Noblesse Oblige And The Entrepreneurial Age

Class conflict is as old as human history. Very early in history we see the emergence of kings, emperors, pharaohs, and sultans. These leaders would rule over various types of kingdoms creating what Nancy Milford would eventually call “U” and “Non-U.” In 1955 she wrote a series of articles for Encounter Magazine discussing “The English Aristocracy.” U was the symbol for Upper Class, and Non-U was for, you guessed it, non-upper class. Today we distinguish these folks with 1% and the other 99%.

Between the 9th and 15th centuries “a class structure of nobility, clerics, and peasantry developed due to decentralization of an empire.” This was not just an economic system, but a security system too. Adam Smith “used the term feudal system to describe a social and economic system defined by inherited social ranks, each of which possessed inherent social and economic privileges and obligations.” This was an agricultural economic system where the landowning nobles gained wealth through the labor of serfs.

Karl Marx described feudalism as a precursor to capitalism. “For Marx, what defined feudalism was that the power of the ruling class (the aristocracy) rested on their control of arable land, leading to a class society based upon the exploitation of the peasants who farm these lands, typically under serfdom.” This led to the new class structure of capitalist and proletariat.

Today we have a different type of economic structure. There are landowners, and these people struggle to make a living by purchasing hundreds and thousands of acres to farm and provide food for the world. However, people choose to work for these landowners, not out of servitude but to earn a wage. We have a multifaceted economy that has led to an incredible amount of wealth being generated via manufacturing, and other industries throughout the world. This has created a managerial class that some have called the new aristocracy.

The Phrase Noblesse Oblige is a French expression meaning nobility obliges. The concept was found in Homer’s Illiad, but Le Lys dans la Valle, when writing about behavior standards for a young noble, used to the term to make a specific point. “Everything I have just told you can be summarized by an old word: noblesse oblige!” Hi point was that a noble has a responsibility to behave a certain way. What is interesting the National Honor Society uses this phrase as its motto, with a purpose of fulfilling obligations through service to others. I have also learned that in the movie Mary Poppins Mr. Banks sings a song “The Life I Lead.” He sings, “I treat my subjects, servants, children, wife/ with a firm but gentle hand/Noblesse oblige.”

This noble phrase was to demonstrate how the nobility of the past had an obligation to give back to the Non-U’s in a paternalistic manner demonstrating to the Non-U their benevolence, and because God had blessed them they had a responsibility to give back to the little people. They must take care of the Non-U because they are in need of someone to help them due to the fact that they cannot take care of themselves. In the modern day and age I don’t think the paternalistic emphasis is still relevant, but I do think the concept is still important.

Who is the managerial class? It is the Larry Ellisons, Ursula Burns, Jim McNerneys, Mary Barras, Allan Mullalys, and Jelf Immelts. They are the new lords of the class. They intern then provide the noble designation on many of their sub managers, the vice presidents, directors, general managers, managers and supervisors who report on up the chain. These are the individuals who run organizations in a manner that they are effective and efficient. The owners of the capital are often the same people. They have invested in their companies in such a manner that they have made millions of dollars. This is the new managerial class.

The managerial class has had opportunities to create an incredible amount of wealth, for the owners of capital and for themselves. Therefore how they use that wealth becomes the question. Obviously they are entitled to the wealth they worked for, but there needs to be a humble recognition that good fortune has smiled upon them. As I wrote the other day, each of these individuals both male and female have a noblesse oblige when it comes to the use of their wealth and opportunity. It is not a paternalistic recognition of the proletariat not being able to take care of themselves, it is a response to the changes they have made to how business is done in the United States today.

The work these folks had once done has moved to other countries and now these folks need to learn how to work the new way. That is the noblesse oblige of today. The managerial class, instead of rewriting rules for their own good, needs to create rules that benefit all and then create the training systems needed to move the workers of today into the 21st century.

And that is my thought for the day!

 

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