If the Monarch and the Monarchy Are Symbols, What Do These Symbols Represent?

Pauline Easton

The rulers keep repeating that the monarchy is symbolic. Repeating this over and over presents a serious difficulty, not just for the rulers but also for the people because, in symbolism, important arrangements are represented. Just repeating that the monarchy is a symbol of continuity, stability, etc. doesn't answer the questions: Continuity of what? Stability of what? What are they trying to maintain so that it will not collapse?

These are the questions that the rulers are having great difficulty with because the answers can be convincing only so long as people accept the theory of representation behind the existing arrangements. These arrangements have become dysfunctional because they no longer meet the requirements of the times. The theory behind them known as Covenant Thesis is outdated and no longer holds. How does this repetition that the monarchy represents stability of the constitutional order change these facts? It doesn't.

There are two main problems with the existing "symbolic" arrangements. Firstly, the people do not accept them because they do not see themselves represented by them and, indeed, they are not. Secondly, the existing arrangements no longer serve to quell the increasingly serious and even armed fights between sections of the ruling elites vying to control the supreme authority of the state, giving rise to civil wars at home and imperialist wars abroad.

Nor do the existing arrangements serve to quell the increasingly determined uprisings of the peoples putting forward the claims they are entitled to make on society. The elites have no intention of satisfying these claims. They respond with the use of the courts and force while elections to legitimate the system of representation sort out nothing as concerns guaranteeing the stable transfer of power from one faction to another and the stability of the constitutional order.

This projects internationally as well where wars are no longer politics by other means because many bodies politic of peoples are being, or have been, destroyed.

The existing system of representation brought into being in the late 1660s was based on what is called Covenant Thesis. Part of the current pressure to dismiss the significance of these arrangements, which enshrine the continued existence of a British King as head of state for Canada, is to dismiss why they are dysfunctional. The battle of democracy is one that rages over time to advance society by making sure the arrangements are consistent with the needs. Today this battle requires elimination of the obsolete arrangements and their institutions, not their continuity. Analyzing the reasons for the dysfunction is necessary to ensure the Old is not replicated. The Old is not what guides our struggles today.

Covenant Thesis contends that the "people" covenant to be represented by the head of state who exists above everyone and everything in the form of a fictitious person who incarnates the fiat of God -- God's commandments. These were allegedly transmitted to the "chosen people" by Moses. Under the influence of the Greeks and Romans and under their tutelage, God's commandments are referred to as Mosaic Law. They get canonized and the conception is presented of "the sovereign's" alliance with God through which God vests "the sovereign" with the supreme spiritual power and supreme temporal power over the "dominions of God." This "Covenant of Covenants" and the "Covenant of the people with the sovereign" are then declared the foundational principles in res publica -- public affairs -- in what becomes known as the Christian world.

Cover of Hobbes Leviathan, click to enlarge.

According to Covenant Thesis, the sovereign is anointed to represent God and be the mediator between God and the people over matters which pertain to war and peace, crime and punishment, life and death. The sword and bishop's staff, the symbols of said role, represent his command in matters both temporal and spiritual. In the work of Thomas Hobbes, this then translates into a Covenant between the people and the sovereign who is entrusted by them to represent them.

The sovereign can exist in the form of a King or a president or a prime minister. Hobbes did not make an argument for Kings having a God-given right to rule, as he was writing at a time when the King was beheaded and civil wars were occurring. Rather, a fictitious person of state is created which wields the supreme power. It carries on from one government to the next, represented by the sovereign, the person of state.

The sovereign creates the image of himself as a fiction of what is represented. He tries to create a persona as one which is said to represent the nation, made up of the people. It is a complicated exchange. According to Hobbes, the people authorize the sovereign to represent them and are represented by him. The sovereign, with supreme power, says what it is he represents. The sovereign is said to have created a representation of the people because they covenanted to have this person of state, which is said to mirror the alliance of the people with God. It is like the logic of the Trinity according to which God has three persons -- he is at once the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. His commandments get canonized in four of the books of the New Testament: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John who are evangelists -- they spread the word of God and his commandments.

We are to pay homage to the sovereign because he interprets everything for us. He demands loyalty, as Charles III has, as President Biden does, as the only ones with the knowledge and power to decide matters of state, both spiritual and temporal. Today these Old arrangements are so dysfunctional that even the concept of the person of state taking social responsibility for the people is no longer promoted.

It is no surprise to find that the current Bishop of Canterbury is not only from the same class and background as the peers of the British "realm" but he is known as an evangelist minister. According to his CV, "The Most Reverend Justin Welby was educated at Eton College and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied history and law. For 11 years -- five in Paris and six in London -- he worked in the oil industry, becoming group treasurer of a large British exploration and production company." He then began training for the ministry in 1989, whereupon he became Bishop of Durham, Dean of Liverpool Cathedral and a Canon of Coventry Cathedral where he worked extensively on reconciliation. "In the summer of 2012, he was asked to join the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards. On November 9, 2012, Justin Welby was announced as the 105th Archbishop of the See of Canterbury. He officially became Archbishop on February 4, 2013, succeeding Dr. Rowan Williams who retired at the end of December 2012."

