Flotsam: Snobbery, Revolutions, and the Fourth of July

1. Still in the ‘awkward transition’ phase regarding my new job, where I haven’t even begun to do the actual job I’ve been hired for (which itself is a trainee position), and I’m still getting used to the new schedule and what is and is not an option now. I’m at least keeping regular writing times, though, so that’s making me feel grounded, though I haven’t figured out how to fit blogging in.

2. At work the subject of arbitrary enforcement came up: the thing where people will create completely meaningless standards – e.g. “you take cream in your coffee? What kind of man are you?” – and enforce them for the group. I said (and the conversation moved on) that this is an authority thing: people assuming a position of authority in the social hierarchy. Status means that you are the one who sets the standard (giving nicknames is another way of assuming authority), so when you have an otherwise ‘equal’ group, those of an aggressive temperament will naturally try to seize the highest position they can.

Again, allowing for human wickedness and stupidity, this tends to only occur between ostensible equals as a means of setting the social hierarchy. It occurs between privates in a platoon, not between privates and officers. It occurs between priests in a parish, not between priests and bishops. It occurs among the gentry, not between the gentry and the artisans. Not to say you won’t find a stupid aristocrat who sneers at his tenants for not liking the right music or something, but generally vices directed at inferiors are of a different kind than snobbery: more of officiousness or arbitrary rule or selfishness.

3. Reading a piece at The Orthosphere I had one of those ‘oh, of course,’ moments, where you’re told something and realize that you should have known that all along from the nature of the case.

“highly egalitarian societies… have high homicide rates.”

Well, of course they do. When no one is any better or higher than anyone else, officially, then when there’s a dispute, the principles have to settle the matter themselves. But the only final, ‘authoritative’ way that two equal individuals have of settling matters is violence. The ‘talk it out’ solution advocated in schools only works when both sides are prepared to be reasonable and look at the matter objectively, which will be so in only a tiny minority of cases. How many times do kids on a playground actually ‘talk things out’ to the satisfaction of both? Not saying it never happens, but it would require exceptional kids on both sides.

What actually happens probably ninety-nine cases out of a hundred is that one kid, the one with the more extroverted and aggressive temperament, talks down the other and gets the rest of the group to gang up on him to force him to concede.

Because there’s another factor at play which the Orthosphere author doesn’t bring up: the fact that in the absence of an official hierarchy (or even in the presence of one, but wherever it doesn’t operate), people will create their own, even in something as petty as ‘what kind of shirt do you wear?’ or ‘what kind of car do you drive’? And people will be much more aggressive and quick to enforce these kinds of ‘unofficial’ hierarchies because they don’t rest on anything but the vigilance of the individual. A king doesn’t have to keep pushing arbitrary rules to remind people he is the king, but a ‘free and equal citizen’ does, because it’s the only way he can keep his place.

The more egalitarian you try to make a society, the more socially repressive, mistrustful, and violent it will become as people try to claw out and maintain their position.

Because the fact is that all human societies are hierarchical: that is just part of the form of society as such. If you don’t have a structure, a hierarchy, then you don’t actually have a society, just a collection of individuals, who will operate as individuals (like how if you get the parts of your computer ‘out of form’, you no longer have a computer as such, just a lot of metal and plastic operating as metal and plastic).

And one thing individuals naturally try to do is to form societies and establish social status. So that even if you could create a perfectly egalitarian state, the people living within it would quickly set up their own competing tribes and hierarchies. It would be like trying to keep the sea perfectly flat: that is just not how the thing works.

4. The evil of snobbery lies in the fact that it is someone laying claim to a status that he doesn’t actually deserve and that he misuses in any case. Mrs. Elton in Emma is a snob because she assumes a position she doesn’t actually merit, defends it aggressively by cutting down people who aren’t actually a threat to it, and uses her position bluntly and officiously once she’s in it. Emma herself is also a bit of a snob, but much less so because A). she has a right to her position, and B). she mostly uses it responsibly, except in trying to encourage Harriet to lay claim to a higher position than she’s actually entitled to (so, sort of a snobbery by proxy).

But I don’t think most people really mind class distinctions. The structure would hardly have persisted so long and so universally if they did. The people who object to hierarchies are those who want to move from one level to another and find it more difficult than they think it ought to be (trouble is that these are often the very same kind of ne’er-do-wells who like to write books). The common farmer generally doesn’t mind living under a duke: it is the nouveau-riche industrialist who chafes at aristocratic privilege.

5. And it’s the latter who leads revolutions. We like to think of rebellions as the poor, downtrodden masses rising up against their aristocratic overlords. Actually, from all I can tell, it’s the rich classes who are the revolutionaries: the ones who are powerful, but feel they aren’t as powerful as they deserve to be. That is, the ones who have more practical power than official power.

(There’s another element of the ones who feel ashamed for being rich, but don’t know what to do about it. Those who lack either the training or the stomach to be Saints become Revolutionaries as an easier alternative. And part of me wants to make a ‘Navy – Coast Guard’ joke here).

The impoverished masses tend to be conservative, at least until the propaganda gets to them. Because, of course, it really makes very little difference to the average tenant farmer or artisan or factory hand whether he lives under a republic or a monarchy, except that his sense of cultural identity (and thus tribal belonging) is bound up in whichever one he happens to have been born in. Thus the very same populations who were Loyalist in 1776 tended to be Union in 1861.

