On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future

Sovereign Updates and the Staging of Privileged Inheritance (June 3, 2014)


As hyper-modern as our world sometimes seems, the news often reminds us how old so many things actually are. Especially in the light of Thomas Piketty’s emphasis in Capital in the Twentieth Century on wealth-inheritance as a major contributor to income and wealth inequality, the recent spate of abdications and updatings of European monarchies seems so uncannily appropriate. As Ashley Fantz shows in this survey of recent monarch replacement,  Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and King Albert II of Belgium (along with one notable Pope and one Qatari Emir) did in 2013 what King Juan Carlos I of Spain intends to do—namely, abdicate from a sovereign position and make way for replacement by a younger individual. In reading this news, I was struck by how strange it is that so many countries still maintain—however symbolically—a form of government that I usually associate (again, despite so much contrary evidence) with the old, with the pre-modern—namely, the kingdom. I can think of few things less democratic than rule by an individual chosen by heredity, and yet a good percentage of European states are symbolically ruled by one whose qualifications are linked with royal bloodlines. If Piketty is right that the current global financial system significantly favors those with inherited wealth, then perhaps more is at stake in the ongoing commitment to aristocratic exception than mere traditionalism—perhaps these are overt signals that inheritance privileges have always been a part of state development, and that monarchical privilege must be more frequently and spectacularly rehearsed.

            My second instinct after hearing this news was quite specific, and had much to do with precisely such issues of publicly staging of social inequities in access to power: I was fascinated by the question of how exactly Juan Carlos would abdicate. Would he, like Richard II in Shakespeare’s eponymous history play, ritually un-king himself—performing in reverse the ceremonial elements of coronation that made him a king in the first place? (See here Ben Whishaw’s masterly performance of this scene in The Hollow Crown.) Would there be a special ritual passing of majesty from one to man-monarch who, giving up the royal self that involves, as Ernst Kantorowicz teaches us in The King’s Two Bodies, the bearing of a mystical sovereign state-body simultaneously with one’s corporeal body, makes a man-monarch out of another? And to make sure that this staging of inherited preeminence be seamlessly integrated into the current, evolving economy, might this most appropriately be done online, perhaps with a live-streaming session from a crowded stadium?

            Intriguingly, the answer to this question is definitively: who knows? There is apparently no current law governing succession issues, so the Spanish parliament will have to devise a law dealing with the change in the symbolic head of state. I look forward to hearing more about what legal solution will be arrived at to accommodate the extra-legal presence woven into the framework of the state.

            The Spanish monarchy has had a long history (though with a significant interregnum during Franco’s rule, from 1936-1975), but it is currently acting under a fairly recent set of protocols—again, the kingdom continues, as modified by the evolving capitalist state. The monarchy, as defined by the 1978 Constitution (nicely explained in this Wikipedia article), actually has quite an array of powers, though all sorts of qualifications limit any actual effort to do more than symbolically stand as, say, “commander in chief” of the armed forces, or “head-of-state.” As with so many constitutional monarchies in major modern states, the desire for a symbolic royal head are managed, mitigated by the stark realism and legalism of the political machinery of the modern nation-state. I wonder how much longer such symbolic excess will continue, given how profoundly undemocratic such blood-based systems are—though, thinking again of Piketty’s Capital (which I am only just starting to make my way through), I wonder if symbolic rule by an individual whose privilege is tied to inheritance is not an acutely honest presentation of current economic development, and hence something that we will see rising up in more nation-states.


Author: Randy P. Schiff

I am an Associate Professor of English currently at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. I specialize in Middle English literature, with special interests in alliterative verse, medieval romance, Scottish poetry, Old French poetry, Arthurian literature, ethnic identity, imperialism, nationalism, ecocriticism, courtly love, and literary history.

4 thoughts on “Sovereign Updates and the Staging of Privileged Inheritance (June 3, 2014)

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