I have a peculiar reading of Gosford Park. Beneath the thicket of complex, dynamic relations is a story about aristocracy’s attempt to reclaim its economic vitality — by entering into popular entertainment. It fails because the preservation and performance of its own codes of honor are an impasse to social evolution.

I bring this up because Geitner’s post about the decline of aristocracy in the nineteenth century has me thinking about the paradigm of decline. Pointing to David Cannadine’s work (a popular subject of discussion these days), he notes that the aristocracies throughout Europe had stopped making significant contributions by the beginning of the century. The agricultural crisis of the 1880s was a blow to the their agricultural roots.

In order to remain relevant as estates, they must open themselves up to talented, successful members of other estates. The meaning of aristocracy is stretched, becoming less of a tradition-bound group to a step in the process of social ascension. Quoting Cannadine:

… many of these great European agglomerations included land that was worthless, or was bearing exceptionally heavy debts.

Continental agriculture was, in general, much less efficient than British farming, and, in addition, many European landowners were are far more severely encumbered than were the territorial classes across the Channel.

Most Junker estates were very heavily mortgaged, and in Russia, chronic indebtedness was endemic.

In as much as the purpose of the aristocracy was undermined because its ties to agricultural production were weakened, it was not their economic downslide that led to their decline. Decolonization was their downfall.

In general, aristocracies transformed themselves from the ordained overseers of natural hierarchy into a class in the service of the state. They became less involved in agriculture, more involved in politics. They made way for industrial production without surrendering their dominance. Even those nobles who did not turn away from their land started to act more as capitalists, improving land and managing farmers.

Upper houses of parliamentary bodies were one way that aristocrats remained dominant. In Prussia the Herrenhaus (House of Lords), composed mostly of the second estate, dominated legislative matters. The lower house was less relevant. Even so, the Herrenhaus was forced to admit some members from the third estate. The aristocracy was so weak in the Rhine Province that it had insufficient representation in the Herrenhaus. In order to maintain the fiction that the parliament was a representative body, the nobles were forced to accept the mayors into the Herrenhaus. Rhenish mayors, nominated by democratically elected municipal councils, gained the political rights of nobles. The famed Alliance of Iron and Grain was another way that Junkers bridged different economic and regional milieu in order to remain dominant.

The Junkers found themselves more involved in the administration of the state — the army in particular — becoming the political glue that held Germany together (see my post on Weber). Similarly, British aristocracy became more involve in the administration of empire.

The problem of the paradigm of decline is that it cannot rest on economics alone. Aristocrats were able to protect themselves by dedicating themselves to the state. They lost that protection whenever the state contracted, usually in the context of defeat, but largely because of the end of empire/decolonization. It is in this sense that a seen from another movie is relevant: Von Rauffenstein mourning loss of purpose in Grand Illusion.