This is the fourth piece in the most recent series. The first was a general outline of why, during this pandemic, the UK regime was breaking up. It advocated bringing ecological thinking together with socialist ideas to facilitate this and called for a movement for environmental and social justice rooted in a localised network of activist citizen reporters building a big, deep and diverse picture of our lives under Covid and after. The second traced the roots of the human story from the earliest female-oriented human societies through the male ‘take over’ of the neolithic agricultural revolution to the patriarchal nation states under threat in our contemporary world. The third explores the UK from an ecological and bioregional perspective, pointing out how new forms of resource use need to be adopted. This fourth piece explores the political structure of the UK regime. I started writing a blog in May of last year because I couldn’t write plays. The pieces I wrote from then until September were, like this current series, provoked by the Covid crisis and expressed a yearning for a popular movement against the dreadful Tory government.
It is not surprising that the shock of the pandemic is precipitating a general crisis. The crisis will end the current UK regime, formed during the revolutionary settlement of 1688, which rules through ‘the monarch in parliament’. We cannot have regime change without ending capitalism. The fuller participation of people in the organisation of society, making decisions about what is valuable and what we should invest in, is incompatible with capitalism. The regime in the UK disguises itself as a parliamentary democracy. The monarchy is wrongly supposed to have ‘only’ a symbolic or ceremonial role. Capitalism is falsely described as ‘just’ an economic system.
Is what is true of the UK regime also true of other nation-state regimes? Is the UK regime the original that other states more or less copy? Nation states are a system and they conform by resembling each other in certain key functions. They have sovereignty and this forms the basis of their agreement with each other. The formation of nation states is an aggregative process. They come into being together. When did this process begin? How was it worked out? The idea that nation-states are generated in the break-up of empires is familiar. When Germany in 1991 recognised Slovenia, previously a part of Yugoslavia, it precipitated its break up. From 1945, during the decolonisation process that followed the second world war, the European empires were broken up into nation states. In this process, by and large, the template constitutional form, the model, was provided by the USA. This had been the first nation state formed as it gained independence from European imperial domination. Haiti may have been the second though its continued independence was compromised by continued oppression and debt. I can’t go into a lot of detail here. You get the picture.
The nation state is a particular form of human group organisation that first occurred in the Western part of the Eurasian landmass. Its original components were derived from the break-up of the Roman Empire in the complex process of migration and settlement that happened from 300 years after Jesus Christ was born and continued its development until the present day. The commonly accepted crucially formative moment was the treaty signed between the European powers in Westphalia in 1648 at the end of the Thirty Years War. The 1300 year long movement was propelled by the structural and institutional energies of patriarchy (i.e. it was based on the collective oppression of women) and the development was collateral with that of capitalism. 1649 was the year the English Parliament tried and executed Charles I for treason; 1660 was the restoration of the English monarchy, ending the English Civil War; 1688 saw the constitutional settlement which brought the current UK regime into being; the foundation of the Bank of England was in 1694.
Unsurprisingly, since its components were derived from imperial structures, the nation state was a particle of empire. Its monetary systems, based on national currencies, accumulating wealth towards ‘the head’ or the capital, thus forming capital, propelled expansion. Sovereignty constantly sought (and seeks) to extend itself. Borders were decided by war. Through its mercantile and then industrial development the European nation states created empires. From 1945 this imperial system transitioned, augmented itself and engaged in further financialisation. This was accompanied by an internationalisation of financial markets, trading principally on differences between currencies. The abandonment in the early 1970s of fixing the value of the dollar to gold was significant in the escalation of these processes known as neoliberalism and globalisation. It was during this process that nation states appeared to be less influential in the circulation of value and many were dwarfed by multi-national companies. They became effectively competitors, deregulating and holding down wage costs, for inward investment from international corporations, . The period from the mid-1970 to 2008 saw a struggle between democracy and the international financial system that created a succession of modifications of state financial structures. This recent history is described by Wolfgang Streek in Buying Time, The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism. The issue of nation state/government indebtedness is central to the crisis precipitated by the corona virus. The basic components in the recent story are the same as those that were brought into play when a group of bankers set up the Bank of England. The deal was that the bank was permitted to print money if it would make loans to the ‘King in Parliament’ i.e. the government, to conduct a war against France. This was the first central bank.
