Year XXVI, 1984, Number 2 - Page 120
Federalism in a Post-Industrial Society
The shrinking world of today is suffering from a serious disease: centralization. It manifests itself in the tendency for functions and resources to accumulate in relatively small areas, dominating the rest of the territory and relegating it to a subsidiary role.
A century ago, the decisive imbalances and tensions of society concerned its vertical structure and set social classes against one another in each state, region, city and village. Now, the front is shifting to the territorial dimension. On the one hand, the improvement of the conditions of life of the working class in the industrialized countries has deprived class-struggle of its character of focal drama in the advanced societies. On the other, with ever growing human interaction, and ever growing incapacity of politics to secure a rational steering of social forces, regional imbalances tend to grow deeper and to become less and less acceptable. Due to the pervasive influence of the media, the attractive images of the better-off are daily conveyed to the eyes of people living in the underprivileged regions, making them aware, by contrast, of their miserable conditions of life and inciting them to leave their homes and settle in the great cities and in their industrialized surroundings. Thus, thanks to the increasing mobility of men and resources, the process becomes self-sustaining.
The main divide of the world to-day is that between the rich north and the poor south. But at every level we witness a dramatic polarization between the congested centre, with a hectic life, and the abandoned periphery. In Western Europe a tremendous concentration of resources and functions has taken place in the triangle comprised between Paris, the Ruhr and London, whereas the southern, western and northern fringes are increasingly deprived of economic and cultural life. At the national level, in countries like France, the imperialist domination of the capital and its region has reduced the rest of the country to the rank of an internal colony. In the regional framework, cities like Milan, or Naples, sprawling wildly in all directions, attract men, wealth and activities from the smaller towns and villages in their regions. These are reduced to the role of dormitories, deprived of life and identity. Nor is this process limited to the industrialized world. On the contrary, the most disastrous examples of territorial polarization exist in Third World countries, like Mexico or Nigeria.
This trend brings about dramatic consequences both for the areas profiting by polarization and for those injured by it. In the former we find congestion, waste of resources and pollution. The latter are plagued by underdevelopment, cultural decline, depopulation and – in the case of the poorest of peripheries, the so-called Fourth World – by starvation. In both areas, life is dehumanized, the environment is degraded and people lose all capacity to adapt their circumstances to their needs.
The great city is the place in which all these tensions and contradictions appear in their most dramatic form. Congested in its centre, deserted on its outskirts, it is the cockpit in which an uprooted humanity pursues a feverish existence, whose meaning it has lost sight of and which it is unable to control. Mental illness, drugs and delinquency are the legacies of an urban development which has lost touch with the most elementary needs of human life.
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Alongside the pursuit of peace, the urban crisis is the main challenge facing the world to-day – and Western Europe in particular. But in order to tackle it with any chance of success, it is first necessary to clarify the cultural aspects of the problem.
The devastating process of centralization all over the world has been both the cause and the product of the culture of nationalism, i.e. the culture which has accompanied the process of industrialization in the whole of the 19th and in the first two thirds of the 20th century.
Nationalism has as its basic tenet the idea that humanity is divided into «natural» communities, totally alien to one another, each of which is entitled to exact the unrestricted allegiance of its members. It emphasizes uniformity and closure as the fundamental aspects of society.
This is true whether this culture appears in the form of traditional nationalism, or is disguised by an insidious form of regionalism, growing today as a consequence of the decline of the nation-state. Such regionalism indeed marks a further backward step, because it applies the national way of thinking to a narrower spatial horizon, and reproduces all its evils without retaining any trace of its historical greatness. But about this, later.
What is needed today is a new cultural approach, founded on pluralism and openness. An approach capable of taking into account the reality of our multiple allegiances and of the anachronism of the division of the world into sovereign nations.
