Recently, many of us have been fascinated by the stately ceremonies surrounding the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the succession of King Charles III. This should stir us to think about the history of monarchy.
Why is it that for at least 5,000 years, beginning with the first state-like polities in Mesopotamia, monarchy was the predominant form of government around the world? And why is it that over the past 250 years, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of monarchies? Today, there are few monarchical governments in the world--Bahrain, Bhutan, Brunei, Jordan, Kuwait, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Swaziland, and United Arab Emirates.
The British monarchy is not truly monarchical because the authority of the monarch and the royal family has become purely symbolic, with very little effective power for ruling. Charles I and Charles II were real monarchs with ruling sovereign powers. Charles III is the ceremonial head of state, but the executive and legislative powers of British government belong to Parliament and the Prime Minister. Strictly speaking, the United Kingdom is not a monarchy but a parliamentary democracy. What explains this remarkable rise and decline of monarchy in the political history of the world?
To answer these questions, we need a historical dataset that reaches far back in the deep history of states around the world, and we need a plausible theory that can suggest testable hypotheses to be judged by how well they are confirmed by the data. One place to look for this is the work of John Gerring and his colleagues (Tore Wig, Wouter Veenendaal, Daniel Weitzel, Jan Teorell, and Kyosuke Kikuta) in their paper on "Why Monarchy? The Rise and Demise of a Regime Type." A short version of the paper has been published in Comparative Political Studies (54 : 585-622). A long version is available online.
Gerring and his colleagues argue that from the appearance of the first states in the ancient world to the beginning of the modern era about 250 years ago, monarchy was the most common political regime because it was the most efficient solution to the problem of selecting leaders to coordinate social order in large societies where people are isolated from one another. In the modern era, however, improvements in the technology of communication--for example, the printing press, newspapers, national postal systems, the telegraph, radio, television, and the internet--made it easier for people in large societies to communicate with one another and thus to mobilize a mass public for social coordination, which allowed elites to develop new systems of rule that did not need a central locus of sovereignty in a monarch.
Gerring et al. have been influenced by their reading of Patricia Cone's Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World (London: Oneworld Publications, 2015). Crone uses the word "pre-industrial" as shorthand for "pre-industrial of the civilized kind" (2-11). "Pre-industrial" means prior to the Industrial Revolution that began sometime early in the 19th century in northwest Europe. The "civilized kind" means a society that is based mostly on agricultural production rather than hunting and gathering, which also has the formal governmental institutions of a "state." Consequently, the history of the pre-industrial societies of the civilized kind stretches from the first agrarian states in ancient Mesopotamia (from around 3,500 BCE) to the modern industrialized states that emerged around 1800.
This excludes the stateless societies of this period--such as the nomadic tribal societies. And it's notable that as you look at the global maps in the Gerring paper, that up to 1700, most of the world was stateless, where people lived as "barbarians" without state-like governments. Crone points out that even within states there were often rugged areas where the state rulers could not penetrate, and people lived in stateless societies. And, of course, through most of human evolutionary history, human beings lived in hunter-gatherer bands without states. Today, however, every piece of land around the world is under state rule, with the exception of Antartica, which is defined as an international territory by a treaty between states.
The pre-industrial world not only lacked modern industrial production, it also lacked the modern means of communication and transportation. People, goods, and news travelled slowly. Consequently, in large societies, it was impossible to achieve much economic, cultural, or political integration. Crone observes that "the vast majority of people continued to live in more or less self-sufficient villages with more or less autonomous cultures of their own, a fact that rendered the political unity of pre-industrial states precarious" (47).
As a result, forms of government like democracy that required mass participation were possible only in small societies (like the Greek and Roman city-states). In large societies, the coordination of activity by the state required the concentration of authority in the hands of a few, and ultimately in a monarchic ruler. This explains the argument of political philosophers like Montesquieu that popular government was possible only in small republics.
"Typically, then," Crone explains, "pre-industrial states were monarchies in which power was exercised through a small ruling elite. They were monarchies as opposed to oligarchies, partly because the elite could not function without an ultimate arbiter (and was bound to produce one through its competition for power where none existed), partly because one man elevated above all others was a potent symbol of the community over which he presided: its members often regarded him as a common link with the divine" (49-50).
To test this theory, Gerring and his colleagues begin with a strict definition of monarchy as a regime with an executive office that is (1) hereditary, (2) held by a single individual, (3) endowed with life tenure and (4) has sovereign power in ruling the affairs of state. (The British monarchy satisfies the first three criteria but not the fourth.) In their historical dataset, state-like governments that satisfy all four criteria are coded as "monarchies," while all the others are coded as "republics."
They can then show from their historical dataset that most of the state-like governments in the premodern era were monarchies, while in the modern era, most are republics. They can also show evidence for improving technologies of communication in the modern era. For example, they point to the spread of radio in the early part of the twentieth century as one way that leaders in large societies could communicate directly with people who otherwise would be isolated from one another.
But while I find all of this persuasive, it seems to me that Gerring et al. have not properly identified the ultimate evolutionary causes of liberal modernity, which brought about the decline of monarchy and the rise of modern liberal democracy. As important as improving technologies of communication might be, they can be understood as the effect of a deeper cause--the evolution of modern bourgeois culture as Lockean liberal symbolic niche construction. I will explain that in my next post.