Thursday, October 06, 2022

The Decline of Monarchy and the Evolutionary Symbolic Niche Construction of Bourgeois Culture

Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace After Her Coronation in Westminster Cathedral in 1953


On pages 16-17 of the paper by Gerring et al., you can see graphs for "Monarchies and Republics in Europe, 1100-2005" and "Monarchies and Republics in the World, 1700-2005."  Here "republic" means simply "nonmonarchy."  The primary alternatives to monarchy were "personal dictatorships" and "corporate forms of government" (with public assemblies that were either democratic or oligarchic).  What is striking in both graphs is how for most of this history, the number of monarchies far exceeds the number of nonmonarchies; but then around 1900, the number of nonmonarchies surpasses the number of monarchies.  Why?

If King Charles III of Great Britain were to declare that he was going to reclaim all of the monarchic power once held by Charles I and Charles II in the seventeenth century, this would undoubtedly be rejected, and even ridiculed, by the British Parliament and the British people.  Why?

Here's the answer from Gerring et al.: "We have argued that monarchy solved the primordial coordination problem of politics in the premodern era.  Where societies are disconnected, a focal point is needed and monarchy was, for millennia, a readily available heuristic for establishing legitimate government.  In the modern era, as societies became more interconnected, monarchy's advantage disappeared.  With societies now highly mobilized and interconnected, monarchy's inability to integrate the masses into politics became a defect rather than an asset" (17).  According to Gerring et al., the primary reason why societies today are so "highly mobilized and interconnected" is the development of mass communications--the printing press, newspapers, national postal systems, the telegraph, radio, television, and the internet.  In particular, they show how the diffusion of radios beginning in the 1920s is associated with the decline of monarchy in the modern era (23-26).

But this raises some obvious questions that are not answered by Gerring and his colleagues.  What explains the development of mass communications?  And what was it about the content of mass communications that subverted monarchy?

Does it make any sense to say that "monarchy's inability to integrate the masses into politics became a defect rather than an asset"?  Why can't monarchy use modern mass communication to glorify monarchy among the masses?

Modern mass communication is a product of modern science and technology.  What is it about modern culture that has promoted science and technology?

Monarchy depends on a perception of society as a hierarchy.  Patricia Crone observes: "Pre-industrial society was commonly envisaged as a hierarchy (chain of command) in which everyone knew his proper place, enjoyed the appropriate rights and duties and obeyed his superiors, receiving obedience from his inferiors in his turn: all in the last resort obeyed the monarch, through whom human society was slotted in with the divine" (115).  This hierarchy was a very narrow pyramid--with a ruling elite at the top that was about 1-2% of the population and peasants at the bottom who were about 80-90% of the population.  What is it about modern culture that has undermined this premodern perception of society as a rigid hierarchy?

One possible answer to all of these questions is suggested by Crone's book, although Crone does not explicitly state it: modernity has dissolved the monarchic culture of hierarchy by promoting the evolutionary symbolic niche construction of the bourgeois culture of equal liberty.


According to Crone, human beings are unique in their capacity and need for culture: "Human beings are distinguished from other animals by their inability to survive without culture, that is information which is not transmitted genetically and which thus has to be learnt afresh by every new generation.  (For example, the capacity to reproduce is genetically transmitted, but kinship systems, courtship etiquette and marriage rules are elements of culture; the capacity to utter noises is genetically transmitted, but languages have to be learnt; so do social and political institutions, agriculture, pottery-making, counting, writing and so on.)" (94).

The social organization of other animals is built into their genes, and thus every species of social animal has its own genetically determined social structure that does not change.  "The human animal is of course genetically programmed too.  However, its programme for social organization is deficient (and to some extent even counter-productive).  The programme does little but instruct its bearer to learn, or in other words to acquire culture with which to supplement (and in some cases even to suppress) such specific instructions as it retains.  Without doing so, the species simply could not survive; doing so, it can survive almost anywhere on earth and even, for limited periods, outside it.  Culture is thus the species-specific environment of Homo sapiens.  Living in accordance with nature is an attractive idea, but in the human case it actually means living with culture" (94-95).

Crone explains human culture as a construct of the human mind that can be imagined but not directly observed.  Through cultural constructions, human beings create world views--that is, theoretical constructions of the world in the mind.  World views can be prescriptive, in that they provide a valuation of the world--telling us what to do and not do.  These prescriptive world views can be religious, ideological, philosophical, or moral.  Religious world views differ from the others in that religion explains the world with reference to supernatural beings rather than abstract principles or impersonal laws.  Religions have been more popular in history than the other atheist or non-theist world views, because "supernatural beings endowed with human feelings are easier to understand, love and obey than abstract concepts."  

