The Empire ‘Likes’ Back: Soft Power and Authority in the 21st Century

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The Brink of a 21st-Century Empire?

From the vantage point of 2020, the soft exit of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and Meghan (née Markle), from a starchy royal life for a Netflix–backed Royal Life™ is an innocuous, tabloid fascination. From the vantage point of centuries of civilization, it is potentially an historic event. The transition of the Duke and Duchess from obedient servants of the Crown to freewheeling influencers of “the streaming platform that brought you The Crown,” sits at the nexus of ancient and modern power — of primaeval royalty and digital reach. In this marriage of three estates — the Crown, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley — is the template for a 21st-Century empire.

Rule Britannia

Monarchy is one of the most powerful inventions of the replicators that brought you humanity. It allows a generation of a family to stamp its mark upon the future to a far greater degree than does heredity alone. Whereas the first monarch’s mark upon each generation is successively halved in terms of heredity, her influence is undiminished in terms of political power: Queen Elizabeth II is only 1/16th related to Queen Victoria but she is every bit the Queen, perpetuating up to this minute her family’s reign.

Monarchy has been one of humanity’s dominant answers to the questions of what ensures intergenerational cultural persistence; what allows the transfer of political power; and what confers legitimacy upon the seat of political power. It is the story of conquests, constitutions, fratricide, regicide, and revolutions. It is biblical. It is an agonist of the great wars of the 20th Century. It is a force whose legacy continues to shape most of our present world whether we realize it or not.

Monarchy exists in positive law — at the ends of barrels and bayonets of Lee Enfield rifles — but also in cultural legitimacy. It was only the revolutions of the 18th and 20th Centuries — American, French, and Russian — that dissociated monarchy from 10,000 years of the natural law itself — the unquestioned order of man, nature, and nature’s god. Based on that track record, monarchy is among the fittest memes ever to exist on Earth in the minds of men.

In two sentences, the memetic fitness of an Empire was dramatically scaled back:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, July 4, 1776.

While “Rule Britannia” is no longer a regime imposed around the globe by the end of a rifle, its progeny remain the dominant forces defining human life the world over: the English language, empirical science, the United States of America, the industrial revolution, the Anglo-American common law, the transcontinental global market, the Turing machine (or “computer”), and the World Wide Web. In five British names — Newton, Bacon, Locke, Darwin, and Smith — you have the basis of modern science, philosophy, politics, law, and economics. Add in Bentham, Mill, and the King James Bible and you arguably have the basis of modern morality. The sun may have set on the British Empire, but it continues to shine on its memetic, cultural legacy.

The Fittest Meme

The first two decades of the 21st Century have seen, as Marin Gurri puts it, a crisis of authority: the Arab Spring, Brexit, the election and presidency of Donald Trump, the declining sway of legacy media and expert institutions, the balking of international institutions in the face of a global pandemic. Paradoxically, it is the very dominance of the legacy of Rule Britannia — a global anglophone civilization linked together by the technological descendants of British (or at least Anglo-American) inventions, the computer, the Internet, and the modern corporation — that has eroded the authority of the elite class that administers that legacy.

Fittingly, two of the most elite members of the most elite class, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex of the British Royal Family, have decamped from their formal station for greener pastures in the “influencer” game.

Being royal has historically carried the distinct advantage of avoiding market competition. One’s place atop the hierarchy was ensured without having to dirty one’s hands in the rough and tumble of the marketplace. Now, the Duke and Duchess would prefer to compete than to merely sit.

While the very arbitrariness of a royal status insulated from the social signals of one’s fellow men led to the political Declaration that justly struck a great blow against monarchy, that very insulation itself was an advantage of the royal system that could (though certainly did not always) redound to the benefit of society as a whole. Where democracy risks (and must provide republican institutions to counteract) tyranny of the majority and tyranny of faction, monarchical tyranny against the majority and against faction could protect minority rights and the general welfare. Not having to respond to the short-term, kinetic demands of the demos could lead an otherwise enlightened statesman to make unpopular but beneficial decisions for the long-term, static wellbeing of society.

Social media has been maligned for destabilizing democracy. To the extent it does, it is because it overdoses democracies on democracy itself. Every voice — no matter how false, fatuous, or destructive — is heard and can be repeated endlessly. Institutions from universities to corporations to newspapers to governments tread carefully around and cater to the whims of the digital demos. In a world where the lowliest jester can take down the mightiest king, the Duke and Duchess would rather be off the throne and in the pit.

If handled adroitly, Prince Harry and Meghan can wield the power of the old and new worlds. They hold the most elite original brand of the world’s underlying civilization and are now at liberty to unleash it not above the marketplace but within it.

The original advantage of royalty — the ability to avoid competition — still obtains for the Sussexes to a great extent. They did not need to build an app, top a sport, win a talent competition or an election to reach their current station. The Duchess did need to make it to a certain rung of fame and fashion for entree to her royal status, but its grace is now fully hers. The Sussexes’s followers are baked into the cake. Their royalty makes them inherently interesting regardless of whether they embrace it, renounce it, or do something with it in between — and regardless of whether the rest of us are aware of the ultimate source of our fascination. Not only are the Sussexes starting on third base in terms of followership, but they also don’t have to perform any justificatory cultural function to retain their renown, like winning a world cup or making a platinum record.

This market exceptionalism allows the Sussexes to transcend the short-term incentives of the marketplace like the ancient royals before them. They can be famous without having to play to the crowd. They can be truly influential, since they are not captives of their own fans. That is, as long as they understand the original source of their followership and do not debase their power through fan service.

