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Roundtable on Global Government
An exchange on Global Government Revisited

Joan Cocks


Luis Cabrera suggests that four moral and practical failures of the sovereign state system have helped produce rising xenophobia, right-wing nationalism, and the popular appeal of authoritarian strongman rule across the globe today.

The first failure is the unwillingness of sovereign states to reduce vast regional and class disparities in wealth that have exacerbating effects on one another. Regional disparities have pressed millions of people to migrate from more to less precarious regions of the world, while class disparities have incited economically precarious citizens in rich and stable countries to reject migrants from poor or war-torn ones.

The second failure of sovereign states is their exclusive ascription of the right to have rights to their own citizens, in an age in which millions of people have become effectively stateless and millions more work in foreign countries without enjoying citizen rights there. The third failure is the refusal of sovereign states to put human interests above their own national interests in the face of climate change, nuclear proliferation, and the militarization of space. The fourth failure is the inability of sovereign states to protect vulnerable individuals from powerful transnational actors, especially multinational corporations.

In light of these severe institutional inadequacies, Cabrera calls for a renewed struggle for democratic global institutions on the grounds that such institutions would automatically enhance the prospects for justice, human rights, world peace, and an ecologically sustainable future for all human beings.

Cabrera’s critique of sovereign states, even sovereign states with democratic institutions, is right on target. However, I think he too easily assumes that a world government (even one with democratic institutions) would be ethically oriented instead of ushering in new kinds of tensions between justice and injustice on a world scale. For a start, the same human beings who now profit from extracting the world’s oil and coal, or who are murdering one another on ethnic or religious or racial grounds across nation-state lines, or who belong to globe-trotting elites showing zero concern about the difficulties of ordinary people will still be around after political institutions are reconstituted at the global level. This is especially true if the economic and cultural landscape of global capitalism is left intact.

Meanwhile, global institutions conceived essentially along the lines of sovereign state institutions ratcheted up a few notches (a world parliament, a world executive branch, a world civil service, etc.) are bound to bring with them classic political problems ratcheted up a few notches as well. If the voice of the individual person carries less weight in a country of 323 million than in a city-state of 2000, that voice will be positively swamped in a world citizen body of 7.5 billion. If bureaucrats and technocrats designing regulations for a single sovereign state have only the foggiest understanding of local variations and idiosyncrasies on the ground, imagine the remoteness of bureaucrats and technocrats designing regulations for the entire, highly heterogeneous world. Finally, while those persecuted by a sovereign state at least have the chance of fleeing to a less cruel country, those persecuted by a world state will have more places to hide but no place to go where they can live freely.

I agree with Cabrera that progressives should fight tooth and nail against right-wing nationalism, authoritarianism, and xenophobia. I agree that the sovereign state model is severely flawed in all the ways he specifies. I agree that an increasingly integrated world requires new political institutions to deal with problems straddling the globe, as long as the subsidiarity principle applies that decisions in human affairs should be made at the lowest appropriate level. Still, Cabrera seems to assume that abstract ethics will decide what the appropriate level is, or even that the subsidiarity principle should prevail, instead of these questions becoming the occasion for new political strife. More generally, advocates of global government assume that cosmopolitanism always equals humanism, and that global institutions will be more ethical than their sovereign state analogues because they have universal reach. I see global institutions instead as, yes, demanded by the problems of an integrated world, but also as a new venue for conflicting passions, interests, and power struggles. Some of those passions, interests, and struggles will be all too familiar to us, while others are unimaginable from our still sovereign-state-centered vantage point.

Many readers might see my assessment of world government as overly pessimistic. I see it instead as realistic, unless the human race gets a collective personality transplant between now and then. But I don’t see such realism as cause for despair. I see it as a kind of tip or alert that champions of social (and species) justice cannot expect to be able to relax or retire once global political institutions are put in place.


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Joan Cocks
Joan Cocks is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College, where she founded and for many years directed the interdisciplinary Program in Critical Social Thought. She has published work on feminism, Marxism, nationalism, sovereignty, cosmopolitanism, and political violence. Her most recent book is On Sovereignty and Other Political Delusions.



Cite as Joan Cocks, "Contribution to 'Roundtable on Global Government,'" Great Transition Initiative (October 2017), http://www.greattransition.org/roundtable/global-gov-joan-cocks.




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