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Culture War Roundup for the week of April 3, 2023

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It's that time of year again: The Masters, my favourite dose of noblesse oblige

I've seen it lamented numerous times here and elsewhere of the decline of noblesse oblige. I chalk it up to the internationalization of finance and wealth and the simultaneous decline in nationalism: the peers of the ultra-wealthy are the ultra-wealthy of other countries, not their neighbours or countrymen who they generally try to spend as little time as possible in the company of. God forbid that they might actually have to mix with the unwashed masses. Before you were obliged to in an attempt to forestall some peasant revolt from burning your estates, but now you've got private security defending all fourteen of your mansions, so what would really be the harm even if you lost one?

But at least in Augusta, Georgia there's some vestige of that lost spirit. Every year the Masters is held at the ultra-exclusive Augusta National Country Club, arguably the most prestigious golf tournament (give or take The Open) and the pinnacle of achievement of one of the hobbies of the elites. And every year the Masters goes overboard in creating a prestigious, elevated, and somewhat stiffly artificial environment. No expense is spared, no detail overlooked: the fairways are painted a verdant green, Rae's Creek is dyed its iconic dark blue, and the telecast features a chorus of (not-actually-present) birds so you can't hear the highway traffic. It's pure spectacle, and a treat to watch.

And you can watch it. Rather than hiking ticket prices to the eye-watering levels the open market would demand, the tournament distributes tickets via lottery ($140 for a day ticket, but if they hit the retail market they usually go for multiple thousands). And once you're on-site, the costs for food and drink are almost cartoonishly inexpensive. Oh, you couldn't secure tickets or are too far away? Well they built maybe the single-best website for watching sports: an infinitely customizable setup where you can watch whichever players or holes you wish. I've never used the app for mobile but people rave about it as well. These are both free of charge and have no region locks, and feature not one single advertisement or imposition upon the watcher. It's sporting entertainment at its ultimate best, built not for profit but purely for the prestige of being able to give it to the masses.

God forbid that they might actually have to mix with the unwashed masses.

Was this ever actually required? Like, how many noble people were walking through a peasant village and chatting with the locals like they were at a sports bar? You can have obligations that you fulfill without the emotional attachment to them.

A peasant village? Never. But up until the mid-late twentieth century, the rich had very personal relationships with their servants. Your maid was your maid, not the girl that the maid service you contracted sent over today. Feudal contracts vary across places and periods, but frequently included personal obligations by peasants to work at the manor house. Either a set number of days mowing the lord's fields, or repair work on the buildings, or personal domestic service. The nobles would very much, by the nature of their lives, interact directly with the peasantry every single day. Not on an equal footing, never as equals, but every single day they would interact directly.

Today corporate structures exist to insulate the leisure classes from personal relationships of exploitation. Even if I take Uber multiple times a day every day, I never have the feeling that I am personally exploiting any individual Uber driver. I sit in the backseat and scroll through Atlantic articles about how horribly Uber treats its drivers, but I am not personally responsible to my driver in particular. Rather Uber as an entity, or the CEO of Uber, or Venture Capitalists more generally take the blame. I don't exploit my cook or my waiter even if I eat out every meal, a variety of restauranteurs insulate me from that. I can avoid any personal repeated relationship with any of the people whose labor is exploited for my benefit.

Corporations and small businesses and city slumlords are the sin eaters of the American Professional and Managerial Classes. The nice liberal lawyers and engineers and bankers I work with can grumble about how awful the exploitation of the working class is, because other men are taking on that rough work so that their houses are cleaned and their meals are made and the cooks and maids have somewhere to live in the city.

Old feudal lords had to house their serfs, and order them around. They saw how they lived because they were the ones choosing how they lived. They had to pay them directly, when they needed them to work more they watched what that meant in real time. I can just grumble about rush pricing and how long I had to wait for my uber to take me home from the airport.

This is relativistic nonsense. A master’s/noble’s relationship to his slave/serf, according to this view, is no less exploitative than that between a uber client and his driver, perhaps even more ‘authentic’ and ‘personal’. It equates with ‘exploitation’ two radically different relationships, and creates a parallel between the state of mind/contempt of the slave master and the uber customer, as if that mattered. Whatever one thinks about someone, they need to be treated as a person and not as a dog.

