“What function does monarchy play in modern society? We can say it’s an “antiquated” institution, and confidently predict its historical demise. But we should try to understand its lingering basis of strength too.”
by Gary Leupp
I wasn’t going to write anything about this, or read or watch anything about “the royal wedding.” It’s all so pathetic. On the other hand I have a few thoughts so here goes…
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Kingship is as old as class society, and compatible with all kinds of class systems. What all forms seem to have in common is some sort of religious legitimization. The Japanese emperor is supposed to be a descendent of the Sun Goddess, the Chinese emperor was the Son of Heaven possessing the Mandate of Heaven, the Dalai Lamas are incarnations of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, caliphs derived authority from their descent from Muhammad, European kings possess the “divine right of kings” and are appointed by God (Romans 13:1), etc. Queen Elizabeth is the head of the Church of England.
The connection between religion and rulership is indicated by the evolution of the priest-king in ancient Sumeria into the king-priest; the sacerdotal function, initially primary, becomes secondary and the method of control evolves from use of magic and spiritual control to use of armed bodies of men. This suggests that the figure of the shaman, whom in pre-class societies with minimal social distinctions has a special status, merges with that of the chief and evolves into the king.
While kingship did not prevail everywhere (as Plato points out in the Republic, there was a wide variety of political forms including oligarchy and democracy in ancient Greece) it was the global norm into modern times when it accommodated itself to capitalism. Engels (I think) writes somewhere about the near-equal balance of power between the French aristocracy and bourgeoisie during the period of absolutism, and Marx and Engels wrote about the accommodation between the German bourgeoisie and aristocracy with its dukes and princes after 1848.
The question that interests me is: what function does monarchy play in modern society? We can say it’s an “antiquated” institution, and confidently predict its historical demise. But we should try to understand its lingering basis of strength too.
Prachanda in an interview some years ago, during one of the periods of talks between the Nepali Maoists and the regime then in power, suggested that the party might drop its insistence on the immediate establishment of a republic if the other side agreed to a Constituent Assembly. Maybe he was just indicating flexibility on the point for tactical reasons. He noted that (what he called) communist parties had worked with or compromised with monarchy before. (He was referring as I recall to the Khmer Rouge alliance with Prince Sihanouk and the Pathet Lao’s inclusion of Prince Souphanovong.) Perhaps King Gyanendra might have retained some symbolic role. I think the point was, the preservation of some form of monarch does not necessarily prevent the establishment of popular sovereignty. It might be retained as a concession to the monarchist faction including the large Congress Party, and to the religious views of those Hindus who view the monarchs of the Shah dynasty as incarnations of Vishnu. (Of course this didn’t happen; the king was unceremoniously deposed and the republic proclaimed in 2008.)
Monarchs’ positions within a polity vary greatly. In Japan, up to 1945, the emperor was sovereign, with absolute veto powers over the Diet. Advocacy of popular sovereignty—“democracy”—was prohibited by law, and no one was allowed to criticize the “kokutai” or “national essence,’ meaning essentially the divinely-ordained imperial institution. Japanese military leaders might very well have agreed to surrender to the Allies before August 1945 had the U.S. agreed to preserve the institution in some form—as they in fact did after establishing the “unconditional surrender.” Gen. McArthur, head of the Occupation, called Emperor Hirohito the “queen bee” meaning that by manipulating him the occupiers could receive the cooperation of the Japanese people. So the monarchy fulfilled a function, although constitutionally redefined; the current, U.S.-scripted Japanese constitution defines the emperor simply as the “symbol”—not the head—of the state while bestowing sovereignty on the people.
Most Japanese are (in a western sense) irreligious, and few believe the emperors are descended from any gods (the Occupation authorities pressured Hirohito into publicly denying claims to divinity in 1946). But the emperor continues to perform Shinto rituals connected to the first planting and first harvest every year, and the coronation ceremony is a thoroughly religious event. The coronation of current emperor Akihito in 1990, attended by “world leaders,” produced much opposition ranging from Christians protesting that the rite violated the constitutional separation of religion and the state to quasi-Marxist anarchists (such as the Chukaku-ha) opposed to the imperial institution entirely. The dominant reaction (as I saw it) was indifference. But many found the pageantry interesting, even inspiring. Somehow the religious charisma surrounding the throne has been replaced with entertainment value.
But in Japan the monarchy is “above the clouds” and a compliant press corps basically leaves it alone. It doesn’t hound the royals, looking for scandals and headlines so much. The marriage of the crown prince, Naruhito, to now-crown princess Masako in 1993 was a huge news story, but the press gently handled the issue of Masako’s subsequent mental illness (“adjustment disorder”) and the imperial family members aren’t subject to paparazzi intrusions or the sort of treatment that destroyed Princess Diana.
The House of Windsor
In Britain, the monarchy seems to serve various functions. I recall visiting Buckingham Palace as a child during the changing of the guard and enjoying the “pomp and circumstance.” It was theater, and the repository of interesting tradition. How you react to such displays perhaps depends on your own relationship to British imperialism.
There’s the soap-opera function. The cult of Princess Di (seen as a victim of the royal family, although herself depicted as somehow regal, “the people’s princess”) suggests that many people dissatisfied with their own lives want to fill their own emotional voids by following and fantasizing about the lives of their “betters.” It is the same type of alienation that produces other kinds of fandom. Meanwhile the antics of Prince Charles and Princess Camilla, Andrew and Fergie, Princess Margaret etc. produce huge profits for the tabloids.
Also, the monarchy personalizes patriotism; the military is Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. Maybe it feels a little different feeling to be fighting in Afghanistan for the Queen, as opposed to the forbidding figure of Uncle Sam? My point is just that, however rooted in concepts of inherent privilege and divine right that most people on the planet probably now reject as antiquated, it’s being used successfully by the (very modern) British bourgeoisie.
A recent poll showed that 63% of the British people think the country’s better of with the monarchy while only 26% want to get rid of it.
In constitutional monarchies where the royals are basically display pieces, family events can generate substantial political discussion. When Princess Masako “failed” to produce a male heir, feminists (and others) in Japan campaigned to change the law to allow for the next emperor to be female. (The campaign fizzled after Naruhito’s younger brother’s wife bore a son. He’s now next in line.) In Sweden, the parliament changed the succession law in 1980 such that the eldest child of the monarch inherits the throne. So Princess Victoria rather than her brother Carl is to be the next monarch (despite the reported opposition of her father King Carl). Of course feminists and other progressives have better things to do than campaign for changes in royal succession laws. We should get rid of monarchs entirely. (I don’t mean kill them; I have major issues with the Bolsheviks’ execution of the entire Russian royal family including children, with servants, in 1918.) But there have been these interventions into the shaping of monarchy by sections of the people that haven’t been entirely meaningless.
I was talking to my mother late last night. Over 80, she’d just gotten out of the hospital so I was checking up on her. Was I watching the royal wedding? she asked. I was struck by the fact that in her condition of stage-four cancer she was interested in something so trite. But the fact that she is (and that so many people in the U.S. follow such events with rapt interest) shows that the existence of especially privileged “beautiful” people retains a mystical value, even if it’s basically these days one of entertainment and fantasy projection. How to combat it? I guess one needs to find a way to fill the void that celebrity worship, like other forms of religiosity, seems to fill.