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Pomp, ceremony... and ideology

2022-09-09 | Critique of ideology
Pomp, ceremony... and ideology

Elizabeth II of England is dead. The chancelleries and the world press issue and repeat dithyrambs in an attempt to to create a climate of collective mourning which, merging with war propaganda, ends up infecting the most out-of-touch aspiring sepoys overseas. "She understood the throne almost as a priesthood" highlight several newspapers. Television stations portray her as a protective deity to whom all Britain, the world perhaps, owed decades of benevolence. The atavistic atmosphere is topped off with a sudden profusion of commemorative fetishes. The great moment is prepared: the funeral ceremonies, summum of monarchical pomp and of the ritual role of the royal figure.

But what is this unnamed divinity to whom the deceased queen would have dedicated a life of priesthood? Are all these pomps a historical remnant preserved and continued from time immemorial?

The invention of a tradition

Chevalier's Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria of England, the first expression of a "tradition" that was being invented under Gladstone's express pressure.

Chevalier's Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria of England, the first expression of a "tradition" that was being invented under Gladstone's express pressure

The monarchy of feudal decadence took ritualization and ceremoniousness to the extreme...inside the enclosed spaces of the royal courts. These ceremonies were meant for internal consumption, only the noble courtiers had access to them, because at the end of the day they reinforced balances, dependencies, loyalties and favors within the ruling class itself.

The public rituals, the massive ceremonies of dynastic magic, like those of any ruling class, were much more mundane.

During absolutism, a not inconsiderable part of the social support for the monarchy - much more than might be expected at first glance - was due to beliefs about the supposed magical healing powers of kings. By way of religious myths about the sanctity of their dynasties (with French monarchs supposedly related to healing saints) and about the effect of the king's own body on the "health" of the kingdom.

Huge rituals attracted thousands of people from all over Europe, generating an extraordinary income for the dynastic estate. Charles II himself came to practice healing rituals on 96,000 sick people after the defeat of the English revolution in 1660.

However, the world had changed completely just half a century later, when there was no longer anyone who believed in the king's magical powers and when the last healing ritual was being practiced in England. The new generation was already living in a different world. Something identical happened in post-revolutionary France, when Charles X finally cancelled the ritual as people no longer believed in its magical healing powers.

Lords of the waters, 23/2/2019

The end of the healing myth and the rise to power - and the creation of state ideologies - of the bourgeoisie and, in the British case, the bourgeoisification of a large part of the aristocracy, reduced the ceremonial practices of the monarchy to virtual non-existence. Even after the accession to the throne of Queen Victoria of England...

The monarchs were politically active but personally unpopular, moving with difficulty through the squalid streets of London, they were more the head of society than the head of the nation. Thus, the royal ritual that accompanied them was not so much a festive moment to please the masses, but a group ritual in which the aristocracy, the Church, and the royal family corporately reaffirmed their solidarity (or animosity) behind closed doors. [...]

There was, as there had been [before capitalism], no language or pomp, no syntax of spectacle or ritual language. The whole was not greater than the sum of its parts. [...]

Between the late seventies of the nineteenth century and 1914, however, there was a fundamental change in the public image of the British monarchy, as its hitherto inept, tasteless or limited ritual became lavish, public and popular.

To some extent, the gradual withdrawal of monarchs from active politics made things easier. [...] This change in the position of the monarch, placing Queen Victoria and Edward VII above politics as patriarchal figures for the nation as a whole, had become increasingly urgent because of the economic and social development that took place during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. [It was at the end, rather than the beginning, of the nineteenth century that Britain became a predominantly urban and industrial mass society, with class loyalties and conflicts set in a genuinely national framework for the first time.

The British monarchy and the invention of tradition. David Cannadine (emphasis added)

The rediscovery of monarchical ceremony was not even a royal occurrence, but a discovery of the British ruling classes as a whole. It will be Gladstone himself who will press Victoria to accept public ceremonial duties in spite of her well-known and stubborn resistance.

