Reading Rousseau may help us sort out our love lives, but we have to think like the ancients to make good on his ideas.
Aristocrats in a Democratic Age
What is “succession” to a democratic age? Over the last several years, the HBO series Succession has explored this question. Nominated for 25 Golden Globes this year alone, the series follows the Roy family and its family-owned and operated media and entertainment empire, Waystar Royco. The patriarch is Logan Roy, the CEO and Founder who rules the firm with an iron grip. As the show’s title suggests, the drama revolves around the question of who will succeed Logan as ruler of this empire. This is evident from the start when Logan, brilliantly played by Brian Cox, is severely incapacitated, leaving his children, Connor, Kendall, Sioban, and Roman, to compete with each other, their father, and outsiders to direct the future of Waystar Royco.
John Henry Newman once reflected, “It is a contradiction in terms to attempt a sinless Literature of sinful man.” As an HBO production, Succession is not sinless; it is heavy on adult themes and foul language. However, in its themes of family, work, power, and legacy, it has a surprising amount to offer the viewer. The question of who will succeed Logan Roy (or Julius Caesar, or Don Corleone) is indivisible from the question, “What kind of thing will Waystar and the Roy family (or the Republic, or the Corleone family) become?”
American television and film have a particular fondness for the conceit of the family business. We usually see it portrayed in political dynasties or mafia families, but the concept is at work even in The Office. Dunder Mifflin’s Michael Scott thinks the office should be a family. The confusion of office and family is the origin of his most embarrassing and uproarious punchlines, but also the show’s most heartwarming moments, such as the marriage of Jim and Pam, which seems to confirm Michael’s proposition. Despite the great differences between The Office and Succession, they each meditate on the relationship between family and business – that is, on the nature of different corporate bodies – in democratic ages.
Alexis de Tocqueville helps us to understand why Americans might be drawn to dramas about family businesses or comedies about the confusion of work and family. The family business contains elements of aristocracy in the form of moral ties that cut against democratic and free market norms. The family business is not by nature a contradiction in terms; consider pre-industrial means of production and the etymology of economics in the term oikos. But in our democratic age, the concept of a “family business” heightens the contrast between traditional hierarchical and contractual forms of relationship. Tocqueville anticipates the world which makes possible the drama at the heart of Succession, and indeed, his analysis of democratic versus aristocratic businesses, and democratic versus aristocratic families, tells us something about why Succession conduces to good drama.
In Democracy in America, Tocqueville argues that democracy transforms the relationship between servant and master. In aristocratic ages, families of valets have served families of masters over generations, “like parallel lines that neither meet nor separate,” generating “a long community of memories… the bond that unites them is as lasting as they are.” Tocqueville says he met no one in America that resembled the old servant, because in America what gives the employer the right to command, and the employee the duty to obey, is only “the temporary and free accord of their two wills.” The contract is the sole mechanism enforcing command and obedience, and this creates an “imaginary equality” despite the “real inequality” between boss and employee. The contract justifies a hierarchy that would otherwise depend only on loyalty and a sense of mutual responsibility.
“Imaginary equality” exemplifies the relationship between Logan Roy and his closest advisers at Waystar. Frequently, Logan tears away the veil of imaginary equality and reveals the hierarchy underneath. These relationships blend bonds of loyalty and history with contractual norms characteristic of democratic times. Logan’s employees, such as his General Counsel Gerri, CFO Karl, and COO Frank, are both old servants and yet democratic employees, free to quit the company at any time despite the violence it would do to their personal relationships. That blend of the personal and contractual both stabilizes and destabilizes Waystar in a way related to the problem of succession, for these employees participate in the handing on of the family firm.
Any betrayal of loyalty on the part of the children, however, amounts to a coup greater than the breaking of bonds between master and servant. Kendall Roy, the son initially poised to succeed his father, has the audacity, vision, and ego necessary to effectuate such a coup. Throughout the first season, after failing to name Kendall as successor, Logan suffers ongoing physical and sometimes mental deterioration, seeming to jeopardize the company along the way. Denied what he considers his rightful place as successor, Kendall works behind his father’s back to seize control and thereby preserve the company. The fates align such that the coup is stillborn, due to Kendall’s moral failings and accidents beyond his control.
Logan exploits this situation both as a father and as a businessman: covering up his son’s misdeeds saves Kendall from prison, while blackmailing his enemy Kendall ends the coup. In a moment recalling Michael Corleone’s fatal kiss to Fredo, Logan draws his son into a hug whispering, “You’re my boy. You’re my number one boy.” Ought we as viewers to sympathize with, even admire, either of them? From this moment on, Kendall is humiliated, falling into a deep depression until his will to power reappears with a greater vengeance. In the transition from aristocracy to democracy, Tocqueville writes, there exists a “muted civil war… constantly pursued between ever suspicious and rival powers.” The many hostile takeover attempts by the younger generation of Kendall, Siobhan (the progressive political consultant with no company experience), and Roman (the perverted, surprisingly savvy younger brother), reflect that revolutionary period when the old elite and vanguard fight over their shared institutions. As Tocqueville says, in these revolutionary moments, “no one knows precisely what he is, what he can do, or what he should do.”
