28 November 2013

Failure Modes of Monarchy

OK, so a couple of outside websites have stirred the murky pool of neoreaction — a welcome development, I think.

Because of the angle they came at it from (via Mike Annissimov, via Scott Alexander), they rather overstated the importance of monarchism to neoreaction. Monarchy is important as a point of comparison, but it is only one possible approach among several for a neoreactionary future.

Having said that, Anomaly UK is where future monarchy gets seriously proposed, so I’ve pulled together what I think are the main failure modes of monarchy, to put the dangers in the proper perspective. Most of them have been discussed here before, so this is largely an exercise in consolidation and better explanation.

By “failure”, I mean either that the system collapses and is replaced with something else, or that the system survives but is very unpleasant to live under.

There are some failure modes that are common to all systems of government: any system can be invaded by foreigners, or be overthrown by a demagogue. Monarchy, because its distinctive feature is the lack of selection applied to its rulers, and the lack of regular mechanisms for replacing them, has, or is perceived to have, its own peculiar failure modes. Here they are:

  1. King is an evil psychopath
  2. King is a liberal
  3. King is uninterested, politics ensues
  4. King is sick, insane or senile
  5. King is a child
  6. Succession is unclear
  7. King has odd ideas short of insanity


Evil Psychopath — I can't think of any. Democracy (particularly one-party democracy) seems to have a far stronger track record of putting evil psychopaths in power than monarchy does.

Liberals — this has historically been the major failure mode. The solution is to permanently discredit democracy and liberalism. The Roman Republic managed to achieve that for Europe for over a thousand years, so I’m optimistic on this point.

Uninterested — this was a major concern throughout the monarchical period, but I struggle to think of examples, at least from English history. Edward II maybe? That’s a long way back.

Sick or insane — this has been troublesome. Modern medicine greatly reduces the risk: the best-known examples have been the result of syphilis or other treatable conditions. Senility is a major worry for a modern monarchy, though.

Child — again, historically a big worry, but not common: it hasn’t happened in England since Edward VI. Better health makes it less likely. The British royal family currently has three generations of mature adults available.

Unclear succession — again, better health makes shortage of heirs a very minor concern. Disputed legitimacy might become an issue: even with the availability of genetic testing, there is the question of who does the testing and whether they are trusted. My impression is that while disputes over legitimacy or rules of succession are not that rare historically, they are usually cover for some deeper underlying problem, often religious.

Odd ideas — this seems like a worry. Historical examples are again scarce, though. Most odd ideas can be indulged as hobbies at miniscule cost to a modern nation.

The most dangerous odd idea is liberalism; such a damaging and plausible outcome that I already listed it separately. Most European monarchies did in fact succumb to liberal kings. The next most serious threat is religion. If the king adopts a minority religion, or even the majority religion with too much enthusiasm, he risks stirring dangerous levels of opposition. The Stuarts’ problems mostly stemmed from this (though the reformation in Europe necessarily made things difficult for them). My solution is antidisestablishmentarianism.

The common element in many of the perceived dangers of monarchy relate to what the intentions of the monarch will be. The intentions of monarchs seem to nearly always be to preserve his kingdom intact for his family, to be remembered as a success, and, quite often, to get laid a lot.

These motives can cause problems — heavy-handed policing employed against even remote threats to the regime, wasteful vanity projects — are common to all forms of government, particularly democracy. The failure modes that really are specific to monarchy are well-understood, and steps to avoid them have been taken — it is well-known that the chief responsibility of the young royal is to produce more than one legitimate heir at a relatively decent age.

We see this today in the non-ruling royal families of Europe, along with a relatively recent development, that elderly monarchs are routinely either abdicating in favour of their children, or less formally delegating to them. This is an important response to modern longevity. A monarch with strong family loyalty who found himself incapacitated by illness would be likely to do the same.

