The struggle between the two middle classes is not just a matter of wealth and power, but also of retaining the social basis for democracy itself. Without a strong, independent middle class operating outside the control of large institutions, be they tech giants or governments, we may be heading towards a technocratic future, that as one Silicon Valley wag put it, resembles “feudalism with better marketing.” An independent and assertive property-owning middle class that can thrive remains the only force able to challenge ever-growing centralization. Without them, there is likely no way to prevent a new feudal order from emerging in the future.
By Joel Kotkin for Quillette
Politicians across the Western world like to speak fondly of the “middle class” as if it is one large constituency with common interests and aspirations. But, as Karl Marx observed, the middle class has always been divided by sources of wealth and worldview. Today, it is split into two distinct, and often opposing, middle classes. First there is the yeomanry or the traditional middle class, which consists of small business owners, minor landowners, craftspeople, and artisans, or what we would define historically as the bourgeoisie, or the old French Third Estate, deeply embedded in the private economy. The other middle class, now in ascendency, is the clerisy, a group that makes its living largely in quasi-public institutions, notably universities, media, the non-profit world, and the upper bureaucracy.
Standing between the oligarchs, who now own as much as 50 percent of the world’s assets, and the growing population of propertyless serfs, the traditional middle class increasingly struggles for survival against those with the greatest access to capital and political power. The power of this modern-day equivalent of the Medieval aristocracy, what the French referred to as the Second Estate, seems likely to grow; a recent British parliamentary study projects that, by 2030, the top one percent will expand their share to two-thirds of the world’s wealth, with the biggest gains overwhelmingly concentrated in the top .01 percent. One of the upshots of this concentration of economic power is that entrepreneurship is now declining even in the capitalist hotbed of America.
In contrast, the clerisy has a far less adversarial relationship with the uber-rich, since they operate in large part outside the market system. Like the Catholic Church in Medieval times, this part of the middle class enjoys something of a symbiosis with the oligarchal elites, the main financiers of NGOs, and the universities, and dominates the media and culture industries that employ so many of them. They are often also beneficiaries of the regulatory state, either directly as high-level government employees, or as consultants, attorneys, or through non-profits.
The rise of the clerisy
The term clerisy was coined by Samuel Coleridge in the 1830s to define a class of people whose job it was to instruct and direct the masses. Traditional clerics remained part of this class, but they were joined by others—university professors, scientists, public intellectuals, and the heads of charitable foundations. Since the industrial revolution, the clerisy has expanded and become ever-more secular, essentially replacing the religious clergy as what the great German sociologist Max Weber called society’s “new legitimizers.”1
Although certainly not unanimous in their views, the clerisy generally favors ever-increasing central control and regulation. French economist Thomas Piketty calls them “the Brahmin Left,” pointing out that their goal is not necessarily growth, nor greater affluence for hoi polloi, but a society shaped by their own progressive beliefs. In this respect, they are, despite a generally secular ideology, reprising the role played in feudal society by the Catholic Church, or what the French referred to as the First Estate.
Today’s clerisy are concentrated in professions whose numbers have grown in recent decades, including teaching, consulting, law, the medical field, and the civil service. In contrast, the size of the traditional middle class—small business owners, workers in basic industries, and construction—have seen their share of the job market decline and shrink.2 Some professions that were once more closely tied to the private economy, such as doctors, have become subsumed by bureaucratic structures and—in the United States, at least—shifted from a dependable conservative lobby to an increasingly progressive one.
These shifts are, if anything, more pronounced in Europe. In France, over 1.4 million lower skilled jobs have disappeared in the past quarter-century while technical jobs, often in the public sector, have sharply increased. Those working for state industries, universities, and in other clerisy-oriented positions, enjoy far better benefits, notably pensions, than those working in the purely private sector. To be sure, members of the clerisy have to suffer Europe’s high taxes on the middle class, but they also benefit far more than others from the state’s largesse.
At its apex, the clerisy today is made up largely of the well-educated offspring of the affluent. This class 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 – 48 percent. “After one generation,” the American sociologist Daniel Bell predicted nearly half a century ago, “a meritocracy simply becomes an enclaved class.”3
How big is the clerisy? One analyst, Michael Lind estimates that what he calls the “overclass” comprises some 15 percent of the American workforce. This is far larger than the membership of the old First Estate, which was closer to one percent of the French population. Another estimate defines the clerisy more narrowly, and estimates that they comprise roughly 2.4 million people out of a country of over 320 million.4
Like their Medieval counterparts in the old First Estate, members of the contemporary clerisy insist that they are motivated not by self-interest but rather by pursuit of the common good. They constitute “the privileged stratum,” in the words of French left-wing analyst Christophe Guilluy, operating from an assumption of “moral superiority” that justifies their right to instruct others.5 This power is greatly enhanced by their control of culture, most media, the education systems—eight in 10 British professors are on the Left—and throughout the bureaucracy.
The embattled yeomanry
The perspective of the traditional middle class generally differs from that of the clerisy, and constitutes what Piketty labels the “merchant Right.” These people make their living in the marketplace, and that often places them in conflict with both the oligarchs, who continually seek to crush or absorb their businesses, or with the clerisy, which hands down environmental and other regulations that inhibit their activities. Generally speaking, larger firms are far more adept at adjusting to these strictures than smaller firms.
The property-owning yeomanry has long been critical to the development of democracy. The earliest democracies in Athens and the Roman Republic rested on an assertive property-owning middle class. Aristotle warned about the dangers of an oligarchy that would control both the economy and the state. Ultimately, ever-greater consolidation of wealth played a major role in undermining Greek democracy and the citizen-led Roman Republic.6 As the middle orders weakened, autocracy followed, first in the form of Empire, and later in the disunity and social stagnation of the Dark Ages.
