Some irregular thoughts on Anarcho-Monarchism—“The ideal king would be rather like the king in chess: the most useless piece on the board"
|Drawing of the frontispiece of The Leviathan which Hobbes gave to Charles II|
From David Bentley Hart’s essay “Anarcho-Monarchism” for the magazine, First Things,
11th December 2010
There is . . . something degrading about deferring to a politician, or going through the silly charade of pretending that “public service” is a particularly honourable occupation, or being forced to choose which band of brigands, mediocrities, wealthy lawyers, and (God spare us) idealists will control our destinies for the next few years.
But a king—a king without any real power, that is—is such an ennoblingly arbitrary, such a tender and organically human institution. It is easy to give our loyalty to someone whose only claim on it is an accident of heredity, because then it is a free gesture of spontaneous affection that requires no element of self-deception, and that does not involve the humiliation of having to ask to be ruled.
The ideal king would be rather like the king in chess: the most useless piece on the board, which occupies its square simply to prevent any other piece from doing so, but which is somehow still the whole game. There is something positively sacramental about its strategic impotence. And there is something blessedly gallant about giving one’s wholehearted allegiance to some poor inbred ditherer whose chief passions are Dresden china and the history of fly-fishing, but who nonetheless, quite ex opere operato, is also the bearer of the dignity of the nation, the anointed embodiment of the genius gentis — a kind of totem or, better, mascot.
Some irregular thoughts on anarcho-monarchism—“The ideal king would be rather like the king in chess: the most useless piece on the board"
Before I begin an address concerning something about the always vexed question of the intertwined relationship between monarchy and electoral democracy I need to note something about politics and religion. It is vital to recall that in these islands they have always been indissolubly mixed in some fashion. Remember from your school-days that our Kings and Queens believed they governed by “divine right”. Here is how James VI of Scotland (1566–1625), aka James I from the union of the Scottish and English crowns on 24 March 1603 until his death in 1625, put the matter in a speech to parliament in 1610:
The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth, for kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself they are called gods. There be three principal [comparisons] that illustrate the state of monarchy: one taken out of the word of God, and the two other out of the grounds of policy and philosophy. In the Scriptures kings are called gods, and so their power after a certain relation compared to the Divine power. Kings are also compared to fathers of families; for a king is truly parens patriae [parent of the country], the politic father of his people. And lastly, kings are compared to the head of this microcosm of the body of man.
The later English Civil War (1642-1651) was, principally, a fight over the truth or otherwise of this belief and, therefore, over what was the appropriate way to govern England, a monarchy or a parliamentary democracy. It was a question of which system people felt best expressed God’s will or had divine sanction in some fashion and let’s not forget that God, as you heard in our reading from 1 Samuel 8, was on record warning the people against kings.
Now, today, although in the civic space we tend not to talk about things “like the will of God” we would do well to remember the point made by Carl Schmitt (1888–1985) that “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularised theological concepts” (Political Theology p. 56). Be that as it may, here, in this church setting, we (at least figuratively) still speak in this fashion it’s important to remember that our service concludes week by week with the words: “Now may the spirit of Jesus be in us also, enabling us to do the will of God, and so abide in God’s peace.” (It’s worth thinking carefully about what what we as a congregation are trying to say/imply by using these words . . .)
Anyway, it seems fair to say that until the relatively recent development of what we may call technocratic politics, the question of how one was governed was clearly not simply a secular, technical question but always, instead, a principled theological and, therefore, religious one.
I hope this makes it clear enough that the kind of governance our nation has is a a wholly appropriate matter to consider in a church setting.
OK, with that important general point touched upon I can begin properly with my subject today.
Earlier this year I introduced you to what I think is the very fine and helpfully challenging new translation of the New Testament by the American scholar and Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart (b. 1965).
In that address which, you may remember, was an exploration of the idea that Jesus’s thought and practice might best be described as being anarchist, I mentioned that Hart is himself on record as describing himself as an anarchist, but one of an unusual kind, an anarcho-monarchist. Now, this intrigued me because I also self-describe as an anarchist (although, let me be clear, of a Winstanley-esque or Tolstoyan kind and and not the Guy Fawkes, V for Vendetta, masked-man with a molotov-cocktail variety). I recall that, in an ad-libbed aside, I was somewhat dismissive of the possibility that such an anarcho-monarchist position could be an at all coherent proposition. After all, the word anarchy means, literally, without (an-) a chief or leader (arkhos) and this doesn’t seem to align with monarchy in any sense.
But, despite my initial dismissal of it, one or two ideas from Hart’s essay have continued occasionally to occupy my thoughts over the past couple of months.
Now, although I’m not actively an anti-Monarchist, ceteris paribus (i.e. all things being equal), in an ideal world were I given a simple, binary choice between a monarchy and a republic I’d choose a Republic every time; to glance back over my shoulder to the Civil War I tend to see myself more as a child of Oliver Cromwell than of King Charles I.
But I — we — do not live in an ideal world and things are, of course, never equal in the actual lived world and there are almost never before us simple binary choices. As Hart wryly notes
. . . as is always the case here below in the regio dissimilitudinis (region of unlikeness) . . . The sweetest wine quaffed from the cup of bliss comes mingled with a bitter draft of sorrow (alas, alack).
