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Global Politics and Institutions

This paper emphasises the political and institutional dimensions of a different possible world in the future that conjoins the desires of progressive social movements everywhere and gestures thus towards a hopeful vision of new forms of collective action. It tries to outline the politics and institutions that would be most compatible with meeting humanity's complex and manifold goals, even as other social, technological and economic changes take place. Its primary focus is the institutional arrangements that would facilitate a democratic global politics in the future, but it also describes some current trends that show promise towards realising such a future.

Global Politics and Institutions A ‘Utopistic’ View

This paper emphasises the political and institutional dimensions of a different possible world in the future that conjoins the desires of progressive social movements everywhere and gestures thus towards a hopeful vision of new forms of collective action. It tries to outline the politics and institutions that would be most compatible with meeting humanity’s complex and manifold goals, even as other social, technological and economic changes take place. Its primary focus is the institutional arrangements that would facilitate a democratic global politics in the future, but it also describes some current trends that show promise towards realising such a future.


familiar refrain in our time is that humanity is at a crossroads with respect to dealing with multiple threats to its preservation as a species, such as the persistence of poverty, widespread violence, dangerous illnesses, environmental catastrophes and social breakdown. Even though we may have only a narrow window of opportunity to overcome many of these crises, well-worn themes endure as calls to action: investments and financial transfers to the South to kick-start income generation opportunities; improved technology and coordinated policies to address economic, environmental and health concerns; and greater international cooperation towards peace and security. Sadly, though not unexpectedly, one senses only fatigue and frustration in policymakers’ continued attempts to apply these strategies with little to show for their efforts as existing problems worsen and new dangers appear on the horizon. Meanwhile, the small but influential segment of Anglo-American liberal scholarship that focuses on democracy theory seems also to have recognised that not only the rationale for the domain it chooses for its research, territorially bound entities, but therefore perhaps the very foundation of much of its theoretical edifice, stands perilously exposed to revision as a result of processes we have come to call globalisation.

The trouble seems to be that, barring a substantial reorientation in collective understandings of human progress and solidarity, in the absence of clear visions of alternative common futures and without clear pathways for getting there, we may be doomed to adopt muddled and half-hearted solutions to address the great global challenges of the 21st century. On the other hand, we may yet be able to engender a substantial social and political transformation towards sustainability to set in motionthe coherent technical, institutional and social changes needed to meet the multiple challenges to humanity in a timely manner.

One of the salient premises of the latter line of argument is that we are in a planetary phase of civilisation, indeed at the cusp of a fundamentally new type of engagement with history [Raskin et al 2002: 96]. Fresh opportunities and threats accompany our greater global connectivity and heightened disjunctures around nation, ethnicity and class, but the hopes and aspirations expressed in the slogan of the World Social Forum that “another world is possible” cannot be realised simply by rehashing the ideologies of old. Still, if the past is any guide at all, it is worth remembering that major social transformations have taken place during similar periods whose objective reality was in the changing relations among human formations, nature and technology. These shifts during different epochs have been accompanied as much by large catalytic events – or revolutions

– as by gradual evolutio nary change in behaviour, attitudes and forms of political organisation. Neither the direction nor the character of these changes could have been fully anticipated, given the exigencies of the rush of events as well as the power relations that were formed in particular places and times, although collective imagination and visionary leadership were influential in shaping at least some aspects of change.

This paper emphasises the political and institutional dimensions of a different possible world that conjoins the desires of progressive social movements everywhere and gestures thus towards a hopeful vision of new forms of collective action. It tries to outline the politics and institutions that would be most compatible with meeting humanity’s complex and manifold goals, even as other social, technological and economic changes take place. Its primary focus is the institutional arrangements that would facilitate a democratic global politics in the future, but it also describes some current trends that show promise towards realising such a future.

The attempt here is to engage in an exercise of “utopistics”, a neologism coined by Immanuel Wallerstein as an alternative to the tedious word “utopia” and which is meant to indicate

[a] serious assessment of historical alternatives, the exercise of our judgment as to the substantive rationality of alternative possible historical systems. It is the sober, rational and realistic evaluation of human social systems, the constraints on what they can be and the zones open to human creativity. Not the face of the perfect (and inevitable) future, but the face of an alternative, credible better and historically possible (but far from certain) future [Wallerstein 1998: 1-2].

The following sequence is adopted in this paper: a brief engagement with the main questions, a discussion on the history and context of nationalist politics, a utopistic vision of alternative politics and institutions, and contemporary political debates and activity that provide inspiration for realising that future.

Definitions: Why ‘Politics’ and Why ‘Global?’

The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought defines politics as the “process whereby a group of people, whose opinions or interests are initially divergent, reach collective decisions which are generally regarded as binding on the group and enforced as common policy”. A curious feature of this definition is its omission of the inevitable conflicts that arise during such a process. In the popular imagination, after all, politics is most closely associated with a struggle for ascendancy among groups having different priorities and power relations. Even when the outcomes are broadly satisfactory, politics is viewed by most people as a “necessary evil”, necessary because it provides a forum for moving forward as a society that needs to come up with binding policies and evil, or at least distasteful, because the process typically involves individuals in power negotiating their way through unpleasant and morally suspect paths. Ultimately, though, a successful politician is not only someone who skilfully manages conflict while appeasing the needs of multiple groups, but who also goes on to develop and has the authority to enforce, new policy that is binding on everyone.

A simpler if unusual definition of politics is that it is simply an old art of navigating through tensions among multiple “I”s and the “we” to achieve collectively desired ends. The character and form this art takes may vary with the type of social organisation, level of engagement and existing distribution of power. But in all cases, political strategies are deemed successful when the interests and actions of different individuals and stakeholder groups are aligned in a practical way towards roughly common objectives. The study of politics relates, then, to several issues, including: a definition of the political community (the “we”), the types of interests and power relations that exist within it, the articulation of the collective interest and its associated policies and the opportunities and means for resolving conflicts and reaching group aims in a legitimate (i e, acceptable to dominant power brokers) and effective (i e, capable of reaching their elected outcomes) manner.

