Joel Kotkin, the Executive Editor of the influential newgeography.com website, prolific contributor to Forbes and The Daily Beast, and enfant terrible of the American urban design and planning community, is at it again. “The man urbanists love to hate” has just published another book, The New Class Conflict (Telos Press). In previous publications Kotkin sought to defend suburbia against critics in the architectural and design professions. Here he provocatively locates those earlier disagreements within a considerably wider, and vastly more consequential, struggle to determine the course of American democracy. Kotkin assigns a pivotal role to contemporary transformations in American family life.
For a quarter century Kotkin has defended Americans’ irrepressible enthusiasm for suburban living against detractors who condemn this choice as environmentally destructive and socially irresponsible. In its stead, these critics, together with sympathetic politicians and regulators, have embraced policies to nudge suburbanites back into the high-rise cities their grandparents and parents fled after the Second World War. Increasingly restrictive land use ordinances, burdensome environmental regulations, diminishing investments in automotive infrastructure, and proliferating “green” mandates for alternative (and expensive) energy are just a few of these measures.
Kotkin has long protested that such efforts presumptuously thwart Americans’ “great preference for single-family homes.” He’s argued as well that these policies and regulations exacerbate inequality, they damper economic mobility (not the same thing!), and they depress already low fertility rates.[i] Since dense metropolitan areas like New York and San Francisco offer few middle-class jobs, but impose upon their residents cramped and expensive housing, they tend to repel families with young children. Poor public schools and higher crime rates don’t help either. Affluent boomers and migratory young professional singles might find these “luxury cities” attractive, but they provide few opportunities to the less advantaged.
Affordable suburbanized metropolitan areas like Raleigh, Phoenix, and Houston, on the contrary, boast not only burgeoning populations, but exceptionally large numbers of children. These “cities of aspiration” might not offer the glamour and excitement of Chicago or Los Angeles, but Americans of all classes, races, and ages flock to them to seek economic mobility and a higher standard of living.[ii] And what make these places so alluring are precisely the things planning cognoscenti find unattractive: affordable single homes, ample backyards, affordable energy, and extensive, well-maintained roadways. If cities are ever to revive, Kotkin insists, they too must offer these “plain vanilla” amenities to upwardly mobile, young families.
But why don’t they? The main reason, Kotkin is now convinced, is not because architecture and planning schools churn out graduates insufficiently attuned to the preferences of their less affluent and “hip” fellow citizens. Instead, as virtually every page of The New Class Conflict vociferously announces, it’s because the “war against suburbia” actually comprises just one battle within a much wider offensive against America’s working and middle-classes. This war is led by those Kotkin calls the “New Oligarchs” comprised of the new billionaires of Silicon Valley and Wall Street and the “Clerisy,” the New Oligarch’s ideological allies in government, media, academia, and the foundations.
Kotkin compares the single-minded self-aggrandizement of the New Oligarchs to that of the Gilded Age robber barons and post-Soviet Russian oligarchs.[iii] Unlike their rivals in the “old plutocracy” who earn their living in traditional manufacturing and energy industries, these persons neither employ substantial numbers of working and middle class Americans nor share any fundamental interests with them. On the contrary, the new tech and financial Oligarchs promote energy and environmental policies that simultaneously disadvantage their plutocratic rivals and the “Yeomanry” who depend upon them for wages, energy, housing, and consumer goods. Adding insult to injury, the New Oligarchs demand that those whom they damage extend them both massive subsidies (“too big to fail” bailouts for banks, “green” subsidies for alternative energy investments) and moral approbation for their devotion to “saving the planet.”