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In order to give some hints of what such an approach might be, it may be useful to make reference to the analysis conducted by the German geographer Walther Christaller, on factors influencing the geographic distribution of human settlements in a cultural environment such as Europe. According to Christaller, for the supply of goods and services, each man belongs naturally to a number of service areas of different size, ranging from the immediate neighbourhood, in which housewives do their shopping, children go to school and where, in general, people’s most elementary needs are satisfied, up to areas of increasing size, within which more specialized services are provided (while a primary school, for instance, normally serves an area comprising a few thousand people, a university caters for some hundreds of thousands and a highly specialized post-graduate research institute for millions).
Such a hierarchy of services corresponds to a hierarchy of central places (i.e. places in a territory in which the «institutions» providing the services are located: hamlets, villages, towns, cities, etc.). In absence of inhibiting factors, maximization of convenience causes the central places to spread out all over a given territory in a balanced and decentralized pattern, as new «institutions» tend to be set up in places inadequately serviced by the existing ones, i.e. mainly on the peripheries of existing service areas.
This is the distribution pattern founded on what Christaller called the «market principle», as contrasted with the «traffic principle» and the «administration principle», which apply when the spontaneous action of demand and supply is influenced by the presence of particularly loaded traffic axes – attracting central places to cluster along them – or by the centralizing force of political power.
Before the industrial revolution made its full impact, many European regions presented a balanced and decentralized structure convincingly corresponding to Christaller’s model based on the market principle. Some of them have kept it up to now (e.g. Tuscany, or Southern Germany). Yet, in most cases, the process of industrialization overthrew previous structures, leading to the disastrous development that gave its present shape to the environment in which so many Europeans must now live.
Let us briefly refer to the many direct and indirect links between the structure of territory in Europe and the industrial revolution.
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The growing interdependence between industrial sectors on the one hand and between industry as a whole and banking, insurance, administrative and professional services on the other has, in the 19th century and in the first two thirds of the 20th, made such functions seek geographical proximity in order to maximize their economic efficiency. Furthermore, the increased mobility of people due to the transport revolution made it possible for workers and customers to cover long distances to reach their places of work or to obtain the services they needed, whereas, previously, capitals and services would have been obliged to move closer to their homes. This way, the growth of the major cities and the congestion of the regions more favourably situated was strongly accelerated. Far from trying to counteract this trend by rational planning, the nation-state, a product of the industrial revolution, encouraged it, as the drift towards centralization of functions matched the demand of the central power to control from the capital, administratively and militarily, the whole of the national territory with the minimum waste of effort and resources. Thus, to cite only the most conspicuous example, the policy of railway and road construction was never conceived by national governments to enable people and resources to flow without hindrance in all directions throughout the territory of the state, but always with the aim of maximizing access for people, goods and services to and from the capital and a few other great cities, thus isolating the peripheral regions from each other.
In this way, many of the natural aspects of human interaction which, with all its poverty and backwardness, gave medieval society its particular variety, have been disrupted. The life of large numbers of people, previously identified with their own neighbourhoods and surrounding areas, were forced into unnatural patterns. Hence the lives of the commuter, the neighbourhood shopping centre being progressively ousted by hypermarkets on the peripheries and the huge week-end migrations to holiday resorts.
As a consequence, community life, the basis of self-government, withers away. Any healthy relationship between town and country collapses. Agriculture suffers from this trend both in the central regions -where it is increasingly pushed back by the advancing urbanization, and the peripheral regions, where it is more and more impoverished by the lack of capital and the loss of vitality of the urban centres of the region. Everywhere the link between man and nature is severed.
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Yet the monstrosity of modern urban life, which has by now become the lot of so many people all over the world, is perhaps a sign that the process is approaching a turning point. The scientific and technological revolution makes it possible to imagine a future in which things could go differently. The crisis of the nation-state, which has taken on a particular dimension in Western Europe, opens up the possibility of doing away with the main political obstacle blocking a reversal of the current trend.