Virtually every type of politics is organised around a community of actors who have some sort of collective self-identity as a “people”. For much of human history, the only significant examples of such political communities were those tied to the (more or less) territorial boundaries of tribes, cities and states. In other words, the “we” in whose name politics has traditionally been conducted has tended to be a sub-unit of humanity as a whole. Plato’s simple typology in Volume I of The Republic of tyrannies, aristocracies, and democracies may well exhaust the broad political forms we have seen throughout history [Plato 1997]. In a tyranny, a single individual claims absolute sovereignty, i e, her/his interests override that of any other claims made on behalf of the “we”. In an aristocracy, elites tend to usurp the role of the “we” by claiming sovereignty on the sole basis of birthright and/or wealth. It is only in a democracy where not only is the “we” expanded, but the concept of sovereignty itself is embedded in a larger idea of the “people”.1

Perhaps because democracy is such an intuitively appealing notion, one sees many versions of it that have evolved along multiple trajectories in different parts of the world, largely reflecting local histories and prevailing cultural conditions. While it might be tempting to adopt a triumphalist view of a single overarching model of democracy spreading across the world, the claim to being democratic comes these days from a range of political systems, including those that are socialist, singlepartyor military-led parliamentary, multiparty presidential and consensus-based tribal. Nor should we necessarily dismiss these claims simply on the grounds that the “people” are not really sovereign in these expressions; after all, the same may be said of the longest-running forms of representative government in the US and Europe, which are frequently accused of resembling oligarchies. Indeed, even the celebrated democracies of Athens were hardly enviable in their exclusion of women and slaves.

In all political formations, including democracies, there is a persistent governance (i e, administrative) problem: ruling effectively means having to gather sufficient resources (often in the form of taxes) to serve all people without causing them to be dissatisfied enough to turn against the prevailing group or sovereign in power. Only in ancient Egypt do we see a sustained solution to this problem, with the “god” ideology combined with exceptionally successful administrative systems that provided water and other infrastructure services to everyone for several centuries [North 1981]. Elsewhere, monarchs tried to stay in power primarily by capturing rents from neighbouring or far-off places to make their own subjects feel secure while using foreigners as slaves and otherwise oppressing people in other countries.

In democracies, this administrative problem often takes the form of a fiscal crisis: in order to protect social welfare, the government tends to maintain many unprofitable enterprises that cannot survive in a market economy (e g, education, healthcare, social security). Yet, this entails collecting sufficient tax revenues, which may be resisted by individual voters either because they perceive others as free-riding or would like to free-ride themselves [Offe and Keane 1984]. One of the key challenges of politics in democracies is to remain legitimate as well as effective; minimally, for governments to maintain their ability to be trusted and to collect sufficient taxes for providing various demanded and necessary services. A further complicating factor is that the so-called “people” obviously do not speak with one voice but are fragmented into parties, interest groups and lobbies, which sometimes behave strategically to embarrass or eventually pull down the executive and alter the composition of the legis lature. The prevalent assumption in many contemporary political formations is that all this is healthy in terms of keeping the polity on its toes. Often, however, this does not in fact turn out to be the case. Rather, it is democracies that are most likely to become corrupt oligarchies wherein a small elite group maintains the pretence of legitimacy (by “entering politics” through elections and its campaign support system) but actually controls and manages resources largely to meet its own interests.2

Historically another aspect of democracy has helped maintain its legitimacy, namely, that the political community could typically be defined in terms of a bounded territory that also often contained a particular linguistic or ethnic group. To the extent that the “we” could be circumscribed to include a set of identities that were recognisable to its members, democratic institutions have been legitimised on the basis that they distribute political power among groups who could be trusted in terms of their cultural affinities to a specific people or even nation.

Beginning in the late 19th century and continuing sporadically through the present period, Marxists, human rights advocates, environmentalists, peace activists, feminists and, most recently, dalits have further extended the domain of the political to mean much, if not all, of humanity. These so-called “internationalists”, while having distinct philosophical and political positions, are generally agreed that groups across the world should feel strong cross-boundary affiliations because their long-term mutual interests are likely to be more significant than those of the individual nations or other territorially bound entities to which they may belong.

In a formal sense, politics is most often tied to the actions of powerful groups controlling relatively large territorially bound entities. Over the past 350 years or so, in the aftermath of deadly conflicts in Europe, the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) led to broad recognition that territorial powers should largely be left alone and be afforded the status of “sovereignty”, i e, the ability to conduct their internal affairs without outside interference [cf Krasner 1999]. On the other hand, colonialism, slavery and imperial conquests in vast regions of the world outside Europe continually defied the spirit of Westphalia. Still, the inter national system that was developed during the 20th century has tried at least nominally to respect the principle, except insofar as it has been disturbed by the cold war, Security Council antics and a few cases of egregious human rights violations within states that have called for urgent outside intervention.

As the scale of human interaction becomes more global, however, it seems inevitable that political affinities and problems will also cross boundaries more easily. Zygmunt Bauman (2004) and Seyla Benhabib (2005), for instance, have drawn attention to the novel political and philosophical questions associated with growing numbers of refugees, people who are literally stripped of statehood because the governments responsible for their welfare have abandoned them to violence, poverty or natural disasters and are therefore urgently the concern of all of humanity. Thomas Pogge (2001) reminds us also that there are ethical linkages between members of more privileged societies and disadvantaged people elsewhere that go well beyond questions of sympathy. Also, where individuals are being mistreated by rogue elements that are not properly under the purview of domestic justice, one could justify new ways to seek remedy. Finally, there are mounting environmental and health problems whose resolution requires, at minimum, international coordination of policies and pro grammes, but perhaps calls for actions that go beyond such strategies, through the creation of global institutions of legitimate authority.