So what is the origin and nature of the UK regime, the nation-state form characterised by Parliamentary Monarchy? In order that our society can be reorganised and renewed in the light of the changes in our environment, signalled by the pandemic and global warming, this institution needs to be replaced. However this needs to happen from the bottom up. Productive and creative activity needs to be regenerated through people’s common understanding of what people’s needs are. A version of what needs to take place is described by foundational economics. How the perception of people’s vulnerability can be operationalised into an inspirational productive strategy requires participatory democratic bodies close to where people live. To engage with human vulnerability our society needs to base itself on processes much more akin to those that flowed through the earliest human societies oriented towards reproductive needs and the physiological rhythms of human females. The awareness of education, teaching and caring as social priorities has been critically heightened by the pandemic. For this reorientation to happen the state needs to be radically decentralised. Its functions need to be dispersed. Many people will have sensed during the pandemic how crucially important local government is and how close to people’s needs the services it provides are. The renewal process starts and continues with attention to the most vulnerable, turning human need into productive inspiration. Dispersion of the state obviously requires the dispersion of investment decisions, of finance and banking. To de-capitalise is both a geographical and redistributive process.
In my play The Field events of this sort are described. The crisis that the play depicts is precipitated by government failure in the face of an ecological challenge precipitating a financial disintegration. A popular ‘localist’ movement follows, with a radical government pushing through reforms. This encounters a massive movement of resistance not unlike the MAGA movement in the USA, fuelled by male rage. I wrote the play in 2019 and we made a public online reading of it in April 2020.
Our current social organisation, our state, inhibits participation and therefore destroys resilience. This is decisive in a period that is characterised by ecological changes, like the pandemic. The tendency towards passivity and confusion is to do with the deceptive nature of our political institutions. The rule of the political elites must be disguised by democratic and participatory structures. People are induced into collaborating in their own oppression. The problematic of patriarchy is that rule cannot be imposed simply and singly by brute force and terror. The concealed nature of patriarchal power is that it rests on power over women’s power. This source of power has to be hidden through making it appear sacred. The secularisation that has accompanied the development of state forms based on kingship preserves the sacred core of this form of power. Kingship and sovereignty, the divine right to rule a given territory, meets the problem of how those who are ruled can be convinced of this authority. Kantorowicz sheds light on this. He calls his work, The King’s Two Bodies, a study of medieval political theology. The King has a temporal/human body and an eternal/divine body. This latter manifests the continuity and assumption of power. The king is dead, long live the king!
The study of political theology associates Kantorowicz’ work with that of his contemporary, Carl Schmitt who wrote about politics in the context of the rise of the National Socialist Party in Germany in the 1930s and who invented the idea of the state of exception. This is a moment when democratic and judicial processes are suspended. This suspension is undertaken apparently to protect the very processes that have been suspended. The justification is the identification of an egregious threat to the underlying stability of the state. What it calls into play is the basic assumption of power by the King or the ruling group. They, as it were, stand behind the constitutional structures. The power that is assumed is the power over life and death.
In Piketty’s book, Capital and Ideology, he describes the reorganisation of state power in the French Revolution that started in 1789 as being a renegotiation of the relationship between ‘regalian’ power (the assumption of power over life and death) and the power of the individual over his or her (private) property. The state retains the ‘regalian’ power as long as it protects the freedom of the individual as embodied in private property. The state of exception suspends these latter rights in order to protect them and utilises state violence to do so. The analysis that Piketty gives, which relies on the work of Blaufarb in his book, The Great Demarcation, where the transition from the trifunctional state to the property state is described. This also throws light on how these same political components were combined as a result of the English Revolution in the settlement of 1688. I am drawing attention to this because the way our state is structured is such that the exception is the rule.
