No Mr. Peterson, the Monarchy is Not Brilliant

Sam Young
10 min readSep 13, 2022

There is not a lot of respect for the Queen in my neck of the woods. When she died, I mostly saw memes mocking her death or YouTube celebrities claiming credit for having killed her. So, when I saw that conservative thinker Jordan Peterson made a video discussing the institution of the British constitutional monarchy, you know I leapt at it.

This is about the nicest one I saw

Jordan Peterson makes a very interesting argument in favor of the British monarchy. He considers it a “fourth branch” of government, the “symbolic branch,” that essentially checks the authority of the executive. He sees the presidency in the United States as highly problematic, with an unbearable level of celebrity that has recently materialized in the worship surrounding the Trump family.

Basically, without an actual monarchy, Jordan Peterson thinks that people substitute the president’s family as a sort of quasi-royal family. This is most clearly embodied by the Kennedy family’s “Camelot” myth, a term invented by Jackie Kennedy to immortalize her husband’s administration as a period of legendary, righteous, and glamorous power. I don’t think his characterization of the pantsuit-wearing Hillary Rodham Clinton as a “queen” makes as much sense, but her political career was kicked off by her husband’s presidency in a way that perhaps wouldn’t happen under Canada or the UK’s “four branch” system.

Jordan Peterson sees peril in political figures like Kennedy and Trump being elevated to demi-royal status. He thinks that level of celebrity makes leaders and the people around them irrational or even delusional. This is why he has so much admiration for the monarchy. The Queen, as ultimate celebrity and symbol of the British Commonwealth, acted as a counterbalance in humbling charismatic prime ministers, who must defer and even confess to her for guidance and wisdom.

With her 70 years of political experience, Peterson feels her death is an enormous loss to the world. More than just a lightning rod for celebrity, the Queen was a guiding light embodying nearly a century of British values and progress. Peterson has some apologia for the British Empire, which I won’t go into any more than mentioning that while he brings up India as a government that inherited the “great democratic tradition” of the British Commonwealth, I have never met an Indian person who had anything positive to say about the British.

While listening to his argument, it struck me as somewhat similar to a point I made in an article recently. The article was about the United States being ignorant of the effects inflation and rising gas prices have across the world, and how they blame one man, Joe Biden, for what is actually a global phenomenon that the United States is experiencing a fairly light version of. I blame this in part on an American worship of the presidency, comparing it to the Imperial Chinese “mandate of heaven” concept.

With numerous members of Donald Trump’s cabinet explicitly claiming that his presidency was ordained by God, an American Mandate of Heaven may not just be a metaphor for some people. For those sunk too deep into the muck of American Mythology, this relatively mild recession hitting the United States must be some sort of punishment for their rightful and virtuous ruler being deposed by a scheming deep state. Some people have no idea what’s going on in the rest of the world, so they imagine the American case is special and must be the fault of the ruling party.

Donald Trump circa 2019

So, do I agree with Peterson? Not really. While I don’t know what it’s like living in a commonwealth with a symbolic monarch, as an American I find the Trump situation to be exceptional and a result of a deeply entrenched social issues. It would probably not help if the tension revolved around the living monarch instead of our spiritual “founding fathers.”

As a counterpoint, Spanish fascism originated around reactionary movements to return the prestige of the Spanish Empire under the power of the Catholic Church and the Spanish Crown. The law of succession in 1947 declared Spain to be a Catholic, social, and representative monarchy. Dictator Francisco Franco appointed King Juan Carlos as his successor after his death in 1975, who led the transition to democracy instead of maintaining Franco’s regime. King Felipe VI is currently head of state and commander-in-chief of the Spanish Armed Forces.

I will point out that the rise of fascism in both Germany and Spain followed the abolition of the monarchy. This may seem to support Peterson’s point, except that the religious cult around Emperor Hirohito was the symbolic core of Japanese fascism, whereas Italy, the home of fascism, didn’t abolish the monarchy until after democracy was reinstated. Japan actually had a period of semi-democratic constitutional monarchy prior to World War 2, but this quickly collapsed. This is all to say that unsurprisingly, monarchism doesn’t have much of a track record in stabilizing democracy.

Peterson doesn’t seem to understand the problem people really have with the monarchy. He mentions that the royal family has had many scandals as a possible counterpoint, and then dismisses it because all families have scandals. A fixation on scandals, however, really seems to stem from a pro-monarchy standpoint. Rather than criticizing the institution itself, it recoils at the behavior of a few individuals who do not exemplify the values the monarchy is supposed to uphold as the symbolic branch of the Commonwealth. Expecting the royals to be a model family is a result of buying into the ideological underpinnings that legitimize its rule.

The problem people in my neck of the woods have with the royal family is precisely its symbolism. Its legitimacy relies on ancient beliefs about “bloodlines” and aristocracy. It’s an embodiment of the idea that some people are inherently better than others because of their genetics. In an age increasingly defined by the tyranny of power and wealth concentrated in a few hands, royal children are born into extravagance and influence regardless of their individual merit.

Let’s compare this with what Peterson sees as America’s partial replacement for the Queen: Hollywood celebrities. Peterson thinks it’s a problem for superstars to be seen as paragons of virtue, but that it’s better for them to take on the celebrity role than politicians. Ignoring the question of why he thinks that it’s fine for monarchs to be role models but not actors, he doesn’t go into what the differences between the symbolic meaning of these two entities are, which is curious since he seems to care very much about symbolism.