The conventional picture of distinct societies, cultures and publics having (relatively) self-contained ethical obligations is thus increasingly hard to defend, but it is also difficult to imagine that people in power within existing states will simply suspend their entrenched ideas of sovereignty and allow the establishment of new global organisations and institutions. Indeed, as Nancy Fraser has remarked, the Westphalian frame of nation states “is a powerful instrument of injustice, which gerrymanders political space at the expense of the poor and despised” [Fraser 2005:78].

Politics from Below and Above: The Imagined Community

An extraordinary phenomenon emerged during the past two or three hundred years. Sometime in the mid-18th century, a strong new wave of belief began to sweep through vast regions of Europe and America that the territorially and often ethnically similar community that was consolidated into a politically governed state was also a nation and, indeed, a fundamental unit of social and political life. Prior to that, people had their closest affinities with their local community or religion and not, barring few exceptions, with the larger contingent territorial boundaries constituting the state they happened to live in.3But by the turn of the 19th century, the most powerful states of Europe and the emerging states in the Americas were also hotbeds of nationalist pride.

These feelings of nationalism did not arise in a vacuum but were in many cases cultivated by intellectuals and local leaders who historicised the nation as an “imagined community” that was larger than the local tribe and proximate groups.4 In some cases, this collective cultural identity was crafted with the direct purpose of separating new territorially-bound “we-communities” from larger empires or from deposing colonial masters or defeating invading armies, both of which helped motivate a new found nationalism in vast and disparate regions [Anderson 1991; Chatterjee 1993]. In others, it was a means to form a new identity by unifying a divided or fragmented territory. But in all cases the nation was newly visualised in terms of a coherent history and a plausible future; as Bernard Yack writes:

National community, I suggest, is an image of community over

time. What binds us into national communities is our image of a

shared heritage that is passed, in modified form, from one gen

eration to another. National communities, as a result, are imagined

as starting from some specific point of origin in the past and

extend forward into an indefinite future [Yack 2001].

Nationalism probably became pronounced in the 19th century because of the proliferation of the print media – especially the historical novel – which helped to unite dominant groups who shared the same language even as they became more literate. With more people reading newspapers, books, pamphlets and so on, which were increasingly widely available since the spread of the printing press, it became possible for the first time to develop a broader cultural attachment beyond the local community [Anderson 1991]. At the same time, differences in language solidified, breaking down old dialects and excluding those from completely different language groups.

While print media played a significant role in initially popularising the idea of the nation as a shared community, radio and TV later sustained it even in places with low levels of literacy and eventually an entire body of international law was invoked to protect it (albeit unevenly) as a sovereign entity. The older principle of state sovereignty (involving either the monarch or popular representation) dovetailed quite well with the ideology of nationalism, notwithstanding the systematic violation of the spirit of Westphalia in non-European parts of the world in the form of the 19th century imperial expansion. In fact, it is the very power of this dual ideology (that the occupied regions constituted nations that had the right to be sovereign) that we discern in the successes of many anti-colonial movements of the last century.

Today, the very idea of a “national character” as an intrinsically distinctive attribute of any given nation has become powerfully imprinted in social imagination. In its everyday or banal forms, especially in well-established nation-states, nationalism simply entails the constant reminder of one’s allegiance to one’s “own” nation. Michael Billig suggests that people are “reminded of their national place in a world of nations” in all sorts of ways, but this is not consciously registered as such [Billig 1995: 8]. Thus, nationalist ideology is reproduced, like any other form of cultural or economic capital and remains a powerful motivating force that can call upon citizens to make significant and often tragic sacrifices on behalf of their country.

The cultural reproduction of nationalism can result in habits and routines that are almost imperceptible to citizens. Thus, it seems “natural” that an inhabitant of Mizoram in north-eastern India, flanked by Bangladesh and Myanmar and sharing no linguistic ties with Kerala in the south-west, need not have to travel 2,000 miles to think explicitly of Keralites as her compatriots and to share an emotional bond with them. And it seems perfectly reasonable for her to feel indifferent towards a person in Africa, China, or even Bangladesh. After the attacks in New York and Washington in September 2001, Americans from every corner of the country felt numbed with sadness and anger, even though only a tiny fraction would have had any direct connection with the victims. Yet, as several commentators have pointed out, many Americans have been numbingly indifferent to atrocities elsewhere (albeit not televised with the same drama as the World Trade Centre attacks), even when their own govern ment has been responsible for them. It appears that the formation of a strong “we” identity at the level of the nation or country is characterised by two interlocked feelings: a strong connection with compatriots and general indifference, if not antipathy, towards others.

Banal nationalism, in Michael Bellig’s characterisation, is not in fact benign; it lulls us into a false sense of security by causing us to mistake a contingent, historically generated set of institutions, making up the territorially-bound nation state, to represent some general law of social organisation. Moreover, as Roberto Unger (1987) has pointed out, as we get trapped as a society into such routines of “false necessity” we tend to put artificial limits on our own freedom of imagination. From this standpoint, it should not be too surprising that, even in a rapidly globalising world, all the major theorists of democracy take as a given that democratic practice can only be meaningful within the confines of a nation state.

Three challenges to this conventional way of thinking have recently come into view and are beginning to shake the very conceptual foundations of democratic theories of territoriallybound entities. The first is what might be termed the “Dogville” effect,5 where erstwhile homogeneous and established nation states are confronted with new actors with differing cultural histories and political expectations entering their social and political space. The second challenge has to do with determining the legal and political status of growing numbers of stateless people along with others seeking to enter the borders of wealthier states. The third relates to ensuring the fair and reasonable participation of all in addressing trans-boundary concerns such as SARS, climate change, war, financial instability and deepening global poverty.

