Two Kinds of Democracy

This article was published back in 1992. It explores the theme later developed in A Common Law — the divided inheritance of modern democracy. It lays bare the origins of modern democracy, focusing on the contribution of Hugo Grotius as progenitor of classical liberal democracy. The alternative form of democracy, progressive or radical democracy, is seen as springing from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and, in line with the analysis of Alexis de Tocqueville, this form of democracy is seen as inheriting and maintaining the tradition of royal absolutism.

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Two Kinds of Democracy

An Inquiry into the Roots of the Modern Dilemma

Ruben Alvarado

© 1992 Ruben Alvarado

This edition published 2013 at

With the apparent triumph of free-market economic theory around the world, it would seem that the conclusion drawn by Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History and the Last Man contains a fundamental truth: liberal democracy has won the day, and, insofar as ideals are concerned, it is now not only the best choice, but the only choice, in the competition for the allegiance of nations the world over. Liberal democracy has replaced particular allegiances harbored by nations in isolation; more spectacularly, it has also replaced other universalist allegiances, chiefly Marxism. The dialectic underlying history, the class struggle over the redistribution of wealth, has been superseded. Capitalists and proletarians no longer comprise the neatly distinguishable classes necessary to the Marxist analysis of society, if they ever did. The peaceful coexistence of like-minded petit bourgeois has replaced the strident conflict brought by high-minded ideals.

It would be premature to accept such a verdict, however. A contradiction lies at the very heart of modern democracy itself which, if left unresolved, will preclude a peaceful conclusion to the conflicts underlying history, conflicts which extend far beyond the mere distribution of wealth. Nevertheless, the process which Fukuyama has highlighted – that of mankind’s arrival at a universal consensus concerning the common material good for man in this life – may be viewed as a necessary step towards the ultimate triumph of a wholistic universal peace, in time, on earth, in history. It will be the purpose of a series of articles in Symbiotica to elaborate upon the course towards this triumph. The basic contradiction underlying modern democracy needs first to be exposed, however, before further inquiry into this subject may be pursued.

The Triumph of Humanism

The transition to modern times is marked first and foremost by the transition from a confessional Christianity to a non-confessional humanism as the common ground among and between the nations of Europe. This non-confessional humanism comprises one of the pillars of modern democracy. Nevertheless, there are more strands making up the thread of historical transition than the simple one of Christianity to humanism, of faith to reason. The roots of modern democracy are more confused than many treatments of the subject would lead one to believe. At stake here is much more than a simple transition from something like “feudalism” to something like “democracy.” In fact, precisely because no simple transition ever existed from medieval to modern times, modern democracy came to embody the fundamental contradiction referred to above. An inquiry into the roots of democracy is necessary to understand this contradiction.

Such an inquiry can only be conducted by beginning at the place where we left off in the series, “Nationhood and the Future of Europe,” in which the development of a unique Christian conception of a universal social order was described. (1) The name which was given to this law-order was the jus gentium, “law of nations.”

This jus gentium developed by theocratic thinkers in the sixteenth century exerted a powerful influence upon the future development of the European law-order. Although there were many who subscribed to its tenets, equally there were many who did not. Those who did not held to fundamentally opposed presuppositions concerning sovereignty, the state, and constitutionalism. Ultimately their opposition was rooted in an antithetical view of human nature, the nature of the cosmos, and the nature of God.

The key concept in the theocratic jus gentium was the concept of sovereignty, a concept which only defined where authority lay, not what authority might do. Lawmaking power was not seen as something creative and inventive, but rather as the application of the general principles of the jus gentium to the particular time, place, and circumstance of the here and now. The jus gentium applied not only to relations between states but to the constitution of states themselves. It defined who rightfully possessed sovereignty – a people joined together in an associated universitas – and how that sovereignty was represented within the structure of the body politic. Within the sharply defined bounds set by the jus gentium, rulers could legislate according to the needs of particular situations.

The fundamentally decentralist version of the jus gentium was opposed by those who saw in the centralized state the true expression of national sovereignty. At bottom their understanding of sovereignty rested on a concept of necessity in the face of an ultimate chaos. The context in which this concept developed was fundamentally important. In the developing world of the European state system, the collapse of the medieval consensus and of a common mediator to which all parties could turn for arbitration led to free-for-all between political powers both within and between nations. As the focus of national sovereignty, monarchs were increasingly successful in their attempts not only to subdue autonomous powers within the borders of their nations, but also to defend their nations against the onslaughts and encroachments of foreign powers. As this power struggle continued, a developing world-view was crystallized which viewed existence itself as a struggle, a struggle for survival against an alien environment, which required the total allegiance and concentration of a nation’s powers under one head.

The world-view generated in this struggle promoted the development of a concept of sovereignty which reflected the aspirations and the need which were felt by those who adhered to it. The concept of sovereignty reflected the solution to the anxieties which such a world-view presented. It formed the lynchpin for a new order, erected upon new foundations.

Sovereignty Transformed

While it was Niccolo Machiavelli who most clearly described the context in which this perspective was elaborated, and who indeed offered the first clear-eyed prescription for the nations of Europe given such a dreadful diagnosis, it was the Frenchman Jean Bodin who formulated a concept of sovereignty which captured the elements felt to be necessary to solve the problems facing the nations.

