Why Monarchy Will Continue as an Enduring Form of State Organization



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A couple of days ago I received the following query from a journalist:

  1. Why haven’t we seen any new monarchies created in the past several decades?
  2. 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?

Stay tuned.

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al loomis

monarchies begin as the rule of the war leader, end as the agent of god. both power bases explain why the will of the common people does not direct the nation.
democracy is not natural to humanity, our heritage is submitting to alpha males while they get between us and the predators. this has worked pretty well, so long as the earth was flat endless and self replenishing. but now it is a sphere and over population is not only possible, but visibly killing us. if we continue to allow the alphas to pursue ever greater wealth, land, power and glory, they will drive us over the cliff.


Hello, Prof. Turchin.

It seems, along similar lines, one can make an argument for the other side as well: since kings, as phenomenon stemming from same cause, had been so integral in formation of the part of civilization that is closer to what really matters (encompassing so much: from writing, to more advanced agrarian systems, to military etc. as well as, eventually, priming the pipe for technological/industrial development), isn’t our current experiment with democracy and redistributive egalitarianism just that — an experiment?

I’d like to add an argument based on fertility rates, from the point of view of said rates as they are correlated with the cultures which they sustain. Pretty much all liberal cultures of today’s industrialized world are not doing well, looked from said perspective (as TFRs stubbornly trend below 2 and even lower than 1.5 in many instances). Since what has made these liberal frameworks so pervasive is, essentially, recruitment/conversion (e.g. Christianity, Buddhism, modern secular liberalism), there is now a real possibility that, given their already wide spread, they are reaching a point of diminishing returns, stumbling into other, non-liberal frameworks that are fairly resistant to change (e.g. certain theocratic/totalitarian systems).

To take the idea further (and echo your book’s last chapter), just like there were empires with their cults and religions, some of these current and emerging religions/cultural systems are now living systems onto themselves, and they are now growing using two mechanisms: internal birthrates and by incorporating converts. Given this logic, if such patterns continue, I think that in the longterm scenario (which will be unfolding in the next centuries) we (the imaginary immortal versions of ourselves, that is) will be witnessing an emergence of theocratic and totalitarian systems of government that incorporate the industrial base of the “old” secular states while being very different ideologically. And these high TFR totalitarian/theocratic systems may likely rely on inegalitarian principles, ergo god-kings/ruling high priests again.

In secular liberal states, the destabilizing force of this great explosion of land carrying capacity due to the Industrial Revolution allowed great masses of the poor to become able to have large families, relegating family size as man’s status marker to the past (see Greg Clark’s “Farewell to Alms”), thus, in effect, slowing/reversing population growth, especially in the wealthier, more powerful demographic strata. Given ongoing efforts to increase/equalize not only legal rights of everyone but to also eliminate structural inequality, there are further signs that not only fertility itself decreases, but that the monogamous marriage pattern itself is being obsoleted. Does that not entail slow death of the secular liberal egalitarian cultural frameworks, despite the great wealth per capita that they provide?

You make many good points in your book, Ultrasociety, and I enjoyed it tremendously.


Except that, when given the opportunity to do so, people in high-fertility autocratic regimes tend to leave for those low-fertility liberal democratic regimes, while the reverse is not true.

Where are these autocratic (high-fertility) states that you see large numbers of people immigrating to? I do not see any.


Good point, Richard. Then again, Soviet Union usually prevented people from leaving. The same is especially true for the regime of North Korea. This is on top of preventing/limiting information flows. Even China practices this to a large extend.

They didn’t call it “Iron Curtain” for nothing, right?


Where are these autocratic (high-fertility) states that you see large numbers of people immigrating to? I do not see any.

Didn’t mean to ignore this. Short answer: Indeed, unless Singapore suddenly implements R. Fisher’s ideas (unlikely today!) zilch today.

Long answer:

1) As long as we live in a unipolar world that enforces an economically neoliberal policy, the likelihood of emergence of hi-tech, high-TFR autocracies is slim to none. This situation, though, is not a guaranteed equilibrium.

Let’s assume dollar denominated free-trade falls (don’t know exactly why or how, but Trump’s rise could be an effect stemming from the same cause) and the US is no longer in complete control over some maritime routes on the Asian side of the Pacific. I think George Friedman’s (of Stratfor) arguments from his “The Next 100 Years” will then not look as absurd.