Democracy in ‘Dogville’

The first major challenge to democratic theory with the nation as its locus has emerged mainly within the metropolitan centres of the north in the form of increasing demands from “multicultural” groups identifying themselves as such and as having specific needs. New claims emerge, relating to respect for distinct traditions and cultural histories start to gain prominence, in the form, say, of Muslims in Europe and north America seeking to take time off from work for their daily prayers, gays and lesbians seeking legal recognition for unions and new immigrants seeking bilingual assistance for education and access to social services and jobs. As evidenced by the vast writing industry that continues to be sustained by this topic, political philosophy appears by and large to have found the resources within its own traditions to face the challenge, whose remaining intricacies now relate to institutionalising recognition, or respect, across evermore diverse groups while serving the legitimate interests of individuals rather than of groups per se [e g, Kymlicka 1989; Kukathas 1993; Fraser and Olson 1999].

Yet, there is a continual tension in these arrangements, with a constant demand that the newcomers “integrate” into the cultural space of the host nation, along with the anxiety that its “core values” may somehow be lost if differences among various groups were somehow officially sanctioned [Thompson 1999; Huntington 2004]. Furthermore, even if the ethical arguments in favour of multiculturalism were to trounce their opponents on philosophical grounds, there remains an uneasy political situation within nation states with respect to the “other” or “outsider”, as nationalist sentiments become increasingly inseparable from xenophobic ones.

Moreover, as David Scott points out, this turn to culture among liberal democratic theorists is less about comprehending the political causes for the blood in the streets spilled by erstwhile struggles related to otherness than it is about defining “a cultureconcept that best suits their political theory of liberal democracy” [Scott 2003: 96]. In other words, just in time to address rising demands from all quarters for recognition as citizens having equal status, a new mode of post-war political theorising and practice has transformed the antagonistic political space of cultural encounters into a juridical one for distributing goods around difference, in effect, creating a “world made safe for differences”.6

The Nation State against Stateless People

While multiculturalism has itself only lately gotten on the policy agenda of nation states, people at their borders have yet had little chance of having any political voice of significance. But this is not to say that the ethical and political problem of having to respond to stateless people can be wished away. According to the United Nations [UNHCR 2006], there were more than 19 million stateless people in 2004 (characterised as refugees, asylum seekers and “others of concern”). In the course of this century, it is expected that up to 300 million people living on small islands and coastal areas could be severely affected by sea-level rise associated with climate change and many of them could be looking for new homes outside their countries [Nicholls 2004]. Nationalist sentiment, especially in well-established countries, is generally antagonist towards the idea of providing economic, political and environmental refugees entry and citizenship rights. Meanwhile, international institutions are built to meet the specifications of nation states rather than individuals and groups and can only provide relief services for them, not political opportunities for self-fulfilment. Indeed, refugees are the “epitome of extraterritoriality” with no “empty spaces” to move into: they are redundant because our planet has become full in a political rather than demographic sense [Bauman 2004].

Addressing Global Injustice

It is not uncommon to assume that problems of poverty, environmental degradation and violations of human rightsoutside one’s own country are also beyond one’s moral responsibility. For instance, there is a tendency to argue that so-called “burdened” societies are backward because of intrinsic or historical domestic reasons and that the responsibility for addressing these ought to lie with the leadership of these societies. But it is increasingly clear that such a view is untenable; one’s private actions are not immune from global consequence, global problems have local impacts and burdened societies are not entirely respon sible for their own conditions. As Thomas Pogge has pointed out,

We are not bystanders who find ourselves confronted with foreign deprivations whose origins are wholly unconnected to ourselves… First, their social starting positions and ours have emerged from a single historical process that was pervaded by massive grievous wrongs... Second, they and we depend on a single natural resource base, from the benefits of which they are largely and without compensation, excluded… Third, they and we coexist within a single global economic order that has a strong tendency to perpetuate and even aggravate global inequality [Pogge 2001: 11].

One way to interpret Pogge’s remarks is that the ethical response to global injustice is for the powerful countries of the world, starting with the US to increase their international aid disbursements, stop engaging in aggressive actions around the world and agree to certain key institutional adjustments at the world scale, like broadening membership of the Security Council, responding properly to the World Court’s recommendations and so on.

In light of the other two challenges outlined above, however, there is a more radical way to read Pogge, which is that the nation state can no longer be seen as the decisive site from which to conduct democratic discourse on many of humanity’s ethical as well as political claims. Others have come to similar conclusions. David Held and Anthony McGrew (2001), for instance, use the term “overlapping communities of fate” to express this condition:

In nearly all major areas of public policy, the enmeshment of

national political communities in regional and global processes

involves them in intensive issues of trans-boundary co-ordination

and regulation. Political space for the development and pursuit

of effective government and the accountability of political power

is no longer coterminous with a delimited national territory. The

growth of trans-boundary problems creates “overlapping com

munities of fate”; that is, a state of affairs in which the fortune

and prospects of individual political communities are increas

ingly bound together.

Can Globalism Replace Nationalism?

The forgoing discussion might indicate that, as an ideology, nationalism is increasingly untenable within a globalising world and, as an organising framework for world politics, the Westphalian nation state has already run into serious trouble – witness the mounting disorientation with regard to the growing power of “rogue” states, “failed” states and stateless actors from multinational corporations to terrorists. Should this crisis in global politics give one hope for the birth of a new type of “imagined community”, one which has all of humanity as its point of reference?

Indeed, if all communities are imagined, there is no reason why a “global community” cannot emerge as a potent political idea that usurps nationalism. But as Zygmunt Bauman says, for imagination to turn into a “tangible, potent, effective integrating force”, it needs to be “aided by socially produced and socially sustained institutions of collective self-identification and selfgovernment, as it was in the case of modern nations wedded for better or worse and till death-do-them-part to modern sovereign states” [Bauman 2002]. To be sure, such institutions are absent today, but that simply provides the impetus to a number of political theorists to imagine them differently.

