Occupy Downton

relating to class relations.

Recent articles (here and here) about the British ITV series Downton Abbey (now playing in the United States on PBS) have noticed its odd incongruencies (and its tantalizing intersections) with the Occupy movement in the United States and around the world. These articles point out that the middle classes are, at first glance, largely missing from Downton Abbey. The show seems to be a classic story of British upstairs-downstairs, of lords and their servants and the ceilings and floors between them. Why then, Irin Carmon asks on Salon, has the program struck a chord with American “liberals” in the upper middle class at precisely the moment when many are largely supportive of (or participating in) a movement against the contemporary aristocracy of monied elites?

It’s a valid observation to make until one thinks about how the figures of Matthew Crawley and his mother are central to the show. This middle-class lawyer and his social reformist mother place the middle-class front and center. However, the way they do so is telling, particularly for the American viewing audience.

What the articles largely miss is that Crawley is upwardly mobile in the most melodramatic of ways—he wakes up one day and discovers that he is next in line to become an Earl. What this sudden deux ex machina does in the American viewing context is to link his middle-class identity at once downwards and upwards. On the one hand, his story is the dream that links the middle class to those below them: anyone might win the lottery, might suddenly strike it rich, might wake up to find themselves a lord or a lady. On the other hand, the Crawleys are a symbolic link of the middle-class to elite power: they are, after all, distantly related to the Granthams.

This shadow life of class relations, stirred up and in flux, is shot through Downtown Abbey, from the plotline of Lady Sybil and Branson the chauffeur to the figure of Sir Richard Carlisle to the downstairs love story of Anna and Mr. Bates. In fact, it is the main concern of the show. The force driving this melodrama is not a nostalgia for feudalism but precisely that the old order of lords, servants, and vassals is under pressure from the forces of modernity.

The sense of the last days of an epoch and its crumbling system echoes contemporary times, when the hierarchies of rich and poor are increasingly coming under pressure. Downton Abbey displaces and resolves these modern tensions by reasserting the paternalistic commitments between the elite and their underlings. Lord Grantham and even his mother, the prim and proper Dowager Countess Grantham, always eventually adjust to the new realities of class in their historical moment. Sometimes they even lead the way.

The emphasis, even celebration, of paternalistic empathy, I would argue, is exactly what many in the American liberal middle classes feel is missing in the current system of American neoliberal capitalism. Many middle-class Americans do not begrudge the rich their riches, but they do long for a sense of reciprocity. They would live gladly with hierarchy within certain codes of the common good.

Others are beginning to doubt even this ideology. The specter haunting Downton Abbey‘s vision of reciprocity reestablished between the one percent and the ninety-nine is the question of whether the twenty-first century demands a new conceptualization of the very relationship between reciprocity and equality. Which is to say that gnawing at the edge of our mass-produced screens and mass-consumed pleasures that give us the melodrama of Downton Abbey is something more disconcerting: the outright drama of contemporary democratic social relations.

For the most part, the show resolves comically into a world of noble aristocrats and aspiring serfs in harmonious social progress. The program’s order is disturbed only to be reestablished anew. It provides a vision of society in which paternalistic reciprocity works. Perhaps this is, at some deep level, what many Americans long to bring to the United States.

But this comic resolution has a tragic undercurrent, for it marks the abandonment of the radical dream of American democracy, which was supposed to replace the English and European structures of hierarchical society with a world in which all were created equal, in which everyone acquired nobility by deed rather than birth. (Admittedly, this is a somewhat exceptionalist interpretation of the American dream; one thing Downton Abbey might be saying to American viewers is that this dream was always a facade, that they were never so far from the English and Europeans as they believed; but if this dream of democratic equality was but a superficial one, belied by a pile of catastrophes, ruins, and hypocrisies, it nonetheless still holds great allure for many Americans as a dream.)

The great question of the twenty-first century may well be one that Downton Abbey dramatizes by being unable to melodramatize it. How can egalitarian power and its tricky processes of effective representation and collective commitment be authentically enacted when the old system does not function anymore? That question is our property, not Downton‘s, and the answers will have to be found beyond where the estate ends.

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One thought on “Occupy Downton

  1. Matthew Crawley is no more a member of the middle-class than the Earl of Grantham. If he is a descendant of a past Lord Grantham and in line to be the next one through bloodline, then he has been a member of the aristocracy since birth.

    How is it that Julian Fellowes failed to realize this?

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