Saturday, January 10, 2015

Books reviewed: Fantasies of Federalism - dilemmas of the Nation-state

Citizenship between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa,
1945–1960 - 
by Frederick Cooper

Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World - by Gary Wilder

Reviewed by Samuel Moyn

The nation-state has always been exclusionary and has often been violent, offending the cosmopolitanism of liberals and the desire of Marxists for solidarity beyond borders. The nation-state has also been a severe disappointment to postcolonialists, who believe that new nations succeeded mainly in creating new elites and perpetuating the suffering of their populations at large...However, for the history of federalism to be more than trivia, it has to be shown that it was actually possibile and that it might have yielded better results than the nation-state.

As Arendt observed in 1946, in Eastern Europe “the restoration of national states, which insist more than ever before on national homogeneity” was the universal norm—a process only abetted by the disappearance of the Jewish people. To complete this picture, Germans who remained in Eastern Europe were brutally forced west. And the nation-state, once declared a relic, emerged from the ashes of the Second World War as a galvanizing and ultimately victorious aspiration far beyond Europe. Rather than reforming to retain pluralistic unity, the British empire gave way to bloody partition in South Asia very quickly...

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In several essays written in the midst of the Second World War, Hannah Arendt advocated federalism as a replacement for nationalism, which she believed had been rendered obsolete. Adolf Hitler had demonstrated the limits of ethnic homogeneity as a basis for political organization. The idea of “the nation” that had set the world on fire had definitively revealed its shortcomings: it failed to hold up when mapped onto territory shared by different peoples and so often ruled by a permanent majority. “Nowhere in Europe today,” Arendt remarked in 1945, “do we find a nationally homogeneous population.” Furthermore, political federalism of some sort had worked for Americans for a century and a half. Why not Europe? Why let nation-states remain the rule? A federation could grant rights to nationalities dispersed amidst and athwart one other.

Arendt’s federalism—recently recovered by historians Gil Rubin and William Selinger—also applied to the Middle East. It would make Jews and Palestinians equal members of some larger political entity, in which each group would have a measure of self-government in their own affairs and a role in collective decision-making. A land of two peoples within the same state, Arendt wrote in wartime, would in the long run merely reverse the Zionist result of Jewish dominance over Palestinians in the area, substituting one hierarchy for another. By contrast, a larger federation would put the two nationalities on par for good, locking in a measure of autonomy and parity of voice. Perhaps the federation would take shape through a decolonized but worldwide British empire, Arendt and others mused. Or, perhaps, at the already vast scale of the Mediterranean region alone. The point was that, there and elsewhere, humanity could transcend the divisive quest for nation-states for good.

Such creative thinking did not bear fruit. The brief enthusiasm for federalism was born out of a loss of faith with interwar democracy, which had been founded in Eastern Europe on the basis of majority rule. But this principle made Jews and others perpetual losers, even though the international regime of the League of Nations was supposed to offer minorities some recourse. Any new configuration would have to respect human beings in their various groupings and go beyond the old solution of protecting minorities from majorities through constitutional mechanisms or international law. But soon enough, it was clear that East European Jewry was dead, and with their destruction, Jewish geography and geopolitics also shifted.

Yet it was not just in Europe and the Middle East that the nation-state—so often viewed in wartime as outmoded or even blamed for the entire conflict—triumphed after the war. As Arendt observed in 1946, in Eastern Europe “the restoration of national states, which insist more than ever before on national homogeneity” was the universal norm—a process only abetted by the disappearance of the Jewish people. To complete this picture, Germans who remained in Eastern Europe were brutally forced west. And the nation-state, once declared a relic, emerged from the ashes of the Second World War as a galvanizing and ultimately victorious aspiration far beyond Europe. Rather than reforming to retain pluralistic unity, the British empire gave way to bloody partition in South Asia very quickly.

A powerful wave of historians insist, however, that federalism was no flash in the pan. They contend that the nation-state was not inevitable, especially when it was time for France to decolonize in Africa. These historians have presented tremendous evidence of what some call a “federal moment”—one which, thanks to the distended process of decolonization, lasted surprisingly long into postwar history. Frederick Cooper is the leader of the group, but several other historians like Todd Shepard and Gary Wilder have buttressed his findings. The implications of their way of thinking are profound. After millennia of imperial arrangements that incorporated different peoples into the same polity, Cooper and others say, there is no reason to regard the nation-state of our time as much more than a historical accident and political mistake—one that perhaps ought to be undone.

