Yes, progressives can embrace Downton Abbey!

Yes, progressives can embrace Downton Abbey! February 11, 2014

Downton Abbey has clearly become a cultural phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic. Like Brideshead Revisited before it, it seems to capture a certain zeitgeist—a certain nostalgia for a simpler time, especially against a backdrop of economic crisis and cultural malaise. 

But wait, progressives warn us, we should not romanticize this period! We should not be swept away by the elegance, they say, and ignore the stark injustices and unpleasant realities of that time. After all, this was a time when a person was defined by birth rather than merit, when inequality was staggeringly high, and when prejudice was deeply ingrained. Indeed, Downton Abbey puts on display all kinds of prejudice and discrimination—based on class, gender, race, religion, nationality, and sexual orientation.

And yet, all kinds of people are willing to look past these blemishes. Why? Clearly, part of it is due to good drama, likeable characters, crisp dialogue, attractive actors in leading roles—and of course, the rapid-fire one-liners of the inimitable dowager countess!

But I think there is something more, something deeper, something more latent. I think Downton Abbey taps into a deep dissatisfaction with the unrooted nature of modern society, lacking a sense of true belonging or connection.

Downton Abbey is really the latest incarnation in a long literary genre that taps into a deep sense of loss during times of dizzying change. In one sense, this goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden! It can certainly be seen in our fascination with the forgotten past, especially our medieval past, real or imagined. It pervades the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, with the passing of the Elves and the dawning of a new age.

And indeed, the 1920s were a period of remarkable change. The second industrial revolution had reached its apogee, and the modern economy as we know it had come into existence. As a corollary, the old order—based on a landed aristocracy—was fading away.

It seems strange to mourn this change, especially for people who identify with progressive politics! But the appeal of Downton lies less in a defense of privilege, and more in the allure of the norms that drove relationships at that time.

Think about it. We live in a world of impersonal exchange, exclusively self-interested motivation, and limitless demands and desires. We live in an economy that functions on excess and a society that wallows in the lack of restraint. Old ideas of duty, responsibility, civic virtue, and prudence seem totally alien to us.

The old order—unequal and unjust as it might have been—was nevertheless based on the notion that we are not simply autonomous individuals following our own destinies and our own desires. Rather, it was based on the firm principle that we are bound to society and to each other by reciprocal rights, duties, and responsibilities.

In the move from old to new, we have indeed lost something valuable, something worthwhile, something more in tune with who we are as human beings. This is really what underpins modern Catholic social teaching, from Pope Leo XIII down to Pope Francis.

It is also, I believe, what really resonates about Downton. Yes, there is a huge chasm between upstairs and downstairs—although it is not impassable. But, on the whole, the servants are treated with dignity and respect—as human beings, not just mere inputs in a production process. The relationships, although hierarchical, are nonetheless marked more by reciprocal fraternity than by calculated self-interest.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the relationship between Lord Grantham and his tenant farmers. Although the estate is perennially short of cash, Lord Grantham resists raising rents or evicting his tenants. He notes that some of these families have farmed the land since the Napoleonic Wars, and that the bond between lord and tenant is in reality a “partnership” and should be treated as such.

This resonates with us, partly because it seems so alien. When was the last time you heard a CEO talk about business as a partnership between owners and workers, between capital and labor?

Instead, our culture tells us that success in business is first and foremost about the financial bottom line and maximizing shareholder value. It tells us that top executives deserve their outsized returns, because they flow fairly from the market. It tells us that workers are mere “factors of production” who need the correct incentives. It tells us that our collective duty to provide for the less-well-off can be met by a combination of state support and private charity—with the precise balance depending on your political views—but not by the employer. 

Without a relationship of reciprocity, the invisible hand looks a lot like an all-too-visible fist. Without bonds of social capital and trust, the glue that holds society together comes undone, leading to indifference and marginalization. Without the virtue of prudence, greed and consumerism run rampant, leading to a throwaway culture and an economy of exclusion. Sound familiar?

This prevailing ethos goes well beyond economic life. Just look at the prevailing libertarian attitudes toward personal relationships, which put the satisfaction of individual desires above any sense of social responsibility or prudence. In a culture that elevates the likes of Justin Bieber and the Kardassians, is it any wonder that we are drawn to a time when virtue still meant something—at least in theory if not always in practice?

My point here is not that we should return to the kinds of economic, social, and personal relationships that underpin Downton Abbey. Not at all. Rather, it is that we should restore the underlying norms that guided those relationships, and apply them to the different circumstances of our own time. Deep down, I think this is what people are really looking for—not a return to the past, but a more rooted present.

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  • Agellius

    Good post and I agree with what I take to be your main point.

    “My point here is not that we should return to the kinds of economic, social, and personal relationships that underpin Downton Abbey. Not at all. Rather, it is that we should restore the underlying norms that guided those relationships, and apply them to different circumstances of our own time.”

    But can the “underlying norms” of the time be treated in isolation from its “economic, social, and personal relationships”? I’m not saying they can’t, but my first instinct is to think that the one was a product of the other: When you eliminate the one you lose the other, however lamentable that may be.