The new mode of production might transform profoundly existing patterns, leading to the decentralization of functions and resources and enabling people to recover a quality of urban life that seems to have been lost. Let us mention some of the most probable consequences of the introduction of new technology which is now under way.
a) The scientific and technological revolution shifts the accent from the production of goods to the production of services, especially of the so-called «quaternary services», viz. those connected with culture and scientific research. Thus, the new mode of production increases the role of human intelligence and individual responsibility as factors of production, at the expense of capital-intensive processes, opening the way to unprecedented possibilities of the decentralization of plants.
b) Automation makes the present worker role obsolete. The trend towards an increasing division of labour within the factory and between the different branches of production is reversed. A few highly specialized technicians control processes which, before the introduction of the new techniques, required the repetitive work of thousands of hands. Concentration of huge masses of workers in the same place tends to become less and less necessary.
c) Data processing dispenses with the excessive division of labour in white collar jobs, shifting repetitive operations onto machines and enhancing the worker’s scope and responsibility. Furthermore, the use of terminals makes possible the instantaneous exchange of information, freeing many functions from dependence on physical proximity. Hence, in the field of administration, banking, insurance, professional services, etc., the need for physical concentration tends to fade away.
d) The increase of the average level of both welfare and culture – which is both the cause and the effect of the introduction of new techniques – makes it possible for many services to be supplied economically and efficiently for ever smaller areas (some decades ago, for instance, a university could only be sustained in a service area comprising some millions of inhabitants, whereas today a service area of two hundred thousand people is sufficient. The same is true of most other services).
The conditions making it possible to realize a decentralized pattern of distribution of urban settlements, conforming to Christaller’s model, are thus coming about again, at least in Western Europe. Furthermore, the emergent mode of production makes it conceivable to go beyond Christaller’s model and altogether bring to an end any hierarchy of central places. We can thus visualize a situation in which every citizen could have access to services of the same quality and quantity, wherever he lives, and in which the difference between centre and periphery, town and countryside would largely disappear.
All this would not mean that the hierarchy of services, dependent on their specialization and hence on their geographic influence, would disappear in its turn. But what becomes conceivable is that: a) with the passage of time, the same services could be provided by a larger number of smaller «institutions», which could thus be dispersed on the territory and brought nearer to the users; b) some complex «institutions», like the universities, could be split up into their component parts (departments, faculties) and these distributed among several central places of the area, concerned; c) the indivisible «institutions» would not all need to be concentrated in the principal town of the area concerned, but could be scattered throughout its territory (thus the ministries making up the central administration of a state could be located in different towns and connected through terminals, and thus remove one of the major causes of congestion in state capitals).
Thanks to the scientific and technological revolution, the idea of the city-region begins to take on a concrete shape. Compactness becomes a less important qualification for urban settlements, with the obvious exception of the urban neighbourhood, which provides the daily environment for face-to-face contact, and where people live near each other, walk about and meet in the streets. Outside this nucleus, all the inhabitants of the region should, thanks to a rational transportation and communication system, enjoy on equal terms the facilities available in other parts of the city-region with a minimum waste of time.
Only in this way can the advantages of modern urban life – i.e. of civilization – be made accessible to everyone without paying the cost of the growing sprawl of the great cities – the main cause of the present degeneration in the quality of life and thus bridge the traditional cultural gap between metropolis and province, town and countryside.
Thus domination of state, regional and provincial capitals, like that of the city centres over their suburbs, would come to an end. People would recover the sense of belonging to each of a series of ever bigger communities, starting from the neighbourhood and extending to the district, region, macro-region, state, continent and ultimately, the world.
It must be emphasized once again that the part of the world in which these new opportunities can best be exploited is Western Europe. It is only Western Europe that meets the essential conditions for such a development, namely: a) a sufficiently advanced stage of technological development, b) an urban network inherited from the past that, though partially disfigured by the industrial revolution and the action of the nation-state, can still serve as basis for effective work of decentralization and c) the real possibility of deliberately overcoming, by the political unification of the continent, the existing structure of the nation-state, i.e. the institutional set up which tends to perpetuate centralization.
