19 March 2011

Actually Existing Monarchy

Aretae is the latest, though by no means the first, to observe that the ideal I have described, of the Monarch whose Unchallenged Authority removes all internal conflict and politics, does not closely resemble European history as we are familiar with it.

My response — inevitably — is that those monarchies that were forever engaged in political struggles against internal power centres and rivals were not Proper Absolute Monarchies — they were transitional stages on the way to creating proper monarchy.

Stop sniggering at the back!

But that is indeed how they saw things. Early monarchs were not able to raise armies and levy taxes effectively, as they did not control an apparatus adequate to do so. They relied on an aristocracy to provide those — and the Barons were not under the King's personal authority, but tied to him by a net of property rights.

By the 16th Century (in England, I think France and Spain were more or less in step, or slightly ahead), the Lords' importance for raising armies was reduced, and the apparatus of war was more under the control of the Monarch and his chosen subordinates. However, substantial tax-raising was still beyond the capabilities of the Royal administration. As the importance of the Lords declined due to their military irrelevance, their taxing duties were spread across a wider group of landowners and leading urbanites. The Lords together with representatives of the other tax-raising groups give us the Parliaments of the 16th-17th centuries.

As communications, literacy and the other technology of government advanced, the Royal administration became capable of levying taxes without assistance of pre-existing, independent, local power structures. However, the fact that tax collection had traditionally been done through and with the approval of those structures meant they saw their role in the process as a right, and resisted being taken out of the loop.

Unfortunately, as Charles I tried to complete the process of discarding the last piece of obsolete feudal detritus — parliament — he ran into trouble. He was stymied by a combination of his own incompetence and the after-effects of the reformation. However hard the King and his supporters argued that the path their opponents were on could lead to only to democracy, they were not believed.

In France and Spain, the Catholic monarchies succeeded where the Stuarts failed. Meanwhile in England, as had been forseen by the Cavaliers, the power of Parliament decayed into party politics and a ruling class devoted to the creation of propaganda. (I recommend Ophelia Field's book which describes the process vividly.)

English politics produced more and more effective propaganda (that being, then as now, its main output), and the poison of Locke and the like spread Whiggism to France, and despite the tragedy it produced there, continued to gain ground until the twentieth century, when outright war against all monarchy became practical and in the end successful.

So, on Aretae's point, I do not have a royalist utopia to point to — no English king, even in theory, could do whatever he wanted. The 80 years of Louis XIV and XV does hint at what is possible.

This is the conversation I want to have: let us accept that politics is the problem, and discuss whether absolute monarchy is a solution. I am far from certain, and am open to consider alternative solutions, whether they be rigged elections, institutionalised criminal gangs, seasteads, or whatever. Monarchy still seems the most promising line to me, particularly in Britain where we have a mythology and an extant Royal Family to return to.

The Swiss Canton/Medieval City-State deserves a separate post.

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