Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-serving monarch, died on September 8. She had reigned for more than 70 years, not only over Great Britain but also over the remnants of a vast empire. Even in a largely symbolic role interdependent with the parliamentary state, the royal family controls enormous wealth, much of it a legacy of colonial rule. Meanwhile, the popular image of the royals and nostalgia for the stability and unity they represent obscure and justify massive inequality in the United Kingdom (UK). Elizabeth was the figurehead of the empire and the ideological front for the ravages of neoliberal capitalism. We should not mourn her passing.
Indeed, people in former British colonies have reacted with indifference, anger, and celebration to the queen’s passing. From the Irish to aboriginal Australians, colonial subjects and their descendants have refused to mourn the queen.
The indelible scars of colonialism
In 1913, the British Empire controlled nearly a quarter of the world’s population, and even when Elizabeth II took the throne in 1952, it still controlled more than a quarter of the world’s population—700 million people in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the Pacific Islands. During Elizabeth’s rule, more than 20 countries fought for and won independence in opposition to and in spite of the Crown.
Public discourse humanized Elizabeth over her time as queen. However, she minimized or denied the role of England in the oppression of millions, including the more than 2.2 million enslaved people stolen away to British colonies in the Caribbean, the occupation of India, the war over Northern Ireland, the violent displacement of Arabs in Palestine, and the imprisonment of a million Kenyan people in concentration camps, among many other instances of brutal colonial rule.
Never has the regime apologized for the atrocities committed by imperial Britain. There have been no reparations, and, to add insult to injury, the royal family has refused to return property looted from the colonies, including a huge diamond acquired from South Africa and one taken from India, which is still set in the queen’s crown.
Queen Elizabeth II became the figurehead for such brutality and theft. Newsweek reporter Shannon Power notes that, for this reason, many were celebrating the queen’s death instead of mourning it. “People in countries formerly controlled by Britain such as India, Ireland, Australia, and Nigeria, were quick to point out the monarchy’s role in the subjugation of their countries,” Power notes. Similarly, in an Independent article, Nadine White states, “While some weep and many are indifferent to her passing, others are angry at the sympathies extended in the wake of a figure of an institution that represents the oppression of Black and brown people.”
In India, The New York Times noted a “muted response” and anger for the “indelible scars” left by British rule on the subcontinent. Carnegie Mellon professor Uja Anya tweeted: “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating.”
Anya faced massive backlash from the right, from liberals, and from her University administrators for these remarks. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos challenged her, tweeting, “This is someone supposedly working to make the world better? I don’t think so. Wow,” he tweeted.
Bezos’s condemnation demonstrates the interdependence between the institution of the monarchy and contemporary capitalism. His tweet mobilized thousands of his followers to target Anya with threatening messages. However, thousands of academics and others around the world have mobilized in Anya’s defense.
Kenyans remain angry about a range of colonial crimes for which there has been no apology. The suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion during the 1950s in that country led descendant Alice Mugo to comment, “Most of our grandparents were oppressed. I cannot mourn.”
Soccer fans in Cyprus refused to honor a moment of silence before a game, instead jeering the queen’s memory. Cyprus was declared a British Crown Colony in 1923, and the British suppressed the anti-colonial movement of the 1950s with executions, beatings, and imprisonment. Although the island gained its independence in 1960 against Elizabeth’s empire, Britain still maintains contested military bases there.
An Irish dance troupe posted a performance set to “Another One Bites the Dust” (ironically by the band Queen) on social media.
While thousands of British citizens thronged her funeral parade, descendants of a colonial past took to Twitter, writing: “The Queen has died. Let’s take this opportunity to remember all those millions of people who died as a result of British imperialism in Africa, India, Ireland, during slavery, and in so many countries in the world who didn’t have such a long and privileged life.”
Another tweet reminded readers that, “Queen Elizabeth is not a remnant of colonial times. She was an active participant in colonialism. She actively tried to stop independence movements and she tried to keep newly independent colonies from leaving the Commonwealth.”
A September 12 headline at NPR read, “Not everyone mourns the queen. For many, she can’t be separated from colonial rule.”
