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Joel Kotkin on the New American Oligarchy

In an incisive and thoughtful review essay in Quadrant (March 2015), Peter Murphy examines Joel Kotkin’s The New Class Conflict and the prognosis for America in the “post-creative economy.” Read the full essay (subscription required) at Quadrant Online. Purchase your copy of The New Class Conflict in our online store.

An excerpt:

In case you suffer from the delusion that America’s Democratic Party is the party of equality, Joel Kotkin, in The New Class Conflict, is here to tell you otherwise. Kotkin is a master of revealing statistics, and his book is a short, sharp, inspired diagnosis of what ails America today. It is a damning portrait of a society in awe of smug sanctimonious self-serving Left-liberal elites. These elites use reformist rhetoric and guilt tactics to engineer upward mobility for themselves and downward mobility for the American middle class. Kotkin observes that 95 per cent of the income gains during President Obama’s first term went to 1 per cent of the population. In the 2012 elections, Obama triumphed in eight of the country’s ten wealthiest counties, sometimes by margins of two-to-one. In the first term of his presidency, average annual US household income dropped by $2600 and the number in poverty grew by six million.

Over time America’s middle class has been hollowed out, and the ranks of the low-income service and welfare classes have swelled. Kotkin notes that by 2020 almost 30 per cent of American employees are expected to hold low-wage jobs with earnings at or below the poverty line. The old Democrat New Deal coalition that united well-paid industrial workers with farmers and minorities is long gone. Democrat power today pivots on a coalition of the urban poor and the high-tech rich. The wealthy fund the party’s political campaigns; the poor trade votes for transfer payments; the forgotten middle class pays for these income redistributions through taxes and regulation.

The Democrat coalition is cemented together by what Kotkin amusingly calls the clerisy: the mainly postgraduate-educated leaders of America’s large symbolic industries. These industries make up the media-entertainment-government-foundation-university (MEGFU) sector that churns out an endless diet of progressive ideology. One of its many functions is to retail redistribution schemes like Obamacare, designed to hike middle-class health insurance payments to pay for the insurance of low-income Americans. The shrinking size of the middle class today makes these transfer schemes punitive. Fewer taxpayers pay more.

The clerisy turns a blind eye to this reality. Its business is fairy-tales. It tells its tales in all sorts of ways. It produces everything from schlock blockbusters to unreadable academic tracts. Among its most potent tales is the one that says that progressives represent “equality.” In reality Left-liberals are in awe of America’s high-tech oligarchy—and it of them. This oligarchy grew out of the once innovative information technology industries. Today the oligarchs have replaced innovation with government lobbying, a sure sign of decline.


No one can tell exactly what shape the next industrial revolution will take. But unless the pernicious pall of clerisy culture is removed, it is not going to arrive in the near future. Kotkin’s great service is to confront this problem head-on and not flinch.

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