An Empire of Soft Power

It is apt that the Sussexes are taking the reigns of a nascent cultural venture just as one of the last emblems of British hard power, Hong Kong, is fully dominated by the CCP. The Sussexes have the opportunity to build an empire of stateless soft power through their royalty and the tools of entertainment and social media.

The modern Windsors are gunpowder monarchs without a true command. Yet the power of the Victorians lay as much in their cultural as in their military force. Its royal imprimatur notwithstanding, Victorianism was the rise of, as Deirdre McCloskey puts it, bourgeois dignity — a universally adoptable manner that could confer dignity upon an individual from any rank of society through habit, not birth.

The Sussexes can trade on the dignity of their “birth” while modeling a universal culture for the 21st Century. With the tools of Hollywood and Silicon Valley coupled to their inherent followership they can wield vast cultural force on multiple continents.

Like the leader of a democracy, social media platforms face some perverse incentives. Since their authority and power is derived from the favor of and engagement by the demos, they risk serving the short-term, kinetic demands of their users instead of their long-term, static interests. This can lead them to trade on the tendencies of human nature to engage in immediate gratification and get hooked on informational junk food. Given weaknesses in the human capacity for inter-temporal optimization, a market participant can addict a user by supplying a subjective experience that is a mere iota more pleasurable at the marginal moment of life than the best foregone alternative — even if the aggregate pleasure provided by that market participant is substantially lower (or potentially negative) in the long run when compared to foregone alternatives that failed to appeal at the marginal moment.

Market participants can debase us in their quest to serve us. In that quest, both parties are debased — the pusher and the addict.

If the Sussexes can maintain their long-term resonance regardless of their ability to supply short-term gratification and feed short-term addiction, they can escape the debasement of the commoner influence peddler.

From Wellness to Wellbeing

The high-end influencer game vacuously employs the term “wellness.” A moniker with the connotations of premium-mediocre bourgeois consumption and vague oatmeal-like aromas.

While the Sussexes may easily fall for the temptation of servicing premium-medicore consumerism, the high-road is premium bourgeois. Rembrandt and the Dutch Renaissance were products of the high-end bourgeois. The Sussexes, if they keep aesthetic discernment about them can be more Rembrandt than GOOP.

Wellness points to a less mediocre idea. At the heart of modern ethics lies John Stuart Mill’s meditations on “wellbeing,” the ultimate end of liberty. In wellbeing, Mill unites utilitarian and rights-based morality by defining individual wellbeing as a constitutive feature of the concept as a whole.

A soft-power empire devoted to maximizing human wellbeing is the highest road the Sussex project might take. This road is available to the Sussexes to the extent they can avoid the doom loop of fan service and fan addiction. Escaping perverse incentives, they can focus on their followership’s wellbeing.

This would involve choosing effective altruism over affective altruism in their charitable work: evidence-based high-yield projects over preening photo ops. It would look to Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee, and Raj Chetty for intellectual heft and inspiration.

It would also involve cultivating artistic projects that strive for transcendent excellence over fashionableness. It would look to Roger Scruton, Simon Schama, and Kanye West for inspiration.

Is any of this remotely likely? Who knows. The centrality of mental health to some of Harry’s projects is a promising sign. The tools for individuals to captain their own souls and seek static over kinetic pleasures are essential to wellbeing properly understood and overcoming the doom loop of an addiction-based market. Self-possessed individuals can make market signals themselves point to healthier demands and help raise society to the plane of a virtuous cycle.

If the Sussexes can uncouple high status from high price, untether fact from fashion, and make quality, tasteful design more widely discernible and attainable, they will have launched a project deserving of the word noble.

Currently they are a skunk works for the British Royal Family as a whole. If they succeed, the Royal Family can co-opt their success. We will know this has come to pass if the Empire ‘likes’ them back.

The Transience of Memory: Let’s Remember Where We Parked

In a win for innovation, Eric Schmidt apparently helped the U.S. Air Force apply software to mid-air refueling. The New York Times reports:

At an Air Force facility in Qatar in 2016, Mr. Schmidt visited officers who scheduled flight paths for the tankers that refueled planes. They used a white board and dry-erase markers to set the schedule, taking eight hours to complete the task.

Mr. Schmidt said he recalled thinking, “Really? This is how you run the air war?” Afterward, he and others at the Defense Department worked with the tech company Pivotal to ship software to the officers.

This sounds like a welcome efficiency gain. I just hope we remember how to use the white boards. I would bet there is accumulated knowledge and cognitive skill embodied in the expert flight path whiteboarders that we can’t fully understand or replicate without either carefully recording the current state of knowledge or having to retrace over time the same slow path by which the knowledge evolved in the first place.

Don’t underestimate our incapacity to recall how to perform complex and essential processes following a periodic lapse in use. There was a period when we lost the knack for manufacturing a key ingredient in nuclear warheads. At one point, there were fears we lost the capacity to manufacture F-22s. While those fears proved unfounded when an audit uncovered the necessary tooling, the concern itself proves the difficulty of regaining embodied knowledge that goes missing.

This is where Schumpeter meets Hayek. Creative destruction can birth a better way, but it also means that gradually-accumulated and embedded knowledge will be razed.

Even elephants can go missing from the historical record. In the jaws of the COVID-19 pandemic, historians and economists ponder how much civilization forgot about the 1918 flu, not to mention the 1957 flu, not to mention our 2006 preparations for pandemic flu.

Given the difficulty of holding onto low-frequency, high-amplitude knowledge, one might expect competent civilizations to produce and then hold sacred value-laden documents, such as constitutions, religious texts, and commandments.