A tight family group provides these benefits to a monarchy, but if the family is relied on as the most trusted set of allies for the monarch, then family members are going to be competing to some extent for power and influence. This is normal, and happens under every form of government. The fact is that members of a royal family are closer to having a common long-term interest than members of other ruling organisations — political parties, civil service departments or military commands, and so are less likely to be destructive in their competition.


twistedone151 said...

When it comes to evil and/or insane monarchs, you might not be looking far enough afield.

You English have been fairly lucky when it comes to monarchs. About the biggest problem was
Henry VI, who was grandson of Frances Charles VI "the Mad" (see below), and the resulting Wars of the Roses. There was also, of course, Mary I, and the debate over her sanity.

Consider, instead, the following:

The Vasa Dynasty had a number of problematic members
How about Eric XIV? In fact, how about all the sons of Gustav I of Sweden (those who didn't die in infancy, at least)?
Erik XIV: Violent, possibly schizophrenic, definitely paranoid. Convinced that everyone was mocking him behind his back, and plotting against him. Known for killing servants who dressed too nicely on the grounds that such were "obviously" attempting to seduce the ladies of the court. Had killed (and personally stabbed on of) five incarcerated nobles that had become a particular focus of his paranoia. Died from arsenic poisoning, reportedly in his pea soup.
Johan III: opposid his half-brother Erik XIV, and was imprisoned; later released (likely due to Erik's insanity). Eventually deposed Erik; likely had him murdered. Violent, hot tempered, and suspicious, a neurotic depressive in later life. Showed clear Catholic sympathies, tried to reintroduce several Catholic customs.
Karl IX: Calvinist zealot who deposed his Catholic nephew Sigismund III (son of Johan III), who fled to Poland (as Sigismund was also the elected King of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, leading to the splet between the Swedish and Polish Vasas, who each continued to claim to be the legitimate rulers of both realms). "Cruel, ungenerous and vindictive."
Magnus, Duke of Östergötland: the only one not to be king, and insane even compared to his afore-mentioned brothers. Had management of his territory taken over by Johan, who was made Magnus' guardian on account of Magnus' mental illness.

Karl IX's son, Gustav II Adolf the Great, was probably the greatest Swedish king, and definitely competent. However, he was still a bit of a battle-loving megalomaniac, with a fondness for leading cavalry charges, even after having a Polish bullet wedged, inoperably, in his neck in 1627, leaving him unable to wear iron armor and with two fingers on his right hand paralyzed. He died in 1632 at the Battle of Lützen, after being separated from his troops while leading a cavalry charge into a thick, gunsmoke-laden fog.
His sole surviving legitimate child, the tomboyish Christina, Queen regnant of Sweden, was noted for a number of eccentric behaviors, abdicated and converted to Catholicism. Modern physicians believe she likely suffered from pervasive developmental disorder spectrum (eg. the autism spectrum).

twistedone151 said...


Christian VII: systematically abused and terrorized by one of his tutors. Only nominally king for much of his reign, leading to court power struggles among his advisors. Known for suddenly and unexpectedly slapping diplomats across the face while discussing matters of state.
Not to mention a number of alcoholic kings, including
Christian IV, and /Frederick V (father of Christian VII).

The Spanish have a wealth of examples, and not just the Hapsburgs.
Pedro the Cruel off Castile.
Juana "the Mad" of Castile.
Carlos II "the Bewiched", of course; deformed, retarded, incapable of producing an heir.
Ferdinand VI, neurotic, possibly bipolar, hypochondriac (like his father), dominated first by his step-mother, then by his obese, equally neurotic wife.
And while he never became king, on accout of his own father having him imprisoned, and possibly murdered, how about Don Carlos, Prince of Asturias, a sadist known for whipping young women, both prostitutes and servants, nearly to death, and who reportedly enjoyed burning animals alive.

Afonso VI "the Glutton"
Maria I of Portugal, who tended to religious mania, and became increasingly convinced of her own damnation.

twistedone151 said...