Another way of thinking about this is to consider the provisions of Terrorism and Counter Terrorism legislation. Another is to consider how political parties work and how the difference between them is constructed; what remains the same when there is a change of government. Another is to consider the meaning of the oath of allegiance, sworn by all elected members of the UK parliament except those from Sinn Fein who refuse to take up their seats. The allegiance sworn is to the crown.
Where does sovereignty lie? (By the way, I will return to the significance of the fact that the some of the earliest English monetary units were coins called sovereigns and crowns). Does it lie with the people? It appears to. The House of Commons only assumed sole legislative power in 1911 when the House of Lords had to cede its power to impede legislation in a dispute about progressive taxation (Piketty p.163). Has sovereignty in the UK regime gradually, a step at a time, come to lie with the people? The final move towards universal suffrage was in 1928 when women gained political equality with men. Is the sovereign, the monarch above the law, the source of the law or subject to it? The central part of Kantorowicz’ book is devoted to the work of Henri de Bracton, the English political philosopher who wrote De Legibus et Consuetunibidis Angliae (The Laws and Customs of the English, 1235 CE). This is mainly concerned with the question of the king’s relationship to the law. He wasn’t alone in the work of formulating and arriving at conclusions about this question. It was a major preoccupation of thinkers and administrators from this formative period in the 13th century through the English Reformation (1527) (when the English Monarch became the Head of the Church of England), up to the execution of Charles I (1649) and onward to the revolutionary settlement of 1688. When Charles I was executed the question was raised as to whether it was the temporal human king whose life was ended or that of kingship. At one point during the Civil War the cry from parliament was ‘We must defy the king in order to defend the King’. If the King was not enthroned in Parliament was he still the King? Did the crown remain in parliament? Bracton’s conclusion, 400 years previous to the English Civil War, was that a ruler could only be called king if he exercised power in a lawful manner.
As the actual power of the sovereign appeared to diminish and become ‘only’ symbolic, the sovereignty of the people appeared to augment and actualise itself. This is myth. Friedrich Engels was quick to point out the anomalous nature of the English regime (The Condition of England by Friedrich Engels Vorwarts! No.75). He describes how the power of the crown seems to have been reduced to nil and yet the constitution cannot exist without the monarchy. He comes up with the image of an inverted pyramid where the apex is at the same time the base: ‘and the less important the monarchic element became in reality the more important did it become for the Englishman. Nowhere, as we all know, is a non-ruling personage more revered than in England'(Engels op.cit.). It is as if the sovereign presents, as a function of its apparent distance from politics, the essence of the people.
Although the English or British example seems so specific, the regime, the constitutional arrangement, is an outcome of a historical process that becomes visible in the years following the break up of the Roman Empire and shares this provenance with other European nation-states. The English model was formative in this process. It managed to resolve key issues of sovereignty that were influential in European nation-state formation in this extended period (400 – 1648CE). I want to emphasise the point that nation states come into existence as a system through processes of mimesis. A crucial part of this mimetic process is the way in which in war the opposing armies line up against one another. Wars are the decisive means of determining sovereignty in the establishment of borders. The English state was an early developer in its refinement of kingship as the hidden core of the state and it was an early developer of advanced industrial capitalism and imperialism. There is no logic, as I have said elsewhere, that would lead us to believe that since, in both these respects, it was first in, it will be first out. However the UK resistance to becoming a modern republic may make it, under the kind of crisis circumstances like those of the CV-19, particularly fragile and in danger of break-up.
The danger posed by the secession of the American colonies in the war that started in 1776 and the French Revolution 1789 was considerable. Only resolved for a time by the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The relationship between the English and French revolutions, that happened only just over a hundred and fifty years apart, is a good example of the part played by mimesis in the aggregative processes of the co-development of nation states. This point is pushed home when you also consider the impact of the constitutional forms that emerged in the American Revolution that started in 1776. These latter were created out of resistance to the English ‘monarch in parliament’ form. However in replacing it, it reappeared in the relationship between the President and the Congress, though the significant adaptation was the separation of these functions. The attempt to retain ‘regalian’ power by Trump revealed the ‘kingship/monarchical’ forms that lurk under the surface of the democratic republican constitution. During the attack by Trump supporters on the Capitol Joe Biden made the comment that Trump was not ‘king’ and the Congress was not the ‘House of Lords’ as a way of expressing outrage and giving a sense of a society having progressed beyond forms of power associated with a more antique regime.
