Long live the King? Mibbes aye! Mibbes naw! The signs are not good. Anti-monarchy protests may be small in both size and number, but they are visible and audible despite what appears to be a half-arsed attempt at a media black-out. Impressions are inevitably distorted by competing ‘news values’ that pitch the inconvenient against the sensational. On the one hand there is the pressure to play down certain aspects of events brought to bear in ways both subtle and blatant by established power. On the other, there is the incessant quest for whatever bait might grab the fickle and fleeting attention of all the little fishes swimming in the sea of mediated messages. What is presented to us depends on the state of play in that constant tug-of-war between the factual and the preferable. Further complicated by contests among different accounts of the facts and different priorities informing what is preferred.
There is the image that the establishment wants to present, and there is the reality on the ground. The technical means now exist to disseminate genuinely fake news. By which I mean stories that are totally false by supported by actual visual evidence. ‘Deep fake’ is a real thing even if the term ‘fake news’ has been devalued by being applied by many to anything they don’t want people to believe. If established power wanted to tell a big lie than it has access to the tools to tell the biggest lie in the entire history of lying. What is apparently happening ‘live’ on our TV screens needn’t be happening anywhere other than in a powerful computer programmed by people who lived a substantial part of their formative years in one or more virtual worlds created by people who also lived a substantial part of their formative years in one or more virtual worlds. The news media have always sought to manufacture alternative realities by manipulating perceptions. We now live in a time when the tools and techniques of deception have evolved to the point where manufactured reality can have all the attributes of actual reality apart from truth. If truth is defined by the evidence of our senses and our senses can be fed inputs that are entirely simulated then the simulation is our truth.
Scary? Orwell’s 1984 meets The Matrix? It’s possible. It isn’t common practice… yet! But if established power wanted us to see the old Queen’s funeral cortege proceeding up a Royal Mile lined with packed crowds of respectfully silent mourners many of who carried Union flags, then the technical means to have this fed to us in real time either exists of soon will. The pertinent question may not be whether and how are the media manipulating perceptions but why are they not doing so more thoroughly.
The best defense against media manipulation has always been an awareness of the fact that perceptions are being manipulated and some knowledge of the techniques used. The active, critical consumer of media messages is far more difficult to influence than the passive, unquestioning consumer. When you know that a newspaper report may practice to deceive by the way it is structured then hiding the factual content at the bottom of the page ─ or on another page entirely ─ is less likely to be effective in keeping those facts from you. If you know that the headline and the opening paragraphs of a story are intended to direct you to a particular interpretation then you will be more inclined to resist that manipulation.
If you are familiar with at least some of the tricks of the video editor’s trade then you are better disposed to question the evidence of your own eyes. If you realise that the commentary on live broadcasts can be used to colour what you are seeing and that even the background sound may be mixed in such a way as to make the evidence of your own ears less reliable, then you may adopt the practice of watching live coverage with the sound muted.
But what if the simulacrum is so complete and flawless that it doesn’t merely alter the truth but erases and replaces it? What if the faking techniques are so refined that there are no clues at all? That is certainly the direction in which technology is headed. Not because of some great conspiracy but simply because if there is a better way of doing something then somebody will always be looking for it. All human creativity is the search for a better metaphor. What the artist seeks to create is a sensory stimulant that will induce the audience to see what the artist sees. Creativity in the field of technology ─ inventiveness ─ is also the quest for better metaphors. The most sophisticated guided missile is just a fancy spear. The spear in turn, is a metaphor for the arm and fist that extends the reach of that most basic weapon. If the club metaphor makes the arm longer and the fist heavier, it’s just human nature to seek a metaphor which extends the arm even further ─ allowing the user to stay out of harm’s way. Inevitably, some smart-arse humanoid had to realise that the metaphorical fist didn’t have to be attached to the person throwing the metaphorical punch. Perhaps the same smart-arse humanoid was the one who realised that if distance meant that the metaphorical punch had less force then it made sense to have that metaphorical force concentrated on a smaller target area ─ which is what the spear-point does.
The atomic bomb that struck Hiroshima was a metaphorical punch delivered from half a world away by the metaphorical arm of an aircraft.
It’s all metaphor. The monarch is a metaphor for the phenomenon commonly called God. A supernatural and supreme power. In the UK, the Prime Minister is a metaphor for the monarch. Recall that human nature directs us to constantly seek improvement of our metaphors. So, absent effective checks, the Prime Minister becomes more and more monarchical over time. As evidence of this, I refer you to observable reality ─ bearing in mind, of course, that observation is not always reliable.
(I interject here to mention the fact that this metaphorical thinking that is almost certainly unique to human beings has its evolutionary origins in our need to build mental maps of our physical and social environment the better to survive. Metaphorical thinking is highly adaptive. Perhaps peculiarly so as it need not be entirely dependent on changes to the phenotype. But that’s for another time.)
