Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Monarchists, Neo-Reactionaries and Neo-Fascism

Monarchy can indeed be a legitimate form of government—but not in America.
king statue

Okay, I’ll take Rod Dreher’s bait. What do I think of neo-reactionaries and American monarchists? I’ll tell you.

First of all, I would distinguish between three arguments for democracy as a political system, because I only really believe in two of them, while pretty thoroughly rejecting the third. But I believe in the two remaining arguments very strongly.

The argument that I reject is the idea that democracy is the only form of government in which the “people’s will” rules – and, as such, is the only legitimate form of government. I don’t believe “the people” have a will (only individuals do), and I don’t think an authority’s legitimacy derives from some kind of fundamental theory. Rather, I take the Burkean view that an authority’s legitimacy is an observed reality and has more to do with longevity than with being derived from any particular principle. As such, a longstanding monarchy is perfectly capable of being a legitimate authority. So is the government of Communist China. So, in a much more tenuous and provisional sense, is the authority of a local Somali or Afghan warlord.

The two arguments for democracy that I strongly endorse come from opposite directions, but are complementary, in my view, not contradictory. The first is the notion that participating in the process of self-government is elevating in and of itself, and, as such, every people should aspire to republicanism. What I have in mind is something like Hannah Arendt’s view as articulated in On Revolution. There is a real question whether imperial-scale entities like the United States, or even entities as large as the traditional European nation-states, can achieve this particular republican good, or whether you max out at the scale of a large city-state.

The second argument is an information-theory argument, to whit, that democracy is less-likely than other forms of government to experience catastrophic failure because it is better-equipped with feedback mechanisms to correct mistakes. In this view, the purpose of elections is not to express the “will of the people” but to provide a check on the ambitions of politicians to do anything the people really hate. Federalist #10’s arguments for the stability of large republics partake of this stream of argument. The flip side of this positive trait of democracy is that the same feedback mechanisms make it hard for democracies to do anything particularly decisive or efficient, but that’s the price you pay. I think the historical record provides pretty robust support for this proposition, with the caveat that there’s not that much data and the most successful democracies have also been relatively wealthy countries, post-colonial India being the largest and most important exception.

Now, having made my case for democracy, what do I think of the contrary case?

Peter Hitchens made what I think is the most appealing case for a certain kind of monarchy when he argued that the king in the English constitution is kind of like the king in chess. He doesn’t do much, but by occupying his square he prevents any other piece from occupying it.

I think there’s something to that, but less than initially appears, because you have to ask why a monarch would be particularly good at occupying his particular square without also possessing significant temporal power. At which point you need to start looking at how a particular society and political system evolved. King Juan Carlos I of Spain was able to preserve Spanish democracy in 1981 because of the ideology of the coup plotters compelled them to respect the orders of their crowned king. His predecessor, Alfonso XIII, provides an excellent illustration of how a clueless monarch can help lead his country to ruin – and wind up getting himself deposed. Meanwhile, Juan Carlos I himself is no longer as secure in his place at the head of the state as he once was, and his status as monarch has no limited numinous power to help him keep that place. Representing the nation to itself is a job like any other. If a king does it badly, the nation suffers just as surely as if any other government job is done badly. But what one does then is less than clear. Shakespeare wrote a very good play – actually, the first (in terms of story order, not the order they were written) of eight plays – exploring exactly the problem of what to do when you have a clearly legitimate but also terrible king. As he had already shown in an earlier-written play, and his audience already knew, it doesn’t end well.

There’s a common argument that monarchies are more likely to have limited governments. I don’t see any evidence of that; rather, two hundred and fifty years ago, nearly all governments were monarchies and, at the time, all governments were much more limited than they are now. Medieval Iceland had very nearly no government at all, and it was not a monarchy. Meanwhile, the Scandinavian monarchies are not generally known for their parsimonious welfare states.

Two more fundamental and “theoretical” defenses of monarchy are: the notion (well-articulated by Filmer among others) that the king is the “father” of the nation, figuratively and, in some sense, literally; and the related (but potentially conflicting) notion of the king as representing the “hereditary principle” and hence the absolute and inalienable right to property. I will address each of these in turn.

If you view the family as an organic unit with a natural (male) head, with (theoretically) absolute authority over the other members of the family, then monarchy is a very natural extension of this model to the larger political community – and, by means of dynastic alliances, can hold that society together in its most natural manner. Starting from the other end, if you view the nation in organic terms as a biological entity, united by descent from a common ancestor, it makes sense to think about a representative head of the nation boasting line of heredity back to said ancestor. Saudi Arabia would be a good example of the former, Japan a good example of the latter.

Then there’s the hereditary principle, the notion that, in the absence of an expression of political dominion as a property right, property rights as such, particularly rights in land, will cease to be viewed as absolute. The thing is, with the rare exception of truly empty land, all property rights in land originate in rights of conquest, and certainly all hereditary political dominion originates as such. There is no theoretical justification for absolute rights to property in land – this is something even John Locke understood, which is why he grounds property rights in a labor theory of value, arguing that you only have right to land to the extent that you develop it and increase its value (which is why it was hunky-dory to steal it from the original inhabitants of America – they weren’t sufficiently development-minded). The “hereditary principle” being defended by a monarchy, then, is the principle that rights originate in violence rather than in productive labor.

Hitchens makes a different argument for heredity, one that Burke made before him: that hereditary rulers – particularly legislators – are both more disinterested and more “normal” than those elected by the people. Precisely because they were born to their position, they can be raised to the idea of noblesse oblige rather than to ambition; precisely because they have no especial talent, they will not be deluded into thinking they are supposed to exercise their will with any vigor on behalf of this or that project. Precisely because their seats are their personal property, they will take very good care of them. I think at this late date it should not be necessary to point out the obvious problem with this line of thinking, but apparently it is: the interests of the wealthy do not dovetail perfectly with the interests of the nation. So against these purported benefits of hereditary rule, you have to consider the effect on the interests of the great mass of the citizenry of having to submit to virtual representation of their interests in the minds of “disinterested” but overwhelmingly wealthy rulers.

So: my bottom line is, there are good conservative arguments for preserving a monarchy where one exists and has deep roots in the culture of a given society, and any such long-lived political institution helps preserve political stability merely by virtue of its longevity. But there aren’t any very good arguments for monarchism as a political system in and of itself. You can’t even argue that monarchies last longer than other political systems; most of the monarchies established since the dawn of the age of republicanism have been very short-lived indeed.

There’s no monarchy in America, though, and no tradition thereof. In fact, the American political system and American society are exceptionally poor fits for any of the rationales for monarchy articulated above. America has no landed aristocracy. We are shallowly rooted in our own soil, a highly mobile people, and we cannot delude ourselves about an organic connection with the land as the descendants of the displaced original inhabitants still live among us. And our family arrangements, well, let’s just say that absolute patriarchal authority doesn’t have pride of place these days.

So what could possibly motivate monarchical yearnings among American conservatives? A fear that the American people have failed and needs to be properly directed by the right people. A fear that existing privilege cannot be maintained without explicit resort to violence as a political principle. A resolute inability to identify with the majority of the citizenry, the abiding conviction that one is a member of the natural but unrecognized elite.

I think the right word for this kind of thing isn’t reactionary but fascist.