There is much to learn from the House of Windsor’s understated political aptitude and its capacity for ceaseless rejuvenation through the savvy use of spectacle, myth and symbolism despite the rising tide of republican, anti-monarchical and tax-payer resentment. This is especially true for governing elites in places where states are reeling from centrifugal fractures…
The royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle this past weekend reaffirmed the enduring power of myth, spectacle and symbolism in shaping consciousness, perceptions and attitudes on a mass scale. It illustrated how a hoary institution such as the British monarchy, supposedly long past its sell-by date, leverages this power to arouse awe and perpetuate its existence. Of course, pacifying people with spectacle has been a trusted imperial stratagem since ancient Rome. Then, the spectacles were circuses and the gruesome gladiatorial dramas of the coliseum. A contemporary publicist would probably simply say that most people are suckers for pageantry and apart from perhaps a papal coronation, few events can match a Windsor wedding for sheer pageantry. Thus, it was that the spectacle had advocates of equality of various shades engaging in the rather ideologically contradictory guilty pleasure of enjoying the aristocratic festival.
Self-professed republicans, at least briefly, celebrated an institution of hereditary privilege and a relic of feudalism. Likewise, for a short while, some feminists reveled in the dramatisation of a patriarchal fantasy – that of the ordinary lass promoted into royalty by Prince Charming. Citizens of former colonies were enthralled by a carnival celebrating an institution, which less than a hundred years ago, had supervised the subjugation and plunder of their lands. Beneath the shimmer and the glitter of the event, it was easy to forget that the jewelry on display was a mild reminder of the legacy of colonial extraction.
During his trial for treason in 1948 by British colonial authorities, the Nigerian nationalist Raji Abdallah declared, “I hate the crown of Britain with all my heart because to me and my countrymen, it is a symbol of oppression, a symbol of persecution, and in short, a material manifestation of iniquity.” He and his fellow agitators would be baffled by their descendants’ fascination with the British crown. They would be even more confounded by the existence of the Commonwealth, an organisation which in the words of the writer Femi Osofisan, is sustained by a “passionate complex of servitude and nostalgia.” The Commonwealth may represent a lingering post-colonial infatuation with erstwhile imperial overlords. Such Anglophilic obsessions may also partly explain the fascination with the royal wedding on this side of the Atlantic.
Among the ideas circulating in sections of the British press before the wedding was the preposterous notion that the advent of the new Duchess of Sussex, given her mixed race heritage, will dramatically alter race relations in Britain. It does seem that each time a person of colour breaks the racial barrier and ascends into a certain bracket of influence, it spurs magical thinking about how the belated normalisation of people that have long been considered simultaneously exotic, inferior and undeserving of humanisation and equal treatment will trigger social miracles. Not so long ago, in the United States, the ascent of Barack Obama was expected to herald a post-racial era. Instead, the Age of Obama bore witness to a spike in racism and the emergence of a birther movement that constantly sought to otherise and thereby delegitimise America’s first black president. That racist backlash inspired the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the spate of extrajudicial killings of young black males and ultimately propelled Donald Trump on a crest wave of white nationalist angst, among other resentments, into the White House.
The resilience of the British monarchy and the adulation it still commands, even beyond the shores of England, at a time when liberal democracy is supposedly ascendant, suggests that inequality in all its manifestations from patriarchy to monarchy, will persist for a long while yet. Perhaps, equality itself is a chimera and the search for it is a quixotic futility.
Another theory put forward in some quarters of the British commentariat was that the advent of a “black princess” in Albion has somehow elevated and edified women of colour all over the world. This will, no doubt, come as a surprise to the billions of such women who have been living their lives blissfully unaware that their existence required validation by Meghan Markle’s wedding. It may be that a real-life fairy tale induces fantastical conjecture about the state of the world. These sociocultural moments that are supposedly symbolised by the ascendancy of people of colour and minorities can often unleash contradictory forces. Indeed, the fairy tale of the Windsors welcoming a mixed-race princess has occurred against the backdrop of Britain’s expulsion of afro-Caribbean people of the Windrush generation in a fever of Anglo-nativist xenophobia. Realism demands that we simply acknowledge the entertainment value of the event and conclude that while it was a great spectacle, nothing dramatic has changed or will change about race relations or the status of women of colour because of a Windsor wedding.
