some leverage, particularly in areas like manufacturing, logistics, and home-building where labor shortages are most acute. But even under the very pro-union Biden administration, overall union membership has declined to a historically low rate, barely 11 percent, with only 6 percent of private-economy workers covered.

Rather than rally to the unions, many private-economy workers may be more likely to rally behind right-wing populists. In the United States, Donald Trump has emerged as the favorite of small-business owners, as well as growing numbers of blue-collar workers, including minorities. Young, particularly male working-class voters are also tilting to the right not only in America, but in Italy, Argentina, France, Sweden, Greece, Switzerland, and Spain.

The climate agenda is accelerating this shift. Amid rising costs and job losses in factories, climate skepticism is growing. Even green zealots like Bill Gates are warning that the threat of austerity will make the climate agenda a hard sell. In the United States, just 1 percent of blue-collar workers, according to one recent poll, consider climate a major concern, and 70 percent of Americans are unwilling to spend more than $2.50 a week to combat climate change. Given the left’s abandonment of middle- and working-class interests in favor of oligarchic agendas, as Ruy Teixeira and John Judis note in their important new book Where Have All the Democrats Gone?,_ _it isn’t surprising that lower-income workers are increasingly likely to side with the right.

“For oligarchs, progressive causes offer a means of forestalling class confrontation.”

For oligarchs, progressive causes offer a means of forestalling class confrontation. Gregory Ferenstein, after interviewing 147 digital-company founders, reports that most oligarchs believe that an “increasingly greater share of economic wealth will be generated by a smaller slice of very talented or original people.” Everyone else will come to subsist on some combination of income transfers, perhaps supplemented by part-time gig jobs. Their preferred solution is to expand what Marx called “the proletarian alms bag,” essentially a modern extension of medieval charity, facilitated by massive tax advantages coupled with reputational greenwashing.

Universal basic income, suggests prominent advocate Scott Santens, could serve as a social “vaccine” for the 21st century. This notion has garnered support from tech oligarchs like Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Travis Kalanick, and AI guru Sam Altman. It has strong support in most European countries, particularly among younger people, and 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. UBI is a tool of political pacification. As the conservative analyst Michael Anton notes, it promises to render “the bottom classes entirely dependent on the ruling order.”

Of course, if history is any guide, the emerging propertyless majority may demand a better deal than this. Some envision a future in which tech and Wall Street wealth—and that of the Boomer middle class—is confiscated to fund fully automated luxury communism. Japanese Marxist philosopher Kohei Sato sees redistribution as a way to achieve the green goals of “degrowth” and “net zero” without devastating the masses. A strong majority of people in 28 countries around the world, according to a recent Edelman survey, believe capitalism does more harm than good. More than 4 in 5 worry about job loss, most particularly from automation. Rising inequality and general fear of downward mobility have boosted support for expanded government and greater redistribution of wealth. Nearly two-thirds of young adults told Pew in last year that they don’t view capitalism positively—the highest share of any age group.

Our trajectory has a certain similarity to what transpired in Rome toward the end of the republic. Mass slavery, rather than robots, supplanted the economic role of plebian citizens, turning them into servile consumers of “bread and circuses.” Made landless by the aristocracy, they turned to authoritarian figures like the Gracchi brothers, Marius, and eventually Julius Caesar and his imperial descendants, who used state resources to buy the masses’ loyalty.

Averting this scenario will mean finding ways to limit oligarchic power, while tamping down the authoritarian ambitions of the clerisy. The priority should be to develop policies that preserve and expand an independent middle and working class. Embracing reindustrialization and refocusing education on both civic virtue and practical skills, rather than the current focus on often meaningless credentials, are a few places to start. Unless we find ways to counteract our growing class divisions, our future may well look like a high-tech replay of Roman decadence.

Joel Kotkin is a fellow at Chapman University and the author, most recently, of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism.


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