So, in summary, Revolutions tend to be rich men convincing poor men that they are being oppressed so that the poor men will go risk death to gain a higher status for the rich men.

6. On that note, happy Fourth of July everyone!

Perhaps it’ll help if I say that however the nation came to be, now that it’s established I would have it continue and improve. I would see it restored to the days of its glory, and I would be thankful even for the optimism of the early-mid twentieth century. Basically, I’d hold my tongue about this whole subject if it meant we could have a functional society again.

This, by the way, is why I’m still a Union proponent in the Late Unpleasantness, even though in many ways I sympathize more with the Confederacy. Revolution is a genie that is very hard to get back into the bottle once it gets out, and I think that if the Confederacy had been established, both it and the Union would only have experienced an endless string of bloody, petty uprisings as one state or another decided it was being oppressed and took up arms against another (heck, it nearly happened between Michigan and Ohio in 1835, and again between Arizona and California in 1934). The real necessity of the war was to firmly establish that we were done with in this country, and the result is that, after the ‘simmering down’ period, we had a more-or-less unified national identity all the way up to a couple decades ago.

7. Just so there’s no misunderstanding (yeah, right), I don’t think slavery would have outlived the 19th century, whatever happened. World opinion (i.e. the British Empire) was too set against it, and I don’t think the Confederacy, or whatever Balkanized collection of states resulted from it could have survived as the lone Western slave-holding nation. Probably would have been better overall if it slavery hadn’t been settled in the war and had simply been allowed to die a natural death, but that’s another issue entirely.

8. Let’s try to end on a high note here (wish the image quality was better, but it was the only one I could find). This is the kind of thing I’d like to see come back, my own disillusionment notwithstanding:

3 thoughts on “Flotsam: Snobbery, Revolutions, and the Fourth of July

  1. A thought occurred to me while I was reading this. It’s not quite fleshed out yet, but I’ll try to put it into words.

    First, that striations of society produce privileges and obligations in both directions–the idea that those at the “top” have all the privilege and those at the “bottom” have all the obligations is a myth fostered by failing to see how the society actually functions.

    Secondly, that “revolutionaries” in the upper classes aren’t seeking greater privilege, they are seeking to escape the obligations of their class (without loosing those privileges they enjoy).

    The stereotypical radical adopts the outward appearance of the lower classes as much as possible. Like I say, I’m not sure where this is going, but I think I’m on to something.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is exactly it, yes.

      Take the distinction between minimum wage and living wage, for example. As far as I’m aware the Church traditionally used the latter term, but people on both sides of the issue like to debate the former. Minimum wage mostly means that any job that isn’t worth more than an arbitrary rate of pay is banned by the state. (It doesn’t mean, at least in the short run, that the jobs become worth paying more. Moving how much jobs are worth is, I believe, an achievable goal but not one achievable by direct fiat.) Now there may be moral merit to the idea if you believe unemployment is better than employment at slavery-like wages; but to my knowledge, the Church cannot pronounce infallibly on the practicality of minimum wage as a prudent means. Living wage on the other hand says that, whatever the means to get there, employers ought to pay their employees at least enough to live off of – however much that may be.

      Of the two, living wage is by far the more radical proposition.

      It doesn’t just mean that we must rethink the labor market, though it does mean that. (I do mean rethink it, not necessarily abolish it – especially not in favor of communist central planning.) It means we cannot treat each other as fungible cogs to be swapped in and out of any particular economic system (concrete systems such as employers, not abstract systems such as economic theories or bodies of law – though the latter have bearing on the former). It implies that employment is a relationship in which, as with all relationships, the employer has responsibilities towards his employees and not only the other way around.

      (As a practical aside, I want to learn more about flexible wage systems. Because if that works, it seems like a step in this direction: we’ll adjust your actual wage as needed. Inflation and market fluctuation are one obvious thing to adjust for, but the needs of the employee might turn out to be another for all I know.)

      For some idea how radical this is, it’s the same attitude (sadly forgotten in the Whig Version of History) that the Church used to apply to serfdom. Not that she necessarily wants to return to tying workers to the land. (Although such stability might be an antidote to the technocratic attitude that people should rent rather than own so that they can follow the gig economy wherever it moves.) But in the sense that, rather than support the overthrow of feudal order, she rather favored that the lords and landholders pursue excellence and recognise their responsibilities to their people. Because as our host noted in another recent post, rights or authority follow from responsibilities, which follow from relationships.

      Can that relationship be abused, then or now? Yes, of course (and any notion the new version generally prevents abuse has long since been disproven in practice, though it’s certainly possible that a more-free labor market inclines to less abuse than robber barons). Name me one relationship, any relationship, that cannot be abused. But shall we argue unironically that, to avoid abuse, abandonment of healthy relationships is better? Of course it is not; hence, we must instead understand the responsibilities of both sides of any relationship.


      • Employers. unfortunately, are so afraid of lawsuits that the idea of rewarding employees on the basis of their individual attitude and work ethic has all but faded from living memory. In practice this means that everyone is paid assuming that they will do the minimum necessary to not get fired, no matter how much effort the employee actually puts forth.

        Liked by 1 person

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