Currently, countries with a king as head of state are organized around a parliamentary monarchy: the monarch’s powers are limited by a democratic parliament elected by the people by universal suffrage. His precedent was the absolute monarchy, where the king had unlimited power .
We analyze the fundamental characteristics of the absolute monarchy linked to its historical period, the estate society, and the most representative countries of this form of State organization.
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Definition of absolute monarchy
In the same way that the parliamentary monarchy occurs in liberal democracies, the absolute monarchy is the result of a certain era: the Old Regime, which, extending from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, is based on the foundations of the estate society in transition from feudalism to capitalism.
The beginning of the rational organization of the State and the emergence of the modern State marks the end of the Middle Ages and has as a practical result the birth of the absolutist state. During those centuries, feudalism survived thanks to the great weight that the nobility still had, while a new social class made its way: the bourgeoisie.
Among historians there is a consensus in considering the absolute monarchy as an instrument to balance the old nobility and the incipient bourgeoisie and neutralize their struggle for power.
Absolute monarchies introduced a permanent bureaucracy, a national tax system, codified law, and the beginnings of a unified market. But above all, the absolute monarchy is defined by the unlimited powers of the king, whose dynasty reigns over all subjects by divine grace .
That is, where today’s parliamentary monarchies have power limited by the democratic parliament, absolute monarchies have no limits to their power .. And where parliamentary monarchies have to be chosen or endorsed, the origin of the legitimacy of the absolute king is the will of God.
5 characteristics of the absolute monarchy
Political science establishes closed structures of characteristics to define the forms of state and government, which help us to define and break down the features that characterize the absolute monarchy.
1. Divine legitimacy
One of the characteristics of the period in which the absolute monarchy emerged, the Old Regime, was the inseparable unity of the State with religion.
What defined a state, in fact, was religion.that held it Thus, Spain was a Catholic state, England was a Protestant state, and Russia was an Orthodox state. Hence, the wars in that period always had a strong religious component.
It follows that the main legitimacy of the king was the will of God. The explanation is philosophical. Until the arrival of the Enlightenment and liberalism, man believed that social organization derived from the natural divine order: the function of each social class was determined by the way in which God organized the world.
In this way, each estate or social class fulfilled a function, and at the top was the monarch, who as chosen by divine grace had unlimited power.
2. Estate society
The absolute king had no checks and balances on his prerogatives, and his role was to govern his subjects. These were divided into estates, which were basically three: the clergy, the nobility, and the plebs (peasant-bourgeoisie).
One of the fundamental features of the estate society in which the absolute monarchy was born and developed is that social division has a hereditary component: blood rules . That is why it is a society without the capacity for social ascension.
A nobleman was noble because he had been born into a noble family, and therefore he had acquired rights.
One of the social tensions that eventually led to the liberal revolutions and the end of absolutism was thatthe bourgeoisie had no place in that structure , because although it had ambition and more and more money, it was still part of the class with less privileges.
economy Mercantilism developed in the heat of modern states, as these were leaving feudalism behind and embraced the complexity of the new economy, which introduced trade, crafts and the incipient industry as novelties.
The characteristic of mercantilism is the central role of the State in the economy and its role as protector of national interests. It is the birth of economic protectionism, since mercantilism had as its primary objective the growth of national wealth .
To do this, the absolute monarchy had as a priority the obtaining of precious metals, especially gold and silver. That is why it was so important to gain the maximum number of possible territories that could nourish the state with these elements. Imperialism was the logical result of that expansionary policy.
4. Administrative bureaucracy
To rationalize such vast territories with an increasing social complexity, the absolute monarchies provided themselves with an authentic administrative machinery organized in a bureaucratic way.
Thus, little by little, a wide network of ministers and officials was consolidated.that guaranteed the collection of taxes, the organization of the armies, the functioning of the colonial territories, the maintenance of public order, etc.
In turn, this created a structure of fidelity and identification with the absolute power , which presented itself to its subjects and to the rest of the world powers as a powerful and efficient machine with unlimited power.
5. Centralized army and repressive power
A fundamental feature to guarantee the power of a state was the centralization of its armies. The lack of union of political power in the medieval era made the armies were militias at the service of a noble leader, with private interests.
What the absolute monarchy does iscreate a centralized and professional army whose mission was to protect the figure of the king and the interests of the states. He was the armed arm of the king and defended the nation in wars against other states.
