It is ironic that almost every major figure and institution of Australian capitalism has led an outpouring of veneration for one of the last vestiges of feudalism: a hereditary monarch, whose status as the sovereign is subject to fewer challenges than is Kim Jong-un’s rule in North Korea, and whose position, through birthright, gives it control of a series of economically unproductive and taxpayer-funded landed estates.
After all, we’ve been told since before Elizabeth II was even crowned that it’s the socialists, not the capitalists, who are supposed to encourage a lazy dependence on the public purse and who have no respect for democracy. How far the modern ruling class seems to have regressed.
In the age of bourgeois revolution, the aristocracy and monarchy were criticised for contributing nothing to society. The rising capitalist class claimed to be fit to rule by virtue of its capacity to augment the wealth of nations, while the first and second estates were destined to be expropriated because of their uselessness.
Yet with the death of the queen, the monarchy is being praised precisely because it seems to do nothing except exist: a “constant figure” (BBC news), “a constant presence” (Australian PM Anthony Albanese), “a constant queen” (Guardian), “a symbol of nothing so much as continuity” (New York Times).
And any whisper of expropriation, or of the abolition of her family’s titles, provokes howls of protest from the very people who recently denounced and defunded “economically unviable” Indigenous communities in Western Australia, and who oversaw the robodebt scheme that randomly targeted as criminals the recipients of far less state largesse than the House of Windsor.
The charge of being “unproductive”, however, was never levelled solely at those at the top in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As time went on, the old feudal rulers and the new capitalists often put their differences aside and found common cause against the lower orders.
That the economic contribution of the European peasantry and of Indigenous people in the colonies was deemed to be marginal or non-existent was an important justification for their dispossession. It was said that they couldn’t claim to own the land on which they lived if they were unable, in the eyes of the capitalists, to improve it—which meant to make a commercial profit from it. In that sense, while Her Majesty’s fortunes have shifted quite favourably since the days of Oliver Cromwell, the First Nations remain condemned while the capitalists are in charge.
Further, as those expelled from the European and British countryside joined the urban labour force, criminality became associated with working-class “idleness”, which the new elites often claimed was the source of widespread poverty and destitution, rather than the obvious result of mass dispossession and exploitation.
Just as capitalists transformed land and property into “productive” enterprise through the application of other people’s labour, the new “criminals” were transformed into “productive” members of society—which means compliant labourers. The new British colony of New South Wales was a laboratory in this regard. The transportation of convicts to perform forced labour found advocates among the establishment in part because it promised an improvement not only of the land, but of the labourer’s character as well.
“When a lot of convicts were received from a ship, they were at once put to some very hard labour”, John Macarthur, a British officer who became one of the richest men in New South Wales, wrote at the time. “[This] was a severe punishment to them; we kept them at that kind of work for a considerable period, according to their conduct, and so broke them in, and made them well disposed; taught them the difference between good conduct and bad, the advantages of regular and orderly behaviour.”
The references to a fine disposition and “orderly behaviour”, euphemisms for subservience, are central to understanding why the ruling class still reveres the royal family, even though it embodies everything that capitalism is supposed to eclipse: stagnation, indolence, the anti-Enlightenment reaction and adults playing dress-ups with swords.
For if some workers can be convinced that this historical throwback should inherit its estates, that it should have a role in the state and that the class inequality it embodies serves some higher purpose, then how much less must they think of themselves and how much more will they be prepared to subordinate their own needs to the wants of some other master?
If some workers can be made to embrace fealty to the crown, they surely must develop a higher tolerance for the more powerful and dominant capitalist class. Billionaire and multimillionaire business leaders can at least plausibly claim to provide something for the people they exploit: products, innovations, jobs. If King Charles III is entitled to his lot, then the case against the accrued riches of a seemingly productive business owner is invariably weaker.
Also weakened is the case for genuine democracy. If the queen’s “selflessness” was demonstrated by keeping her thoughts to herself, and her dignity defined thus by never complaining, the message is also that the working classes might elevate themselves by developing a stiff upper lip rather than a log of claims or opinions about what’s really wrong with the world.
More than that, the creation of a monstrously popular monarch limits in practice the reach of popularly elected governments. “No prime minister would risk becoming embroiled in a dispute with the queen, as her popularity was always greater than theirs”, Anne Twomey, a professor of constitutional law, writes in the Australian Financial Review. “It was simply not worth the fight, so politicians usually bent to her will.”
Twomey notes that in skirmishes with NSW Premier Neville Wran, and Prime Ministers Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam, Elizabeth (“very canny in her exercise of power”) always came out on top. In the end, then, she didn’t simply do nothing but exist. As Whitlam found out, her interests aligned with, and her limited powers were exercised in the service of Australia’s ruling class, which with her authority carried out a soft coup.
Now that she’s gone, even Labor Party student clubs have joined the love-in.
The other ironic aspect of these days of mourning is that, by and large, the few voices critiquing the monarchy come from the only group of people who can claim social structures and traditions that date from well before the British crown. It has been left to the Aboriginal brothers and sisters among us, and not for the first time, to ask people to see sense. Unfortunately, and not for the last time, they have largely been pilloried for it.