One had right of life and death over the other. It was really a boon to the brotherhood of man when nobles flogged serfs for a perceived insult or a failure to perform adequately. Much empathy was borne from those interclass interactions.

There are three basic types of human relationships: friendly, transactional and hierarchical. Don’t pretend they used to be friendly. The relationship evolved from the harshest kind of hierarchical to transactional, and that has been a great thing for humanity.

Nowhere in my comment do I use the word empathy or even imply that peasants were materially better treated. My argument is solely that the gentry of times past were aware that their lifestyle rested on exploitation of the lower classes in a way that today's PMC are often able to deny to themselves.

One could easily say, as you do, that it's worse to be aware of exploitation and live it anyway. But the nominal equality that the modern liberal upper classes grant the lower classes comes with precious few material benefits.

For what it's worth I also reject your trichotomy. Human relationships come in millions of forms, shades of transaction, friendship, duty, love, filial piety, hatred, self aggrandizement, manipulation, jealousy, and hierarchy come into each one.

Where are you going with this? I can see here the basis of an ultrareactionary ‘slavery was good, actually. Russian absolutism and lawlessness is the way to go’ take, or a communist ‘capitalistic exploitation is just as bad as the worst examples in history”, I wouldn’t mind reading either, but this is just soft equivocation. What you proably call nuance and complexity, I call a refusal to differentiate. When you condemn all, you condemn none.

But the nominal equality that the modern liberal upper classes grant the lower classes comes with precious few material benefits.

Compared to when they did not have ‘nominal’ equality, they’re richer, healthier, more educated, live longer, work less, are protected from arbitrary corporal punishments, incarceration, forced labour, rape. But aside from those, precious few.

I agree with your final point about the evolution of human relations. People do own their own labor and time to a degree never before possible.

However, @FiveHourMarathon has a point I don't think you can totally dismiss as "relativistic nonsense." Take an example that hasn't fundamentally changed in at least 100 - 150 ears; the Military.

A 2nd Lieutenant is typically between 22 and 25. A Platoon Sergeant (typically somewhere between E-5 to E-7 depending on factors and how fucked up the enlistment cycle has been) is within just a few years of age of that 2nd LT .... probably late 20s.

On paper, the 2nd LT is utterly superior in everyway to the Platoon Sergeant. Short of physical violence, the 2nd LT has dictatorial control. In real life, the platoon sergeant has about a decade of experience (and, for this generaiton, a lot of that in combat if its a combat arms MOS). They know then ins and outs of the organization, the duty station, the personalities up and down the command. If the 2nd LT does not strike a balance of experience deference to the Plt Sergeant while not looking weak in front of the men, he's going to have a bad time. A lot of self-conscious but very gung ho 2nd LTs will totally blow off the subtle suggestions of Plt Sergeants ... and learn some hard lessons about leadership the hard way.

The point is, even in a situation where, yes, you have close to absolute superiority in every way over a "subordiante" (fun fact the etymological root of Sergeant is Servant) if you're going to have a long term or just a non-transactional relationship with that person, you have to invest in the relationship somehow.

That relationship is still hierarchical, but it has almost nothing to do with the absolute superiority of the past, of servants and slaves. In pre-19th century armies (later for less enlightened societies, like russians or arabs) , the lieutenant could have the sergeant and his men flogged at will. This has proven to be a cruel and inefficient way of handling human relationships. This is the supposedly authentic and empathic model fivehour and the others are defending.

What comes to mind is the subplot of Mr. Hollum in Master and Commander (2003). It takes place aboard a British warship in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars. Roughly three hundred men live aboard, cheek by jowl - "men pressed from their homes, their chosen occupations, confined for months aboard a wooden prison." As the captain says, "the only things that keep this wooden world together are hard work and discipline." He means hierarchy. When he says this, the captain has just ordered a man flogged for failing to salute an officer.

The officer is Mr. Hollum. He is nearing thirty and still a midshipman, which means he has proven singularly incompetent and has no future in the Navy. He is educated and comes from a family wealthy enough to sponsor him and purchase his commission. In theory, he has the power to order terrible punishments. In theory, his birth and good fortune grant him authority.

