Welcome to the new Middle Ages

Welcome to the new Middle Ages, by Ed West.

Kotkin is among a handful of thinkers warning about a cluster of related trends, including not just inequality but declining social mobility, rising levels of celibacy and a shrinking arena of political debate controlled by a small number of like-minded people.

The one commonality is that all of these things, along with the polarisation of politics along quasi-religious lines, the decline of nationalism and the role of universities in enforcing orthodoxy, were the norm in pre-modern societies. … What if the modern age was the anomaly, and we’re simply returning to life as it has always been?

Employment and social mobility:

The industrial revolution increased the demand for labour and helped drive up wages, which rocketed in the 18th century, but with automation increasing numbers will be unemployed or underemployed; while government policies used to focus on creating work, the seemingly inevitable logic of Universal Basic Income reflects the fact that we may have to give up on that dream.

Along with income stratification, another pre-modern trend is the decline of social mobility, which almost everywhere is slowing (with the exception of immigrant communities, many of whom come from the middle class back home). …

Tech and inequality:

This new age of liberal inequality is dominated by and defined by tech, with the four big firms, Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook, having a GDP equal to France. Tech accounts for eight of the 20 richest people on earth, as well as nine of the richest 13 under-40s, all of them based in California.

Tech is by nature anti-egalitarian, creating natural monopolies that wield vastly more power than any of the great industrial barons of the modern age, and have cultural power far greater than newspapers of the past, closer to that of the Church in Kotkin’s view; their algorithms and search engines shape our worldview and our thoughts, and they can, and do, censor people with heretical views.

Sex and family:

Rising inequality and stratification is linked to the decline of modern sexual habits. The nuclear family is something of a western oddity, developing as a result of Catholic Church marriage laws and reaching its zenith in the 19th and 20th centuries with the Victorian cult of family and mid-20th century “hi honey I’m home” Americana. …

Celibacy was common in medieval Europe, where between 15-25% of men and women would have joined holy orders. In the early modern period, with rising incomes and Protestantism, celibacy rates plunged but they have now returned to the medieval level. …

Politics and the Internet:

The internet has often been compared to the printing press, and when printing was introduced it didn’t lead to a world of contemplative philosophy; books of high-minded inquiry were vastly outsold by tracts about evil witches and heretics.

The word “medieval” is almost always pejorative but the post-printing early modern period was the golden age of religious hatred and torture; the major witch hunts occurred in an age of rising literacy, because what people wanted to read about was a lot of the time complete garbage. Likewise, with the internet, and in particular the iPhone, which has unleashed the fires of faith again, helping spread half-truths and creating a new caste of firebrand preachers (or, as they used to be called, journalists).

Most of us grew up in the industrial age of politics, when the great divide was over class and economics. But that is something of an anomaly — and the culture wars that were first identified in the mid-90s are just the return to normal, of people screeching at each other about their sinful beliefs.

English politics from the 16th to the 19th century was “a branch of theology” in Robert Tombs’s words; Anglicans and rural landowners formed the Conservative Party, and Nonconformists and the merchant elite the core of the Liberal Party. It was only with industrialisation that political focus turned to class and economics, but the identity-based conflict between Conservatives and Labour in the 2020s seems closer to the division of Tories and Whigs than to the political split of 50 years ago; it’s about worldview and identity rather than economic status. …

Despising the poor is back:

In medieval society the poor were despised … Medieval poems and fables depict peasant as credulous, greedy and insolent — and when they get punched, as they inevitably do, they deserve it.

Compare this to the evolution of comedy in the post-industrial west, where the butt of the joke is the rube from the small town, laughed at for being out of touch with modern political sensibilities. The most recent Borat film epitomises this form of modern comedy that, while meticulously avoiding any offence towards the sacred ideas of the elite, relentlessly humiliates the churls. …

The nation-state is shrinking:

Nation-states rose with the technology of the modern day — printing, the telegraph and railways — and they have been undone by the technology of the post-modern era. A liberal in England now has more in common with a liberal in Germany than with his conservative neighbour, in a way that was not possible before the internet.

Nations were semi-imagined communities, and what follows is a return to the norm — tribalism, on a micro scale, but tribalism nonetheless, whether along racial, religious or most likely political-sectarian tribes. …

The middle-class of the industrial ages is waning:

Now the age of the average man is over, and the age of the global aristocrat has arrived.

The period from 1800 is also the first time humanity escaped an Malthusian existence, the first time the number of people was not strictly limited by food supply. For the first time in 100,000 years, people’s standard of living — as measured by the number of calories consumed and the amount of hours spent to acquire those calories —  rose. The great Malthusian stagnation was finally ended.

What finally allowed this breakthrough is not “known” in academia, because certain answers are not allowed. It is regarded as the great unknown. But the most likely reason is that people’s IQs gradually increased, under evolutionary pressures. For the first time ever, the quickened pace in innovation allowed humanity to outrun the number of mouths to feed.

But in the last few decades the speed of innovation has noticeably fallen back, despite ever higher numbers of government funded scientists. Average IQs are dropping, as smarter women have careers rather than kids and genetic infelicities build up. Measurements in London imply a drop in the average IQ of about 15 points since the 1800s. The magic is disappearing.

Maybe mankind’s peak has passed, as an ever dumber humanity reverts to a more medieval existence once more, albeit at a higher technological level. Victorian Englanders would never have fallen for the carbon dioxide theory of global warming.

hat-tip Joe P.