This is an important insight that came to me while I was reflecting on the best scene from The Seventh Seal. The movie is a thesis on the nature of class inequality, ethics, and death. Some quick introductions:
Knight: An aristocrat (a faithful but disenchanted Christian)
Karin: The knight’s wife (a hard, faithful woman)
Jons: The knight’s squire, a doctor by profession (a nihilistic stoic)
Plog: An artisan (a bumbling, appetitive fool)
Girl: A silent, miserable slave
This scene is at the end when Death enters the castle to take the lives of everyone within, and it takes the movie from good to great because it expresses the powerful emotions of each character toward death. The setting is around the dinner table, where the knight’s wife Karin is reading a passage from the Apocalypse.
KARIN “And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a torch, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers and upon the fountains of waters; and the name of the star is called Wormwood …” They all lift their heads, and when they see who is coming towards them through the twilight of the large room, they rise from the table and stand close together. KNIGHT Good morning, noble lord. KARIN I am Karin, the knight’s wife, and welcome you courteously to my house.
PLOG I am a smith by profession and rather good at my trade, if I say so myself. My wife Lisa — curtsy for the great lord, Lisa. She’s a little difficult to handle once in a while and we had a little spat, so to speak, but no worse than most people. The KNIGHT hides his face in his hands.
KNIGHT From our darkness, we call out to Thee, Lord. Have mercy on us because we are small and frightened and ignorant.
JONS (bitterly) In the darkness where You are supposed to be, where all of us probably are…. In the darkness You will find no one to listen to Your cries or be touched by Your sufferings. Wash Your tears and mirror Yourself in Your indifference.
KNIGHT God, You who are somewhere, who must be somewhere, have mercy upon us. JONS I could have given you an herb to purge you of your worries about eternity. Now it seems to be too late. But in any case, feel the immense triumph of this last minute when you can still roll your eyes and move your toes.
KARIN Quiet, quiet.
JONS I shall be silent, but under protest.
GIRL (on her knees) It is the end.
I absolutely love the acting in this part, especially the girl’s. You really get the sense of an untouchable thinking “Thank God that’s over.”
But the part that inspired my thinking is the part I bolded, where Jons says “I will be silent, but under protest” because I think this is a linchpin to the movie’s primary theme about silence. He has strong misgivings throughout the movie and asserts them readily but he always follows orders because he has no misgivings about his relative status to the other characters. We could really use an institution like “silent under protest” on the political right, this being the essential nature of hierarchy. But seeing that this is impossible, I wonder what cultural assumptions could we appeal to in 1957 that we now lack?
Consider a similar situation today: a high-status person gives an order to a low-status person which the lower person disagrees with, maybe to open fire on a child soldier in an ethically nebulous situation. Why can’t the soldier do this “under protest”? Because his action will be judged as his own choice as an individual, not as a mere extension of his superior’s will. In Western militaries we believe that soldiers have a duty, as individuals, to disobey unethical orders. This means making a personal ethical judgment every time an order is given, implicitly saying “okay, I agree with this” every time he obeys, If he obeys while telling his superior “I am doing this under protest” this is seen as 1) abdication of duty, 2) a challenge for authority of the team, and 3) a threat to the team’s solidarity. Afterward, he may be liable to face a military tribunal because “orders” is not considered an excuse. The game theory suggests followers must always be hedging against the orders of their superiors, to protect themselves from blowback from the greater institution.
Aside from that, there is a strong chance that the superior will throw him under the bus. We especially see this in capitalist institutions because status attainment (hence the ability to give pseudo-orders) selects for those who can avoid blame. This encourages a culture of negative transference, scapegoating, buck-passing, and a general aversion to writing down important information. (In fact, there is actually an inverse relationship between the importance of a piece of information and the clarity with which it’s communicated.) To be both low-status and a scapegoat is the definition of an Omega and you can’t build a stable society where the majority poor are all Omegas. In the classical situation one derives one’s status first and foremost from group membership and only secondly from position within the group. Lacking this, status competition is a free-for-all where the cost of losing is to be crucified for the group’s sins when times get tough. A recent example is that small business that came under fire from a troublemaking negress and fired its employees to satiate the Twitter mob’s bloodlust.
What this means is that, lacking leaders who receive both liability and reward for all outcomes within their domain of responsibility, and lacking an institution of upward negative transference which allow inferiors to act effectively as instruments of their superiors’ will, individuals must continually advocate for themselves. Based on this, I propose that the bourgeoisie may be defined as those for whom a strategy of silent obedience is more costly than a strategy of signalling individualism. It makes sense then that the bourgeoisie would expand rapidly after the death of noblesse oblige in the wake of the Copernican Revolution and the Reformation. Ever since, each man has been quite profoundly “on his own” in the world. Enlightenment thinkers have tried to recreate the classical arrangement by reinventing civil religion through the “Noble Lie” (this is also the project of Jim’s blog, for example), but they have never resisted the urge to rig the negative transference game against their would-be slaves.
Explanations for why one might be poor and what one’s value to society is have grown “notably more punitive and emotionally awkward in the modern era.”
We strive for status not for ambition, but from fear. And that’s why we’re ruled not by judges, robber-barons, nor even the least-qualified, but by snobs. Is there even a word for snob-ocracy?