It is important to gain an understanding of the history of this nation-state form of which the UK regime is an example because it has been systematically imposed, often with disastrous consequences, on much of the human population through imperialism and neo-colonialism (decolonisation).
The idea that the Roman Empire went through a ‘break up’ as ‘barbarian’ populations moved into the Western part of the Eurasian landmass doesn’t fully take account of the process of transition that these groups went through as they interacted with the communities occupied by Rome. This story is superbly told in Guy Halsall’s book Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West – 376-568CE. The initial movements of these populations into territories colonised by Rome were characterised by settlement and absorption. In a wonderful description of how ethnicities changed and were fused Halsall makes significant observations about ethnicity itself. The populations were incorporated into ‘Roman’ institutions and structures. The structures of imperial rule which had synchronously adopted the Christian religion as the state religion, became the organising principle of the cultural and political lives of the ‘invaders’. The cathedrals and bishoprics of Western Europe were derived directly from the centres of Roman imperial administration.
The Christian religion offered, due to its universalist philosophy, a good homogenising imperial ideology that could give the emperor a model of kingship that amalgamated the human and the divine. The creation of a hierarchy that, at its centre, had a figure that was proximate to Christ could validate the rule of a human being who was blessed by divine power. It was later that the idea of christomimesis, the idea that the king takes on the role of Christ, was developed. The hierarchical structure of the empire transitioned into that of the Catholic Church. But this was contested. The period in question was followed by an ongoing contest between Popes and Emperors. To some extent this issue was solved by the organisation of the Crusades which started at the end of the 11th Century. By this time kingdoms had emerged.
Dynastic claims to territory were consolidated through the assertion of divine right. Borders were established through force and sanctified by holy benediction. The figure of the king who claimed allegiance from other contesting leaders was anointed with the aura of godliness. In the court structure that centred on the monarch, the warrior nobility played out one aspect of his power while the clergy, the holinesses of the church, played out the other. One gave restless obedience while the other supplied divine blessing.
Looking backwards towards the origins of patriarchy in the male ‘take over’ of the human group at the advent of agriculture in the Neolithic revolution that I described in a previous piece, the emergence of the particular form of kingship that laid the basis for the nation state was a specific solution to what I have described as the problematic of patriarchy: how could men take women’s power without destroying it? How could they successfully create hierarchies that combined the power of the warrior leader and the charisma of the shaman/priest?
Looking forward, the development of the king’s ritual, administrative and military functions were characterised by what Piketty describes as the tri-functional state (Piketty op. cit.)where the sovereign was surrounded by the community of the commonwealth, consisting typically of the lords temporal (warriors, nobles) and the lord spiritual (priests, clergy) and the commoners/subjects. The functions of these institutions transitioned into modern ‘parliamentary’ democracy and the development of political parties. The underlying movement of the two-party state replicates the vestigial functions embodied in the tri-functional state. By the way, this could explain the strangely sectarian ‘religious’ structure of the Labour Party and the sacerdotal demeanour of some of its factotums. Particularly, in this recent period, its use of anti-semitism as a kind of coded ‘test’ of loyalty accompanied by confessions, accusations, prohibitions, public recantations, disavowals, ostracisations, heresies, ritual judicial procedures and witch-hunts.
