The Light & the Dark: Volume XXX - DISPRIVILIGED GROUPS
Chapter III - THE DESTRUCTION OF UNITY
Part 7 - THE STATE
1. The state as a new phenomenon
I do not doubt that Luther was serious and
well-intentioned and that he sincerely wanted to totally reform the Church.
Yet, whatever good he may have done in individual people's lives, the overall
effect was confusion. This confusion became apparent not only in the
ecclesiastical domain and in theology and philosophy, but also in the field of
politics. Whatever there had been of European unity was lost. The dominant
political element now became the state, an entity the Middle Ages had not
known. Europe came to be divided in a number of political entities, called
states, without any cohesion between them.
An essential difference with the medieval
situation is that the state is an abstraction. It is a nobody, but not an
everybody, not the nation, not the people; it is also not the government
neither its bureaucracy. A most important characteristic of the state is that
it is sovereign: it recognizes no authority above it. A modern state has no
subjects, but citizens; every citizen is a political unity in his or her own
right. The state is an institution sui generis; it does not tolerate the
intervention of any other institution, least of all that of the Church. It has
the monopoly of violence.
In principle the state guarantees the
freedom of all its citizens, but by the same token severely restricts it: by
taxation, by compulsory military service, by imprisonment. States are
paternalistic, this because they possess the monopoly of power: for education,
social welfare, public transport, security every citizen is dependent on the
state. States are ideologically neutral; they exhibit no preference for any
Church or religion. Churches are `private organizations' in its view. Yet,
neutrality, or laicité, is also an ideology. A state does not want to
see its field intruded by any other ideology.
The modern state is coercive. Citizens must
open their cash books for the officials of the state; everyone is registered in
a great number of systems, which makes a strict control possible. The state is
violent: it freely uses its monopoly of violence. It does so above all in
modern warfare, sacrificing thousands of young lives in futile operations and
killing defenseless people in bombarded cities.
The overriding political concept of the
early modern era is the absolutist state. `Absolutism' is a dualistic concept,
because it excludes everything else. It is strict, severe and brutal.
Absolutism came in the wake of the Reformation. This had disconnected Europe
from the universalism of the Catholic medieval system; henceforth, the new
phenomenon `state' rests on a secular fundament. Freed of all dogmatic and
theological bonds, the state could become its own truth, that is, `absolutist'.
Friedrich Meinecke introduced the idea of Staatsräson.
This suggests that the state is a thinking being, because it has a `reason' of
its own. The politicians, who refer to it, explicitly or implicitly, are
referring to something suprapersonal. Staatsräson makes a politician do
things he would never do as a private person. That during the early modern age
the medieval organistic worldview was replaced by the mechanistic one also
applies to the state. It came to be viewed as something artificial, as a kind
of engine, obeying to inalterable laws. According to Enlightenment ideology the
state did not organically originate and grow; it is `made', constructed, just
as an engine. The great instance of this is Frederick the Great's Prussian
3. Absolutist regimes
Absolutism did not prosper in England and the Dutch
Republic, but found a fertile field in France, Prussia, Austria, Russia and
some other countries. The most conspicuous case of absolutism was
seventeenth-century France during Louis XIV's reign. Richelieu dismantled
Huguenot power in 1628 by the conquest of La Rochelle, the main Huguenot
bulwark. Mazarin built forth on the foundations laid by Richelieu, but was
stopped for a time by a great rebellion, known as the Fronde. This
rebellion was widespread; princes of the blood royal took part in it. The Fronde
was even master of the capital for some time.
It may be described as a dualistic conflict
between medieval constitutionalism and the new absolutism. It failed
dramatically, not only because of the lack of determined leadership and because
the Fronde was an amalgama of conflicting interests, but above all
because the cause of medieval constitutionalism was moribund. This paradigm had
had its time, but there was no new paradigm to replace it. The vacuum was
filled by determined power politicians.
The icon of French absolutism was King Louis
XIV. After Mazarin's death he did not appoint a new prime minister, but took
things into his own hands. As the Sun King he was the embodiment of the nation
and the state. He eliminated all other sources of power, as the Parliaments
(courts of justice) and the nobility. However, he was unable to gain complete
control of the Church and the clergy. His relation with the papacy remained a
source of conflict.
His policy, aimed at making France a unified
country, not only politically, but also ideologically, met with two obstacles,
Jansenism and the Huguenots (the French Calvinists). In 1661 it was decreed
that all French clerics, nuns and schoolmasters must sign an anti-Jansenist
formulary. There was much opposition against this. The main bulwark of the
Jansenists was the convent of Port-Royal near Paris. In 1709 it was forcefully
evacuated; the buildings were destroyed.
