‘A spectre is haunting Britain – the spectre of gentry.’ We are all denying its existence in our holy alliance with marketized institutions, individualistic outlooks and meritocratic principles – the trinity formula of neo-liberal Britain – but occasionally the ghost of gentry grubs its way into our consciousness. With the leaked Panama Papers we learnt that David Cameron – of Eton, Oxford, Bullingdon Club and gentlemanly manners – owes his fortune to inheritance, kinship and living off the labour of others. While sociologists will and must have a lot to say about the Panama stories, the central one for me is: How are we to make sense of social arrangements which show distinct signs of older, ‘pre-modern’ forms of capital accumulation – inherited wealth and rentier capital – organised through ascriptive criteria – kinship, status honour and old-school ties in a world seemingly beyond such archaic institutions?
It is a fundamental irony that the ‘historical’ study of social class seemingly takes as its founding date somewhere in the middle of the nineteenth century. Consequently sociologists don’t know how to treat the ‘upper classes’ in Britain. While David Cameron has all the trappings of a gentry personage – inherited wealth; elite schooling; gentlemanly manners; impeccable social capital; elite club membership – we know times have changed unrecognisably from the 1700s when his world and culture arose most clearly. There is a need, then, to not relegate the study of ‘the upper-class’ as the study of the rich and powerful, instead we need to look at how the upper-classes exist in relation to culture, history and sensibilities today. The Panama Papers are exceptional. The real question that needs asking is how do the upper-classes relate to other classes in a society whose political values and sensibilities eschew such things as inherited wealth and status. Or, how do the upper-classes relate to others in a world which is not defined by their criteria?
One possible way toward resolving this is to investigate how and why certain elite personages, practices and identities remain despite their incompatibility to the present. Part of the story is to recognise that the upper-classes are not relics of some bygone age. Rather in the formation of class identities in Britain, the upper-classes have and continue to shape distinct sensibilities of belonging and recognition which go beyond economic or political power. Sociologists have been good at identifying how the story of self-making for the middle classes was a historical process of distinguishing themselves from a ‘disgusting working class’ and a ‘mondain aristocracy’ (Lawler, 2005; 2008). However they have failed to see the gentry seeds leftover in this story of change. In the moral economy of class which the middle-classes put in place, they borrowed particular forms of selfhood, identity and conduct which would lay the seeds of a peculiar contradiction in their self-making. They needed models, paragons if you will, against which their self-making would be measured and evaluated – the problem was that such measures and evaluation couldn’t be understood in the terms previously utilised. So ‘breeding’ become ‘respectability’; ‘culture’ become ‘taste’; ‘hospitality’ becomes ‘charity’; the ‘port and charge’ of the gentleman became ‘good manners’. In short, a translation of values occurred which borrowed from an aristocratic world, through which the middle class ‘made themselves’. But in the process of resigning the upper-classes to a world beyond and prior to the new landscape of values, they neglected to see how their cultural universe – the normative language which judges and evaluates ‘everyone else’ – only makes sense, and can only exist, if anchored to and ambivalently placed in relation to such an ‘upper-class’ world.
Ellen Meiksins Wood’s book The Pristine culture of capitalism (1993) is possibly the best exposition of this ‘problem’ in English capitalist development and class formation. For her, the role played by Britain’s landed class – or ‘gentry’ – in the formation of agrarian capitalism saw with it a peculiar ‘culture of containment’: the world of the aristocracy, with rigid hierarchies, kinship exchanges and status distinction, was no longer compatible with the growth of wealth, property and power which a landed, gentlemanly capitalist class put in place. The solution, she claimed, was ‘new wine in old bottles’. The gentry – existing as a capitalist class in noble clothing – took over with an elaborate emphasis upon manner, style, culture and performance. The disposition of an ancient aristocracy enacted in ignoble persons.
We are still living within this peculiar cultural and economic settlement. It encapsulates much of what we think of as traditional British national identity and holds distinctive importance to how social aspiration, success and privilege become understood and recognised. Gentry was, and is, a way of naming a particular form of classed and racialized belonging in British society. In Elites, Race and Nationhood: The Branded Gentry, I try to trace the peculiar history of ‘gentry’ in relation to an ethnographic study of white, upper-middle class young people. What inspired this strange exploration into a seldom explored “class” was that I was suspicious that the clothing brand Jack Wills, so called Outfitters to the Gentry, were playing a role in the reformation and relegitimation of upper-middle class cultural power in the twenty-first century. A brand, arising out of Salcombe in the late 90s, was seemingly outfitting – quite literally – a small segment of the population into the colours and symbols of the upper classes. And enacting the rituals and practices, too: polo, skiing, messing around on boats. But, again, it is a case of ‘new wine in old bottles’.
