For much of Downton Abbey, viewers are treated with glorious eye candy of British aristocratic life in a mighty estate, robust at first but fading as the seasons progress. What we are not given is a rationale behind the whole cultural structure of the house and the social order surrounding it. This is particularly important for American audiences who know none of this from modern experience.
Over time, particularly after the Great War brought Labor governments to power, some of the workers in the house get restless in “service” and seek out new professions and political systems. Viewers are hard-pressed to disagree with them, even if our sense of nostalgia and affection for the Crawley family elicits a protective sense.
It’s not until the sixth season, episode four, when we get the full theory behind the structures as they exist at Downton. The Dowager Countess is being pushed to turn over control of their own private hospital to a municipal government. Of course all the “progressives” in the family and estate support this move but she is intransigent. Control must remain with the family, she insists.
The supposition is that this is all about her pride, control, and irrational attachment to tradition above good sense and modern sensibilities.
Finally, in the course of a conversation in the library, she lays out her thinking. In a short soliloquy, she summarizes 800 years of British history in a paragraph, and elucidates the understanding of such great thinkers as Bertrand de Jouvenel and Lord Acton. It’s the kind of history that is routinely denied to students and has been for decades. It’s a good lesson in political science too.
“For years I’ve watched governments take control of our lives,” she says, “and their argument is always the same: fewer costs and greater efficiency. But the result is the same too: less control by the people and more controlled by the state, until the individual’s own wishes count for nothing. That is what I consider my duty to resist.”
“By wielding your unelected power?” asks Lady Rosamund Payneswick, the daughter of the Dowager Countess.
Ignoring the swipe, the Dowager answers: “See, the point of a so-called great family is to protect our freedoms. That is why the Barons made King John sign the Magna Carta.”
Surprised, her distant cousin Isobel responds: “I do see that your argument was more honorable than I’d appreciated.”
And her daughter-in-law Cora, an American who doesn’t understand what’s at stake, answers too: “Mama, we’re not living in 1215. The strengths of great families like ours is going. That’s just a fact.”
The Dowager continues: “Your great-grandchildren won’t thank you when the state is all-powerful because we didn’t fight.”
Now we know why she cares so much about this one seemingly small issue. For her entire life, she has seen the state on the march, most especially during the Great War, and then the pressure of the state mounted against all the old estates, as they fall in status and wealth year after year, as if by some inexorable force of history.
The Dowager, on the other hand, sees not some Hegelian wave at work but a very visible hand, that of the state itself. In other words, she sees what nearly everyone else has missed. And whether she is right or wrong on the particular matter of this one hospital (and later history proves her correct), the larger point is precisely right.
As the great fortunes of the nobility declined – the very structures that had not only carved out the rights of the people against the rulers and protected them for 800 years – the state was on the rise, threatening not only the nobles but the people too.
Incidentally, this history of freedom is not entirely alien to the American experience either. New history likes to point out with great ire that the prime movers of rebels against the crown in 1776 were larger landowners and businessmen along with their families. They were the Founding families and the main influencers behind the Revolution, which Edmund Burke famously defended on grounds that it was not a real revolution but a revolt with a conservative intent. By this he meant that the colonies were merely asserting rights forged in British political experience (which is to say, they were not Jacobins).
And there is a point to that. The rights-based fervor that birthed the War of Independence gradually mutated into a Constitutional Convention 13 years later. The Articles of Confederation had no central government but the Constitution did. And the main controlling factions of the new government were indeed the landed families of the New World. The Bill of Rights, a thoroughly radical codification of the rights of the people and lower governments – was tacked on by the “Anti-Federalists”– again, a landed aristocracy – as a condition of ratification.
The issue of slavery in the colonies massively complicated the picture, of course, and became the main line of attack on the American system of federalism itself. The landed gentry of the South in particular always had grave doubts about Jefferson’s claims of universal and inviolable rights, fearing that eventually their ownership claims over human persons would be challenged, which indeed they were and less than a century after the Constitution was ratified.
That aside, it remains true that the birth of American liberty rested with the US version of the nobles, but also backed by the people at large. So the Dowager’s history of British rights is not entirely inconsistent with the American story at least until recently.
