In ways not seen since the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, America is becoming a nation of increasingly sharply divided classes. Joel Kotkin’s The New Class Conflict breaks down these new divisions for the first time, focusing on the ascendency of two classes: the tech Oligarchy, based in Silicon Valley; and the Clerisy, which includes much of the nation’s policy, media, and academic elites.
The Proleterianization of the Middle Class
From early in its history, the United States rested on the notion of a large class of small proprietors and owners. “The small landholders,” Jefferson wrote to his fellow Virginian James Madison, “are the most precious part of a state.” To both Jefferson and Madison, both the widespread dispersion of property and limits on its concentration—“the possession of different degrees and kinds of property”—were necessary in a functioning republic.
Jefferson, admitting that the “equal division of property” was “impractical,” also believed “the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind” that “legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property.” The notion of a dispersed base of ownership became the central principle which the Republic was, at least ostensibly, built around. As one delegate to the 1821 New York constitutional convention put it, property was “infinitely divided” and even laborers “expect soon to be freeholders” was a bulwark for the democratic order.
This notion of American opportunity has ebbed and flowed, but generally gained ground well into the 1960s and 1970s. The very fact that the United States was more demographically dynamic, notes Thomas Piketty, naturally reduced the role of inherited wealth compared to Europe, most notably in France, where population growth was slower.
Mass prosperity hit a high point in America in the first decades after the Second World War, the period where the country achieved its highest share of world GDP at some forty percent. By the mid-1950s the percentage of households earning middle incomes doubled to 60 percent compared with the boom years of the 1920s. By 1962 over 60 percent of Americans owned their own homes; the increase in homeownership, notes Stephanie Coontz, between 1946 and 1956 was greater than that achieved in the preceding century and a half.
But today, after decades of expanding property ownership, the middle orders—what might be seen as the inheritors of Jefferson’s yeoman class—now appear in a secular retreat. Homeownership, which peaked in 2002 at nearly 70 percent, has dropped, according to the U.S. Census, to 65 percent in 2013, the lowest in almost two decade. Although some of this may be seen as a correction for the abuses of the housing bubble, rising costs, stagnant incomes and a drop off of younger first time buyers suggest that ownership may continue to fall in years ahead.
The weakness of the property owning yeomanry comes at a time when other classes, notably the oligarchs and the Clerisy, have gained power and influence. Over twenty years ago Christopher Lasch argued that “the new class” was arising that “begins and ends with the knowledge industry.” For this group, the rest of society, he suggested, exists only “as images and stereotypes.”
Progressive theorists, such as Ruy Texerira, have suggested that, in the evolving class structure, the traditional middle and working class is of little importance compared to the rise of a mass “upper middle class” consisting largely of professionals, tech workers, academics, and high-end government bureaucrats.
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