I've been watching the first few episodes of Downton Abbey, and honestly, it reminds me of Glee, with its machine-gunned melodrama. One is left in a tizzy trying to follow it all. But one plot line in episode 4 was intriguing, where the head housekeeper Mrs. Hughes entertains a marriage proposal from an old flame, a widowed farmer from Scotland. She says no, with reluctance and some wistfulness for the freedoms he offered.
But she does live in a castle, after all- not a bad spot, even if one is downstairs in service. It made me think about the ecosystem the show portrays, vs the pioneer homesteading ethic we so commonly hold in the US, madly rushing into debt and overwork to stake our claim on a single-family home, proudly isolated from the rest of humanity.
The Edwardian estate was a communal living arrangement, with a large population cheek-by-jowl, all serving each other's needs. Washing was done, meals cooked, grounds kept, bills and employees paid. Very few communal living schemes have had such durability, certainly not more idealistic ones forsaking hierarchy in the name of communism or socialism.
The right/Republican end of the human temperament spectrum certainly has an important point to make in this respect, that hierarchy is an essential part of the human condition, putting the order into "the social order", putting each member in a place with a known role, from which they hopefully have a structured route for ascent depending on luck and talent, as evaluated by other members of the collective.
The conceptual revolutions of the enlightenment, and finally Marxism, began to see this hierarchy as intrinsically oppressive. As a matter of humanity, no person had the right to order others around, or to be fussed and dressed by a simpering valet- certainly not by birth. The capitalist and estate proprietor was seen not as the orchestrator of a complex community that provided roles and sustenance for all its members, but a parasite who skimmed off profits and labor-value from the powerless worker-bees who, if only they could shake off the chains of a socially programmed hierarchy, could earn their full value and enjoy a life of personal freedom.
But sometimes that life is less rich than one within the communal hive, however constricted. Even if the servants get only a fraction of the good food, and rudimentary dormitories, even if they experience the daily sting of inequality, they have other creature comforts and social comforts that might well make up for it. Some of our greatest literature has arisen out of the complex communities of the estate. (Though admittedly, rarely from downstairs.)
In our day, the corporation is perhaps the most dominant social community, leaving its members to a freely atomized personal life, even as it imposes hierarchy of a very traditional sort on their daily working lives. The recent dustup over Yahoo's renunciation of telecommuting touches on the heart of this power structure- how closely should the corporation dominate its slice of our lives?
Is this modern division of work and "life" the final solution, or will the future bring other modes of social organization? Work is a central human value, so even if we don't need to do anything- once robots take care of all our mundane needs- we will still live in hierarchies of some kind, and work to make each other's lives better, in some, hopefully higher, more artistic, more humane, way. Perhaps that is what Marcel Proust saw in his fin de siècle time, running from one Parisian Salon to the next, scrambling up the social ladder with no greater goal than to be loved.
- Temperament, politics, and social order, continued...
- Suicide bombings OK.. or not OK?
- Afghanistan- the good news.
- As markets go up, labor keeps getting screwed.
- In Japan, finally the prospect of an exit to normality, via more spending.
- We, too, need a fiscal kick in the pants.
- Our libraries, our homeless shelters.
- Economic quote of the week, from Friedrich Hayek, on equilibrium methods and assumptions in economics:
"The assumption of a perfect market then means nothing less than that all the members of the community, even if they are not supposed to be strictly omniscient, are at least supposed to know automatically all that is relevant for their decisions. It seems that that skeleton in our cupboard, the 'economic man', whom we have exorcised with prayer and fasting, has returned through the back door in the form of a quasi-omniscient individual.
The statement that, if people know everything, they are in equilibrium is true simply because that is how we define equilibrium."
"Clearly there is here a problem of the Division of Knowledge which is quite analogous to, and at least as important as, the problem of the division of labour. But while the latter has been one of the main subjects of investigation ever since the beginning of our science, the former has been as completely neglected, although it seems to me to be the really central problem of economics as a social science."