Psychoanalysing reverence for the royals

September 14, 2022
Flags at half mast Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra. Photo: Pip Hinman

It is hard not to mourn for the mass intellect in these apparently emotional times. The passing of Queen Elizabeth has revealed just how much some people seem to hold the monarchy in high esteem.

The obvious explanations are valid enough. Yes, the job of decolonisation is far from complete and Britain has yet to reckon with its colonial history of unspeakable violence and genocide, some of which is in living memory.

Through rose-tinted glasses the queen becomes a British institution and, as such, all opposition to the queen is an opposition to the “United Kingdom’s” history.

But what are the distinctly modern functions the monarchy serves? We no longer inhabit feudalism so why is the monarchy popular? What inversion of emancipation is present in the institution?

Part of the answer resides in the vaporising processes of modern capitalism, its tendency to uproot and decontextualise forms of cultural kinship and care, relativising everything as a commodity.

From this vantage point, even as the royals depend on the publicity machine — becoming the subject of endless merchandise and PR — they are nevertheless framed as external to crass commodification, a framing that itself depends on crass commoditised images.

The idea of stability, continuance and heritability remains fundamental to the monarchy’s allure.

Amid the many dissolutions of the public good, the monarchy alludes to old-fashioned values like care, service, sacrifice — however disfigured by hereditary privilege.

The queen was expert on playing on this. She was just cold enough to represent an imagined English sensibility and simulate an English conception of dignity amid mass and crass participatory (and obligatory) emotionalism.

The irony of it all, given current displays.

It is true that capitalist modernity has a vaporising tendency.

As Marx observed, all that is solid melts into air. As such, the monarchy stands in for the Burkean contract between the dead, the living and those still to be born.

Much contemporary media discourse has increasingly made the monarchy out as messianic. Surely someone or something that stands outside the fluctuations of capital may yet save us? Someone outside of the system and politics?

With Brexit, Donald Trump and other confusions, political commentators have made appeals to the monarchy to set the world right.

The pomp and ritualistic dimension of life suggests something more than the current miseries and austerities induced from above — in Britain’s case from people related to the queen, David Cameron and Boris Johnson.

We must ask how bad the present must be that we yearn for the remnants of a time when there were serfs? How bad must it be to be a worker that many workers would prefer to be a peasant?

Some cultural theorists, such as Mark Fisher, have suggested that contemporary culture has become nostalgic for the past, since it is incapable of picturing a future.

We may have reached Francis Fukuyama’s end of history, but it is the arse end: the already digested is excreted out as fads and culture.

The appeal of the monarchy is multi-factorial. Undoubtedly there’s a Nietzschean dimension of cruelty.

The monarchy are bred like horses. They exist for punditry, scandal and intrigue. Think of how, still to this day, Charles is misrepresented regarding the tampax remark. He, in fact, never said he wanted to be Camilla Parker Bowles’ tampon (his self-deprecating joke concerned being a tampax flushed down the loo).

The delight in endless scandal is an avenue for enjoyment and mean soap opera. Truly, there is no festival without cruelty as Nietzsche once quipped.

Shifting from the psychological to the psychoanalytic, for Slavoj Žižek, our superego — what Freud framed as a sort of inner police officer and internalisation of social control structures, has become the id.

The id seeks enjoyment and pleasure and, fused with the superego, punishes those and guilts others for not “enjoying”. This spectacle of sorrow is itself a type of enjoyment.

Those who refuse to partake in enjoying the woe of the Queen’s death and the celebration of Charles III risk castigation, ostracism and, in Britain, even arrest.

Psychoanalytic writers have long theorised the anxiety over enjoyment thieves, those who delight in ruining our fun. Often enjoyment comes from antagonising those who one believes are coming to steal our stash of enjoyment.

This phenomenon is found in every rightwing tabloid screaming: “Look at these welfare cheats.”

One can discern it in paranoiac and xenophobic sentiments that asylum seekers are wealthy queue jumpers ruining it for hard working immigrants.

The need to “trigger libs” or “destroy snowflakes” as well as the anxiety around buzz-kill “Cultural Marxists” taking over universities comes from the premise that scarcity is inscribed within enjoyment.

Such right fantasies are, of course, fabrications to which a scarcity is attached: one can never enjoy enough and so there must be a villain as the artificial scarcity of capitalism is internalised.

We are now witnessing a sort of cruelty being unleashed on critics of the monarchy: be quiet and stop ruining it for the rest of us.

In fairness, some leftists are also guilty of believing in enjoyment thieves, often framing “boomers” as ruining it for other generations. The boomers mythically had too much sex before awareness of fatal sexual transmitted infections and they are to blame for everything from ecological catastrophes to the housing affordability crisis, because as well all know, every boomer is billionaire.

Still using psychoanalysis, we may be able to detect a maternal quality to the notion of a queen. Don’t people think of her as a mother or grandmother of the nation, and exhibit a certain care for her?

If so, this may not bode well for Charles and the institution. The presence of a weak and well-meaning patriarch may frustrate this projected familial desire.

A weak but kind “daddy” doesn’t exactly sate hankerings for Oedipal projections. What’s the point of a warm, nice do-gooder king? Or, perhaps in an increasingly post-patriarchal society (but still misogynistic and encompassing proliferating micro-patriarchies), Charles may be exactly what is yearned for.

I hope we quickly pass and get through this Oedipal soap opera and become adults.

Nevertheless, those of us who have read the works of Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) know that mass culture, what Adorno terms “the culture industry”, thrives on exploiting the infantile in order to normalise repression.

As such, the struggle against royalism may also be a struggle against the capitalist machinery expressed in the culture industry.

To cull the poppy of this particular opiate, we should first understand why people gravitate to it in the first place.

[See also Lacan and Race: Racism, Identity, and Psychoanalytic Theory, edited by Sheldon George, David Goodman and Derek Hook.]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.