Monday, January 10, 2005

Federalism, Multi-Polar Hierarchy and the Solution to Iraq?

I'll start this out with a rather loaded question: solution to what??

Before I answer that, let's take a look at how a federal system might work in Iraq, and then we'll see if it meets any faction's idea of a "solution":

The fundamental problems in Iraq are several, but here are the big ones. 1) Oil and population are not evenly distributed, so tribes/ethnic groups living near oil want a larger allotment of the revenue, and tribes/ethnic groups not living near oil want that revenue shared equally. 2) Iraq is a fiction of British colonial cartographers--the lines in the sand do not reflect that many Iraqis look to Iran or Saudi Arabia for spiritual solidarity and leadership, nor that primary loyalties normally fall at the tribal-group level, not the state level. 3) There is a division through all levels and groups in Iraqi society between the desire for secular power (in a multitude of forms) and the desire for religious power (in a multitude of forms), which manifests in the various Islamic extremist groups and actions in Iraq.

Federalism was formalized in America to solve an internal division superficially similar to those facing Iraq: the founding fathers recognized that the US government must be set up to provide for effective central control and coordination, and appropriate influence by the more populous states and interests, while protecting the individuality and influence of the smaller, less populous states and local groups. For most parties, and for a while, this system worked fairly well, although there is no question in my mind that it collapsed completely long, long before I was born. The problem of adapting such a federal solution to Iraq is that, even in theory, federalism only works to overcome a single dichotomy (which is why it eventually failed in the US, which has multiple, if less distinct and divisive, poles of power). In Iraq, with multiple dichotomies, each with far more nuanced difficulties than faced a fledgling America, such a model simply will not work.

A Federal system will not solve the problem of distribution of oil revenues. Even if factions that want to profit from what they see as "their" oil will submit to a compromise of pooled revenue and distribution by population (or some similar scheme), the fact that there are competing an overlapping power structures that will want to receive this distribution invalidates this scheme. Tribes, religious groups, provincial governments, ethnic coups, etc. will all need to be cut in on the compromise. The difficulty of reaching compromise with such an interwoven and blurry set of interest groups is nearly impossible. It can, of course, be an "imposed compromise", but this will only result in those groups being imposed upon resorting (or continuing to resort to) violence.

Federalism will not resolve the problems created by British cartography, as it depends upon the drawing of lines in the sand, not the dissolution of the importance of these lines which, in Iraq, are one of the core sources of division. With interest groups, factions and loyalties overlapping into a muddy confusion, any attempt to make clean-cut divisions will fail--especially when the overlapping divisions are as powerful-yet-blurry as the distinction between secular government and Islamic government--a distinction that is especially powerful because of its cultural history in the region.

So, while it may be a cop-out from answering my original question of "solution to what?", I will simply answer no. Federalism is not the answer to the problems in Iraq, whatever they may be. There are more superficial reasons why federalism won't work being discussed on the news, such as the division of Kirkuk oil revenues, but in the end this is a a structural problem: Iraq is a landscape of highly multi-polar hierarchy, and any attempt to create a uni-polar hierarchy without removing the multi-polar nature of the region will fail.

Landscapes of multi-polar hierarchy are very challenging--simple models and solutions just do not function in the presence of such varied and lasting calcifications of history. While I think that localization and evolution towards a non-hierarchal, rhizome system is the best a"solution" to a world of highly multi-polar hierarchy, it is not a panacea, and will require time to wear down the old pathways of power. But the tendency of hierarchy to evolve unitary, if superficial structures will only fail in light of the memory and history of past (but asynchronous) hierarchies. It's like trying to build a house on the ruins of another house that has not been fully demolished, and repeating the process over and over again... any contractor will tell you that such a home will only be stable if you scrape away to the foundation and start over.


Jeff Garzik said...

I'm not as pessimistic about the distribution of oil revenue. The U.S. state of Alaska, and a few oil-producing countries, solve the problem by giving every ( head-of-household | taxpayer | citizen ) a monthly or yearly stipend. Other times, the bureaucrats hold onto the money, providing instead free services to the citizens.

Iraq is far from the only country that bureaucrats fight over how to best handle money. :)

Jeff Vail said...