In contrast to these prescriptive world views, Crone argues, modern science provides a purely descriptive world view--a theoretical construction of the world that explains the world without telling us what to do (142-43).  She does not answer the obvious objection to this claim--that modern science must be prescriptive (in other words, ethical) because the practical commitment to the life of science implies that this is a good life.  The success of modern science and its promotion of modern mass communications would have been impossible without the modern ethical commitment to science as a human good.

Crone identifies two functions of culture that are best served by religious world views: the drawing of socio-political maps and providing meaning.  The first is important because since human beings are not genetically programmed for any specific kind of socio-political order, they need to culturally construct a conception of good social and political order as an invention of the human imagination.  Crone offers a simple, and comical, illustration:

"Nothing in my genetic equipment tells me that I should milk cows or be forbidden to do so; you may force me to milk them, but if that is all there is to it, I may beat you up or run away the moment you are busy drinking; and though you may be in league with others today, you may fall out with them tomorrow: common interests are highly unstable, as anyone familiar with the phenomenon of intrigue should know.  By contrast, if you devise a religion which says that the gods want my kind to milk and your kind to stick together in enjoyment of authority, on the grounds that my kind descend from a cow whereas you and yours descend from a god, then you may hope to create a society which remains stable not only during our lifetime, but also, and crucially, when social roles have to be transferred to the next generation: the religion would both justify and solidify the social order" (147).

The second function of culture--providing meaning--is served when a religious world view justifies the socio-political order by showing how it fits into God's plan for the world and for the human beings who obey His laws.  As Crone indicates, religion justified monarchy in pre-industrial societies by identifying the king as the link between the divine and the human worlds.  This justified the premodern hierarchical ranking from high to low: from God to King to peasants.

The Crown, Orb, and Sceptre of the Monarch on Queen Elizabeth's Coffin

At the funeral for Queen Elizabeth II, we saw the symbols of this link to the divine in the monarchy.  These are the same symbols displayed at Elizabeth's coronation in 1953.  The Sceptre and Orb were first created for Charles II's coronation in 1661, which was the restoration of the monarchy that had been overthrown in 1649 with the beheading of Charles I and later the establishment of a Republic.  The Sceptre represents the Crown's power and governance.  The Orb is a golden jeweled globe with a gem-encrusted cross symbolizing that the monarch's power is from God.  At the coronation of King Charles II next year, we will see him receiving this same Crown, Orb, and Sceptre from the Archbishop of Canterbury.  For Elizabeth's coronation in 1953, William Walton composed a march for orchestra entitled "Orb and Sceptre."

But now these seventeenth-century symbols of the divine right of monarchs have been reduced to a purely ceremonial role in a modern society that no longer believes that monarchs rule by divine right.  Most of us certainly don't believe that there is any divinely ordained monarchic hierarchy in which most human beings must live as peasants under the dominance of a tiny ruling elite.  We believe that all human beings are created equal and endowed by their Creator with equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that governments are established by consent of the governed to secure those individual rights.  In other words, most of us believe in a social and political order of liberal democracy justified by a culture of bourgeois virtues, in which most human beings belong to a bourgeois middle class, and all human beings are regarded in principle as equally free.

Crone correctly sees the importance of the rise of bourgeois culture in explaining the transition from pre-industrial societies to modern industrial societies.  Pre-industrial societies were based on the fundamental idea that there is a natural, cosmic, or divine hierarchy by which one monarch and few members of a small elite group are born with the authority to rule over the great mass of human beings, mostly peasants, who must submit to being pushed around and exploited without complaint.  Bourgeois ethics denies that idea by asserting that all human beings are naturally equal in their liberty, and that they cannot rightly be ruled by anyone else without their consent. Crone is mistaken in thinking that this bourgeois culture--like all culture--transcends our evolved human nature as social and political animals, and thus cannot be explained by evolutionary biological science.

As I have argued in previous posts, human beings are not the only cultural animals, but they probably are the only animals with symbolic culture, who use language to create social institutions through symbolic niche construction.  Human beings do this through a Lockean social contract by which people consent to establish institutions by agreeing to constitute those institutions.  We do this through what John Searle calls a Declaration of Status Functions: Let X count as Y in the context of C.  

Let this twenty-dollar bill count as money in the U.S. currency system.  Or let Joe Biden count as president of the United States because he was elected through the electoral system established by the Constitution.  

