Perhaps the world’s strangest piece of data is this: in 2019, out of the top 20 countries in the Human Development Index, eight are monarchies.
One is tempted to state that, statistically speaking, monarchies work better than republics. This surely requires some explanation. Luckily, we have Slavoj Zizek, and his 1991 book For they know not what they do.
In the book (pp. 186-190), Zizek looks closely at Hegel’s deduction of a theory of monarchy, straight from Hegel’s on philosophy of right. Zizek resignedly writes:
This deduction is, as a rule, looked down upon… There is surprise at the absurdity and inconsistency of Hegel, the philosopher of absolute Reason, advocating that the decision on who will be the head of state should depend upon the non-rational, biological fact of descent.
In summary, Hegel’s argument for monarchy is based on the fact that only a monarch can embody the unity and will of the state in a single person: “this demand for natural immediacy is best met precisely by lineage,” Zizek explains. And then he adds:
The constitutional monarchy is a rationally articulated organic Whole at the head of which there is an “irrational” element, the person of the King. What is crucial here is precisely the fact accentuated by Hegel’s critics: the abyss separating the State as an or organic rational totality from the “irrational” factum brutum of the person who embodies supreme power – that is to say, by means of which the State assumes the form of subjectivity.
Against the reproach that the fate of the State is thus left to the natural contingency of the person of the king, who may (and will very often will) be dumb, an idiot, a coward, etc, Hegel retorts (as quoted by Zizek):
… all this rests on a presupposition which is nugatory, namely that everything depends on the monarch’s particular character. In a completely organized state, it is only a question of the culminatory point of formal decision . . . . It is wrong therefore to demand objective qualities in a monarch; he has only to say “yes” and dot the “i” … whatever else the monarch may have in addition to this power of fmal decision is part and parcel of his private character and should be of no consequence …. In a well-organized monarchy, the objective aspect belongs to law alone, and the monarch’s part is merely to set to the law the subjective “I will”. (Hegel, Philosophy of Right, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1967, pp 288-9)
The king’s acts are, thus, of a purely formal nature: its framework is determined by the Constitution, his actual decisions are proposed to him by his counsellors, so that “he has often no more to do than sign his name. But this name is important. It is the last word beyond which it is impossible to go.”
Up to this point, this appears as a fairly straightforward argument for constitutional monarchy. The traditional appeal of hereditary kings is such: all the power that they have is power that is negated to others so, in a twisted way, the less they exercise that power, the less danger there is for everyone else.
This explains why it’s always the most active, prepared and ambitious kings who got their countries into the deepest holes: Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and his cousin “Nicky” Nicholas II of Russia, fated to rule their empires in 1914, are great examples.
On the other hand, in a republic all of the available power is up for grabs, and the margin for error (and success) is thus higher. Every republican leader, whoever ends up on top of the greasy pole, has all the tools needed to dig a country into the deepest hole.
In a monarchy, even if a complete madman becomes prime minister, the king will always be there to represent some sort of constraint. Few such constraints exist either in countries with executive presidents (U.S., Russia, France) or all-powerful primer ministers who often outrank the President of the Republic, a purely ceremonial title that commonly attracts purely ceremonial characters.
There’s one other fact at play, that of chance. In the Republic of Venice, chance was used as part of the complex to determine the Republic’s ruler, one of the reasons why such polity was stable beyond the norm for run-of-the-mill republics. When chance is important in the political process, becoming a politician is not very appealing, since in the end anyone (in the case of Venice, anyone belonging to the political elite) can reach the top without really trying. Monarchy, Zizek adds, by its very nature provides that component of chance, helpful antidote against the rise of a self-serving political class; in fact, it makes chance the supreme elector:
The monarch functions as a “pure” signifier, a signifier-without-signified; his entire actuality (and authority) consists in his Name, and it is precisely for this reason that his physical reality is wholly arbitrary and could be left to the biological contingency of lineage. The monarch thus embodies the function of Master-Signifier at its purest; it is the One of the Exception, the irrational protuberance of the social edifice which transforms the hous mass of “people” into a concrete totality of mores…
There’s more, Zizek continues. Through the king…
…the community itself reaches its “being-for-itself ” and thus realizes itself- it is a paradoxical “symbol” by means of which the symbolized content actualizes itself. The monarch can accomplish this task only in so far as its authority is of a purely “performative” nature and not founded on effective capacities. It is only his counsellors, the State bureaucracy general, which are supposed to be chosen according to their ‘ pective capabilities and their fitness to do the required job… it is only against this background that Kant’s unconditional prohibition of the violent overthrow of the king obtains its rationale.
The idea here is that the monarch, in the Hegelian view, functions as “the point of madness of the social fabric”: he is the only one among individuals who is by “nature” what he (socially) is — all others must “invent” themselves, elaborate the content of their being by their activity. In a way, the king is taking a bullet for everyone else. Left in a position of inherited privilege, with no way to know his actual worth, while everyone else can at least pretend that they strive for positions in the meritocracy.
Later in the same book (pp. 198-99), Zizek provides a republican example of Hegelian kingship (successful purely as kingship, regardless of political content or actual policies): that of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. By taking on many of the traits commonly associated with the common, mediocre king — “the obvious limits to what he was able to understand, and so on” — he turned them into effectively positive conditions of his reign:
Reagan was perceived precisely as somebody who reigned in a king-like fashion: making empty gestures, putting the dots on (other’s) i’s, not really grasping what was going on . . . . So much for the idea that the logic of the Hegelian monarch is an eccentric witticism of no importance for today’s world.