There is another reason Queen Elizabeth II ought not to be mourned. She presided over a vast accumulation of wealth in the capitalist economy, benefiting from the exploitation of the working class.
The royal “Firm”
In addition to its unrepentant role in slavery and the colonies, the royal family, including Queen Elizabeth II, has engaged in a thoroughly modern form of economic exploitation. On September 13, The New York Times reported that the royal corporate conglomerate’s wealth grew 50 percent over the past decade to $1.4 billion. The late queen was worth $950 million, and the family as a whole is worth $28 billion.
This growth is credited to Prince, now King, Charles III’s financial acumen. Charles “used tax breaks, offshore accounts, and canny real estate investments” to build a modern empire, the “royal family business.” Sociologist Laura Clancy calls this institution “The Firm,” calling attention to its complete alignment with neoliberal capitalism today. Far from being an irrelevant anachronism, Clancy argues, the royals participate in the modern capitalist economy while sustaining the pretense of a world apart.
This obscene accumulation of wealth took place at a time of budget cuts and austerity for the British people. Charles III now ascends to the throne “as the country buckles under a cost-of-living crisis that is expected to see poverty get even worse.”
The question that comes to mind given the atrocities of British colonialism and the royal family’s obscene accumulation of wealth in the present day is, why are millions of people mourning the queen? Why are so many people around the world, including millions of working-class people, enraptured by the royal family and all of its trappings?
The feminist queen?
One absurd answer to this question appears in the musings of ostensible feminists like Connie Schultz (the wife of Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown), who explained in USA Today that Elizabeth was a “strong, dignified role model for women.” “Is there a place, I wondered, to write about what it has meant to be a woman in America inspired by a woman in England called the queen? She was privileged and flawed, but she excelled in a role she never wanted and made it uniquely her brand of woman’s work.”
Never mind that the queen’s “brand” of women’s work involved presiding over and justifying colonial brutality and inheriting the wealth still earned on the backs of the exploited and oppressed. (A similar rhetoric of “women’s work” is used to defend or excuse the actions of U.S. politicians like Hillary Clinton, Madeline Albright, and even Liz Cheney).
In The New York Times, similarly, Amanda Taub wrote that Elizabeth was a “quiet alternative” to feminist militancy and a symbol for women’s empowerment, despite her rigid conformity to conventional gender roles.
This attempt to rehabilitate the queen in feminist terms is thin, to say the least. It also neglects to mention that Princess Diana (however inadequately), always a thorn in Elizabeth’s side, commanded the imaginations of women and girls seeking images of self-determination more than the queen ever could.
Recent controversies about Meghan Markle and the racist vitriol directed at her show how brutally challengers to conventional gender roles are treated by the royal family and its supporters. The feminist rhetoric is also belied by the role of the royal family in shielding Prince Andrew for many years over his sexual predation, including his affiliation with Jeffrey Epstein. Prince Andrew settled a lawsuit brought against him by Virginia Giuffre, whom he raped when she was 17, thereby avoiding legal exposure.
There is absolutely no warrant for the feminist appreciation for the royals. So, there must be another reason for the world’s royal enchantment, one that explains how the symbolic role of the monarchy is an ideological buttress for neoliberal capitalism.
An “empire-spanning unifier”
British culture is saturated with the images and stories of the royals: in popular culture, street and pub names, displays of the Crown jewels, countless films, television series, songs, tabloid exposés, and tourist attractions like the Tower of London and the changing of the guard. International audiences hang breathless on royal births, weddings, deaths, and, absurdly, corgis. Immediately upon her death, Funko Pop! produced a huge-headed doll of the queen in a pink suit flanked by a faithful dog (available for pre-order now!). This kind of mass merchandising of the royal family is another tie between an alleged anachronism and the contemporary capitalist economy.
Clancy draws upon the insights of cultural studies to argue that the royals’ cultural role is that of “empire-spanning unifier” during the transition in the world economy to neoliberal capitalism, a regime that attempts to stave off perpetual economic crisis through austerity, privatization, and debt. In the context of stark inequality and burgeoning unrest, the monarchy acts as a fantasy through which the mechanisms of inequality are disguised and naturalized. Popular images of romance, tradition, and glamor constitute a “moral economy” designed to win the hearts and minds of ordinary people, not just in the UK but around the world.
