Many of the problems that the members of the European Union are expressing with their constitution are in matter of fact problems with they perceive to be the ‘one size fits all’ idea of policies. The French are loudest in expressing their objections and looking at the history of the evolution of the nation state, perhaps they have a point. It took millennia for the idea of the Nation State to evolve into any recognizable shape. So to expect a huge bloc of countries to continue to integrate without noticeable hiccups would be naive.
The idea of the modern state as it can still be seen in Europe and the US was in matter of fact invented by a Frenchman. Political philosopher Jean Bodin in his 1576 book Six Livres de la Republique describes a republic as “a just government of several households and of what they hold in common, with the power of sovereignty”. His description and further treatment of the subject confirms the great importance the concept ‘authority’ and ‘sovereign rule’ has had in our formative ideas of statehood. Bodin is a very contradicting scholar. He is said to have been both the proponent of an overly powerful ruling class -absolute monarchy- as well as an advocate for limiting the power of this sovereign to the doorstep of every household.
He was the first to hit home the notion of sovereignty as a limited entity when he at the time of writing referred to mostly feudal and monarchic systems elsewhere in the world as simply horrific. Slave master relations in countries like Russia, Turkey and Iran at the time abhorred the Europeans. These countries had a sovereign who was more or less full master of the “bodies and goods” of his subjects. The people of Europe would have not put up with such a regime that took for granted certain limits to the state’s authority, according to Bodin. On the other hand, Bodin was accused of being a proponent of unlimited rule. True enough, Bodin extolled in extravagant terms the prerogatives of sovereignty; but these did not include the power to impose new taxes. ‘Natural law’ forbade this, he said.
Bodin cites Seneca to the effect that `to Kings appertains the power over all, but property belongs to individuals'” Bodin is said to have been very impressed with Europe’s eldest form of democracy, embodied in the ancient democratic ceremony of the Carantanians (currently in Austria), which he said “had no parallel throughout the world.” And perhaps he was right; The Slovene community in Carantania was one of the few at the time to not have slaves. Stretching from the river Elbe to the Adriatic Sea, its centre was at Gosposvetsko Polje near Krnski Grad which is in present-day Austrian Carinthia.
The free Carantania became infamous for resisting all foreign domination for almost one hundred years, which in this area of tribal Europe was also quite impressive. Besides leaving a lasting imprint on the historical memory, their example has inspired European countries to date as well as the US, where Thomas Jefferson took inspiration from the Six Livres in his constitutional work. The Carantanians’ celebratory democratic institution, the installation of a Slovene duke persisted down to the year 1414 was quite a remarkable piece of culture even at the time. It took place during a general assembly of all free Carantanian Slavs, by voting. A duke would be installed with at a place called Knezji Kamen (the Prince’s Stone) with special rites by a peasant, the embodiment of the people, on whose behalf he invested the duke with power and authority. Just imagine the scene.
The prince had to make a solemn pledge in public to be fair and just at all times, to defend Carantania bravely against all enemies, to do everything possible to safeguard peace, and to help the poor. The ceremony at the time was quite unique and attracted the attention of the humanist Aeneas Piccolomini, Pope Pius II, who travelled through Slovene lands, to say that the installation ceremony “was second to none.”
This Robin Hood type democracy is known to have flourished centuries before the adoption of the Magna Carta in 1215, which is widely regarded as the cornerstone of contemporary western democracies.
This is not to say that Bodin advocated the Carantanian ideas, yet he was convinced though that human structures as they had formed did show that they were quite detached from the balance of nature. Primitive tribal democracies of the Carantanian time might not at all have been compatible either with the statehood that Bodin describes. “In order to function as viable members of a medieval polity, states had to possess permanent social structures. First of all, a state had to be identified with a definite geographical space, a stretch of land whose physical features could imprint themselves
on the collective psyche. Such a rooting in a particular territory could not be brought about except by centralized political power which could define the territory’s limits and organize their defense. This demanded, in turn, the development of a social hierarchy in which a ruler and a class of nobles shared the burdens of power and were able to interact with their social counterparts in other states. The definition of spheres of authority and the stabilization of administrative practices called for the adoption of definite legal procedures for whose formulation a supratribal literary language was needed,” describes Alexander M. Schenker, a Yale University scholar in his ‘An introduction to Slavic Philology”
He then goes on to illustrate that the void here was filled up by the literate clergy. Those days, the church pretty much assumed political powers as a natural extension to its religious teachings. Bodin, who lived at the time that Huguenots and Catholics were involved in religious strife, advocated more secular, professionalised political rule that superseded church domination.
