America's Drift Toward Feudalism


America’s emergence in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries represented a dramatic break from the past. The United States came on the scene with only vestiges of the old European feudal order—mostly in the plantation economy of the Deep South. There was no hereditary nobility, no national church, and, thanks to George Washington’s modesty, no royal authority. At least among whites, there was also far less poverty in America, compared to Europe’s in­tense, intractable, multigenerational poverty. In contrast, as Jeffer­son noted in 1814, America had fewer “paupers,” and the bulk of the pop­ulation was “fed abundantly, clothed above mere decency, to la­bor moderately and raise their families.”

Yet in recent decades this country, along with many other liberal democracies, has begun to show signs of growing feudalization. This trend has been most pronounced in the economy, where income growth has skewed dramatically towards the ultrarich, creating a ruling financial and now tech oligarchy. This is a global phenomenon: starting in the 1970s, upward mobility for middle and working classes across all advanced economies began to stall, while the prospects for the upper classes rose dramatically.

The fading prospects for the new generation are all too obvious. Once upon a time, when the boomers entered adulthood, they en­tered an ascendant middle class. According to a recent study by the St. Louis Fed, their successors, the millennials, are in danger of be­coming a “lost generation” in terms of wealth accumulation.

This generational shift will shape our future economic, political, and social order. About 90 percent of those born in 1940 grew up to experience higher incomes than their parents, according to researchers at the Equality of Opportunity Project. This proportion was only 50 percent among those born in the 1980s, and the chances of middle-class earners moving up to the top rungs of the earnings ladder has declined by approximately 20 percent since the early 1980s. Corporate CEOs used to boast of starting out in the mailroom. There will not be many of those stories in the future.

Read the rest of the piece at American Affairs Journal.

Joel Kotkin is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. He authored The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, published in 2016 by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He is executive director of and lives in Orange County, CA. His next book, “The Coming Of Neo-Feudalism,” will be out this spring.

Photo credit: Public Domain medieval illustration via Wikimedia.