In the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state we see chains of metaphors for the power of God that starts with the monarch. Or the chieftain. It varies from culture to culture. But the metaphorical nature of the power is a constant. When someone remarks of some petty official that they are behaving like they were God Almighty, they’re closer to the truth than they might suppose.
Is there a point to all of this, I hear you ask. There is. While the death of Queen Elizabeth the Whateverth and accession of King Charles the Last(?) has prompted ─ or invigorated ─ debate about the future of the monarchy; and while there seems to be some effort being made to suppress or at least conceal this debate, there is rather less discussion of either the implications of abolishing the monarchy or the reasons for the suppression / concealment of the debate. Two things which are as you might suspect, intimately linked.
If as I have theorised, the power structures of the British state all stem from the monarch, what happens when you remove the penultimate source of that power? Is it fear of those consequences which drives established power’s efforts to preserve the monarchy? The answer to the latter question seems like an obvious affirmative. If power derives from the next metaphor up in the chain that ultimately leads to the thing that the monarch represents, then it is entirely logical to suppose that those who possess that power will want to preserve its source. Or more accurately, its justification. The thing that makes it legitimate. I am wary of obvious answers. But if the only alternative explanation is genuine love of and devotion to the Windsor family, I’m more inclined to accept self-interest as the real motivation.
It’s a two-way dependency. A symbiosis. The monarch is as reliant on their ‘court’ as the ‘courtiers’ are on the monarch. The monarch needs the apparatus of the state to use the power it derives from the monarch to legitimise the monarchy in the minds (and hearts) of the citizenry. The British have developed this to a fine art and highly effective science. It is probably fair to say that the British state is far more critically dependent on the monarch-based system of power structuring than any other constitutional monarchy. The British state got as far as ‘evolving’ into a constitutional monarchy, and then stopped. A virtue is made of its unchanging nature. Much (most?) of what we see when we look at the British ruling elites and the and the pomp and ceremonial by which it affirms its power and institutions and procedures by which it operates, was invented in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is especially true of the monarchy. But given that everything else hangs on that royal hook, it applies to most of the rest.
Even where there has been reform or change, upon closer examination most if not all of this has been change designed to maintain the status quo. Change that is cosmetic. Or change which introduces new institutions and procedures or modifies existing ones without ever touching the monarchical ‘spine’ which supports the entire body of the British state. Devolution is the perfect example of this. Limited authority was transferred to the devolved institutions such as the Scottish Parliament. But the fundamentals of the imperialist British state’s dominance remain unaltered. The Union keeps England-as-Britain’s choke-hold on Scotland. The doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty ensures that real power remains with that monarchical ‘spine’. Nothing has really changed.
That’s not true, though. Things are changing all the time. Which means that the British state has faced and continues to face challenges as changes elsewhere in society tend to force change on the core structures of power, privilege and patronage. The British state has two basic techniques for dealing with those challenges. The rule is that what can’t be crushed must be absorbed. The crushing tends to come first. In an earlier age this was quite literal crushing. Gunboats, artillery and troops would be dispatched to put down (in a very real sense) any rebellion against the divinely ordained British right to rule. Even at home and as recently as the miners’ strikes in the 1980s much the same technique was deployed. The strike had to be crushed. The strikers had to be crushed. The unions had to be crushed. Communities had to be crushed. All to safeguard those structures of power, privilege and patronage.
It wasn’t all crushing with truncheons, however. There was a fair bit of more subtle, insidious crushing going on as well. Something between crushing and absorbing. Selling off the social housing stack at massive discounts made homeowners of millions of people, thus absorbing them in the housing market. But also crushing them with debt. The boot that stamps on your face forever. Always with the promise that it might eventually be lifted. Because people are no use as units of production and consumption if they just give up and die.
The British state has over time, adapted just enough to stay essentially the same. So, what happens if those anti-monarchy forces succeed? Can they succeed? Is it even possible for the British state to exist without the monarchy?
In theory, republicans could win. In practice, however, they face at least as massive a struggle as Scotland’s independence movement. Because both the republican movement and the independence movement seek to force change which threatens those structures of power, privilege and patronage. And those structures are the British state. Both movements will be resisted. The British state will seek to crush both of these movements. Maybe not with clubs and guns at first. Although that is always an option. The first recourse these days is not the force of arms but the force of the British state’s well-honed propaganda apparatus.
In the second part of this article, I look at the possible consequences of republican success. How might things pan out if the monarchy was abolished or ‘reformed’? What then happens to power? With maybe a glance at parallels with the restoration of Scotland’s independence.
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