I agree that the US has its share of politicians fighting over the distribution of monies. What it doesn't have--and Iraq does--is deep historical divisions about who rules who and who gets the lions share of the rewards. The closest things in the US are the history of disenfranchisement and discrimination against the African American and Native American communities. While from a moral perspective these are quite similar to some of the issues in Iraq (who was here first, who is here against their will, who is "entitled" to reap the rewards of "natural resources", etc.), in a realpolitik sense they are very different: The Native Americans don't represent 60% of the American population (as the Shi'a do), and the African Americans don't (more pointedly--in a historical sense--DIDN'T) have a pan-regional religous movement or a nieghboring nation of 60 million willing to go to war for them.

The key to the difference is that Alaska is an excellent example of a clean-cut organizational model. While there are technically two poles, two hierarchies (state & federal) with some degree of real power, they are very distinct from each other, and one (the state) has long ago agreed to ceed real power to the other (federal gov.) in exchange for some well-deliniated areas of autonomy (distribution of oil wealth). Iraq has multiple interwoven and conflicting hierarchies with overlapping constituencies and very fuzzy boundaries, with millenea of history to complicate matters--the relatively simple and successful efforts of Alaska would fare very poorly if applied to Iraq. Several opposing poles want total power, and have the means of physical power to make their desires heard...

Take just the Northern oil fields, for example: Located in and North of Kirkuk, the Kurds would love to control them (within their historical ethnic terrirory) as an engine to their newly autonomous economy. But the Sunni that have been forcibly migrated to the region (under Saddam) don't like that idea. And the Sunni in traditional Sunni areas expect to continue to control this oil wealth themselves--as they have throughout recent history. The Turks don't want the Kurds to get control, as they fear that will finance a Kurdish independence movement within their own borders, but the Kurds have the strongest military force of any of the regions ethnic groups. Of course, if (when?) a Sunni/Shi'a civil war breaks out over other conflicts, the Shi'a may well sell out their present allies (the Kurds) to win concession or peace from the Sunni. The crux of the problem is this: multiple overlapping BUT AT THE SAME TIME exclusive groups want complete control over the Kirkuk revenues, and all are relatively large (population-wise) and control private militias and paramilitaries forces which they have demonstrated the will to use towards their objectives.

A mess.

Anonymous said...

I do not know whether I disagree with your conclusion, but the analysis that leads you to that conclusion strikes me as flawed in the following ways.

First, federalism is not a system designed to deal with specific distributive questions like who in the population should own or benefit from oil revenues. That’s akin to asking how separation powers between the different branches of government would solve the problem of how much tax revenue to raise. The question itself is a non-starter. Federalism, or a division of powers between national and local governments, is first and foremost designed to act as a check upon the exercise of the powers of both. (And no, federalism was not a compromise, equal representation in the Senate was.) Just as separation of powers, or the division between the powers of particular branches of government, is designed to act as a check on public power. So will federalism solve the problem you laid out: the answer is clearly no, but then again it was never meant to. Moreover, the fact that some of the problems are due to cartography, it does not follow that drawing more lines (perhaps with dashes if you like) would not be a move in the right direction.

Second, and on the other hand, federalism may be able to do a great deal in terms of dealing with ethnic strife and discord and trying to meet the needs of a nascent pluralistic society. Federalism, not even according to its most ardent supporters, is intended to work by itself. However, a federal structure which granted some degree of autonomy to ethnic groups inhabiting a specific geography may, in part, satisfy each group’s desire to be self-determining.

Third, you advocate instead a “non-hierarchal, rhizome system.” I can only assume that this is an autopeoetic model for the distribution of power in society that attempts to draw paralells between organic self-contained and self-regulating sysetms to political systems. Perhaps this is a solution, but this is poorly spelled out. Moreover, its highly questionable whether autopeoetic theories can be applied to real political situations. I simply note that hierarchy is not necessarily a bad thing. The real question is, in what way can those subject to power, call those in power to account for its use. (We can’t all be generals.)

Fourth, you are unclear as to what a multi-polar hierarchy means and how it relates to your overall analysis. In a simple hierarchy of power, the entity at the top has the most power, and the entity at the bottom has the least. There could be a multipolar hierarchy to the extent that two seats of power share similar powers and are permitted to exericise them concurrently. Though you seem to believe that American federalism is dead, this in fact describes part of the relationship between the federal government and the American states. (Of course there are other models, like Canada and its provinces, and Germany and its Lander.) In one sense the U.S. has one of the most robust systems of federalism since federal law treats states, for some purposes, as coequal sovereigns, with all the attributes of sovereignty. (e.g. a state cannot be sued without its consent). Moreover, to appreciate the complexity of the workings of American federalism, don’t just look to politics, you must look to the courts. (See the Supreme Court’s landmark case Erie v. Tompkins Railroad (1938)).