So I’m not really a child Cromwell — that, I realise, is merely an illusion — in truth I’m a child of a whole, mixed, bitter draft that is the bloody, highly conflicted history which led to the strange — unique even — constitutional monarchy we have today and, whether or not I like it, I have no choice but to articulate my reflections today from within it.
Now, as I proceed, using Hart to help provoke some irregular thoughts, remember he’s writing in the US context but always doing it with a great love, knowledge and respect of Britain. What I hope is that his US perspective can help me (and perhaps you) to re-evaluate somewhat my own perspective.
Hart begins his essay by setting the scene via an intriguing letter by J. R. R. Tolkien in which he sketchily outlined his own anarcho-monarchist position. The scene set, half-way through Hart’s essay, he notes — and with him I agree wholeheartedly, that
If one were to devise a political system from scratch, knowing something of history and a great deal about human nature, the sort of person that one would chiefly want, if possible, to **exclude** from power would be the sort of person who most desires it, and who is most willing to make a great effort to acquire it. By all means, drag a reluctant Cincinnatus [c.519–c.430 BC, a Roman patrician, statesman, and military leader of the early Republic] from his fields when the Volscians are at the gates, but then permit him to retreat again to his arable exile when the crisis has passed; for God’s sake, though, never surrender the fasces [a Roman symbol of power] to anyone who eagerly reaches out his hand to take them.
However, as Hart continues, “our [current] system obliges us to elevate to office precisely those persons who have the ego-besotted effrontery to ask us to do so”:
. . . it is rather like being compelled to cede the steering wheel to the drunkard in the back seat loudly proclaiming that he knows how to get us there in half the time. More to the point, since our perpetual electoral cycle is now largely a matter of product recognition, advertising, and marketing strategies, we must be content often to vote for persons willing to lie to us with some regularity or, if not that, at least to speak to us evasively and insincerely. In a better, purer world — the world that cannot be — ambition would be an absolute disqualification for political authority.
Once again, I find myself agreeing entirely with Hart on this matter — not least of all because there are real parallels with our situation in the UK — but, as Hart concludes this section of his essay:
And yet we must choose, one way or the other. Even the merry recreant who casts no vote at all, or flings a vote away onto the midden of some third party as a protest, is still making a choice with consequences, however small. And none of the other political systems on offer in the modern world are alternatives that any sane person would desire; so we cannot just eradicate our political class altogether and hope for the best (anyway, who would clean up afterward?).
It is at this point in his essay that he introduces the paragraphs you heard earlier about a king. But it becomes immediately clear he’s not talking about the kind of monarchs that are imagined in 1 Samuel 8 who were very like those we had here before the Civil War, nor even those who came after Restoration of 1660 or the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688. Hart’s ideal king is instead, remember, like the king in a game of chess, “the most useless piece on the board, which occupies its square simply to prevent any other piece from doing so, but which is somehow still the whole game.”
Hart is saying that it is to this kind of “king” that he is loyal who is sitting at the centre of his “anarcho-monarchism”.
Now Hart is absolutely clear that none of this should be taken as “an actual program for political action or reform.” But, given this the question arises concerning why on earth has he bothered to write about it in the first place? Well, as he notes “We all have to make our way as best we can across the burning desert floor of history, and those who do so with the aid of “political philosophies” come in two varieties.
The first kind are those
. . . whose political visions hover tantalizingly near on the horizon, like inviting mirages, and who are as likely as not to get the whole caravan killed by trying to lead it off to one or another of those nonexistent oases.
The second kind are those
. . . whose political dreams are only cooling clouds, easing the journey with the meagre shade of a gently ironic critique, but always hanging high up in the air, forever out of reach.
Hart hopes that his own political philosophy which, he says is “derived entirely from my exactingly close readings of The Compleat Angler and The Wind in the Willows” is of this latter kind. (How ironic is Hart being at this point? I don't know and I ask this as myself a lover of both these books — indeed, I spent my first five years of life walking and fishing for tiddlers along exactly the same stretch of the River Lea that is the setting of The Compleat Angler).
Now it’s absolutely certain that the political options available to us are in fact much richer and more diverse than the binary choice he offers us here but it seems to me that Hart’s general rhetorical point made by putting only two options before us genuinely helps us to identify something extremely worthy of consideration.
For he is surely right in suggesting to us that our current political classes — whether from the left, the right, or the neoliberal so-called centre — are filled with the kind of people who simply shouldn’t be governing. They are people of ambition who are clearly offering us visions which seem very likely as not to lead our whole caravan off into some nonexistent oases which could get a lot of people killed on the way. This week has been dominated by a perfect example of this kind of leadership.
It’s also clear that our governing politicians are not speaking in the spirit of Jesus whose powerless power, to remind you of my Easter Sunday address, “is the love that moves the human heart by consent”. Neither, if one is minded to put it this way, are their actions in accord with the “will of God” that, through the exercise of the powerless power of love, tends towards the creation of a peaceable kingdom.
I’ll simply conclude at this point by noting that I have found Hart’s irregular thoughts on the kind of leadership represented by the useless king on a chess board contain a powerful insight which might be of great help to us as we, today, are being forced by events such as Brexit and the election of Trump to the Presidency of the USA to think through to what might be the best systems of governance for our own age.
I await with interest your own thoughts on the matter.