Bread and circuses, bread and roses

william-and-kate-wedding-portraitThe royal family is an institutional codification of your worthlessness. No matter how you slice and dice it, an aristocracy, by definition, rests on the brute fact that they are royal and you are common, and that, therefore, their DNA entitles them to privileges and honours from which you will always and forever be excluded. The rest of the anti-democratic trappings (the innate sexism, the official sectarianism, etc) flows, more or less inexorably, from the unbridgeable chasm between a hereditary nobility and any form of democratic governance.

The point should be stressed: that gulf is real rather than merely symbolic. In the conservative Telegraph, Matthew d’Ancona blurts out what many liberals are too polite to acknowledge.

[T]he monarchy occupies much more than an ornamental role in our unwritten constitution. In modern times, it has spawned a lucrative heritage industry and, intermittently, a soap opera with global reach. But the essence of the institution concerns power, and its distribution. In this country, the people are not sovereign, nor the Commons. That power resides in the Queen-in-Parliament – or, as it shall one day be, in the case of her grandchild, the King-in-Parliament.

Such distinctions might seem obscure. But whenever there’s a major political crisis in a country with a constitutional monarchy, royalty inevitably provides a rallying point for the most reactionary elements in society.

And yet, there’s no denying the global popularity of the British royals. We’re told, for instance, that the wedding will attract a television audience of some two billion people, a sizeable proportion of the world’s population.

How do we explain this? Why such enthusiasm for an event structurally predicated upon the innate inferiority of the very people celebrating it? In the Nation today, Gary Younge claims that opposition to the monarchy in Britain rarely climbs above 18 percent, with support for the Windsor clan stable at about 70 percent. These are extraordinary figures, especially since, as he points out, the royal family and their various associates and hangers-on play an important role in the maintenance of once of the most sclerotic class systems in the industrialised world, a system that pretty much guarantees that Mr and Ms Average, gamely waving their Union Jacks as Wills’ carriage rumbles past, will never send their kids to the schools from which the vast bulk of England’s political leadership still emerge.

So what gives?

Specifically, you can point the finger at the miserable state of republicanism, both in Australia and the UK. As we saw with the last referendum, mainstream republicans have fallen over themselves to present their cause as entailing no challenge to the status quo whatsoever – that is, not a long overdue democratic reform but an entirely symbolic move from an appointed monarch to an appointed head of state. Which, of course, raises the obvious question: why bother? It’s difficult to blame people for not following tedious discussions about the constitution and the reserve powers and all the rest of it when the republicans themselves continually preface their explanations with assurances that nothing of substance will change. If republicanism remains entirely symbolic, well, most folk will stick with the royals – if there’s one thing the Windsors do, it’s give good symbol.

But that’s a specific manifestation of a broader problem.

The royals are popular, first and foremost, as celebrities. The enthusiasm they generate is broad but it’s also thin: akin to the sentiment that makes us thumb through People magazine at the supermarket checkout so as to keep up on the romances of sundry Hollywood actors and TV reality stars. The institutional basis of the Windsors ensures them greater tabloid longevity than your average celeb but there’s nothing to suggest it generates a deeper or more profound affection.

This wedding takes place in a Britain gripped by unprecedented austerity, a country facing massive cuts to all its social services. You’d think that, in the face of the real misery being meted out to ordinary people, the lavish knees-up the royals are throwing for themselves might stick in the public craw.

That, however, would be to miss the point.

In fact, the best thing the royals have going for them is their very excess, since the palaces, the costumes, the ridiculous titles and the silly ceremonies generate a libidinal energy that feeds a celebrity culture, along the lines that these people must be special precisely because they’re so insanely privileged.

To put it another way, the royal wedding appeals precisely because the pageantry is so explicitly elitist, so dramatically different from the humdrum circumstances of our everyday lives. ‘The great appear great because we are on our knees,’ the Irish socialist Jim Larkin said once. He added, ‘Let us rise’ – but in a political conjunction where we have not risen, where, in fact, the Left remains marginal and powerless, it’s all too easy to take a kind of consolation in the lives of those who self-confidently proclaim their own greatness.

