"At the risk of sounding sentimental, I believe the monarchy stands for a fairness that we like to think represents us. I hope 'Downton Abbey' has a similar decency about it." - Julian Fellowes
"Downton Abbey's" written by Julian Fellowes, a Tory peer, Baron, monarchist and husband-to-royalty, so right away you know it has a clear agenda. Restorative nostalgia to the max, and released to coincide with a fresh round of British austerity measures, the television series sees a family of early 20th century aristocrats living in a palatial estate and tended to by a sprightly band of servants. Sounds interesting?
Forget Renoir's "The Rules of the Game", Altman's "Gosford Park", and the past 500 years of human history and social theory. No. In "Downton Abbey", the class system exists for the benefits of those at the bottom, and proves as bothersome to those unfortunate few at the top as it does those lower down the social hierarchy.
Fellowes serves up the platonic ideal of an English aristocrat. Good, selfless and caring, our Lords and Ladys bend over backwards to serve their servants, graciously offering them jobs, assistance, compassion, awards and so forth. They are benign despots, all-powerful, their authority final, but more sage and caring than any elected politician could ever be. The rich, in other words, are socially responsible father figures. They are invested in their households, in their communities, and provide a far reaching social benefit; without the rich to mercifully protect them, the poor would be forced out into the cold to fend for themselves. Indeed, Fellowes frequently has his rich folk sacrifice their bodies, their status and their wealth for the servant class (joining war efforts, taking on limping servants etc). The message - rife with false binaries - isn't only that servants should be content with their roles, but that one, regardless of class, cannot and should not avoid servitude. Even the rich are servants to their fellowman.
Significantly, the series' villains are all either homosexuals, socialists or members of the servant class. In the second series, villains become figures of new wealth; modern capitalists who don't respect the supposedly loving, symbiotic relationships of late aristocracy. As the series focuses on an individual household rather than systems, the nobility and selflessness of Fellowes' aristocrats justify the system in which they spin. It's a very classically conservative notion of history (in actuality, servants couldn't look at, let alone speak to their masters), a proudly hierarchical world in which all social conflicts and tensions are resolved without any restructuring of class relations. Stratification is posited as being natural, optimal and only the deviant or repellent are incapable of adapting or finding accommodation within it. No talk, of course, of where our Earls and Lords acquired their wealth, land enclosures, the lives of the impoverished outside the mansions or how the system's social relations hinge on an in-build bondage ingrained within "economics" (ie money) itself. Elsewhere the series brings up occasional Big Issues (war, feminism, Ireland etc), but only to engage in the smug, back-patting afforded by hindsight. This is a benign, liberal aristocracy, for an age of "caring" capitalists.
All "Abbey's" arguments in favour for the class system were once put forth by George Fitzhugh, an American social theorist who published racial and slavery based sociological theories in the antebellum era. Fitzhugh essentially argued that Negro slaves needed "strong white daddies to look after them". That slavery "protects the Negro", "ensured that blacks would be economically secure and morally civilised" and that the evils of modern capitalism, which was gradually replacing slavery, would expose poor blacks to persecution and suffering. The new rich, Fitzhugh argued, were promoting a form of competition which would harm blacks. Afterall, the slave belongs to its owner, and owners take care of their capital, take care of what they own, provide them with food and shelter, unlike those pesky capitalists who merely rent labour. Fitzhugh even went so far as to defend slavery because "capitalists are anti Negro racists, whilst slavery is not racist".
Fellowes is doing the same. Or rather, the arguments are always the same, no matter the social reconfiguration taking place. Hence, slavery is good because slave owners take care of their slaves, aristocracy is good because the aristocracy takes care of their servants, and capitalism is good because employees take care of their labourers. What each argument does, regardless of historical time period, is posit the lower classes as dependent on power without questioning how and why this power is structured, created and propagated in the first place.
In the early 1980s, Immanuel Wallerstein, a renowned social scientist, outlined 12 characteristics which he believed were "unique" to modern world systems. His aim was to show that modern capitalism, in the affluent 80s, was a kind of "step up" from both the aristocracy of "Downton's" era and the feudalism of the distant past. By 1989, though, Wallerstein had completely reversed his position. All the presumably unique characteristics of the "modern world system" were also true of the medieval and ancient world systems. He could find no substantial distinctions that would satisfy his categorisations. The point isn't only that there were no clean transition from feudalism to aristocracy to capitalism as such, but that power proves capable of propagating itself.
But why would a series which glorifies the class system, posits class hierarchies as inherently benevolent and idealises master/servant bonds, be suddenly so very popular? Why would a series about inherited privilege, ineluctable servitude, be popular in an era of Occupy, Austerity, Bank Bailouts and massive corporate tax dodging? Perhaps because "Downton" presents a Utopian version of the past for the purposes of painting, and thereby bolstering, a contemporary system capable of weathering any upheaval or shock. Or perhaps it's simply a severe form of Stockholm Syndrome.
4/10 - See "Remains of the Day", "Eyes Wide Shut" and "Never Let Me Go". Worth no viewings.
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