Bodin argued that sovereignty must be understood as absolute and indivisible, and that it consisted in the law-making power, that is, in legislation. It was absolute: there was no earthly power which could gainsay it. It was indivisible: it could not be divided among different institutions or levels of government, but rather had to be located in a specific institution. It consisted in the legislative power: the making of law became its very essence.

These elements had never been combined and expressed in this way before, making Bodin’s definition new and innovative. In formulating it in such bold and uncompromising terms, Bodin was offering not only a solution to the religious wars which were tearing France apart, but a redefinition of the place of political society within the cosmos. The Bodinian concept of sovereignty was necessary to provide man with security in the face of a cosmos of antagonistic forces. Sovereignty provided man with the power to shape and control his environment; the law became a tool for the expression of dynamic and creative will. Through the sovereign legislative power, man could ensure himself of a secure place in a fundamentally insecure universe.

For Bodin, the most desirable location of such sovereignty was in the monarch, although he did admit that other institutions, such as an assembly, could be vested with this power. What was essential was that he denied the theocratic constitutionalist position as it presented itself in France in the form of Huguenot constitutional theory. That theory had made sovereignty a relative and not an absolute concept. It had placed all sorts of limitations on sovereignty. It postulated the existence of a standing jus gentium whose content was clear and unchangeable, binding earthly sovereigns.

Bodin claimed that although his doctrine of sovereignty excluded the notion that sanctions could be brought against a sovereign by his subjects (the right of resistance), the sovereign was nevertheless bound by divine and natural law, and by the jus gentium. But it is clear that his idea of the jus gentium could not correspond to that put forward by theocrats, for his very doctrine of sovereignty contradicted it. A sovereignty which consists in lawmaking power is no longer bound by previously established laws. The best that could be hoped for would be “principles” or “guidelines,” but nothing so concrete as a set of established rules such as embodied in the theocratic jus gentium. Certainly Bodin concentrated on the inner relationships of a polity, not on the relationships between polities. But in his exposition he effectively freed internal law and politics from any a priori set of laws, while the theocratic jus gentium embodied laws meant to guide the relationships both between polities and within polities. Bodin’s exposition denied that a jus gentium existed which extended into the inner relations of a polity. He introduced a principle of voluntaristic unboundedness at the center of the legal order: the sovereign power. In so doing he wheeled a Trojan Horse within the walls of juridical Christendom.

Voluntarism and Divine Right Monarchy

With Bodin the absolute monarch makes his definitive appearance. Before this time, monarchy, even though it might claim primacy in the social order, never claimed the right to make laws without regard for custom, tradition, and previously established statutes. The primary task of the monarch was to be a judge, not a legislator. But now, in the person of the monarch, a new doctrine of sovereignty, a new approach to law and politics, makes its appearance. The doctrine of divine right served to underline the untouchability of the monarch. The monarch was like God, a law unto himself, beyond gainsaying. Of course, he had to be like God as well in his lawmaking; as God’s representative on earth, his laws were to be the expression of God’s law for society.

The apparently theocratic notion of divine right must never be confused with the Augustinian theocracy which was its fiercest opponent. Divine right was a very modernistic doctrine, with strong roots in voluntaristic theology developed out of the Ockhamist via moderna. Lawmaking as a dynamic, creative power, was here seen as the essence of God, for God could be conceived purely as will. Voluntarism postulated the will of God as an absolute power, called potentia absoluta, bounded only by the law of non-contradiction. In this view, what God commanded was good because God declared it good, to the extent that if He should declare adultery or murder or stealing to be just, it would be just. It was His bare command which made anything just. Nothing was of itself just. Thus no absolutes exist, only a law-making power which can declare anything just or unjust apart from any prior considerations.

This was potentia absoluta, absolute power, as conceived by late-medieval voluntarists. Coupled with this notion was what was termed ordained power, potentia ordinata. By this was meant that absolute power could bind itself to observe certain rules of its own making. This would be a set of rules ordained by absolute power to govern relationships between it and others related to it: thus, God in His potentia ordinata established rules by which He would act, and by which He would regulate the affairs of His creation. The law of God made known to His creation was an expression of His ordained power, His potentia ordinata.

The absolute vs. ordained power distinction was not the creation of the Ockhamists. It was used by Thomas Aquinas as well as by John Duns Scotus, both of whom developed alternative approaches to its use. But the voluntarist approach struck deep roots in the theological, philosophical, and also the juridical world. Bodin appropriated it to explain his concept of sovereignty. It lay at the heart of the concept of the divine right of kings.

Thus the king by his absolute power was not bound by any human laws. But by his ordained power he could establish a set of rules to govern his relations with his subjects, as well as of course to govern their relationships among each other. But to establish such a set of rules was thus an expression of his condescension, not a requirement established by his realm, nor by the people over which he ruled. In fact, James I explicitly justified his right of rule in these terms. (2)

Monarchy and the World-View of Statism

This doctrine of sovereignty was formulated, as has been stated, in conscious opposition to the theocratic jus gentium of Vitoria and Althusius. Divine right, absolute monarchy, was the original form of humanist statism, not theocracy. Often divine right monarchy is confused with theocracy because of its explicit claim to rule in the name of God and Jesus Christ. But when seen within the proper historical context, it becomes quite apparent that it was a doctrine developed quite in opposition to Augustinian christocratic concepts of government.

