Joel Kotkin

It’s easy to get impatient with Joel Kotkin as he hops from one collection of views about the future of society to another.  He has written about ‘tribes’, exploring the characteristics of Jewish, Christian, Chinese and Islamic societies.  He has charted the decline of suburbia and its resurgence.  He has analysed the class structure of the US, and the increased rigidity separating the tech elite, the managerial class and the gig workers.  He demonstrates an acute sensitivity to the issues of the moment, moving from optimism to pessimism while mirroring the prevailing attitudes and concerns of the moment.  Yes, it’s easy to criticise him and his broad-brush generalisations, and yet he is also an illuminating divining rod, capturing hopes and fears as well as trends and possibilities.  Trying to anticipate the future is always like that as projections about what might happen are largely accounts of what is already taking place.

I first came across Kotkin’s work in Tribes, published in 1993.  This was an examination of ‘how race, religion and identity determine success in the new global economy’.  Variously described as provocative, original and explosive, challenging, revealing and persuasive, it examines how what he describes how global tribes have been at the centre of the world’s economy for hundreds of years, and predicts they will continue to dominate in the twenty-first century.  Who are these tribes?  According to Kotkin they comprise the Jews, Anglo-Americans (within which category he included both British and Americans), the Japanese, Chinese and Indians.  Surprisingly, Arabs are scarcely mentioned, nor Russians. This was because he observed they had largely stayed within their own territories, rather than the international reach the others covered.  Among those varied reviews, one word that wasn’t used was ‘bold’, although commentators did see the book as provocative.  In our current world of fractured sensibilities, I wonder if Kotkin would still refer to races in his work?

To be clear, Kotkin is not a journalist or sensation seeker.  He’s been an academic for most of his working life, as a human geographer and economist.  He’s currently the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange, California and Executive Director of the Houston-based Urban Reform Institute, as well as a Senior Advisor to the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.  Tribes, like other books he’s written, is serious, packed with references, 66 pages in all, supporting the 260 odd pages of the text.  When I first read it, I was intrigued by the scope and vibrancy of his analysis.  Returning 25 years later, I find it slightly unsettling, with the sense it could be read as promoting racist stereotypes in studying the Jewish, Indian and Chinese diaspora.

However, that sense of disquiet is entirely in my own head.  We are so anxious to avoid any critical cultural or ethnic remarks or placing undue emphasis in differences in social identity that words like ‘tribes’ conjure up anxiety.  For Kotkin, tribes were groups defined by three characteristics.  First, they had a strong ethnic identity and sense of mutual dependence, allowing members to adjust to changing conditions without losing an essential common unity.  This was supported by two other factors:  a global network based on mutual trust, and a passion to learn and exploit technical and other types of knowledge, irrespective of their source.  Now we’d add the critical role of language:  language defines how you see the world.

If we take those elements of definition, and drop using the word ‘tribe, then a visit to 20 major urban centres around the world quickly demonstrates the relevance of his analysis.  You can find ‘Chinatowns’, as well as Jewish and Indian concentrations in almost every city.  The Japanese are far less visible, but also present.  Looking outside the Anglo world, the same is true for Anglo-Americans.  However, it is also important to add a time dimension.  Jewish, Chines and Indian groups have persisted over the longer term, a shared sense of community sustained over decades if not hundreds of years.  In any particular city, of course, it is easy to find other communities:  Cambodians, Vietnamese and Lebanese in Melbourne, Eastern Europeans in Wisconsin, and so on.    However, these reflect recent patterns of refugee settlement:  to date, it does not seem likely we will be thinking of any of these groups as having the same kind of universal network that characterises Kotkin’s ‘tribes’.

Displaced ethnic groups often follow the same pattern:  first-generation arrivals sustain language and culture from their home country, while their children often seek to become ‘more like’ the others in their host city; and then the grandchildren often show a desire to return to lost cultural practices, before even later generations become thoroughly absorbed.  In Melbourne, huge communities of people with Greek or Italian ancestry self-identify, but most do so as Greek Australians or Italian Australians, a step along a path to assimilation that is far more evident in places like the US.  Policies like Australia’s multiculturalism sustain later generations appreciation of their ethic culture, but Greek Australians bear little relationship to Greek Greeks, and those that visit to their ‘home’ country discover it is quite unlike the world they’d known:  first generation migrants are stuck with an image of their country as it had been, only to discover how much has changed, and later generations find themselves tourists in an unfamiliar place. The same is true for British migrants, of course.