In an era of revulsion towards nation-states, and especially nation-states in postcolonial circumstances, we can appreciate why the story of federalism might be worth recalling. Is there anything else besides the nation that otherwise implacable enemies—liberals, Marxists, and postcolonialists—can more easily agree about, if only to agree in what they hate? The nation-state has always been exclusionary and has often been violent, offending the cosmopolitanism of liberals and the desire of Marxists for solidarity beyond borders. The nation-state has also been a severe disappointment to postcolonialists, who believe that new nations succeeded mainly in creating new elites and perpetuating the suffering of their populations at large.

However, for the history of federalism to be more than trivia, it has to be shown that it was actually possibile and that it might have yielded better results than the nation-state. Neo-federalist historians rarely take it upon themselves to solve what ought to be the central puzzle: why did the nation-state model win out, when the alternatives were supposedly so compelling?

In 1945, the defeat of the Nazis provided a window of opportunity for the colonized world. This was especially true for the French empire, since its metropole had fallen and a new republic had to be crafted from scratch. And debts were owed to colonial subjects who had served in the war: a black colonial official from Guyana, Félix Éboué, had kept French Equatorial Africa out of the clutches of the Vichy revolution at home, and he was praised for saving the honor of the empire.

Charles de Gaulle attempted to ratify the continuation of the French empire at the Brazzaville conference in 1944, where he flew to meet with his Free French compatriot Éboué. But events and new pressures for a fair deal periodically shook arrangements. Among others, Senegalese politicians Mamadou Dia and Léopold Sédar Senghor exploited these opportunities, first in 1946 when the Constitution established the Fourth Republic, and then again in 1958, when the Algerian war prompted the creation of the Fifth Republic, with its own new constitution.

As the constituent assembly for the 1946 charter loomed, it was revolutionary for colonial subjects to enjoy political representation. Men like Senegal’s Lamine Guèye and Côte d’Ivoire’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny—after whom laws abolishing colonialsubjecthood in favor of republican citizenship and criminalizing the common colonial practice of forced labor were later named—could now express their interests. Although they were no longer imperial subjects, however, Africans were still second-class citizens. Almost no Africans could vote on the constitution, which called for detailed laws establishing different rights and responsibilities depending on where one stood in the federation or “French Union,” which had replaced the empire. When that constitution was voted down, it became a matter of preserving the basic formulation of formal citizenship without real equality in the next constitution, which was finally ratified in late 1946.

For ten years, and then after the passing of the fateful “framework law” of 1956, which in retrospect created the basis (including territorial lines) on which decolonization took place, Senghor and others maneuvered for a fairer and more egalitarian federation. Later, with the advent of the Fifth Republic in 1958, the French Union became the “French Community.” Dia and Senghor understood that the result of nationalism would be to sever the old colonies from the wealthy metropole and to leave them free and sovereign but poor and isolated. So they entertained various schemes and experimented with different visions of federalism that would preserve the relationship of the old imperial territories with metropolitan France as well as with a more local “confederation” for French West Africa.

And then it all quickly came to an end. By 1958–60, the very maneuvers that had aimed at crafting a fairer hierarchy between France and its “community” ended up undoing the federalist structure. Summoned to the presidency to save the republic from the Algerian war, Charles de Gaulle ultimately decided to let Algeria go in 1962. De Gaulle was initially desperate to maintain sub-Saharan Africa as a federation for the sake of France’s grandeur. But he was unable to do so on terms that Africans—now empowered by the federation—found acceptable. Africans were allowed to vote on the 1958 constitution, but two years later, they declared sovereign independence. (Sadly, Senghor soon became an autocrat and purged Dia, among other former allies.)

Frederick Cooper’s Citizenship between Empire and Nation—which painstakingly reconstructs this narrative—is the culmination of a long historiographical campaign. Initiated years ago with Empires in World History (written with Jane Burbank), its goal is to show how late and contingent the rise of the national form to global dominance really was. Cooper has another new book out, Africa in the World, which presents the argument in its most abbreviated form. But Citizenship between Empire and Nation is where to look for the details, and it is nothing short of a masterpiece... read more:


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