Jeff Vail said...

I do not suggest in my post that federalism was designed to deal with the problems of Iraq. The purpose of my post was to illustrate the faults in the plans of those pundits who are saying that federalism IS the solution.

Federalism was, in fact a compromise. It was not the classic compromise about representation in the senate, as taught in junior-high American history. The inclusion of "all powers not specifically delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states" was, however, a topic of great debate between those who wanted more centralized power and those who wanted more localized autonomy. The result is the very textbook definition of compromise: each side gets a partial victory and the boundary is spelled out quite clearly. I agree with the assertion (I think that I made it pretty clear) that I seem to believe that American federalism is dead. Federalism--as defined by the compromise noted above--was first undercut in McCullough v Maryland, and has been eroding into a unitary system (like France, for example) ever since. Just take a look at the powers delegated to the federal government. Today, does the federal gov. exceed these bounds? By a little or a lot? That's my definition of dead: dead in spirit, quite completely.

Finally, by rhizome I do not mean anything like autopoietic. I have discussed this in detail elsewhere, but in short, rhizome is not a closed system, and is quite capable in interaction with hierarchy of producing something other than its own form of organization--in that sense it as close to autopoietic as it is to the opposite method of organization, allopoiesis.

Anonymous said...

First, those that do advocate federalism in a Iraq don’t argue it’s a panacea, and they certainly wouldn’t conflate that claim with a claim about the proper distribution of oil. In effect, your arguing against a straw man. For decent argument in favor of federalism in Iraq see:

Second, you analysis of American federalism is still flawed. First, your quotation of the the Tenth Amendment, which was not part of the original constitution, and therefore not part of any constitutional compromise, does nothing for your argument. As for McCullough v Maryland, which dealt with the establishment of a national bank, the assertion that from there federalism died simply does not square with the current state of the law. See for example the recent spate of cases handed down by the Supreme Court regarding Congress’ power under Section 5 of the 14th Amendment and the States' "sovereignty" under the 11th Amendment.

Third, I’m still intrigued by your assertion regarding autoeposis and allopeosis, though as I expressed earlier, I have reservations about the usefulness of such theories in political matters. I wish it would be spelled out more sufficiently. A web site (see defines them as such:

Autopoiesis is the process whereby a system reproduces itself. An autopoietic system is an autonomous and self-maintaining unity which contains component-producing processes. The components, through their interaction, generate recursively the same network or processes which produce them. An autopoietic system is operationally closed and structurally state determined with no apparent inputs or outputs. A cell and an organism are examples of autopoietic systems. The Earth as an autopoietic system is referred to as Gaia. Humans are the component-producing processes that will use the raw materials of other planets to create new worlds, reproducing Earth.

Allopoiesis is the process whereby a system produces something other than the system itself. An assembly line and asteroid mine are examples of allopoietic systems.

Perhaps you could either (a) refer me to where you’ve written on these themes elsewhere or (b) sketch the argument you want to make.


Jeff Vail said...

The 10th Ammendment was, clearly, not a part of the original constitution. It was, however, still a compromise on the nature of Federalism put in place in the immediate aftermath by the founding fathers.

In my mind McCullough v Maryland is a good symbolic mark for the death of federalism: the banking case in question was actually a case of the Federal government telling the states that it, not the states, has the final say in affairs. This is, in my mind, the very definition of a breakdown in federalism: the federal government has the ultimate say, therefore, no split sovereignty. It does underscore the fundamental problem of federalism: in the end, sovereignty can only rest at a single level. Many levels can think they are sovereign--the individual, state, federal government, etc.--but in truth it is a non-divisible attribute.

Along those lines, Autopoiesis and Allopoiesis don't really cover the same territory as hierarchy and rhizome. The latter are not methodologies of production, but rather of organization. Actually, the strength of rhizome lies in its ability to eliminate the soverienty issues raised above--as a concept it is non productive (as is hierarchy), so can't really be grouped into Autopoiesis and Allopoiesis. Both hierarchal and rhizomatic structure could demonstrate either Autopoiesis or Allopoiesis.