But it must also be emphasized that, if the new culture of decentralization makes its appearance in Western Europe, it will, like all the great emancipatory revolutions, spread beyond its borders and serve as an example for the rest of the world.
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Restoring and enriching the original plurality of areas of human interaction would give people an awareness of their composite cultural identity and create a network of intersecting community ties providing the social basis for multiple allegiances.
Such allegiances, as we have seen, were partly eroded by the monolithic ideology of nationalism which, with the help of the centralizing action of the industrial revolution and of the state power, surreptitiously diverted people from their previous loyalties towards exclusive allegiance to a single dominant and artificial community.
Now people can revert to their many old loyalties. It must be emphasized that the aim is not to replace one totalitarian allegiance by another, exclusive one. The object is to acknowledge that people can have multiple loyalties commanding equal respect, none of which is more important than the others.
In the present crisis of the nation-state, some movements and individuals believe that they have discovered, under the umbrella of the «artificial» national community, «natural» communities, usually smaller, with an ethnic foundation, sharing a common natural language, common tradition and even being of common blood (thus sliding into racism). Yet, the truth is that none of these criteria can be used ·to define clear-cut human groupings.
In reality, throughout the world, and with particular evidence in Europe, variation of natural languages (i.e. dialects) merely constitutes a continuum, which makes the tracing of boundaries of definite linguistic regions highly questionable. With the exception of a limited number of cases, wherever we draw the dividing line between two supposed linguistic regions, we usually find that the idioms spoken at the opposite ends of each exhibit far greater differences than those spoken in any two neighbouring places on either side of the boundary; and analogous conclusions could be reached after observing territorial variations of customs, anthropological parameters, etc. There are obviously rare cases in which abrupt changes occur (especially where great natural obstacles obstructed communications for many centuries), even though such leaps are never as abrupt as people normally think, since intermediate forms are always to be found. In any case we must remark: a) that the presence of this phenomenon has nothing to do with the idea of dividing the whole of the European population into a number of mutually exclusive ethnic regions, having by and large the same size, but is related to the totally different problem of the existence of a limited number of minorities, where the linguistic frontiers do not coincide with the political frontiers of the nation-states; b) that no such minority is ever monolithic, as all of them include sub-minorities and areas with a mixed population, so that the problem of minorities and of their protection has always to be envisaged in its multiple dimensions.
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Thus it can safely be asserted that, if the scientific and technological revolution, on the one hand, is creating the conditions that make it conceivable – at least in Europe – to plan an overall restructuring of the territory according to Christaller’s model, on the other hand, no argument of an ethnico-linguistic nature can be advanced to invalidate such a conclusion.
At this point, however, human action has to come in. We must not forget that the scientific and technological revolution presents us only with the technical possibilities of reversing the trend towards centralization. Like any technical device, such remarkable new opportunities may be used by people for good or for ill. The new technologies (computers, atomic power and the new sources of energy, genetic engineering, etc.), if utilized as instruments of power rather than as instruments of emancipation, could accelerate the trend toward centralization instead of reversing it, by enhancing its disruptive potential.
That is why the scientific and technological revolution faces humanity with a challenge – particularly in Western Europe: that of bringing political action and the expression of political will on a par with the new technological possibilities so as to control and direct them towards a revolutionary change in the quality of life.
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What is in question is planning, which must be subject, however, to a number of qualifications. First, it has to be comprehensive. Planning in our context means giving people the capacity to take their destiny into their hands. So it cannot be limited to single sectors of collective life, leaving the rest a prey to anarchy. All essential decisions should be taken in accordance with the general plan, since the evolution of the mode of production has so enhanced the interdependence of human action as to make it impossible to distinguish areas of social life and types of political decisions which would enjoy a real degree of autonomy.
In this view, even the expression «territorial planning» no longer refers to something distinguishable from other descriptions of planning. Territory is by now merely the spatial dimension – a dimension about to become increasingly paramount – of any kind of policy, be it industrial policy, education, defence, agriculture, social security or finance.
