The modern parliamentary institution, considered under democratic principles to be an essential institution for the nation state, is the culmination of a long and eventful process of historical transformation that originated in the Middle Ages, when the absence of a centralized state authority (after the disintegration of the Roman Empire in the Western world) required individuals and local communities to seek protection (security) from a lord. Thus arose a system of personal ties based on reciprocal obligations, called vassalage, in which the lord provided personal security and territorial stability in exchange for loyalty and personal services, especially military service and the payment of tributes. The vassal, in exchange for protection, had to serve in the lord’s army when required, and was obligated to pay part of his income in the form of money, products or labor. The lords, in turn, were subordinate to other more powerful lords (they were vassals themselves), and this created a hierarchical chain of vassalage that extended throughout all of the European kingdoms. At the top of this chain was a prince (first among equals), usually called the king or emperor.
The vassalage relationship, as would be expected, was a source of wealth and privilege for the aristocracy (lords), was sanctioned by the church (in the name of God) and came to be the most ubiquitous, powerful and lasting institution of the Middle Ages. Not only was vassalage a lifelong, unbreakable tie, but it was also obligatorily inherited by descendants of both the lords and the vassals, under the traditional rules of inheritance.
The political importance of this institution was that while the vassal delegated political powers to his lord, this delegation was not absolute and was predicated on the lord’s obligation to his vassal. In theoretical terms, the relationship was voluntary when it originated and was based on a personal oath by both parties. The lord was obligated to protect the interests, security and wellbeing of his vassals. Therefore, the political authority of the lord (including that of the king) in the framework of the vassalage relationship was not unlimited because it was forged from contractual obligations, sanctioned by morals and the law. It is not surprising that later, when powerful monarchies (called the absolute monarchies) established centralized and bureaucratized administrations in their kingdoms, usurping local powers and traditional aristocrats, political resistance arose and sometimes resulted in assassinations of kings, as happened in Britain in the middle 17th century. These political movements justified their seditious actions on the tradition of the king’s moral and legal obligations to those he governed, as established by the medieval ties of vassalage. While the king claimed his sovereign power came from God, the rebels insisted that his legitimacy as ruler was based on his ties to the community.
Feudalism, as this medieval system of vassalage relationships was called, was sometimes complicated by circumstances that created a crisis in the interpretation of the hierarchical relationships. For example, in the middle of the 6th century, William, Duke of Normandy (and vassal to the king of France) accepted an oath of loyalty from Harold, a Saxon nobleman in England who had joined William in a war between the Normans and the neighboring Bretons. Shortly thereafter, Harold was designated king of England by the lords of the Saxon kingdom (the previous king died without heirs) and believed that his loyalty to William, a mere duke, was invalidated by his ascension to the English throne, a higher place in the vassalage chain of hierarchy. William, however, felt that Harold had violated his oath of vassalage, which was not only a political crime but was also considered a sin before God, and in retaliation he organized an invasion of England in 1066. After killing Harold in the Battle of Hastings, William was crowned king of England. This event would have enormous consequences, both political and cultural, in the history of England.
As Duke of Normandy, William owed loyalty to the king of France, but as king of England his power was autonomous. Because the vassalage relationship was personal and not territorial, under the vassalage system all of William’s Norman vassals became vassals of the king of England. Thus began an era of Norman hegemony in England and jurisdictional conflicts that culminated, several centuries later, in the Hundred Years War between France and England.
Another emblematic example is the story told by the Poem of El Cid, which takes place in Castilla (Spain) in the 18th century and tells of a Castilian nobleman (a feudal lord) at the service of King Alfonso. One of the main themes of the poem is the virtue of the vassalage relationship and its importance for the community’s wellbeing. In this case, the king is the one who is morally wrong in his relationship with el Cid Campeador, his vassal, putting his life at risk and causing a distance between them. The human, family and political consequences the poem relates are the tragic results of the king’s failure to meet his obligations to his vassal. The poem summarizes the tragedy with a lament about King Alfonso’s transgression, while reaffirming the virtues of el Cid: “what a good vassal, if only the lord had been good.”
What is important about these two anecdotes in the context of the topic of the origins of the parliamentary tradition is that in the Western world, long before the modern era, there was a constant concern about the horizontal and vertical distribution of political power, its rules and the consequences of its misuse or abuse. Western literary and philosophical thought is full of reflections on these issues. The recurring argument, regardless of ideological, cultural, and circumstantial variations, is that all political authorities should be restrained by institutions that clearly establish the reciprocal obligations and responsibilities of rulers and the governed. Social order and wellbeing depend on the political authority being exercised within a framework of these rules and not in an arbitrary or abusive (autocratic) way.
