Confederation, federation, and the European left

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As the concepts of “left” and “Europe” are somewhat vague, I produce this essay in awareness of the possibility that all statements herein may not apply in specific cases. In other words, I rely on a degree of abstraction without implying that any of the entities discussed are anyhow monolithic, while I trust in the reader’s intuition and prior knowledge to grasp my argument.

By studying the range of ideas found in the milieu of Europe’s left-wing politics, we discover that age-old tendencies for political organisation are extended to arguments for the preferred form of pan-European political union. In the present essay I elaborate on two such approaches: confederalism and federalism.

Confederation as decentralisation through separation

At its core and positively understood, the idea of a confederation among leftists can follow from anarchist premises on bottom-up organisation.

Groups of people organise themselves on the platform that best suits their needs and aspirations. Then they proceed to cooperate on a broader, higher-level basis with other groups that could not otherwise conform with the criteria set out at the lower-level.

Popular movements can thus arise that attempt to achieve the two-fold objective of (i) localised autonomy and (ii) class/social consciousness. Couched in those terms, it may not come as a surprise that the most leftist group inside the European Parliament, the GUE/NGL, is in fact a confederation of national parties.

What confederalism aims at in order to maintain both of its objectives, is separation at every level. The bane of a confederation is the centralisation of authority. Yet in the very presumption of fusion as inimical to its ends lies the very antinomy of the confederal mode of organisation. Autonomy is perceived as germane to the group or to locality, instead of being treated as an emergent state of affairs that can arise from the promotion of the general good of the movement.

In this regard, autonomy is not value-free: it is inseparably attached to the local group. By that token, the confederal mode effectively alienates individuals within the group to the group itself, which is, from a top-down perspective, conceived as the agency that exercises autonomy.

The result is a tension that may become acute, manifesting in a two-way sectarian drive both with respect to the group and the movement, where every side exalts an aspect of the truth as the most important one and proceeds to present itself as the purest, most faithful of the leftists.

On autonomy and as seen from the experience of the individual person, their very capacity to make choices, the concatenation of epiphenomena perceived as free will, is actually enhanced within the social milieu. A person, by being dependent for their well-being on other persons, is empowered to pursue a set of choices that is superior in quality and quantity from what they could and would have achieved in isolation.

Reductionism on the issue of autonomy can be the cause of the unit’s ideological rupture with the ends of the movement. The confederation’s premise, at least as the present author understands it, of “decentralisation through separation”, can be the very source of reductionist propensities at the theoretical level and sectarianism on the activist front.

If the inner structure of a movement is any indication, the extension of the confederal modalities to the European Union is likely to create a system that presupposes national sovereignty, that treats national autonomy as its midpoint.

Autonomy then becomes a value that is falsely yet inadvertently associated with the nation state, disregarding both the broader meaning of the capacity for self rule as well as the historical-cultural magnitudes in which the nation state was rendered as the most preferable type of polity.

In a European confederation, sectarianism will also be present and will assume the form of open opposition to the European level and/or to other nation states therein.

Federation as decentralisation through fusion

Perhaps confusingly and from the left’s vantage point, anarchism can also be considered as the theoretical fountain from whence the federalist mode of social organisation springs. Both theories aim at decentralisation, which is the practical application of the principle of “no authority”, i.e. no central locus of power, which can be abused to the detriment of individual and collective liberty.

In contradistinction to the confederal mode, and at least as I see it, decentralisation is to be achieved through a fusion of interests, whereby each interest is examined in proportion to its scope in order to determine its reach. In this light, the principle of subsidiarity can be understood as the essence of a federation.

To a federation the autonomy of the units is crucial, yet it is not limited to them. This is an emergent quality that is made substantive within a broader context of inter-subjective and inter-objective relations. As such, the agency that is supposed to exercise autonomy is inter-personal, social, popular.

Groups of people will still organise themselves along the set of values they choose and will proceed to engage in a broader movement, yet the movement’s normative objectives transcend the boundaries of the individual or the group. In that regard, a federation’s goal is not localised autonomy, but only autonomy at-large from whence locality may partake of.

