societal federalism

Althusius: A Thinker of European Federalism

Johannes Althusius
Johannes Althusius

As the ‘F-word’ is increasingly discussed in the intellectual and political circles as a viable solution to the Eurozone crisis, it is useful to remind ourselves that there is more to federalism than the well-known model of the United States. In fact, there is an older strand of federal thought that is peculiar to Europe. And this unknown thinker whom I would like to present on the following lines can be rightly called its father. Readers will shortly discover that Althusius’s federalism is easily distinguishable from its American counterpart by its extension of the federal principles onto the society as a whole. The federation is not simply a kind of a nation-state that distributes political prerogatives between the institutions at the state and federal levels. Althusius’s European federalism goes much further below. It is already families, firms, towns and other socio-economic entities that are perceived as rightful holders of political and other rights, and who need to have a say in the decision-making of higher strata of society that contains them. This, indeed, might be precisely what is needed in building a functioning polity in such a complex social reality as we have in Europe.

Let us first briefly start with the life of Johannes Althusius (1557-1638) himself. Besides being a jurist and prolific Calvinist political thinker, Althusius was engaged in active politics of the city of Emden. As a syndic of that city, he had become the main instigator of the arrest of the city’s provincial lord, count of Eastern Frisia, by Emden’s city councillors that transpired on 7 December 1618. Althusius vigorously defended the councillors’ decision as a ‘legitimate act of self-defence and resistance’ against the provincial lord’s infringements on the city’s rights, considering it an ultimate resolve ‘warranted under every natural and secular law’.[1] As will become apparent with the discussion of his work, the right of resistance to tyranny of a government that does not respect the rule of law is a key part of his federal thought.[2] His most famous work Politica Methodice Digesta (Politics Methodically Digested, first published in 1603), which will be taken here as the main source of Althusius’s federal thought, in a similar vein justifies the right of the Dutch provinces to secede from the crown lands of the Spanish ruler.

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