Elsewhere it is noted, "It is the Archbishop of Canterbury who has the privilege of crowning the kings and queens of England and ranks immediately after the princes of royal blood. The Archbishop's official residence is at Lambeth Palace, London, and second residence at the Old Palace, Canterbury."[1]

When Charles III was crowned in Westminster Abbey on May 6, the Archbishop's sermon addressed the theme of service. Right from the beginning, at the very second sentence, the Archbishop said: "Here we are to crown a King, and we crown a King to serve." His entire presentation elaborates what this means and, in so doing, he tells us exactly how Charles III will fashion his persona into a person who allegedly serves and is not served.

Service is one of the five principles of evangelism of which there are three modes: "the natural mode, the body/life mode and the ministry mode." The six styles of evangelism are: "Direct, Intellectual, Testimonial, Relational, Invitational and Service." The premise is: "Every single person has God-given gifts and abilities that fall into one or more of these six approaches. A church community will have all of the styles present."

The full text of the speech delivered by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the King's Coronation is provided below for purposes of illustrating what is meant by "service." It is also to inform deliberation on how this conception of every member of society being in service compares with the demand of the peoples today for a society which fulfills its social responsibilities by affirming the rights which belong to all persons by virtue of their being human.

The demand of the peoples today is to end the brutal anti-social offensive and humanize the natural and social environment. This anti-social offensive does not recognize society and its responsibilities at all. It is privatizing everything, and turning all members of the body politic into disposable things whose rights are not recognized. Everything is based on volunteerism and begging for charity and mercy from governments and from those who are our "superiors" and wield decision-making power.

In this, the King and his Archbishop are giving a modern veneer to the old feudal conception of noblesse oblige -- the recognition that the nobility had obligations towards their tenants. This conception was brought into our era once the capitalist relations prevailed in the 19th and 20th centuries based on the utilitarian conception of "the greatest good for the greatest number."

A public authority was created that saw to it that those who were poor and impoverished were cared for by charitable institutions. Those who were well off or better off were duty-bound to sustain these charities and "feed the poor." In the post-World War II period it gave rise to the social-welfare state, all of it to keep the working classes subjected to the rule of "their superiors" who constituted the bourgeoisie and along with it, maintained the aristocracy.

In the 1989-1991 period, neo-liberalism took root in the economy and an anti-social offensive was unleashed which dismantled the structures of the social welfare state. Since then the public authority has been destroyed, social programs have been undermined and starved of funding including the systems of education and health care. "Volunteering" was introduced by George W. Bush in the United States, espoused also by the proponents of the "Third Way" and promoted by the likes of Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and even Justin Trudeau. In the 1960s it was advocated by John F. Kennedy who said, "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country," and further by Obama who created organizations directed at the youth known as "I Am My Brother's Keeper." All of it is to hide the failure of existing arrangements to guarantee the rights of the peoples, the basis to judge the validity of governing arrangements.

Noblesse Oblige

An important aspect on how the monarchy helps to preserve the status quo is its role in maintaining the conception of noblesse oblige to fashion a system in which the social responsibilities of a modern state to uphold the rights of all and provide them with a guarantee is forsaken. Instead, people are supposed to beg for mercy from the rich as well as those who govern.

Noblesse oblige is the inferred responsibility of privileged people to act with generosity and nobility toward those "less privileged." Not a day goes by when organizations -- from hospitals to the Humane Society to women's shelters to anti-poverty groups and food banks and many others -- do not have to plead for money and mercy to keep their programs going. This conception of noblesse oblige is used to legitimate how those who acquire obscene wealth go about doing so and all the corruption involved in their manipulation of tax benefits and exemptions for their charities and foundations. It is also intended to stop discussion on the fact that a modern society cannot be based on the charity and beneficence of those who control the purse strings.

A society based on the medieval ethos and practice of noblesse oblige perpetuates assumptions that those who are deemed to be successful by the standards the ruling class imposes, are superior and "the idea that the upper class has gifts to offer the rest of the world, and those poor, marginalized underprivileged people are grateful recipients of this beneficence. It's a generosity that perpetuates a hierarchy. It keeps the privileged behind a wall of wealth, education and power. It also keeps the 'noblesse' out of touch with the reality of life outside that wall, out of touch with economic hardship, out of touch with hard work that doesn't lead to economic success, out of touch with human suffering and a broader array of human diversity."[2]

Putting up with it becomes a necessity in order to access that beneficence. The monarchy promotes day and night the "duty" of the "working royals" to sponsor this, that and the other charity. It is all about accepting that this is the way things are and there is no alternative. In other words, it promotes an outlook which is disempowering -- it actively deprives people of an outlook based on a vantage point of their own.