For instance, David Held describes a framework where states do not disappear, but where four principles prevail: (a) the ultimate units of moral concern are individual people – egalitarian individualism; (b) everyone has equal moral status – reciprocal recognition; (c) forms of decision-making are non-coercive and consensual; (d) there is equal opportunity for all public decision-making that is best located when it “is closest to and involves, those whose opportunities and life chances are determined by significant social processes and forces” – subsidiarity [Held 2003]. Held recognises that the gap between aspiration and the real structure of institutional forms is inconveniently large, which is why he proposes a formulation in which deliberative and decision-making centres operate around function and allow for direct involvement of individuals in different levels and types of public spheres. However, such involvement will be through state/regional representatives for strategic direction (regional parliaments and/or referenda across nation states for tough problems); in short, a multilayered institutional structure with networks of democratic forums from the local to the global and the use of diverse mechanisms to access public preferences. Falk and Strauss (2001) have proposed an even more concrete idea, which is to develop a global parliament composed largely of elected civil society representatives and which operates in parallel with other organisations at national and international level and slowly gains legitimacy and power.

In general, these transnational approaches to democracy fall under the rubric of what Daniele Archibugi terms “cosmopolitical” democratic theory [Archibugi 2003]. Although characterised by an assortment of moral, institutional and political positions, it typically invokes a universalist ideal as the ethical underpinning for its proposals, which in turn entails the provision of legal and political means globally for people to assert and exercise influence over their lives. Cosmopolitical democracy does not call for states to be dissolved, but it does require the creation of global democratic institutions that would in effect weaken state power, with some framework to foster administration and justice at the global level and create new ways to broaden public participation at all levels. It is broadly committed to the freedom of individual persons and pluralism in institutional arrangements that operate under the principle of subsidiarity. Archibugi, Held and their fellow travellers take the discussion of cosmopolitan liberalism further than others before them have in that they are firmly committed to the ideaof a transnational politics: “global democracy is not just the achievement of democracy within each state” [Archibugi 2004: 439].

As Raskin (2006) has argued, such a politics could be legitimised through what has been termed constrained pluralism, in which institutional change is guided by three complementary principles: irreducibility, subsidiarity and heterogeneity. Irreducibility acknow ledges the need for adjudicating certain issues at the global level; subsidiarity limits the scope of such authority to only those issues that truly require global governance, with others regulated at appropriate levels; and heterogeneity allows for the existence of diverse patterns of local and regional institutions and modes of development, limited only by global obligations as well as broadly accepted principles of democracy, respect for human rights and the environment.

The next section presents a narrative of an imagined global political community operating on these principles, mainly with a view to enlarging the discussion on rethinking the political project beyond the nation state through an act of creative storybuilding.7The idea of this thought-experiment is to envision democratic arrangements at the global level that could foster a constrained pluralism that does not undermine local and ecoregional political formations with diverse histories and characteristics. The point, however, is not to design precisely the institutional structure of global politics, but to highlight some of its features by visualising a plausible, legitimate and desirable global political community.

A New Democratic Global Politics

In the late 21st century, a vast global transformation has taken place. The age of tyrannical regimes, violent conflict among states and the dominance of “great powers” is no more. Politics as an activity remains, as it was understood in classical times, the graceful art of negotiating the inevitable differences between “I”s and the “we” to accomplish both proximate and long-term ends. But the units and purposes of political organisation have been transformed fundamentally.

The “nation state” is changed beyond recognition. It is now archaic to speak of “territorial integrity” as a geopolitical principle and of “nationalism” as an ideology. Instead, where they do exist, nation states operate as an intermediate level within a multiplicity of political communities from the local to the global level:

  • Local communities, to a large extent, nourish grassroots democracy through face-to-face interaction. In size, they range from small townships to mega-cities and, in some cases, rural provinces that coincide with natural eco-regions (for example, river basins or drylands or mountains). The “we-communities” to which the corresponding polities cater tend to be organised around clusters of townships, cosmopolitan urban regions and particular cultural and linguistic groups, including indigenous communities, who have long served as ecological stewards for their regions.
  • A global polity was developed under the framework of the world constitution, which was drafted in 2032 and unanimously adopted by all the member governments in the world union (the descendent of the United Nations), acts as the overall trustee for the planet and its inhabitants. It was developed with the technical name, Global Agreement on Integrated Activity and was subsequently referred to universally by its acronym – GAIA. The insti tutional arrangements mandated by GAIA are now maintained by three organisations: a directly elected parliament with a rotating executive committee, an administrative branch and a judiciary. GAIA is responsible for all matters of global concern, primarily human rights, ecosystems, trade and security. Its main political instrument is the global parliament, which is composed of representatives from about 2,500 electoral districts all over the world and a second chamber with about 300 nominated members. Membership in its political community is formed not as it is today through international affiliation but through a combination of local and regional representation and direct participation by civil society organisations, global political parties and systems of referendum around special issues. GAIA is based on human and social rights and ecological stewardship and embodies a set of values that promote solidarity, mutual cooperation, respect for nature and peace. Its main purpose is to create standards and guidelines of common interest. There is much of common interest at the global scale: climate protection, water resource management, biodiversity protection, sustainable food production, trade, human rights, space exploration, cultural and scientific activities and more. In many ways, the new institutions are a strong revitalisation of the original purpose of the United Nations, affirming global service and belonging to “we, the people” and not “we, the states of the world”. It also has the only significant security force in the world, whose main purpose is to deter tyrannical powers, despotic regimes and similar breakdowns in political orders that threaten global peace, human rights, or the environment.
  • At an intermediate scale, regional political communities of various forms have emerged, only some of which are the remnants of today’s nation states, especially those whose historical borders coincide with natural boundaries or have relatively homogeneous cultural affinities. A few have disappeared entirely, the political lives of their erstwhile citizens now operating at trans-regional levels and at the local level, with some participating to a greater degree at the global level. Some others now operate primarily as administrative entities at a semi-continental scale. By and large, “countries” are as quaint today as “kingdoms” were in much of the 20th century, primarily because far freer levels of migration and novel forms of telecommunication allow unprecedented levels of access and participation in
  • communities of different forms and at different scales. None operate as “states” in their historical sense of having “monopoly over legitimate violence”. Those erstwhile countries that do survive see their purpose and mandate as being intimately connected to the long-term security of biomes and communities within the global context of the biosphere and the human race, not the expansion of state power at the expense of the welfare of other parts of the world. Thus, none of them have standing armies and there is little question of breaking out into war with each other.

