Chapter XX Part IV
The Drive towards Economic Centralisation
The Control of the Purse
Sri Aurobindo traces the genesis of law in relation to the polity to understand how the control of the purse that holds the life-line of a nation shifts from the hands of the monarchy to the people. The shift of the financial power from the monarchy to the people was effectuated in England not through brute force but through a graded series of legislations. Indeed without a development of appropriate legislation in accordance to the shifting demands of the Zeitgeist, the shift of the financial power would not have occurred. ‘Monarchy in its impulse towards a despotic centrality has always sought to engross and struggled to retain this power; for the control over the purse of the nation is the most important sign and the most effective element of real sovereignty, more essential perhaps than the control over life and limb’ (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 449-450). Despite the fact that the administrative side of a national organization has to work in tandem with three principal parts, financial, executive proper and judicial, despotic regimes can usurp this balance for confiscation and despoliation. ‘The financial power carries with it the control of the public purse and the expenditure of the wealth contributed by the society for national purposes, and it is evident that this must pass into the hands of whatever authority has taken up the business of organizing and making efficient the united action of the community. But that authority in its impulse towards an undivided and uncontrolled gestation, a complete unification of powers must naturally desire not only to determine the expenditure according to its own free will, but to determine also the contributions of the society to the public purse both in its amount and in its repartition over the individuals and classes who constitute the nation’ (Ibid, pg 449). A plausible corrective would be to have a system where the ruler has to bargain with the subjects over public contribution and methods of taxation. Obviously such a system needed a consolidation of a portion of vital power in an inferior estate of the realm like a people’s assembly which could be turned against the ruler if needed. This was effectively carried out in England during the rule of the Stuarts.
The British parliament successfully restrained James I who believed in the doctrine of the ‘Divine Right of Kings’ and wanted to increase his own revenues from import and export duties (the tonnage and poundage). In 1621, Parliament adopted the Great Protestation to curb the monarch’s power over the purse. Charles I, son and successor of James I had the same mind-set and began raising taxes without Parliament’s consent. In 1628, Parliament had to pass the Petition of Right that claimed that the king was not above the law. The Long Parliament that was set up in 1640 later passed the Great Remonstrance to assert its right on revenues. Subsequently, the Glorious Revolution in 1688 marked the end of the conflict between the absolutism of English monarchy and parliamentary rule. The Bill of Rights in 1689 advocated free speech protection, power over the purse for Parliament and restriction of regal control over army. Henceforth, the king ceased to be a law-giver and parliament would forever hold the power of the purse while the monarch would just hold executive powers that would become ceremonial with time. A hundred years later, the ripples of that struggle would influence American claim for liberties that got echoed in the Bill of Rights and the great slogan of ‘No taxation without representation’. (www.indepthinfo.com)
Sri Aurobindo highly appreciated the chain of events in England that shifted the power of the purse: ‘the supreme political instinct of the British people fixed, in the struggle with the monarchy, upon the question of taxation as the first vital point in a conflict for the power of the purse. Once that was settled in the Parliament by the defeat of the Stuarts, the transformation of the monarchical sovereignty into the sovereignty of the people or, more accurately, the shifting of the organic control from the throne to the aristocracy, thence to the bourgeoisie, and again to the whole people…was only a question of time. In France, the successful practical absorption of this control was the strength of the monarchy; it was its inability to manage with justice and economy the public purse, its unwillingness to tax the enormous riches of the aristocracy and clergy as against the crushing taxation of the people and the consequent necessity of deferring again to the nation which provided the opportunity for the Revolution’ (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 450).
In the modern age, a representation of the whole nation in one form or the other is claimed by the controlling authority. Yet Sri Aurobindo cautions in his 1917 manifesto that in an increasingly complex global scenario, a mere focus on taxation cannot solve financial problems or address injustice. What is needed is a visionary ‘organization and administration of the economic life of the society which are preparing the revolutions of the future’ (Ibid).
Date of Update:
- By Dr. Soumitra Basu