That’s the fairly obvious political meaning of clichés about ‘fairy tales’: our need for a magical resolution to the real problems that we face.

And there’s a lesson for the Left. Over the past decades, the mainstream Left has lowered its horizons, with social democracy, in particular, now standing not for any different vision of society, nor even reforms of any kind, but instead a technocratic efficiency that seeks only to distinguish itself from the conservatives by its economic responsibility. Yet the withering of any commitment to social transformation has coincided with a massive intensification of the real problems facing humanity, such that the very modesty of the Laborite platform now makes major policies seem entirely fanciful rather than in any way practical. The contrast, for instance, between the ALP’s response to climate change and the scientific consensus on looming environmental disasters not only convinces voters that nothing will be done, it leaves them susceptible to arguments that nothing can be done, that catastrophe is inevitable and thus not worth thinking about.

Hence the much documented, popular indifference to politics. These days, you can’t rally people behind the kind of small-target policies so beloved of Labor leaders, because, in an epoch of crisis, the merely realistic seems inherently utopian.

Which is not to say that the Left should embrace the reactionary fairy tale embodied in royalty. Of course we shouldn’t. But the extraordinary enthusiasm for the sordid coupling of Wills and Kate suggests a popular hunger for something more than the banality of everyday life, a hunger that won’t be satisfied by social democratic managerialism.

‘Hearts starve as well as bodies,’ the old labour song insisted. ‘Give us bread, but give us roses!’ In other words, if the Left doesn’t provide a source of inspiration, others will fill the void. Cue the happy couple at the altar.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. Excellent post. “The the very modesty of the Laborite platform now makes major policies seem entirely fanciful rather than in any way practical” – I think this is what Zizek means when he says that it is defence of the status quo, rather than radical change, that is the most absurd utopianism of all.

    “Over the past decades” – specifically, since the end of the Soviet Union, which provided an alternative model (of course, a deeply flawed one). Social democracy was basically capitalism’s way of protecting itself from the threat of socialism. After 1989, suddenly liberalism in the US and the parties of organised labour in Europe – which were already a compromise – suddenly had to compromise further, because the centre of gravity had shifted to the right. One could say the same about the French revolution, and the reluctant reforms carried out by the elites in neighbouring countries. Without revolution, reform suddenly loses its appeal (since where else are you going to go?) …

  2. That’s nice of you to say, but not true. I appreciated this article for its elegance, and in particular the snippets of poetic rhetoric from the past – sorely lacking today, when Blair’s verbless sentences are supposed to be a model for today’s rhetoric. As you say, people need inspiration – narrative, telos, poetry (which is why Obama and his soaring campaign rhetoric was such a disappointment – brave new sizzle, droopy centrist sausage). All the pomo rubbish about the end of grand narratives is so annoying and self-defeating. We need a grand narrative, or a grand song – something we can all sing along to as we tear down the palaces and torch the banks. (Maybe something by Chuck Fenda.)

  3. Royal pageantry and papal processions will never sway me from the songs of the people and the march for justice. Beatifications and weddings of the powerful will not provide food for the heart and bodies of widows and orphans. We need another grand narrative of the people who will not be slaves again!When the beating of your heart Echoes the beating of the drums There is a life about to star tWhen tomorrow comes!

  4. It’s a fairytale is why – an imperialist fairytale that encompasses and celebrates the excesses of capitalism whilst ignoring the way wealth is shared (not to mention the protestors killed in Syria at around the same time the royal kiss was planted), reinforces gender stereotypes and the class system and encourages us to believe the status quo is worth fighting for.

  5. Could it be that this happens because most people believe and want an innate inequality to exist in society. Mr. and Ms. Average want to be confronted with majesty that is immeasurably above them. They want to have a royal carriage rumble past that they can wave at. Many women want a prince they can dream of marrying and a princess whose wedding dress they can gush over and imitate when they get married themselves. Fairytales often sell more than reality.
    Witness the staggering sales of genre fiction (not just fantasy) and the miniscule sales of (most) literary titles.

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