On top of a sense of common identity, two other factors appear to be especially important, wealth and education.  In capitalist countries where wealth is both an aspiration and a measure of success, as people move up the social hierarchy they seek acceptance by their business and class peers.  Again, this is important for those ethnic groups that fall outside Kotkin’s tribes.  Social identity as being of Dutch or Polish origin remains, but it is softened by a desire to be accepted by colleagues at work and in the local community.  Countries like Australia are places of astonishing diversity, the result of massive immigration.  But diversity is always balanced against integration, and slowly many ethnic edges get rubbed off.  For a long time, the US excelled in integrating new arrivals:  while some argue that ethnic identity is now more easily sustained in the US, the long-run process of assimilation continues largely unaffected.  Education plays a key role. Despite Australia’s ‘Saturday schools’, and similar educational provisions in other countries, schooling is a not much more than a massive process to ensure the acceptance of a dominant culture, aided by youngsters’ desire to ‘fit in’.

Uncomfortable or not, Kotkin made an important point.  Some ethnicities kept some groups apart as their members spread around the world.  They have drawn on a history, a culture and a language that  has sustained them in being different.  I am reminded of Scott Fitzgerald on the rich.  What did he say in his 1926 story, The Rich Boy, in The New Yorker?

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different. ”

Replace the word ‘rich’ and it is the same view many westerners have about the Chinese, the Indians, the Jews and the Japanese, and they in turn have about Anglo-Americans.

For an academic, Kotkin seems skilled in tapping into the zeitgeist.  Tribes appeared in 1993, at the same time as Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama were slugging it out over the dynamics of history.  The year before Huntington had given a lecture on ‘The Clash of Civilisations’, the basis of a book with the same title which appeared in 1996.  Huntington was responding to Fukuyama’s thesis, in The End of History, which argued western liberal democracy was taking over the world.  Tribes was clearly aligned with Huntington, and, as we now know, Fukuyama’s hopeful view was to be disproved, although he still hopes for the triumph of liberal values.  Earlier this year, in Foreign Affairs, he wrote “Liberalism, with its universalist pretensions, may sit uneasily alongside seemingly parochial nationalism, but the two can be reconciled. The goals of liberalism are entirely compatible with a world divided into nation-states. . . . Liberal rights are meaningless if they cannot be enforced by a state . . . The need for international cooperation in addressing issues such as global warming and pandemics has never been more evident. But it remains the case that one particular form of power, the ability to enforce rules through the threat or the actual use of force, remains under the control of nation-states.”  Hopeful, in the face of considerable and growing divergence.

After Tribes, Joel Kotkin continued to produce timely, thoughtful and often provocative books about future trends.  Some 30 years after Jane Jacob’s defence of city centres and the alienation of life in suburbs, in 2010 he published The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050.  In this, Kotkin published a positive account of the American future, in which its growing population would reach four hundred million by 2050, the country diverse, vibrant and competitive.  He suggested that the US “should emerge by mid-century as the most affluent, culturally rich and successful nation in human history”.  He saw suburbs as providing diversity and new ideas as immigrants assimilated into American society through what he described as a kind of ‘smart sprawl’, medium to low density suburbs without central dependence on big cities drawing in increasing numbers of people. He suggested “in a dramatic change, the new suburbs will be far more diverse ethnically than those of the past.”

It was a fascinating rethink on the place of suburbia, and for many years there was much to support his view.  However, the past decade has seen a retreat away from the suburbs, as increasing number prefer to live close to city centres, often in high rise apartment blocks, using the city centre as their living room.  I suspect the balance between inner city and suburban living will continue to shift, especially as city planners continue their attempts to make suburbs into mini cities in their own right.

Ten years after ‘The Next Hundred Million’, much had changed.  Obama was replaced by Trump, and with his departure so America lost his vision of a better, more cohesive society.   Once again with his finger on the pulse of the country, Kotkin’s  most recent book tackles the increasingly divided nature of modern society.  The Coming of Neo-Feudalism appeared in 2020, ominously subtitled ‘A warning to the Global Middle Class’.  Once again, he sets out a big picture, but rather than the optimism he offered in 2010, now he is warning us feudal times are returning.  Kotkin really likes to throw out a challenge.  Now he is suggesting we are facing a world divided between the super-rich and the rest, with gloomy consequences.

