Fantasies of Federalism

Samuel Moyn in Dissent:

FederalismA 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?

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