Barack Obama, Meet Johannes Althusius

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Barack Obama professes to be a university-trained intellectual, so I would surmise that he must be reasonably familiar with the important work of Johannes Althusius (1557-1638), syndic of the German seaport town of Emden and author of the celebrated Politica (full title: Politica Methodice Digesta Exemplis Sacris & Profanis Illustrata—but never mind), published 45 years before the Treaty of Westphalia laid the groundwork for the territorial nation state. However, if the president is not aware of the volume and if his Latin is faulty, I would suggest he immediately get hold of Frederick Carney’s English translation The Politics of Johannes Althusius or of Thomas Hueglin’s Althusius on Community and Federalism.

Either should come as an eye-opener to a man whose understanding of pluralized government, negotiated compromise and sound economic principle as the foundation of political rule is so thin as to be practically nonexistent. He need not become, like Hueglin, an Althusiast, but a reading of Althusius would count as a “teachable moment” par excellence. It would make for an interesting meeting of minds, this encounter between an archetypal cool dude, hip as they come, and a bearded ancient in a ruffle, long deceased but undergoing a scholarly revival—at precisely the same time, ironically, that the president’s reputation is in free fall.

Rather than studying Saul Alinsky’s arguably treasonable Rules for Radicals, which as David Horowitz meticulously demonstates has markedly influenced his practice, the president of the United States would have been better served and better prepared for office had he examined the Politics Methodically Understood and Illustrated by Ecclesiastical and Secular Examples—assuming, of course, that he had valid intellectual credentials, as the president obviously believes he does. For what we now call “neoliberalism” or “social reconstruction,” an ideology that the president has palpably embraced, is a political philosophy that Althusius would have stubbornly opposed and, as we now say, “deconstructed.” The only point of contact between Althusius and Obama would involve the idea of “subsidiarity” (social sharing of resources) or, in Obama’s lexicon, “redistribution,” except that Althusian subsidiarity allows for departures from the fiduciary norm as circumstances arise: nisi communi voluntate aliud placeat (“unless something else pleases the common will”).

In the words of Thomas Hueglin, what Althusius wished to achieve was a “pluralized yet shared system of governance,” a political structure based on three central principles of federation. These three federal principles are:

(1)   pluralization, in the form of conferring authority on smaller, internal and to a certain degree autonomous political units, such as guilds and city-states, which Althusius called “consociations.” Today we would focus on the constitutional rights of the individual states in the Union.

(2)   consensuality, or in Althusius’ words, “what pertains to all must be approved by all,” which requires what in the current political dialect we call “bipartisanship.” (In Althusius’ time, it was more like “multipartisanship,” considering the large number of intermediary, preparliamentary communities.) Genuine bipartisanship eliminates the need for unwieldy plebiscites insofar as it subsumes the “will of the people” and is responsive to electoral sentiment.

(3)   fairness, in which all parties subject to a higher authority are consulted with a view to ensuring mutual trade-offs and optimal organization, so that no constituency is made to suffer unduly and its legitimate concerns are honestly addressed without, so far as possible, prejudicing the greater good. In the final analysis, sovereignty is understood as a function of the people and not of the ruler, whose decisions cannot be exercised arbitrarily and imposed without regard to the prevailing consensus. Today we interpret this desideratum as representational integrity and especially the unbiased administration of justice.

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  • Cuban Refugee

    This is a delicious smack-down in which the only weapons are words — my computer monitor still smolders from the fire caused by the meeting between Obama and Althusius.