Friday, July 26, 2013


These are rough times for those of us with Jacobin hearts. Many people are intensely interested in a recently “well-born” child from an “ancient” family. This fascination with royalty makes a mockery of our shared humanity. Perhaps it’s too obvious to point out that being alive means we are part of an unbroken chain that reaches back to time immemorial. That our lives are a testament to the struggling of our ancestors, who suffered long enough to birth children in whose blood our own lives were destined. That all of us are the direct descendents of the first animals that found meaning in bare necessity, in whose minds the world became a symbol, who saw in the process of living the possibility of transcending the brute materiality of existence. We are all of us a large family connected by blood bonds. But we are also a bunch of fucking monsters. All of written history documents the negation, abridgement, or qualification of people’s humanity by those in power. Exploitation and repression have often been intrinsic aspects of certain societies, in particular societies that were considered as an extension of the monarch’s sovereignty. Vertical societies in which the monarch serves as the head of the body politic concretize the inequality that ensures unnecessary human suffering. That so many ding-a-lings celebrate the injustice represented by aristocracies as tradition speaks to how deeply some people have internalized and naturalized the unequal conditions of modern life.

The contemporary veneration of aristocracy also points to another interesting contradiction of capitalist modernity. The liberal principles that were marshaled against the symbolic primacy of the aristocracy by an emerging bourgeois order in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries suggests that the triumph of those ideas should have done away with not only the actual ruling European aristocracies but with the meanings and feelings associated with them. But that has not been the case. Even in the U.S., which is perhaps the most powerful symbol of liberal democracy, people feel a strange bond with the lives of European nobles. Bourgeois society developed an economic system, capitalism, that eroded the financial basis of the feudal order, and it developed a philosophical position, liberalism, that eroded the moral basis of feudalism’s ideas of leadership, but it could not really create a vision of society that was all its own. Even after its triumph, bourgeois society retains the aristocratic ideals that suggest that wealth, leadership, morality, and beauty are intertwined, so that someone’s economic position indicates their intrinsic worth. Bourgeois society could not rid itself of an aristocratic world view because it did not fundamentally disagree with its basic premises. In other words, the bourgeoisie did not want to completely rethink society, they just wanted to rethink it enough to justify why they should be in charge.

Lorde’s “Royals” exemplifies what I’m getting at here. The song is primarily opposed to the conspicuous consumption of a lot of contemporary pop and hip hop’s showy excessiveness in particular: gold teeth, Grey Goose, Maybachs, diamonds on your timepiece.  (A brief aside: That this song equates hip hop with oppressive wealth suggests an unbecoming and mildly racist defensiveness. Flashy young black men are not the primary source of our society’s economic inequalities.) “We’ll never be royals,” the song maintains. Yet the protagonist of the song nonetheless wants to be “a ruler” and a “queen bee.” Obviously what the song is driving at is a sense of sexual power and really no more than that. But the metaphors are interesting to me because they demonstrate how entrenched our ideas of domination are. A song that is explicitly not about royals nonetheless relies on the figurative power of royalty and rule to get its point across. So doing it illustrates precisely the limits of the bourgeois victory over the feudal world.

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