A couple of days ago I received the following query from a journalist:
- Why haven’t we seen any new monarchies created in the past several decades?
- Do you think we’ll see monarchies disappear entirely in the not-too-distant future? Why or why not?
These are very interesting questions, and in this blog I’d like to share my response, as well as expand on it somewhat.
First, I disagree that no new monarchies were created in the past several decades. One clear-cut example is the Bourbon restoration in Spain, following the death of Franco.
The Spanish Bourbons
Second, let’s make it clear what we mean by monarchy. We might as well follow definition on Wikipedia, “A monarchy is a form of government in which sovereignty is actually or nominally embodied in one individual reigning until death or abdication.” Then, Wikipedia makes a distinction between two forms of monarchies, hereditary and elective, depending on how the power is transferred. So let’s go with the stronger form, hereditary monarchy.
Here’s my short list of new monarchies: North Korea, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Syria. In some of these countries, formally, leaders are elected and are called “President”, but the reality of power is dynastic. So by the definition of hereditary monarchy (transfer of supreme power from father to son), these are monarchies.
Saparmurat I of Turkmenistan
That’s in addition to the “old” monarchies, like the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Luxemburg, Monaco… I am sure I am forgetting some. These are, of course, nominal monarchies, because the real power is vested in elected officials.
The Gulf monarchies are the “real” ones. In Saudi Arabia, the rule of the king is in theory absolute (but in practice, and as I explain in my books, such as War and Peace and War, there is no such thing as absolute power—all rulers always rely on some support group to keep them from being assassinated when they sleep, at the very least).
So monarchy is alive and well. The appearance of the new monarchies in the post-Soviet space attests to that. Why?
There is actually a very good sociological reason why elites may favor primogeniture as the legal way of transferring power in a state with weak institutions. It’s a coordination device.
The reality of power is that individuals don’t rule, groups rule. So it’s not terribly important who the nominal leader is.
So imagine yourself as part of the ruling clique. The king is dead. What should you do?
Yes, it would be great to have someone who is really good at ruling, and who will not oppress the ruling class (meaning you, and you don’t care about peasants). But it’s hard to say ahead of time who will turn out to be the best ruler. So you can run elections for the new king, but that will cause a lot of bad feelings—among the faction that backed the loser. That could easily lead to a civil war, in which everybody loses.
It’s much better to have a designated successor and avoid all that uncertainty and unpleasantness. Even if he (and they almost always were males) is an idiot. The actual job of governing, after all, is done by the ruling clique.
So primogeniture, or any other mechanism that clearly identifies a single successor (for example, Roman emperors adopted successors as “sons”), is a good institution for an orderly transfer of power.
We are going to test this as part of our work in the Seshat Databank. Do societies that adopt hereditary monarchy enjoy more political stability (fewer civil wars), compared to societies that use other ways of transferring power?