Clovis II, Merovingian child-king, held by some to be an early Roi fainéant ("do-nothing king" or "lazy king")
Charles VI, "the Mad", who suddenly went mad in August 1392, killed four of his knights, and nearly killed his brother. He then went on to have ever more severe bouts of insanity, leading to a power struggle that weakened France in the Hundred Years' War.
Or how about Charles IX, the "snotty king" or "brat king", the unstable violent mama's boy.

The Germanies had their share of eccentrics, including Frederick William I of Prussia and his Potsdam Giants; Ludwig II of Bavaria, the "Swan King", with his fairy-tale palaces; and Otto of Bavaria, brother and heir of Ludwig II.

Ferdinand I of Austria: his parents were double first cousins. Suffered from hydrocephalus, epilepsy (with as many as twenty seizures a day), and neurological problems; his court physician thought it unlikely that Ferdinand would be able to consummate his marriage. Famous for one coherent command: when his cook told him he couldn't have the Marillenknödel (apricot dumplings) he wanted, as apricots were out of season, he said "Ich bin der Kaiser und ich will Knödel!" ("I am the Emperor, and I want dumplings!").

twistedone151 said...

Giovanni Battista Gastone de' Medici, last of the Medician Grand Dukes of Tuscany. Repealed legal restrictions on Jews, discontinued public executions, abolished taxes for his poorer subjects. Hated his unstable wife (the feeling was mutual), had no issue. Spent most of his later life refusing to leave his bed. With his death, ended the almost 300 year rule of Florence by the Medicis.

And, of course, imperial Rome had a number of appalling emperors, including transsexual Elagabalus, gay Hadrian, child-molesting Tiberius, fever maddened Gaius Germanicus "Caligula", fly-torturing Domitian, and momma's boy Nero.

How about Ivan IV, Ivan Grozny, "the Terrible", who killed his son and chosen heir in one of his violent rages, leaving him to be succeded by the other son, the purportedly mentally-handicapped Feodor I, "the Bellringer".
Ivan V "the Ignorant", half-brother of Peter the Great, described by foreign ambassadors as senile, paralytic and almost blind at age 27, died at 29. Controlled mostly by his sister.

Hungary and the Balkans:
Of course, there was that Romanian folk hero, the Voivode of Wallachia who once had some diplomats' hats nailed to those diplomats' heads when they were insufficiently prompt in removing them in his presence: Vlad III Dracula, the Impaler.
And while merely high nobility closely related to monarchs (niece of one Voivod of Transylvania and cousin to a King of Poland), who can forget Transylvanian aristocrat Báthory Erzsébet, sadist and most prolific female serial killer in history.

twistedone151 said...

The Ottomans had a number of messed-up sultans, mainly due to the practice of heirs to the throne growing up in the Kafes, "the Cage", locked up in the palace under constant surveilance, on account of the history of fratricidal succession wars between brothers of a newly deceased sultan.
Mustafa I: at least neurotic, possibly retarded. Confined to his room in "the Cage" for 14 years during the reign of his brother Ahmed I; brought out and made sultain in 1617 after Ahmed's premature death from typhus. Deposed the next year in favor of his nephew Osman II (who was fond of archery practice with live targets, including prisoners-of-war and his own pages), and put back in the Cage. Brought back out and made sultain again in 1622 after Osman's assassination (by a combination of strangulation and "compression of the testicles"). Refused to leave the "Cage" through the door, had to be hoisted out through a hole opened in the roof. Executed those who assassinated Osman, but later in his madness, came to believe that his nephew was still alive; spent his second reign of about a year searching throughout the palace for his dead nephew, knocking on doors and calling out for him to come relieve him from the burden of ruling. Deposed and confined again, this time by Osman II's younger half-brother, Murad IV.
Murad IV: Brought to power at age 11 through palace conspiracy against his uncle Mustafa I. Banned alcohol, tobacco, and coffee in Constantinople, with the death penalty for violating the ban; patrolled streets of Constantinople in civilian clothes at night, personally beheading those he found breaking the ban; this despite (or perhaps because of) being a heavy drinker himself, once writing in a poem, "the wine is such a devil that I have to protect my people from it by drinking all of it." Noted for his physical strength and martial prowess; killed one of his brothers, Bayezid, when Bayezid beat him in a joust.
Notorious for the frequency and capriciousness of executions (someting like 25,000 in five years): forced one of his doctors to swallow an overdose of his own opium; impaled a courier for mistakenly informing him that he'd fathered boy, when in fact it was a daughter; beheaded his personal musician for playing a Persian melody; hanged a man for adding another floor to his house, thinking he'd done it to peer into the harem; shot at passers-by who ventured too close to the harem.
Thanks to his mother's tendency to keep him away from girls growing up, and showing him only beautiful boys, wound up with a sexually-confused love-hate relationship with women. Once ordered a group of women singing in a meadow drowned for disturbing his peace. Ordered his gunners to fire upon and sink a boat full of women who came too close to the harem walls. When riding out with his bow, liked to take aim at passing women.
Died from cirrhosis of the liver at age 27. Rumors circulated that on his deathbed, he ordered the execution of his remaining brother, mentally disabled Ibrahim I, which would have ended the Ottoman line; the order was not carried out.

