Functionalism is a political theory of integration proposed and almost entirely formulated by David Mitrany. First outlined in 1943 in Mitrany's pamphlet "A Working Peace System" functionalism approaches international relations and international integration from a different angle to traditional state-centric theories, such as realism. It places the emphasis on private actors as the primary agents for change. As with many works of the time it focuses on the creation a peaceful world society following the descent into world wide conflict for the second time in only thirty years.
Mitrany (1888-1975) himself was Romanian but studied at the London School of Economics and spent most of his life working in London. The influence of British ideas on Mitrany was significant. In his autobiographical memoir in 1975 Mitrany identifies his influences as the politics of the international peace movement, social democracy and the anti-dogmatic political science built around English pluralism that emerged at the LSE in the inter-war period. His own international ideas were also influenced by the domestic ideas of Fabianism and Guild Socialism, indeed Bach and George even go so far as to refer to A Working Peace System as a "Fabian pamphlet".
The ideas of Functionalism
"It (functionalism) is not a promise to act in a crisis, but itself the action that will avoid crisis" (Mitrany 1943)
Functionalism is not prescriptive theory and followers tend to coalesce around a broad agenda centred on public welfare and human needs, rather than the sanctity of nation states or an ideological credo. It states that the best way to provide for these needs is a world in which a number of supra- or trans-national organizations control specific functions of human life.
Rejection of the state
Functionalism rejects nation states as the main international agents and claims that their very existence implies a distraction from the maximization of public welfare. Mitrany claims that the state is an outmoded concept and that a system of national states is not the best way to provide public welfare. As Rosamond points out,
"to regard the state as given was to impose an unnecessary inflexibility when it came to thinking about how the requirements of human beings could best be served" (Rosamond, 2000)
Part of Mitrany's disgust of the state came from his insight into the interstate dealings
that led up to the two great wars. He was involved with the League of Nations
and witnessed first hand its ineffectiveness. He ascribed this ineffectiveness not to a lack of powers but the fact that the League had been drawn up using out of date principles. He states that the League was an attempt to codify 19th century rules for international relations that simply did not work. In addition to its inherent fault as an organization he believed it pursued the wrong goals,
"A change of frontier is bound to disturb the social life of the groups concerned, no matter whether it comes about peacefully or forcibly. The purpose of peaceful change can only be to prevent such disturbance; one might say indeed that the true task of peaceful change is to remove the need and the wish for changes of frontiers." (Mitrany 1943)
Mitrany also disliked the limited thinking that a state-centric view imposed upon international relations. The assumption that the only alternative to nation states was a world state was fundamentally flawed as it would be analogous to "Empire Building" and so would produce the antagonism that goes with that rather than bring peace. This was one of reasons for Mitrany's dislike of Marxism with its final goal of a single world state.
Mitrany also believed that with the birth of the welfare system there was a need to re-examine the state at a domestic level as the provider and organizer of functions. He saw states moving towards a more functionalist approach, responding to needs with a functional solution, rather than a general rule that could not adapt to the specific situation. Mitrany's work with the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s convinced him that constitutional politics was losing out to functional administration. The same creative thinking that was reorganizing the domestic state would lead to the rational conclusion that some transnational activity was required due to the material independence of states. He believe that the only reason that functional thinking had not yet penetrated the international sphere was that the fictional barrier between national and international means that "social nature, so to speak, has not had a chance to take its course" (Mitrany 1943).
Finally Mitrany was against the concept of a world state as he feared that it would impair individual freedom. This is a fear that is echoed today and even the regional level of a European state there are restrictions applied to the individual that did not previously exist.