Correspondingly, the doctrines of politics, law, economics, and international relations, which developed as complements to the divine right absolutism were the direct opposites of those advocated by theocracy. Rather than a community of nations which needed to live in mutual harmony, respecting one another’s legitimate rights, international relations were conceived as a state of continual warfare in which each nation needed to defend and expand its own interests. In addition, mercantilist doctrine replaced the open border, free trade orientation of theocracy in the realm of economics. The notion of balance of trade came to be seen as a crucial determinant of national well-being: if the balance of trade was negative, the nation was being defeated by foreign nations; if the balance of trade was positive, the nation was triumphing over foreign nations. The commercial and mercantile interests of the nation needed to be favored, and even privileged through grants of subsidy and monopoly, in order to enable them to compete successfully against foreign commercial and mercantile interests. The interests of the nation and the interests of the economic community were fused. Domestic industry needed to be protected by discriminatory tariffs. All of these measures were not conceived as exceptions to the rules under the pressure of extraordinary circumstances. They were rather developed as a group of policy prescriptions in their own right.

At the heart of these positions stood a belief in an existential antagonism rooted in the cosmos itself. All of life is ruled by a conflict of interests. The gain of one can only be at the expense of another. The environment is evil, needing to be brought under direct control. Life is a struggle for survival. The absolute state in the person of the monarch is seen as necessary for survival in such a world.

Humanists such as Montaigne were quite explicit in their acceptance of such a world-view, and it is no wonder that the same people were such passionate advocates of absolute monarchy over against theocratic constitutionalism. Montaigne was deeply imbued with the stoic world-view developed in imperial Rome. This stoicism expressed itself in a pessimism regarding the cosmos, which was ruled by fortuna, fortune, without regard for the welfare of man, and which needed to be confronted by man’s virtus, virtue, through which some sort of control could be gained over the flow of events. Such a virtue/fortune dialectic had also pervaded Machiavelli’s work.

One chapter in Montaigne’s Essays, entitled “The Profit of One Man is the Dammage of Another,” is illustrative:

The Merchant thrives not but by the licentiousnesse of youth; the Husbandman by dearth of corne; the Architect but by the ruine of houses; the Lawyer by suits and controversies betweene men: Honour it selfe, and practice of religious Ministers, is drawne from our death and vices. No Physitian delighteth in the health of his owne friend, saith the ancient Greeke Comike: nor no souldier is pleased with the peace of his Citie, and so of the rest. And which is worse, let every man sound his owne conscience, hee shall finde, that our inward desires are for the most part nourished and bred in us by the losse and hurt of others; which when I considered, I began to thinke, how nature doth not gainesay herselfe in this, concerning her generall policie: for Physitians hold, that The birth, increase, and augmentation of every thing, is the alteration and corruption of another. (3)

Such a basic pessimism found ready confirmation in circumstances, and demanded but one solution. Montaigne wrote in the midst of the French wars of religion between Catholic and Huguenot, and counted himself among the politiques (along with Bodin) who desired an end to the fighting, and a unity based upon absolute monarchy established above the factionalism of confessional religion. He blamed the Huguenots for disturbing the peace of the realm for the sake of their beliefs, basing his criticism upon the relativity of truth, the inability to reach any consensus on the basis of ultimate truth, and the necessity to submit to already-established authority no matter how unjust it might be. “It argueth a great selfe-love and presumption,” he wrote, “for a man to esteeme his opinions so far, that for to establish them, a man must be faine to subvert a publike peace, and introduce so many inevitable mischiefes, and so horrible a corruption of manners, as civill warres, and alterations of a state bring with them, in matters of such consequence, and to bring them into his owne countrie. Is it not ill husbanded to advance so many certaine and knowne vices, for to combate contested and debatable errors?” (4)

The Triumph of Centralization

The wars of religion can only indirectly be blamed on the Christian churches. “The religious wars, with all their misery and brutality, were caused by the sovereign refusal of the secular princes to admit dissent in their states.” (5) The error of the churches lay in their willingness to go along with statism, and to compete for the favors of the state.

With the churches losing touch with their constitutional role over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the dogma of absolute monarchy became triumphant in Europe. Thus the Baroque age was the age of the court and king. It was also the age of the expansion of power of the nation-state and the development of political economy focused upon the advancement of the nation-state. For it was imperative that the resources of the nation be concentrated as effectively as possible, and directed against the external world of competing nations.

This meant that the relative autonomy and independence of lesser associations and polities within the nation had to be broken up in favor of a direct bond between the king and all the citizenry. The national interest was best served in this way. Business and commercial interests needed to be privileged, and protected, and brought under the direct shelter and control of the crown, if they were to have any hope of success in the omnicompetitive international arena. All of these imperatives were summed up in the expression “reason of state,” to which everything else was subordinate.

The result of the centralizing efforts of the kings was the formation of national economies. This was accomplished through breaking up the regulation and taxation of commerce at the local level, and transferring these functions to the crown which administered them at the national level. This involved the steady breakup and dissolution of local economies and the institutions around which the local economies were built, as well as the severe curtailment of inter-regional trade. Economic life became the political and military tool of the king. And while local economies were broken up, high level capitalists who were privileged by the crown became chief beneficiaries of the new regulation of trade. In fact, they positively cooperated in the destruction of the local economy, knowing that their own economic interests would be furthered through the patronage of the crown. So, although the overall economy suffered through this centralization, certain elements gained greatly. Here we may speak of capitalists versus capitalism.

