Sunday, 6 February 2022

In Praise of Monarchy

by Thomas Scarborough

It stands to reason, that hereditary monarchy ran into trouble in modernity. 

Following the Age of Reason and the Scientific Revolution, things increasingly had to be measured and controlled. People’s lives were less and less the province of natural and personal influences—until, in the 20th century, Theodor Adorno famously wrote, ‘Reason itself appears insane as the world acquires systematic totality.’

In time, our lives became easier to predict, more manageable, and more secure—which is to say, a self-imposed causality increasingly prevailed. It meant, wrote Thomas Huxley, ‘the extension of the province of what we call matter and causation’. Ultimately, we came to control—in a sense—the weather (climate control), the abundance of nature (global streams of goods), even the sun (artificial lighting), and so much more. 

However, while this brought many improvements to our comfort and well-being, it often represented a loss of accident and freedom in our lives. We lost something of the essence of life: the smell of the rain, the wind in our hair, the chill of the evening, or the soil under our feet. Susan Sontag wrote, ‘All the conditions of modern life ... conjoin to dull our sensory faculties.’

This drive towards predictability and control included political systems. Hereditary monarchs, who were often fickle, volatile, unpredictable—and too often, simply dangerous—were increasingly reined in or replaced by more regular and predictable dispensations. Republicanism in particular gained in favour, in the sense of ‘a scientific approach to politics and governance’. 

This shift meant, at the same time, that as humanity emerged from pre-modernity, hereditary monarchy generally left behind it a period in which it was vainglorious, out of touch, and abusive. People’s lives, too, were no longer ruled by monarchical colonists' prerogatives. While previously, social and material cultures were repressed or destroyed, causing grief and trauma to this day, hereditary monarchy has now, by and large, disavowed such supremacy. 

I pause this post now to turn my attention to you, the reader. Without saying as much, you and I have—if indeed it is agreed—developed the argument that the character of hereditary monarchy has been shaped by the era and intellectual climate in which it existed. Therefore, our attitude towards monarchy, and the desirability of monarchy itself, has to do with historical eras—most immediately, pre-modernity, modernity, and postmodernity. 

We may now ask, how does hereditary monarchy relate to postmodernity—a period which many would estimate to have begun around the 1960s? 

All over the world, things have changed. Our transitions to modernity, then to postmodernity, mean that we no longer greatly value, as we once did, what Friedrich Nietzsche called ‘glittering mirages’—called metanarratives now. We are deeply suspicious, today, of monolithic philosophies, ideologies, and systems. We have gained in experience, too. We have now seen that even republicanism is subject to confusion, impotence, capture, and war. 

In postmodernity, hereditary monarchy may represent five things which we generally prefer over the preceding modernity: 
  • That human fate is bound up always with the uncertainty and ambiguity of personality and personal destiny. The ‘humanity’ which we find in systems, both good and bad, will not be worked out of them. Hereditary monarchy reminds us that our fate is bound up with personal factors, and our own designs and expectations continually confounded. 
  • Hereditary monarchy reminds us that government itself cannot ultimately be reduced to reason and rules, and that systematic control is elusive. Monarchy, in an important sense, now represents accident and freedom, rather than the regimentation and subjection it once did. 
  • We are reminded, through hereditary monarchy, that government is not a mere administrative function, but can only be properly viewed where we include personal meaning. It is not all of it about rational, scientific, or even efficient control, but often it comes down to the mystery of semiotic codes: a smile, a gesture, a cup of tea, or a set of brooches. 
  • Hereditary monarchy, contrary to what once was the case, withers metanarratives and ideologies, which have been so destructive to humanity in the past. It shows us that there is no novum ordo, no social optimism, no Omega Point. Instead, we have people, with limited lifetimes, and limited capabilities. 
  • With individuals being the focus of hereditary monarchy, we are reminded, in fact on a daily basis, that monarchies are fallible—perhaps moreso than we may recognise it in the entirety of a republican order. Rather than representing autocracy, as once was the case, hereditary monarchy reminds us of the necessity of checks and balances. 


Keith said...

In my opinion, Thomas, the relevance and justification of ‘hereditary monarchies’ are strikingly thin in our twenty-first-century world. I suspect that a disproportionate portion of the institution’s wanna-have ‘gravitas’ derives from optics, pretense, mythology, and a bleeding-finger-nails clutch onto rapidly receding, romanticised history.

To my mind, hereditary monarchies epitomize unearned wealth, stark inequality on many levels, presumptuousness, public voyeurism, and self-exceptionalism. All this, even though the modern, globalised world has largely and thankfully long since moved on to a very different time and place.

docmartincohen said...

This IS rather an odd post. It starts off actually quite promisingly, but then I found the abrupt change of perspective "
I pause this post now to turn my attention to you, the reader" rather off-putting. And the post seems to end up being rather a mixture of debates. The one we might have thought it was about - the legitimacy of inherited power ends up being examined only superficially, as Keith implies too. Surely we object to the assumption that people can rule over us - even indeed kill us - because of accidents of birth? The great curve in politics is towards each individual as having certain rights: over their own path and choices in particular. I thought perhaps Tomas was going to link hereditary power to religion, as indeed the two ideologies share a certain important aspect.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith.

My purpose in this post was to discuss how monarchy ‘has been shaped by the era’, and how it might look from the point of view of postmodernity. I chose largely to omit such issues as those you raise, as being beyond the article’s scope.

You have in mind (quote) ‘the modern ... world’. In the context of this post, the modern era was prior to the postmodernity which is my primary focus. And with regard to modern monarchy, like you, I describe it as ‘vainglorious, out of touch, and abusive’, and so on.

