In the old days the notion of noblesse oblige demanded that the privileged and powerful act responsibly toward their underlings. In theory, at least. In practice things were not quite so sweet. Watching Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, I am reminded of these finer sentiments by the character of Christopher Tietjens, played with a superbly quivering lower lip by the actor Benedict Cumberbatch. A landowner or other employer, says Tietjens (more or less), must treat his staff fairly, and if he doesn’t – if he abuses them or cheats them – he should be sent to prison. It strikes me as a wonderfully anachronistic point of view, and in the story – which at this point is just prior to World War One – Tietjens admits as such. He knows he is an anachronism, but that doesn’t stop him believing what he believes.
How we have moved on. The triumph of capital in the face of worldwide wage slavery, of base greed over pride in one’s work, of mass-produced baubles over craftsmanship, the love of filthy lucre over all other considerations, finally exploded in an orgy of fervor in the Thatcher-Reagan years, and has never looked back, even after the so-called financial crisis of 2008. Well, it took a short break, but many of its worst practitioners simply saw the crisis as an opportunity, and nothing of any significance has changed. The poor have got poorer and the same politicians and gangsters are in place, the same pigs spoiling for the best spot at the trough.
However flawed the society mourned by Christopher Tietjens in Madox Ford’s great novel, and the recent TV series, it sustained the quaint notion that power comes with a responsibility towards others. The grab-it-all, get-rich-quick free-for-all that got properly underway in that awful decade, the 1980s, shows no sign of abating. You do well, therefore everyone else can go to hell. Watching TV’s Made in Chelsea the other night alerts me to the likelihood that none of these young millionaires seems to have any concerns other than his or her own self-promotion or self-interest. None display any concern about the plight of people less privileged or less lucky than themselves, or even to mix with such types, unless they are servants. I guess they have been brought up that way. Or perhaps it just makes better television if they are displayed, almost unvaryingly, to be selfish, preening fuckwits. Who knows. Who, indeed, cares.
All of which I am thinking, abstractly, while reading in bed, when I come across a passage in an essay (on another theme entirely) by Phillip Lopate: “The least we can do . . . is to register the expectation that people in a stronger position be kind and not cruel to those in a weaker one, knowing all the while that we will probably be disappointed.” I guess that is the least, the very least, we can do.