The Dirty Secret of Downton Abbey
Continued from previous page
When "Downton Abbey" debuted in the U.S. in January 2011, in the wake of the financial crash, its opening with news of the sinking of the Titanic -- that ultimate parable of class struggle – seemed to promise a reckoning with power and privilege, especially as Occupy Wall Street took off later that year. It was not to be. Julian Fellowes is no more capable of seriously engaging the unwashed radicals of our time than the Earl of Grantham is of absorbing the lessons of his socialist-chauffer-cum-son-in-law. He will tolerate them with bemusement, but no more.
In the world of "Downton Abbey," the classical liberal is the hero. It is he who will save the arch-conservative from his excesses, and if said conservative can get with the program, from financial ruin. Cousin Matthew, the benevolent middle-class modernizer who arrives to inherit the ancient estate, is the hope of the future. Tom, the revolutionary chauffer, is absorbed into the aristocratic family fold where his radical speeches yield little more than a crisp: “Are you quite finished?” by the Dowager. Feminist advances consist of young ladies gaining permission to wear sassy dresses and engage in journalism while having their underwear ironed daily (cue Roiphe’s sigh). Being gay is anachronistically rendered a suitable topic for polite conversation, and all is right in BBC-PBS realm. As Matthew maps out his plans for the estate, you can almost hear the strains of Phil Ochs’ “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” in the background as noblesse oblige gives way to capitalist innovation that has rendered the current underclasses of both Britain and America little better off than their forebearers.
If we look closely, we can see, in the form of Matthew, that something is lurching toward us to be born. Some rough beast that eventually emerges to replace the pompous conservatism of the landed aristocrats with the chill robotic efficiency of the supply-side capitalist. Classical liberalism, which took its inspiration from Bentham and the Mills’ emphasis on utility rather than custom and later the belief in unrestrained self-interest, opposed the ancient privileges of the aristocracy. But it also tended toward the protection of the new privilege of the capitalist. Over several generations, it threw labor just enough bones to keep it from revolting, and then, when the threat of communism subsided, largely abandoned it. The Matthews, in just a few generations, produced the Thatchers, the Reagans, and the Romneys. That is the dirty secret at the heart of "Downton Abbey."
It was the classical liberals who turned into the financiers and corporate managers, whose current follies are as much to blame for the end-of-regime crisis we now face as the excesses of the landed aristocrats and a set of earlier financiers were for the decline of Britannia. It’s too bad that as our own catastrophe progresses we can’t just turn the channel.
Meanwhile, Matthew has morphed into Paul Ryan. That's worse than a B horror flick.