Let’s take the Kardashians, perhaps the most reviled celebrity family in the world. The Kardashians started out with Tatos Kardashian, an Armenian man who had already escaped persecution before emigrating from a small village in the Russian Empire to the United States right before the Armenian genocide. From there, he started up a trash collection business, beginning a lineage of successful business ventures that led to Kim Kardashian’s breakout. Donald Trump appears to have a somewhat similar story, descending from a German lawyer who changed his name from Drumpf during the Thirty Year’s War, his descendants establishing themselves as winegrowers over a hundred years later.

This is to say that our celebrities symbolize the American Dream, or in Trump’s case, the rise of Capitalism. Actors in particular are people who have persevered and come up on top in one of the most competitive industries on the planet, largely through their own hard work and talent. As someone who claims to care so deeply about meritocracy, you would think Jordan Peterson would have more respect for these individuals than the descendants of landlords who happened to be lucky in killing and marrying the right people.

In fact, an actor like Ben Affleck, someone Peterson might just think of as an irritating woke moralist, arguably has much more of a right to participate in the political sphere than Jordan Peterson himself, based on his own criteria. Whereas Peterson spent most of his life in academia, Ben Affleck has worked all sides of the film industry, traveled the world, cofounded a nonprofit providing grants for Congolese community-building initiatives, done many different kinds of charity work, appeared as a panelist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, cofounded his own film and television production company, and John McCain even considered him a credible and remarkable expert witness on Africa when he testified before Congress.

Like so many of his ideas, Jordan Peterson’s analysis of the monarchy, while having the immediate appearance of being interesting and profound, is ultimately not very well thought out. Perhaps the very sad state of conservative thought nowadays has something to do with the same cult of celebrity he fears in others.

Peterson fails to investigate important questions about celebrity. Besides not discussing what different celebrities symbolize or ought to symbolize, he seems to take for granted that celebrity must exist for a society to remain symbolically stable. Because of this, he doesn’t question whether having such enormous celebrity is actually good for us.

Unlike him, I think hierarchy is generally bad, and celebrity is a very obvious form of social hierarchy that can be especially perilous and arbitrary. Perhaps it cannot be avoided on some level. After all, plenty of anarchist-leaning movements, where you would expect celebrity to be rejected, are known primarily by their charismatic leaders, Makhnovia and Zapatismo being the classic examples. Perhaps as social creatures, we will always be haunted by the ghosts of charismatic “great men” like Sun Yat-Sen, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Thomas Jefferson, Karl Marx, Margaret Thatcher, and Simon Bolivar.

Many of my articles recently have discussed the disastrous consequences that can come from basing a political project on a single force of personality. As someone who deeply fears charismatic but deadly figures like Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin, perhaps Jordan Peterson is hoping that the monarchy will act as a counterbalance to people who might otherwise take things too far. History shows that it will not; no less the former British Empire, which as Peterson himself admits has much to be ashamed of.

“When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man — and thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this … so we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way, we cool his heart and make him gentle.”

Society does not have to be arranged around charisma. Some societies have explicit counterbalances to the rise of a charismatic leader. The Ju/’hoansi, for example, have no formalized leadership positions. This is supported by a tradition of insulting great hunters, who must remain humble. This has maintained an egalitarian society with equal decision making power among everyone for an astoundingly long time, maybe for thousands of years.

Highly recommend this channel

A more extreme example of humility norms is found in the “Republic” of Tlaxcala, a rival to the Aztecs that had lasted a few hundred years before being conquered by the Spanish. This society was notoriously proud for having no King, and candidates for the collective governing council had to undergo a grueling process of humiliation and self-abasement involving public insults, physical assault, isolated study, sleep deprivation, starvation, and bloodletting. Much of this was done in community plazas, where the common people could interact directly with their leaders.

Besides documented societies, archaeologists are just beginning to develop theories on what they call “collective societies.” These are societies like the Indus Valley Civilization and Zapotec that lack monuments or art depicting any rulers, and where there isn’t a major discrepancy between the living situations of different classes of people, the largest structures being community buildings like bathhouses or even large open spaces where the common people may have interacted directly with their ruling class, like in Tlaxcala.

Norms are incredibly powerful, and I don’t think it’s good for stability that our society has built such strong norms around boastfulness, arrogance, and star worship. Monarchy is an especially egregious and bizarre form of hierarchy and star worship, unique in its institutionalized power and subsidy from the government. The solution for humbling public figures is not to elevate others and hope things balance out, but to develop new norms that actually encourage humility. As members of a collectively governed society, we must develop ways to keep our rulers in check that prevent the degeneration into the despotic rule we’ve left behind.

Also, to leave on a cheeky note:

Both cities support Blanton and Fargher’s belief that the best predictor of collective rule is a strong internal revenue source — that is, taxes. Revenue sources are admittedly difficult to detect from artifacts and buildings. But after surveying 30 premodern societies documented ethnographically and historically, the researchers found that states with internal revenue sources were characterized by a high level of public goods and services, a strong governmental bureaucracy, and citizens empowered to judge the ruler’s actions. “When taxpayers are paying for the state, then the people in charge know they have to do the right thing,” Blanton says. — (From It wasn’t just Greece: Archaeologists find early democratic societies in the Americas)

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Sam Young

Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.