26 July 2010

Why Is Royalty Relevant?

I woke up in the middle of the night last night from a dream about Romanian princesses. My daughter finished one of her assigned summer reading books, "The Princess Diaries," by Meg Cabot, this week. Earlier this month, my son and I headed off to an Elvis theater to watch "The Prince of Persia." The tabloids continue to scream out the latest headlines about William and Kate's rumored engagement in the grocery store checkout line - and I read them and can explain the story to my children, despite the fact that the British royal family hasn't had political power for a century and I have no business as a life long American knowing the British royal succession (complete with footnotes about cadet lines). Princess Diana was as beloved in the United States as she was in her homeland.

This isn't a particularly American phenomena. One of the best selling graphic novel series in Korea, for example, "Goong," is the story of an alternate history in which Korea's monarchy survived into the modern era.

Every third boy and girl dreams of growing up to be a prince or princess, a near impossibility. How many kids do you know who dream of growing up to be city council people or a state representative or a county commissioner?

The Bible and the liturgy and prayers that go with it, are deeply immersed on a monarchical milieu. The second chapter of the Gospel of Luke notes that Jesus is a descendant of King David (an odd claim traced through his father Joseph for a product of a virgin birth), a great king of the Jews that tracks the prophets, and ends with Jesus ironically crucified for being "King of the Jews." A common translation for Biblical common references to God is "Lord," a term that shouldn't, by rights, have much meaning anymore.

Modern Islamic fundamentalism is basically monarchist politically. Sunni Muslim insurgents don't want elections, they want a Caliphate. The Shi'ite movement is Islam was fundamentally a monarchist faction of the early faith, favoring a leader with family ties to Mohammad.

While democratic reformers try to disavow them, voters from Pakistan to the United States, love political dynasties, be they the Kennedy, Bush or Ghandi families. In Japan, some popular politicians make a point of tracing their family histories to the Meiji regime capital of Edo (now called Tokyo); it summons up a sense of noblesse oblige and native virtue that the modern Japanese voters crave.

While they are mostly (outside a number of predominantly Islamic states), in theory, politically irrelevant, monarchies of one kind of another are still alive in many of the world's nations: Japan, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Brunei, Belgium, Cambodia, Kuwait, Swaziland, Lesotho, the Netherlands, Spain, Tonga, Monaco, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Morocco, Sweden, Norway, Jordan and Denmark.

In Afghanistan, the blessing of a representative of the line of the former monarch was important for the legitimacy of the current regime. North Korea is on the verge of domesticating its dictator as a monarch in a regime close to entering its third generation.

Even in what are considered healthy, secure democracies, it isn't unusual for powerful legislators and judges to hold onto their seats of power for decades.

In fairness, it is republican government, and not hereditary rule, that is the new kid on the block. The earliest known political histories are king lists from Sumeria and Egypt. Brief flirtations with democratic government in Athens and the Roman Empire didn't last long. Both the United Kingdom and France saw republics revert to monarchies.

The United States, Iceland and Switzerland have the longest unbroken histories as republics. But, it was some time before it became obvious that it would turn out this way. While George Washington is famed for stepping down from the Presidency of the United States after two terms in office, setting a precedent that would remain until the Presidency of FDR after which it was made part of our constitution, he spent far more than eight years as the leader of the United States of America. He led to revolutionary government for almost two and a half decades and many foreign observers initially described him as a constitutional monarch.

One hundred and sixty years ago, it was far from a sure thing that democratic and republican government would become a political norm. The world has seen 5,500 years, more or less, of rule by monarchs and only 3% as long with rule by elected leaders. In some places, the history of republican rule is far shorter. There are people alive today who remember when China was a monarchy.

