Chapter XIX Part III
Centralisation and Unity
In a larger conglomerate of multiple States, it would be difficult to construct a psychological basis of unity at the present level of organization of individual and collective consciousness. A more practical approach would be to seek for ‘an organic unity of its political and economic life’ (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 440). This could be based on an uniformity modulated by a centralised government. The irony is that if several States create a central government to act as an organ for convenience to execute a few set of powers for certain objectives, yet in the end, the central government becomes omnipotent, concentrates more and more power in its hands and uses the institutions it was intended to serve as servitudes of its own sovereignty. This can be very problematic in somewhat loose conglomerations despite the presence of safeguards. A good case study is how the U.S constitution was framed to create a federal system promoting strong national power in certain spheres while granting varying degrees of sovereignty to the States in some other spheres. Sri Aurobindo wrote in 1917, ‘Even in the United States with its strong attachment to its original constitution and slowness in accepting constitutional innovations on other than local lines, the tendency is manifesting itself and would certainly have resulted by this time in great and radical changes if there had not been a Supreme Court missioned to nullify any legislative interference with the original constitution..’(Ibid). He probably wrote this in reference to the famous Marbury versus Madison case of 1802 where Chief Justice John Marshall affirmed the Court’s power to exercise judicial review which was the power to strike down as unconstitutional acts of the national legislature and executive as well as State actions. The relationship between the centralised power of the National government and the powers of the States has always fluctuated and there have been judicial decisions favouring either one or the other. Thus in the famous 1819 case of McCulloch versus Maryland, Chief Justice John Marshall favoured national supremacy by disallowing Maryland’s attempt to tax the Bank of the US. On the other hand, in the 1997 Printz versus United States case, the court invalidated a federal law of the national government that allowed local police to conduct background checks on all gun purchases (Source : Annenberg Learner,www.learner.org, Topic Overview Unit 3, downloaded on 14th Oct.2014).
Sri Aurobindo also commented that the traditional policy of the USA had contributed to the federal structure .The pacificism and ‘jealousy of interference by European powers in American affairs’(The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 440) gave US federalism an instinctive uniqueness that acted as ‘the sole security of its institutions and the peculiar type of its national life’ (Ibid). He had however added in that 1917 write-up : ‘Once militarized, once cast into the vortex of old-world politics, as it at times threatens to be, nothing could not protect the States from the necessity of large changes in the direction of centralisation and the weakening of the federal principle’ (Ibid, pg 441). However, in a footnote added in 1949-50, he commented: ‘The Roosevelt policy and the difficulties it encountered illustrate vividly the power of these two conflicting forces in the United States ; but the trend towards strengthening of the federal case, however slow, is unmistakable’ (Ibid). Franklin Roosevelt, like Lincoln who preceded him and Bush who followed him claimed emergency powers for the national government in times of national emergency. Industrialization, economic modernization and the sequel to the Great Depression led to considerable overlap between the powers of the federal governments and the States. Under Roosevelt’s New Deal, new laws and programs were passed to stimulate the economy which the States had to cooperate as they needed economic help and yet lacked resources. At first the Supreme Court considered many aspects of the New Deal unconstitutional but later relented under exceptional circumstances. In fact, Sri Aurobindo’s later comments were added in the context of Roosevelt’s era signaling a shift from DUAL FEDERALISM (where power is clearly divided between the federal and State governments and State governments exercising its powers without interference) to COOPERATIVE FEDERALISM (where federal and State governments collaborate on policy).
The federations of Australia, Canada and Switzerland closely resemble the model of American dual federalism.
Date of Update:
- By Dr. Soumitra Basu