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Il servo padrone by Theodor Adorno

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Our new set of Radical Thinkers have just been released and to celebrate the new edition of Theodor Adorno's Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life we're publishing an excerpt from this beloved collection every day.


Il servo padrone  - The mindless tasks imposed by authoritarian culture on the subject classes can be performed only at the cost of permanent regression. Their formlessness is, precisely, the product of social form. The barbarians engendered by culture have, how­ever, always been used by it to keep alive its own barbaric nature. Domination delegates the physical violence on which it rests to the dominated. In being allowed the satisfaction of exercising their distorted instincts in collectively approved and proper ways, they learn to do those things which the noble need for the continued indulgence of their nobility. The self-education of the ruling clique, with all its concomitant discipline, stifling of spontaneous impulses, cynical scepticism and blind lust to command, would not be possible if the oppressors did not themselves submit, through hirelings among the oppressed, to a part of the oppression they inflict on others.

This is doubtless why the psychological differences between the classes are so much less than the objective economic gap. The harmony of the irreconcilable helps to perpetuate the bad totality. The baseness of the superior puts him on a level with his upstart subordinate. From the domestic servants and governesses tor­menting upper-class children to show them what life is like, by way of the teachers from Westerwald extirpating in them, along with the use of foreign words, all joy in language, and then the officials and employees leaving them to stand in queues, the non­ commissioned officers treading on them, there is a straight line to Gestapo torturers and the bureaucrats of the gas-chambers.

The delegation of power to the lower orders finds a prompt and sym­pathetic response in the upper orders themselves. Someone appalled by the good-breeding of his parents will seek refuge in the kitchen, basking in the cook's vitality that secretly reflects the principle of the parental good breeding. The refined are drawn to the unrefined, whose coarseness deceptively promises what their own culture denies. They do not know that the indelicacy that appears to them as anarchic nature, is nothing but a reflex action produced by the compulsion they struggle to resist. Mediating between the class solidarity of the higher orders and their blandishments to delegates of the lower classes, is a justified feeling of guilt towards the poor. But the rebel who has been put in his place, who has been made to feel to the core of his being 'how things are done here', has ended up one of them himself. Bettelheim's observation on the identi­fication of the victims of the Nazi camps with their executioners implies a verdict on the higher nurseries of social horticulture, the English public school, the German military academy. Topsy­ turviness perpetuates itself: domination is propagated by the dominated. 

1.   Allusion to the title of the comic opera by Giovanni Pergolesi, La Serva Padrone (The Maid as Mistress, 1733).

 

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