Aristocracy and Capitalism

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

Isn’t there a fundamental incompatibility between an aristocratic hierarchical society and one based on capitalism?, a London vicar asks Alexander Boot — who gives his paleo-conservative reply:

There is an incompatibility, but I don’t think it’s either fundamental or unsolvable. Capitalist economy definitely abhors a rigid, or even rigid-ish, social structure, while an aristocratic society thrives on it. The answer lies first in the relative weight of the economy in the life of society and, second, the amount of elasticity in the hierarchy.

When the economy becomes the be-all and end-all of society, it comes with an awful price tag — and, as we are witnessing now, the price will be ultimately exacted on the economy itself. A society defined by consumption is indeed consumptive. That sitiuation didn’t exist in Britain during her most economically dynamic century, the 19th. And, as this reader knows better than I do, the main reason is simple: Jesus Christ hadn’t yet become a superstar. Christianity, as long as it keeps not just its form but also its content, puts brakes on economic totalitarianism by communicating in no uncertain terms that, though money may be important, it can’t be all-important. Though our life on earth is significant in itself, it’s also preparation for life in heaven. In that sense, our workaday lives should imitate the perfect balance between the transient and transcendent one finds in the person of Jesus Christ. Unlike materialists, we don’t think of life strictly in economic terms. Unlike Bhuddists, we don’t neglect the physical world. And unlike gnostics of all shades, we don’t think the outside world is evil.

England struck the balance in the 19th century, proving that an aristocratic society ruled by law can accommodate aggressive capitalism — partly because such a society, unlike out-and-out democracies, isn’t an ideological contrivance. It developed organically over 1,500 years or longer. With England (or other monarchies of old standing) one can’t pinpoint the founding of her state to any date or event. We all know exactly when Germany, Soviet Russia, Israel or the USA came into existence. With England, we don’t. That’s why the argument put forth by both Burke and de Maistre rings true: as the origins of an organic state disappear into the haze of the past, we might as well accept its divine descent.

One immediate spiritual and social effect of Christianity was the internalisation of man, the privatisation of the spirit. From that followed a man’s shift from the public square into his own house or chapel. Such a man lost the all-abiding interest in politics demanded by the Hellenic world — and now mandated by our democracies. Mediaeval Christians were happy to focus on their God and their family, letting the bellicose paladins boss things in the capital. The princes, in their turn, left the people pretty much alone — they were neither able nor willing to interfere with the familial organisation around which people’s lives revolved: guild, parish, village commune, township and of course what we now call extended family. Thus aristocracy, and by inference small government, is the most natural form of government in the West (a term I use interchangeably with Christendom in any other than the purely geographic sense).

For as long as the initial pulse shot into our body politic by Christianity didn’t attenuate, aristocratic society could handle capitalism with few problems. The society was not only hierarchical, but also mobile — witness the fact that only about 1% of British peerages predate the 19th century. Once that pulse died away, the square peg of the economy had to be jammed into the round hole left by Christianity. That was never going to succeed, and it hasn’t. What this proves, I think, is that there is no contradiction between the aristocratic society of Christendom and capitalism. There is, however, a glaring one between the democratic contrivances of modernity and Godless capitalism. Sooner or later, the resulting spiritual deficit will not only destroy our culture, family and social dynamics, but it’ll have exactly the same effect on the economy. As Aristotle put it, a society that pursues wealth rather than virtue will end up using this wealth against itself.


  1. Aretae says:

    Again, we’re there with English exceptionalism. I’m highly suspicious of his theory of states. England may have been the only (recognizeable to moderns) European state in 1200 AD. The rest of Europe was largely city-states, or small aggregations of city-states, not high power central monarchies. Maybe the reason that England killed their king in the Glorious revolution is that they had had a king for sufficiently longer that they knew what was broken in the institution?

    On the other hand, he’s nuts on the wealth issue. Wealth buys anything. including cleanliness or time to spend on godliness. The reason Wealth is the god-metric is because you can trade it for really anything (not just pretend-anything).

  2. The first revolutionaries of “contrivance” in the West were divine-right absolutists. The general governance structure of Latin Christendom was the mixed constitution of the three estates of nobility, clergy, and city-dwellers. These organic structures were clear cut on the Continent in the name of “contrivance”. The English estates escaped by just a few yards, a few lost nails, and luck. If the reintroduction of the estates system from England back onto the Continent created warped political communities, it was because its continuity had been broken by divine-right monarchs, enlightened despots, and Nabulione Buonaparte.

  3. Kent says:

    The line “A society defined by consumption is indeed consumptive.” seems too clever by half. Had he chosen to focus on another crucial aspect of capitalism, he might have said “a society defined by production is indeed productive.” I would concur.

Leave a Reply