Enchanted Glass

Aside from two entries at Troppo by Sophie and me, there’s been some other commentary on the Charles/Camilla nuptials around the blogosphere (for a sample, try Tim, Currency and saint.)

There is no doubt – aside from the constitutional/legal arguments previously advanced at Troppo, that there is a political dimension to the monarchy. This is a matter of symbolism in two senses. One of the earliest modern critiques of monarchy in Britain in the Nineteenth Century by proto-Republicans such as the Liberal MP Sir Charles Dilke (whose accession to Ministerial office was effectively blocked by Queen Victoria), was that it reproduced and represented social division and unequal hierarchy and status. This argument is still valid.

There’s a more interesting argument that the role of symbolism in politics has recently made a return, displacing the rational system of representation and debate characteristic (at least normatively) of democratic modernity. The politics of the gesture and the spectacle is everywhere, and rhetoric has made a big return (think the culture wars, the practice of wedging, all the symbolic initiatives from Left and Right that are never followed through in policy terms in a meaningful sense) to the political sphere.

So to answer Sophie’s question “is the monarchy more postmodern than the republic?”, there’s an interesting sense in which the monarchy is postmodern (apart from the sense, following Guy Debord, in which it’s a key node in the “Society of the Spectacle”) – in that it’s basically a pre-modern institution. The French sociologist Bruno Latour argues that there’s a certain squaring of the circle from pre-modernity to postmodernity in “Why We Have Never Been Modern” (though I’m drastically simplifying his argument) and there’s been another stream of commentary on “refeudalisation” and the “new Medievalism” referrring to things like blurred borders, globalisation and the revival of symbolism rather than rational representation. Tom Nairn is the best writer on the cultural and political significane of the English Monarchy, particularly in sundry New Left Review articles (mostly collected in Faces of Nationalism) and his 1988 polemic Enchanted Glass.

Nairn argues that Ukania (the name for the state-form he adopts following the great Twentieth Century Austrian novelist Robert Musil in The Man Without Qualities) is an archaic form of state, founded in effect by the Glorious Revolution in 1688, and renovating its foundations with what the historian Linda Colley calls the making of a British ruling class in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, and the Imperial project of colonial rule. Walter Bagehot’s arguments in The English Constitution are exemplary of Her Majesty’s Imperial Ideology. In the late 1980s, Nairn thought that the monarchy was about to come crashing down in the face of the reality of the decline of Britain, and he saw evidence for this in the crash of public support which was associated with Princess Diana and her travails. He also thought Thatcher’s neo-liberal meritocratic capitalism undermined the symbolism of the Monarchy’s settled social order from within its domain. More recently, he’s revised his views, and noted the continuing power of the Ukanian state ideology in the piecemeal attempts at reform by the Blairites (kicking [most] of the hereditaries out of the House of Lords but replacing them only with a new breed of New Labour Lord for the new millenium, for instance). The PR and polling tactics influencing the timing of the Charles/Camilla announcement are also indicative of the ability of an Ancient House to surf the postmodern media and public opinion waves to its advantage.

This is an interesting theme. Certainly symbolism as the political figure of pre-modernity and postmodernity rather than the rational representation of modernity is reflected in the revived preference for monarchy (which is also suggestive of the eclipse of neo-liberalism by neo-conservatism broadly understood). There’s no question, in my view, that in an age where symbolism matters in politics, the Ukanian monarchy is the wrong symbol for Australia. And, in my opinion, to support such a symbol is to oppose oneself to the rationality that ought to inform a modern (as opposed to a postmodern or pre-modern) democratic politics. Note how the arguments for a monarchy are couched in emotive rather than rational terms. We need a new Enlightenment to sweep away the crowned rubbish and detritus of the past, and we need to revive the rational understandings of democracy and governance.

Symbolism does matter, what the Ukanian monarchy symbolises is not helpful to Australia, and we should get rid of it.

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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Evil Pundit
2022 years ago

I like the symbolism of rubbing Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating’s noses in the dirt by defeating the republic referendum. Those Labor snobs deserve it. :)

AlanDownunder
AlanDownunder
2022 years ago

Three kinds of snobs – congenital, plutocratic and meritocratic. It’s a no-brainer and EP has no brain.

David Tiley
2022 years ago

Evil just hates achievement. Nasty crypto-socialist that he is.

Now, enough badinage, you are now free to get serious..

Phil
2022 years ago

Well how about the ultimate symbolic change, biggest emotively, but the easiest from a constitutionally technical POV. The flag.

