The Quiet Return Of Feudalism by Jorge González-Gallarza for The American Conservative
Silicon Valley oligarchs are ushering in a new age of serfdom, aided by the left.
Few policy items have more ominously heralded the ongoing realignment of our politics than Universal Basic Income. That its proponents and detractors can’t seem to agree on what UBI is intended for in the first place is merely a measure of that omen.
Take Spain. The country’s far-left government was an early fan of the policy, and when it leaped on the unemployment caused by lockdowns to implement a version of it, the handouts were popularly mocked as la paguita—Spanish for pocket money. The derisive analogy was swiftly censured as xenophobic—the potential pull effect for illegal migrants deemed a red herring—or more creatively still, as aporophobic, a made-in-Spain woke neologism for aversion towards the poor. Yet it was fresh college graduates, not illegal aliens nor the destitute, that users of la paguita fretted UBI would put on the dole. UBI-skeptics fear this more than any potential loopholes for migrants or layabouts: namely, further untethering the over-credentialed young from the demands of the labor market, directing them instead towards “more creative pursuits” of dubious societal interest while turning the self-sufficient lower-middle classes into their unconsenting patrons.
The dissonance over who exactly UBI is meant to assist is extremely revealing. The policy was initially designed in Silicon Valley to make automation painless, but liberals on both sides of the Atlantic have hailed the insurance it provides against labor market disruptions. The reckoning with the need for a larger safety net is actually widespread, but the unalloyed welfare that UBI would afford entitled millennials remains a no-go across much of the right. By embracing UBI, the left seems to have made peace with our tech-induced drift away from self-sufficiency and towards generalized dependence. But creating a dependent class out of the supposedly “best and brightest” is still deemed profoundly perverse on the right.
This realignment around work and welfare is but one instance of what Joel Kotkin describes in his latest book as The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, the surreptitious supplanting of liberal capitalism—a blend of economic opportunity, pluralism and dispersed political power—with a new regime dominated by tech oligarchs, enabled by their legitimizers in the so-called “progressive clerisy,” and so far acquiesced to by most everyone else. The proposition that a class of tech overlords is infiltrating liberal institutions will sound far-fetched to most of Kotkin’s readers, but that’s only because our connotations of “feudalism” suffer from recency bias. This f-word often calls to mind pre-revolutionary France, where a monarchic nobility and a conservative priesthood united to preserve their privileges at swords’ point until 1789.