This has also been the prism with which to understand the broad outlines of the terms “left” and “right” in both the UK and the US. The “right” in a popular sense has represented mostly the established business interests (including the good parts and bad parts such as the munitions manufacturers) and tended to be the faction that defended the rights of commerce. The “left” has pushed the interests of labor unions, social welfare, and minority populations, all of which happened also to be aligned with the interests of the state.
Those categories seemed mostly settled as we entered the 21st century.
But it was at this point that a titanic shift began to take place, especially after 9-11. The interests of the “great families” and the state began to align across the board (and not just on matters of war and peace). These family fortunes were no longer attached to Old World ideals but to technologies of control.
The paradigmatic case is the Gates Foundation but the same holds true of Rockefeller, Koch, Johnson, Ford, and Bezos. As the main funders of the World Health Organization and “scientific” research grants, they are the main forces behind the newest and largest threats to the freedom of the individual. These foundations built from capitalist wealth, and now fully controlled by bureaucrats loyal to statist causes, are on the wrong side of the crucial debates of our time. They fight not for the emancipation of the people but rather more control.
With many sectors of the “left” naively signing up with the bio-medical state and the interests of the pharmaceutical giants, and the “right” triangulated into going along, where is the party to defend the freedom of the individual? It is being squeezed out in an attack from both ends of the mainstream political spectrum.
If the “great families” have fundamentally shifted their loyalties and interests, in both the US and the UK, and the mainline churches can no longer be relied upon to defend basic freedoms, we can and should expect a major realignment to take place. Marginalized groups drawn from the older versions of both right and left will need to mount a major and effective effort to reassert all the rights forged and earned over many centuries.
These are completely new times and the Covid wars signal that turning point. Essentially, we need to revisit the Magna Carta itself to make it clear: government has definite limits to its power. And by “government,” we cannot just mean the state but also its aligned interests, which are many but include the largest players in media, tech, and corporate life.
The groups that want to normalize the lockdowns and mandates – thinking of the Covid Crisis Group – can count on the financial support of the “great” families, and freely admit it. This is a problem completely unlike what freedom fighters have faced over the long course of modern history. It’s also why political alliances these days seem so fluid.
This is ultimately what is behind the great political debates of our time. We are trying to make sense of who stands for what in times when nothing is as it seems.
And there are some strange anomalies extant too. Elon Musk, for example, is among the richest Americans but seems to be a backer of free speech that the establishment hates. His social platform is the only one among the high-impact products that permits speech that contradicts regime priorities.
Meanwhile his competitor in riches Jeff Bezos does not join him in this crusade.
So too when Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., – a scion of a “great family” – has broken with his clan to support the rights of the individual and a restoration of the freedoms we took for granted in the 20th century. His entry into the race for the Democratic nomination has disrupted our whole sense of where the “great families” stand on fundamental questions.
The confusion even impacts political leaders like Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis. Is Trump really a populist who is willing to stand up to the administrative state or is his appointed role to absorb the energies of the pro-freedom movement and once again turn them toward authoritarian ends, as he did with the lockdowns of 2020? And is Ron DeSantis a genuine champion of freedom who will fight lockdowns or is his appointed role to divide and weaken the Republican Party in advance of the nomination fight?
This is the current fight within the GOP. It is a fight over who is telling the truth.
The reason conspiracy theory has been unleashed as never before in our lifetimes is because nothing truly is what it seems to be. This traces to the reversal of alliances that have characterized the struggle for liberty over 800 years. We no longer have the barons and lords and we no longer have the great fortunes: they have thrown their lots in with the technocrats. Meanwhile, the supposed champions of the little guy are now fully aligned with the most powerful sectors of society, yielding a fake version of the left.
Where does this leave us? We only have the intelligent bourgeoisie – products of the middle class that is currently under assault – that is well-read, clear-thinking, attached to alternative sources of news, and only now in our post-lockdown world has become aware of the existential nature of the struggle we face. And their rallying cry is the same which has inspired the freedom movements of the past: the rights of individuals and families over the hegemon.
If the Dowager Countess were around today, let there be no doubt as to where she would stand. She would stand with the freedom of the people against the controls of the state and its managers.
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