These developments could never have occurred simply of themselves; centralization did not occur in a vacuum. It was not that everyone liked state centralization more than medieval decentralization. The success of centralization was born of necessity: it was centralize, or be swallowed up by a better organized, more fit enemy polity. Such had been the fate of the Italian city-states, with the exception of Venice. It was a simple test of strength. Emerging from the period of transition which completed itself at the time of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 which ended the Thirty Years’ War, came the European state system of sovereign principalities, recognized as autonomous equals.

The Transformation of Constitutionalism

Medieval constitutionalism had become, therefore, a bygone phenomenon. But it did not altogether disappear; rather, it became the subject of one of the great rescue operations in history. While the constitutionalist jus gentium suffered eclipse in both Protestant and Catholic monarchies and princedoms, one country in particular appropriated a good portion of that inheritance in its own struggle for freedom. The Dutch Republic, in its revolt against Spain – the so-called Eighty Years War, lasting from 1566 to 1648 – developed a justification for its revolt, as well as for its constitution and its conduct of affairs, from the Salamancan doctrine, mediated through both Spanish and French Huguenot sources. It is one of the great paradoxes in history that the Dutch Republic used the weapons furnished by Spain’s own theologians and lawyers in her struggle for freedom. An analogy could be drawn with the English colonies and England in the American war for independence, in which American patriots called upon English rights and liberties to justify the renunciation of their English ties.

Grotius and Dutch Liberty

The greatest Dutch exponent of this jus gentium was Hugo Grotius. The two works for which he is most famous both dealt with the law of nations. In them, he took over the theocratic jus gentium in conscious opposition to absolutist tyranny; at the same time, he subjected them to crucial modification, bending them to the humanism which heretofore had been exclusive to the defenders of monarchy.

The first of these two works was published in 1609 under the title of Mare Liberum, “Of the Freedom of the Seas.” In it, Grotius defends the rights of natural communication which Vitoria had outlined, and which had been further developed by the canonist Diego de Covarrubias, and jurist Fernando Vasquez. It is essentially a boiled-down version of the theocratic jus gentium. It defends private property, freedom of trade, open borders, and (of course) the freedom of maritime travel, all as elements of a law higher than human will, and thus not subject to change. And, of course, the Salamancan denial of universal lordship to either Pope nor Emperor is most firmly repeated.

It is Grotius’ purpose here to establish the right of the Dutch to trade freely in the East Indies, in spite of Portuguese claims of monopoly to this trade. In fact, he wrote the original version of it in 1604 at the request of the newly-formed Dutch East India Company. But the changes which had come into the relations between the nations of Europe bore upon Grotius’ exposition and explain the changes he introduced to its originally theocratic form.

The Dutch East India Company was a public monopoly, formed of a conglomeration of private interests already busy conducting Indies trade. Due to interference from the Portuguese, who originally established the trade links with the East Indies, the Dutch were driven to establish this monopoly in order to maintain a share of trade, even though monopoly formation went against the original jus gentium. By this time, the medieval consensus was crumbling to such an extent that trade, political, and military interests were being bundled together as never before. And so, the East India Company received the blessings even of the Reformed church.

The acceptance of this monopoly is indicative of the kind of changes felt necessary to adapt the theocratic jus gentium to the exigencies of a world fallen apart. Grotius proceeded to make those changes. In doing so, he modified the fundamental framework within which the law was understood.

Recall that in the theocratic framework, the juridical starting point was the nation as such. A nation possesses the rights of sovereignty, which define the upholders of the jus gentium. To consider any individual or any group in abstract circumstances apart from membership in one nation or another simply was unthinkable. But in Grotius’s framework, although in Mare Liberum it is as yet very muted, the juridical starting point is the individual as such, who possesses rights of sovereignty which he then transfers to the state upon its formation. It can be seen here, then, that the nation possesses no formal, a priori character at all before the law. Additionally, once states were formed, they were considered to be individuals in the same way that the separate individuals were considered before they joined to form a state. The condition in which no higher authority exists to mediate between entities, whether individuals or states, is called the “state of nature.” In the state of nature, autonomous sovereigns act as equals, and conduct wars to bring sanctions against the trespass of legitimate rights.

The Definitive Transformation

In spite of this, Grotius in Mare Liberum adheres for the most part to the theocratic framework. He vigorously asserts the existence of an immutable jus gentium, standing above the will-decision of men, and he includes the rights of communication among them. It was in his second and perhaps greatest work, De Jure Belli et Pacis Libri Tres (“Of the Law of War and Peace”) that he made the conclusive changes to the theocratic framework which would serve to transform constitutionalism into a recognizably secular and modern form. In this work, the presuppositions concerning the individual in the state of nature are developed much more fully. In fact, Grotius virtually denies the right to existence of any institution which could not be traced to the prior will-decision of its members. The state of nature as a condition between autonomous equal sovereigns is made quite explicit. Only now, the existence of an immutable jus gentium which binds these sovereigns in their relationships is denied. The jus gentium is made purely the expression of human will, and thus is mutable. In addition, Grotius no longer includes relations within polities as elements of the jus gentium. A polity can be set up in any way the original contracting agents like, from a constitutional republic to an absolute monarchy.

