Medieval Times

Column: ‘Vanity Fair’ and the New Feudalism

Zuckerberg, Bezos, Musk, Bloomberg / AP
October 11, 2013

Looking for a distraction from the government shutdown and debt ceiling debate? I urge you to read Vanity Fair’s latest advertisement for "The New Establishment," a list of "50 Titans Disrupting Media, Technology, and Culture," the century-old magazine’s annual mash-note to the rich and powerful and self-satisfied. These disrupters innovate technologies, set the trends, define the limits of acceptable conversation in culture and politics and society, and pour money into the network of liberal foundations and Democratic campaigns around which our world is increasingly organized. They are the winners in the cognitive lottery that is the New Economy, the men and women creating and shaping, by accident and by design, the "New Feudalism" described so well by Joel Kotkin in The Daily Beast. It’s good to know their names.

The members of Vanity Fair’s new establishment include Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Jack Dorsey, Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, Cory Booker and Megan Ellison. These are the bold-faced celebrities you spot on other lists of power players, in the lush photos of parties and galas and tributes and premieres that appear in the front of the book of glossy magazines, and on the cover of our national newsweekly. They share a certain demographic profile. They are people of pallor, all but eight of them are men, they are clustered in Manhattan, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, and Seattle, they work in technology, media, and politics, they are fantastically rich, and it is safe to assume that all but two of them share the attitudes and sensibilities, the mental luggage and politically correct language, the burnished resumes and can-do attitude of the caste.

One of the more remarkable things about this collection of do-gooders, overachievers, and symbolic analysts is their consistent inability to apply to themselves the skepticism and criticism they shower so heavily on Republicans and conservatives, on the rich who make their fortunes from resource extraction, manufacture, and investment. Not long ago a social critic such as C. Wright Mills could write pitilessly and accurately about The Power Elite, about the WASP establishment he saw lurking behind militarism and inequity. Few were exempt from his gaze. Our social critics today, however, prefer only to focus on a minority of a minority: the wealthy and influential whose policy and ideological objectives happen to be the very opposite of their own.

Put a banker or an industrialist or—dare I say it—a Republican in front of the men and women who edit Vanity Fair, and they will approach their subject with the utmost incredulity and commitment to ferreting out the worst possible facts. But the Hollywood tycoon or Internet billionaire or green-energy hawker or "engaged" actor whose politics exist in the temperate zone of bourgeois liberalism, whose public pronouncements are reliably "down the middle" and "moderate," whose bold stands on the issues include such courageous positions as support for abortion-on-demand, affirmative action, amnesty, gun control, free trade, diversity, globalization, alternative energy, public transit, and government "investments" in education and infrastructure—his place in the establishment is not only noted but celebrated, applauded, held as an example to the people.

The news that a group associated with Charles and David Koch had contributed to another group that advocates for shutting down parts of the government to protest Obamacare has seized the political press and its allies in the Democratic Party as earth-shattering, revelatory. Meanwhile the imperious outgoing mayor of New York City can flood Colorado with outside money to support gun control, can cut a million dollar check to help his Democratic pal Cory Booker in New Jersey, can announce his intention to spend some $400 million in 2013 to make the world conform to his prejudices, and Time magazine slaps him on its cover, writes the headline "Bloomberg Unbound," and writes in bold type: "He’s remade New York. Next up, the world."

Does the world get a vote? Remaking the world into one giant New York City may sound swell to the editors of Time magazine, to the editors of Vanity Fair, and to the wide-eyed, Millennial bookers and producers toiling away in the Rockefeller and Time Warner centers, but it is not a cost-free proposition. New York is nice if you can afford it: If you are a wealthy liberal, or a recent college graduate rooming with three friends, if you are at the top of the world or setting out in the world, if you are Carrie Bradshaw or doing your best to impersonate her, the city cannot be beat. But it is hard to raise a family there. It is no place for the middle class.

The city has experienced a surge of inequality, of poverty, of dependence. Sublimated racial tension underwent a process of deposition over the summer, as activists and journalists challenged Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk crime policy. All of these trends combined to give the world Bill de Blasio, the surprise Democratic nominee for mayor, and therefore in all likelihood the next occupant of Gracie Mansion. His tale of two cities captured the imagination of the Democratic electorate, his bourgeois liberal supporters not realizing how good they have it, how easily it all might disappear.

The feudalism Kotkin describes in his excellent essay has the same contradictory aspect: liberals lament the inequality and atomization of liberal societies, only to vote for, well, wealthy liberals. California, where many of the members of Vanity Fair’s new establishment reside, is a beautiful place. There are more billionaires in California than anywhere in the United States. But it is not a healthy polity. "The state suffers some of the highest levels of inequality in the country," Kotkin writes. "The Golden State now suffers the highest level of poverty in the country." The Golden State is "home to roughly one-third of the nation’s welfare recipients." "For the first time in decades, the middle class is a minority."

For years California has been a laboratory experiment in liberalism, for illegal immigration, progressive taxation, generous welfare benefits, union-run public schools, generous public service pensions, and the most cutting edge environmental policies. The result? Jerry Brown may have patched up the state's fiscal situation for now, but the underlying problems remain: a hollowed-out economy and politics that satisfies the moral imperatives of rich liberals by buying off interest groups and the poor, and sends the middle class to Nevada and Arizona.

"The state’s digital oligarchy," Kotkin says, "surely without intention, is increasingly driving the state’s lurch towards feudalism. Silicon Valley’s wealth reflects the fortunes of a handful of companies that dominate an information economy that itself is increasingly oligopolistic. … Through their embrace of and financial support for the state’s regulatory regime, the oligarchs have made job creation in non-tech businesses—manufacturing, energy, agriculture—increasingly difficult through ‘green energy’ initiatives that are also sure to boost already high utility costs." I might dispute that part about the oligarchs acting "surely without intention"—at the moment things seem to be working precisely according to, say, Tom Steyer’s intention—but I cannot dispute Kotkin’s empirical findings or the thrust of his analysis. Neo-feudalism it is.

This week the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released a study that concluded, in the words of the New York Times, that "the skill level of the American labor force is not merely slipping in comparison to that of its peers around the world, it has fallen dangerously behind." Ask yourself which ideas rule in America in the fall of 2013: Who has won the intellectual fights over trade, over immigration, over the environment, over the family, over entitlements and welfare and affirmative action. The conservatives? I do not see it.

I see an America governed by liberal or libertarian principles, an America that has adopted economic and social policies that benefit the established and the ascendant, the smart and the wily, while ignoring or bribing the poor and low skilled. I see an America where a protest movement of the aging white middle class is mocked and vilified, where criticism of Obamacare or deficits and debt becomes the mark of a nihilist, a terrorist, a hostage taker, a suicide bomber. I see a world built to order for Reed Hastings of Netflix, for Ben Silbermann of Pinterest, for Dan Doctoroff of Bloomberg, for Tyler Perry and for Jennifer Lawrence, members of an establishment that finds its antitheses in the likes of de Blasio and Elizabeth Warren, Ted Cruz and Michele Bachmann. In this America our constitutional architecture is an obstacle to progressive ambition, and the nasty partisan fights we are experiencing are the birth pangs of a new power elite, a new digital oligarchy, a new caste of liberals here to assert their rule.