It was during the time spent working with Cambridge University Polo Club that this became evident. Tom, whose family background is country gentry but whose parental wealth was supported by banking, was the first person who gave me real indication of how contemporary “gentry” worked. We were sitting in an old barn turned polo club house, deep in the west-country. I was asking about how Jack Wills sponsor Cambridge, to which he replied that I really ought to look elsewhere for the Jack Wills brand. “They’re going after the people who holiday in Daymer Bay, and the world around you here”, he said pulling on his polo shirt for the match, “but we don’t really wear it.” Politely I nodded, but couldn’t help but notice the Jack Wills insignia on his Cambridge jersey. Indeed, Tom’s world was not of Jack Wills, the brand merely borrowed from it. This, it transpired, is crucial. The political inappropriateness of elitism or entitlement is turned into something which is consumable, something which may be viewed by others yet recognise the privilege ongoing.
In a later occasion in this clubhouse, when post-match beers and cups of tea were being handed out, Anthony – a friend of Tom’s – told of a shared acquaintance’s photographs being spotted by him and others in The Cosy Club in Bath. “It was the one she’d done for Country Life”, Anthony remarked. Giles, former Brigadier turned polo club owner, stated: “that’s the risk you take when you become a deb. The public own your image. My wife and I used to phone up Tatler and name the people in their society pages, we’d often be sent a bottle of champagne in return.” Giles, Anthony and Tom’s world are not closed circles; instead their visibility and acknowledged status rests upon propping up, and gaining from, commercial practices beyond their immediate circle. As such they engage in process of what elite groups often seek – modes of recognition and resources which cannot be expanded. The Varsity shirt which Tom ignores as bearing the insignia of a high-street shop, or the champagne bottles which come from knowing who’s who is a form of inexpansibility to that which is open ended: clothes can be bought in droves and magazines extended beyond the social circles of the photographed. The one relies upon the other. Yet a clear cultural shift is evident.
This is not a gentry culture defined by the power of law, property and economic relations. It is a branded gentry. If E. P. Thompson’s famous account of gentry culture sought to demonstrate how gentry power was manifest in part by law and the property relations of an agrarian capitalist class and also their ‘symbolic hegemony’ (1993), then what I’m trying to offer here is something of an inversion of this. The power of gentry today is not in their legal or economic relations, nor propped up by their symbolic hegemony. Rather it is in their being a projection of a series of affective relations which nevertheless have a material aspect. In order for the performance of privilege to be enacted, such as Tom’s cavalier attitude or Giles’ blasé receiving of bottles of Moet et Chandon, then there must be an economy to do so, namely a brand whose affective qualities and temporalities put in place a series of social relations which give such performances their platform. In so doing, these immaterial aspects become involved in a political economy which sees the distribution of material goods, i.e. Tom’s jersey is not a Jack Wills jersey you may buy, indeed you can’t buy. It is in this way that we may speak of a branded – instead of landed – gentry
Through presenting these observations I am not proposing that the ‘upper-class’, however unhelpful such a term is, remains a series of patrician landowners or aristocratic peers. Rather I am trying to point out that part of the history of class self-making in British society is inexpiably bound up with our enduring ideas and relations to this upper-class world. It rests upon how free champagne is a gift of good fortune for setting out not how others ought to aspire, or what to, but that the rhetoric of aspiration, social mobility and individual merit rests upon and endorses inherited privilege. Studying the role and place of social elites today, whether members of a ruling or upper class or not, still requires looking into how that peculiar ‘gentry culture’ which was forged some three-hundred years ago remains. It haunts. Social elites are subject to the same processes of social change as the ‘rest of us’. In The Branded Gentry I suggest that possibly the best way to view elites today is understanding how enduring modes of distinction exist not alongside but compliment current, neo-liberal practices.
Lawler, Stephanie (2005), ‘Disgusted subjects: the making of middle class identities’, The Sociological Review, 53(3):429-446.
Lawler, Stephanie (2008), ‘The middle classes and their aristocratic others’, Journal of Cultural Economy, 1(3):245-261.
Smith, Daniel R. (2016) Elites, Race and Nationhood: The Branded Gentry, (Basingstoke: Palgrave).
Thompson, E. P. (1993) ‘The Patricians and the Plebs’ in Customs in Common: Studies in traditional popular culture (New York: The Free Press).
Wood, Ellen Meiksins (1993) The Pristine Culture of Capitalism: A historical essay on Old Regimes and Modern States, (London: Verso).
Daniel R. Smith is a Lecturer in Sociology at Anglia Ruskin University (Cambridge, UK). His interests include elites and social class, British identity, celebrity culture and stand-up comedy.