One hundred years ago yesterday, top European aristocrat Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot dead in Sarajevo. This led to an ultimatum from the Austro-Hungarian empire to Serbia, whence the assassin had come. And it activated a whole set of alliances and ententes which had the whole of Europe at war within 60 days.
In the resulting conflagration, most of the aristocracies of Europe were swept away. They included the Kaiser in Germany, the Emperor in Austro-Hungary, the Tsar of Russia, the Sultan of the Ottoman empire, and probably a few more as well.
And even those aristocracies which survived – e.g. in Britain – lingered on in a rather diminished form.
And now almost all world leaders are non-aristocrats. And most people think that’s progress.
But I was wondering today whether aristocracies are actually very natural, and that when one aristocracy vanishes it usually gets replaced by another one.
One minor example of an emerging aristocracy might be seen in the world of rock stars or movie stars. They get idolised by fans, and promoted to being ‘rock gods’ or ‘screen goddesses’. And when this happens, they are no longer able to live ordinary lives, because they’re recognised wherever they go. So they tend to form little aristocratic societies. Movie stars hang out with other movie stars, and rock stars with other rock stars. They are aristocracies that are the product of adulation of celebrities.
Much the same seems to happen when people become very rich. Rich people tend to live separate lives from ordinary people. And they tend to belong in communities of other rich people. I doubt if people like Bill Gates or Michael Bloomberg get much in the way of adulation, but most likely they can buy influence if they want it. And aristocracies of wealth are also perfectly natural.
And there can be political aristocracies. In the USA the Kennedy clan was a political aristocracy. And maybe the Bush clan is today. Same with the Nehrus in India.
And quite often the new aristocracies marry into old aristocracies. For example Grace Kelly marrying Prince Rainier of Monaco. Equally, when Ronald Reagan become President of the United States, he was a movie star ‘marrying into’ the US political aristocracy.
So little aristocracies arise naturally from multiple sources, and they also tend to merge together. And because the new aristocrats tend to live separately from ordinary people, they tend to form a separate culture, which grows apart from ordinary culture. And this culture tends to regard itself as ‘above’ ordinary culture simply because its members are richer, more famous, or more powerful than ordinary people.
So I’ve been wondering whether the demolition of the old European aristocracies circa 1918 was simply the prelude to the emergence of a new aristocracy with its own culture, and what we are now witnessing is that gradual emergence.
And it’s characterised by top down control of society. The ‘top’ people increasingly start ordering around the people at the bottom, and treating them with barely concealed contempt. The war on tobacco and alcohol and obesity serve not just ‘improve health’ (if at all), but also to consolidate power at the top, and create a set of underdogs that are the mirror image of the top dogs. The only discussions that matter are those that take place within the aristocracy, with everyone else simply being informed of their conclusions.
The EU political class is a new aristocracy. It’s made up of the intermarriages of the political aristocracies of its member states – Barroso is ex-prime minister of Portugal, Rompuy prime minister of Belgium, Jean-Claude Juncker prime minister of Luxemburg. It’s barely democratic at all. And it conducts its business in a series of dinner parties. Its members are immune from prosecution, and they don’t pay taxes. And the new aristocracy becomes more and more powerful.
None of its members are particularly noteworthy, and many of them come from fairly humble backgrounds. And the various political and moral doctrines to which the new aristocracy subscribes would seem to be dogmatic versions of popular ideas current in recent decades. They’re all environmentalists or Greens. They’re all antismoking. They all believe in global warming.
And all in all, one might almost say that, if the old aristocracies of Europe were swept away 100 years ago, they have now almost perfectly recreated themselves.