Federalism, possibility, and feasibility

This post is archived. Opinions expressed herein may no longer represent my current views. Links, images and other media might not work as intended.

When examining the merits of a theory for social reform, we are concerned with the coherence and clarity of the argument, and with its potential for being realised. We also study it in light of principles we already hold, to determine whether it satisfies, substantiates and extends them.

A case in point is federalism, more specifically, the theory which argues for the transformation of the European Union from an inter-state-treaties-based quasi-confederal technocracy, into a pan-European federal republic founded on a codified corpus of primary law.

This positive conception of federalism has nothing to do with functionalist notions of “more Europe” and “more Union”, for these are quantitative approaches to rule formation that do not address the fundamental, constitutional issues that distinguish a sui generis international organisation from a federal republic.

Federalism is, in this regard, a constitutional theory, in that it is about the abstract structure of a polity. By “abstract structure” I mean to denote the following:

  • the inner formation of the polity peculiar to the definition of its subject(s) and object(s), the interplay between them, the agency of legitimacy, the agency of accountability, scope and modalities thereof;
  • the form of the state, as concerns the management and distribution of the various functions that constitute its authority;
  • the set of principles which determine the mode of governance, ranging from the degree of control between the various levels of state, to the procedures and conditions peculiar to the exercise of the state’s authority;
  • the normative criteria and objectives underpinning the polity, which shape and determine the generic qualities of the state: its practical ethical code.

When contemplating federalism we are, at first, wrestling with the specifics of the constitution and, secondly, with devising the tactics that may be used towards realising the ambition.

Even if a certain federalist agenda is coherent it does not necessarily qualify as realisable. Realisability is not only a matter of the item as such, federalism in this case, but of the circumstances and prevailing conditions that may or may not render it actual.

To that end, we should be careful to avoid sloppy thinking: it is one thing to determine whether some theory is possible and another if it is feasible.

Possibility has to do with the potential for realisation across the full set of all available circumstances. When something is possible, it is realisable in some possible world; a world that may not exist in actuality but only as a certain configuration (or range thereof) of inter-operating factors.

In contradistinction, feasibility concerns the realisability of an item in a given set of conditions. In our case, it would be about whether federalism can be applied in the Europe Union as it currently stands.

If we label a theory “impossible” we actually mean that it cannot exist in any possible world. If we consider it “infeasible” we suggest that conditions are such that they do not enable its realisation.

This is not just a matter of semantics or abstract thinking. It is about the practical aspects of a movement for social change. In particular, it encompasses at least the following:

  • when someone examines the theory and proceeds to dismiss it, they have to determine whether they disagree with it on a principled or a practical level: the former relates to possibility, the latter to feasibility;
  • when proponents of the movement think of their own approach to promoting social change, they need to be aware of the potential for its application, so as to labour towards identifying the factors that have to be altered and be rendered favourable for the realisability of the theory.

Federalism and the left

In private discussions I have had with some leftists, they have expressed their concern that federalism in Europe is “impossible”, for there is no chance that, say, Germany and Greece will ever share the same government.

What they really wish to propound is this set of views:

  • in the current state of affairs, there are nation states with competing interests and varying levels of power for pursuing them;
  • a nation state that stands in a position of strength has no interest whatsoever in pursuing an agenda against its own well-being;
  • if “federalism” is to be realised, it will be in accordance with the terms of the greater power, so that it will actually be a kind of covert hegemonism.

These are interesting points in their own account. However, they are not germane to the leftist cause for social reform, for if the infeasibility of a given proposal is to be falsely considered as the impossibility for its realisation, then it follows that the very premise for social change is false, with leftism becoming but an empty shell pursing a vain cause.

The problem with this view, apart from conflating possibility with feasibility, is that it also fails to account for the metaphysics of ontic and noetic objects. Specifically, it does not distinguish between mind-dependent and mind-independent realities.

Mind-dependence entails an immanent possibility for [inter-]subjective change. On a political level, where the context is a nexus of nominal values—a lifeworld—change can occur if those partaking in the experience are made to revise their views, ideas, and outlook. Put differently, political reform can be enacted once there is the minimum necessary consensus for it.

Mind-independence on the other hand is not contingent on the lifeworld. Even if all humans were to agree on changing their opinions and attitudes with regard to, say, gravity pulling us towards the centre of the planet, no change whatsoever would take place.

It is important, therefore, to account for such metaphysics in order not to erroneously perceive of some mind-dependent reality, some social condition, some political state of affairs, as exterior to human [inter-]action.

Coupled with the clarified understanding of possibility, we may tentatively formulate an axiom: all things political can be made different, whereby “politics” is the totality of inter-subjective and inter-objective relations.

Based on the above, and while being a dialectician who is perfectly willing to abandon their views in favour of more cogent [counter-]arguments, what I say to my fellow leftists is that I am not at all convinced by such essentially fatalistic arguments. They presume that the world is fixed.

What I need instead is a qualified discussion, ranging from first principles to activism, which will examine and determine the worthiness of federalism, its desirability, possibility, and feasibility.

The inherently conservative aphorism that “nothing changes” is simply not addressing the issue at hand. It also treats a certain obstacle as insurmountable and, therefore, becomes trapped in its own hesitation, to eventually be deprived of its inner power impulse, remaining in stasis.

To recapitulate, political change is possible but may not be easy or simple: it may not be feasible under the prevailing circumstances. It is one thing to be aware of the difficulties and challenges so that you may think of ways to change them to accommodate your ends; it is another to overstate the particularities of a certain state of affairs and to tacitly exalt it as an immutable reality.

Protesilaos profile photo

Protesilaos Stavrou

EU policy analyst. Philosopher. Web developer.
Full profile