Secondly, planning must be democratic. As its goal is not an abstract economic efficiency, measured by quantitative parameters, but improvement in the quality of life, the responsibility of determining its concrete objectives must not be entrusted to technicians and bureaucrats, but has to be, as far as possible, brought home to the citizens themselves, i.e. to those who are the sole legitimate judges of the soundness of the decisions taken.
Finally, it must be diffused, because the quality of life can best be improved by decentralization and decentralization cannot be achieved by centralized decisions. This means that the corporate will of the citizens must form and express itself where the problems exist. One example is the urban neighbourhood, i.e. the framework of everyday life, where the «quality of life» is immediately under stress.
For the democratic will to express itself correctly and not to degenerate into bureaucratic compulsion and disruptive competition between pressure groups, decisions must be entrusted to those who are affected by them. This means that the major part of the decisions implementing the plan must always be taken and enforced at the lowest tier of government, so as to be as close as possible to the needs and hopes of those directly concerned.
Self-government in small communities can, however, only become a reality, i.e. enjoy a real degree of autonomy, if, and only if, their outer environment is in a relative state of balance, i.e. if the problems having a wider application are tackled in their turn by democratic planning authorities of a corresponding jurisdiction. Such a requirement concerns a whole range of territorial spheres of ever larger dimension, reaching to the entire world as, due to the shrinking of distances and the growing interdependence at all levels, many problems are now acquiring, and will increasingly acquire in the future, a world-wide dimension. Suffice it to refer to the need for a fair sharing of energy resources, which are now being controlled, under a regime of oligopoly, by just a few governments.
Diffused planning must therefore be devolved to independent levels of self-government, from the urban neighbourhood upwards. But they must be coordinated with each other at higher tiers of government, ultimately reaching the world level.
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Let us now come to the problem of the political institutions needed for the planning defined above. Independence and co-ordination of different levels of government are, according to Wheare, the essential characteristics of federalism. It is in federalism, therefore, that we find the clue enabling us to visualize the solution to the problem. It must be noted however, that federalism, as an institutional model, cannot be patterned uncritically on the experience of the federations which exist today. On the contrary their example has to be adapted to new circumstances. Let us indicate briefly what are the major novel features of «post-industrial federalism».
1) A post-industrial federal state has to consist of many levels of government instead of the classical two in the American tradition (the nation and the states). Trying to define the criteria for establishing the number of such levels and for tracing their territorial boundaries would take us too far. More than that, finding appropriate criteria for everywhere would be a sheer impossibility, as this would demand detailed field research. What should be accepted, however, is that there is need for more than two tiers, ranging from the urban neighbourhood up, through a number of intermediate tiers (i.e. the district, the sub-region, the region, the macro-region, the state, the continent) right up to the world level.
2) The traditional criterion, in the existing federations, for allocating competences to different levels of government according to the issues to be dealt with, is incompatible with comprehensive planning, which implies that every level of government should be competent on every matter, within the limits of its territorial jurisdiction. In post-industrial federalism, therefore, the division of competences has to be governed exclusively by the territorial dimension of the problems to be tackled (while not in conflict with the principle of subsidiarity).1
3) The area of jurisdiction of the governments at each level need not be exactly confined to the area under the jurisdiction of the government of the next level, but may intersect two or more of them (it might prove necessary, for instance, to create, in Europe, a macro-region on both sides of the Rhine, including parts of Switzerland, France, Germany and the Low Countries). Such an institutional device would conform with Christaller’s theory, according to which the service areas of a given tier always intersect those of the tier immediately above it as new functions tend to concentrate on the edge of the sphere of influence of the existing central places, i.e. in the regions less satisfactorily serviced by them. Besides, in any enclosed spatial frame, market forces push functions towards its geographic centre, as the natural meeting point of converging routes; whereas an institutional setting for the development of overlapping areas of interdependence would counteract any centralizing trend.