On the issue of the European polity and how existing nation states are supposed to form a common political order, federalism can be considered as the theory that appreciates the nation state as a product of modernity that performed a number of important functions while achieving several democratic and social ends in its specific historical context.

In the 18th and 19th centuries there were overlaps between democratic and nationalist (as in pro-nation-state) movements that laboured to overthrow the ancien régime, as there also were overlaps between political outlooks that would otherwise stand in opposition to one another. Important historical figures of libertarian thought such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Frédéric Bastiat, whose views differed substantially on some key issues (such as property), happened to both be positioned on the side of the progressives [they even had a very interesting exchange of letters, see here].

In early modernity, the demand for popular sovereignty could afford to be fastened upon the romanticised notion of the nation as a transcendent entity, given that [representative] democracy could only be realised in a national context.

In that era, technological as well as perceptual constraints would decisively hamper any effort for trans-border politics over an extended range of issues. The construct of the democratic nation state was a practical and pragmatic solution.

The important insight to be drawn is the distinction between the democratic and nationalist movements. They did indeed overlap, yet they remained distinct. Democracy could only be national democracy under the circumstances. That specific context no longer exists and with the prevailing conditions being in a state of flux, our understanding of democracy had better not remain trapped in a time capsule.

What decades of European integration have achieved, in spite of all their shortcomings, is to increase awareness among Europeans as to their manifold commonalities and the potential therein for trans-border cooperation. By “commonalities”, I allude to a set of ethical values that can be at the core of any future constitutional order.

I believe Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union is an excellent representation of the kind of shared ethos I allude to. Here is the text:

The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.

Coupled with important advances in communication technology the idea of having politics and the corresponding public sphere on a grander, European scale does not appear as a mere ideal, but a realisable ambition to be made manifest in the formation of the first European republic, a federation founded on a codified constitution that will supersede the existing inter-state-treaties-based EU/EMU.

Place and space

I think the magnitudes of place and space are essential to the leftist cause. Social justice and popular sovereignty are universal values that have to enjoy global application for them to be enjoyed in their fullest, even when they are in force at some locality.

Hegel’s master-slave dialectic provides the parallel to that claim, where there can be no truly independent consciousness so long as there is a master who necessarily has a slave in order to be such and vice versa. Similarly, the American movement against slavery, as encapsulated in the works and acts of such intellectual lodestars as Henry David Thoreau, is another indication of the need to remain adamant on the universalisation of justice.

In light of all of the aforementioned, I think these two magnitudes taken together can be used as the criterion with which to examine the various leftist tendencies on the issue of a European polity. As a rule of thumb, I would argue that those who prioritise the place are localists and would more likely pursue a confederal mode of organisation, while those who emphasise the space are cosmopolites and would more probably proceed with a federalist agenda.

That noted, the interests of place and space are not necessarily in conflict, though they can be in a given political order that engenders asymmetries and, hence, structural injustice. For instance, Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union may be a certain space, yet it clearly does not benefit all places as well as classes of people fairly and proportionately, nor does it have the potential to deliver democracy on a larger scale (in case you are new to my writings, see all posts tagged with “Actual Europe”).

If Europe’s left may appear as divided over issues concerning European integration, it is so because within this leftist milieu there exist different approaches for the actualisation of an otherwise common set of objectives: (1) decentralisation, (2) popular sovereignty, (3) social justice, (4) ecology.

From a leftist standpoint, there is no tension whatsoever between the normative ends of popular sovereignty and European unification. In a globalising world an isolationist stance can only diminish the scope for popular will-formation. On the flip-side and just as with the importance attached to individual/group/local autonomy, federalism cannot be a theory of a European nationalism, nor the cheerleader to any kind of European construct, for the European context is also circumstantial and subject to change, while not all modalities of integration are rendered equally valuable by virtue of their stated objective.

In other words, aspects of European integration are desirable insofar as they remain compatible with the leftist objectives, while Europe itself is not a physical expanse where the progressive agenda will complete its life cycle. European unification is in itself an intermediate arrangement towards the global telos of universalising justice, abolishing the control of human by human, and rolling back human’s abusive dominion over nature.