I blame Karl Marx for a lot of things, but after inspiring some of the most destructive and blood-thirsty governments in modern history, his most abidingly destructive legacy is hobbling our understanding of the word “class.” For as long as I’ve been alive, when almost anyone talks about the class system they end up invoking images frozen somewhere in the middle of the European 19th century.
Arrogant entitled aristocrats and heartless mill owners; upright bourgeois, dispirited workers and peasants. It’s a world of frock coats and cloth caps and sunless terraced slums under smoke-filled skies, and while it’s a useful image if you want to start a discussion about the Industrial Revolution, it doesn’t do much to help describe the fluid, amorphous, endlessly adaptable way that class works in the modern world – and probably always has, even if one writer managed to fix the word to a tether at a spot roughly between Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.
Which is why I don’t have much hope that Joel Kotkin’s The New Class Conflict (Telos Press, 220 pages) will do much to budge our discussion of class to a point somewhere closer to the world of suburbs, computers, megamalls, and package vacations. It’s not that Kotkin’s book doesn’t struggle – mostly successfully – to make a discussion about class relevant, but that decades of framing class in antique trappings has made the word and everything it invokes seem anachronistic, or even irrelevant, to modern people and especially Americans.
I was reminded of this while writing my last two columns, about how our social and business elites have tolerated or even profited in a culture that encourages family breakdown, self-destructive sexual behaviour and pauperizing consumer culture while conducting their own lives and raising their children to minimize social media, value their sexual virtue and strive for stable family lives; behaviour that, when it’s done by social conservatives outside a largely liberal, secular elite class, is lampooned or condemned as prudish and oppressive by the same.
Kotkin takes the discussion a step further, highlighting how recent trends in government and banking policies, education and even urban planning have created whole new class divisions that Marx would never have been able to imagine. He sketches out a new oligarchy emerging in the tech industries and other businesses dependent on sympathetic government regulation and funding, and points in particular to what he calls the “clerisy” – an amalgam of academia, the media and the unelected bureaucracy that act as pamphleteers, propagandists and water-carriers for the new elite class, sometimes even without any particular social or economic benefit to themselves.
While taking pains to distance himself from religious conservatives – who he imagines as having lost the plot by concentrating more on theology than economy – Kotkin does acknowledge that the ongoing denigration of the family has had punishing effects, socially and fiscally. “The family has long been marked for extinction among political radicals,” he writes, “and its demise is also now widely celebrated by both progressive political pundits and some business interests.”
He points out in particular that legislation against “urban sprawl” enacted by many municipalities, where official planning, environmentalism and the “new urbanism” favours public transit, density and high rise living over the suburbs, is notably discouraging to families and tacitly encouraging toward broken family units and single people. He compares it to China’s “one child” policy in that, while it’s not an official government policy, it ends up producing the same desired outcome.
The diminution of religion in public life is also a project eagerly encouraged by the clerisy. “Contemporary social thinking,” Kotkin writes, “as epitomized by ‘creative class’ theorist Richard Florida, essentially links ‘advanced’ society to the absence of religious values. Indeed, the current fashions in urbanism not only disdain religiosity but often give remarkably short shrift to issues involving families.”
Whether intended or not, Kotkin points out that encouraging people to live in crowded cities not only stifles the ownership of private property that’s been a mark of increasing mass material prosperity for two centuries, but it re-creates a renting class at the mercy of moneyed landowners that he describes as a “new feudalism.”
On the surface this might resemble the predatory relationship between employers and workers that Marx agitated against, but among the many things that have changed is that the people often agitating for a new urbanism wouldn’t consider themselves philosophically opposed to Marx and his legacy – probably because this brave new world never seems to put them in a rented tenement.
Kotkin writes: “An examination of where high-profile ‘smart growth’ advocates in Los Angeles live, for example, found that almost all lived in large houses, on suburban- or even exurban-sized lots, a few even in gated communities, and none were located anywhere near the public transit lines they want everyone else to use.”
And there’s even a generational component, Kotkin observes, since the long-term effects of these policies won’t be felt by their Boomer-aged proponents who bought houses when they were cheap and have banked the equity, but by the young who’ve been taught that the better world is a secular one where their small family lives with a scant environmental footprint in a teeming city.
Except for the lack of God and children, we might be back to the world Karl Marx raged against. Apart from being proof of the law of unintended consequences, it also provides evidence that Marx was like most other “big thinkers” in his inability to see very far down the road his ideas were building.