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America’s Nostalgia for the British Aristocracy

It used to be you couldn’t throw a stick in an Oxford quadrangle without hitting a posh, white, Eton-prepped, young man. These days though, you’re just as likely to hit a middle-class girl from Nottingham, sleep-deprived and lugging a backpack, on her way to economics class.

It’s clear that modern Americans love the idea of British royalty. From a national obsession with Downton Abbey to a desire for those “oh so lovely accents,” the aristocratic days sure seem dandy to us; and yet, this kind of aristocracy has all but disappeared.

Oxford, Cambridge, and Eton each have “Diversity” webpages and their once-impossible-to-penetrate wrought iron gates have been flung open to anyone from any social class from any country. Prestigious, $100,000-per-year boarding schools like Le Rosey have finally begun to dole out hefty scholarships. Hunting outings are now team-building corporate events. A ski trip in the Alps isn’t all that unusual for the upper-middle-class student studying abroad in Europe. (In fact, she probably also goes sailing in the West Indies with her consultant/corporate lawyer/oil maven father during her Spring Break.)

The password for entry into the elite class is no longer “monarchy,” it’s “meritocracy.” Put another way, success is based on your A-levels, not your surname.

But is it really a bad thing that the nouveau riche have co-opted the activities, schools, and places once reserved only for aristocratic elites? As good Americans, we’re inclined to say, “Of course not! Opportunity and equality for all!” Aristocrats are handed their privilege — the new elites have been savvy enough to find a way to earn their advantages.

And yet we still perversely adore the social stratification of social elites, the fancy table settings (so much so that, as Chrystia Freeland points out, the show’s Facebook page teaches you how to make a Downtonstyle table runner), and the haute couture fashion shows; and many of us still hold fast to the values of the Edwardian aristocrat: of leisure over work, of charity and noblesse oblige.

The reason for this disenchantment with the newly rich is simple: there’s been a sea change in what it means to be an elite and nearly everyone — especially the middle- and lower-class — laments the loss of dignity and inherited money of the old elites. Why? Because it has been replaced by the modern, money-above-all plutocrat who creates offshore tax havens and thinks not of his fellow human but of his fellow shareholder. In a story of aristocrat versus modern plutocrat, the aristocrat invariably comes out as the good guy.

In Brideshead Revisited — a tale of a middle-class Londoner who befriends an aristocrat and sees his family’s privilege diminish between the two world wars — Evelyn Waugh rather angrily writes, in reference to the aristocrats, “These men must die to make a world for Hooper… so that things might be safe for the travelling salesman, with his polygonal pince-nez, his fat, wet handshake, his grinning dentures.”

“Travelling salesman” seems to be how many people now perceive the super rich, jet-setting elite. They’re always off to new locales and new meetings to determine how to extract yet more wealth; and, even when they do head off to do something that would seem to be a form of noblesse oblige, it is often bloated and laughably extravagant.

Take, for instance, the World Economic Forum, which happened between January 22nd and 25th in the resort area of Davos, Switzerland. One of the main goals of the conference was to bring together the world’s business leaders to find a way to make a positive impact on the world’s poorest countries. In theory, it was a conference about fixing income inequality. What ended up happening — and what often happens at these sorts of events — was that the conference functioned only as a place where executives got to make business deals with the globe’s top players. That, and getting in a few good ski runs. An article in The Daily Beast noted, “Once the conference was in full swing, few people talked and even fewer seemed to care, about inequality. Indeed, they appeared to be living it, loving it, and laughing about it.”

The destruction of aristocrats doesn’t do away with unjustly privileged elites; it only puts new, more obnoxious and self-centered elites into power. We miss the days of British aristocracy for its beautiful furniture and cutlery and gorgeous castles — all the usual, rather vain, reasons. Yet, we’re also nostalgic for it because it was, at least as we perceive it today, a time and place where good elites flourished. These aristocrats had money, but it was neither obtained through nefarious means nor did it overtly hurt the lower classes. Why we most enjoy reading about or watching TV shows on these aristocrats though is because, as Waugh described, they eventually suffered. The middle-class took the reigns of power when industrialization was in full swing. And while rising capitalists never gained a comparable social status to aristocrats, the cleverest certainly gained comparable wealth.

Meritocracy is certainly an improvement from inherited wealth and status, and everyone agrees that equality and opportunity should be hallmarks of any self-respecting society. All that today’s super-rich have done is simply take advantage of these opportunities. It’s just in taking advantage of these opportunities, summits like the World Economic Forum show that the global elite have also taken advantage of people. So while you can’t fault today’s super capitalists, it’s still a shame that along with the Ladies and Lords, a sense of understanding, of charity, of noblesse oblige for the lower classes had to also disappear with the last aristocrats.

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5 Comments

  1. At some point in time, the 1st aristocrat was the child of poor parents. They used their intellect to become nouveau riche.

  2. Having extensive experience of working in an Oxbridge College (the subject of my blog) I can say that although meritocracy appears to be on the ascendance, once inside those cosseted walls wealth and birthright still play an enormous part in what experience and treatment you receive. Intellect is greatly valued, of course, but it is far and away from the be-all-and-end-all.

  3. It’s also interesting to think about how, even though the notion of meritocracy still holds true in the minds of the American public, more and more things appear to be returning to a sort of inherited aristocracy––the rich get richer, as do their descendants; and the poor remain poor.

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