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On Federalism, Nation-States, and Other Matters

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Heilbroner’s contention that our “sense of identification,” which is to say, identification with persons or groups of persons we tend to affiliate and bond with, is limited to national identification at best; that rarely if ever do we transcend the ethnic bond so as to become a part of something that’s greater than us, a part of something that’s also meaningful and lasting, like a brotherhood of men, for instance, or people of a kindred spirit, whatever! is the weakest link in his chain of reasoning. Everything else, including his positing of nation-states as though the ultimate in our political arrangements, as our crowning achievement when it comes to political organizations, follows.

Never mind that Heilbroner marshals reasons, some of them cogent, others less so, in support of his thesis, namely, that nothing short of resolute political authority can stave off the global dangers and challenges facing humankind; considering the paradigm he’s working with, we may agree with him to a point. It’s his claim that the requisite kind of authority must reside in nation-states and nation-states alone which is in dispute here and which gets him into all sorts of difficulties. And if we proceed on the assumption that global problems and challenges facing the human prospect require global solutions, nothing but, a fairly straightforward assumption, I should think, not only when taken at face value but also in terms of Heilbroner’s own project, then we can’t help but conclude that he failed miserably.

One example should suffice. As part of genuine concern with our ability to meet and to respond to global challenges which face us, we can’t fix our sights on the immediate present alone, to the exclusion of everything else, but must concern ourselves with the future as well; with the future of our children and grandchildren, and so on and so forth; and the reason is obvious: some of the dangers Heilbroner is alluding to, for instance, global warming or the eventual depletion of Earth’s resources, grave and impending as each may be, aren’t likely to impact the present generation sufficiently to require us to alter our lifestyles, and drastically so, only the future ones. In short, the proper stance on behalf of anyone who, just like Heilbroner, is truly concerned with the survival of the species, and the planet, is to take the long view. Which is exactly what he does, as he invariably must. His last chapter, in fact, a fitting conclusion to the Inquiry, bears a catchy title, “What Has Prosperity Ever Done For Me?” Rhetorical as this question may be, we’re treated there nonetheless to all the right answers: we do bear a definite responsibility to future generations, to the future of humankind!

But here’s the catch, Catch-22 if you like! Since Heilbroner is so utterly convinced that national identification is the best we can do here and now, that generally speaking it is contrary to human nature to form bonds and affiliations which transcend ethnic and/or national boundaries, what’s the cash value of saying that we can ever break the pattern and do the unexpected, if not now then soon? There’s no basis whatever for making this kind of inference! If the Yanks can bond and associate only with other Yanks, and if the same goes for the Mexicans and the Frenchmen as well, and so on and so forth, then how can we possibly bond with future generations? Generations of nondescript ethnic or national origin, much less with the entire human race, or in fact, with all “those who are [still] living, those who are [already] dead, and those who are [yet] to be born,” if we can’t do so here and now? The whole idea is preposterous and building upon it is like building on quicksand. Yet, this is exactly what’s required of us if we are to take the long view, determined as we may be, indeed, as we must be, if we’re to repel the global dangers and challenges which face us. The bottom line is, Heilbroner’s just too caught up in the web of contradictions of his own making, to make any sense at all. He’s simply incoherent on the subject. The very idea is incoherent!

Now, let’s be clear about one thing: it’s Burke’s idea that Heilbroner is regurgitating here. But Burke’s idea wasn’t meant to apply to humankind at large, only to a human society in a particular space and time; one bound besides by a set of common norms, values and mores, ways of habit, ways of thought and ways of doing things; bound by a shared ethos, however defined or circumscribed. Hence Heilbroner’s rather incessant stress on national identification in order to provide Burke’s immortal words with a proper context, one as wide as possible, so as to endow those words with their proper meaning. But it all falls short in the final analysis if the object is humanity itself, all of humanity, that is, there being no limits, no boundaries, no borders. So yes, if the object is to come up with global solutions to global problems, nation-states, independent and forever warring nation-states, is definitely not the way to go. For all his erudition and sophistication, and some two hundred years or so of hindsight to boot, Heilbroner had not advanced very much beyond Burke; and the same is true, I’m afraid, of conservative thought in general.

Macpherson’s words, by contrast, are like a breath of fresh air:

From this [technical change in the methods of war, and all that it implies, is Macpherson’s major concern], the possibility of a new rational political obligation arises. We cannot hope to get a valid theory of obligation of the individual to a single national state alone. But if we postulate no more than the degree of rational understanding, an acceptable theory of obligation of the individual to a wider political authority should now be possible.