Perhaps the more relevant question is not "Why is royalty relevant?," but "What made royalty irrelevant in the last century and a half?" Anthropologist John Hawks may be correct that evolution may be accelerating, but the human race has certainly not changed all that fundamentally that fast, and states as expansive and multi-ethic as the nations on our map today are nothing new, even if they did not cover the entire globe for most of human history. The Hittites and Egyptians both ruled empires larger than modern Turkey and Egypt respectively back in the Bronze Age. China was almost as vast as it is now three thousand years ago. The Mayan, Inca and Aztec empires all rivaled modern Latin American states in size.

The notion that republics are fundamentally more stable is not obviously true. Nations that have escaped periods of non-democratic rule en route to government by elected leaders are the exception, not the rule. The many coups and dictatorships in newly democratic countries from Latin America to Africa to Asia are well known. But, these are not cases of Third World exceptionalism.

Russia, Germany, Italy, Greece, Spain, the United Kingdom, and France all saw democracy fail before it prevailed. While the United Kingdom has had continuous parliamentary government for longer than the United States, the era in which its monarchy has had purely symbolic power in the United Kingdom is shorter.

The European Union's most economically troubled states at the moment, Greece and Spain, which are on the verge of defaulting on their sovereign debts and home to six of the seven European banks to fail stress tests last week have had military governments in my lifetime.

History is not yet old enough to declare that republican democracy, and its close cousin, democratic constitutional monarchy, are the end of history.

It is also worth noting that despite the rise of the publicly held corporation, that family owned enterprises that are the private sector equivalent of monarchies continue to comprise a large part of the economy, and that opponents of a meaningful shareholder say in the operation of publicly held corporations, like Professor Bainbridge, remain highly influential voices in corporate law. Even in companies that no longer pass from parent to child (a process that I make a good share of my living perpetuating), the wealth often does -- recreating an economic aristocracy.

While sovereign princes may be heading towards the dustbin of history, merchant princes and princesses continue to walk the streets of Vail, Manhattan, London, Paris and Beverly Hills.

Ayn Rand's polemic novel "Atlas Shrugs," is widely viewed as a defense of radical libertarianism. But, in a sense, it is a work of economic monarchism. It makes the case that the giants of our economy can seize power if they want it, removing the illusion of popular rule. From this perspective, the power of lobbyists in Washington is not a perversion of democratic rule, but a necessary corrective to maintain the illusion of republican government that is contrary to the natural order of things.

I am not so pessimistic, but I also think that political theory of Common Cause and its allies, which sees campaign contributions and personal gain as the factors that corrupt politicians to listen to corporate interests is basically wrong. Big business would have immense power in political circles even if not a single corporation or corporate executive's campaign contribution dollar was tendered, even if every politician lived like a Franciscan monk, and even if their case was made by executives personally, instead of by highly connected corporate lobbyists. Big business is powerful mostly because it runs such a large share our economy, for reasons that have as much to do with economies of scale as they do with outsized political influence. The voice of anyone who holds the economic fate of whole cities and states in their hand will always find an attentive audience among policy makers. If Big Business did not press itself upon Congress, Congress would make its way to the nation's boardrooms to ask its opinions.

Increasingly, there is a trend is to see the graduates of Harvard and Yale, of Oxford and Cambridge, of the École Nationale d'Administration and École polytechnique as the legitimate ruling class of our society. The flip side of meritocratic admissions to elite institutions of higher education is that they enhance the legitimacy of a ruling class, whether or not this is deserved.

In short, while it is conventional wisdom to think that aristocracy and non-democratic rule are the irrelevant fantasies of regnancy romances and fairy tales, I'm not entirely comfortable that this is true. The public still likes its pomp and circumstance. We still re-create the imagery with Prom Queens and Homecoming Kings. There is a deep yearning in the public for a legitimate, superior ruling class awash in wealth that can guide us wisely, however ahistorical that notion may be. One of post-Soviet Ukraine's most influential and popular political leaders styles herself as a princess. Officially impotent elected Presidents often wield formidable political power. It is hard to see the deeply ingrained political instinct to trust nobility remaining suppressed for too many generations. Mankind is too opportunist to let such a powerful gimmick go to waste.

1 comment:

maliki said...

Such a interesting post.