Home / Opinion / Columns /  We mustn’t underestimate the power of the second rung

If King Charles III happens to kill someone, it would be a perfect murder. As long as the crime is committed in British territory, he has immunity from prosecution. The king is above the law, but this is among the trivial perks of the job. Beyond protecting himself, he has no power. The crown has survived but not its godlike power, especially for evil. We are accustomed to this, so we forget how unthinkable such a situation might have seemed to a medieval person. How did monarchy lose power? How did royalty, across the world, that could once behead a subject for being the faintest threat, lose power?

You may say this is explained in history. I don’t think so. The detail is there somewhere in the history of the world, but it is obscured by more famous and naive extrapolations.

The idea that some kings were reformers and that they reformed monarchy because they believed democracy was a better idea, is laughable. The more popular and respectable idea that now and then“people" revolted against monarchy across the world does not explain many things. For instance, why would monarchy allow a mass movement to grow so big?

The key to the mystery is in the fact that even powerful kings did not have absolute power. They needed financiers, administrators, experts—they needed aristocrats, the second rung of the elite. But this co-existence, which we see across world history, does not explain the end of monarchy. In fact, such a symbiotic relationship between the top two rungs would make monarchy even stronger, as the stability of the king is in the interest of aristocrats. Not just that, the well-being of the king would ensure one aristocrat does not upstage the rest (this aspect of human nature may also explain why the Gandhi family has survived for so long at the top of the Indian National Congress). And if a powerful aristocrat managed to become king, then he would be replacing one king with another. How can the power of the second rung then explain the end of monarchy? The answer is in the most effective and in many cases the only method the disenchanted aristocracy has to dethrone monarchy—by inventing a moral cause and then enlisting the poor to fight a proxy war.

Across the ages, all of activism is just this— the second rung of a society fighting against the top rung in the name of a public cause. A consequence of such a war is that aristocrats have to share some power with the masses.

On the origin of modern democracy, you can point to ancient Greece or ancient India, but that would be pointless because the full glory of monarchy followed that period. But there is an equally esoteric origin story that is set in the distant past. In 1215 CE, some barons rebelled against John, the King of England, and forced him to accept a contract written in Latin on a single sheet of sheepskin parchment. It was the Magna Carta, and when King John placed his seal on it, he was accepting that even a monarch would have to follow the law of the land.

To fix the king, the barons, the second rung of the elite, had to make their rebellion as moral as possible. So the Magna Carta says things that seem modern. Like the state will not punish a person until his guilt is proven; and the state will not seize land if the borrower has other ways of paying his debt. And, in peace time, “All merchants may enter or leave England unharmed and without fear…"

The Magna Carta did consider, explicitly, that people of “lower social standing", women and Jews were lesser humans. That a document which wished to be moral would do this points to the fact that people are prisoners of their time. But it is also a hint that the objective of moral codes are never entirely about a generation’s quest for humanity; they are often tactics to beat a strongman.

A year after he was forced to accept the Magna Carta, King John cancelled it. In the centuries that followed, the document was forgotten for vast periods of time, and resurrected sometimes. Eventually, the British merchant class used it every time they had to ask monarchs to back off. By the 17th century, the idea of equality and fairness encoded in the Magna Carta helped landowning feudal lords to irreversibly diminish the monarchy in England. The price that British aristocrats had to pay for this victory was democracy.

We have been trained to think that in a revolution, ordinary people suddenly come out of their homes and overthrow a ruler. Yet, I cannot think of a revolution where this was the actual case. Even the French Revolution was not that simple. In every revolution, the second rung of the elite has used the broad idea of equality and fairness to trounce their oppressor. This is true even of the Indian freedom movement. Most of the icons of the Indian freedom movement were from the highest caste, but still a social rung below the British. We can frame the freedom movement as the aristocrat’s use of morality to mobilize the masses and defeat his oppressor.

We see the phenomenon at play today in all forms of activism. It is always moral, always for a better world, always a war of one rung of the elite against their oppressor, but fought through recruits. The aristocratic handlers of revolutions are often not charlatans. They may believe that they are not acting in their self-interest, but out of intelligent compassion. That is why they are so effective. Thus we have millionaires battling billionaires for a better world.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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