As I watch the corporate/financial/political elite in the US rediscover more and more of the advantages and habits of aristocracy — from Enclosure to divine right — and build their tacky monuments to ego and accumulation (what a pity none of said monuments are as pretty as Neuschwannstein say, or the Taj Mahal), I keep wondering about this recurring phenomenon — this Neverending Story — of Empire, Elites, and Accumulation. I wonder even harder as I watch “democracy-loving” Americans go nuts over the British royal wedding.
Why does the human race keep re-inventing kingship?
Why do so many of us seem to long for a kingly patriarchal figure, and a showy, flashy ruling class, to dominate our cultural world? Why do so many people dream of magically becoming members of that ruling elite (the eternal Cinderella story) despite its well-attested habits of greed, jealousy, intrigue, back-stabbing (often literal), poisoning, reputation-shredding, cruelty, etc? I mean, what a pool of piranhas to want to jump into
But seriously. Most of what we might call the suffering of the world starts with some king or other imposing corvee labour on the peasantry, enforcing centralised monocrop agriculture, seizing the (durable grain) harvest and storing it in vaults or silos guarded by soldiery and counted/weighed by scribe/priest/bureaucrat archetypes. Often the king convinces everyone that he has a direct line to the sun, or other gods, and is personally responsible for the return of Spring or the rising of the Nile or that sort of thing. And besides, he always has a krewe of large unfriendly armed men doing his bidding…
Herod the King, in his raging
ordered he hath this day
his men of might, in his own sight
all young children to slay.
Even the Coventry Carol, that sad old song, raises the question. Why is it so ordinary in our history that some man calls himself a king and gives orders to a mafia of other men who obediently commit any atrocity he requires? Why don’t the men-at-arms sympathise with the peasants or townsfolk they’re oppressing, rather than with the kingly caste who look down on them and treat them as expendable attack dogs? Why do they obey? Why don’t the (far more numerous) peasantry rise up and kick these thugs out? How is it that over and over again, what we call “civilisation” consists of a tiny elite terrorising (and extorting tribute from) a relatively huge majority of peasants and artisans, by means of the armed force of an mob of tame brigands?
Why kings? Why so persistent? Why so recurring? Why do we keep — like an alcoholic — falling off the democracy-wagon and slipping back into our bad old habit of worshiping the rich and powerful? Why do human cultures repeatedly *allow* a small elite to become “rich and powerful”, i.e. to Enclose resources and hoard wealth for themselves while depriving others? Is this adaptive in some way?
I really don’t have an answer. I just woke up one morning and thought that this is one of the strangest things about us (among all the other critters). We are so possessed by the idea and metaphor of rank and royalty that we can’t even comprehend the functioning of e.g. a beehive, without calling the largest bee the “Queen” — even though it’s vanishingly unlikely that she exercises a command function in any sense that we would recognise it. We refer to a top predator (the African Lion) as the “King” of the veldt. “Emperor” Penguins is the name we gave to the largest species we catalogued. Rank — the metaphor of a royal feast with tables on daises of graduated heights leading to an apex occupied by some crowned figure — seems to dominate (you should excuse the expression) our cognitive models for perceiving the world. We impose hierarchy and royalty where there is none, and we invent it out of nothing: kings and queens are surely not “superior” in any measurable way from their fellow human beings. They are only royal because people believe — choose to believe? — they are.
We know that other animals “do” ranking: chickens have a pecking order, and as long as everyone knows their place there’s little fuss. Flocks of ducks have leaders. Wolf packs are dominated by an alpha pair. Macacque monkeys, so the primatologists suggest, have even demonstrated
Along with the “first dualism” (male vs female, most likely), we seem to have carried with us from very long ago something a bit more complex than a dualism: an ingrained notion of rank, of “above” and “below” in a pecking order, with fewer and fewer members in the upper niches and more and more in the lower ones (a kind of food chain analogy? a ranking representation of the tree structures so common in the biotic world?). And we have carried with us a pernicious insistence that if any two things are different, one must be “better” and one must be “worse”. If there is an Us and a Them, then We are not only Us but also Better. We seem almost incapable of acknowledging distinction without ranking — indeed we even co-opt the words “distinguished” and “distinctive” to indicate upper-class-ness!
Anyway, the whole kingship business seems so obviously wasteful (so much of the commonwealth being appropriated to an idle elite) and unfair (primatologists tell us that unfairness is unpleasant and irritating to chimps, as well as to children and many adults)… why do we ornery humans tolerate it? Why do we keep re-inventing and accepting the kingship and aristocracy memes, when the whole farce seems a drag (resource waste) more than an advantage for any given culture? Could it perhaps be a bizarre “fitness display” like the elaborate tail of the peacock or the ridiculously large antlers of the elk? That a culture struts its stuff and displays how much useless, colourful superstructure it can afford to support, to impress rivals with its strength, robustness, and vigour?
Why kings? Why kings and nobles in just about every “advanced” human culture — OK, our cultural gatekeepers pretty much don’t admit that a culture is “advanced” unless it has an elite, so that’s a bit of a tautology, but you get my drift. Monumental architecture, kings, and slavery: those are the pillars of every culture which our socio/anthro literature admits as “high” (ahem, ranking anyone?) or “advanced.”
Now, we might look upon a culture that practises slavery as barbaric and backward, or one that wastes the common wealth on monumental architecture while commoners go hungry as morally primitive. But no, we regard them — from Greece and Rome to Dahomey and the proto-empire of Hawai’i, the Haida Nation to the Inca Empire — as “higher” than, say, simple semi-egalitarians like the rather likeable !Kung or the largely unsung Salish. The king-equipped cultures make “great” art. They indulge in warfare, raiding, looting, slave-taking. They accumulate wealth for a relatively idle elite. And this pattern — is it really distinguishable from any street-corner gang extending its turf and building a more deluxe clubhouse? — is so repetitive in human history that it’s normal, normative, goes without saying.
Why kings? Any ideas?