“Bottom up” Organising Principles
Ravi Dev Column
Kaieteur News
April 8, 2007

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In his last letter, Mr Ellis, responding to my proposal for Federalism to be the “organising principle” to create a just Guyanese state, claimed that, “Federalism is a difficult concept in a country that is racially mixed in many areas and in which East Indians, and perhaps Amerindians, have coherence in their racial and political organisations but in which Africans do not. In that circumstance, ethnic distinctiveness can best be conceived from a bottom up perspective rather than from the top down. Bottom up considerations take advantage of the coordinating potential from close personal ties and family relationships in communities, but only if the community boundaries are comprehensively re-drawn.”

Now I do believe that Mr Ellis really misapprehends the essence of Federalist principles -possibly because due to the exigencies of space I had merely alluded to its “substantive and procedural” aspects in my initial proposal. Actually federalism specifically looks at the distribution of power from a “bottom up perspective rather than from top down”.

From a political standpoint, (i.e. from the standpoint of the allocation of state power under a standard of justice) federalism achieves its ends of freedom and autonomy for the people themselves, by diffusing state power amongst a central common government and several region/state/province governments, with each entity having constitutionally defined authority or competencies.

The distinguishing feature of the federal structure is that the powers of each unit is constitutionally defined and those powers cannot be altered unless all of the parties agree to the change. This shifts the balance of power towards the people – who therefore are not “bottom” anymore.

The functioning of both the central and regional governments is based on bargaining and compact – the principle of federal comity. The regional governments' powers are not “delegated” but rather the central government functions in such a manner so as not to infringe on the integrity formers' authority.

Most writers focus on this juridical understanding of Federalism, which stresses rigid divisions of power. Three fundamental rights characterize the legal configuration of the states/provinces/regions: the right to existence, the right to act in specific areas (competencies) and the right to participate in federal/central government.

After surveying the development of the nation-state in the modern era, one can appreciate the insistence that all diffusion of power must be seen as “devolution” of power from a centre. It is a reaction against the premises of most practitioners and analysts of politics, especially Marxists, who conceived of “integration” as making a centralized state even stronger.

Thus even when for whatever reason, a Federal structure was introduced in a country, many viewed Federalism as a form of decentralisation from a centre that remained strong. But the very fact that power must be “de-centralised” (or located from “bottom up”) should alert us to the reality that in most instances of such initiatives, the power still has a centre and since the centre can centralise or decentralise at will; there is always the potential for abuse.

The power structure would still retain a hierarchical pattern with the Federal centre poised on top of increasingly larger layers of first state, and then local authorities. The Federalist approach is to go beyond a mere division of powers and to propose a model where politics functions from many distributed centres.

Federalism, as I am applying it to our Guyanese needs, therefore proposes a matrix of power centres in which there is no hierarchy, since the centres are “non-centralised” rather than “decentralised”. It seeks to diffuse power to such an extent that it cannot be legitimately re-centralised without violating the letter and spirit of the constitution.

In the words of Daniel Elazar, “The measure of political integration is not the strength of the centre as opposed to peripheries – it is in the strength of the framework: both the whole and the parts can gain in strength simultaneously.”

This vision originated with the US experience that turned the traditional allocation of power on its head, when it located power in the people themselves. The US Constitution delegated powers from bottom up – necessitating that the states, which were closer to the people, were the original recipients of the delegated powers. This is particularly unlike the experience of the British ex-colonies (even federated ones), in that the regions/provinces/ states are not creatures of the central government, to be made and unmade at will.

The Federalist allocation of powers span a broad spectrum of governmental arrangements and the precise mix of competencies between central and regional governments are determined by the people themselves as to which level of government could best take care of the task at hand. The principle of subsidiarity, declares that the task should be delegated to the lowest layer that can handle it.

Substantively, Federalism is centred on the values of liberty and freedom – which, because of our history of slavery and indentureship should be core values for our society. It seeks to give life to those values by integrating diverse groups within societies through accommodation, and not obliteration, of their differences.

In the post-modern, post-colonial world there is not only an acceptance, but a celebration of diversities. Federalism thus seeks to achieve and maintain unity and diversity: it addresses the innate need of people (and politics) to unite for common goals and yet to remain separate and preserve their respective integrities.

