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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Profitable Aristocracy: On the Conditionality of the Managerial Elite

Downton Abbey, a series that began in 2011 on PBS’s Masterpiece Classics, depicts through narrative life in a British manor beginning with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. For European viewers and more generally for the rest of us, the program proffers a glimpse of the world a century back. The advent of the telephone and phonograph seem to pierce through the manor’s socio-economic hierarchy that had undoubtedly been in place for centuries. It is the sheer social distance between the servants, almost regardless of their particular rank within their hierarchy, and the nobility in the house that is so striking to me. Moreover, the “Your Lordship” and “Your Ladyship” are not contingent on the manor’s owner employing or even paying the servants.

                            Lady Mary between the man she was to marry and the man she loves. Carnival/Masterpiece

In other words, nobility is by birth and is therefore not contingent on any financial arrangement. Indeed, after being fired, servants at Downton continue to address their former employers by their respective noble titles. This can easily be distinguished from the business or commercial culture wherein respectful demeanor is typically contingent on being paid. A worker who is fired is apt to quickly drop the former air of respect—even turning downright disrespectful. Even a longstanding regular customer can find the respectful demeanor of a waiter or front desk clerk quickly turned into something else entirely if a tip is not judged to be sufficient or there is a dispute on a reservation or room charge.
An acquaintance of mine who is from India was staying at a Staybridge for a number of months on business. As per the hotel’s policy, any of the long-term “guests” could invite friends or co-workers to the weekday late-afternoon receptions at the hotel. He invited me to a few of the receptions. Arriving before him on one occasion, I was stunned at the rude conduct directed at me by the front desk employee and another employee who was helping with the reception. It was ironic that they referred to their paying customers as “guests” yet could not have been of lower class in how they treated a real guest. The man helping at the reception ignored me and the front desk employee stood behind me bragging about how she had just thrown out a “non-guest.” When my friend arrived, I had to inform him that I would not be able to join him at the reception. He too was shocked at the employees’ behavior. “I live here!” he said still astonished.
From my own experience, Days Inn is far worse with respect to a low-class approach to management.  In reading reviews by customers, the lack of accountability at Days Inn is truly astounding. In Downton Abbey, Granny remarks that once the little people get a taste of power, it goes to their heads like strong drink. Hearing this line, I was reminded of when I made a noise complaint while at a Days Inn. Actually I made one early one morning, then another a night later because the noise above had gotten worse. The front desk employee refused to act on both occasions, so I phoned the police the second time. Even that did not end the noise, which lasted until 6am. From what the Days Inn centralized customer service dept representative later told me, the manager had retaliated against me by reporting to that dept "several altercations with front desk staff including profanity." Days Inn itself refused to come down on the local manager as the hotel was a franchise (they could have demanded a video recording as proof of the alleged altercations). As it was, I was left with the impression that the corporate office was impotent while the manager was utterly corrupt and beyond virtually any accountability. I was stunned that insult could be so easily added to injury as a manager was allowed to turn on a customer in the wake of his own failure. In the context of Downton Abbey, the manager  had completely lost touch with the fact that even as a manager he was a servant, rather than nobility. Management, in other words, is not of nobility. We allow managers to presume far too much, and all too often they get away with it because of their power in their respective organizations.
My point is that the “nobility” in a commercial society is utterly fake, as shown through the extent of conditionality. Customers and employers doubtless regard the perfunctory manners of managers as fake—i.e., as something we are expected to pretend is authentic rather than contrived simply to get something. Social respect in a non-noble, commercial society is simply a means of manipulation fueled by greed.
In watching Downton Abbey, I had the sense that “Your Lordship” and “Lady Mary” are expressions from a felt obligation that does not depend on getting anything in return because the nobility are due it regardless of any monetary transaction. In America at least, where such a thing does not exist, viewing nobility in another time and place makes the contrived nature of social respect in the American commercial society all the more apparent. Far too much in terms of behavior is assumed to legitimately be conditioned on money.