    But I’ll be interested to hear what others think.

  • Thomas Hostomsky

    I think the major reason why I, as a liberal in the contemporary sense, feel no conflict in my enjoyment of DA is that IT MAKES A POINT OF SHOWING THE PREJUDICES, THE INJUSTICES, THE ABSURDNESS of so many customs of the age and the political and economic systems on which society then was based.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    MM writes:

    “But, on the whole, the servants are treated with dignity and respect—as human beings, not just mere inputs in a production process. The relationships, although hierarchical, are nonetheless marked more by reciprocal fraternity than by calculated self-interest.”

    How much of this is a panglossian view of the relationships between upstairs and downstairs, either at the time or looking back on this long ago age? It seems to me that this is the way the upper classes wanted to view their relationships, and the lower classes went along because it was in their best economic interest to do so. This is not to say that no landed aristocrat did not have warm and genuine feelings for his underlyings—there are capitalists who have similar feelings for their employees. But these exist against a broader social structure in which, despite their feelings, class interests almost always seem to take a priority.

    • Agellius

      Or maybe your view is… whatever the opposite of “Panglossian” is. : )

      I would think that wherever people are basically decent, they’re going to treat each other decently. I’ve had bosses that were jerks and bosses that were nice, and one hasn’t outnumbered the other to any great extent.

      Although in support of MM’s thesis (I think), I will admit that the larger the companies I have worked for, the colder the environment was. I don’t mean to say that they mistreated me, but a nice boss in a small company is a much nicer environment than impersonal bosses in a big one.

    • That’s an excellent point. It is unlikely that we can ever determine how servants felt about their employers, and that varies from relationship to relationship.

      I still think that it is worth considering why the Downton Abbey series is so powerful, and I agree that the writer’s original premise is valid. The Industrial Revolution drastically changed the relationship between capital and labor, and the owners now view their employees no differently than they do their machinery.

  • Stuart

    Why not let us embrace Downton Abbey? Conservatives embrace The Walking Dead. In their minds, every single zombie is a subscriber to National Catholic Reporter! 🙂 (and the apocalypse was Vatican II)

  • Why exactly is merit anymore progressive than birth? Especially when most progressives believe humans are heavily influenced by genetics and environment into developing the personalities and competencies they do (ie, you don’t choose to be smart or conscientious, they’re “gifts”)…how is “merit” any more fair. It’s based on gifts which are likewise unequally distributed.

    Only a socio-economic order that sees the gifts of this or that individual as actually intended by God as gifts for the whole community, and indeed all mankind, and distributes the produce of these gifts accordingly…is worthy of being called progressive. Meritocracy is capitalist rot (but so is a naive egalitarianism inasmuch as gifts are NOT distributed equally).

    Social Credit (and Christian humility) understands that the gifts of some of us are not our own, and so their rewards should not accrue to us in any individualistic sense, but are given for the common good.

    • Jordan

      A Sinner [ February 12, 2014 2:19 pm]: how is “merit” any more fair. It’s based on gifts which are likewise unequally distributed.

      The difficulty with either the natalist or meritocratic positions on personal success resides in the metrics used to determine intelligence, aptitude etc. Sure, people are born into different circumstances which often influence decisions later in life. We, as a society obsessed with categorization, often throw up roadblocks to a person’s potential success.

      IQ and IQ testing are thoroughly racist and discriminatory towards lower income persons. Considerable research has shown that childhood nutrition and exposure to environmental toxins influence later academic success. My family eats asparagus frequently. A poor family might live off of Wonder bread PBJs. Whose children might grow up to show greater academic aptitude? Certainly, skin melanin content has little importance in this case.


      All I know of Downton Abbey is that my folks love it. In exchange I get a few hours of peace in the office and some time to write. (Yes, I’m in my mid-30’s and live with my parents. Blame Ben Bernanke and my stupid decision to write a diss. on the linguistics of one Latin word). When I spend a few minutes with the show, I want to reach into the TV and give each character a slap upside the head. What a bunch of spoiled, petulant idiots! Yes, postwar Britain has had its share of problems. Still, the dismantling of the manorial system between the world wars was an achievement that postmodern Britain can enjoy today.

  • I considered this irony when I worked my way through Ken Burns’s Baseball miniseries.

    The good progressive, Burns admired the efforts of pioneers like Jackie Robinson, Marvin Miller, Curt Flood, etc., and devoted considerable screen time to them during the episodes on the decades in question. I think the Jackie Robinson story consumed nearly half of the 1940s episode’s screen time.

    The odd part is that the stories of the early periods focused on the players themselves — the Ruths, Cobbs, Wagners, etc, since that’s what was left.

    The (inadvertent) impression this left is that the the early period — with the reserve clause, segregation, etc. — was a peaceful time when just the game mattered, whereas the later periods are mainly marked by turmoil and strife.

    Of course, this was an illusion. There were many victims of the policies of early baseball; we just don’t know their names.