twistedone151 said...

Turkey (continued):

Ibrahim I "the Mad": Succeded his older brother Murad IV, who had killed four of their other brothers; refused to take the throne until they let him examine Murad's corpse to make sure he was dead (and thus not a trick by Murad to have an excuse to make him dead brother number five). Suffered recurring headaches and bouts of weakness, possibly due to his traumatic upbringing. Indulged in debauchery in his opulent palaces. Often manipulated by first his mother, then his concubines and favorites; showered wealth on his harem. Deposed and killed by the Janissaries after mass discontent caused by the heavy taxes needed to pay for his extravagances and whims while under a wartime economy and Venetian blockade.

Farouk I: wasteful, extravagant, corrupt, ineffectual; "a stomach with a head".

Shah Safi: sixth Safavid ruler. Only one of Shah Abbas I sons who Abbas did not have killed or blinded. Crowned at age 18, executed most of his family, along with the leading courtiers and generals. Illiterate, with no cultural interests. Neglected affairs of state, in favor of his opium addiction and alcoholism. Hated tobacco; reportedly had those caught smoking executed by pouring molten lead in their mouths. Lost Baghdad to the Ottomans.

twistedone151 said...

Crown Prince Sado: suffered from mental illness, including superstitious obsession with his clothes; burned whole sets of new silken clothes. Terrified not only of thunder and lightning, but of the characters for thunder and lightning; believed that if a thunderstorm occured in winter, his father would blame him for it. Relieved his bouts of depression by murdering servants. Purportedly enjoyed raping court ladies; after murdering his concubine, he reportedly started harassing his own sister. By court rules, his father, King Yeongjo, could not kill him directly, thus, Yeongjo ordered Sado into a large rice box, which was then sealed, on a hot July day; Sado died of suffocation after eight days. Later promoted to Emperor status and title posthumously.

Qin Er Shi: second, and last, emperor of the Qin dynasty. Widely believed to have killed his father (Qin Shi Huang, he of the Terracotta Army). Came to power instead of his older brother Fusu due to a conspiracy between Chancellor Li Si and Chief Eunuch Zhao Gao, possibly with Er Shi's involvement, successfully forging a fake will of Qin Shi Huang, inserting an order for Fusu to commit suicide. Generally known as a puppet of Zhao Gao, who is frequently considered one of the most villainous of the Chinese eunuchs. Executed many imperial princes and ministers. Continued massive building projects, including what became the Great Wall, and extravagances like lacquering the city walls; enlarged the army; increased taxes. Famous for arresting messengers who brought him bad news.
Emperor Yang: second, and last, emperor of the short-lived Sui dynasty. Committed men and resources to several immense projects, including completion of the world's longest canal, and expansion work on the Great Wall (at the cost of the lives of about six million workers). Extended Chinese rule into what is now Vietnam, mainly to the result of thousands of malaria deaths among the soldiers. Had several failed campaigns against the Goguryeo kingdom of Korea. Altogether, bankrupted the empire, left the populace in revolt, and was strangled in a coup. Generally regarded as one of the worst tyrants in Chinese history.

twistedone151 said...