  • The new regional political communities, including erstwhile nation states, operate primarily to meet the administrative demands of meso-scale concerns. Some are political entities only in a loose administrative sense; in fact, they inspire a relatively weak sense of “we”-ness within the hierarchy of entities from the local to the global level. While all are separately served by democratic institutional arrangements for handling concerns that rise up from the local level, or are referred downward from the global level, they do not engage with each other or their constituents as sovereign states, but rather as members of a global federation with mutual responsibilities and limited discretionary powers. The conflicts that do take place among them relate primarily to matters of jurisdictional uncertainty, which global arbitration proceedings and courts are typically called to resolve. Internally, most are governed by some sort of regional council, a democratically elected entity that tries to meet functional demands at the meso-scale, e g, energy services, communications, finance and industrial development.
  • Other trans-regional political communities are becoming increasingly significant and are often not defined by contiguous territorial boundaries. These forms of “disaggregated sovereignty” appear to have reached a more advanced stage of institutional development than in the early 21st century. These includeBiome Stewardship Councils (BSC), which derive their strength from the growing realisation that forms of life associated together in the same area share certain common elements by virtue of belonging to a single habitat and should be governed accordingly [Rajan 2006]. Others focus on functional collaboration and governance associated with policing activity (e g, trafficking, money laundering) and for addressing the special concerns of indigenous communities.
  • The recently enacted Global Peace Treaty has some resemblance to the European Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, except that it extends to the whole world and there is no planetary military force that exists to threaten humanity. In fact it goes much further, since all major weapons systems have been destroyed, all research into weapons design and manufacturing has long been abandoned and the vast military-industrial complex is a relic of history.8 Even the entertainment industry no longer glamourises war, weaponry, or large-scale conflict; the prevailing cultural paradigm is to be mildly disgusted by antiquated blockbuster war films and toys and games that glorify violence.

    The very framework of sovereignty has acquired a completely different meaning as a result of the strong institutions of subsidiarity, democracy and freedom of movement across the globe. With rotating leadership especially in many regional communities and at the global level, political power has itself become substantially diffuse, minimising the possibility that breakaway factions will even be able to exercise sustained territorial control, except in a tyrannical and therefore politically illegitimate way. Where despotic regimes of this sort begin to emerge, public appeals for rescue towards the restoration of democracy can proceed at multiple levels: the regional councils and the world parliament, as well as various arbitration and mediation mechanisms. Where force is required, GAIA authorises its use as a last resort, again with specific restraints to prevent over-reaction.

    Local communities and provinces have an adequate voice in GAIA and advanced communications technologies ensure that the decision-making processes of the world parliament remain attentive to local concerns, even as they fulfil the interests of the entire planet. A proportionate election system with rotating terms has ensured that the members in the parliament do in fact fairly represent the interests of all groups and of humanity at large and the network of institutions remains sufficiently agile to respond to corruption and political rent-seeking. The elected members of parliament are obliged, according to GAIA, to also act as trustees of future generations whose interests have never before been given any strong voice in democratic systems. This representation of humanity’s rich diversity is further strengthened by advisory councils both of indigenous peoples and the world’s religions, allowing the cultural and spiritual heritage of humanity to inform global governance.

    Revenue collection (taxation) is done locally and regionally, with a portion of proceeds going to GAIA for long-range planning, determining and allocating sub-regional transfers and contin gencies. Global standards for labour, environment and trade are determined by a small number of administrative and quasi-judiciary bodies; these bodies are also needed to set strategic direction and meet operational needs: finance, energy, water, transport, environment, forests and so on. These act in consultation with local bodies and again, with the help of contemporary communications media, permit input from and involvement by, individuals from all over the world.

    Political communities are thus formed at multiple levels: locally in some areas of the world primarily to meet the complex needs of urbanised areas; regionally to service meso-scale needs of energy and industry, for instance; trans-regionally, around specialised concerns like the protection of biomes and the prevention of crime; and globally around issues of worldwide concern, including human security and the environment. They correspond to the compound affinities, identities and types of citizenship that people form at all these different scales. People’s affiliations vary based on needs and interests around these broad groupings, among others, a reflection of what William James (1990) has called the “fluctuating material” of our identities.

    Both local communities as well as their larger-scale agglomerations have certain basic institutions in common: a judiciary with access to appeal, powers of enforcement by an executive and administrative organisation and an open and participatory access to decision-making. These act as checks on corruption and excessive political control by small elite networks. At local and even regional levels, each community may adopt its own form of participatory democracy: in some instances, the Greek model of representatives selected by “lot” is preferred; in others, a multi-party representative form with public financing of campaigns and term limits seems most appropriate; in still others, a “functional” form of government is chosen, with emphasis on skilled civil servants in specific roles selected through open and competitive examinations. Whatever design is adopted and at all levels, there is full transparency in accounting and decisionmaking procedures, an ombudsman’s office for dispute resolution and full recourse to the judiciary in cases of serious conflict.