In addition, to ensure internal order, the monarchies developed a powerful repressive apparatus that guaranteed compliance with obligations. The Spanish Inquisition was a good example of the repressive power of the absolute state.
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5 countries with absolute monarchy
Taking into consideration the fundamental characteristics of the absolute monarchy, it should be noted that in each practical application these regimes adopted very particular forms. It is interesting to see how the absolute monarchy was organized in each case.
1. Spain: the Hispanic monarchy
Spain was a benchmark and pioneering and hegemonic power in modern European states. The concentration of power of the monarch and his international claim influenced the rest of the European absolute states.
The strength of the Hispanic monarchy had two main sources: one, the great extension of connections established by the reigning dynasty of the Habsburgs with the rest of the European aristocratic families, and two,the acquisition of the colonies of the New World , in America.
One of the characteristics of Spanish absolutism was the preservation of the country’s national particularities, especially in terms of regional diversity and the spirit of Catholicism . The first absolute kings, Carlos I and Felipe II dedicated themselves to the expansion of the borders and the religious unification of the empire.
In the seventeenth century the Spanish monarchs (Felipe III, Felipe IV and Carlos II) tried to manage the internal social and national revolts and the international affronts , but they were unable to contain the decadence that would end with the installation of French absolutism through the family of the Bourbons.
The Austrians ruled in Spain under the belief that their actions emanated from the will of God. It is worth noting, however, the resistance of the intellectuals of the School of Salamanca, who, led by Luis de Molina, believed that the king was an administrator, but the power resided in the administrators considered individually.
2. France: French absolutism
Absolutism in France is traditionally linked to the figure of Louis XIV, the Sun King, who defined the concept of the absolutist state in one sentence. “I am the State” .
After the disaster of the wars and consumed the country in internal conflicts, Louis XIV assumed the throne with the intention of centralizing the administration, creating a strong power and raising France to compete with the main European powers.
For this he abolished the position of prime minister and freed himself from the politicking of the noble families: he assumed in his person the legal, legislative and executive power . He created a great army with which he began an expansive foreign policy and which he financed by frying his subjects with abusive tax burdens.
Furthermore, Louis XIV was a very extravagant king. Its evolution in a decadent sense had its expression in the figure of Louis XVI, a weak king and subject to the control of his wife, Marie Antoinette, in a court full of palace intrigues and an extensive cohort of freeloaders, princes and princesses whose extravagance meant 20% of the state budget.
That is why it is explained that for years the French people, hungry and subjected to the tax dictatorship , accumulated hatred against the monarchy with a drastic result: the guillotine.
3. Absolutist Prussia
In Eastern Europe, absolutism was characterized by the intensification of peasant serfdom, and a much more despotic character of the ruling power. This is explained because in those countries the bourgeois class does not develop, and a very powerful aristocratic class and an oppressed peasantry continue to rule.
This was evident in Prussia, which created a highly centralized state with a powerful army and a large bureaucratic machinery. With several open fronts, the first monarch Frederick Wilhelm Hohenzollern opted for a heavily militarized state, which I consider to be a notable strength against the rest of the powers.
From this the Germanic military character was derived in later centuries, also highly influenced by thealliance between the monarchy and the junkers (local landowners) who ensured the economic maintenance of an effective bureaucratic system.
4. The Russian absolute monarchy
It is enough to read the novels of Lev Tolstoy to get an image of what the absolutist monarchy was in Russia, better known as tsarism. The same phenomenon is repeated as in Prussia, since the bourgeoisie does not exist, a sacred alliance is formed between the monarchy and the nobility to twist the conditions of the peasants.
Serfdom in Russia was maintained by a strong repressive apparatus and by the cohesion that guaranteed religious unity: the Orthodox Church was a fundamental pillar of social stability. The Tsar was the first chosen of God.
The Russian absolute monarchy has been the one that has lasted the longest, extending until 1917 when the Russian revolution liquidates tsarism and executes the royal family.
Until then, absolutism in Russia has given great names such as Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great or Catherine the Great. The turning point of its decline was not knowing how to make the transition from a long-standing feudalism and an incipient capitalism in which the living forces of society were struggling to emerge.
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- ANDERSON, PERRY, The absolute monarchy. 21st century publishers. Madrid, 1979.