These modifications had far-reaching implications. In the first place, with the denial of an immutable jus gentium, the role of the spiritual power in international relations was formally lost. Granted, the explicit requirement that sovereigns needed to abide by agreements theoretically left a place for the spiritual power to adjudicate as to whether agreements were being kept. But with no higher law content binding actors, these agreements did not necessarily have any relationship with justice as conceived by the church. Grotius’ approach tended to reduce justice to simply respect one another’s rights, and of the principle of pacta sunt servanda, agreements must be kept. Theocracy is based in higher law and a more substantial concept of justice than that. The denial that the internal relations of a state belong to the jus gentium had a similar effect. No higher law existed by which the relations between rulers and ruled could be judged. Only their previously contracted agreements could serve as the basis for judgments.

The Upshot of the Grotian System

It should be evident that the Bodinian concept of sovereignty had made strong inroads in Grotius’ thinking. The essential will-orientation is quite clear. What Grotius did was to attribute Bodinian sovereignty to the individual in a state of nature, who then transferred that sovereignty to the state. In doing this, he “modernized” and “humanisticized” the jus gentium. But he also retained some essential elements which brought the constitutional elements of theocracy forward into the new age.

In the first place, by speaking of a state of nature in which the individual was sovereign, and of the division of property prior to the formation of the state, Grotius made the “private sector” prior to, and primary over against, the state, the public sector. Rights to life, liberty, and property were possessed in the state of nature, not gifts of the state. Although he did allow that these rights could be alienated in the formation of the state, the bias of his argument favors their retention by the private sector. For Grotius, the state existed in order to serve the interests of the private sector; the private sector did not exist by the grace of the state. (6)

Corresponding to this bias towards the private sector, Grotius put forward a concept of the “state of nature” in which a basic harmony of interests between human beings existed, with the state only becoming necessary to protect people in their community bonds formed prior to the establishment of the state. The basic optimism concerning the possibilities of human community apart from the coercive intervention of the state, which figured so prominently in the theocratic jus gentium, is preserved by Grotius in an explicit manner. Such a view of human society contrasted sharply with those who viewed life outside of the state as fundamentally antagonistic.

Thirdly, although Grotius in his De Jure Belli et Pacis did deny any a priori necessity to a constitutional form of government, he did, as he had done with private property, skew his argument in such a manner that constitutionalism could be considered the most likely and most desirable form of government. He even listed seven cases in which the right of resistance was explicitly allowed. Thus, in his conception of the private sector and of constitutional government, Grotius took forward, albeit in a much-modified manner, the inheritance of the theocratic constitution of liberty.

In the age of the Baroque, the Dutch Republic, of which Hugo Grotius was the most famous defender, constituted the glaring exception to princely absolutism. In nearly every respect, the fledgling nation constituted a standing affront to the established powers of the day. Indeed, the Republic constituted, in Schama’s words, “The Great Seventeenth Century Exception.” In an age which emphasized unity, order, obedience, and allegiance to the crown, the Republic pronounced itself the defender of Ware Vryheid, “True Freedom,” in which the liberty of the citizenry, freedom of commerce, peaceful community of nations, liberty of conscience, and even a limited freedom of worship for dissenters – private, not public (7) – were all upheld, at least formally. The legitimating doctrine to which the Republic’s ruling regime appealed was popular sovereignty, as derived from the original theocratic doctrine upon which it had justified its revolt in the first place. In the Dutch Republic a competing doctrine of reason of state was developed, one which emphasized the private sector, the duty of civil government to protect the private sector, and the existence of a harmony of interests between the nations which was best served by maintaining peaceful international relations. (8)

Two Kinds of Modern State

Thus, over the course of the seventeenth century, the first modern century, the doctrines, the beliefs, the realities of medieval Europe were finally extinguished, while two alternative approaches to social order evolved from out of the vanishing past. Absolute monarchy became most definitely the majority opinion in Europe, with France as its leading exponent. Republican liberty had its sole representative (at least in its full-blown form (9)) in the Dutch Republic. These were the two pattern states presented to modern Europe.

Colbert: the Impertinence of the Dutch (10)

It was inevitable that conflict should arise between the two nations, embodying as they did two fundamentally antagonistic ideals. France, through the efforts of Louis XIV’s finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, embarked on a campaign to displace Dutch preeminence in trade by pursuing a full-blown mercantilistic policy which combined the interests of French commercial interests with the French monarchy. Eventually Louis XIV even declared war on the Republic, in 1672, and nearly defeated it, in order to subordinate its trading interest to that of France. But all of this was to no avail, as the Dutch Republic maintained its place at the center of the world-economy until well into the eighteenth century. (11)

The principle upon which Colbert based his policy, in line with the basic presuppositions of mercantilism which have already been outline above, are well described by A. Lloyd Moote:

[Colbert] assumed that there was “only a given quantity of money which circulates in Europe,” and that “the trade of all Europe is carried on with about 20,000 ships of all sizes [whose] number cannot be increased, since the populations and the consumption of all the states remains the same.” From this view of the static nature of European wealth and resources, Colbert went on to draw the conclusion that France must try to secure a larger slice of the economic pie. Colbert talked of a “war of money,” and declared that “commerce causes a perpetual battle in peace and war between the nations of Europe as to who will win the best part of it.” (12)

These kinds of views were staple elements of “new” monarchy’s approach to the jus gentium. The interests of the national economy were primary: mercantilism was synonymous with economic nationalism. With such a perspective, it comes as no surprise that the Republic should have been viewed as such an anachronism and with such distaste. If trade was carried on always at the expense of some victim or enemy, then a nation which made its living from trade must then be the embodiment of evil itself. This notion implanted itself in the minds of Baroque princes in the wake of the dissolution of Christendom, contrary though it was to the jus gentium which had framed Christendom’s original order.