Therefore, even in times of enormous insecurity and instability, the feudal lords (the aristocracy) that made up the chains of aristocratic power while autonomously ruling their own territories, opened the way for political participation within their jurisdictions by representatives of their subjects, as a form of deference to the will of the governed. At the same time, they established habits and means for sharing decision-making in the kingdom with the monarch, under the concept of the ties of reciprocal obligations. The most common of these institutions was the royal council or advisers, created by the monarchs and the higher ranking lords, and including representatives of the church. In Spain, for example, royal councils were organized to administer the kingdoms of Castilla and Aragon, and others to attend to the issues of overseas possessions, called the Indies Council. These bodies discussed the kingdom’s issues and made related decisions. The Indies Council became directly involved in issues in Puerto Rico, including the articulation of public policies (including writing laws and statutes) and recommending candidates to govern the island territory.
By the 16th century in Britain, this institution had evolved into the Parliament, an institution consisting of aristocrats and church leaders (with a certain level of participation by the business sector) that shared with the king the decisions on policies, laws and benefits.
The development of centralized administrative and territorial control by monarchies led to a historical situation of permanent tension between the aristocrats and the monarchs, occasionally resulting in dramatic conflicts. When competent and effective kings ruled and historical circumstances favored the centralization of authority, the power of the monarchs grew at the expense of the noblemen. Such was the case in Spain in the late 15th century, when the Catholic kings consolidated the monarchies of Castilla and Aragon, expelling the Moors from the peninsula and beginning the colonization of the New World. On the other hand, when weak and inept monarchs ruled, as was the case of King John in England in the early 13th century, the lords extracted autonomous powers (feudal privileges) at the expense of the king’s authority. The Magna Carta that King John was forced by the British lords to sign in 1225, and is still celebrated today as one of the foundational documents of the parliamentary tradition, is nothing more than a codification in law of the medieval feudal privileges that the monarch, as the first among equals, was obligated to respect.
In a way, it can be said that the transition from the Middle Ages to modern times, in terms of politics, was irreversibly marked by the consolidation of monarchic power at the expense of feudal privileges. This process culminated in the great, absolute and bureaucratized monarchies, particularly in France and England in the 17th and 18th centuries. It should be noted, however, that during this era of monarchic consolidation there were opposing movements that arose with renewed energy and used the medieval traditions and the parliamentary principle of regional representation as an ideological weapon against royal absolutism. In Britain, for example, the Parliament was the political institution that in the middle of the 17th century organized the dismantling of the absolute monarchy (including the killings of Kings Charles II and James I), replacing it with a constitutional monarchy that established the basis for the British democratic state of the modern era. And later, at the end of the 18th century, the so-called Age of Enlightenment, the revolution established once and for all the indissoluble relationship between parliaments and the political freedom of citizens.
Despite medieval traditions with respect to relationships of reciprocal obligation between those who govern and those who are governed (including the habit of the privileged sectors of incorporating into political institutions their participation in state issues), the European political world of the 17th century was still deeply marked by authoritarian and autocratic ideology. The enormous power of the kings in the great absolutist monarchies, where they governed “by the grace of God,” and in alliance with the aristocracy and the church (and not through the will of the governed), was based on the idea that the rights of individuals and communities were not inalienable, but were the result of discretionary generosity by the state (the monarch). The community’s well being was synonymous with the royal will and social order depended on everyone obeying that will. According to the authoritarian thinking, to avoid the moral chaos that was their natural inclination, the subjects had to be subordinate to an authority capable of choosing between good and bad, between just and unjust. Therefore, the authoritarian tradition considered loyalty, obedience and docility to be the main political virtues of the subjects. There was no worse moral (and political) transgression than disobedience, dissidence and rebellion.
But the historical event that changed the scene was the French Revolution of 1789. It was a deeply radical mass movement that would change the world’s ideological configuration in terms of the social contract and the makeup of the modern state. One of its principles, representation and the separation of power, had been implemented in Britain with the rise of the Parliament as the main political institution. But it was the French Revolution that transformed Western political thought and granted the parliamentary institution the exclusive right to create laws of the state, under the norms of modern democracy.
This political revolution (and the British Industrial Revolution) laid the basis for the sensibility and ambition of the large European bourgeoisie, which believed that the rise of the liberal state was necessary to bring the state’s institutions up to date with the times and recognize, at the same time, the political power of the social class responsible for the prosperity that was being generated by the new industrial and trading activities. The traditional agrarian world on which the feudal (aristocratic) structure had been built was, in this new sensibility, a social anachronism. Backed by a lay culture that placed human rationality above religious authority and at the same time promoted the idea of individual autonomy, the large European bourgeoisie of the 18th century developed the concept of the citizen to replace the old figure of the royal subject as the political entity of the state.
Europe’s economic and social growth during the 17th and 18th centuries, although supported and promoted by the monarchs, was mainly generated by the large bourgeoisie, a new economic class based in the cities and free of the traditional restrictions of aristocratic tradition. Capable, with the support of the state, of conducting long-distance trade (overseas), this new bourgeoisie (a name that came from their ties with the city) was the engine of British constitutionalism and the organization of the first industrial revolution. This industrial development based on steam engine technology and metallurgy began the transformation of the world economic scene, especially in communications (land and sea), and helped encourage the French Revolution, the great political revolution of the era.