4) As the primary goal of planning is to improve conditions of life, it must start where people live, i.e. in the local community. Other levels of government will have as their main task the guarantee of external conditions to secure the independence of the lower tier. Of paramount importance is the electoral system, i.e. the way in which the general will finds its form and its expression. This must be organized so as to interlink all tiers of government from the lower to the higher, to ensure that planning decisions with wider implications take account of those reached within the narrower framework of the lower tiers. In other words, the general will must reach up the whole ladder of the different levels of government, from the lowest to the highest, so that those who interpret it, i.e. the elected representatives of the people, can at any moment be aware that the decisions they are called upon to take represent the consensus emerging from the fusion of subsidiary decisions, whose overall aim is the improvement of the quality of life for ordinary citizens living in the cities, towns and villages.
It is with this view in mind that Albertini proposed an electoral system, according to which the representative bodies of the various levels have to be elected in fixed succession, beginning with the neighbourhood and ending up with the top tier of government. The election would follow a precise timetable, so that the issues debated in each electoral campaign would develop as a result of the previous debates which had already taken place during elections for the lower tiers.
5) Federal bicameralism (a Lower House elected by «one man one vote» with an Upper House representing the component units having equal weight) should not be confined to the general level, as in the traditional federations, but should be extended to all tiers (with the obvious exception of the lowest, which has no component units). Thus it would be possible to counteract the tendency for territorial imbalances to become even more distorted due to the greater electoral weight of the areas where wealth and population has tended to accumulate, as the over-representation in the Upper House accorded to the interests of the disadvantaged regions would provide a corrective to restore the balance.
6) The above considerations are also relevant when considering the structure of the executive. As planning, in a post-industrial federal state, is supposed to become the principal government activity, and as it demands the strict co-ordination of legislative and executive action, it would be incompatible to provide the executive body with an electoral basis different from that of the legislature (as in the presidential system in the USA). It is well known in fact that the American system brings about frequent conflicts between the two branches of government, which would run counter to good and rational planning. Besides, the direct election of the chief of the executive personalizes the electoral campaign at the expense of considered confrontation over the concrete policy issues. Democratic planning requires a debate strictly concentrated on issues.
7) One further important feature made necessary by the role planning is supposed to play in post-industrial federalism, concerns fiscal policy and the control of money. These are in fact two of the most powerful instruments through which central power – in all existing federal governments – has acquired a position of supremacy over the member States. Besides, raising money by taxation is directly related to financing of the plan. A decentralized plan would lack credibility, should the funds necessary for financing it be raised through centralized channels, or by agencies different from those which have to use them. That is why the institutional framework for post-industrial federalism should provide all levels of government with an equal share in the fiscal decision-making process and in the control of money.
8) The last feature of our federal model concerns giving the planning process a constitutional framework. The plan sets the limits within which decisions are meant to be made by public bodies and private citizens. That is why, if the plan is to fulfil its fundamental role, then it must not be left to the mercy of changing parliamentary majorities, but must in a sense become part of the constitution. This has consequences both upon the procedure by which the plan has to be drafted and amended by the legislature of the various levels of government – which must be more rigid than that adopted for ordinary legislation – and upon the competence of the judiciary to control its enactment and compatibility of ordinary legislation with it.
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The cursory remarks made about the institutional structure for post-industrial federalism are not intended to be a readymade recipe for a reform to be undertaken here and now. Some of the suggestions made could only be effectively applied when the basic principle of federalism – the overcoming of national sovereignty – is fully realized right up to the world level. All of them, at any rate, need further and more detailed study.
But the federalist stage of the course of history has now set in, and having a model, however sketchy, of how institutions will have to be arranged at the end of the road could prove essential for guiding the intermediate steps of progress.
The point to which the attention of federalists has to be called is that federalism is a developing theory and that its great tradition of thought, far from making up a fixed corpus of dogma – which is the case for ideas that have already exhausted their historical function – needs constant revision to make it capable of responding to the challenges of the dawning post-industrial society.
1 This principle implies that higher tiers of government only undertake those tasks which cannot be effectively executed at lower tiers.
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