English Ambivalence

While Louis XIV had no problem convincing himself of the perfidious nature of the Republic, England had always oscillated between admiration and indignation. The destinies of these two nations had been closely connected ever since the revolt, to which Queen Elizabeth had provided crucial support. When the Republic spread its wings and engrossed the lion’s share of trade, England’s mercantile interests were soon up in arms; this was always balanced, however, by the recognition that both nations were Protestant and needed each other in the struggle against a common enemy. Also, and this is the crucial point, in England the theocratic jus gentium continued to exert an appreciable amount of influence, through the influence of Grotius’ work along with its own indigenous tradition. England’s seventeenth century witnessed the continuing internal conflict between constitutional and absolutist versions of civil government which on the continent had already played out.

Mercantilist theories held the upper hand in England so long as the Stuarts held the reins and strove to pattern England after the French model. (13) But the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9, in which Dutch Prince William of Orange took the throne at the invitation of an English constitutional convention, was as thoroughgoing, albeit conservative, a revolution as can be imagined. The conflict between republicanism and monarchy was resolved in favor of a unique blend of English tradition and Dutch practice. From this point, the Dutch model became established in England as well, with Daniel Defoe as perhaps the chief proponent of things Dutch. The Whig party which came to preeminence at this time might well be considered a Dutch offshoot; the parallels between Dutch republicanism and English Whiggery are legion.

Ever since the war with France, which ended in 1678, William had pursued a policy of containment through the formation of alliances which could counterbalance France’s military preeminence. When he took the throne of England, he brought her considerable resources to bear in this struggle, finally tipping the balance against Louis XIV. In this struggle, the Dutch became so weakened financially that her preeminence over world trade was lost to the English. Amsterdam was replaced by London as its center. But the secularized version of constitutionalism which first took shape in the Netherlands struck firm roots into soil much better able to carry it forward. While Holland lost its vitality in the eighteenth century, England sprang into preeminence. By the nineteenth century she was the unquestioned ruler of the waves and leader of Europe in every way, with an industrial revolution added to her previous advances. And in the works of such subjects of the crown as David Hume and Adam Smith, the secularized constitutional version of the jus gentium received further elaboration.

The Legacy of Absolute Monarchy

Edmund Burke was one of the chief proponents of this tradition. In his lifetime, the conflict between England and France took on an entirely new dimension. For the first time, English republicanism was put on the defensive as a conservative, rather than liberal, form of government. For what arose in France to replace the outworn, failed ancien regime of Bourbon absolutism was an entirely new brand of republicanism. Burke is, of course, famous for his outspoken opposition to the principles as well as the practice of the French Revolution. For this opposition, he was often characterized as a traitor to his own tradition. But he sensed more strongly than any of his contemporaries the fundamental radicalism underlying social contract ideology. He realized that Rousseau and his followers had simply exploited that ideology more consistently than had those in the Grotian tradition. Burke effectively lay bare the root of the revolutionary spirit in the principles which had also underlain Grotius’ work: the acceptance of the Bodinian doctrine of absolute sovereignty, and the attribution of that sovereignty to the individual.

Grotius had demonstrated that according to this scheme, the individual could not only transfer this hypothetical sovereignty, he could alienate it to the state. Later social contract theorists such as Hobbes and Spinoza had taken him at his word. John Locke, on the other hand, had removed these possibilities from the Grotian scheme, and put forth a constitutionalist, private-sector oriented polity – basically a purified version of Grotius. But yet the radical root remained.

Rousseau and the Absolutist Inheritance

Jean-Jacques Rousseau transformed the doctrine of social contract into one of revolutionary totalitarianism. In his doctrine, the interests of the individuals forming the state become identical with the interests of the state itself, expressed through the General Will, the will of the majority. Fundamental to this new, absolute form of social contract republicanism, however, was the tradition developed by its predecessor, absolute monarchy. In this new form of democracy, the public sector absorbed the private sector into a monistic whole, just as divine right absolutism had pretended to do. Alexis de Tocqueville in his The Old Regime and the French Revolution pointed out the many ways in which the revolutionary regime simply took over the process set in motion by the monarchy. What needs to be seen is that, in its principles as well as its practice, revolutionary democracy carried on the tradition of divine right monarchy which it replaced.

