Presidents, kings, revolutions and anarchy.

November 23rd, 2016
by Chris

I’ve been thinking about this concept: “There is also a metaphor that A Country Is a Person and a metonymy of the President Standing For the Country” since the election of Donald Trump. The quotation is taken from an article by George Lakoff, where he seeks to understand the psychology behind the victory. And I’ve been congratulating my own country on having a constitutional monarchy rather than a republic – had we had a republic, looking at the rise of UKIP in the 2015 elections and the Brexit referendum result, we could by now be rejoicing in being represented by President Farage. Nigel Farage is absolutely not qualified to represent me or the majority of my friends; he displays boorishness and bigotry, appeals to racism and thinly disguises his massive condescension behind a facade of “laddishness” (and “laddishness”, to me, is tantamount to grown up football hooligananism…) Had we elected him as President of Great Britain, I would expect us as a nation to be a laughing stock in governments around the world, and me personally to have to explain to every one of my non-UK friends why they really should not think less of me because my fellow countrymen elected a complete a***hole to represent them (and, unfortunately, me). Heck, I have enough difficulty having to explain Brexit (“so, Chris, you live in a country largely populated by morons?…”).

So I have collossal sympathy for the vast bulk of my American friends who did not vote for Trump and find him about as repugnant as I do. America has a tendency to do things larger, louder and with less finesse, and Trump is rather like a larger, louder, even more boorish Farage, as far as I can see. However, I also have a touch of feeling that he may be seen to represent me too – due to the conception of the USA as the forefront of Western Democracy and the often used term “leader of the free world”, if not to the fact that he’s an English speaker from the largest first-language English speaking country in the world (if you take into account second language or look at English being an official language of the country, the largest is actually India, where English shares the “official” status with Hindi), or the fact that the USA was originally a British creation. Granted, it went its own way earlier than any of the other colonies by quite some margin, but it’s still to an extent “our responsibility”, even if we haven’t had much ability to influence it for over 250 years.

Incidentally, don’t get me wrong here – if Trump does half what he said he’d do (and judging by the makeup of his “transition team”, there’s a serious danger he will) he’ll be an economic disaster, will set back the fight against climate change possibly irretrievably and will facilitate or encourage persecution of women and minorities. These are all very bad things – and that’s without commenting that someone who appears extremely thin-skinned and likes showing off his power is shortly to be Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful military the world has ever seen. This is not just an American problem – climate change affects all of us, US military interventions affect all of us, and the US economy is inextricably linked with many others (notably the UK economy). If he goes in the directions I fear, everyone will suffer; it’s not just a matter of perceptions, or even primarily that. But what I want to concentrate on here is the theory and practice of heads of state.

Monarchies are a terrible idea from the point of view of theoretical politics, but in practice the constitutional variety (which we’ve had longer than anyone else, at a minimum since the Restoration of 1660 – and for any reader who wants to date it to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, I regard that as merely confirming the Restoration settlement against an attempt to reverse it) seem to work pretty well. In these, the monarch has practically no actual power, but is a symbol (or as Lakoff puts it, metonymy) of the nation. The major plus point there is that people ascending to the throne have been brought up knowing that that will be their “job” in the future, and for the most part have it dinned into them from birth that they are going to be a symbol, and must therefore behave in an appropriate manner. This is, if necessary, reinforced by the consciousness that we’ve had a revolution twice to remove a monarch who was overstepping their constitutional position, and could do so again.

It does amuse me that much the same reasoning is used by Edmund Burke in “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (here discussed by PEL – the second part is here) to justify inherited wealth and the power of the then nobility. Burke is well known as an arch conservative, which is also amusing considering my status as (in general) an arrant Liberal. I actually wouldn’t extend this argument to nobles as a class; there is a major difference between performance of a symbolic function (the monarchy) for which training is very valuable and managing the wealth of the country, for which training might be valuable, but which aristocratic systems seldom if ever provide well in practice.

Burke, however, did support the American revolution, despite his general principles. He did so on the basis that the rule of George III was tyrannical – and, in fact, he was wrong. George may have wanted to be a tyrant, but lived at least 100 years too late for that to be practical in England; the actions which the proto-Americans complained of were centrally those of his government, of the parliament of the day – which, of course, was not representative of the people of the American colonies, who elected no MPs and were ruled by appointed governors.

Against that background, I find a lot of irony in the fact that many US citizens now appear to be suffering from Canada-envy. Let’s face it, Canada is the bit of the mainland American colonies which didn’t join in the Revolution, which stayed loyal to King George – or rather (as he was a symbol, a metonymy) to the United Kingdom which he represented. Yes, my American friends – you could all be Canadian now – if you hadn’t had a revolution. (I need to admit here that the history of Canada would no doubt have been very different in that case, and the nature of the society might not have been quite so admirable as many Americans now find it…)

So, was there a tyrrany, albeit of an elected parliament which nonetheless did not represent the American colonists rather thanĀ  of the monarch? The answer probably has to be yes – in default of any participation in government, tyrrany is really the only applicable word. Burke’s criticism of the British position was very much on the basis of “no taxation without representation”. There is another irony here; even with all the measures which the colonists complained of, the actual burden which the UK parliament was attempting to impose was negligible compared with the burden of maintaining the apparatus of the modern United States. As tyrranies go, it wasn’t very tyrranical.