From materializing God's grace to representing the mystical body of the nation

At the gates of Buckingham

The experience of fraternity in a shared mourning, today at the gates of Buckinham Palace

The creation of a ritual of royal promenades, balconies and processions involving large masses of the public as a way of nationalizing the monarchy so that it would in turn nationalize the subaltern classes, had clear sources of inspiration on the continent, especially after the emergence of a new type of mass ceremonialism in Germany.

Large rallies, parades and rallies in sacred places of the then newly created German history, serve to nationalize the new urban population as an antidote to their organization into class structures. This is a new form of democratic (=interclassist) representation, in the theatrical sense of representation, which secularizes the forms of religious worship and will eventually come to be conceived as an alternative to parliamentary representation by proxy. The great mass ballets - and from them the invention of sport - promote a muscular, pre-war fraternity, openly identified with national belonging.

Without going to such democratic extremes, the Glastonian ceremonial impulse, which invents the current monarchical ceremonial tradition, is part of the same effort to give corporeality to the nation, to create national experiences of fraternity and collective pride, to cushion class tensions.

But in order for the monarchy - an obviously feudal aristocratic institution - to represent the nation, i.e. the sacred union of the classes in the defense of national capital and its interests, it has to be secularized while insinuating once again benevolent magical protective powers.

It has to undo to some extent what the historians of the bourgeoisie had undertaken during the previous century: to create a national history separate and autonomous from the dynastic histories of the feudal ruling class. The result will be to reinterpret the royal figure as a priesthood protector of progress. The reigns come to be represented and identified with the ages and moods of national history. The immediate past is thus re-imagined as the Victorian era and we begin to speak of Elizabethan England, even though under the same reigns there were very different political regimes and correlations of power.

The images, endlessly disseminated these days, that present the reign of Elizabeth II as a period of time with a unique character that places it above governments and as a unity of imaginary social progress, try to establish precisely that. They delimit and mark out an emotional territory common to all Britons and order memory by associating family lives and personal memories to the evolutions of a public figure who would connect them all by giving them historical dimension.

She was the rock on which modern Britain was built. Our country has grown and flourished under her reign.

Liz Truss, British Prime Minister on Elizabeth II

The resemblance to the Christian practice of communion is not coincidental. The Christian ritual creates through an individual association to the body of Christ, a mystical body that groups all believers in a fraternity of belief that makes possible the peace given at the end of the mass.

Its secularization, in the British case through the monarchy, pursues an experience of regenerative fraternity of the body of the nation that evokes and conditions the mood towards social peace. Nor is it a coincidence that the British railway unions immediately called off the strikes planned for these days.

The gods of capitalism and their magical powers

Charles, Prince of Wales and heir to the throne

Charles of England, heir and supposed incarnation of a "new era".

Buried underneath the crushing narrative of these days and the funeral eulogies to the deceased high priestess, lies the cult of national capital, that form of organization of social labor based on exploitation and ever more violently antagonistic to human development1.

That is why there are few things more ridiculous than critics of the monarchy rejecting as atavistic the pomps and ceremonials of these days. The same people who denounce the irrationality of the magical frolics of the last European monarchs, affirm as the most natural thing in the world that owners (whether they refer to companies, entrepreneurs, investors or the state) create wealth. That narrative, which is the common basis of the ideology of every exploiting class throughout history, underlies the discourse of monarchists and republicans alike.

But don't go away yet, the ritual continues in real time by the BBC. It will culminate in a new coronation to which the media around the world are already offering the story of the "inauguration of an era".

But there is no possible era or change that the nation or its priests can bring. What is coming - a spiral of destruction of productive capacities, the first of them ourselves, the working class - is not going to be stopped by any magical evocation or ceremony or tradition. Only workers collectively, fighting and organizing, can impose the rupture towards a society centered on and organized for the direct satisfaction of universal human needs.