In the unforgettable opening passage of his 2009 essay Capitalist Realism, the late Mark Fisher recalls a scene from Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men in which the film’s hero Theo (played by Clive Owen) visits London’s Battersea Power Station — best known in the popular imagination for its appearance on the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album Animals. In the building, which seems to be at once a private and a government facility, Owen’s character encounters a number of famous cultural treasures, among them Picasso’s Guernica, Michelangelo’s David, and the famous inflatable pig from Floyd frontman Roger Waters’s 1977 cover design.
The subtle power of the scene, for Fisher, lay in its depiction of iconic artworks desacralized by the commodifying pressures of late capitalism: David, now missing part of a leg, looks on as King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King” plays in the background and the owner’s pets play at its feet; Guernica, “once a howl of anguish and outrage against fascist atrocities,” sits with little fanfare as mise-en-scène in the dining area of an antiseptic bourgeois loft while guests are serenaded by a Handel aria; the iconic pig has returned to Battersea, though it has been clunkily repositioned so that it will be visible from the dining room window. The sculpture of Florentine Italy, ’70s prog rock, the Spanish Civil War, and baroque music alike: all seem on equal footing amid the atmosphere of bleak patrician decadence.
As Fisher observes, the building housing the treasures is itself an object of the same process: the once-functioning coal-fired power station (in real life partly decommissioned two years before its appearance on the cover of Animals) having been turned into a kind of “refurbished heritage artifact” in Children of Men’s imagined, though uncomfortably plausible London of the near future. (Fisher will regrettably never know quite how prophetic his interpretation was: in 2018, Battersea was purchased by the Malaysia-based sovereign wealth fund Permodalan Nasional Berhad and will soon house a mixture of luxury lofts, restaurants, retail outlets, a “Chimney Lift” tourist attraction, and a five hundred thousand square foot “campus” owned by Apple Inc.) That process, says Fisher (with an assist from Marx and Engels), amounts to the “transformation of culture into museum pieces” by the inexorable forces of global capitalism. “The power of capitalist realism,” he elaborates:
…derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history: one effect of its “system of equivalence” which can assign all cultural objects, whether religious iconography, pornography, or Das Kapital, a monetary value…. In the conversion of practices and rituals into merely aesthetic objects, the beliefs of previous cultures are objectively ironized, transformed into artifacts.… Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.
Twenty-First Century Royalty
As royal events go, this month’s sit down between Oprah Winfrey, Prince Harry, and Meghan Markle was about as consequential as they come — and by all appearances, it has provoked quite genuine fear in pro-monarchist circles about the future of the institution. Over the course of roughly ninety minutes, the couple offered an account of their mistreatment inside the palace in a fashion that even many hardened skeptics of televised celebrity events found authentic and convincing.
Indeed, taken on its own terms, it’s both easy to see why so many found the story compelling, and why pro-royal partisans found it so threatening: the precise details aside, Markle’s experience of racism in particular was bound to resonate with plenty outside her own luxurious income bracket. As a pure news event, the Oprah sit down therefore yielded an especially tough headache for a Windsor PR machine still reeling from the Epstein affair — one likely to carry on in one way or another for years to come.
The more subtle and real threat to the aura and reputation of the institution, however, probably has less to do with the specifics disclosed than what the interview ultimately signified about the couple’s ongoing cultural reinscription. The monarchy, by definition, is not something you’re supposed to leave. Perhaps more importantly, removed from their regal context and interviewed by Oprah, Harry and Meghan looked more or less like the Californian celebrities with whom they now share an area code.
Propelled by their sympathetic roles in a global news event, the former royals have since been busy launching themselves in the most quintessentially American ways: signing big media deals with Netflix and Spotify and, in Harry’s case, taking up the causes of mental health and “self-optimization” at Silicon Valley–based company BetterUp in the newly created role of “Chief Impact Officer.”
In real time, we are seeing the British royal aura refurbished to suit the needs and affectations of West Coast American wealth and the absorption of one kind of celebrity by another. More than anything else, this is probably why royal partisans and ideologues for hereditary monarchy alike received l’affaire Oprah as such an existential threat: whatever fictive transcendence that supposedly still lingers behind the facade of Buckingham Palace seems unlikely to weather the process.
In the twenty-first century, royalty will be a commodity like everything else — an especially lucrative lacquer in the era of personal brands and neoliberal selfhood, but a lacquer nonetheless. For the monarchy and its members, the choice will thus be between absorption by the seductions of moneyed personal autonomy on the one hand or demotion to the status of kitsch tourist attraction on the other, both options ultimately being subordinate to the dictates of exchange value rather than high symbol.
In many ways, this transformation has already occurred. The Obamas, in their post-2016 incarnation, have already provided a template for the twenty-first-century fusion of regal prestige, secular celebrity, and obscene wealth that Harry and Meghan look certain to follow. Visit famous sites in central London today and you’ll see as much gaudy spectacle as ancient splendor — from self-described “British pubs” that exclusively serve the most credulous breed of American tourist to Guard Mountings outside of Buckingham Palace that look like twee cosplay rather than living culture.
Over many centuries the monarchy has been gradually stripped of its active constitutional functions — reduced to the status of pure symbol in a country whose ruling class still gorges pathetically on a diet of imperial nostalgia. In the coming decades, even this residual symbolic power seems likely to wither away as the institution makes further concessions to a world of pluralist liberal democracy and completes its final transformation into a heritage artifact.
This is not to say that the monarchy itself, or the order it represents, will literally disappear. The morbid genius of British conservatism has always been its capacity to fuse the iconography of “tradition” — the crown, the country estate, the public school, the grouse hunt — with the dynamism of liberal modernity: from the Victorian era to the present day, England’s landed aristocrats and their cultural courtiers have proven astonishingly adept at embracing bourgeois affectations without being fully swallowed up by them. Absent a political realignment or social revolution, that seems unlikely to change.
But, like the precious artworks in the Battersea Power Station of Cuarón’s Children of Men (to say nothing of the soon-to-be-opened suites in the real life version) the idea of royalty will be reduced to a purely aesthetic concept, its dejected inheritors left to trudge through the ruins and the relics — or, failing that, travel further afield in search of self-optimization, a Spotify contract, or a gig in Silicon Valley.