Or let Prince Charles count as King Charles III because he is the oldest son of the dead queen?  But today the British understanding of the legitimacy of the monarchy differs from that which prevailed during the monarchy of Charles I and Charles II.  The British people no longer agree to see the monarch as the ruling sovereign by divine right at the top of a hierarchy with most people as obedient peasants at the bottom.  Now the British people agree that Parliament is supreme and that the Prime Minister will act as the chief executive, so that the monarch will be the ceremonial head of state but not the ruling sovereign.  And the British people see themselves not as obedient peasants but as human beings who are in principle naturally free and equal, who obey only that government to which they have consented.


What we see here is what Patricia Crone and other historians call the "rise of the bourgeoisie"--the symbolic niche construction of bourgeois liberty and equality that constitutes the liberal culture of the modern world, as set against the illiberal culture of the pre-modern world (see Crone, Pre-Industrial Societies, 21-24, 186-87, 195-97, 206).

This all began in the 18th century with Adam Smith's liberal idea--"allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice" (Wealth of Nations, Liberty Fund, 664, 687).  In previous posts, I have identified this as what Deirdre McCloskey calls the "Bourgeois Revaluation," which can be expressed as a Searlean status function: Let the bourgeois life count as honorable in a commercial society.  As McCloskey says, this bourgeois liberalism can be understood as "reinstating a pre-agricultural equality" by establishing an equal dignity and liberty for ordinary people--including an "equality of genuine comfort"--that restores the equal autonomy of individuals enjoyed in hunter-gatherer bands for hundreds of thousands of years until the establishment of rigid class hierarchies in agrarian state societies (Bourgeois Equality, 631-39).  This is a restatement of John Locke's argument for liberalism as the restoration of the natural liberty and equality of the state of nature.

McCloskey overstates her case, however, when she argues that the bourgeois virtues include all of the traditional seven virtues--four pagan virtues (prudence, temperance, courage, and justice) and three Christian virtues (faith, hope, and charity).  In Bourgeois Equality (xxi, 423) and Bourgeois Virtue (508), she says that the bourgeois virtues are "the seven virtues exercised in a commercial society," and "the seven principal virtues of pagan and Christian Europe were recycled as bourgeois."  But she cannot quote Adam Smith or anyone else saying this.

McCloskey can point to Smith's account in The Theory of Moral Sentiments of the virtues of prudence, temperance, courage, justice, and benevolence (part of Christian charity?).  But she cannot find any statement by Smith that these are the bourgeois virtues of a commercial society.

Moreover, she cannot explain why Smith identifies admiration of the rich as "the corruption of our moral sentiments."  In her one-paragraph comment on Smith's chapter against admiring the rich, she observes: "That the Waltons are rich does not make them admirable people, despite the undoubted commercial savvy of Sam and his brother Jim" (Bourgeois Equality, 564).  But this contradicts her claim that the rhetoric of the bourgeois virtues promotes "the admiration for and acceptance of trade-tested betterment" (564).  She also cannot explain why Smith in the Wealth of Nations never identifies businesspeople as virtuous, and why he refers only once to "virtues," and it's a lament that the "laboring poor" in a commercial society suffer a decline "in intellectual, social, and martial virtues" (WN, 782).

Recently, Daniel Klein has offered a much more modest--and more defensible--version of McCloskey's argument.  Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, Klein shows that after about 1740 people for the first time started writing about "honest merchants" and "honest traders," terms that had almost never appeared before 1740.  For the first time, the profession of merchants and traders was regarded as "honest."  Klein traces this idea to the jurisprudence of Hugo Grotius and others who saw that those who made money through honest dealings--that is, voluntary transactions--had a property right to their wealth that should be protected by law.

But unlike McCloskey, Klein distinguishes honest dealings from virtuous conduct.  Being honest is a necessary but not sufficient condition for being virtuous.

Klein quotes from Alexis de Tocqueville's chapter in Democracy in America on "Why Americans Consider All Honest Callings Honorable" (part 2, chap. 18).  While in aristocracies, "it is not exactly work itself which is despised, but work with an eye to profit."  By contrast, in America, "equality makes not only work itself, but work specifically to gain money, honorable."  "In the United States professions are more or less unpleasant, more or less lucrative, but they are never high or low.  Every honest profession is honorable."

Thus, a bourgeois life in a modern liberal society is regarded as honest and honorable.  But it does not necessarily display all the virtues.  The modern adoption of this idea of bourgeois dignity is enough to explain the Great Enrichment of the past 200 years that has created the world in which most of us live today: the richest, healthiest, freest, and most populous world that human beings have ever experienced in their 200,000 years of evolutionary history.

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