Functionalism is "an approach rather than a tightly knit theory" (Taylor and Groom, 1975). One of the premises of Functionalism is that the functional organizations can react and adapt to different situations. Mitrany himself stresses this flexibility in A Working Peace System, quoting,
"We must be absolute about our principal ends (justice and equality of opportunity and freedom), relative and pragmatic about the mechanical means used to serve those ends" - Mr Winant, lecture at Leeds October 1942 (Mitrany 1943)
As well as this flexibility built into functionalist theory the idea that functionalism was "an approach rather than a tightly nit theory" is partly due to Mitrany's own limited work on it. He basically proposed the entire theory in "one lecture, one Foreign Office
paper and one longish pamphlet" (Navari 1995). The "broad brush" that Mitrany used left a great deal unspecified and it was neofunctionalism
that built on functionalist ideas to produce a more clearly laid out path to integration. The lack of detail, however, is not simply Mitrany's dislike of "niggling refinements" (Navari 1995) but also typical of the style of the inter-war
thought on international relations, all based on a young and naïve science.
A peace system
"Peace will not be secured if we organize the world by what divides it" (Mitrany 1943)
The title of Mitrany's pamphlet, A Working Peace System, owes perhaps more to the time it was written than an over-riding goal of a peaceful world. Mitrany sees peace as an inevitable product of a functionalist international society.
"the other [way to end conflict] is the way discussed in these pages, which would rather overlay political divisions with a spreading web of international activities and agencies, in which and through which the interest and life of all the nations would be gradually integrated. That is the fundamental change to which any effective international system must aspire and contribute: to make international government co-extensive with international activities." - Mitrany (1943)
As this "spreading web of international activities and agencies" encompassed the whole world states would be both unwilling and unable to disentangle themselves from it.
Realism versus idealism
Much of the inter-war thought on ways to end conflict and restructure world society was criticized by realists as entirely utopian and impossible to ever implement. Functionalism was in many ways very pragmatic, thanks largely to Mitrany's practical work in spheres of local, regional, national and international government.
"he [Mitrany] held pragmatism, or problem-solving, to be a necessary feature of the political spirit of the age" (Navari 1995)
The practical nature of functionalism lies mainly in flexibility of its agencies and in that it does not strictly prescribe an organisational structure.
Despite being less idealistic than some theories functionalism still retains some idealism.
Rosamond points out,
"The foundations of functionalism tend to reside in a positive view of human possibilities and, to some extent, of human nature" (Rosamond 2000)
This belief in a rational and evolutionary social process can certainly be described as utopian. Indeed the necessary levels of international cooperation required for functionalism to take hold, even though it supposedly bypasses national governments, are hard to achieve. This can be seen in the difficulties of establishing a successful European Union
"The essential thing is that we should be going together, in the same direction, and that we get into step now" (Mitrany 1943)
While Mitrany did not lay down a clear route to a functionalist world system he did discuss implementation of functionalism, particularly in a post World War II world. He said that policy had to be formed quickly after the war on an international level where functional organization could be at its best. These agencies, being functional, would then naturally adapt to a more normal, rather than crisis-struck, world.
"Here we discover a cardinal virtue of the functional pattern, what one might call the virtue of technical self-determination. The functional dimensions, as we have seen, determine themselves. In a like manner the function determines its appropriate organs. It also reveals through practice the nature of the action required under given conditions and in that way the powers needed by the respective authority. The function, one might say, determines the political instrument suitable for its proper activity, and by the same means provides for its reform at every stage." (Mitrany 1975)
Mitrany also believed that the priority was to "get into step now" and to this end he did not feel it was suitable to spend time laying down complex plans for the sector agencies.
"The community itself will acquire a living body not through a written act of faith but through active organic development" (Mitrany 1943)
He also felt that complex written plans or constitutions would hamper the "active organic development" of the agencies. During his time in America
, working with a number of local projects, including the Tennessee Valley Authority, Mitrany saw Roosevelt
solve the massive problems of 1930s America
using functional rather than constitutional solutions, such as the TVA. This enhanced his view that constitutional documents were outmoded and unable to cope with the requirements for today's modern government.
One of the agencies that Mitrany greatly admired was the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). This forerunner to the EU dealt with the issues relevant only to the production and distribution of coal and steel and did so through a largely technocratic governing body advised extensively by the industry. This continental area was the natural organisational level for such an industry to be managed and it took advantage of the natural benefits of such supranational control.
