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The Modern Power Of Monarchy
Pomp and splendour are natural bedfellows of mass politics and capitalism
“Wherever you go in Vienna in 1900 you see the Emperor. His image is on every coin and every stamp, on every certificate. His portrait stands in shop windows, above the desk where the maître d’ greets you in the restaurant, in the foyer of the Opera, in the waiting room at the station. And sometimes he is there in his carriage on the Ringstrasse, with a few outriders from a Balkan regiment in glorious uniforms… off to open a building or a ball with his companion Mrs Schratt. This is a city clogged with decorations, insignia and titles, and the Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary and Bohemia, King of Lombardy-Venetia, of Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia and Illyria, Grand Duke of Tuscany, King of Jerusalem and Duke of Auschwitz, with his chestful of medals and ribbons, is the index. He spans a geography and an era.”
That is Edmund de Waal’s description of the Emperor Franz Josef’s encompassing presence in Vienna, the great metropolis of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at the turn of the 20th century. In light of the pageantry and public attention surrounding the death of Queen Elizabeth II over the past week, we might question if we are really so far from the world evoked by de Waal. And we would be right to do so.
The royal succession and funeral in Britain have brought to our screens a world of archaic artefacts and rites: processions replete with horses and carriages, banners and standards, dress uniforms and medals; proclamations attended by feathered hats and velvet capes; ceremonies announced by trumpets and heraldic symbols; the coffin bedecked with crown, orb and sceptre. No one does power dressing like an institution with over a millennium of royal descent.
To be sure, the pomp and splendour of the British royalty has had the feel of a Disney production for some time now, as epitomised by the association between Elizabeth II and Paddington Bear, a legacy of the twee Jubilee celebrations earlier this year. Struggling to explain the surreal persona of sovereign-cum-mascot that the Queen developed, most commentators stick with the truism that she provided a symbol of unity and continuity for a fast-changing nation.
But none of this suggests a stark contrast with Franz Josef’s Vienna. De Waal’s text was written for a 2013 exhibition about the city’s art world, which was aptly titled Facing the Modern. The Vienna in which the Emperor loomed so large was a cauldron of modernity, the city of Klimt and Schiele, of socialist and feminist movements, and above all, a city which had been transformed by the rise of the bourgeoisie.
Here, too, the visual languages of aristocratic grandeur had become a kind of simulation. As the architect and critic Adolf Loos (another modernist) remarked, the redevelopment of the city centre in extravagant neo-classical style revealed the efforts of businessmen to contrive an aura of nobility. It was, said Loos, “as if a modern Potemkin had wanted to make somebody believe he had been transported into a city of aristocrats.”
The ultimate image of nobility was Franz Josef himself, whose personal prestige was increasingly essential for holding together an Empire that was fracturing along national lines. In 1897 an anti-Semitic German nationalist, Karl Lueger, was elected mayor of Vienna. The city’s tensions were such that the satirist Karl Kraus dubbed it “the testing station for the end of the world.”
Given the disintegration of Austria-Hungary soon after Franz Josef’s death, amid the catastrophe of the First World War, this parallel does not look promising for the British royal family. Does not Elizabeth II fit the Franz Josef mould – a character uniquely capable of extending an ancient reverence past its sell-by date? That, at any rate, is the argument Ben Judah has very eloquently made. Through conviction and force of personality, the Queen sustained a fantasy of royal grandeur, but no other monarch can. “The crowds will not flock to London, let alone Edinburgh, like this again.”
But speaking as someone who sees almost no limits to the modern world’s capacity for fantasy, I look at all the baroque pageantry unfolding this week and come to a different conclusion. I don’t think we should be surprised to find monarchy successfully coexisting with the modern forces of capitalism and mass politics. All of these things share a logic of ritual and spectacle, which allows them to imitate and feed off one another.
The demise of Austria-Hungary, along with the German and Russian empires, did not, as Judah suggests, seamlessly give way to “the democratic age.” Within two decades, they had been replaced by the ecstatic political theatre of the Third Reich and Stalin’s cult of personality, which again saw portraits going up in public and private spaces. Later came a form of consumerism that, as the philosopher Jürgen Habermas observed in the 1960s, showed feudal characteristics in the way that companies “display a showy pomp before customers ready to follow… a kind of aura proper to the personal prestige and supernatural authority” once bestowed on nobility.
The contemporary descendants of royal insignia are commercial logos, the mystical icons of capitalism that confer status on the buildings and products displaying them. Indeed, the modern logo can plausibly be traced back to the imprese or badges adopted by banking families during the Italian Renaissance.
Judah is correct when he writes that “to understand the British and their Queen,” you don’t need political science but “European psychoanalysts: Freud, Jung, Fromm. You need to understand the subliminal, the subconscious and the immense recesses of antiquity that haunt our psyches.” Psychoanalysis, not incidentally, was another product of Franz Josef’s Vienna; that is to say, it was born from the peculiar imaginative world of monarchic capitalist modernity (“all my libido is for Austria-Hungary,” said Freud at the outbreak of the First World War). It was not long before these ideas were adopted by the advertising industry.
When it comes to the British monarchy today, the fantasy at stake is the very idea of a public, which briefly assembles itself from the atomised, fragmented reality of modern society during royal occasions. The people who complain how ridiculous it all is are merely proving this to be the case. But however we feel about them, such fleeting moments of collective identification are especially prized by politicians and corporate publicists; hence the “rally around the flag” poll-bounce for leaders in times of national emergency, and the huge amounts that companies pay to advertise during major sporting events and beloved TV shows.
So it’s not surprising to see all manner of organisations using the royal funeral as an opportunity to speak to and for the people at large, whether it be the hyperbolic tributes from brands (is everyone at Domino’s Pizza really grieving for the Queen?), or BBC reporters asking mourners if the monarchy is really still relevant. The public psyche is assembled and primed, and they know it.
Insofar as they want to be seen as representing the public, it is the modern institutions of secular politics and commerce that need symbolic rituals the most. Virtually every republic has replaced monarchy with its own elaborate ceremonies involving soldiers and uniforms, medals, titles and flags. You could even argue this is the most important function of elections.
So while there are many words that could describe Britain’s royal spectacles, “outdated” is not one of them. If anything, the accelerated social fragmentation of the neoliberal and Internet eras has made such occasions for renewing the public more significant. As Janan Ganesh has suggested, a growing desire for emotional kinship was already evident in the response to Princess Diana’s death in 1997. Mass media used to give citizens a thin but reliable sense of common experience, but that is fracturing into niches and subcultures now. In this landscape, outbreaks of public sentiment are sporadic and exuberant, a flurry of banners and emojis in response to the latest stimulus.
Britain’s monarchy could easily doom itself through incompetence, but there is no structural reason why a royal head won’t continue appearing on every coin and stamp, as it did in Franz Josef’s Vienna. The 21st century imagination is a strange and capacious thing, and the arcane world of monarchy can easily exist here alongside K-Pop, Marvel and Netflix fantasy epics. Elizabeth II did not just keep alive a weird, ancient faith; in her last decade, performing alongside James Bond and Paddington, she hinted that monarchy could become something even more weird: a modern phenomenon.
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