The definitive triumph of capitalism, in terms of the organization of economies, with its promise of prosperity and progress, allowed the large European bourgeoisie, with the support of the traditional agrarian aristocracy, to take political control of state institutions. By 1870, as historian Eric Hobsbawm (The Age of Capitalism) explains, the dominant social powers, facing an economic depression, decided they could live with the bother of parliamentary institutions and the popular vote. Left behind was the obsessive policy, in place since the restoration of autocratic regimes in 1815 as a result of Napoleon’s defeat, of opposing all liberal initiatives, regardless of where they came from. The economic powers began to see the liberal reforms (establishing parliaments and the vote) as a way of bringing the state up to date with the times, without necessarily endangering the powers and privileges of the economically dominant classes. At the same time, they ensured that the bourgeoisie would have more formal participation in state policies through control of the parliaments. In the end, it was the bourgeoisie that was responsible for prosperity, having created industrial activity with their long-distance trade. The traditional agrarian world that was the foundation of the aristocratic structure was a social anachronism to this new bourgeois sensibility, and although it was considered an essential political ally for controlling revolutionary social movements, its political value declined little by little until its importance was only symbolic, as a tradition of the national culture.

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. Acceptance of the political imperative of parliaments and suffrage, despite the limitations on them, was an important step in the institutional evolution of Enlightenment values. Since the 1870s, therefore, the Western constitutional regimes have been closely tied to parliaments and the vote. Today it is impossible to claim to be following democratic and humanistic values without the legitimization of the presence of parliamentary institutions, despite the fact that the new bourgeois class has also displayed huge contradictions and internal divisions in promoting constitutional values while simultaneously continuing practices of accumulating wealth through the exploitation of “lower classes” and maintaining a social system based on discrimination and inequality. Recall that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (the creators of the most powerful social criticism of the historical capitalist structures) were part of the German bourgeois classes that had benefited from the capitalist surge of the first industrial revolution, although they sought political asylum in Britain. Despite the internal divisions and the growth of opposing political movements, the modern capitalist constitutional state, with parliaments validated by popular vote, is firmly rooted in the dominant political thinking and the organization of Western states.

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

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