Today the greed of the ruling class is so extreme that narrow private interests are even using their takeover of the decision-making power of governments to curtail the state financing of social programs, health care and education. These areas are handed over to private financial interests for profit. Hand in hand with this, they are turning these into matters to be taken care of by "volunteers." Even disaster relief and looking after refugees is all about volunteering as a social obligation.

Promoting the conception of volunteering is another version of noblesse oblige. The "obligation'' to volunteer falls on "commoners" not royalty or the nobility and wealthy. These latter, in fact, give less and less unless there is a tax advantage or some corrupt scheme, such as the Trudeau government's promotion of the We Charities. The scandal was hushed up and made to disappear only to be replaced with similar schemes which reward sycophants and those ready to genuflect when commanded to do so.

The demand that teachers, firefighters, health care personnel and so many others must volunteer their time, expertise, skills, and so on is against the interests of the working class. The working class opposes the disastrous consequences of natural disasters or the refugee crisis and the lack of adequately staffed hospitals, libraries, schools, and the suggestion that volunteers can do the job of looking after things.

Social solidarity in a society which puts the human factor/social consciousness at the centre of its considerations is not based on an outlook of All for One, but on upholding the rights of all by virtue of being human. The institutions which are guided by that outlook will put the decision-making power in the hands of the people themselves in every sphere of life. Seeking mercy from condescending saviours will be ruled out because such condescending saviours will no longer exist.

Practices based on noblesse oblige and volunteerism are some of the means to perpetuate this system that enforces a supreme power which is not vested in the people. How it actually works to keep the people disempowered is dismissed when the constitutional monarchy is spoken of as being merely symbolic, as if a symbol -- and an institution for which we pay dearly to be symbolic -- has no content.

Of what is it symbolic? Of the people's disempowerment. While the emperor struts around naked and all his courtiers ooh and aah about what a beautiful suit of clothes he is wearing, they are not covering up that the emperor is naked but that the people are naked. The king has all the power, sustained by his courtiers, to strut around naked or any way he wishes, while the people are powerless to do anything about it but stare. It takes more than a child crying out that the king is naked. It takes concrete measures by which the people empower themselves to discuss the problems society faces and provide themselves with solutions.

How the relations people enter into in a society are enforced is not an idea without content in the material world. And it is not just a matter of class content but also of national content of the nation-building project or lack thereof in the case of the monarchy and the class whose rule it is designed to perpetuate.

Facts already show that a society based on the idea that people can sustain themselves on charity and begging for mercy or volunteerism is not sustainable. The people must provide themselves with a new outlook and ways of engaging based on modern definitions and rights by virtue of being human, not their relations to private property and its owners. The nation built in the image of the bourgeoisie has exhausted itself. It is now the turn of the working class to constitute the nation and vest sovereignty in the people.

For Your Information
Conception of Service -- Text of the Sermon of the Archbishop of Canterbury
May 6, 2023

Come Holy Spirit, set fill our hearts with the flame of your love.

We are here to crown a King, and we crown a King to serve.

What is given today is for the gain of all. For Jesus Christ announced a Kingdom in which the poor and oppressed are freed from the chains of injustice. The blind see. The bruised and broken-hearted are healed.

That Kingdom sets the aims of all righteous government, all authority. And the Kingdom also sets the means of all government and authority. For Jesus doesn't grasp power or hold onto status.

The King of Kings, Jesus Christ, was anointed not to be served, but to serve. He creates the unchangeable law of good authority that with the privilege of power comes the duty to serve.

Service is love in action. We see active love in our care for the most vulnerable, the way we nurture and encourage the young, in the conservation of the natural world. We have seen those priorities in the life of duty lived by our King.

Today we have the honour of being in this Abbey with so many who show such love; you work with charities and organisations, you build community, you serve the nation in Armed Forces, in emergency services, and so many other ways. Next door are 400 or more extraordinary young people in St Margaret's Church, whose lives speak of service. Around the world in the Realms and Commonwealth are so many more. You live your lives for the sake of others.

The unity you show, the example you give, is what binds us together and offers societies that are strong, joyful, happy and glorious. They bear heavy weights for us.

And the weight of the task given today, Your Majesties, is only bearable by the Spirit of God, who gives us the strength to give our lives to others. With the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the King is given freely what no ruler can ever attain through will, or politics, or war, or tyranny: the Holy Spirit draws us to love in action.

This is promised by Jesus who put aside all privilege, because, as the first reading tells us, God will give all things for our sake, even His own life.

His throne was a Cross. His crown was made of thorns. His regalia were the wounds that pierced his body.

Each of us is called by God to serve. Whatever that looks like in our own lives, each of us can choose God's way today.

We can say to the King of Kings, God Himself, as does the King here today, 'give grace that in thy service I may find perfect freedom.'

In that prayer there is promise beyond measure, joy beyond dreams, hope that endures. By that prayer, for every King, every ruler, and, yes, for every person for all of us, we are opened to the transforming love of God.

This article was published in
Volume 53 Number 6 - June 2023

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