    The political economies of production and consumption are just and allow for people to have more free time, more time to engage in democracy building and caring for others and a better quality of life. Inter-regional travel and migration are now predicated on factors such as personal relations, cultural appeal and climatic conditions, rather than on the wrenching forces of manipulative employment enticements abroad and oppressive cruelty at home.

    The revitalisation of communities brings with it a renewed sense of pride and involvement in local activities; yet, contact and engagement with the global public sphere, combined with a well-rounded education system, help foster an enduring attachment to the world beyond and allegiance to humanity at large. By definition, a “citizen” is now someone who perceives the broader implications of her actions and feels responsible towards humanity and the natural world. Her rights and responsibilities are at once local, regional and global: she is free to participate, form associations or work anywhere and to seek recourse to justice in any part of the world. While local communities are strong, they are open in the sense of allowing entry,voice and exit to those who wish to migrate and the same freedom of movement of people exists across biomes and subcontinental regions. Politics is not as distasteful as it seemed in the distorted democracies and authoritarian regimes of yore, because now there are sound institutional safeguards against “capture” by special interests and powerful entities. But perhaps most importantly, a rich tradition of public reasoning has been instituted, setting in motion a deep and vibrant global democratic culture.

    In the initial stages, global inequality was itself a major barrier to this remarkable political change in the world. Asia-Pacific had plenty of human and financial capital, but relatively few natural resources. Europe lacked human capital and natural resources; the Americas were reasonably well-endowed, but Africa was relatively deficient in all three. In all the continents it was also a long route to reducing substantially, if not eradicating, endemic violence; displacement; extreme poverty; ill-health; illiteracy; malnutrition; environmental degradation and resource scarcity; discrimination based on gender, sexuality, race, or religion; and inadequate access to services.

    With the introduction of GAIA, the uneven geographical dispersion of endowments was viewed as a reason to provide equal “opportunity” rights to all humans to pursue their capabilities and appropriate institutional forms were established to manage the stewardship of ecosystems. Consequently, there was just enough migration to allow human development to flourish among those who were most deprived, even as consumption and work hours shifted downward among those who were already well-off, bringing about further enhancements in their own quality of life. Such changes were not exclusive to the economic and political spheres, but were indeed profoundly affected by each other in social and cultural lives of individuals both in the global North and South. But politics did play a significant role even here, for a primary driver of these changes was a slowly evolving global citizens movement, a political revolution whose goal was not to gain power for itself, but to change the world.

    The major transformation in political organisation and purpose also required enlightened leadership, changed habits and routines initiated by democratic experiments around the world and a slow but unmistakable shift in values where global solidarity, tolerance and a reduced materialist focus on human development took precedence to build closer connections amongnations, cultures and religions and between humans and nature. The early arduous project of promoting environmental and humanist values among intergovernmental and civil society organisations, such as those expressed in the Earth Charter and the International Declaration on Human Rights, was extended to educational and religious cultures, inculcating a new sensibility even within the private sphere. School curricula now explicitly seek to encourage the values of world citizenship and religious education within all faiths puts increasing emphasis on learning about the unifying elements among them. These have generated positive feedbacks, providing citizens greater incentive to elect local, regional and global representatives dedicated toservice and who embody a general concern for the planet and people.

    As in other domains, politics and institutions are in the midst of a major transformation, but it is hardly the end of history. Rather, politics as an activity has simply become more appealing to larger numbers of people, even as its sites have mushroomed and the terms of political discourse have become more broadly democratic. Meanwhile, new tensions continue to proliferate, mostly among groups developing sectarian tendencies, each spitefully relying on its own version of the history of power while relating to the other. There are also instances of large-scale violence that are caused mainly by an intensification of criminal activity and the fanciful ideas of would-be despots and kooks with followers. But in the absence of superpower politics and the hegemonic states, the options for resolving these battles are far less wrought with factional intrigue than before and the likelihood of large-scale brutality has declined accordingly. Overall, power networks are more dispersed and rotational than before, with the prevailing institutions providing far fewer opportunities to permit the long-term consolidation of power by those who happen to have access to financial wealth or other forms of elite standing in society.

    Pointers of Hope

    The main criticism that even a deliberately whimsical piece of writing such as the one outlined above is likely to encounter is that it is naive to expect especially the strong states to cede their sovereignty even partially to higher levels, such as a regional or global authority. Yet, ever since around the time of the Bretton Woods agreement and the UN charter, countries have yielded to the authority of various international regimes; indeed, even to ones that have no democratic institutions of transparency, accountability and representation. Thus, the nuclear nonproliferation treaty has required all but eight countries (three that did not sign it plus five that were “grandfathered” as nuclear powers) around the world to be subject to intrusive regulations. More recently, the World Trade Organisation has routinely developed rulings that even the most powerful countries in the world have been forced to comply with. The European Union, as tottering as its project seems to be at present, is yet another example of rule-making at the supra-national level, a concession that was agreed to by the member states on the understanding that it was of advantage to all to have a continent-wide regime to govern certain issues like standards for education, health and the environment.9

    Moreover, national governments are themselves forming a variety of networks with each other and sometimes with nonstate organisations, recognising the need for broad strategic cooperation on critical issues. Examples can be found in the Alliance of Small Island States and the Arctic Council, which are focused on addressing the impacts of climate change and the G-20, which is developing a concerted developing country trade strategy. Sometimes, these networks are less formally defined and comprise government officials and legislators. For instance, the Global Legislators for a Balanced Environment (GLOBE) was founded in 1989 primarily in the form of an environmental NGO composed of parliamentarians who seek to share information and potentially develop coordinated policy on the environment. There are several other networks of legislators, judges and bureaucrats through which the partici pants formulate new ideas together and pursue common goals, resulting in what has been termed “disaggregated sovereignty” [Slaughter 2004]. Whereas traditional concepts of sovereignty emphasised the separation of power into territorially independent entities, with international decision-making occurring through a painful process of negotiation, the new trend appears to be an attempt to bypass the bottlenecks of such a politics by allowing networks to develop modes of formal and informal obligation to seek practical solutions to global and regional problems.