Of course, the really important part was “no taxation”; had there not been an attempt to tax (which was largely due to the UK government having recently incurred a lot of expense in removing the ever-present threat of French Canada from the American scene), I doubt that “no representation” would have found much traction. I tend to find that people aren’t all that interested in the political process as long as government isn’t doing things they object to too much – I know that would hold for me. In my case, though, I’m happy to accept a significant level of tax; in the States the aversion to any form of taxation seems to be alive and well. So does the idea that people are not really represented by their government, despite the electoral process which now exists (and I have sympathy there – my vote rarely counts, partly because I persistently vote for third party candidates). Both antipathy to taxation and frustration with lack of political power are suggested as contributing to Trump’s success, with the further irony that in the case of the Revolution, taxes were almost entirely in the interests of defence, which is not an area where Trump supporters would be likely to reduce expenditure…

There were, however, some other more obvious causes than the mere lack of a vote for the colonists to want to be free of the UK parliament. One such was the trade monopoly in tea which they attempted to give to the East India Company (the protest was not about taxes on tea, it was about the fact that government appointed merchants were given a monopoly on reduced tax tea so that the Company could undercut the price of smuggled Dutch tea, thus annoying the smugglers). This was symptomatic of a basic British doctrine that the colonies were there to provide raw materials and both manufacture and the carriage of goods should be a monopoly of “home grown” industry and companies. I note that crony capitalism is another irritation which commentators think explains the popularity of Trump, and definitely in part explained that of Sanders.

Then again, there was the declaration by the government that the interior should be an Indian reservation (Indians had been very instrumental in defeating the French) – this went against the desire of the colonists to expand to the West, and also played into fears that Indians might be regarded as citizens. Perhaps Mexicans are the current equivalent? Then again, some commentators see Somerset’s case of 1772 as exciting fears (which were entirely justified, but not until 1833) that slavery would be abolished in the British Empire; much of the economy of the more southerly colonies rested at the time on slave labour. Indeed, during the Revolutionary war, the British did encourage slave revolts. Again, I could see some resonances in current events of a white fear of being put in a minority and losing their privileged status.

So, is Trump’s election a kind of revolution, analagous to either the American or the French revolution, or even the Glorious Revolution (which I linked to earlier)? It might at first sight look more like the Glorious Revolution, in that power is going to be handed over without significant strife. However, going back to my first point, Trump is now representing America, and what he represents is against many elements of the established order – crony capitalism (especially the banks), globalism, social care, tolerance of minorities and multiculturalism having all been his targets – as well as what he supremely represents, which is the complete absence of any form of politeness (a more general and less loaded term than political correctness) or restraint. Certainly some voices from the left, such as Slavoj Zizek, have supported Trump very much on the basis that the established order needs to be pulled down and Trump is the best agent to achieve this.

Indeed he may be, but I have in mind also watching a BBC programme on Maximilien Robespierre, in which Zizek supported the need for the terror unleashed under Robespierre, and which to my mind made Burke a visionary in his “Reflections”, which Burke wrote before the terror. Robespierre and his fellows were, of course, elected at least somewhat democratically, and once in power steadily moved towards a regime which I would not wish on anyone, happily fairly short-lived.

Now, Trump is not Robespierre (who was sometimes referred to as “the sea-green incorruptible”). He is clearly not an idealogue, which Robespierre definitely was – one of my greatest criticisms of Robespierre is that he elevated theory over everything, and most definitely thought that the ends justified the means, however draconian the means were (though I have an uncomfortable memory of Trump endorsing torture…). However, a lot of those now being appointed to advise him are ideologues, and they are moving into positions of power in a government massively more equipped to maintain a security state. His taking of power ought to look like the Glorious Revolution, in which there was almost no violence (though there were some rebellions in later years – we were more content with Dutch than with German monarchs, besides which the Jacobite claimants had far more charisma), but I wonder if it actually will be.

What Zizek and others on the left see Trump as representing is an anarchic agent of change, one who will produce (at least for a time) anarchy on the way to a better and brighter future. With Burke, I do not like anarchy, I do not like terror; I favour gradual change rather than revolutionary change; I want to have a clear picture of the objective and a believable path from where we are to it, rather than an unpredictable upheaval. But (and this may be a factor in the overwhelming Evangelical support for Trump) I am not sure that the way of Jesus is gradualism rather than revolution. It seems to me that Jesus hoped for and expected a major upheaval, though I’m dubious that he wanted to bring that about, rather expecting that God or historical momentum would do this; Marxists commonly expect historical momentum to do this, while the Evangelicals no doubt expect God to bring it about.

But do they wait for God to do this, or do they aim at anarchy through their own devices, giving God a helping hand along the way? Certainly one commentator thinks that they are espousing a “means justifies the end” strategy in supporting Trump. Personally, I suspect that shooting yourself in the foot in order to give an opportunity for miraculous healing is foolish, but…


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One Response to “Presidents, kings, revolutions and anarchy.”

  1. Chris Says:

    Since I wrote the bulk of this post, Trump has suggested that we appoint Farage ambassador to the US. Ambassadors also represent us. The thought makes me cringe almost as much as does “President Farage”…

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