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The perennial problem of succession

The perennial problem of succession [long read]

These days it is perhaps difficult to put oneself emphatically into a world in which the dynastic realm appeared for most men as the only imaginable ‘political’ system”, writes Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities, his seminal book on the origins of modern nationalism. But this was the world a large majority of all Europeans lived in before the French Revolution and in many cases up until the First World War.

In this world, the monarch was normally a distant figure for the large majority of all men and women in society. But whether the monarch was young or old, in good health or ailing, lived or died mattered for both the grand and mighty and for the common man. Between AD 1000 and 1800, political stability in Europe revolved around what my co-authors, Andrej Kokkonen and Anders Sundell of Gothenburg University, and I have termed ”the politics of succession”. The death of monarchs created moments of insecurity and instability, which only came to an end when a new monarch had established him- or (very rarely) herself on the throne. 

Successions were violent moments, marked by both civil war and international war (the numerous “wars of succession” in European history). Monarchs were sometimes deposed in anticipation of this, and new monarchs were regularly forced to call and consult parliaments to solidify their position. Successions and interregnums were dangerous periods where the powerful could lose everything, depending on who would take the throne, and where foreign powers might be tempted to intervene to back their candidate for the throne or, in rare occasions, to win it for themselves. Likewise, when a child came to the throne and was unable to govern in his right, the result was often political instability.

A good example is the death of King John Lackland in 1216 and the difficult circumstances faced by his successor, the nine-year-old Henry III, or rather his regency, dominated by the septuagenarian William Marshal, popularly known as the greatest knight of his age. On behalf of young Henry, the Marshal had to fight a civil war, which saw an aborted attempt by the French crown prince Louis (later Louis VIII of France) to take the English throne, and Henry’s regency had to give a string of political concessions, including recurrent reconfirmations of Magna Carta.

In a world of high mortality where even men in their prime would regularly die from what we today would consider trivial diseases, the spectre of succession haunted European states and made long-term investments in administrative and political institutions difficult. History shows that even great realms can make or break depending on how they dealt with the perennial problem of succession. The mighty empires established by Alexander the GreatGenghis Khan, and Charlemagne all fell apart as a result of succession conflicts, in Alexander’s case between his generals, in the cases of Genghis Khan and Charlemagne between their grandsons. Only by developing institutions that regulate the politics of succession is it possible for a realm to have staying power and systematically augment its administrative and military institutions.

Solving the problem of succession: introducing primogeniture

Looking at the different solutions that were tried out in medieval and early modern Europe, the results are striking: the introduction of primogeniture (eldest-son-taking-the-throne) hugely increased the odds that realms would be able to cope with succession conflicts. Primogeniture originated in what is today France and Northern Spain around AD 1000 and it gradually spread to most of Western and Central Europe.

The notion that the eldest son takes the bulk of the inheritance has played such an important role in European history that many believe it is the historical normal. Recently, my fourteen-year-old son Erik seemed to assume he would one day inherit my father’s seaside cottage because he is the eldest son of an eldest son (never mind his two younger brothers, or my two younger siblings). But when it arose around AD 1000, the idea of disinheriting all family members save one was revolutionary. It was only possible because the Catholic Church had upended the traditional heirship policies and paved the way for the monogamist marriage and the nuclear family. Strict rules about legitimacy were simply a requirement for getting primogeniture to work. But once it worked, it was to have long-term consequences for European state-building.

Primogeniture replaced succession orders such as elective monarchy and agnatic seniority (eldest-brother-taking-the-throne) which caused much more instability. This calmed the troubled waters of succession, the most famous example being the 300 years of smooth and uninterrupted father-to-son successions among the French Capetians, until they died out in the direct male line in 1328.

The main virtue of primogeniture was that it addressed the catch-22 of succession: the need to, on the one hand, assure elites that the regime will be prolonged into the future and, on the other hand, avoid nurturing a dangerous rival in the form of a designated crown prince. Queen Elizabeth I of England is but one of many sovereigns who have hesitated to name a successor for fear that it could come back to haunt her. As she once told the Scottish ambassador: “I know the inconstancy of the people of England, how they ever mislike the present government and have their eyes fixed upon the person who is next to succeed.” But in the context of primogeniture, monarchs would—insofar as they were able to beget a son (or daughter where women could inherit, as in the case of Elizabeth herself) —produce automatic heirs who were by definition a generation younger and could therefore better afford to wait their turn than, say, a younger brother.