2) Re immigration: there is, in fact, no proven special need for immigration for a society to evolve and develop what’s necessary in-situ, /provided/ proper initial conditions are met (vis-a-vis population phenotype, for Hive Mind capabilities, and resource-wise, like land, water and minerals). E.g. economically closed-down hi-tech China (with mandated TFR > around 2) or industrialized, theocracized Israel or very developed Iran. In fact, one can argue, from the point of view of group cohesion, immigration and intra-society diversity is likely a negative. I understand that what I wrote above concerning Israel, Iran and China may appear like an oxymoron, but there have been stranger things that happened.

3) Re lack of high-TFR autocracies: Re-emergence of autocracies is not excluded as a future possibility, even in places that pride themselves as egalitarian states, with the US proudly being an egalitarian state, in legal sense, from its very inception, but then becoming something else entirely. May sound strange, again, yet the world can be.

al loomis

a democrat is a citizen of a democracy, and there have been few. equality within the state, or the ruling clique, or the neighborhood, is something else. adt captures some of this:
“Americans are so enamored of equality, they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.”
― Alexis de Tocqueville

Juan Alfonso

A very interesting topic!

Would you include Cuba as an hereditary monarchy since Fidel abdicated in favor of his brother Raúl?… (Could the Castros be planning to transfer power to someone in their family?)

As you say, in Spain we have a young (parlamentary) monarchy but to me it looks more like a paralell chiefdom. We spaniards see the kings as our employees that could be fired anyday. We have a history of “recruitng” monarchs as the spanish Cortes did with Amadeo of Savoy in 1870. The royal family is a living symbol of our culture and we want them to work for us as ambassadors.

We are very aware of their salary and income. They are not above the law. Two examples: The former King Juan Carlos had to publicly apologize for inappropiate private behavior that saw light a few years ago. The king´s sister is now under trial because of his husband´s businesses.

The royal family is an institution that makes sense in our eyes because it kind of represents the unity of our extremely ideologically and nationalistically divided country. Its main function is 1) coadyuvating diplomacy politics, and 2) bringing consensual stability to political uncertainty (of the kind we are living right now). King Felipe knows he is under public scrutiny and tries hard to be up to the task. In theory the King is the supreme general of the spanish armies, but in practice it is the executive power, through the defense ministry, who is in charge.

So to me it looks more like a chiefdom than the usual archaic monarchy. The exception is that it is hereditary but, as you correctly point out, that is a tolerated feature; Electing a King every time would only bring more debate, uncertainty and unstability, and we already have tons of that in the parlamentary system.

In this light monarchy can be an stabilizing institution that might experiment a resurge in countries that need political and nationalistic stability.


And you’ve moved the discussion away from monarchy in general, in order to concentrate on hereditary monarchy or “monarchy proper”. But if we take into account the original definition you quote from Wikipedia, the list of actual though not nominal monarchies, new or old, grows even longer. And counting manipulated or rigged pseudo-elections opens yet another gray area between monarchies and supposed republics, but whether a given country (e.g. Russia) is one of those is always open to interpretation or disagreement.


Sorry, saying that someone is a monarch so long as they are popular is too squishy. That’d make almost all politicians who lead a country monarchs and almost all countries monarchies.

The key question (for determining whether someone is a monarch) is how absolute is the power that a ruler has. Putin has a good amount. FDR was constrained. He tried to pack the Supreme Court but failed. Various parts of the New Deal were watered down, etc.

Are there similar issues where Putin wanted something but other political forces in the country stymied him?


Saying that North Korea is run by a group is a tough argument to make, though I agree that most monarchies/empires are run by a group.


How will you qualify Angela Merkel who is at the helm of Germany since 2005, only few years less than Putin, if we count his years of premiership? The way she acts reminds me of an absolute monarch – charging ahead against the wishes of the political establishment, of big business, of large part of populace, to say nothing about other EU members who were never even consulted, thus shuttering the very foundations of the EU. What kind of a group in Germany has Merkel as a frontwoman?


Merkel hasn’t died in office and it’s conceivable to see her voted out.

I’d call Germany a democracy.

Just because someone goes against the popular will doesn’t make them a monarch (and it’s not at all certain to me that she is going against the wishes of all those groups; in what ways?)


Danish Royal House is the longest & continuous in Europe, traced to Viking ruler Gorm the Old, 958 AD. https://t.co/4qigMCwizL

Loren Petrich

I think that there is a very interesting and seldom-discussed story here: why monarchy has fallen so far over the last few centuries. For nearly all of humanity’s recorded history, and likely for a long time before, just about every nation larger than a city-state has been a monarchy. Some monarchies have been very long-lived, even if not completely continuous, like the Pharaonic and Chinese monarchies.

