Badgered by a BBC reporter about his legal trouble Conrad Black, convicted felon and Peer of the Realm, replied with a startling argument: “The conventional media wisdom in the U.K. is a kind of false bourgeois piety and priggishness that assumes that whatever American prosecutors say is true.”
To many ears it’ll surely seem odd to hear Black, the founder of the National Post and former proprietor of the Daily Telegraph, denouncing “false bourgeois piety and priggishness.” Isn’t he supposed to be a right-winger? Doesn’t he belong to the bourgeoisie himself? What does he think he is, a Yorkshire coal miner on strike against Thatcher?
But Black’s language speaks to the real source of his problems as well as a contradiction within conservatism. To be sure, most North American conservatives either belong to the bourgeoisie or aspire to membership in that class. George Will, that droning mildewed bow-tied prig, is a perfect example of the species. Yet there is an older conservatism that is forthrightly aristocratic, that scorns middle-class strictures about thrift and modesty in favor of an open avowal of rank and privilege. (William F. Buckley is perhaps the last major unindicted representative of this strand of conservatism). It was surely this haughty conservatism that Black was invoking when, in a self-damaging email, he stated that he was unwilling to forego the luxuries he was enjoying as CEO of Hollinger Inc. In Black’s immortal words he was “not prepared to reenact the French Revolutionary renunciation of the rights of nobility. We are proprietors after all, beleaguered though we may be.” (The royal “we” is a nice touch as is the archaic term “proprietors”).
All that is interesting about Black comes from his aristocratic aspirations: his many acts of kindness and charity (noblesse oblige), his literary style (as ornate and impractical as a castle), his antiquarian historical interests (a Lord must have his hobbies), his love of landed titles and genealogy, the priority he gives to lavish parties, and, most profoundly, his reckless scorn for the law.
Historically the bourgeoisie has had two enemies: the working class below (which still requires constantly clamping down on) and the nobles above (who have mostly disappeared). The bourgeois virtues (prudence, humility, industriousness, and a philistine suspicion of high culture) always existed in tension with aristocratic culture’s love of bravado and decadent extravagance. The bourgeois worships the “rule of law” above all else; the aristocrat knows that greatness comes from making your own law and belonging to a caste of one.
Perhaps at the root of Conrad Black’s tragedy is the fact that he forgot Marx’s great maxim: the bourgeoisie own the means of production. They are the ones who really run the world, who write the laws and administer the courts, who take capitalism seriously. You can play at being a Lord all you want but if you mess with their money, they will be remorseless in destroying you.
(The photograph of Conrad Black and his wife in happier days is from the Daily Telegraph).