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.
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.