Downton Abbey and House of Cards: Dramas That Live in the World of the 1%
In Manufacturing Consent, their now classic work on the role of the media in legitimising income inequality, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky argue that the news media play a central role in propagating an ideology that renders invisible the true class relations of capitalism.
While I agree wholeheartedly with this, I have to add – having recently binged on both Downton Abbey and House of Cards – that drama shows are probably just as powerful (and more insidious) in manufacturing our consent to a society in which the world's 85 richest people own as much as the poorest 50% of humanity.
In the US we are being fed a bizarre media mix of a kindly (if somewhat intellectually challenged) elite – in the form of the wealthy early-20th century Crawley family who run Downton Abbey alongside a Machiavellian vice-president Frances Underwood, who operates within a modern-day government that is owned and controlled by capitalists who are anything but kind. Taken together, these two shows create a politics of despair because, in their different ways, they portray a world devoid of any hope for social and economic change.
Who needs unions at Downton when you have a benevolent elite taking such good care of their workers? American viewers are into the fourth week of the fourth series, and I really don't think I can stand it much longer. In record numbers, we tune in to watch the soap-opera lives of the idle rich and the overworked poor, no doubt identifying with the former rather than the latter. If truth be told, the three hot meals a day that the servants get – not to mention the delectable snacks provided by the cook, Mrs Patmore – must look very good to the millions of Americans who live below the poverty line.
The politics of the show are excruciating for anyone with a progressive bent. Each week the most pressing issue is whether the daughters of the family will find a suitable husband, or if the stately home will survive, given that it is being run by Lord Grantham, the moronic patriarch of the family who squandered his wife's fortune. Forget what was actually happening to real people in England at that time, what with mass poverty, the privations of war and rampant disease. What really matters is that a good maid is so hard to come by that the "ladies" of the house are forced to dress themselves for dinner.
But for all their faults, it is not the rich who make me squirm the most each Sunday night. Rather, it is the fawning servants who seem to spend their days endlessly worrying about the wellbeing of the very people who are working them into an early grave. I don't know whether the elite class really believes that the poor are delighted to take care of them, or whether they invented this ideology to assuage their collective conscience. Either way, the image of the grovelling Carson, the butler, who longs for the days when the rich didn't have to deal with uppity workers, makes me crazy. Please, someone, give this man a copy of the Communist Manifesto so he can get a dose of some much-needed class consciousness!
As much as I can't stand Carson, it is Tom, the former chauffeur who married one of the Grantham daughters (only to watch her die in childbirth), who is the object of my wrath in season four. We have had to bear witness to this once proud socialist being turned by the Crawley clan into a self-hating, simpering shill of the rich to the point where he tells a potential love interest who shows some disdain for the wealthy that he does "not believe in types but in people". Gone are his class politics, only to be replaced by neoliberal drivel that sounds amazingly like Margaret Thatcher, when she famously said: "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families."
Try telling that to Underwood and his cohort as he rounds up support from the 1% who run the US government. There is no pretence here that individuals are just individuals, as we get to see how the elite use their wealth and power as a class to manipulate the government into doing their bidding. These "individual" men – and it is almost all men – rule as a class with collective economic interests, and we get to see the seamless web that links the captains of the global economy to government, and how the rest of us aresimply outmanoeuvred, outplayed, and outspent.
What is so depressing about this show is not that it tells lies about the rich, but that it provides an image of the world devoid of any class resistance. Rarely do you see any evidence of unions, non-governmental organisations, or any activists who in reality are thorns in the side of the elite. Watch House of Cards and you think the elite have so brilliantly stacked the deck that there is no point in fighting back. Indeed, anyone who does fight back usually ends up dead, because when it comes to resistance in the House of Cards, there are indeed only individuals, no collective movements.
And this at a time when an Oxfam study reveals that 1% of the world's population controls nearly half the planet's wealth, and that in the US, the wealthiest 1% got 95% of the post-financial crisis growth. The only way out of this mess is a mass movement of resistance, one that refuses to buy into the paralysing ideology that the benevolent, kindly rich are deserving of their wealth, or the equally paralysing view that there is no hope for change.
We need to get away from this neoliberal notion that we are all individuals and follow the lead of the elite by acting as a collective – a collective strong enough to wipe the smug smile off the faces of the Francis Underwoods of the world. Now wouldn't that be dramatic?