Aristocracy – A form of government in which power is held by the nobility.
Plutocracy – A form of government in which power is held by the wealthy.
The birth last month of England’s newest prince was big news across the pond, but it was also the stuff of rapt attention here in the United States. In fact, it was deemed so exciting that cable news reporters were filing hourly reports on the condition of the expectant mother as she went into labor.
Such fuss about a birth that will have absolutely no real impact on the lives of any U.S. citizen (and, truth be told, of very few in the United Kingdom either). What’s the deal?
The answer may lie in the popularity of “Downton Abbey,” the outstanding PBS series that depicts life in an early-twentieth-century castle in London. Now in production for its fourth season, it has supplanted cable hits like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” as the most critically-acclaimed series currently available to U.S. audiences. “Abbey” celebrates the “good-old days” of refined aristocracy in England in which class distinctions were severely measured by financial wealth. The servants in “Abbey” are respected working class folk, but they have a place in the society of the day that is far below that of their employers, the aristocrats who own the castle and were mostly born to their wealth.
Class distinctions in modern-day America are far less severely noted. In “Abbey,” the working class regards their aristocratic employers with something approaching reverence, rarely if ever even speaking ill of them, even in the seclusion of their “downstairs” private moments. And for their part, the aristocratic employers are as benevolent (at least on this show) as their station permits them to be, sometimes even confiding personal travails to certain of the employees (events that are prized by the workers as very special, almost treasured moments). Everyone, in essence, knows their place and acts accordingly.
In modern-day America workers don’t so much know their place in the society; rather, they are stuck with it. Not that upward mobility was all that prevalent in early-twentieth-century England, but in early-twenty-first-century America, being born poor pretty much means you will stay poor for the rest of your life without the likelihood that you will be provided the kind of largesse that the employers in “Abbey” provide their workers.
In fact, as this American century unfolds, the “dream” of upward mobility is becoming far less meaningful to vast numbers of children of impoverished parents. Yes, there are always an anecdotal few who, through fortuitous circumstance as much as steely persistence, break out of the bondage of poverty and gain true middle-class status. But the vast number of young people in America today are stuck, at best, with lives no better than those of their parents. And in many instances, their futures are even more bleak.
I mean by none of the foregoing to suggest that a return to aristocracy would be a positive development for American society. Rather, I’m suggesting that in the developing (some would say fully developed) plutocracy that the United States is becoming (or has become), there is an oppressiveness that is far more destructive of the human spirit than anything that is portrayed in the lives of the working class in “Downton Abbey.”
Here’s the reality: America’s middle class is getting smaller; its working class is getting poorer; the number of Americans living below the poverty line is getting larger; and, perhaps, most disturbing, those relative few who are rich are getting much richer. In other words, while it isn’t an aristocracy, the United States has the same kind of gross income disparity that existed in England one hundred years ago.
The irony of everything I’ve just indicated is that in terms of its politics, the American electorate seems not at all in touch with this reality. At the state and local level, those espousing anti-working class agendas have been remarkably successful. Twenty-four states currently are in complete Republican control (with the party controlling both the Governor’s office and majorities in the Legislature) as opposed to only 13 states with Democrats in a similar position.
And even within the Democratic Party, the national agenda is far less focused on the needs of the working class than the moneyed interests of the plutocrats. Democrats like Obama talk a good game to certain constituencies, but their actions are still far more oriented to corporate interests than to those at the bottom of the economic food chain. The Affordable Care Act is a good example. It may guarantee health insurance for most Americans, but it does so through for-profit insurance companies rather than a government-run single payer plan. The result will likely be a neutral (at best) result for the working poor: they will get health insurance, but they will pay for it with reduced salaries and/or higher insurance premiums.
While some argue that conservative economic policies ultimately benefit the working class and the non-working poor, the reality is that those policies have kept incomes stagnant for working class families in the United States for the last 40 years. Meanwhile the incomes at the top of the food chain have grown exponentially. The result is the equivalent of the Downton Abbey society, with a relative few super-rich and a growing percentage of the populace living just above the poverty line with little realistic hope of moving up.
Socialism is presented in the TV series as an alternative to the aristocracy that locks the working class into their positions. In one episode, the Earl of Downton Abbey is said to equate socialists with lunatics. It’s a view one would expect an aristocrat to have had in England years ago. Sadly, it is also the view that many in today’s working class in America have, and therein lies a real irony.
For while socialism would certainly put a dent in the fortunes of today’s aristocrat-equivalents (the plutocrats and other super-rich in American society), it would seemingly provide a bigger piece of the pie for the vast majority of Americans who cannot even attain middle class status.
Instead, they go gaga over the birth of a future King of the land that long ago abandoned any real form of aristocracy.