His underlying argument is very simple. If our society continues down the current path of huge economic disparities and continuing social disintegration, he is suggesting the feudalism that disappeared centuries ago is going to come roaring back.  In fact, I can’t help feeling it’s almost here already.  However, instead of exploited peasants, now it will be the middle class, those who seem to have received so much over the past two hundred years, who are about suffer most.  Forget about tribes:  now we need to concentrate on the global ‘oligarchs’, the super-rich new-technology elite, the Musks, Bezoses, Ambanis, YeMings and Mas.  Kotkin describes the key players in these elites as “long on brilliance, but short on hardship”.  Nicely put, and he goes on to remind us this small group is insanely rich, almost unbelievably ambitious in terms of what they want to do (a colony on the moon anyone?), and carelessly shaping the lives of everyone else under the far from watchful eye of government.  What was that quote, again:  “Let me tell you about the very rich.  … They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are … They are different.”

Feudal societies were rigid and hierarchical, with clearly defined roles and responsibilities.   Knights fought, priests prayed, and peasants laboured, all under the direction and for the benefit of the landed aristocracy.  Social mobility was almost non-existent.  Feudalism collapsed as a result of the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of political democracies. Today, Kotkin argues, with another massive body of supporting documentation, the old rigid stratification is returning.   Is it really going to be like feudal times?  Perhaps not exactly, but he draws some interesting parallels.  The feudal world was distinguished by the ‘Estates of the Realm’: the First Estate the Clergy; the Second Estate the Aristocracy; and the Third Estate the rest, the commoners.   Kotkin suggests we are seeing a new first estate in which the clergy is replaced by what he calls the ‘Clerisy’, an increasingly detached intellectual elite to be found in government, the media, universities, and the professions.  The second estate is no longer the aristocracy but its modern counterpart, the Oligarchy. In his view, just as the Clergy supported the wealth and power of the Aristocracy, so the Clerisy supports the Oligarchy. People outside the new first and second estates, which includes most of the population, are losing the opportunity to advance in life.  Overall, Kotkin’s neo-Feudalism rests on growing and increasingly entrenched wealth inequality, combined with an equally strong cultural divide separating the elite from the general population.

Did I say Kotkin captures the zeitgeist?  Joining with many other commentators, he argues the new Oligarchy owes its dominance to the tech industry.  The massive revenues of Amazon, Google and Facebook result from little labour.  These companies make 300 times the revenue per employee compared to traditional firms.  Kotkin cites French economist Thomas Piketty, who has argued that wealth concentration is inevitable when the productivity of capital increases faster than economic growth.  You know the figures.  From 1945 to 1973, the richest one percent of the population received 4.9 percent of total income growth; now they get more than half.  The richest 400 Americans own as much as 185 million other US citizens.  If you want telling example, Kotkin cites California.  Its Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, is 0.49, similar to Guatemala and Honduras, rather than Western countries like Canada and Norway.  Another example?  Today it seems it’s close to impossible to buy a house in San Francisco unless you work in a high-paying job or inherit the money from someone who previously owned a house in San Francisco themselves.  His oligarchy rules!

Reading Kotkin is fascinating, somewhat addictive, and ultimately worrying.  He writes about the Clerisy, those in government, the media, and academia who he sees determining society’s orthodoxies and who see themselves as “more enlightened” than the majority. The Clerisy are educated at universities, with top universities effectively inaccessible to most outside the elite.  As is often quoted, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale enrol more students from the top one percent of families than from the bottom 50%.  Data on top of data, it is easy to be swept along.  From Tribes to The Next Hundred Million, Kotkin spoke to the changing hopes and fears of the time, more of a journalist than a pedantic academic.  Thirty years ago it was concern over dominant global cultures in conflict.  Then America saw itself as the world leader, creating a new world order through technology.  Recently he has turned to rigid hierarchies.  With the conflict in Ukraine, I wonder if his next book will be Tribes 2? Or Fragmentation, the right versus the liberals?  His divining rod must be vibrating …