Make note of the operative term here, “a wider political authority.” An independent nation-state will no longer suffice, not even a network of independent or interdependent nation-states. From Macpherson’s radical standpoint, the reason is they no longer command the requisite kind of authority, because their legitimacy to govern is no longer intact. From the global standpoint, the standpoint of being able to come up with global solutions to global problems, surely a degree of cooperation is required between said nation-states in order to get the ball rolling, if not immediately or in any formal kind of way, then soon thereafter, and when the time comes and the air is cleared, formally so as well.

To tell the truth, I find it rather telling that Heilbroner, for all the time and effort that had gone into writing the Inquiry, is silent on both counts: (I) questions concerning legitimacy to govern (and the related problem of social justice) are simply bracketed because the very paradigm within which such questions arise is accepted without question; and (II), even the question of arriving at global solutions by a network of independent or interdependent nation-states supposedly working in tandem, surely one of the major concerns which had prompted the Inquiry in the first place, is not given its proper due and is simply assumed.

Again, there’s nothing wrong per se with making such an assumption (we do it all the time), for it’s a fact of life that common interests, especially when they assume the form of perceived threats and dangers which are deemed to affect all the interested parties equally, do make for very strange bedfellows indeed. And we don’t need any sci-fi scenarios or highfalutin tales to convince us of that, the evidence abounds of peoples, entire nations in fact, reaching out to form all kinds of alliances and allegiances which happen to transcend the traditional configuration given by the present-day network of independent nation-states, from global-warming/climate-change conferences to the economically-based hybrid which goes by the name of EU. Again, there’s nothing odd about that! But it goes without saying, and it is in this respect that Heilbroner’s comprehension has failed him, that all such instances of “reaching out,” even if they don’t translate to immediate successes and their lifespan may be short-lived at first, are surely an indication that something is rotten in the state of Denmark; that the present political configuration given by a network of independent or interdependent nation-states, leaves a great deal to be desired; that something new and exciting is afoot, a movement that, given time, may well free us from the political stranglehold, the straitjacket we’ve all been wearing and laboring under, that it may eventually help us loosen some of the constraints with which we’ve been saddled, the institutional straps, and provide us with a basis for hope.

In any case, it’s a beginning, a new and exciting beginning, I daresay. But Heilbroner, in his obstinacy, is forever blind to the possibility, forever clinging like a drowning man to the concept of ever reigning nation-states, reigning absolutely and unconditionally, even down to the end of history. And there are only two reasons for this: first, his obdurate belief that, when faced with an imminent danger, people will tend to support and obey even the most authoritarian of governments simply because they’ve been conditioned to do so from the get-go; and second, a corresponding and equally obdurate belief, this time unexpressed but implicit nonetheless, that nation-states, thus encouraged, are unlikely to relinquish even parts of their sovereignty under the circumstances.

But surely, the first is a dubious proposition if ever there was one. And as to the second, who is to say what nation-states will or will not do when push comes to shove? Who can vouch for their behavior, for anyone’s behavior, in fact, when the common good is at stake? All that we’re entitled to say at this point, we’re in the realm of speculation, nothing but guesswork. One thing, however, seems certain: we need to rethink the concept of federalism, to re-invent it if we must, if we are ever to supersede and move beyond the notion of nation-states reigning supreme as the sole bearers of ultimate political authority. What we need is a new concept, one that might hopefully combine both our need to listen and to agree, a concept that would encompass the idea of self-government, a form of government that would be based on both, and in equal parts; a decision-making process commonly adhered to and consensus as well. A tall order you say? But why not? I counter. Should we aim for anything less?

In any event, I’ll tend to these and related questions in due time. For the time being, however, let me leave you with the following thought: If there’s a moral to this story, a fitting conclusion to the recent series of essays on Heilbroner and his magnum opus, it’s got to be this (and I’m referring here, however indirectly, to a recent article, “Economics and Politics: Against Vulgar Marxism,” just so you get your bearings):

Politics trumps and supersedes all other human arrangements and forms of organization, social or economic, because in the final analysis, only politics is about justice and nothing but justice. Consequently, only a political solution, properly conceived and executed, can make the required kind of difference, the only difference that counts, because only politics can establish the reign of justice, not only here and now but forever!

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About Roger Nowosielski

  • pablo

    Interesting article.

  • roger nowosielski

    Thanks for vote of confidence, Pablo.

    On a related note, let me refer you to an article published recently in “Crooked Timber” (and the comments space as well) on a somewhat similar subject — if the subject can be properly termed as “envisioning Utopias” — though from a different, more technical and historical perspective than the “conceptual perspective” (which propels my article): “Envisioning Real Utopias”.

    (I owe this reference to Anarcissie.)