Downton Abbey is a soap opera in period dress featuring an appealing cast of easily recognizable stock characters involved in absurd relationships set against a background of cartoonish social mores.
The show is a hoot. I love it. I find the underlying economics of the show’s Crawley family especially fascinating.
The Crawleys live in their ancestral home, a monstrous heap of stone that any sensible person would leave in a flash to escape the heating bills. The number of Crawleys who actually dwell in this white elephant varies at any given time from four to seven. By a rough estimate this comes out to about one Crawley per 5- or 6,000 square feet of living space.
To fill the vacuum of their days in this palatial pile these puffed up aristocrats do occasional social work, go to funerals, and anguish about personal misfortunes the rest of us can only dream about. Mostly, however, they spend their time changing outfits to go places where they associate with others of their kind, shoot hapless birds, ride small animals to extinction, and get mixed up in the affairs of their employees.
These employees are also the economic justification for their existence. The Crawleys don’t work, you see. They don’t manage property. They don’t manage other assets either, tawdry stuff done by stuffy professionals they employ to do it for them. Their only visible means of support comes from marrying rich foreigners (Americans mostly), inheriting directly from their own clan, or somehow glomming the undeserved inheritances of other people.
And what do the Crawleys do with this money? The activity they prattle about that in their view helps the economy? The economic justification for lives that might otherwise seem, even to themselves, flagrantly parasitic?
They hire personal and household servants, Maids who clean. Cooks who prepare meals. Footmen and butlers who open doors and serve at table. Personal body servants who bring breakfast in bed to m’lady in the morning and fix her hair when she’s going out, and male equivalents who not only get m’lord’s jacket from the closet, but assist him getting his arms through the garment’s sleeves.
It’s a soap opera, right? So why do I find this kind of economic activity so interesting? Because I think I might not just be seeing a bit of Old England’s past, but a preview of America’s own future.
What we have going on these days on these shores is the gradual squeezing of wealth and opportunity from the middle class, a gradual further impoverishment of the poor, and an ongoing enrichment of a relative few on the top.
When enough is squeezed from the bottom and the middle to enrich the few above, there will naturally come a time when doing household and personal service to jumped up money-based aristocrats becomes preferable to less desirable modes of prevailing employment. At least service to families like the Crawleys, who have a rather paternal attitude toward “their people.”
Sound like a future at odds with everything our national past has led us to hope for and expect? That’s only because the intellectual hirelings at conservative think tanks have still not managed to convince an absolute majority of Americans that such a lifestyle is the real Morning In America, the Real Opportunity Society, and the only real bulwark against Socialism.
I have seen the future. It is on PBS on Sunday nights.
Oops. The downstairs bell is tinkling. M’lord needs someone to pour his nightcap and help him on with his jamies.
I mustn’t displease. I don’t wish to lose my place — here at a secure bottom.
(Two novels by this writer, Fifteen Feet Beneath Manhattan and The Bellman’s Revenge, are now available from Amazon)