It flies everywhere and is the visual representation of who we are, most countries wouldn’t really know or care that we have the Queen as our HOS, but the flag…….well what’s the British flag doing there? That’s an obvious imagery of our cultural backwardness. Most mature Commonwealth nations have had the good sense to remove it.

The Canadian way works for me on this one. Does anyone really remember or care that the Queen Betty is the Canadian HOS (Sorry, that’s head of state, not ho, as in skanky), I’d love to float this one, but I suspect that the republicans don’t really want to bring this up, a new flag WILL have to go with a republic.

We should go for the flag first and let the monarchy wither on the vine of irrelevance until all the old fogies, remnants of the empire, and Flintian pomp and circumstance cross dressers leave the political stage.

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

The problem with changing the flag, (and indeed, the Constitution), is that even if you can get everyone agree that change is needed, you then have to get them to agree on what should take its place.

Until that happens, I doubt we’ll see any change on either front.

Alan
Alan
2022 years ago

In 1964, Canada just changed their flag. They had used a version of the standard Commonwealth/yacht club flag in red rather than blue until then. The customary speeches about betrayed veterans and the end of civilisation as we know it followed.

Nothing happened. Civilisation continued. I think you’d have to look quite hard to find a Canadian these days who wants to go back to the Red Ensign. Some Commonwealth counties adopted new flags when they became republics and some didn’t. There’s no necessary link between the two issues.

observar
observar
2022 years ago

Sure, changing the flag goes along with ditching Liz, just like changing the Constitution does, and that is the problem. It’s hard enough to agree on a new flag(my take would be a minimalist one and simply remove the Brit bit), because the general populace don’t want the aboriginal flag, complete with Eureka cross, pictures of Che or hammers and sickles in the shape of boomerangs on it.

If you think flag choice is hard enough, a Constitutional change on how to select the HOS gets even harder. One thing both the Majors understand is, the ramifications of poor choice of HOS. eg in Kerr and Hollingworth. In the back of their minds would always be the thought- If I’m PM or we’re the govt, do I/we want to be beholding to another ‘popular’ choice of the people, particularly if we don’t exactly see eye to eye. Now given the propensity of the electorate to vote for a ‘keep the bastards honest’ Senate, our pollies would naturally be suspicious of their choice of HOS. The answer for them is a US style Pres, but try selling that to the public, after the very people who love a Republic have been so loud in bagging anything Uncle Sam. Catch 22 for the Republicans, which is why the general population sticks with Liz. This suits half the population that get their rocks off on Royal watching in their goldfish bowl, and some can always dream of becoming a princess like Mary. Basically it’s much more juicy, sexy and fun than the alternatives on offer, from the droll squabblers.

Phil
2022 years ago

So do we just give up and go hang out at the Slip Inn hoping that our prince will arrive after a few of glasses of a Long Slow Screw Against the Wall?

The problem is inertia, everyone has a reason why we shouldn’t do it, yet now one really disagrees that we shouldn’t. If we continue down this track we’d never get anything done.

We need a real fire starter, now that Malcolm has left the scene of the last crime, we’re stuck with a bunch of boring energy vampires to push the cause. I’d vote against it for that reason only, I fell asleep listening to them on the news a couple of nights ago. (“Our website has had a lot of hits”) aaargh.

Is life so good in OZ that we don’t feel the need to address big picture issues? Surely our wealth and comfort gives us that luxury? Gawd!

(I’ve had a few of glasses of white BTW)

Evil Pundit
2022 years ago

Dismiss my comments if you will — but they provide the reason for your last failure, and who knows, they might bear on the possibility of any future success for the republican movement.

As Mark says, it’s all about symbolism. But the symbols may not be what you think they are.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

I think Mark is over-reading the play, as a rugby coach might put it. I wouldn’t deride the importance of symbols by any means, but I doubt very much that there’s a discernible trend in Australia towards a “Ukanian” ethos. I doubt that it’s true in Britain either, for that matter.

You don’t need to posit some undefined and heretofore unidentified yearning for monarchic symbols to explain it. Blair replaced the hereditary H of L voting peers with life-appointed ones for a range of pragmatic reasons, most importantly the fact that he didn’t want to give the H of L any sort of elected/democratic legitimacy that might tempt them to challenge the authority of the Commons, nor be saddled with a hostile upper house (cf most of the time in Australia).

Similarly in Australia. The 1999 referendum failed here because Howard set it up to fail, because the republicans couldn’t agree among themselves, and because the model put to the people was fatally flawed and inferior in a practical sense to what we’ve got now.

