Convegno "Tra sovranità e globalizzazione" - Intervento di Thomas D. Williams

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mondobandierausaIn the context of today’s meeting, sovereignty and globalism refer to different reference points for understanding the primary locus of political activity. Sovereignty would point to the nation-state as the primary player in geopolitical action while a globalist vision would prefer to place this primary locus at the supranational level, either in groups such as the European Union or the United Nations, or to more nebulous realities such as the so-called “global community” or “international society.” 

These two are necessarily competing worldviews, because one must necessarily take primacy over the other when they directly clash. 

For my part, I would like to examine this binomial tension first in the context of the recent presidential elections in the United States, which could be understood at least in part as a victory of a nationalist or sovereignty worldview over a globalist worldview. Afterward, I will offer a few brief reflections on parallels in Europe. 

This debate harkens to an important principle of social philosophy that permits a more nuanced approach.  This principle has been in the background of recent discussions, even though its name has not been specifically invoked. This is the notion of subsidiarity. 

This principle is often misunderstood to refer simply to the furnishing of aid (or “subsidies”) to those in need. In fact, its main intent is quite different. Subsidiarity is a principle that limits government activity to what is strictly necessary, favoring the lower levels of society to take responsibility for everything that they can. 

Even though the word “subsidiarity” entered our political vocabulary only in the twentieth century, the idea has an intellectual history as old as European political thought. Its origins can be traced as far back as classical Greece, and is later taken up by Thomas Aquinas and medieval scholasticism. Johannes Althusius developed the principle in connection with his theories of the secular federal state in the seventeenth century, and one can find subsequent echoes of it in the thought of political actors and theorists as varied as Montesquieu, Locke, Tocqueville, Lincoln, and Proudhon. 

The Latin term originated in the military system of the legions of the Roman Empire—the subsidium was that portion of the troops held in reserve, to be able to assist the front lines when in need—but came also to mean more generally “support,” “help,” “assistance,” or “protection.”[1] 

Even the Roman Catholic Church, which is now more often associated with globalism, has been a major proponent of this core principle. 

As Pope Pius XI famously wrote in 1931, 

Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.[2] 

In the United States, applications of this principle are evident. The federal government should take responsibility only for those things that can only be handled at the federal level, such as national defense, monetary and fiscal policy, interstate highways, etc. The basic rule of thumb for subsidiarity is: if the individual, family, local community or lower level of society can handle a given task, they should be allowed to do so. It is a principle aimed at curbing federal or supranational overreach and promoting local and individual initiative and creativity. 

The Trump revolution—and it can be only called that—is a direct result of people’s instinctive longing to have a say in setting the conditions under which they live, work and raise their children.  It is an appeal to the principle of subsidiarity. People articulate this in different ways, often as a negative reaction to hyper-regulation, heavy-handed government overreach and invasive laws dictating how even the most basic human activities must be carried out. This reaction extends even further, touching upon the often unwritten but fiercely enforced rules of political correctness that impinge upon freedom of thought, speech and written expression. 

This overreach, hyper-regulation and micromanagement are generally and correctly perceived as the fruit of the hubris of an elite vis-à-vis the common man, the higher versus the lower classes and the establishment over the citizens. It is perceived as a sense of superiority that wishes to instruct and conform the masses according to its “enlightened” understanding of the way that world should be and people should think and behave. 

This revolution has left behind not only liberals but also a good portion of traditional establishment conservatives who have been unable to understand or embrace it. The boldness, brashness, brusqueness, and brutality of Donald Trump—while shocking and scandalizing much of the right-thinking establishment—intrigued, captivated and invigorated the forgotten base, making them believe for a moment that political correctness and the “pensiero unico” might not have the final word after all, and that free, independent thought and expression might still be possible. 

Despite their constant lip service to accommodating diversity, the academy and social elites in reality have attempted to impose homogeneity. They have valued consistency, regularity and uniformity over freedom, initiative and true creativity. 

Yet a world where everything has been discovered, thought out, decided and predetermined is ultimately a boring and claustrophobic world, a world that stifles and destroys the creativity of the human spirit. The Trump revolution is ultimately a reaction to this control. 

A year ago, during the U.S. election primaries, British historian Paul Johnson penned a remarkably insightful essay for Forbes magazine on the popularity of Donald Trump. He began by saying that “the mental infection known as ‘political correctness’ is one of the most dangerous intellectual afflictions ever to attack mankind.” He went on to suggest that the best antidote to the political correctness that has infected America is Donald Trump, which was also the best explanation for his immense popularity. 

“It’s good news that Donald Trump is doing so well in the American political primaries,” Johnson wrote. “He is vulgar, abusive, nasty, rude, boorish and outrageous. He is also saying what he thinks and, more important, teaching Americans how to think for themselves again.” 

He continues: 

Under Obama the U.S.—by far the richest and most productive nation on earth—has been outsmarted, outmaneuvered and made to appear a second-class power by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. America has presented itself as a victim of political and economic Alzheimer's disease, a case of national debility and geopolitical collapse. 

And Johnson correctly recognized that “none of the Republican candidates trailing Trump has the character to reverse this deplorable declension.” Johnson was right, and the result was Trump’s victory in November. 

Let us shift gears for just a moment and look to Europe, and especially the relationship between the European Union and the different member states. 

By its own charter, the European Union recognizes a relationship of subsidiarity with the individual states. In theory at least, it imposes upon itself the obligation to limit its intervention into lower forms of social organization, and to perform only such tasks that the lesser group cannot accomplish for itself without assistance. 

The principle of subsidiarity is defined in Article 5 of the Treaty on European Union: 

Under the principle of subsidiarity, in areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Union shall act only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, either at central level or at regional and local level, but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level.[3] 

According to the EU glossary, subsidiarity aims to ensure that decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen and that constant checks are made to verify that action at the EU level is justified in light of the possibilities available at national, regional or local level. 

Adherence to the principle of subsidiarity results in a genuinely pluralistic society, which is a union of lesser societies, each of which maintains its own identity, function, and sovereignty. If the lesser associations are reduced to mere agencies of the higher, the result is the monolithic state which expresses the essence of social totalitarianism, the reduction of all societies to one omnicompetent society. 

In Europe, this genuine pluralism is manifested in the distinctive individuality of the states it comprises, resulting in an authentic “multiculturism.” Italian culture cannot be reduced to a generic “European” culture, and nor can French, German or Hungarian culture. Attempts to so homogenize European norms and regulations so that all member states look and act alike do violence to the rich history and individuality of each people and culture—and deprive Europe and the world of the creativity that lies within these dynamic traditions. 

It seems evident to me that the recent growth of populist movements throughout Europe is a direct result of an instinctive understanding that the fundamental principle of subsidiarity is no longer duly respected or appreciated. A top-down approach to governance, where the smaller is subsumed into or supplanted by the greater, is oppressive and ultimately unsustainable. 

This is where we now stand.


williamsThomas D. Williams

professore di Filosofia presso l’Università di Saint Thomas - Roma

direttore per l'Italia dell'agenzia di notizie Breitbart

[1] See OXFORD LATIN DICTIONARY 1849 (P. G. W. Glare ed., 1982).

[2] Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno.

[3] Treaty of the European Union, art. 5, no. 3.