While the family business embodies the struggle between aristocracy and democracy, the family blends aristocracy with democracy. Tocqueville argues that in aristocracies, society “holds the sons only by the hands of the father; it governs him, and he governs them… He is the author and the sustainer of the family; he is also its magistrate.” The father is “not only the political head of the family; he is the organ of tradition, the interpreter of custom, the arbiter of mores… the love one bears for him is always tempered by fear.” In democracies, by contrast, the father “is only an older and richer citizen than his sons.” He:
has perceived from afar the boundaries at which his authority will come to expire; and when its time has approached these limits, he abdicates without difficulty. The son has foreseen in advance the precise period when his own will becomes his rule, and he takes possession of his freedom without haste and without effort, as a good that is due him and of which no one seeks to rob him.
In democratic families, the children are all on a par. The expectation of primogeniture gone, they are bound together not by interest but by warmth, intimacy, and the “community of memories and free sympathy of opinions and tastes.”
The family of Waystar Royco suggests several of these propositions may be true simultaneously. As a family, they are adversarial; moments of kindness or sympathy are striking in their rareness. In Tocqueville’s words, the Roys, like aristocratic families, are “therefore very tightly bound to one another; their interests are joined, their minds are in accord; but it is rare that their hearts agree.” They share an interest in Waystar; the problem is defining the interest of Waystar.
This problem of defining Waystar’s interests is linked to the problem of defining “family.” Logan often claims, “everything I have done, I have done for my family.” While it sometimes rings hollow, it is not untrue. To Logan, the “family” and Waystar are difficult to distinguish; both are extensions of his own person. Again, we find interesting comparisons with Michael Scott. Like Machiavelli’s Prince, Logan often seems more concerned with respect and obedience than love, while Michael Scott famously quipped “I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.” Both Logan and Michael, in their way, tyrannize their offices. In The Office, this is the source of comedy. Here it creates oedipal drama. Finally, while Michael creates a confusion of work and family, Logan confuses family with business because they already mix. The business is a family business. Therefore, what Logan does for the business, he does for his family’s long-term interests as a corporation.
However, the Roys are in other senses a modern democratic family. Alongside the Machiavellian defense of his empire, Logan has affection for his children, using nicknames and displaying tough love. The children share moments of genuine affection with one another and with their father. The main conflict between the children and Logan is, on Tocqueville’s definition, a democratic one: when he will recognize the end of his rule. Eventually “his authority will come to expire.” While his continued rule seems in some part self-interested, Logan also appears genuinely sad in doubting whether his children can lead the company. The main conflict among the children is one born of democracy too: even if primogeniture seems to matter psychologically—in Season 3, Kendall opines that as eldest son he was meant to inherit everything, prompting rage from his older half-brother—there is no de facto primogeniture. Siobhan, more interested in corporate glory than in children, is as cut-throat as her brothers. All four children compete both with one other and with those who promise greater loyal to Logan. (This is especially clear in the Season 3 finale.)
Tocqueville predicted in Democracy that a “new aristocracy” would arise from industry. Does Waystar embody the new industrial aristocracy Tocqueville predicts? Much evidence could suggest the affirmative. However, Waystar Royco, an entertainment company, has built its fortunes catering to democratic tastes. The Roys are both captains of industry and democratic entertainers and in that sense may be more democratic than pusillanimous industrial aristocrats. At the same time, the Roys may be more aristocratic because they take seriously something Tocqueville worries will disappear entirely from democratic life: grandeur. It is no coincidence that Roman’s nickname is “Romulus.” Democratic businessmen prefer the immanent contentment of fourth-quarter gains, but to think about succession means thinking beyond the next quarter. The Roy family must think in both quarters and generations if the company and the family name are to endure.
It is clear to the aristocratic mind that grandeur is tied up not only with daring exploits and enterprises but with family. It is somewhat less evident to us. Today, to the degree we pursue it or have it, grandeur is often understood as the result of self-creation. We make ourselves, and we make ourselves great. In democratic ages, furthermore, Tocqueville tells us, the family is maintained not by long-term common interests but through bonds of affection.
The Roys offer us no straightforward exemplars of virtue. They would not be my choice of company. But just as Augustine saw splendid vices in the Romans, and Newman tells us we can learn from a sinful literature of sinful man, perhaps we can acknowledge splendid vices or partial virtues in them that are instructive. In their tortured but ongoing devotion to the common project of the family business, the Roys pursue grandeur and do so as a family, however much individual Roys fall prey to the pursuit of self. Thus the drama quietly confirms what democratic minds may not admit. Family is not disposable or subject to contract. It is a shared project through successive generations with members we do not choose; it is the original corporation from which we come and which we never quite quit (even if we might consider liberation from it in some way desirable). We can even achieve and pursue grandeur through our families, who are a source of immortality.
Lastly, and more generally, succession – what we hand on – matters in our families as it does in our politics. Succession, with all its vices, makes that aristocratic concept present to democratic minds. Tocqueville advised his readers in 1840 that democrats had to be convinced to maintain a “taste for the future” and to think of the “great success… found at the end of long-lasting desires” and difficult efforts. As our birthrate falls, our national debt rises, and our ruling class ages, perhaps Tocqueville would again advise us to “move back the object of human action” and think in terms of grandeur and of succession.