Historians have called the period between 1789 and 1848 the era of revolutions. During those years, a new way of organizing the state took hold in the Western mentality, a form based on democratic values. The Industrial Revolution in economic terms (with Britain as the epicenter) and the French Revolution in political terms, constituted a dual revolution that transformed Western institutions and went beyond Europe to influence the entire world.
During those years, a new political vocabulary arose, without which it is impossible to imagine the modern world: industry, factory, middle class, working class, proletariat, capitalism, socialism, citizen, railroad, liberal and conservative, nationality, engineering, sociology, scientist, crisis, statistics,utilitarianism and ideology, among others. Political and social revolutions proliferated and brought about representative parliamentary institutions. The independence movements in Latin America got their ideological fuel from this dual revolution and replaced the old Spanish continental empire with a new community of independent nations, from Mexico to Patagonia. And in each of them, creating liberal parliamentary institutions was considered essential.
Liberalism, in the context of the era, was synonymous with parliamentarianism. Spain, despite its long autocratic tradition, also felt the liberal revolution and the Cortes (the name given to the national parliament in Spain) was established. The creation of the Cortes included integrating representatives of all of the kingdom’s territories into the legislative body, including the colonies in the Americas. The representative from Puerto Rico who was designated (elected) to the Cortes in Cadiz in 1812 was Ramón Power y Giralt. It was the first time in more than three centuries of Spanish rule that Puerto Rico had some kind of political representation in the Spanish government.
It was not just the modern liberal state, with its parliaments and capitalist economies, that consolidated during those years. In the face of the results of economic exploitation and formal limits on institutions and democratic practices, there were also opposing social forces that would change the development of economic structures and the ways of organizing the state. In 1848, the year of revolutionary outbreaks throughout Europe, the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels was published as an analysis and criticism of the adverse social effects of the dual revolution of 1789-1848. Citing well-known Austrian-British historian Eric Hobsbawm, “the historic period which begins with the construction of the first factory system of the modern world in Lancashire and the French Revolution of 1789 ends with the construction of its first railway network and the publication of the Communist Manifesto.”
It should be noted, however, that the triumph of this dual revolution, between 1789 and 1848, represented limited democratic change. More than freedom, equality and brotherhood, it was a revolution of the middle class, the liberal bourgeoisie. During those decades, for example, new democratic regimes did not adopt the principle of universal suffrage, but rather restricted the right to vote to men who owned property. The first parliaments, therefore, did not provide universal representation, but became organs representing the middle class and its political values and interests. The same occurred in Puerto Rico with the election of Ramón Power.
Change was also limited in the economy. The first industrial revolution truly marked the development of industrial capitalism. More than industrial development, it was the development of industrial capitalism that was backed up by state policies. The organization of a world market by a private business class was driven by the active and important support of the state, based on the idea that promoting private profit was the foundation of national prosperity and, therefore, should guide state policy. Hobsbawm concluded that by 1848″nothing stood in the way of western conquest of any territory that western governments or businessmen might find it to their advantage to occupy, just as nothing but time stood in the way of the progress of western capitalist enterprise.”
In other words, during those years the liberal modern state was consolidated with its two institutional foundations: a capitalist economy and a parliament limited in its range of representation. Additionally, in the face of the social results of economic exploitation and recognition of the limits on parliamentary practices and the contradictions in liberal systems, opposing political forces arose that would try to change the development of economic structures and the ways of organizing the state.
This opposition to capitalism and the liberal state generated political movements around the world that were able to expand, over time, the democracy of the states. The abolition of slavery in the 19th century (which in the United States was one of the causes of a bloody civil war) and universal suffrage implemented in the early decades of the 20th century represented emblematic moments in the development of modern democratic principles. Universal suffrage, in particular, would change the constitution of parliaments, making them entities representing the people and not just the privileged sectors.
Meanwhile, the socialist revolutions that sought to eliminate the discriminatory and oppressive practices of world capitalism also claimed a space in leading democracies. In reality, however, putting social values above the process of democratization had the negative effect of inserting autocratic structures into the revolutionary regimes. Empirical data lead us to conclude that by subordinating the representative function of parliaments (political rights) and individual rights to the imperatives of social justice had negative effects on the development of democratic institutions, promoting instead the continuity of autocratic practices. This was the case in the Soviet Union, which was the product of the first great social revolution against the injustices of capitalism and the limits of the liberal state.
The institutional political scene today is uncertain in terms of the health of democratic practices and the integrity of state institutions. The pressures of global capital have caused the state to pull back in terms of providing social services and regulating economic activity. Everywhere, governments are shrinking and the welfare state is being dismantled (which is hidden through redistribution of state assets to the corporate sector at the expense of social services). The effects of globalization on the configuration of post-industrial states, liberal ethics, democratic practices and the true power of parliaments as institutions that truly represent the popular will are issues of particular urgency in the world today, and have begun to generate extensive critical discussion in the world public arena.
Author: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 11, 2014.
This post is also available in: Español