What disposes human beings to form groups? This might seem a stupid question since we are born into them. They are a function of our existence. Are nation states derived from human needs that are not determined by specific ecological, historical or geographical circumstance? Psychoanalysis has offered, through its intensive intersubjective co-examination of humanity in the consulting room, remarkable insights into human need. Wilfred Bion explored the underlying structures that prevailed in groups brought together in a therapeutic setting. In a sense what he lays bare is like the raw material of human group interaction but his analysis has more general application. He arrived at a limited number of structures which he called ‘basic assumptions’ which determined the ‘culture’ of the group (Bion, op.cit.). Sigmund Freud wrote about group psychology and made observations of a sort that were to some extent the basis of Bion’s ideas and he arrived at two basic forms of what he described as ‘artificial’ groups: the Church and the Army. The artificiality was connected to hierarchical characteristics. To my mind the other great thinker about group formation is Elias Canetti. In Crowds and Power he gives a comprehensive morphological account. Many of these thinkers recognise the significance of money. This is also true of another perceptive thinker, Alfred Sohn-Rethel, who explained in Intellectual and Manual Labour, A Critique of Epistemology, how the abstraction of value that money presents is inextricably connected to its role in what he described as ‘social synthesis’. I am going to go no further here in exploring these important ideas that are relevant to our understanding of the state we’re in. These thinkers were working when fundamental questions about social cohesion, power and leadership were being asked as a consequence of the collapse of the financial system in 1929 and the rise of fascism and national socialism.
What might be going on in a given group – the example I have given above is the British Labour Party – may be typical and indicative of processes active in the social formation of which it is a part. To understand how deeply lived and pervasive the structures of kingship might be can shed light on the fear and loathing provoked in the establishment, the media and in the Labour Party itself by Jeremy Corbyn as leader. The party 30 years before had been galvanised by the extraordinarily charismatic triumphant war leader, Tony Blair. He was a winner. Jeremy Corbyn would be seen by acolytes, media arch-priests and political battalion commanders as a usurper, not a ‘real man’, incapable of pressing the nuclear button, unsuitable for the proxy ‘regalian’ powers bestowed on the prime minister, a loser! It was after the election defeat in December 2019 that the party had to be purified and re-sanctified. This process has led to its moral collapse and this is one of the key indicators of how far the deterioration of the UK regime has gone.
In the next piece I will go into more details about the specific political contours of the UK regime as it came into being and as it now manifests itself in its dissolution. Just to reflect back on what I’ve said about the UK regime being a particular manifestation of the European nation-state that based itself on kingship of a type that was an amalgam of political forms derived from the Christianised Roman Empire let’s look at Percy Shelley’s work. The iconic moment of the movement that cohered around Corbyn’s leadership was his appearance at the Glastonbury Festival main (Pyramid!) stage in 2017. At this event he unlocked the poetic roots of the slogan (‘For the Many, Not the Few’) that had brought increasing support in the election of that year, by quoting the final verse of the poem, The Mask of Anarchy, that Shelley wrote as a response to the Peterloo Massacre (1819) when the dragoons made a military charge on Chartist demonstrators in Manchester:
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many, they are few
Shelley was in Italy when he heard the news of the massacre and the poem takes the form of a nightmarish parade of the English regime, the embodiment of murderous anarchy. This was 1819, a hundred and thirty years after the English imported a king from the Netherlands, guaranteed to be Protestant thus crowning the movement that was initiated with the break from the Roman Catholic Church at the English Reformation in 1527, and settled him into the ‘Monarch in Parliament’ constitutional settlement. Here are some earlier verses he didn’t read out:
And many more Destructions played
In this ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies.
Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.
And he wore a kingly crown;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone;
On his brow this mark I saw -
'I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!'
With a pace stately and fast,
Over English land he passed,
Trampling to a mire of blood
The adoring multitude,
And a mighty troop around,
With their trampling shook the ground,
Waving each a bloody sword,
For the service of their Lord.
And a little later (just to drive the point home):
For with pomp to meet him came,
Clothed in arms like blood and flame,
The hired murderers, who did sing
'Thou art God, and Law, and King.
'We have waited, weak and lone
For thy coming, Mighty One!
Our purses are empty, our swords are cold,
Give us glory, and blood, and gold.'
Lawyers and priests, a motley crowd,
To the earth their pale brows bowed;
Like a bad prayer not over loud
Whispering - 'Thou art Law and God.'
Henri de Bracton must have been turning in his grave!