The monarchy-industrial complex will be on full display this weekend, as the United Kingdom crowns its latest king.
At a time when the country’s public sector has been hollowed out by right-wing austerity policies—sparking high-profile strikes by doctors, nurses, and teachers—the coronation of King Charles III and Camilla the queen consort will cost British taxpayers a fortune: £100 million, according to estimates, or roughly $125 million in US dollars. “I suspect it’ll be at least that,” Graham Smith, the chief executive of the anti-monarchy group Republic, told Time magazine last week.
It’s an inordinate amount of money for the taxpayer to be spending. We know that there are lots of public sector workers who are struggling to get a pay rise. We know that there are people in work who are having to use food banks. There are hospitals struggling to make ends meet, schools struggling to get resources for their kids, police services struggling to keep the lid on various types of crime.
What troubles me is the extent to which the royal impulse has crossed the sea and reasserted itself in the United States. This, after all, is a country founded on the genius idea of rejecting monarchy and all the trappings of unwarranted privilege, exploitation, colonialism, and imperialism associated with it.
Thomas Paine, who called the country into being with his demand in 1776 for Common Sense, recognized the royals for what they were: “plunderers” who lived lives of luxury at the expense of the great mass of their “subjects.” The pamphleteer portrayed monarchy as antithetical to the democratizing principles that he hoped would guide the new United States. It wasn’t just that Paine despised the monarchy—although that he certainly did. He understood that the celebration of inherited authority, under the false premise that the few were divinely empowered to rule over the many, was fundamentally at odds with the representational republic he envisioned. “The nearer any government approaches to a Republic, the less business there is for a king,” warned Paine, who recognized that when nations accept the alleged superiority of monarchs they set precedents for accepting rule by aristocrats, plutocrats, and oligarchs.
Rather than heed Paine’s warning, the United States has, throughout its history, been far more deferential to economic and political elites than he would have preferred. Not seven years ago, a minority of Americans voted to make a billionaire the commander in chief and, thanks to our House of Lords, er, Electoral College, Donald Trump claimed the post in 2017. After losing his 2020 reelection campaign, Trump stirred up a coup attempt in hopes of upending the popular will. Now, as the 2024 election approaches, he proposes to return for another term of the imperial presidency.
Trump’s fellow billionaires tend to be less public about their ambitions. But they are just as determined to stake their claims to power.
America has long suffered under the boot of an economic aristocracy that passes wealth and privilege from one generation to the next. It has now so monopolized the business and politics of the country that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders asserts, “Yeah, of course the oligarchs run Russia. But guess what? Oligarchs run the United States as well.”
Is it unreasonable to make a connection between the global obsession with British monarchy—as will be expressed this weekend in wall-to-wall coverage of a coronation—and deference to a billionaire class that controls not just commerce but, via corrupting campaign contributions and strong-arm lobbying, the fate of nations? The veteran British parliamentarian Tony Benn (who died in 2014) did not think so. Benn, a proud anti-monarchist, made his point very clear: “Above all, the existence of a hereditary monarchy helps to prop up all the privilege and patronage that corrupts our society; that is why the crown is seen as being of such importance to those who run the country—or enjoy the privileges it affords.”
A socialist, Benn decried the monarchy as “a prop of privilege.”
That prop is constantly reinforced by pomp and circumstance that is designed to stir enthusiasm, not just in the United Kingdom but around the world.
So it is that Americans are being encouraged by the media to “enjoy” the imported theater of another country’s coronation.
Watch if you want, but I’ll be reading Tom Paine and recalling the response of another of America’s greatest political figures to another royal incursion.
When it was announced in 1919 that King Albert of Belgium would be touring the United States to celebrate the end of World War I—with an agreement that permitted Belgium to retain its brutal colonial grip on much of Africa—the Milwaukee business community urged Mayor Dan Hoan to issue a formal invitation to the monarch.
Hoan’s response was to tell the bankers and CEOs of Milwaukee that they could entertain royals if they liked, but that he would have nothing to do with monarchy.
“Please do not ask me to invite any king, kaiser, or czar. The people of Milwaukee, in choosing a mayor, do not require of him a forfeiture of self-respect,” wrote Hoan, who had been elected in 1916 and would serve until 1940 as America’s most prominent Socialist mayor.
Was not the American Revolution and this nation conceived in the wiping out of kings? Did not the America glory in the French Revolution that gave birth to their republic? Did not the people of the new nations created by this war cast off the kings? Can you see no progress in that the workmen of Germany, Austria and Russia by revolution have thrown off their divine kings? The spirit kindled by these revolutions started in America is spreading far and wide and soon all countries will join in discarding autocrats and kings.
The mayor concluded his message in a manner that Paine would undoubtedly have approved:
While I mean no disrespect to the Belgian people, whom I love, nor discourtesy to you, yet these are days that try men’s souls. We must take our place with kings, their golden places and satellites, or line up with the rights of the common man. I should go to my grave in everlasting shame were I to boost one iota the stock of any king.… I STAND FOR THE MAN WHO WORKS, TO HELL WITH KINGS.