Apart from this, I am not sure that your comments are quite rational. For some discussion of the issues which you raise, see the New York Times, ‘What’s the Cure for Ailing Nations?’

Keith said...

A telling quote, Thomas, from the New York Times article you referred to: ‘In fact, Count Nikolai Tolstoy [head of the International Monarchist League!] says, more kings, queens and all the frippery that royalty brings would be not just a salve for a superpower in political turmoil, but also a stabilizing force for the world at large’. Let me borrow a word from the quote, to turn back on the quote itself: Frippery. The rest of the article struck me as being in that same unconvincing, other-worldly vein.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

MARTIN. First, with regard to Martin’s comments, I used the literary device of ‘authorial intrusion’—perhaps for the first time. It has various purposes, which include calling attention to a particular aspect of a narrative.

I don’t think it is a mixture of debates. There is a progression. My post traces how, historically, causality increasingly prevailed, and how this influenced political dispensations, in particular monarchy and republicanism. It charted this development through pre-modernity, modernity, and post-modernity, focusing finally on post-modernity.

The focus of my post is not the legitimacy of inherited power, rather how inherited power might be related to what is widely regarded as the current historical and intellectual era, post-modernity. Thinkers have for centuries sought to relate prevailing philosophies with prevailing political systems, as I do, without necessarily being partial.

To characterise my argument as an assumption that monarchs may ‘even indeed kill us’ due to certain accidents, while hypothetically true, seems an extremely ‘polar’ way of characterising what I am putting forward—particularly in view of my final stress on checks and balances.

Whether in fact ‘the great curve in politics is towards each individual’ etc., I have some doubt. Perhaps the subject of a future post (not mine)?

KEITH. I was a little dismayed by Keith’s first response, but sought to answer with restraint. The relevance and justification of hereditary monarchies is not in fact ‘strikingly thin’. In the last, say, ten years, academic research on monarchy as a system or systems, has rapidly grown, and views have considerably shifted.

The Conversation seemed to capture this with the headline, in 2018, ‘A radical thought: could constitutional monarchies be important aids to democracy?’ It observed, ‘Those countries that have developed constitutional monarchies rank among the most democratic and egalitarian.’

This is not an argument that I wanted to get into, and I shall forego it here. However, study after study has shown, and is showing, apparently, enormous benefits of (within limits) monarchy.

But beware arguments where there is a complete absence of impartiality, even if they should serve as a counter-weight. In this case, I was apparently commending pretense, mythology, the bleeding-finger-nails clutch, and so on ... with nothing to the contrary. I myself pointed out monarchy’s faults, indeed offences in pre-modernity and modernity especially.

The major alternative, republicanism in the general sense, has not had a good run lately. Certainly, one may burn the Rembrandt to warm one’s hands, yet function and utility have their limits. (Apply the idiom with discretion).

docmartincohen said...

Thank you, Thomas for fielding the "complaints". I'm still of the opinion that the hereditary element is poisonous and should be discouraged. But consider the "political families" and the wealthy elites instead. Like the Bushes nd the Clintons or the Eton -Downing Street norm of Britain. In China, the appalling President Xi is in office partly because he is part of the "political family" of children of Mao's generals. All this seems to do is push mediocre or maybe worse individuals into positions of power.

Of course, the normal political systems seem to do this too! Only Plato had a real alternative… Alas, quite mad.

Keith said...

Thank you, Thomas, for an interesting conversation.

I do agree that the modifier ‘constitutional’ adds a key dimension, beyond the original ‘hereditary’. Yet, one might say, the post’s description of monarchy as ‘fickle’, ‘vainglorious’, and ‘out of touch’ remains apt, notwithstanding constitutionality.

So, my money, for relevance into the future, is on the ‘republicanism’ you get to in a comment above. I realise you dismiss it. But personally, I like the ring of ‘sovereignty of the people and of their freely elected representatives, guided by natural and civil liberties, the rule of law, federalism, and the separation/balance of powers’ — or some such thing, but without monarchs running alongside.

I dare venture that someday longer term, the world will be looking back on monarchies, even constitutional ones, as unmissed relics that clung on beyond their ‘sell-by date’. The accuracy of which only some future generation will witness.

Thanks for introducing a novel spin on this topic.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

The point of my post, again, Keith, is that hereditary monarchy could plausibly be compatible with postmodernity, which might not have been the case.

Are monarchies declining? It depends where one starts counting, and how. Recently, their number has been rising (UPenn). Monarchies are far more numerous than republics in the world. although Westerners curiously tend to tune out monarchies which are culturally distant. My wife’s constitutional monarch is Ahh! Vulikhaya, to whom she is related about ten generations back.

Speaking very generally—because there are exceptions to the rule—recent research has found that monarchies scores significantly higher than republicanism on property rights (UPenn), accountability (Vox), social equality (New York Times), credit-worthiness (Cato), cost-effectiveness (Debatewise), among other things. I can provide the links if desired.

You are advocating a system of government—indirectly, but effectively advocating it—which is more expensive, less accountable, has a greater national debt, reduces property rights, admits greater inequality, and so on. In the USA, as an example, there is a rapidly widening wealth gap, a huge national debt, a very expensive presidency, among other things.

The one thing people repeatedly advance in republicanism’s favour is that those who rule are elected by the people, for the people. In principle, this is good. What the importance of it is, though, I find that many people can no longer answer. It was borrowed from the Church, where its meaning is still attached. In my forthcoming tome, I explain why the principle is dangerously inadequate (I don't reject it. I also don't advocate monarchy there).

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