There’s little interest in reviving the republic push at present because the people rightly see it as a tenth order issue at best and an irrelevant distraction from a host of vastly more important problems. “If it ain’t broke …” may seem trite, simplistic and unsexy to academics seeking more complex and subtle insights, but I strongly suspect that really IS the dominant public feeling at present. It may well change when the prospect of King Charles III becomes a present reality, but even then only if the process is better managed and the republican model is a sound one.

That said, I think a future cautious republican-minded federal government could productively take steps towards the ultimate goal, and those steps WOULD include a consciousness of the role of symbols. I agree with those who suggest changing the national flag might be a useful step, and that the change should be “minimalist” (say removing the union jack and replacing it with the national coat of arms or something). And I’ve previously suggested that we could easily move informally towards a system of structured popular election of G-G and state governors. That would accustom both the people and the politicians to such a system. They would soon realise that it’s no big deal in any practical sense, as long as the ability of the elected government to dismiss an incompetent G-G or governor is preserved, along with the circuit breaker function provided by the monarch’s role. The trick will then be to devise a similarly effective circuit breaker mechanism when the monarch is removed from the picture. But that’s a much smaller step, and one which it would be very difficult for the monarchists to demonise.

BigBob
2022 years ago

“Is life so good in OZ that we don’t feel the need to address big picture issues? Surely our wealth and comfort gives us that luxury? Gawd!”
-Phil

Sorry Phil, these are the very times we turn introspective and conservative.

Greatest strides are made in the face of austerity. When we’re all fat and lazy, all we want to do is keep what we’ve got.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ken, you might be right. I dashed off the post before I went to the pub to celebrate my birthday. I might be complicating things too much. I may also have done an injustice to Nairn’s argument by oversimplifying it – he’s also saying the monarchy and the unwritten constitution in the UK (any replacement of the monarchy would imply – at least one would assume – writing a constitution) contribute to what he sees as overmighty executive power in the UK – with the Prime Minister effectively exercising the full panoply of powers formally belonging to the Crown-in-Parliament. He also thinks that if the UK adopted a written constitution, pressure would exist for a shift from the first past the post voting system which produces HoC majorities disproportionate to the share of the popular vote the winning party gets, and for a proper system of judicial review and a democratic second Chamber. He argues in some of his later essays that the Scottish Parliament (which if memory serves, is elected through some species of PR) is evidence for this. He also thinks that the pre-modern constitutional arrangements contribute to a sort of governmental sclerosis.

I’m not saying – and Nairn’s not saying – that Australia shares in this Ukanian government mentality. (Although we will soon get a taste of excessive government power). All I’m saying is that the symbolism of pre-modernity is wholly inappropriate for Australia.

I’m also possibly conflating two senses of symbolism – the one where the monarchy represents the nation, and government by symbolism where for instance the government announces new crime initiatives either knowing that the evidence is that they will have minimal impact or backfire or not knowing and not caring, and the sort of thing Clinton pioneered where legislation is passed to show gov’t concern with an issue but no money or not enough money is allocated to fund its goals – eg Bush’s money for the HIV/Aids crisis in Africa or the No Child Left Behind Act. But I still think there’s some connection – in that the second thing starts proliferating when you jettison rationality for emotion. But I also think I probably need to circumscribe and sharpen the argument a tad.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Fair enough Mark, and happy birthday!!

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Cheers, Ken – had a really nice day – lunch and a few Tooheys Olds at the excellent Merthyr Bowls by the river, back home for a bit, dinner at Continental Cafe followed by a few wines at the Alibi Room.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Aah, Tooheys Old. Jen and I rediscovered its delights when we were down in Sydney at Christmas. It was always my favourite drop (and the only beer I really enjoy drinking) when I lived “down south”, and Jen made its acquaintance when she was fruit-picking in country New South Wales years ago before going back to uni and becoming a teacher. I have a ritual every time I go to Sydney of stopping in at the Newport Arms for a Tooheys Old and drinking it leisurely in the beergarden overlooking Pittwater. It reminds me of all the nice things about Sydney, just as battling through the noise and traffic reminds me of the reasons why I left.

Since then we’ve both taken up Tooheys Old as our preferred alcoholic drink, partly in place of red wine (which tends to keep us awake when drunk in the evening). Trouble is, you just can’t get Tooheys Old on tap in Darwin AFAIK (or In Victoria for that matter), and it doesn’t taste quite as good out of a stubby.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Dead right about Toohey’s Old, Ken. I first got a taste for it at Uni when it was on tap at the Royal Exchange (aka the RE) at Toowong – basically a student pub (down the road from UQ at St. Lucia). Now it seems to be on tap at a few places in Brissie. You’re also right about the taste in a stubby…