Let us first pay tribute to the great arsenals of stupidity at the disposal of the British state. It begins with empty formalism.
Hours of live broadcast in which absolutely nothing happens, nothing is said, scarcely anything thought by all appearances, but protocol is scrupulously followed. The only news: the Queen’s doctors are “worried” about her health, but she is “comfortable.” Everyone knows that this means she has already died, but it is not time to admit this yet.
The announcement finally made hours later, there begins a solemn procession of moronic piety that will officially last for ten days. Digital billboards all over the capital instantly fill with images of the late Queen. Royal worshippers advance, like celebrity stalkers, on the gates of Buckingham Palace. News anchors perform mandated grief. Prime Minister Liz Truss confuses glowering with gravitas, and listlessly recites her script: “life of service,” “great legacy,” “loved and admired,” “awesome responsibility.” The BBC’s Clive Myrie suggests that the energy crisis threatening millions of people is now “insignificant.” Journalists, such as Andrew Sullivan, declare themselves helplessly verklempt.
Tributes “pour in.” The White House hails “a stateswoman of unmatched dignity and constancy.” Justin Trudeau, like a benevolent teacher writing a dull child’s report card, piles on adjectives: “thoughtful, wise, curious, helpful, funny.” Paris Hilton salutes “the original girl boss.” One after another, popular brands take to social media with white-on-black statements of condolence, sometimes in Comic Sans: Birds Eye, Poundland, Domino’s, Ann Summers, Playmobil, Asda, Wimpy, Heinz, Cash Converters, PizzaExpress, Halford, Wickes, and William Hill. They are joined by Irish republicans Sinn Féin, almost every left-wing MP, and several trade unions, who all issue curtseying statements — the unions, fearing the wrath of the reactionary press, suspend planned strike actions.
Social media users respond to this orgy of undignified kitsch and groveling — so much of it utterly cynical — with nihilistic shitposting and republican criticisms of the House of Windsor. They disinter the record of royal Nazi sympathies, racism, central involvement in colonial tyranny, support for the institution of slavery, and of course the Duke of York’s close friendship with child rapist Jeffrey Epstein and multimillion pound out-of-court settlement with Virginia Giuffre, who accused the Duke of assaulting her after she had been trafficked. This triggers the grief scolds. Several seriously British men, such as former Tory strategist Nick Timothy and journalist Ben Judah, caution Americans in particular against signs of disrespect. Worthy liberals, like the permanently underwhelming Jonathan Pie, howl at the shitposters to shut up. “As someone who isn’t a royalist,” he huffs, “I for one will mourn her loss.”
I, for one, will not. People have the right to mourn if they wish to: policing emotional expression is largely the province of royalists. But I dream of a time when the “feudal rhapsody” of sovereigns, their kin (“bloodline”), and their property deals (“wedding”), will cease to be a daily feature of British public life. I yearn for the day when servile, sentimental crawling to their emotionally crippled and globally corrupt majesties will be interred in a funereal parade of union jack–draped boxes. But to hanker for a wholly rationalized capitalist state, to put right what Britain’s bourgeois revolution failed to achieve, is to covet a mirage.
Though theoretically possible, it’s extremely improbable that Britain would be rid of its monarchy short of a social convulsion on a par with, or close to, revolution. The British capitalist state has historically been defined by its successes as an imperialist state. It was the world’s first capitalist empire, and it is as an imperialist state that it has most tightly embraced the monarchical principle — in victory against republican France, for example, and in its colonial conquests, from the Opium Wars to the Raj to the Mandates. It was as Empress of India that Victoria reinvented a previously ramshackle and endangered monarchy in the face of a rising mass democracy. It was flush with the wealth of the colonies that the British royal family, itself always a very successful family of capitalist entrepreneurs and not just rentiers, regained its lost exuberance and vitality. Today, the Firm is worth almost $28 billion.
Even if our biscuit tin monarchy (as Will Self has called it) is no longer riding a wave of colonial success, it remains at the apex of an imperial matrix whose “role in world affairs” (as our professional euphemizers would have it) relies heavily on the accumulated cultural capital embodied in the Commonwealth. Windsor has also entrenched itself as a domestic power. It has assiduously courted a popular base, which perforce requires it to act as a silent partner in the class struggle — a source of legitimacy for the bourgeoisie, by dint of its apparent (only apparent) disentanglement from the daily grind of capital accumulation.