In organising our society around the principle of freedom and autonomy, Federalism will give agency to the people rather than to the calculus of bureaucratic efficiency. From this perspective, Federalism demands quantum changes in our conceptions about means and ends in politics.

Federalism keeps in focus at all times this concern about means and ends and insists that we cannot intend to have people live in democracy and freedom, while utilising institutions that stifle and restrict the liberty of the people.

In Guyana , Federalist principles would have to infuse the new political culture to give life to the values of democracy while institutional changes would have to initiate and inculcate these values at the personal, social and ideological levels.

In 1795, the philosopher Immanuel Kant noted that the word “Federalism” was derived from the Latin word “foedus” - meaning “covenant” - signalling the contractual basis is the root feature of all Federal arrangements. This implies power to the people. Federalism proposes that people should make free choices in their relationships and these should flow from conscious, negotiated, contractual agreements, as for instance, between groups in a country as to how they would be governed – the crafting of their Constitution.

While there are societies that may have convinced themselves that they, and their forms of governance, have evolved organically from some hoary past, we in Guyana can harbour no such illusions. Even more than other societies, Guyanese who were ruled for so long under rules imposed by others, should acknowledge that the allocation of power within our society, and basic policies must be arrived at through some sort of bargaining.

Even though, as with all contracts, there will be the need to make concessions, negotiations at all levels will ensure that there will be widespread sharing in the decision-making and executing processes. We must have some sort of covenant for governance, which is the basis of Federalism.

Another value facilitated by Federalism suggested by Kant, who contrasted Federalism with “administrative centralism…(which) leads to the loss of liberty of individuals, communities and nations.” He thus spelled out another of the substantive aspects of modern Federalism necessary for Guyana – protection of the individual from big government.

As Kant pointed out, by dispersing power to many centres, Federalism acts to curb excessive concentration of power against the always potentially tyrannical government. In this way Federalism serves the political end of enhancing freedom and thus democracy. This abuse of state power has been a constant in Guyanese history and has to be addressed within any democratic design for Guyana . By creating several, smaller centres of government and power and insisting that policies be executed at the lowest possible level of government (the principle of subsidiarity - articulated of late in Europe ). Federalism facilitates the participation of citizens in the decision-making process and further enhances their freedom and more democracy.

Federalism also addresses the seemingly inevitable and intractable conflict between ethnicity/nationalism and democracy. It combines kinship (the basis of ethnicity) and consent (the basis of democratic government) into politically viable entities through constitutionally protected arrangements, involving territorial and non-territorial politics. This is the central need of politics in Guyana .

In the modern world where groups, especially ethnic groups, have not disappeared into some sort of mélange, and there are far more groups in the world than countries, Federalism performs a sociological function by simultaneously facilitating the integrity of various groups and their input into the political system.

Thus Federalism combines the seeming contradictory impulses present in all societies, but accentuated in plural societies such as Guyana, the need to be united (the principle of solidarity – and shared rule) and the need for groups to live authentically – (the principle of autonomy – self rule).

To satisfy the first need, societies have to engender a unity of purpose to ensure effective governance and this inevitably leads to some form of concentration of power - but with Federalism, this is achieved by shared rule, under a contractual basis.

On the second societal need, Federalism facilitates the freedom and liberty to make one's choices and this inevitably means a diffusion of political power in some sort of shared-rule. In organising around the principle of autonomy, federalism achieves a political compromise – union with autonomy, unity with diversity.

The unitary state originated in conjunction with the movement towards the nation-state during the last few centuries out of the same centralising impulses, for the accommodation of capitalistic economic expansion.

Today, globalisation has moved capitalism to a different level and it is obvious that the autarkic nation-state is no longer needed when even small villages can forge direct links to the global economy. Today there is a simultaneous movement of states towards forming federations while within the individual states, there is a loosening of control over social groups.

Federalism addresses the contradiction of a economically integrated world existing within a politically fragmented one and the twenty-first century will certainly witness an intensification of the movement of statism to federalism occurring during the last fifty years. That seventy-five percent of the countries are now governed by Federalist principles is an acknowledgement of the paradigm shift in the relationship between man and state.