In practice, Hollum has precious little power, because he commands no personal respect. He takes comfort and advice from a 12-year-old fellow midshipman. He hesitates in the face of every command decision. The uniform, the fancy hat, the decent spelling and knowledge of algebra - these mean nothing. In his little wooden world, personal respect is everything. Everyone knows who is truly in charge, and they will look to a reliable Able Seaman before they look to him.

Hollum grows so unpopular that the sailors, superstitious on a good day, begin to blame him for a string of misfortunes. "He's a Jonah," they tell each other wisely. Trapped in the doldrums, they begin to whisper and cast glances at him. In the middle of one long, dark night, he cracks under the pressure and leaps over the side.

The "absolute" superiority of birth was likely less absolute than we assume.

In pre-19th century armies (later for less enlightened societies, like russians or arabs) , the lieutenant could have the sergeant and his men flogged at wil

Yes, but he still needed them to be loyal and effective soldiers. There was even then a balance that had to be struck, and it was the accepted duty of the commander to command effectively as much as - if not moreseo - it was the duty of the soldiers to obey commands. Was it cruel? Surely that depended on the effectiveness of the commander - is it cruel to win? Was it inefficient? Consider a different world, where materials and manufactured goods are rare but illiterate, unskilled manpower is not.

But that is my point, they did not win, you don't get loyal and effective soldiers this way. You don't get a productive underclass either, the cruelty is not just gratuitous and prejudicial to them, it also harms the elite, their institutions and goals. Feudal peasants/slaves are unproductive, and feudal peasant armies are dogshit. Armies and societies which treat and treated their underclass with great brutality end up poor and lose wars.

e.g. , old monarchical armies versus more enlightened french and english, southerners versus northerners in the ACW, WWI losers (who had the harshest discipline and the highest number of soldier executions? Of course the garbage tier of WWI: Austria, Italy, Russia) , arabs in the latter half of the 20th century (earlier too, but now it's getting real embarassing).

You’d have to admit that thinking of someone as a person is much more likely f you see them and talk to them daily. If you see your personal maid sobbing because she can’t afford to take her sick child to the doctor, you cannot help but see a human there. When you have a new maid every week who’s assigned by another person, paid by that person and fired by another person, it’s a lot harder to see that person as a person and to care about that person as a person.

And most business and client interactions are set up this way. The CEO can freely cut health insurance, or lay people off, or increase workloads because he only sees the spreadsheet, not the people. The people in the business world are on the same spreadsheet as other business supplies and equipment. The baker is just another expense right next to the oven and the icing tubs.

And for consumers whether of goods or services, the workers are often hidden behind similar layers of abstraction. The American buyer of chocolate has never seen the fields where cocoa is grown. The online shoppers don’t see the piss bottles in the warehouse. So while they might read and essentially gawk at stories of exploitation in these hidden worlds, they don’t care in the same way they might if they knew someone who grew cacao or worked for an Amazon warehouse.

To be clear, your position is that living with slaves leads the master to see the downtrodden as fully realized persons, in a way the modern uber/amazon client or ceo can't fathom?

I think the usual reaction to seeing your personal maid cry would be to politely remind her that you don't feed her to cry, and she could still turn to prostitution and starvation if the performance of her duties to your house proved too much of a challenge.

  1. most people are not psychopaths

  2. historically it seems like it was generally perceived that domestic-servant slaves were much better treated than other slaves(eg fieldworkers, mineworkers), and the use of the term ‘house nigger’ today indicates that this perception was shared by the slaves themselves.

The contention that domestic servants directly attached to an aristocratic household were typically treated better than other members of their same social class seems well supported by available evidence.

The point is that all these tender moments rarely lead to a dissolution of the incredibly opressive relationship between master and slave. In a way the moral fault is even greater if the masters actually thought of their slaves as human beings. So if you say they were warm to their slaves and servants in their day-to-day life, that only displaces and exacerbates the cruelty to another part of the relationship. "Hey pal, can you put an end to the contract that says you can kill me with impunity, beat me and sell my children into slavery? Sorry dear, you know I can't do that". It's already ridiculous and slimy when your boss pretends to be your friend, I can only imagine what a slave would think of it.