In terms of the process between an agency like the ECSC and a series of world spanning organisations dealing with all aspects of human needs Mitrany was vague. He simply stated that the continual growth and spread of these types of agencies continue due to the natural benefits they gave. When challenged by those who claimed he ignored the role of politics in this model he stated,
"Our aim must be to call forth to the highest possible degree the active forces and opportunities for co-operation, while touching as little as possible the latent or active points of difference and opposition." (Mitrany 1943)
With this focus on co-operation Mitrany believed these political forces would become less and less relevant,
"As to the new ideologies, since we could not prevent them we must try to circumvent them, leaving it to the growth of new habits and interests to dilute them in time" (Mitrany 1943)
Functionalism has obviously come under fire in a number of areas. One of these is that it assumes that the determination of needs is an objective and technocratic exercise, however today it is widely recognised that this is fundamentally political. Needs are not simply a given and any discussion to determine them must be political.
Also functionalist logic applies well in areas such as the administration of railways and shipping. However when dealing with sectors such as production, trade and distribution the logic works less well, largely due to their competitive nature. Rosamond goes so far as to say
"the application of a functionalist template to systems of production, finance and trade would be a task requiring fundamental alterations to the behavioural logic of firms, markets and financiers." (Rosamond 2000)
Functionalism also relies heavily on the rationality of all people as this rationality will lead them to functionalist ideas, namely a government based on the primacy of human needs. This was not an idea widely adopted by the mass publics or the political elites and there was no clear indication of how they would come to accept functional logic. In focussing on rational and objective decisions functionalism also ignores that administration is inherently political.
Many people cite functionalism's failure to correctly predict the progress of government and international organisation. However this is perhaps an incorrect reading of functionalism as a predictive theory or law when rather it was and is a criticism of the current situation and a direction in which change, if rational, should go.
As mentioned earlier Mitrany is criticised for being vague and unscientific in his work. This is partly due to the audience that Mitrany addressed. Rather than scholars and academics his work was intended for politicians and the public requiring a less technical approach. Also functionalism is by definition a flexible system driven by the over-riding aim of providing for whatever "needs" arose and therefore it could prescript the structure of the organisations best suited to these roles. Despite this it is true that functionalism is certainly not a clear road map to a new world order, hence its further refinements by neofunctionalists to allow them to apply it to European integration.
Legacy of Functionalism
"Mitrany's idea, and his chief legacy, was the conceptualization and systematic exposition of a new form of international political organization." (Navari 1995)
Functionalism gave students of international relations an entirely new theoretical basis to examine the world with. The focus on private actors rather than the state means that functionalism is well suited to examining the role of interest and pressure groups as well as multinational corporations. Functionalism also provided the intellectual basis for neofunctionalism, a theory used heavily to examine the early stages of European integration.
Mitrany himself was very wary of neofunctionalism and its role in European integration which he saw as going against functionalist principles. Whilst coal and steel were naturally suited to a European level of organisation the other sectors that were taken over at a European level were not. Mitrany felt that the EU was simply evolving towards a large state so rather than eliminating borders it had just enlarged them. This dislike of regional integration was not just at a European level but all over the world Mitrany spoke out against schemes that created what he saw as regional states, rather than functional agencies. Mitrany also believed that duplicating state functions, rather than sector functions, at a supranational level would simply lead to the domination of the most powerful states within the union. This proved largely correct as the EU became increasingly dominated by Franco-German interests.
Taylor, P and Groom, AJR (1975) 'Functionalism and International Relations', in AJR Groom and P Taylor (eds), Functionalism: Theory and Practice in International Relations (London: University of London Press)
Navari, C (1995) 'David Mitrany and International Functionalism', in D Long and O Wilson (eds), Thinkers of the Twenty Years' Crisis: Inter-War Idealism Reassessed (Oxford: Clarendon Press)
Rosamond, B (2000) 'Theories of European Integration" (London: Macmillan Press)
Mitrany, D (1943) 'A Working Peace System: An Argument for the Functional Development of International Organization' (London)
Mitrany, D (1975) 'The Functional Theory of Politics' (London)