The yeomanry’s great ascendency came with the resurgence at the end of the Middle Ages of independent proprietors, notably in the Netherlands and Britain. This class later swelled, particularly after the 1789 Revolution in France, and among the British colonial offspring in Canada, Australia, and the United States. A 2016 study covering the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and the United States shows that all three saw a rapid decline in the concentration of wealth from the 1820s up to the 1970s. Never has so much prosperity and relative economic security been as widely enjoyed as it is today.
However, the decades after the 1970s also saw the shift to a greater concentration of wealth accelerate and became inexorable after the financial crash in 2007 – 8. Although the financial institutions helped create the crisis, they ended up as the biggest winners from the largely asset-based prosperity that followed the Great Recession. Main Street businesses and ordinary homeowners, meanwhile, did poorly. As one conservative economist succinctly observed in 2018, “The economic legacy of the last decade is excessive corporate consolidation, a massive transfer of wealth to the top one percent from the middle class.”
The yeomanry’s distress can be seen in everything from falling rates of business formation as well as declining homeownership, particularly among the young, most notably in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Even in the United States, a country that never experienced feudalism, the proportion of land owned by the nation’s 100 largest private landowners grew by nearly 50 percent between 2007 and 2017.
Land ownership in Europe is also increasingly concentrated in smaller hands; in Great Britain, where land prices have risen dramatically over the past decade, less than one percent of the population owns half of all the land. On the continent, farmland is increasingly concentrated while urban real estate has fallen into the hands of a small cadre of corporate owners and the mega-wealthy.
Growing corporate concentration, in both the US and Europe, has now seeped into the once dynamic tech economy. In Silicon Valley, the renowned garage culture is being supplanted by a gargantua of giant firms that have achieved market power unprecedented in modern times, controlling in some cases 80 – 90 percent of their key niches like search, social media, cellular, and computer operating systems. One online publisher uses a Star Trek analogy to describe his firm’s status with Google: “It’s a bit like being assimilated by the Borg. You get cool new powers. But having been assimilated, if your implants were ever removed, you’d certainly die. That basically captures our relationship to Google.”
Coming attractions: the war within the middle class
The decline of the yeomanry threatens the future of democracy as we have known it. Faced with growing assaults on their businesses, and in some cases, their communities, they have begun to fight back against many of the policies, notably climate policy, that are widely supported by the oligarchs and the clerisy. A policy to force the rapid replacement of fossil fuels with heavily subsidized renewables requires the development of the kind of largely unaccountable bureaucracies that both employ and empower the clerisy while providing the oligarchs both in the US and Europe with a unique opportunity to cash in on energy “transitions.”
In contrast, for large parts of the yeomanry, a call for a rapid, radical shift towards renewables imposes much higher energy prices. It also threatens to diminish industries in which many of them work and undercut the sustenance to the Main Street merchants in smaller cities and the countryside. Already attempts to impose such policies have led to yeoman rebellions in a number of countries.
President Emmanuel Macron’s energy price rise may be popular in the salons of the Paris elite, but not so much among the vast majority, notably the 90 percent of regional residents, who work outside the central district as well as the habitués of the smaller cities and towns of La France Périphérique. The massive gilets jaunes protests in France last year sparked similar protests in normally quieter countries like Norway and the Netherlands. Steady energy price rises from green policies, as well as boosts in subway fares, have resulted in major protests around Chile’s capital Santiago, with 20 deaths and 1,200 injured.
Similarly ultra-green policies—favored by the clerisy and their oligarchal allies—have been resoundingly rejected by voters in Australia, allowing for a surprise conservative victory, and in places like Ontario and Alberta, Canada, where green regulations impact basic industries, such as oil and manufacturing, critical to the yeomanry. Calls for a radical “Green New Deal,” endorsed by a number of leading Democrats, are likely to spur a similar response in the vast American “oil patch” from the Appalachians to west Texas.
But the chasm between the yeomanry and the clerisy also extends to broader issues, from border control to national identity, immigration, and the locus of political control. For the most part, the yeomanry favor local authority over more distant rule, while the clerisy favors the opposite. This was evident in the Brexit vote and the recent UK parliamentary elections, where the cosmopolitan clerisy, London-based and highly educated, largely rejected Brexit while the middle, as well as much of the working class, particularly outside the South-East, and property owners, favored Brexit and its implementer, Prime Minister Boris Johnson. A remarkable 57 percent of people who owned their own home supported Johnson compared to barely 22 percent for Labour.
As America prepares for its quadrennial presidential marathon, these divisions are painfully evident. No president has ever incurred the wrath of the clerisy—the media, the entertainment industry, academia—more than Donald Trump. But Trump retains record support among the small business people on Main Street, particularly in the manufacturing and energy-dependent parts of the country. The climatistas’ appeal is not likely to improve as they increasingly advocate the elimination of ownership of single-family houses, preferred by most middle class people, in order to promote an allegedly climate-friendly density regime.
The struggle between the two middle classes is not just a matter of wealth and power, but also of retaining the social basis for democracy itself. Without a strong, independent middle class operating outside the control of large institutions, be they tech giants or governments, we may be heading towards a technocratic future, that as one Silicon Valley wag put it, resembles “feudalism with better marketing.”
An independent and assertive property-owning middle class that can thrive remains the only force able to challenge ever-growing centralization. Without them, there is likely no way to prevent a new feudal order from emerging in the future. As the radical social theorist Barrington Moore suggested a half-century ago, “no bourgeoisie, no democracy.”7