Primogeniture monarchies thereby succeeded in creating a new political theory of monarchy: the idea that while individual monarchs might die, the Monarch would live forever, symbolized in some places by the paradoxical cry, “the king is dead long live the king”. This innovation did away with the dangerous interregnum we find in succession orders such as elective monarchy and it paved the way for the spectacular state-building process that centuries later culminated in territorial states such as England and France, or our own native Denmark and Sweden. This happened despite the fact that primogeniture had one important Achilles Heel: it regularly produced heirs who were underage when coming to the throne. As historian Christopher Tyerman observes, “In monarchies where an element of hereditary succession, especially primogeniture, had become established, minorities were inevitable, paradoxical destabilizing tributes to greater dynastic stability, the right of the genetic heir overcoming the practical need for leadership.”

These minorities almost invariably created political instability but even this did not undermine the competitive edge of primogeniture. As the German-American historian Ernst Kantorowicz pointed out in his 1957 classic, The King’s Two Bodies, the result of primogeniture was the idea of an immortal royal body politic, distinct from the body natural of the individual king. According to Kantorowicz, this doctrine was ultimately derived from Christian theological thought; the corpus mysticum of the realm was a reflection or even an outgrowth of the corpus mysticum of the Church

The problem of succession in today’s authoritarian regimes

However, despite all the differences in context, the core problem of medieval succession politics finds echoes in the contemporary world. In today’s authoritarian regimes, the challenge is the same as in Europe’s past: to groom a successor who can placate the elites without risking that this successor will hasten the power transfer via a coup. Faced with this choice between a rock and a hard place, most contemporary authoritarian rulers choose not to groom a successor for fear of the Crown Prince Problem. One of the consequences is that many dictatorships do not outlive the death of their first leader. Successions are thus still dangerous periods in undemocratic states, where civil war is a real risk, and where the political elites fear being sidelined by whoever comes out on top in the succession conflict. A looming succession therefore often creates instability. Take the most important non-democratic state today: who is to eventually replace Xi Jinping, and how can this be done without creating chaos, now that the self-assured Chinese general secretary has done away with the rotation principle established by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s? 

In many authoritarian regimes, rulers have tried to ape hereditary monarchy by grooming the eldest son for power. But as presidents such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi in Algeria learned at their peril, it is difficult to do this in a context where the dynastic realm is no longer the natural political system. To return to Benedict Anderson: “in fundamental ways ‘serious’ monarchy lies transverse to all modern conceptions of political life.” And even in today’s few remaining monarchies, successions are often high risk periods, especially where the rules governing it are vague. For instance, what will happen in Saudi Arabia when King Salman dies? Will his brutal and mercurial son, Mohammed bin Salman, be able to take the throne as he plans or will disgruntled members of the Saudi Royal family rise and seek to sideline him?

How does representative democracy compare with hereditary monarchy in the problem of succession?

All of this brings us to the great modern-day alternative, representative democracy. How does it fare in comparison when it comes to power transfers and political stability? Interestingly, this regime form—unknown to Europeans in the period we analyze in The Politics of Succession—can be cast as a solution to the problem of succession. At its core, representative democracy is a recipe for recurrent and peaceful power transfers, via elections. This was the great insight of the Austrian economist Joseph A. Schumpeter’s minimalist theory of democracy, presented in the book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. To quote one of his pithy sentences: “The principle of democracy then merely means that the reins of government should be handed to those who command more support than do any of the competing individuals or teams.” This might not sound especially impressive. But as another Austrian, the philosopher Karl Popper, has emphasized, “There are in fact only two forms of state: those in which it is possible to get rid of a government without bloodshed, and those in which this is not possible…Usually the first form is called ‘democracy’ and the second ‘dictatorship’ or ‘tyranny’.”

This was starkly illustrated in the United States in the months after the presidential election in November 2020. Breaking a venerable tradition of US politics, the loser, Donald Trump, refused to concede. The result was a democratic succession conflict, where Trump, as the incumbent, tried to leverage public opinion, his party, and the presidential administration to get the result in a series of crucial “Swing States” overturned. However, the US democratic institutions stood firm—from courts of law to the top officials at the Department of Justice to the local Republican officials overseeing the election—and at the end of the day, Trump had to vacate the White House. To be sure, this only happened after months of drama, climaxing in the shocking storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters on 6 January 2021. But in other political systems, where no similar guardrails exist, a conflict like this would probably have been settled by raw violence.

If primogeniture is the second-best solution of the perennial problem of succession, modern representative democracy is thus arguably the best! That this is in fact the major contribution of democracy to modern civilization is often forgotten today because many have a hard time viewing democracy in such as mundane way, instead expecting it to solve all sorts of other problems. As our book shows, history serves to remind us of this brute and simple fact.

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