  • Julia Smucker

    Regarding the title of this post, I didn’t think that was in question. I don’t see much nostalgia for the period in Downton Abbey, but quite to the contrary, I’ve been starting to get annoyed by the extent to which the show is becoming a vehicle for progressivism, setting the social and technological upheavals of the early 20th century as the standard by which we are to judge the characters according to their ability to keep up. The character development is still nuanced enough to keep it interesting, and yes, there is some sympathy allowed for characters’ struggles to adapt to change (I confess to having a particular affinity for the hard-nosed yet lovable traditionalist Mr. Carson), but this often seems meant to simply translate to pity (as for example with poor old Mrs. Patmore’s fear of being made obsolete by her mistrust of new-fangled kitchen gadgets), as change per se is the implicit measure of the good.

    This is reinforced by some of the comments made in the short videos in which some of the cast and producers discuss each episode (which I always watch since I watch the show online anyway), referring in one instance to a time in which an extramarital affair would be “very, very frowned upon” (seeming to imply that such acts should be self-evidently acceptable), and in another to the introduction of a black character as a test of how “forward-thinking” the other characters would be (to which I muttered something to the effect that it’s not a question of “forward” or “backward” but of human dignity – a universal truth).

    In view of all that, I started getting very uneasy with this week’s episode as it became clear that abortion was next on the list of social issues for DA to tackle – especially as it precipitated a rare display of compassion from Lady Rosamund, which I feared would be a setup for her “breakthrough” into progressivism – but was immensely relieved when they backed off from crossing that line.

    • Julia, do you realize that your objections coincide with the very things Pope Francis would like us to stop obsessing on? Sex and abortion, sex &abortion, sex & abortion…. While I was also relieved that the abortion was decided against, it showed some things worth considering: abortion has always been a “choice” for those who could afford it and always will be. It was a decision, a choice made out of desperation because of those very rigid mores you seem to yearn for a return to. We shall see how creative and courageous the Lady is in tonight’s chapter having chosen not to opt for termination. The social contructs of the age were extremely constricting of human dignity and destructive of it. People weren’t more “moral,” they were simply more dishonest because they HAD to be to survive, whether upstairs or downstairs. The twenties got their nick-name for a reason. They are known as the “Roaring Twenties” because the lids that have been holding down so much steam are being blown off!

      • Julia Smucker

        I did wonder after I posted the above comment whether someone would assume I was singularly obsessed. It’s a forgivable assumption since we don’t know each other; you’ll just have to take my word for it when I tell you that what I yearn for is not “rigid mores” but the kind of true flourishing humanity was made for, which is perhaps difficult to articulate succinctly but is something altogether different from either rigidity or looseness.

        I suppose what I am is a social-justice fanatic with a conservative temperament, and the ideologizing of “progress” tends to bring out the latter in me – but not, I hope, for reasons of mere prudery. Take my other example above, racism, which has ALWAYS been an evil, not because it is an offense against more enlightened values, but because it is an offense against the dignity that all human beings possess by nature.

        This is the same principle that underlies the “sex and abortion” stuff in the context I am speaking in. Even in the former there is a human dignity issue, as it wasn’t just sex but adultery, with the poor wife locked away in an insane asylum somewhere. We’re not supposed to care about her; she is dehumanized to the audience by her absence. And I doubt Pope Francis would object to my objection to the notion of abortion as progress, since I seem to recall him making the same point.

        As my colleague Brett put it earlier, “Francis did not say not to talk about abortion, but he told us how to talk about abortion so that our message may be heard.” The how is to talk about it “in a context” – particularly the context of what Francis likes to term the “throwaway culture”, i.e. the treatment of any human beings as expendable. The simple fact that the pope feels the need to use such a term in his social critique should be enough to remind us that there are social constructs destructive of human dignity in every age (recall also MLKJ’s famous quote about “guided missiles and misguided men”). I say this not to romanticize the early 20th century or any other era, but simply to point out that justice and progress don’t necessarily run along parallel lines.

  • Ross

    I really do love this blog but come on, Downton Abbey is trash. Lets not intellectualize this glorified soap opera. My Grandmother worked in service and my forefathers were all tenent farmers, it wasn’t romantic working for tyrannts. The truth is, these people were bastards (apologies) if my language offends but well into the 20th century such “big houses” could be found all over Scotland where I live. The Gentry made common people lives a misery for centuries. It’s a travesty of Scottish history that these aristocrats weren’t booted out during revolution. This blatant rewriting of history and sanitizing of oppression might play well in England among the chattering classes but not here. Our memories are long and there is no memory of solidarity or community with the “masters”. The writer and creator Julian Fellows is a Tory propagandist cheerleading for a Tory Government who’d gladly take us back to such misery. But we’re not going back

  • P. McCoy

    I remember when a Black jazz band visited the Bellamys in Upstairs, Downstairs and Mrs. Bridges said ” just what do those Black people eat, anyway ”, very calmly as if she was talking about an exotic zoo species. I had half expected this so I was not shocked even as a Black youth I should have been. I think that I enjoyed Up for short better than I am Downton, because the latter is trying to be a bit too progressive to be believable. The bit I disagree the most is allowing the young Sybil to be a Catholic; they should have fought harder for her future social status. The parts I do appreciate are being patient with the Gay man and of course seeing the white labrador retriever, she is very sweet especially when she was her tail.