¿Who killed the Commander?
Fuenteovejuna, sir.

–Lope de Vega

The democratic system of government is a Western creation of the modern era that arose in opposition and as an alternative to the monarchic autocratic regimes that based their legitimacy on the natural authority of a king. This authority came from God and was validated by tradition, the privileged classes and the church. In the monarchic systems before democracy, the king not only exercised all political power, that is, sovereignty (all the functions of the government were done in the name of the king), but he also symbolically represented the people he governed. As head of state in a government her personified, the power of the king (or the prince, to use the generic term) was considered an absolute authority that he exercised with the direct support of, and for the benefit of, powerful factions. As a complement to monarchical power, the churches (Catholic and Protestant) played a determining role in setting moral and hierarchical values while markedly influencing cultural institutions and social conventions.

The political structure of the monarchical system was built on the two pillars of the king and the church, one lay and one spiritual. But by the 17th and 18th centuries, the church had lost ground as an autonomous and universal power because of the social movements related first to the Protestant Reformation and later to the development of a literate lay culture. The church maintained real social power, however, based on the continuity of its spiritual role and its moral legitimacy, though it was now subordinate to the authority of the monarch as the power of the absolute monarchies rose rapidly. This historical process became even more evident when international law recognized (in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648) that subjects’ religion would be determined by the faith adopted by their prince. If the prince declared himself Protestant, his subjects would also be Protestant, and if he decided to be Catholic, all of his kingdom would also have to be Catholic. In the event a prince conquered (or was ceded) a territory where a different religion from his own was dominant, the subjects would have to convert to the religion of their new ruler. This way, churches retained their influence in European kingdoms during the era of consolidation of the absolutist monarchies. It is therefore not surprising that the main advisors to the great kings of France in those times, Mazarino and Richelieu, were also cardinals in the Catholic Church. But when King Louis XIV made his famous statement L’Etat c’est moi (I am the state), meaning that there was no political power in the state outside of the monarch (the sovereign) — not the church, not the nobility, not the people, nor the law —, the definitive subordination of the church to the state was confirmed.

In France, where the institutional leadership of learned Western culture lived at that time, there was no such thing as citizens. The population consisted of subjects of the king and when he conquered a new territory or acquired it through a treaty or a dynastic link (through marriage), its inhabitants automatically became his subjects, assuming (in addition to his religion) the corresponding obligations of loyalty and personal obedience, just like the inhabitants of the ancestral territory. There were no nations, just kingdoms, and borders were set by the territory over which the prince exercised dynastic authority, regardless of the geographical, cultural, linguistic, and ethnic diversity. The concept of a homogenous nation consisting of a political unit in a sovereign nation state did not yet exist.

Both in theory and in political practice (under secular and religious norms), however, the prevailing idea was that the prince exercised authority for the benefit of his subjects. This meant that the subjects could depose the monarch (or his local representative) under special circumstances: when he failed to meet his obligation to protect the security and interests of the king (and therefore of the subjects), for abuse of power, and when his actions disregarded the institutions, laws and traditions of the community. Some cases were taken to the extreme of justifying the assassination of the monarch on moral grounds. Although in theory the monarch exercised political power for the benefit of the subjects, authoritarianism presumed that the population would not be active in the political arena but would instead always be limited to passively accepting the policies created and executed by a paternal state personified by the figure of the king. In traditional monarchies, therefore, there were no institutions representing the public, although in some territories community activism was authorized for local affairs, based on autonomic ancestral traditions (such as was the case of the Basque jurisdictions in Spain). The powers of the princes, the church and the aristocracy, however, created hegemonic institutions of political power to protect the permanency of their class privileges, in exchange for loyalty to the prince.

Although killing the king was a radical step that was used only in exceptional cases during the monarchic era, the fact that it was seen in political theory as a right of the governed constitutes a moral and philosophical tradition that was used later in the modern world to promote revolutionary movements aimed at reducing the power of the princes and creating instead a place for civic political representation. The French Revolution was particularly important symbolically because of the act of killing King Louis XVI at the guillotine. New republican and parliamentary systems sought to guarantee the natural rights of citizens (and to privilege the new economic classes, the bourgeoisie) and incorporate practices such as representation and direct participation, including the ability to question public officials. The authoritarian dictate of L’Etat c’est moi had given way forever to a new republican democratic concept of a constitutional nation state under which the state’s law was above the political power of the government officials of the moment, no matter who they were.

Author: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 11, 2014.

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