China (continued):
Fu Sheng: blind in one eye, and notoriously sensitive about it; reportedly had killed anyone who used in his presence the words “without”, “devoid of”, “lacking”, or any other phrase that reminded him of his handicap. Noted for violence and cruelty; executed several individuals simply because astrological forecasted the death of a high official. A heavy drinker. Liked to toss live animals into boiling water; also skinned alive animals, and occasionally humans. Deposed, and executed by being dragged by a horse.
Emperor Qianfei of Liu Song: impulsive, violent, sexually immoral teenager, whose short reign was marked by a killing spree. Refused to see his dying mother, as the rooms of sick people had ghosts in them. Gave his sister a "harem" of thirty handsome young men. Falsely accused his uncle of planning a rebellion simply because he wanted the chance to declare a state of emergency. Carried on an incestuous relationship with his aunt; attempted to fake her death so as to keep her as a concubine; may have also committed incest with his sister. Summoned the imperial princesses to the palace and ordered them to allow his attendants to have sex with them; when one, the widow of his deceased uncle, refused, he he had her whipped and her sons executed. Allegedly, would sometimes force concubines to have sex with animals. Assassinated after reigning for just one year.
The Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty: overthrew his nephew, then falsified records in an attempt to erase said nephew's reign (and his own rebellion) from history. Noted for his early reign of terror, executing the entire families of scholars who refused to legitimate his reign, along with supporters of the former regime, including the only execution to 10 degrees of kinship in Chinese history. Gave broad, extra-legal authority to his eunuch secret police. When one of his favorite concubines died, he suspected poisoning, and so ordered 2,800 ladies-in-waiting executed by ling chi ("slow slicing", aka "death by a thousand cuts"), and watched their deaths. Constructed the Forbidden City. Had about thirty women hanged, so as to be buried with him, after he died.

twistedone151 said...

China (continued):
The Zhengde Emperor of the Ming Dynasty: reckless, irresponsible hedonist. Frequented brothels; built palaces to house exotic animals; once mauled hunting tigers and could not appear for audiences for a month; so overfilled his harem that many of the women starved to death as the palace could not provide enough food for all of them; once burned down his palace by storing gunpowder in the courtyards during the Lantern Festival; set up a staged commercial district inside his palace, ordering his ministers, soldiers, servants, eunuchs, et cetera to play the part of street vendors and merchants while he visited, he playing the part of a commoner. Invited a number of Muslims; one of his favorite concubines was an Uighur woman, and it is alleged that he had a homosexual relationship with Sayyid Husain, a Muslim leader from Hami City. Died of illness contracted when his pleasure boat capsized. No surviving children.
More debatable, but still a possible runner up: Empress Dowager Cixi, puppet master of the Qing Dynasty for 47 years.

twistedone151 said...

And then, across all the countries, are the countless mistresses and royal bastards. There were many kings who could put to shame any Clinton or Kennedy in the adultery and sexual indiscretion department.

This is not to say that your criticism of democracy is incorrect, nor to say that monarchy cannot be a superior alternative. I simply wish to point out that the distance of history (and the unusual functionality of English monarchy, to go with the unusual functionality of the Anglosphere in general) can give one an overly-rosy view, and lead one to underestimate the sometimes spectacular failings of the institution.

August said...

Arguably, we've seen another failure mode: the royal family marrying into other royal families. This leads to monarchs that the people think are foreign, and people the monarch thinks are foreign, for that matter.

A royal family that tends to marry within it's the realm would encourage people to try and marry up. It would also tend to reduce the revolutionary mentality.

Shenpen said...

Can't a kind be not insane just simply selfish, a bit megalomaniac and power-tripping?

Isn't it true for the vast majority of modern dictatorships?