In fact, the American aristocracy could be said to be Wall Street, with lower “counts” being the professional caste (lawyers, CPAs, physicians), while the aristocracies of clerics and scholars operate without the requisite currency and thus must appeal to another place and time. The clerics and scholars have more in common with the nobility than with rich CEOs and professionals, whose basis is utterly contingent (i.e., being wealthy). In other words, the motives in how the respective aristocracies are addressed differ. Respect for a cleric or scholar is rooted in obligation, whereas respect for a business executive or a profession is based on the commercial element (i.e., wealth being valued, as well as self-interest).
It is no accident that clerics and scholars are not highly valued in American society—its values being so commercial in nature. Typically an executive or lawyer will dismiss a cleric or scholar for not being “in the real world.” Indeed, some “professionals” even presume that their undergraduate degree in a professional school makes them scholars, or able to evaluate scholars. Barak Obama, for example, has been characterized as a “legal scholar” simply because he taught in a law school as an instructor with one degree in law. I have read plenty of law journal essays written by people having earned a degree in law. Let’s just say the writing reflects the undergraduate degree. In Europe, by the way, a law professor must have the doctorate in law (JSD).
In some ways, having a doctorate (i.e., nobility in academia) is like being an earl or count because the title does not depend on the size of a bank account or any commercial transaction. After having been hooded, a doctor (this is not properly a medical designation) is forever designated as such, meaning unconditionally. The same applies to a member of the European aristocracy. Also, that aristocracy prides itself on its good manners, while I have wondered if a lot of education renders one more refined as well. Perhaps it is simply a function of being socialized for so long at university. Particular at good or excellent seats of learning, the context does not exactly reflect society as a whole.
I contend that an educated refined demeanor is superior to the conditionality of commercial relationships. It is no surprise, therefore, that the educated aristocracy is so slighted by the American society at large—including the moneyed “aristocracy,” which after all has a vested interest in doing so. As if to circumvent the true scholars, the “aristocracy” of professionals even sought to portray its undergraduate degrees as if they were doctorates, and thus among the scholarly nobility too. Nice try. Such games put the nobility as depicted at Downton Abbey at quite a distance.
The over-reaching and conditionality—both of which are indicative of low class—may have been made possible because hereditary nobility had been eliminated long ago in the U.S. In other words, American society is reductionist in terms of its notions of aristocracy—reducing it to being a function of money. How could anything truly noble be so conditional? Moreover, how could it be so low class and still be aristocratic? Our nobles must be pretenders. Might our forefathers have left us vulnerable to such hypertrophy (i.e., the over-extension of one part) by extirpating nobility? Is there nothing whatsoever to distinguish “well, he wasn’t raised right” from “he came from a good family”? A person of the latter rightfully recoils at the presence of a person of the former who is being rude “without a clue.” What of this natural hierarchy, or aristocracy? Surely it is not conditioned on a monetary transaction. A suddenly rude front desk employee “was not raised right,” I would wager. An innate sense of “with power comes responsibility” over “it’s the customer’s responsibility” is missing from America’s commercial aristocracy and its epigones (i.e., formerly servants now as managers).
In other words, Americans allow servants to over-reach in claiming authority on the basis of running something. The managers of Downton Abbey were classified as among the servants, rather than as among the nobility of the house. Yet the modern manager is seldom viewed as a servant—especially by the employees. “Labor/Management” is itself within the servant hierarchy. As much as I disapprove of a hereditary basis for any social privilege because it is unearned (although acting on a noble obligation of service over years could make it so, as illustrated by Queen Elizabeth II), I find the commercial variety even more distasteful and certainly not noble. In fact, I look at the conditionality based on commerce as rather low class. Its own lack of respect for clerical or scholarly nobility simply confirms my judgment. Conditioning one’s attitude on money is unquestionably banal. Even so, because we have nothing to compare our “aristocracy” too, it is virtually unquestioned in American society. We view the CEO as a noble rather than as being at the top of the servants’ hierarchy simply because the CEO is wealthy.
In fact, basing so much social value on money can even been seen in how the American “safety net” for the poorest of the poor is nevertheless all too contingent on job history. From the American sense of nobility, survival itself is presumed rightly conditioned on having participated in the commercial life of the society. The human rights to food, shelter, medical care, medicine, and even survival itself have been inherently conditional throughout American history. Perhaps having a non-conditional aristocracy would ironically have implied a non-conditional basic human right.