A short note on monarchical nostalgia

Kingship organizes everything around a high centre. Its legitimacy derives from divinity, not from populations, who, after all, are subjects, not citizens. In the modern conception, state sovereignty is fully, flatly, and evenly operative over each square centimetre of a legally demarcated territory. But in the older imagining, where states were defined by centres, borders were porous and indistinct, and sovereignties faded imperceptibly into one another. Hence, paradoxically enough, the ease with which pre-modern empires and kingdoms were able to sustain their rule over immensely heterogeneous, and often even contiguous, populations for long periods of time. (19)

This passage, from Benedict Anderson’s much-cited book on nationalism (Imagined Communities), does a good job of summarizing what the world looked like politically prior to the Industrial Revolution. It does a less good job of summarizing what monarchy is, politically (see this or this), but does do a great job of explaining why monarchies were able to exert governance over populations that were linguistically, religiously, and ethnically diverse.

What is less clear in this passage is its explanation for why paleolibertarians are so enamored with monarchy and why some non-paleo libertarians often write nostalgically about imperial pasts. Even though this is not clear in the passage (I doubt Anderson had intra-libertarian squabbles in mind when he wrote Imagined Communities), it is a great way to explore why libertarians have nostalgia for monarchy and empire.

Let’s start from the top, though. Libertarians don’t like nation-states because of nationalism, because of borders with taxes and restrictions on movement of goods and people, and because of the power that governments can exert over well-defined spaces of territory. So, instead of delving into the intricacies of why nation-states are around, some libertarians reach back to an older age, where “borders were porous and indistinct,” state sovereignty was not the end game of geopolitics, and governments had ways other than nationalist propaganda to bring diverse populations to heel. So on the surface, nationalism was non-existent, borders were open, and diverse groups of people lived together in relative harmony under one roof. What libertarian wouldn’t like that? Fred Foldvary’s post on restoring the Ottoman Empire is a good example of this kind of historical naivety. (Barry and Jacques have both written good rebuttals to this kind of wishful thinking.)

Historical naivety is one thing, but the arguments of so-called “anarcho-monarchists” are quite another. Arguing that monarchy is anarchy because monarchs don’t reign over a nation-state (instead they rule over the private property of the crown) is disingenuous at best, and nefarious at worst. Royal property and private property are two different things (“L’etat c’est moi“). This argument leads directly to the awful, embarrassing arguments of Hans-Hermann Hoppe and his acolytes, who have a bad habit of claiming that anarcho-monarchism is somehow libertarian. I’m going to skip over the specifics of their arguments (Zak has done great work on this topic, but in short Hoppeans claim that anarcho-monarchist societies would be able to physically remove undesirable people from their societies; “undesirables” mostly mean socialists, homosexuals, and non-Europeans), and instead point out that Hoppe and company are simply wrong about what a monarchy actually is.

Monarchies had porous borders, they constantly warred against their neighbors (sometimes for “interests of state”), and their populations were polyglot and illiterate. I haven’t spent any time reading Hoppe, so maybe I am treating him unfairly here and he is perhaps an advocate of a new type of monarchy, but as a student of Habermas I would assume Hoppe likes to use history as a guide for understanding and explaining the world around him. How on earth could he be so wrong about what monarchy actually is, unless he is being disingenuous about his whole anarcho-monarchist utopia?


On a completely unrelated note, Benedict’s Anderson’s book on nationalism is published by Verso Books, rather than a traditional academic press (such as Princeton University Press or University of California Press). Verso Books is a left-wing publishing house dedicated to radical critiques of everything non-leftist, so I find it a bit odd that Anderson’s book has come to be so well-cited in the academic literature on a number of topics. It’s a great book, don’t get me wrong, but I think it’s popularity, despite being an explicitly ideological book rather than an academic one, explains much of the strife currently happening on campuses across the West regarding freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

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8 thoughts on “A short note on monarchical nostalgia

  1. My understanding of H3 is that he isn’t advocating monarchy seriously so much as using it to force people to consider their support for democracy. Many of the critics of monarchy ultimately hold for democracy. It’s been a while since I read his work though and I concede its hard to tell if he is just being proactive to spur discussion or really believes in anarcho monarchy with no gays allowed.

    • Yeah, I want to give H3 the benefit of the doubt in this regard. I really do, especially because libertarians are known to sometimes make outlandish arguments in order to change the paradigm of a discussion on something.

      I have tried to think of Hoppe in terms of provocation, but I just don’t think he’s doing it solely for critical thinking. There are much better arguments against democracy out there (Caplan and Brennan, for example), and they don’t rely on the anarcho-monarchist assumptions found in Hoppe’s work.

  2. Sure, Hoppe was a student of Habermas at one point. But his work has about as much relationship to Habermas, in terms of philosophical rigor, actual areas of agreement, and historical accuracy, as the Chicago Blackhawks have goals in the playoffs right now.

    • I agree that Hoppe and Habermas aren’t in the same league (AHL vs NHL?), but Hoppe must have been influenced profoundly by Habermas, given the close working relationships found between grad students and their mentors (it may be the case that European universities operate differently than American ones).

      Hoppe was simply one of Habermas’ failures.

      • More like NHL versus ACHA.

        The only area that comes to mind for a relationship is Hoppe’s attempt to (mis)use Habermas’ “universal norm of discourse” in argumentation ethics, other than that I have a hard time coming up with many relationships other than maybe that Hoppe reacted negatively to everything his old teacher thought, see his violent reaction to Lavoie’s appropriation of hermeneutics for example.

  3. I think that you can have both, if people become Self-Monarchs. If we all became the only rulers over our own property, we would be monarchs by definition. So a clever libertarian could have it both ways. Co-Monarchism, anyone?

  4. On a totally irrelevant note, you know that tendency to SEE what our mind THINKS it sees? Patterns, expectations, knowledge possessed, assumptions and all that. When I first noticed the article, I was interested to note that Benedict Arnold had written something about monarchies and such. It actually made ‘some’ sense as my brain translated it all. I mean, he was a Johnnie-come-lately supporter of good King George etc etc. It took me a moment to realize that Mr. Anderson was NOT Mr. Arnold.

    The brain is an amazing thing.

    Somewhat insincere apologies to all for the out of place unlearned comment. Now, Hoppe back to your discussion!

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