Kingsman and Aristocratic Virtue
Matthew Vaughn’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is easily one of my favourite movies of recent years. It certainly is one of the most openly reactionary films I can recall in my lifetime, possibly rivalled only by “The Legend of Korra” television series for having such a blatantly critical message on modernity from a traditionalist perspective. One area in particular that stood out (and is particularly relevant to today’s debate on populism versus elitism) is its promotion of the concept of what it is to be a gentleman in the context of aristocratic virtues.Elitism has become something of a dirty word these days, with the selfish and out of touch in their ivory towers being held up in negative comparison to the ordinary man on the street. “Kingsman” quite astutely makes the case though that elitism can be both a positive and a negative depending on the context, as the film is fundamentally a presentation of two very different mindsets on the subject.
The principle villain of the movie, Dominic Valentine, would be an excellent example of the kind of elite who is used as a dirty word in conversation these days. A tech billionaire, Valentine sees his actions (culling the world population to more sustainable levels to combat climate change) as necessary to save humanity from itself. He encompasses the smug arrogance of modern day progressives perfectly; “if only everyone else wasn’t so ignorant they would agree with me, stupid hoi polloi” or so the thinking goes.
Of course the fact that his plan to save the planet would cost the lives of billions is inconsequential to him, and naturally Valentine includes himself among the precious view who will need to be spared. Rather remarkably, the others of this bunch mostly seem to be rich people such as himself, mixed in with a collection of celebrities, entertainers, and others he’s deemed worthy of saving based on his own individual appreciation of them.
No one informed of his plan expresses much in the way of opposition, not even world leaders. They all seem perfectly happy to agree with Valentine’s prognosis that the greater part of humanity is endangering the long term viability of the planet and has to go so they can be saved. Simply put, these elites of the modern world are quite comfortable in taking this view because they simply have no connection to the people below them whose lives will be sacrificed. It is this disconnection, the fact that the top of society from all across the world feels more empathy and commonality for each other than their own populaces, that is the problem.
In contrast to all the democratically elected world leaders who supposedly represent the interests of the common man, the only public figure we see care about the actual people themselves is the fictionalized Princess of Sweden who quite bluntly calls Valentine a madman to his face before rather blisteringly telling off her country’s Prime Minister for supporting him. Unlike Valentine, the rootless billionaire who sees the rest of humanity as an impediment to him, the Princess rightly sees how her privileged position also comes with accompanying obligations.
The concept of aristocracy is not particularly popular these days. It is seen in popular culture as something retrograde and vaguely authoritarian. The truth of the matter is somewhat different though. Every society that has ever existed has had an internal hierarchy that divides those at the top from those at the bottom. That was true in ancient Egypt and it is true today. All that has changed is the titles we award ourselves and the expectations that go with them.
The bankers, and CEOs, and academics of today are just as much an aristocracy of today as the barons and dukes were of old. The difference is though, is that while the old nobility of yesterday were governed by a chivalric code of virtue that dictated obligations of them that accompanied their privileges, the elite of today are freed of any such encumbrances. Liberalism has shed the individual of all obligations to the self through morality and to others through duty, with such social responsibilities fobbed off onto the government and modern day welfare state.
“Kingsman” is essentially a reassertion of the old aristocracy ideal that to those for whom much is given, much is also expected of. This is not to condone the Marxist approach of “generosity” coerced at the point of the gun or Rousseau’s concept of forcing our brothers to be free. Instead it is simply to assert that there is such a thing as an objective good in this world, and all of us should strive towards it – especially the best of us.