France in the eighteenth century was a nation which had become alienated against itself. It was the country in which men were most like each other, and at the same time the most split up into isolated little groups. Nobility and bourgeois in France enjoyed the same education, manners, and culture. Even in England the gap between classes was greater than in France, with class culture a distinguishing mark. But while, practically speaking, the classes in France were becoming more and more like each other, formally speaking they were drawing farther and farther apart. Nobility withdrew from day-to-day affairs behind the screen of sham rights & privileges granted by the crown to compensate their dismissal from authority; the bourgeois purchased their crown oces and turned their backs upon their erstwhile equals in favor of their newfound superior status; the peasantry, while enjoying property rights and prosperity in greater degree than ever before, suffered under the ignobility of being treated like second-class creatures. The cult of absolute monarchy culminated in the alienated society: “It is only government by a single man that in the long run irons out diversities and makes each member of a nation indifferent to his neighbor’s lot.” (14)

All of this had been necessary to the centralizing policy of the crown. The French monarchy had penetrated into every corner of the social fabric of that nation, and had established itself as the only bond of community. Mutual relations between social groups had, correspondingly, atrophied. But the state had reared itself up on the ruins of the social order. With the Revolution, the facade of class distinctions which had covered the underlying reality was ripped away, but the basic centralist, bureaucratic, paternalist, and mercantilist state remained.

The correspondence between the basic world-views of absolute monarchy and revolutionary democracy become apparent in the writings of Rousseau. Rousseau translated the conditions of contemporary, pre-Revolution France into a metaphysical system. Alienation became an ontological condition. In his eyes, the original “state of nature” was that of the noble savage, living in the wilderness, in no way dependent upon human society for his livelihood. For Rousseau, the fall of man occurred when society was formed. Dependence upon others, the pillar upon which all human society is built, inherently involves the conflict of interests, the enslavement of some in order to provide for the enrichment of others. Conflict is not only experienced between human beings; it is experienced within the individual himself. (15) The human condition is one tyrannized by uncertainty and inequality, both inherent to human society in its normal condition. What Rousseau is saying is that human society considered as a private, natural phenomenon, is inherently flawed. The private sector embodies sin in its very essence.

Having discovered his scapegoat, Rousseau proceeded to define the solution for society’s ills: its demolition. Human society needed to be done away with, through the sovereign power of the state. This could only be accomplished by means of a social contract; but this time, it was not natural society which needed to be preserved by the state, but needed to be replaced. The golden age of the noble savage could never return; but the state could provide the release from social alienation. The sovereign individuals needed to contract together in a total bond of collective sovereignty, creating a state which was the summation of their innate power, creativity, and goodness. This state, the product of their sovereign individuality, would then free them from the shackles of society. The inherent conflict of interests would then be overcome. The uncertainty of life, brought on by the dependence people had upon their unreliable neighbor, would be done away with. The inequality resulting from the struggle which reigns when society is left to its own devices would be replaced by a bond of egalitarian unity in which each individual could realize his or her own fullness, in the face of like individuals.

For all its metaphysical novelty, the concrete outworking of Rousseau’s position mirrored that of absolute monarchy. All of society is centralized under the sovereign power of civil government. The nation-state is the highest ideal: “the symbol of patrie is uppermost; religion and patriotism will be but two aspects of the same thing.” (16) A conflict of interests is the basic condition of man, which must be supervened through the interposition of sovereign power creative enough to remake the social order. All private associations are at best necessary evils, dependent upon the state for their legitimacy. At bottom, Rousseau and his followers did not dispute the basic orientation of absolute monarchy – only its inability to fulfill their desire to transcend the created condition. It was not sovereignty, but the particular holder of sovereignty, which was the problem.

Social Democracy Carries on the Good Old Cause

With the French Revolution this second version of republicanism became established at the heart of European civilization. After centuries of continuous conflict between the nations of Europe, an ideology had finally been hammered out which summed up that historical condition into a total, religious world-view. Alienation, conflict, inequality, uncertainty, all were made into fundamental elements of the natural condition, which could only be overcome through total participation in the life of the sovereign state. Never mind that these were conditions created by the sovereign state in the first place, as the price of maintaining viability over against foreign nations equally intent upon survival. The modern age has never shown a very good memory.

The synthesis which Rousseau first encapsulated was brilliantly furthered by Karl Marx. The alienation which Rousseau saw inherent in society was crystallized by Marx into an economic conflict: the class struggle, the dialectic underlying the course of history itself. Marxism culminated “The Religion of Revolution.” (17) But the important thing to note is that what Marx saw as a general process, involving human society in its totality, could only have occurred as a domestic problem in a national economy such as the nation-states of Europe had developed. The class struggle was a conflict over the redistribution of resources whose distribution had already been centralized in the state. It was thus a struggle over how the statist pie was to be cut. This very real and practical consideration, which in the nineteenth century came increasingly to the fore, was generalized by Marx into the human condition explaining all conflicts in all societies throughout all of history. (18)


In the same way that Colbert had viewed the Dutch Republic, Marx, as have all social democrats, viewed capitalism. Economic nationalism received “scientific” backing, and even a pseudo-internationalist justification: “workers of the world, unite!” But the new democracy, social democracy, was nationalist to the core in that its means of attack against capitalism was the nation-state. All its talk about workers’ solidarity was nothing more than that – talk. Economic nationalism has always lain at the heart of social democracy. Protectionism, tariff walls, the dumping of subsidized production, are all pursued in the name of providing for the people. Domestic politics demand a policy of economic nationalism, although the names are dramatically changed when it comes to describing these activities to the electorate. They become “solidarity between employers and workers,” “price stability,” “market intervention.” The market takes the blame for all economically undesirable developments. But the truth of the matter is that it is not the market which is to blame, but economic nationalism itself. Social democracy cannot exist but by continuing the economic warfare which its grandfather, the king by the grace of God, began centuries ago. This is so because every intervention in favor of any domestic group in the marketplace automatically disadvantages other groups, both foreign (producers) and domestic (consumers). Every intervention brings certain disruption. The world-economy is like an ecosystem: every intervention has effects which ripple through the entirety, and the effects are rarely predictable.