In a sense, Zizek also explains in the book (p. 374), the function of the Hegelian monarch corresponds exactly to that of the Jacobinical Terrorist: to serve as a protector of the empty locus of power, through his own inability to fully exercise such power:
That is to say. his function is ultimately of a purely negative nature; he is an empty, formal agency whose task is simply to prevent the current performer of Power (executive) from “glueing” on to the locus of Power- that is, from identifying immediately with it. The “monarch” is nothing but a positivization, a materialization of the distance separating the locus of Power from those who exert it. It is for this reason – because his function is purely negative- that the question of”who should reign” could be, even must be, left to the contingency of biological lineage — only thus is the utter insignificance of the positivity of the monarch effectively asserted.
The king is thus a mere placeholder. Not a king because of his greatness or virtues, but an empty container in a line of power-storing devices in human shape, whose main task is to provide a successor for the same thankless, albeit comfortable, role. The role keeps a sacred flame that is too powerful for anyone capable to keep; it can never be kept by somebody who believes he has every right to use it, but only by somebody who is scared to use it and thinks only of passing it along to the next in line, untouched.
We really start the path down the rabbit-hole of kingship later (p. 382), when Zizek asserts that decision-making by the Hegelian monarch, that creature of chance, must be left itself to chance to be most effective:
The monarch effectively “decides”, makes a choice, only when the best solution, from the rational standpoint, is to leave the decision to chance. He thus prevents an endless weighing of pros and cons.
Here, Hegel is quite explicit, Zizek explains: in his Philosophy of Right, he compares the role of the modem monarch with the way the Greek Republic looked for a reference that would help it to reach a decision in natural “signs” (the entrails of ritually slaughtered animals; the direction of the flight of birds, etc.).
Such a decision-making system may seem stupid to a modern eyes, and certainly seemed stupid to Europeans when they saw it applied by, say, 19th century Indian sultans, but it’s been, historically speaking, much more effective than most people believe.
Divination rituals became part of human culture from very early on because they work, on the most obvious and simple sense: smart tribesmen came to understand that always being predictable, using always the same kind of weapon, or visiting always the exact same place at the exact same time of the year, was an inherently dangerous trait. So they used divination to randomize actions.
Devoid of writing techniques or any way to explain complex concepts to descendents who weren’t always as smart as they were, they left them crude rituals instead: if the entrails of the goat look reddish, don’t visit that mountain range the next summer. Romans and many other successful peoples would use this to avoid biases in policy-making and puzzle enemies, for centuries on end. To some extent, Zizek argues following Hegel, monarchs provide that element of surprise, of useful unpredictability, for modern societies:
With modem monarchy, this principle of decision no longer needs an external support; it can assume the shape of pure subjectivity. The very agency of the monarch thus attests the inherent limitation of Reason – let this be a reminder to those who still prattle about Hegel’s “panlogicism”, his presumed belief in the infinite power of Reason.
It’s important to keep in mind that Zizek has kept pondering Hegel’s theory of monarchy over the years. It reappears, for example, in his Hegelian opus magnum “Less than nothing,” (2012) where he writes:
It is often alleged against monarchy that it makes the welfare of the state dependent on chance, for, it is urged, the monarch may be ill-educated, he may perhaps be unworthy of the highest position in the state, and it is senseless that such a state of affairs should exist because it is supposed to be rational. But all this rests on a presupposition which is nugatory, namely that everything depends on the monarch’s particular character. In a completely organized state, it is only a question of the culminating point of formal decision.
The monarch must also be seen as a “natural bulwark against passion” so “it is wrong therefore to demand objective qualities in a monarch,” he argues. In fact, Zizek notes that the marxists who mocked Hegel’s theory of monarchy, replacing it by their own theory of enlightened one-man leadership, “paid the price for their negligence”:
In the regimes which legitimized themselves as Marxist, a Leader emerged who, again, not only directly embodied the rational totality, but embodied it fully, as a figure of full Knowledge and not merely the idiotic dotter of the i’s. In other words, the Stalinist Leader is not a monarch, which makes him all the worse.
Korea’s Kim dynasty thus may be perceived as worse than a monarchy, as long as it keeps effective power, and better than a republic if and when the chubby Kim dynasts start becoming mere figureheads for the regime. Zizek, in the same book:
Hegel was well aware that it is only this distance between the “knowledge” embodied in the state bureaucracy and the authority of the Master embodied in the king which protects the social body against the “totalitarian” temptation: what we call a “totalitarian regime” is not a regime in which the Master imposes his unconstrained authority and ignores the suggestions of rational knowledge, but a regime in which Knowledge (the rationally justified authority) immediately assumes “performative” power—Stalin was not (did not present himself as) a Master, he was the highest servant of the people, legitimized by his knowledge and abilities.
This insight points towards Hegel’s unique position between the Master’s discourse (of traditional authority) and the modern discourse of power justified by reasons or by the democratic consent of its subjects:
Hegel recognized that the charisma of the Master’s authority is a fake, that the Master is an impostor—it is only the fact that he occupies the position of a Master (that his subjects treat him as a Master) which makes him a Master. However, he was also well aware that, if one tries to get rid of this excess and impose a self-transparent authority fully justified by expert knowledge, the result is even worse: instead of being limited to the symbolic head of state, “irrationality” spreads over the entire body of social power. Kafka’s bureaucracy is just such a regime of expert knowledge deprived of the figure of the Master—Brecht was right when, as Benjamin reports in his diaries, he claimed that Kafka is “the only genuine Bolshevik writer.”
David Roman is a writer, formerly a foreign correspondent with the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News in Asia and Eurpe. He’s currently working on a comparative history of Greek and Chinese philosophy.