But over the last two centuries, monarchy has gone downhill, with several remaining monarchies having become de facto republics. I think that the beginning of the end was when George Washington decided not to be crowned King George I, complete with refusing any title fancier than “MIster President”. Switzerland had become a republic earlier, but it was not a very big nation, and the Dutch Republic had become a de facto monarchy by then. The Venetian Republic had the Doge as a sort of elected monarch, and Poland also had an elected monarch.

But the French Revolution was a bad advertisement for republicanism, and most new nations in Europe were monarchies until World War I, even if quasi-republican ones. In the meantime, most Latin American nations became independent as republics, inspired by the Yanqui gringos. World War I resulted in the fall of the German, Austrian, Russian, and Ottoman monarchies, with most of their successors being republics. Monarchies continued to fall over the twentieth century and into this one, and most decolonized nations became republics.

I’ve seen the theory that hereditary monarchy emerges from the “crown prince problem”. Some chosen successor may be too eager to get the job, so a leader’s son (only sometimes a daughter) is a safe choice. More generally I’ve seen the theory that it results from lacking a strong succession mechanism independent of the leaders. Representative democracies have that, as do one-party states like Communist countries. But even there, de facto monarchies may emerge, like North Korea’s.

Source: http://la.utexas.edu/users/jbrownlee/documents/article.ASJ.2008.pdf — The Heir Apparency of Gamal Mubarak, by Jason Brownlee at the University of Texas

As to elective monarchy, that may be interpreted as republicanism with an President-for-life, so it’s a borderline case.


Another idea:

When people are calm and rational, most may be democrats, but when they are fearful, especially the authoritarian types (but all people, though to a ,lesser degree) gravitate towards a strongman.


The rallying towards Trump is hard to explain otherwise.


Prof Turchin,

On the relationship between primogeniture and political stability, the Chinese feudal dynasty of Shang (approx. 16th century BC ~ 11th century BC) provided a good example. The Shang Dynasty experimented with lateral succession in the first 200 years of its existence, having the younger brother succeeding the elder one as the king. (China was still a feudal kingdom back then).

It’s known the Shang Dynasty changed royal capitals at least five times in the first 200 years. Although contemporary historical records of the Shang didn’t allude to the causes, official court historian 300 years later suspected that lateral succession was to blame – Once the elder brother passes the throne to the younger brother, does the younger brother then pass the throne to the elder brother’s son (his nephew) or his own son? The Shang royal family didn’t establish a clear rule on subsequent succession: While the younger brother usually prefers his son to his nephew, the nephew won’t give up without a fight as he feels entitled to his father’s throne. If the nephew subsequently wins the throne back by defeating his uncle or cousin, the new king probably wants to distance himself from the power base of his uncle or cousin and found a new royal capital. Later historians attributed the frequent changes in royal capitals to this type of intra-familial civil wars.

Eventually, the Shang royal family decided to adopt male primogeniture in favor of lateral succession, and the royal capital was permanently settled near modern-day Anyang, Hunan Province. Successive Chinese feudal and imperial dynasties all adopted male primogeniture. The eldest son borne by the queen consort (or empress consort) is usually designated as the heir apparent even if he’s younger than his half-brothers borne by the king’s (or emperor’s) concubines. On the other hand, if the king later deposes the queen consort, the heir apparent will lose his place in line of succession. The new queen consort’s son, no matter the age, becomes the new heir apparent.

The strict observation of male primogeniture partly explains the longevity of many Chinese dynasties – six of them lasted over 200 years; two over 300 years. A few dynasties founded by invading nomadic tribes (e.g. the Yuan Dynasty founded by the Mongols) didn’t observe male primogeniture strictly, and few lasted more than 100 years.


The non-Han Qing didn’t either, however, and they were one of the more successful dynasties.


I double-checked the history of Qing dynasty. From 1644 onward, no eldest son borne by a Qing empress consort was superseded in line of succession by his younger full-brother or other half-brothers. Out of ten Qing emperors since 1644, three had no heirs and were succeeded by cousins; one was succeeded by the eldest son of his empress consort; six had no surviving sons borne by empresses consort, and were succeeded by concubines’ sons. Upon ascension, the successor emperors immediately crowned their mothers empresses dowager.


Obviously, all emperors would crown their mother empress dowager, but that’s a lot of times when the Qing emperor chose who would succeed him.

It seems like virtually all the time, in fact:

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