“Cadres of learned, or at least literate, people had to be developed in order to use this language in the course of performing the necessary administrative functions. Hence the need for Christianity with its monastic tradition of learning, with its schools where Latin or Church Slavonic were taught, with its ability to replace tribal particularism with its own universalist message. To initiate a social revolution of these dimensions, strong leadership and permanent political institutions had to emerge,” Schenker writes. It took some European countries millennia before the favorable conditions for the establishment of a nation state arose with a central element here often the opposition of pagans toward ruling by a clergy elite.
Bodin’s thinking on political issues was quite similar to that of thinkers of his generation, including Montaigne, Pasquier and Le Roy. These thinkers, like Bodin no longer believed that human laws and society very closely reflected the immutable principles of the divine and natural orders, but instead argued that human affairs were generally detached from these orders and were characterized by a high degree of particularity, variability and mutability. However, Bodin did say that the human political order could not subsist without some divine and natural foundation. His works are attempts to identify a new universal foundation for human laws and society, anchored in the divine and natural orders and are highly regarded in their pioneering the nation state until today.
Bodin’s treatment of the nation state appears to be motivated by his perception that the limitations of power needed to be made clear. In arguing the case for absolute monarchy, he did speak out against abusive taxation policies in outside countries, but underlined the need for a well ordered society which did away with the remaining remnants of feudalism. He saw France’s defense as neccessitating collective payment of soldiers to defend the country against a Spanish army, which was financed by silver from the New World. (This was the first standing army since the Romans’ more than a thousand years earlier.)
Incidentally, this was also the occasion on which France established a mercenary economy; it started to create revenues by keeping imports low while pushing exports and subsidizing them. Few political thinkers have been regarded to be at once as innovative and as self- contradictory as Jean Bodin, a statement that would not be totally out of line describing Europe of today. A number of his ideas were developed in the seventeenth century, in Germany, the Netherlands and England. They either reconciled apparent contradictions within his thought or exploited their ambiguity for political advantage.
It took 300 years–the time until the unification of Germany and Italy in the 19th century–before Bodin’s description of the nation-state came to dominate Europe. But his mercantilism was adopted almost immediately by every European government, large or small. It remained the reigning philosophy until Adam Smith showed the absurdity of believing (as mercantilism does) that a nation can get rich by robbing its neighbors.
Yet twenty-five years after Smith, mercantilism was still the doctrine that underlay America’s first and most important work in political theory; The Report on Manufacturers (1791) by Alexander Hamilton. And almost a century later, in the second half of the 19th century, Bismarck based the new German Empire on Bodin’s mercantilism as adapted to Europe by Hamilton’s great German admirer, Friedrich List, in his 1841 book, The National System of Political Economy. However discredited as economic theory, mercantilism, not Adam Smith’s free trade, thus became the policy and practice of governments virtually everywhere (except for one century in the UK).
The Spanish, predictably, never took a liking to Bodin. Their Counter-Reformation ideas disparaged Bodin as a politico, second only to Machiavelli in his alleged advocacy of the subordination of religion to political ends. By contrast, Italy during its Counter-Reformation heydays, did adopt some of his ideas but thinkers in this country had difficulties with his theory of sovereignty. But Bodin has left his strongest imprint on politics in France. Hence, some political commentators regret today’s Non in France and say that the French for all the reasons they may have to do away with the European ideals they themselves are among the strongest proponents for, is simply a denial of their own origins. “A continental Constitution that ensures basic human rights and dignities seems to be as much a French legacy as anyone else’s. […] we are awash in examples of people who lightly toss off their hard- earned heritage”, writes Dawn Miller, an editorial writer of WVGazette, who fails to understand the Non camp, after spending 11 days in a Parisian neighborhood.
Others have issued warnings of doom if the technocrats of Brussels continue to ride roughshod over the clearly expressed aspirations of member states, referring to recent challenges to democratic ideals that are steeped in plenty historic precedent. “There have been enough hints by the electorates of various member states in a sufficiently large number of national elections to give Brussels a sense of what needs to be done. Each time, election results that have reflected the rise of populist, anti-EU parties (such as occurred in France’s last Presidential election) have been dismissed as one-off aberrations”, writes Marshall Auerback in his international perspective on Prudentbear.com He says that as a consequence, the underlying political message is ignored and that this is storing up more trouble for the future. That is why we already see a vacuum in Brussel which is likely to only get more extensive as time goes along and no change is made in operating procedures.
Angelique van Engelen is a freelance writer based in the Netherlands, writing for http://www.contentClix.com. She writes political reports, news, features, web content brochures and research. Contact her for a free quote: Angeliqueve@contentclix.com.