One of the lamentable ways that one can tell when a particular society has reached a state of terminal decline is when conspiracies and conspiracy theories no longer shock people but are considered to be a normal and acceptable. We can see this happen in all sorts of societies through time. For example, in the late Roman Republic, the last century of so of its existence was filled with all kinds of conspiracies and counter-conspiracies, where elected leaders sought to use public resources to benefit the poor only to face violent deaths at the hands of concerned elites, and where even the not very courageous Cicero was able to earn a great deal of fame by engaging in somewhat illegal behavior to stop the Catelline conspiracy during his year as consul before dying as a martyr to Republican virtue after the assassination of Julius Caesar. Today, though, I would like to discuss a conspiracy in a time of frequent conspiracies that is all too easy to forget, and that is the affair of the necklace in late ancien regime France.
It should be noted that this particular incident is not forgotten by everyone. A film was made about it so that actors and actresses could prance around in gorgeous late 18th century French fashions, but the film was not particular popular and the incident is not exactly well known among those who are not fascinated by the conspiratorial French elite politics of the 1770’s and 1780’s, where a woman impersonated Queen Antoinette, writing forged letters in her name, involving a gaudy necklace that had been originally commissioned by King Louis XV for one of his mistresses, and also involving a Cardinal who had offended Queen Antoinette by snitching on supposed behaviors of the French queen’s to her mother, the Empress of Austria. It became a giant mess, and ended up helping to endanger the stability of the French throne enough that it was unable to overcome the French Revolution of 1789 a few years later because of the split in elite opinion. And it is that problem that I would like to examine in more detail, especially as it relates to our own particular age and the problems we have to deal with in the contemporary period.
It must be recognized that the affair of the necklace is a matter of elite court politics. The Cardinal in question had offended the queen of France and, understandably, wanted to get back into her good graces. Lacking the ability to directly interact with the queen and use his rhetorical skills to build a back channel where he could befriend someone who had influence who could then use that influence to effect a reconciliation, he proved vulnerable to the charlatans who sought to exploit his desire to please the Queen for their own purposes, and ended up further discrediting the Queen when the scheme was inevitably exposed. Whether institutions in question are democratic or aristocratic or autocratic, though, elite politics tends to involve the same sort of personal appeals and unofficial connections regardless of what political system the elites are involved in, since elite politics itself involves how elites relate to each other as people and are able to work with other factions of elites without involving the ordinary people in their quarrels and rivalries. In order for elites to demand deference from commonfolk they must present enough of a unified front in order to ensure that all quarrels are kept below a certain maximum heat, lest divisions involve rival armies and hostility that reaches the point where all of the elites lose the respect of the people who they rule over, which is what happened during the Affair of the Necklace and what is happening right now in many societies around the world.
Most of us, the vast majority of us, are not elites. We do not have the access that some people do, few people care about our opinions and we are at most of interest to a few or a few dozen or at most perhaps a few hundred people who read what we have to say and think about it and maybe commented on it. And that’s quite alright, as elites have a hard enough time managing their own conflicts and affairs when there are dozens or a few hundred elites, much less trying to manage what would happen if millions or tens of millions of people entered into such status. And part of the appeal of obtaining elite status is being part of a privileged few, which tends to make expanding those who have privilege far less valuable to those who have it, and likely creating a proliferation of intermediate ranks where people may be more privileged than the unwashed masses below them but are far from the most privileged people around. This is, after all, the fate of people who can recognize that they have some privilege but are still clearly not elites, and that is certainly my own spot. Where would I be in terms of the Affair of the Necklace? Probably some reformist pamphleteer irritated at the corruption of selfish elites, but that is where I am now, and as corrupt as the elites of the ancien regime were, the Revolution was no better, nor were the decades of French attempts to dominate Europe while slaughtering millions of their own sons and those of other peoples. Let us not become so weary of our own corrupt elites in our own time of decadence and cynicism that we forget that things could be and likely will be a lot worse than they are now. Someday we will look back to our present times as the good old days, and weep for our folly, if we manage to survive it.