The affluent and highly credentialed denizens of “governmental institutions, universities, the mainstream media, law firms, and major foundations” who comprise the Clerisy enforce the “new orthodoxies justifying the new class order”[iv] like the First Estate of the Ancien Regime. Animated by both technocratic conceits and authoritarian urges to control other persons’ choices, the Clerisy labors tirelessly to buttress oligarchical power and their own prestige. Thus, Kotkin discovers that longstanding efforts by local planners and urban theorists to herd working and middle-class Americans into dense metropolitan regions is just one of many Clerical undertakings to bend the Yeomanry to the dictates of their more “enlightened, and often far more affluent, superiors.”[v]
At the heart of these struggles, Kotkin insists, lies the fate of the modern liberal family. A whole host of energy, environmental, and small-business regulations work to disempower the primordial cell of Yeoman society: the stable, self-reliant, and wealth-generating nuclear family. Invoking Tocqueville, Kotkin argues that as this fundamental unit of society withers and fragments, the ability of the New Oligarchs and their allies to “expand the regulatory scope of government” and to supplant the “role of families, churches, and local organizations” grows correspondingly stronger.[vi]
Kotkin has fretted about urban societies’ ability to generate enough young people to stave off shrinking and aging populations—and their attendant economic decline.[vii] Now he fears the imposition of a comprehensive “post-familial” agenda that supplants families with isolated individuals amenable to intrusive government regulation and direction. (Think of “The Life of Julia.”)
Finally, it’s worth noting that the kinds of families to which Kotkin looks to, to resist the self-aggrandizing policies of the New Oligarchs and Clerisy are no longer the protean “flexible families” he celebrated in earlier writings. Inspired by “family diversity” advocates like Stephanie Coontz, Kotkin had urged “social conservatives” to move “beyond Ozzie and Harriet” and accept the final passing of the “postwar suburban idyll.” Married, unmarried, single-person, single-parent, gay, divorced and “blended” families, he assured us, all function equally well. And in any case, transformations in family structure and practices are irreversible; “one simply has to adjust to them.”[viii]
Now, appalled by the growing and ever more intrusive power of the New Oligarchs and their minions—and the demonstrated inability of modern “flexible families” to resist these inroads—Kotkin allows that some family forms might, in fact, prove more resistant than others. He still wants to distance himself from conservatives “waging a desperate war to defend ‘family values.’”[ix] But he’s beginning to sound an awful lot like them. Declining marriage rates, along with escalating out-of-wedlock birthrates among “large swaths of the Yeoman class,” he announces, have precipitated “disastrous social consequences.” Among these are increased poverty, welfare dependence, and diminished economic mobility.[x]
Hindered in their efforts to form stable, self-reliant families by business regulations that discourage small business formation, and disadvantaged by the Clerisy’s favored land-use, energy and environmental policies, increasing numbers of working and middle class Americans remain unattached and poor. They also remain dependent on the noblesse oblige of “gentry liberals.”[xi]
To reverse these trends, Kotkin calls for political efforts to renew family life, homeownership, and broad-based economic growth. Above all, government must abandon efforts to “restrain consumption and production in the name of sustainability,”[xii] and instead assist traditional, blue-collar manufacturing and extractive industries. Government must also lessen the regulatory and tax burden on small, family-owned businesses.
Precisely how to wrest government from the Oligarchs, Kotkin cannot say. But he’s convinced nonetheless that such a transformation must occur. Self-reliant families and economic growth rise and fall in tandem. Each is needed to resist the Oligarchical “drive to consolidate power” and to restore the “decentralized, bottom-up system” characteristic of American democracy.[xiii]
[i] Joel Kotkin, The Next Hundred Million (Penguin, 2010), pages 4-7.
[ii] Kotkin, The Next Hundred Million, pages. 31; 162-66; 191-92.
[iii] The New Class Conflict, pages 22-23.
[iv] The New Class Conflict, page 46.
[v] The New Class Conflict, 109.
[vi] The New Class Conflict, 148.
[vii] The Next Hundred Million, pages 4-7.
[viii] The Next Hundred Million, 179-184.
[ix] The New Class Conflict, 83.
[x] The New Class Conflict, 83.
[xi] The New Class Conflict, pages 8–16.
[xii] The New Class Conflict, 138.
[xiii] The New Class Conflict, 152, 153.