Politically, Guyana is a country like a bear caught in a trap and can only eat away its trapped foot in a desperate attempt to free itself. One reason is because leaders refuse to consider other forms of governance such as federalism that are more suited to our history and sociology. When they hear the word “federalism”, most Guyanese think of Guyana being “divided”. But federalism is simply another way of integrating a country with “factions” – first explored by the US.
All forms of human organization are undergirded by some sort of ideology or philosophy about how human societies can and ought to be organized. Federalism is not just any form of government: “In its most general and commonly conceived for, federalism can be considered as an ideology which holds that the ideal organization of human affairs is best reflected in the celebration of diversity through unity.”
Federalism, then, has its particular perspective on governance: to achieve stability with justice in pursuit of the good life in societies with diverse populations. Federalists are sensitive to the Kantian caution that “ought” implies “can”, so that an understanding of the empirical conditions of the society under consideration is an absolute prerequisite. The procrustean, unitary state foisted on us by the British places unnecessary burdens on the more equitable sharing of our space we all believe we ought to enjoy. Our politics is “zero-sum” rather than “win-win”.
Substantively, Federalism is centred on the values of liberty and freedom and seeks to give life to those democratic values by integrating diverse groups within societies through accommodation, and not obliteration, of their differences. In the post-modern, post-colonial world, there is not only an acceptance, but a celebration of diversities and we in the “land of six peoples” should welcome this. As far back as the middle of the last century, even the staid British constitutional expert K.C. Wheare pronounced: “one of the most urgent problems in the world today is to preserve diversities…and at the same time, to introduce such a measure of uniformity as will prevent clashes and facilitate cooperation. Federalism is one way of reconciling these two ends.”
Federalism thus seeks to achieve and maintain unity and diversity: it addresses the innate need of people (and politics) to unite for common goals and yet to remain separate and preserve their respective integrities.
Federalism means organizing our society around the principle of freedom and autonomy rather than through the calculus of bureaucratic efficiency. To those who may complain that federalism may introduce unnecessary levels of bureaucracy and personnel, let us not forget our present bloated but ineffective “Regional System”. With Federal states having exclusive competencies in stipulated areas, the various levels will finally have both responsibility and authority in those areas. From this perspective, federalism foregrounds the concern about means and ends and insist that we cannot intend to have people live in “democracy and freedom”, while utilizing institutions that stifle and restrict their potential.
Our governance institutions were honed during colonialism and PNC dictatorship that viewed citizens as objects rather than autonomous subjects. In Guyana, federalist principles would infuse a new political culture to give life to the values of democracy, while institutional changes would nurture and inculcate these new values at the personal, social and ideological levels. Federalism deals directly with the fact of pluralism in the post-modern world.
While there will be many expressions of diversity, from a political perspective, we have seen that in the postmodern world ethnicity has become the most widespread one, leading to severe strains and this seemingly inevitable and intractable conflict between nationalism/ethnicity and democracy in the “politics of identity”. Federalism, however, combines kinship (the basis of ethnicity) and consent (the basis of democratic government) into politically viable entities through constitutionally protected arrangements, involving territorial and non-territorial politics. This is the central need of politics in Guyana. In the modern world where groups, especially ethnic groups, have not disappeared into some sort of mélange, and there are far more groups in the world than countries, federalism performs a sociological function by simultaneously facilitating the integrity of various groups and their input into the political system.
Thus, federalism combines the seeming contradictory impulses present in all societies, but accentuated in plural societies such as Guyana, the need to be united (the principle of solidarity – and shared rule) and the need for groups to live authentically – (the principle of autonomy – self-rule).