In our time the solution to economic nationalism is seen to lie in the formation of trading blocs, such as the European Community. Thus, economic nationalism brought to new heights. The entire justification for the EC, at least among Euro-federalists, is to enable Europe to better meet the threat of competition from the US and Japan. Thus, the EC is being formed the better to wage economic warfare. Has not this generation yet learned any lessons of the modern age? Is this not what brought not one, but two world wars, and one Great Depression, in one half-century alone?

Today the world is faced with the choice between two kinds of democracy. One, liberal democracy, is the descendant of the theocratic jus gentium, upholding freedom of trade, open borders, restricted national sovereignty, and the primacy of the private sector, considering that human society at the level of private association basically furthers the harmony of interests of its members, and that coercive authority is necessary only to ensure that violations in this harmony are punished. The other, social democracy, is the descendant of divine right absolutism, championing economic nationalism, closed borders, absolute national sovereignty (unless that sovereignty can be transferred to a supranational body), and the primacy of the public sector to rectify the inherent conflict of interests which exists in human society. It would appear that the flow of history is slowly but inexorably headed toward the first of these alternatives. May it please God that it so continue: in spite of its glaring faults. This horse will take us closer to where we need to get to; the other would take us precisely where we cannot afford to go.

A decisive movement here is impossible, however, so long as the basically flawed root underlying modern democracy remains undealt with. At the heart of modern democracy is the sovereign individual, whose positive will-decision is necessary to legitimate any and all forms of authority. As long as such a conception of legitimacy reigns, liberty as well as authority will remain political footballs. Sovereignty in the absolute sense needs to be returned to God; man has proven little capable of its responsible exercise. As theocracy gave birth to the “Constitution of Liberty” (as Friedrich Hayek has termed it), it would be sensible if the upholders of liberty would recognize their true interest, and accept this fact of history, and of life. When they do, we will make some real progress towards the end of history.


1. This was a two-part series which appeared in the Autumn 1991 and the Winter 1992 issues of Symbiotica. Please consult this series for background knowledge indispensible to the subject under consideration here. [The article referred to is now available here.]

2. Francis Oakley, Omnipotence, Covenant, & Order: An Excursion in the History of Ideas from Abelard to Leibniz (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1984), pp. 93ff.

3. Michel de Montaigne, Essays, trans. John Florio (London: Everyman’s Library, 1980 [1910]), pp. 104-5.

4. “Of Custome, and How a Received Law Should Not Easily Be Changed,” in ibid., pp. 119-120.

5. E.H. Kossmann, “The Singularity of Absolutism,” in Regnild Hatton (ed.), Louis XIV and Absolutism (London); reprinted in Kossmann, Politieke Theorie en Geschiedenis: Verspreide Opstellen en Voordrachten (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Bert Bakker, 1987), p. 130.

6. This argument is convincingly furthered in Stephen Buckle, Natural Law and the Theory of Property: Grotius to Hume (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).

7. In opposition to the settled practice of the princedoms and monarchies, the ocially-recognized Dutch Reformed Church positively condoned this policy, so long as other churches did not themselves attempt to enter the public arena.

8. The contrast between the monarchical and Dutch republican versions of reason of state is brilliantly sketched in J.C. Boogman, “The Raison d’etat Politician Johan de Witt,” in The Low Countries History Yearbook 1978, pp. 55-78. Johan de Witt was the leader of the Dutch Republic for over 20 years.

9. Other republics included Venice and the Swiss confederation, but neither of these developed a form of post-theocratic liberalism.

10. I am here borrowing Schama’s phrase: cf. Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches; An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), Chapter Four, “The Impertinence of Survival.”

11. Jonathan. I. Israel, Dutch Primacy in World Trade, 1585-1740 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

12. The Seventeenth Century: Europe in Ferment (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath and Company, 1970), p. 63.

13. The so-called Rump Parliament which held oce during the first years of the Interregnum continued the mercantilist policies of Charles I even after he had been dethroned and beheaded. Cromwell disbanded it for the same reason. See H.R. Trevor-Roper, “Cromwell and His Parliaments,” in The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century: Religion, Revolution, and Social Change (New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1968), pp. 357ff.

14. Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution trans. Stuart Gilbert (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1978 [1955]), pp. 77-96; quote, p. 81.

15. Robert Nisbet, Community and Power (also published as The Quest for Community (London, et. al.: Oxford University Press, 1962 [1953]), p. 140.

16. Nisbet, Community, p. 149.

17. Gary North, Marx’s Religion of Revolution: Regeneration through Chaos (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989).

18. Abram de Swaan, In Care of the State: Health Care, Education and Welfare in Europe and the USA in the Modern Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), provides a highly interesting and informative account of the formation of the modern welfare state. De Swaan highlights the fact that the conflicts over redistribution in the nineteenth century revolved around the necessity for ruling elites to share the bounty with steadily increasing numbers of the masses.