In a 1944 letter to Partisan Review magazine, George Orwell wrote that “the Abdication of Edward VIII must have dealt royalism a blow from which it may not recover.”
But Edward VIII, who was king for less than a year before he abdicated in 1936 — when he chose love for a twice-divorced American woman over his role as titular head of the Church of England — was not his younger brother, who would become King George VI.
“At the least I should say it would need another long reign, and a monarch with some kind of charm, to put the Royal Family back where it was in George V’s day,” Orwell wrote.
If George VI, who reigned for a good two decades before his death in 1952, did not quite bring the monarch up to the level of his father, George V, who also reigned for a solid two decades, George VI’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, undoubtedly did.
She became queen in 1952 and ruled for 70 years, longer even than her illustrious great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, whose 63-year reign was so long and consequential that it constitutes its own era in the annals of western history.
“The function of the King in promoting stability and acting as a sort of keystone in a non-democratic society is, of course, obvious,” Orwell wrote.
“But he also has, or can have, the function of acting as an escape-valve for dangerous emotions. A French journalist said to me once that the monarchy was one of the things that have saved Britain from Fascism.
“What he meant was that modern people can’t, apparently, get along without drums, flags and loyalty parades, and that it is better that they should tie their leader-worship onto some figure who has no real power. In a dictatorship, the power and the glory belong to the same person.”
Orwell could not have anticipated Queen Elizabeth. He was writing while King George VI was still alive. Still, it’s ironic that those very stabilizing aspects of monarchy most applied (and by far) to the two women rulers in the family.
“The conditions seemingly are that the Royal Family shall be long-established and taken for granted, shall understand its own position and shall not produce strong characters with political ambition,” Orwell wrote, unwittingly capturing Queen Elizabeth II’s genius.
Will Self, a columnist for the Daily Beast, said as much in a piece published when she died on Sept. 8.
“Her greatest social skill was to convince Britons that the Windsors were a sort of bizarre analog of the typical lower-upper-middle-class British family,” Self wrote.
“The love of dogs and horses, the breakfast cereals served in Tupperware containers, the resolute philistinism (the queen’s mother failed to recognize T.S. Eliot when he was actually in the room with her, reading The Waste Land aloud), and — despite the rumors about Phil the Greek — the histrionic monogamy; these were weapons she adroitly employed throughout her 70-year reign.”
It has taken Twitter less than a week to remind the world that King Charles III (who is already in bad company, sharing as he does a name with a predecessor whose 1649 beheading marked the temporary abolition of the monarchy) did not inherit his mother’s political adroitness.
Video of the new king swatting at his servants as if they were flies during his accession ceremony at St. James Palace in London went viral on social media several days ago. There is no doubt more from where that came.
These are perilous days for the most capable monarchs, to say nothing of apparent mediocrities like King Charles III. That’s because we’re at what journalist Karen Hunter described last week as an inflection point.
The queen’s death prompts a very big question. How much more can we non-elites tolerate elite capture?
The top 1% has 15 times more wealth than the bottom 50% combined. Putatively democratic nations have become subsidiaries of private interests, decimating once vaunted welfare state institutions like the National Health Service. And the very tippy-top elites responsible for the problems that accompany such resource and power hoarding also want to monopolize the moral high ground by claiming only they have the power to solve them.
This is where Queen Elizabeth II and Jeff Bezos logically converge, which makes it more than coincidental that the latter would defend the former on Twitter against the ire of a relative vassal, Carnegie Mellon University Professor Uju Anya.
The professor tweeted some choice words about the death of the monarch who oversaw the government that sponsored the genocidal Biafran War in her native Nigeria from 1967 to 1970. Some of her relatives were murdered during the war and her parents barely survived, the professor said in subsequent interviews.
Black Twitter and Irish Twitter reinforced Anya’s anger, with many people mentioning that Queen Elizabeth II never so much as acknowledged, let alone apologized, for her government’s genocidal policies.
“The Irish Famine was not the result of a potato crop failure,” one commenter tweeted Sept. 8. “It was a deliberate campaign by the British to deny the people of Ireland the food they need to survive.”
Most of the Queen’s defenders deemed the reactions, coming immediately after the monarch’s death, to be in poor taste and uncivil. Many described them as “woke Twitter mobs.” Many others accused people of blaming the Queen for wrongs she had not committed.
To which some Twitter users responded by tweeting a quote from a speech the Irish trade union leader James Connolly made in 1910, as Ireland was preparing for a visit from King George V.
“We will not blame him for the crimes of his ancestors if he relinquishes the royal rights of his ancestors; but as long as he claims their rights, by virtue of descent, then, by virtue of descent, he must shoulder the responsibility for their crimes.”
In this light, the contemporary reactions are to be expected, considering the undeniable history and human pain and suffering caused by the British government and its figurehead — the most famous symbol of white settler colonialism in the world.
The British monarch is also a symbol of elite capture, which is a universal phenomenon that appears in all kinds of social contexts and at varying scales — from empires to civil rights movements to communes.
“In the absence of the right kind of checks or constraints, the subgroup of people with power over and access to the resources used to describe, define, and create political realities — in other words, the elites — will capture the group’s values, forcing people to coordinate on a narrower social project that disproportionately represents elite interests,” Georgetown philosophy professor Olufemi O. Taiwo writes in his brilliant new book Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else).
“When elites run the show, the interests of the group get whittled down to what they have in common with those at the top, at best,” he adds. “At worst, elites fight for their own narrow interests using the banner of group solidarity.”
The questions are, “How do human societies and smaller groups avoid elite capture? Has it run its course?” I think this is the much larger matter that haunts the back-and-forth on Twitter.
So long as the dialogue is platformed, though, the capture remains intact.