These were the queen’s roles: to cling brutally to the remnants of a racist empire while benefiting from the royal family’s corporate wealth as the working class suffers—and to serve as a nostalgic icon of tradition, unity, and stability that justifies the whole horrific project. The ultimate aim of the royal charade is to quell class unrest. Thus, the mythos of aristocratic rule operates alongside and in concert with the parliamentary state.
This function is why Jason Morgan, writing in the American Conservative, called Queen Elizabeth II the “Marxslayer,” writing, “Elizabeth had wealth and colonies such as the world has never seen. Everything in Marxism says she should have been drawn and quartered in the streets by the proletariat. If anything, however, the people of the United Kingdom waxed yearly in regard for their queen.” The “long-running refutation of the very heart of Marxism” was, for Morgan, “Queen Elizabeth II’s greatest accomplishment.” She “bore the impossible task of being that awful phantasmagoria of imagination and power, the state. She was queen, but she embodied us.” “Marxism broke on the rocks of the House of Windsor,” Morgan crows.
Seeing through the royal charade
It would be a mistake to understate the role of the royal family as the figureheads of the British monarchy and its constitutional system, as their appeal to national unity obscures divisions of class and race. The monarchy has always been a reactionary brake on actual democracy in the UK. The fact that the Communication Workers Union and the RMT (National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers) wrongly suspended strikes planned for September 15 and 17, and the fact that the Labour Party attempted to outflank the Tories in showing their fealty to Elizabeth, are symptoms of this problem.
However, Morgan’s triumphalism is hollow. He helpfully identifies the function of the monarchy in contemporary capitalism but overestimates the willingness of ordinary people to abide by its appeals.
For example, there have been protests at the Queen’s funeral, although they have been met with an increased police force further emboldened by the recently draconian new policing bill that parliament passed in April.
Most significantly, post-colonial subjects’ refusal to mourn Elizabeth is evidence that the glamour of royalty is not compelling for the oppressed people of the world.
In addition, The New York Times notes a “generational divide in which many younger people expressed indifference, if not hostility, to the complicated institution the queen represented.” Among Brits aged 65 and older, 74 percent expressed support for the monarchy. Among those aged 19-24, that number is only 24 percent. Young people are more likely, in the words of interviewee Felix Clarke (age 31), to “see the royal family as an institution founded on a colonial and racist past.”
In a 2018 blog post at “Working-Class Perspectives,” Sarah Attfield recalls celebrating the Queen’s 1977 Silver Jubilee with her working-class family, who lived in public housing. It is worth reading her account of the party at some length:
“But someone played the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.” Standing there in my red, white, and blue outfit, I suddenly saw through the charade. We were celebrating the Queen’s reign on a public housing estate—how far from her lifestyle could we be? From that moment on, I was cynical about the royal family, questioned their purpose, and saw them as representing the massive inequality I witnessed all around me. Even today, the royal family remains popular among working-class people (mostly white working-class people). They say that the Queen represents stability and brings the nation together. This is the part I find most troubling. The Queen represents nationalism and imperialism. Nationalism is divisive and exclusionary, and imperialism in the form of colonialism represented violence and destruction. Neither the Queen nor the royal family benefit the British working class.”
We should not mourn the queen, much less save her or the malignant institution she headed up. We need not look to God to save us, either. In the UK and the United States, and in countries around the world, working-class people are organizing at warehouses and on railroads, in coffee shops and in classrooms. At the same time, the persistent global economic crisis has brought representatives of the far right to power. The fundamental divide between the ruling class and the international working class cannot be papered over with romantic nostalgia for the monarchy.
The past represented by Queen Elizabeth II’s reign is fractured, exposed by the taunts of soccer fans in Cyprus and Glasgow, the tweets of professors from Africa and India, and the Irish dancing on her grave. The future belongs with the masses of people who are not fooled by the fairy tale of the aristocracy. We must organize across borders to make a world without servants or sweatshops, dictators or billionaires—a world that has no use for a queen.
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Dana Cloud is a Tempest Collective member and scholar of Marxism, popular culture, and social movements.