The Democratisation Of Aristocracy

Never before in the course of human history, if I may wax a little Churchillian, have the bad habits and qualities of aristocracy reached so far down the social scale.

The most obvious mode is, of course, fashion. Shopgirls are now as fashion-conscious as countesses of the ancien régime; one assumes that in the world of the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Meurteuil, servants would have counted themselves lucky to have had a single dress, and were not unduly worried about it being just so last week. When they stand in the rain outside some club, in the hope of being validated by being admitted past the ritual rope by some gorilla, their modern descendants are breaking with the centuries-old plebian institution of the pub, whose very name proclaimed that it was open to the whole community, and instead embracing the decadent joys of social exclusion of those considered inferior in manners. Facebook society is in very respect court society. Whoever first thought of adapting Les Liaisons Dangereuses to the milieu of rich modern teenagers knew exactly what they were doing.

The heartless libertinage of that work is not, perhaps, solely aristocratic, even though its style of libertinage certainly is. Workers and peasants (and soldiers and sailors!) can be libertines too. But add a couple of syllables and we pass to libertarianism. As I have shown elsewhere, the cult of Ayn Rand is exceedingly aristocratic, with its belief in an absolute liberty that in any ordered society can only be enjoyed by the people at the very top. Objectivists of humble background can eat cherries with the great, at least in their own minds, and lord it over those they consider inferior, which is almost everyone.

A related phenomenon since the dawn of the Romantic Movement has been the conceit of belonging to an aristocracy of the mind, or of “spirit” (whatever that is), having not noble blood but a “noble soul”. Fortunately for them, there is no Almanac de Gotha or Debrett’s for “noble souls”, which means that no one can be definitively informed that he doesn’t have one. Where this can lead was shown by Dostoyevsky, whose indigent graduate Raskolnikov imagines that he is a higher being who is not bound by mere human laws – that is, an aristocrat of destiny.

This unsupported superiority may be detected also in the self-esteem movement, one of the Great Bad Ideas of the last century. Although it was probably meant originally as a warts-and-all self-acceptance, in practice “self-esteem” became precisely what used to be called amour-propre. Among nobles, this had been something exceedingly prickly and liable to cause duels to the death. The ghetto’s extreme concern with being “dissed” and expunging insults in blood may be inevitable among young men suffering fierce economic competition in a lawless environment, or it may be an artefact of the democratisation of aristocracy. In the latter case, that is, obsession with what used to be called “the point of honour” has percolated downwards, abetted by the Great Bad Idea that a person takes positive harm from not thinking the world of himself. I don’t think I can say which way round it was, but I suggest the question be addressed.

Finally, let us also note the aristocratic disdain for knowledge, other than knowledge of arcane social and stylistic distinctions. This, too is, so thoroughly modern that an indifference to status trivia is considered to be the disability of “autism”.

Posted on December 1, 2009 at 10:26 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, A Theory Of Everybody

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