The resilience of the British monarchy and the adulation it still commands, even beyond the shores of England, at a time when liberal democracy is supposedly ascendant, suggests that inequality in all its manifestations from patriarchy to monarchy, will persist for a long while yet. Perhaps, equality itself is a chimera and the search for it is a quixotic futility. After all, when we survey the broad sweep of history, we find that inequality is the norm, the default condition of human society. Equality is a relatively recent concept. The richest one percent that controls half the world’s wealth will probably always exist. Gifts, talents and aptitudes are not equally distributed and even where equality of opportunity is institutionalised, it will not lead to the ultimate equality of wealth and power. It cannot. Social engineers must account for differentials in the individual drive and thirst for wealth and power and even in how individuals define success. To say that human beings are equal is not to say that they should be identical. To this extent, aristocracies of talent and intelligence are inevitable. Among the rights we must respect is the freedom to be content with one’s lot in life or to be plainly unambitious. The societies that have sought to enforce equality of outcomes are totalitarian enclaves or poverty-stricken ghettoes and history is littered with their carcasses.
This is not to say that the pursuit of equality is a bad thing. The levelling of hierarchies, providing equality of access to opportunity, and combating unjust privilege vested in patriarchy, feudalism, despotism, plutocracy and similar power structures is a worthy goal. It is impossible to sustain social cohesion and common citizenship where disparities of status, wealth, power and privilege persist. Without equality, universal human rights are no more than a dream and democracy becomes a sham. The modern notion of social progress is built, to a large extent, on the foundation of equality. In the 1600s, when Samuel Rutherford propounded the idea of the rule of law or Lex Rex (the law is king), as against the divine right of kings and argued that even the king was subject to the law, his book was burnt. Equality has not been an easy ideal to accept.
For the rest of us who profess to be part of a woke generation, it is possible that we are merely discriminatory about the sort of feudal relics we are willing to celebrate. The interest generated by the Windsor wedding certainly does not extend to other royal weddings such as those of, say, the King of Swaziland or broadly to the aristocracies of Kuwait or Bhutan.
It may also be that we have not thought through the principle of equality rigorously enough to grasp how destabilising it is to the status quo, and therefore we have not apprehended it enough to be uncompromisingly committed to it. For such commitment to egalitarianism would not permit even the mildest seduction of hearts and minds by the obsolete pageantry of kings and queens. The mapping of the human genome, which has conclusively established that there is only one humanity and no scientific basis for racism or racial supremacy, also nullifies the notion of sacred superior bloodlines. “Royal families” are sociopolitical constructs rather than products of genetic destiny.
Despite the obvious anachronism of such institutions, the allure of the Windsors and their class is understandable. People need to believe in transcendence – in something larger than themselves. Throughout history, invisible gods have needed earthly representation, hence the divine right of institutions of hereditary privilege and sacred blood lines. The British monarchy endures therefore as a national symbol of divinely ordained imperial hegemony – a reminder of when Britannia ruled the waves and an elegy to a faded golden age when the small island nation punched above its weight. At a time that greater diversity is raising questions about what it means to be British, the monarchy, warts and all, also serves as a binding national institution. However, this is the last tenuous argument for a bastion of inherited privilege which, like others of its ilk, ought to pass into terminal obsolescence.
There is much to learn from the House of Windsor’s understated political aptitude and its capacity for ceaseless rejuvenation through the savvy use of spectacle, myth and symbolism despite the rising tide of republican, anti-monarchical and tax-payer resentment. This is especially true for governing elites in places where states are reeling from centrifugal fractures, self-inflicted delegitimisation and in which elitism has come to be conflated with knavery.
For the rest of us who profess to be part of a woke generation, it is possible that we are merely discriminatory about the sort of feudal relics we are willing to celebrate. The interest generated by the Windsor wedding certainly does not extend to other royal weddings such as those of, say, the King of Swaziland or broadly to the aristocracies of Kuwait or Bhutan. Perhaps, we are willing to accept inequality, feudalism and patriarchy, so long as they are garnished with the right aesthetics and clad in heartwarming narratives.
Chris Ngwodo is a writer, consultant and analyst.
Picture credit: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier.