Depressing article by Joel Kotkin, “Welcome to the end of democracy”

Today’s (UK) Spectator, a.k.a. “The Speccie”, has a long and depressing article by Joel Kotkin, most recently the author of “The coming of the new feudalism“. For context, note that urban geographer Joel Kotkin is not a minarchist or fire-breathing conservative, but a lifelong old-school liberal who just recently changed his party registration from D to Independent.

The original article is here, behind a paywall

https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/welcome-to-the-end-of-democracy

but you can find a cached copy here https://archive.fo/XuZTt . Read the whole long essay: I cannot do it justice by selective quoting. Let me just give you the incipit and a few excerpts :

We bemoan autocracies in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Russia and China but largely ignore the more subtle authoritarian trend in the West. Don’t expect a crudely effective dictatorship out of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: we may remain, as we are now, nominally democratic, but be ruled by a technocratic class empowered by greater powers of surveillance than those enjoyed by even the nosiest of dictatorships.

He goes on to give evidence for the ever-greater concentration of capital and real estate in ever fewer hands; that those hands benefit less from success in an undistorted free market than from “hypersubsidies” and cronyist relations with governments and the administrative state; that small and medium enterprises either are “assimilated by the Amazoogle borg” or go under; and as a result, that the middle class will shrink further and further.

All this is covered in his book

, but then he goes a step further

What is the end game for the oligarchs and their clerical allies?

Climate-change policies could nurture the new autocracy for a generation. As tech oligarchs and the financial establishment implement the Davos notion of a Great Reset, they will force a quick end to fossil fuels. There are huge opportunities for massive investment by super-rich companies and speculators in the ‘green economy,’ all made possible with tax breaks, loans and guaranteed sales to governmental units.

[…] The conscious policy of degrowth as a means of forcibly reducing greenhouse gas emissions will require getting most people out of their cars, and forcing them to travel far less and to live in tiny apartments. Enforcement will be necessarily intrusive as well. Planners in the UK and elsewhere are pushing for family ‘carbon budgets.’ Add surveillance technology and we end up with something akin to China’s ‘social credit’ system, in which your right to free movement is subject to government approval.

[…]

In a digitalised economy, it’s good to control the critical niches. The oligarchs do this brilliantly. They have seized dominant shares of key markets from search (Google) to social media (Facebook) to book sales (Amazon). Google and Apple together provide over 95 per cent of operating software for mobile devices, while Microsoft still accounts for over 80 per cent of the software that runs personal computers around the world.

I have covered Silicon Valley for forty-five years. Today, it is less the hypercompetitive, free-spirited place I knew, and more like the early twentieth-century trusts. Mike Malone, who has chronicled Silicon Valley as deeply as anyone, sees it losing much of its ethos. The new masters of tech, he suggests, have shifted from ‘blue-collar kids to the children of privilege,’ and moved away from the production ethos that once made the Valley so inspiring and egalitarian. An intensely competitive industry has become enamoured with the allure of ‘the sure thing’ backed by massive capital and sometimes by government. Competition is no longer a spur to creativity: competitors are simply bought out.

[…] Wealth cannot rule on its own. Autocracy needs a proselytising class who can justify the rulers and salve the distressed souls of the lower orders. In medieval times, the Catholic Church served this role, essentially justifying the feudal order as the expression of divine will. Today’s version, a sort of clerisy or intelligentsia, is mostly not religious and consists of people from the upper bureaucracy, academia, and the culture and media industries.

The pandemic has been a boon to this class too. The emergency allowed governments to grant them unprecedented executive and administrative powers not just in centralised France but even in usually semi-sensible Great Britain and Australia. For some, the lockdowns served as a ‘test run’ for necessary measures to realise their preferred climate-change policies. In the new schema, the real class enemy is not the excesses of the ultra-rich, or even wasteful spending by government: it’s the consumption patterns of the masses. We see this in the response of progressive media and even politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to complaints about the rising costs of food, rent and energy. The clerisy sees even the essentials as ephemeral, and supply-chain problems as the consequence of too much consumption by the masses.

[…] The leaders of woke capitalism have signed onto a pledge to defund fossil fuels in the great quest for Net Zero. This is not, as the wacko right and the wacko left might think, a conscious conspiracy. Instead, it is propelled by tech firms’ natural desire for profits derived from replacing the carbon-spewing analog world wherever possible, and the irresistible lure for investors and corporations of a huge, subsidised and government-financed market.

Most tech and finance executives are not ideologues. Nor are they, despite appearances, sociopaths. Yet they feel justified in censoring and even demonetising not just Donald Trump or the New York Post or Bari Weiss, but also the credentialed experts whose views diverge from the accepted line for staffers at Google, Facebook and Twitter, organisations where woke instruction is increasingly imposed. (These companies’ location in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Puget Sound region, two of the most lopsidedly progressive areas in the country, is also a factor.) Many firms espouse woke ideas, says Jim Wunderman, president of the Bay Area Council, because they are ‘afraid of their own employees.’

[…]

In practice this often means eliminating conservative opinions — and not just views from the crazy fringe, according to former employees. Academic experts such as Judith Curry and Roger Pielke, with somewhat contrarian takes on climate, are routinely ignored, attacked and marginalised. Sceptics like the long-time environmentalist Mike Shellenberger, the Obama advisor Steven Koonin and the ‘sceptical environmentalist’ Bjorn Lomborg are largely consigned to the social-media memory hole for detailing the environmentalists’ record of exaggeration, hyperbolic projections and immiserating policies.

We are increasingly ruled by a perfect marriage of class convenience, with more power for the clerisy and ever-greater economic opportunities for the oligarchy — all with the added benefit of encouraging them to feel good about themselves. Even as they push austerity on the masses, they live like medieval lords, indulging in lavish weddings and building estates reminiscent of the Habsburgs’. Jeff Bezos just spent $100 million (£80 million) on a Hawaiian retreat. Bill Gates’s daughter just enjoyed a $2 million (£1.5 million) wedding. John Kerry, president Biden’s chief climate scold and beneficiary of an heiress’s fortune, travels on a private jet that use thirty times the energy of the average American vehicle.

That’s fine. The anointed purchase ‘environmental offsets’: a green version of indulgences. […]

Again read the whole thing. His peroration:

The time could be shorter than we think. The tech oligarchs are creating something similar to what Aldous Huxley called in Brave New World Revisited a ‘scientific caste system.’ There is ‘no good reason,’ Huxley wrote in 1958, that ‘a thoroughly scientific dictatorship should ever be overthrown.’ It will condition its subjects from the womb so that they ‘grow up to love their servitude’ and ‘never dream of revolution.’ It will maintain a strict social order and provide enough diversion through drugs, sex and videos to keep their artificially narrowed minds occupied and sated.

The fusion of government with large oligopolistic companies, and the technologically-enhanced collection of private information, allow the new autocracies to monitor our lives in ways that Mao, Stalin or Hitler would have envied. A rising tide of money and administrative power defines the rising autocracy. If we as citizens, whatever our political orientation, are not vigilant, our democracy will become an increasingly hollow vessel.

4 thoughts on “Depressing article by Joel Kotkin, “Welcome to the end of democracy”

  1. There is a wild card at play that could throw a monkey wrench into this finely tuned autocratic power grab: Americans own 500 million firearms and trillions of rounds of ammunition. Human history is replete with examples of a small and powerful elite ruling the masses but at no time did an elite ruling class face such a formidable adversary. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the near future.

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