And British capitalism has not run out of uses for these sojourners from the German lowlands, which go beyond the profitable public amusement in glorifying and hounding individual royals. This is easy to confirm: no significant pro-capitalist political force in the UK is interested in republicanism. Labour leader Keir Starmer is a servant of the state, having served as director of public prosecutions, and would no sooner slight royalty than he would expropriate capital. His predecessors, from republican Jeremy Corbyn to the bourgeois modernizers of Tony Blair’s court, steered clear of any such controversy. Even the Scottish National Party, in the avant-garde of constitutional liberalism in its break with Westminster, has insisted that an “independent” Scotland would still want Queenie, now Charlie, as its head of state.
The monarchy still functions as the guarantor of a caste within the ruling class, which any good bourgeois wants admittance to — give an old chief executive an OBE (Order of the British Empire), and he will consider himself to have truly lived. It still bestows social distinction; more than that, it upholds and perpetuates the superstitious belief in distinction, in meritorious “honor” as well as “honor” by birthright. Its systems of ranking still structure hierarchies within the state, notably the police, the navy, the air force, and the army.
It is still the major patron of “Britishness,” the myth of a temporally continuous and organically whole national culture, which every legislator in search of an authoritarian mandate invokes. It is the sponsor of martial discourse, inviting us to believe that the British ruling class and its stately authorities, notably its armed forces, cleave to “values” other than those of egoistic calculation. Its festivals of supremacy still mediate our experience of capitalism, suggesting that beneath the daily experience of conflict and confrontation, there is a more essential, eternal unity in the British polity. They still summon deference, in an era of political secularism.
Windsor is susceptible to secular decline, but this decline is taking an awfully long time. Longer than is reasonable. And its adaptability, its resilience in the face of the prevailing Weltanschauung winds, suggests that it has successfully woven itself into the fabric of British capitalism, particularly the British state, such that to be an effective republican one must first be a socialist.
And yet one senses that even a great many erstwhile socialists, never mind liberals, can’t entirely imagine England without its deformed first family. As in the ’80s, recent ruling-class offensives have been accompanied by royal spectacle. In the age of austerity, for example, a balding first-born prince — who had already sought to prove his fitness to rule in the frontiers of Afghanistan — married a high street fashion clerk. It didn’t make the cuts more tolerable, any more than 1981’s connubials rescued Margaret Thatcher from the doldrums she was then in. The message was more subtle than that.
Remember the delight expressed by so many leftists and liberals in Danny Boyle’s Olympics ceremony, with Her Maj accompanied by James Bond (a fictional mercenary of the imperial state)? Why do we think that year’s patriotic climax is regarded with such fond nostalgia by the opponents of Brexit nationalism? Has anything done more to reveal the fundamental conservatism, the nostalgic attachments, and the unprocessed colonial sentimentality of our leftish punditry than its ironized-yet-sincere deference to royalism?
The unreconstructed bigotry of the House of Windsor has, of course, always been an embarrassment to its defenders. For decades until the late ’60s, “colored immigrants or foreigners” were banned from working at the Palace. Prince Phillip was notorious for racist “gaffes.” In 2017, Princess Michael of Kent was compelled to apologize for wearing a racist blackamoor brooch to lunch with Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle. Last year, Markle confessed to Oprah that the House of Windsor had expressed concern about the skin color of her baby.
Yet, the Firm’s apparently antiquated racism, formed during a time when British royalty triumphantly bestrode the globe, is not incidental to its political function. Its message to Markle is essentially the same as its message to all of us. Yes, capitalism is in crisis. Yes, the ruling ideology is in crisis. Yes, the conditions of civilizational survival may be disintegrating around us. Yes, millions have recently died from what is likely to be the first of a series of plagues. Yes, tumultuous, rising democracy and the forces of neofascism will likely meet in a river of blood. Yes, the falcon turns in the widening gyre, and the four horsemen are loose, and the earth is dying. But for all that, the message states, the Firm is eternal. It is not stamped with temporality. It reproduces itself, through birth (bloodline), and through marriage (property), each spawning a proliferation of imperial bunting as the media pipes patriotism into the mainline, and that is our image of the everlasting.
As long as British capitalism continues, as long as the empire state continues, as long as the butcher’s apron flies, so long lives Britannia and its personified fleshers.