Whereas the Jansenists were members of the
Church, the Huguenots were not. Richelieu, Mazarin and Louis XIV combated them
with all their might. The king used vicious methods to cow them. The final blow
fell in 1685, when the Edict of Nantes was revoked. The Huguenots lost their
special status, because of which there was a massive exodus of Huguenots to
The king did not have a completely
undisturbed walkover with his policy. There were rebellions and armed risings,
drastically respressed, Yet, some of the opposition lingered on.
4. Enlightened despotism
Absolutist systems of the eighteenth century are called
`enlightened despotism'. The `enlightened despots' were Frederick II of
Prussia, Catherine II of Russia, Joseph II of Austria, and to a certain extent
the Empress Maria Theresia. They were called `enlightened', because they were
supposed to adhere to the principles and the ideology of the Enlightenment.
Actually, they were interested in warfare and in the aggrandizement of their
territories, rather than in the welfare of their peoples. When all is said and
done, they ruled as despots.
5. Nascent democracy
Despite the fact that so many regimes of the early
modern period were autocratic and repressive, this era was also that of nascent
democracy. In some countries there was a certain measure of freedom of
expression. The printing presses and publishing houses of the Dutch Republic
turned out great masses of reading material, some of it of a controversial
nature, which found its way through all Europe. There were also the coffee
houses, the favourite meeting places of the eighteenth-century intelligentsia,
where government policy could be discussed without too great a risk.
Theories of democracy were developed. Locke
started from the principle that originally people had concluded a social
contract, that gave them an inalienable right to have private possessions and
that of freedom of thought and worship. Montesquieu introduced the concept of
the trias politica, of the separation of the three political powers, the
legislative, the executive and the juridical. Their strict separation was meant
to prevent rulers to become allpowerful. The one who made the concept of the contrat
social really popular was Rousseau. He also introduced the idea of the
sovereignty of the people, of the citizens.
6. Early forms of democracy
There were some early forms of democracy. Rousseau, who
was Swiss, may have been inspired by the Swiss popular assemblies in which all
citizens could (and still can) express their opinion on questions of political
importance by means of voting.
In England a first step was the Magna
Carta of 1215, that curbed the king's plenipotentiary rights: no taxation
without parliamentary consent. A second step was the rule of habeas corpus
(1228): no imprisonment without the sentence of a judge.
Parliament as we know it dates from 1275:
each county sent not only knights, but also commoners to London. In later
centuries the institution of Parliament became evermore structured. The Bill of
Rights of 1689 confirmed that king and Parliament must manage public affairs
together. There was as yet no true democracy. There was voting for the members
of the House of Commons, but voting rights were extremely restricted.
In the Dutch Republic no voting existed,
except for the city councils, the members of which were elected by a restricted
electorate. The members of the Provincial Estates, mostly well-to-do bourgeois
citizens, were coopted. The Republic was ruled by an oligarchy, that of the
`regents'. This caused much discontent; even well-educated and wealthy citizens
had no political influence. They put their hopes on the House of Orange, but
these hopes were dashed, when Prince William V, hereditary stadtholder in all
seven provinces, firmly supported the ruling oligarchy. A movement of protest
originated, that of the so-called `Patriots', who claimed political influence.
This brought the Republic on the brink of civil war. The position of William V
was seriously threatened. Since his wife was a Prussian princess, King Frederick
William II put an end to the Patriotic movement in 1787.
Attempts to establish a form of democratic
government were more successful in the English colonies of America. In 1776 the
thirteen colonies on the east coast declared themselves independent. War with
England was the result. In 1783 London had to recognize the sovereignty of the
United States. In 1787 these gave themselves a constitution, the first written
constitution in the world, based on the sovereignty of the people. Suffrage was
introduced, but was far from being general. The US are a federation of states
(now fifty); the people of each state is also sovereign. All public officials,
members of schoolboards included, are chosen; the president too is chosen. Each
state, and the federation itself, has its representative body, the Congress,
the members of which are chosen. The principle of the separation of powers is
applied far more strictly in the US than anywhere in Europe.
7. European anarchy
The prevailing political situation of the early modern
era, and long afterwards, was one of pure anarchy. Europe was a conglomerate of
sovereign states, which jealously guarded their own interests, without any
attempt at true collaborations in the interest of all. Basically, this
situation was dualistic, because all states were hostile to each other. The
alliances they concluded were no more than temporary ad hoc
arrangements. The result was incessant warfare. The corollary of state
sovereignty is nationalism, the idea of `right or wrong, my country'.