Prospects And Challenges Of Federalism In Globalization – Analysis


Federalism is basically an integrative device intended to keep different communities or divergent religious, linguistic, racial, tribal or other group identities together united under one nation state. The enactment and adoption of federalism since the World War II had shown how it has been taken to as a means to political unity among the new nations in Europe, South America, Asia and Africa. After more than 70 years we need a new federalism which would build a united nation of a large number of autonomies considered not as subordinates or subsidiaries but as federal partners at various levels, rooted in country’s culture, ethos and genius, and taking into account theweaknesses and needs of making the federal union an ever-developing and lasting reality.

Background of federalism

​Literally and historically federalism is the result of an agreement. It is born when two or more sovereign States resolve to surrender a part of their sovereignty and join hands to constitute a new nation, a federal polity. It is a union without the constituting units losing their own identities. Irrespective of any variant of federal polity, federalism is relevant only in a situation where the pluralism is territorially based, where particular groups are concentrated in separate territorial units or where the societal diversities are territorially identifiable, definable and separable. In fact, in large nations with multiplicity of diversities, federalism is the only way to democracy. The growing popularity of federalism in recent years as a model of political organisation, the survival of the older federation through the challenges posed by changing circumstances like economic crisis and global wars, globalisation and international terrorism and the launching of functional federalism provide a strong justification to a re-examination the whole process.

​The prevailing theories of federalism are -classical, origin theory of federalism and functional theory. In the modern period, the Constitution of the United States, of 1787, is treated as the first experiment in establishing a federal system of government. Hereafter federalism as a mode of political organisation was embodied in the constitution of the Switzerland, the Dominion of Canada and the Commonwealth of Australia. However, K.C. Wheare, a leading exponent of federalism conceded in 1945 that under the pressure of war and economic crises the trend in existing federations was towards a concentration of central powers sufficient in  some cases to threaten the federal principle. But in 1953, Max Beloff noticed that federalism was enjoying ‘a widespread popularity such as it had never known before the traditional practice of upholding the American federalism as the ideal one had become absolete.

Classical theory

​The classical theory of federalism tries to explain first what federalism is?. In line, Lord Bryce, K.C. Wheare gave a traditional concept of federalism. In order to assess whether a constitution is federal or not. He applied the test as follows: ‘The test which I apply for Federal Government is then simply this. Does a system of Government embody prominently a division of power between general and regional authorities, each of which, in its own sphere, is coordinate with the other’s and independent of them? If so, that government is federal. The other outstanding exponents of the classical theory were Dicey, Harrison Moore, Jethrow Brown, Robert Garran. An eminent Australian scholar Robert Garran, while defined federalism as ‘a form of government in which sovereignty or political power is divided between the Central and local Governments, so that each of them within its own sphere is independent of the other.’Lord Bryce added further, ‘the system was like a great factory where in two sets of machinery are at work, their revolving wheels apparently intermixed, their bands crossing one another, yet each set doing its own work without touching or hampering the other’. In order to make the independence of each government real and secure, the classical theorists enunciate the following conditions for a federal system: i. A written constitution, ii. The constitution is to be rigid, iii. There is to be an independent judiciary, iv. Both levels of government directly operate on the life of the citizens; and v. There should be allocation of adequate sources of revenue for the government at each level, general and regional.

​Traditionally the study of federal systems has been focused upon the constitutional and legislative framework within which the two sets of government, one central and the other of component units, operate together. It attempts to explain federalism in juristic terms. Further it enables us to distinguish a federal polity from a unitary state where the constituent governments exercise their powers in subordination to the will and discretion of the general or central government of the whole country. The theory of classical federalism is a static notion which takes the relationship between the national government and the states as something fixed for all times.6 The critics of classical theory also raise objection about the use of the term ‘independent’ to represent the relationship between the general government and the regional governments in a federal political system. ‘Independence’, they apprehend, might mean isolation. But if a federal polity is to be a working system, neither the general government nor the regional government can operate in isolation from the other. For a more appropriate expression of the relationship between the general government and regional governments in a federation, some modern federalists have preferred the words like ‘potentiality and indivisuality,’ ‘coordinate’ and ‘autonomy’ to ‘independence’. To avoid the particular term Professor Livingston had redefined the federal government as a ‘form of political and constitutional organisation that unites into a single polity a number of diversified groups or component politics so that the personality and individuality of component parts are largely preserved while creating in the new totality a separate and distinct political and constitutional unit’.

Origin theory of federalism

The origin theory of federalism explains the circumstances favourable to the establishment of a federal system and which thereby seeks to define the federalism in terms of the circumstantial factors and forces. As such it includes three categories of definitions: i. the sociological theory, ii. the multiple- factor theory, and iii. the political theory. William S. Livingston is recognised to be the first exponent of the sociological theory. The central thesis of the sociological theory is that it is the federal nature of society that gives birth to the federal political system. According to him a federal society is one which contains within its fold elements of diversity. Usually, diversity is caused by differences of economic interests, religion, race, nationality, language, separation by great distances, differences in historical background, previous existence as independent states or separate colonies and dissimilarity in social and political institutions. Another sociological approach was applied by Wildavsky who distinguish ‘social federalism from structural federalism. He cites the Common Wealth of Australia as an example of structural federalism, a framework devised and adopted to retain the unity of the Australian people as a nation. To him the United States serves as a good example of ‘social federalism’ adopted because of the social make-up of territorial, religious and other diversities located in distinct geographical areas, corresponding roughly to boundaries of the states which united under the constitution of 1787 to form the federation of the United States.  

Multiple factors theory

The multiple-factor theory was mainly enunciated by K.C. Wheare and Karl Deutsch in order to explain the origin of modern federations. It takes into account the necessary as well as the sufficient conditions of the birth of federal systems. For this type of federalism, Wheare lays stress on i. the desire for union and the desire for establishing independent general governments, and ii. the capacity to give reality to the desire. Among the factors that together produce the desire for union the most noteworthy are a sense of military insecurity and the need for common defence, a desire to be independent of a foreign regime, a hope for economic advantage, geographical neighbourhood, similarity of political institutions, and previous political associations in a loose treaty system or confederal union. The desire for union must be coupled with a similar desire for independence of regional governments. The desire for regional government is also motivated by several factors namely, previous existence as separate and distinct states or colonies, a divergence of economic interests, geographical factors favouring regional consciousness, dissimilarity of social institutions and so forth. However given both the desires, the desire for union as well as the desire for regional independence and identity, a right kind of leadership with the foresight and vision of statesmen would be necessary, as Wheare maintained, to devise a federal system for accommodating both the tendencies. 

​But in the multiple-factor theory Wheare lays down no criteria to determine capacity and perhaps it meant the capacity of the regional governments to raise the financial resources needed to maintain their autonomy. Although the theory lays emphasis on a combination of several factors that give birth to federalism but it does not adequately explain the creation of federal systems by the process of devolution or disaggregation. In the situation it is necessary to turn to the political theory of federalism which seeks to explain the origin of federal systems formed by aggregation and those established by disaggregation.

Dr. Rajkumar Singh

Dr. Rajkumar Singh is a University Professor for the last 20 years and presently Head of the P.G. Department of Political Science, B.N. Mandal University, West Campus, P.G. Centre,Saharsa (Bihar), India. In addition to 17 books published so far there are over 250 articles to his credit out of which above 100 are from 30 foreign countries. His recent published books include Transformation of modern Pak Society-Foundation, Militarisation, Islamisation and Terrorism (Germany, 2017),and New Surroundings of Pak Nuclear Bomb (Mauritius, 2018). He is an authority on Indian Politics and its relations with foreign countries.

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