    The centre of gravity of business regulation has already shifted from the national to the global stage, with organisations such as the WTO, the OECD, IMF, Moody’s and the World Bank, as well as various NGOs often playing a stronger role than national governments [Braithwaite and Drahos 2000]. Nonstate players, sometimes teaming with intergovernmental organisations and aid agencies and at other times organised as independent advocacy groups, are also seeking remedy beyond national borders to address global harms: conflict, environmental damage, health crises, human rights abuses, poverty and so on. The focus is increasingly on the positive capacity of both the official bearers of sovereignty – primarily the dominant powers in the world today – as well as those on the outside – the emerging global coalitions of activists and NGOs. In some cases, this has meant abiding by treaties that deny the rights of domestic legislatures to enact certain laws. Even the US, which in its domestic political rhetoric is conspicuously isolationist and aggressively resists conceding to international regimes, is a participant in many of the new experiments of disaggregated sovereignty that remain outside the limelight.10

    Clearly, it would be a gross exaggeration to suggest that these tendencies, broadly associated with the name “globalisation”, are themselves likely to cause states to wait meekly in line to relinquish their sovereignty. Indeed, it seems there is already some evidence that globalisation is simply generating a shift in the terms of reference of sovereignty and territoriality, with states adopting mercantilist strategies to consolidate their power in what Saskia Sassen has termed a “denationalisation of national territory”. Yet the pressures on sovereignty are perceptibly on the rise, driven by ethical considerations and the course of economic and political history.

    The most promising developments towards a shift in political systems are themselves necessarily political in nature and will be strongly influenced by the growth and globalisation of new social movements, e g, the Bolivarian movements of Latin America, Friends of the Earth, various efforts to support the International Criminal Court, the intifada, the World Social Forums and the Zapatistas. These movements, working in conjunction with Green political parties and progressive labour and civil society organi sations, may well tilt public opinion towards a new “globalism”, which becomes just as compelling as nationalism has been since it emerged a mere two centuries ago. An ideological shift away from hyper-nationalism may also be envisioned in those parts of the world where demographic shifts resulting from immigration and cultural change begin to extend cosmopolitan sentiments, which in due course become more persuasive than the smoulders of xenophobia and sectarianism.

    Despite the often incongruent character of their strategies, interests, sites of action and political roles, these projects resemble one another as transnational network forms that seek to remedy global injustices in the name of a transformational politics [Hardt and Negri 2004]. Whether they will cohere, continue to adhere to ethical principles that are consistent with human and ecological well-being and ever develop the groundswell of support needed to overcome entrenched political power is not a question that we can address easily. Nor is it clear whether, in order to obtain global justice ultimately, we would have to put up with the creation of patently unjust and illegitimate global structures of power that are tolerable to the interests of the most powerful current nation states [Nagel 2005]. Yet there is no doubt that a new form of politics and institutional arrangements are bursting at the seams of our “gerrymandered” world, waiting for an opportunity to emerge. And that, as Zygmunt Bauman reminds us, is “our consolation, (the only consolation available, but also

    – let me add – the only one humankind needs when falling on dark times), that history is still with us and can be made” [Bauman 2002].




    [The author is grateful to members of the Great Transition Initiative (www. and colleagues at the Tellus Institute for providing him advice on earlier versions of this paper. Special thanks are due to Sylvia Karlsson, Orion Kriegman and Paul Raskin.]

    1 One sees similar patterns even in so-called indigenous societies, which have had a mix of political systems, ranging from hereditary and highly militarised chiefdoms that resemble monarchies to consensus-based institutions that are more democratic in character.

    2 Corruption, in Huntington’s classic formulation is a symptom of wealth being used to access power or vice versa [Huntington 1968]. Oligarchies are characterised by the deployment of both types of strategies; the former typically in strong regimes, the latter in weaker ones.

    3 For a somewhat more revisionist thesis on nationalism, tracing its origins in Europe to the late 16th and 17th centuries and resulting from a newly emergent politics of ethnic exclusion, see Marx (2003).

    4 “All communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined” [Anderson 1991].

    5 This refers to the 2003 film by Lars von Trier with the same title, an allegory expressing the anxiety felt by a self-contained community when having to deal with the presence of a foreigner in its midst.

    6 To be clear, I am far from indicating here that liberal political theory’s efforts to include recognition as an ethical problem are either misguided or inappropriate. But I do want to emphasise that they tend to be circumscribed carefully within boundaries that have already been identified as constituting the suitable realm of inquiry, which subsequently helps policymakers generate new forms of governmentality to manage it.

    7 See Raskin (2006) for an overview of the global vision, including economic, cultural and social aspects.

    8 Immanuel Kant’s essay on “perpetual peace” has provided a good starting point for this charter, but with the peace established not among “states” but among regional councils and local communities.

    9 The EU is of course hardly a perfect model of the type of regional polity envisioned here, not only because it relies on the endurance of individual states, but because its supporters’ rhetoric continually invokes a new supranational image, namely, that of “Europe”, whose own imagined historical identity is as problematic as were the nationalist projects preceding it. Hence the confusion over membership in the EU of border states like Turkey which presumably do not entirely share “European values”.

    10 The American state has an unusual combination of a fragmented polity, an ideology of exceptionalism and the imperial notion of a “frontier democracy”, which complicates its ability to sell the idea of taking a back seat in international politics to its domestic constituencies. But Slaughter (2004) points to several instances of US govern mental organisations that have undergone radical shifts in their operations to allow global network power to override domestic decision-making.


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