Commentary on Global Citizenship: Plausible Fears and Necessary Dreams
After reading Robert Paehlke’s excellent essay, I feel that it is too timid. I realize he wishes to avoid scaring off the more extreme opponents of global governance, and yet a Great Transition (if there is to be one) is utterly dependent upon global governance. Our efforts hitherto to make our world just and sustainable, we may one day see, were actually little more than fledgling and inadequate attempts to “bargain” with a global political-economic system that is no longer under anyone’s control. In 1450, Gutenberg’s printing press unwittingly created a completely new context which undermined the medieval system of governance mediated via the Church and European small- and city-states. The radical democratization of knowledge that it enabled completely changed the game. The resulting upheavals could only be resolved by the establishment of a new, higher-level system of governance: the nation-state system in 1648.
Likewise, the technologies of globalization have, over the past 30 years, created a new context which irrevocably undermines national-level governance. This new context, too, we will find, can only be resolved by taking the next, final step up the governance ladder to an appropriate form of citizen-driven binding global governance. This, as Paehlke suggests, is not optional and is, to some degree, already happening via trade agreements. But because these are not democratic, they are making a bad global situation worse. That is why citizen intervention for global governance is urgent. Moreover, it’s a part of our evolutionary destiny; it is the next natural step in the human journey towards ever-larger scales of societal cooperation. Nothing short of binding global governance can get the global market genie back in the governance bottle. To portray only extreme libertarians as the obstacle to global governance thus misses the point. It is we, the thousands of activist and NGO movements around the world (i.e. the Global Justice Movement—GJM), who have yet to fully grasp what the game is.
This lack of understanding is also demonstrated by our persistence in believing that ‘bargaining’ with the system—via protesting, blaming and shaming corporations, voting in new parties, lobbying, occupying, changing national electoral systems, local action, CSR, ethical consumerism, etc.—might work. Just as the Church could neither understand nor cope with the Enlightenment and its new technologies, the GJM is yet to understand that a global market can only be made just and sustainable by establishing binding global governance. That does not mean we should stop our present ‘bargaining’ strategies or action at national or local levels, only that we should no longer identify ourselves with them. Rather, even as we continue with them, we should identify with the higher purpose of achieving a form of binding, citizen-driven global governance. That evolutionary milestone, the coming of our species’ maturity, is what a Great Transition is all about.
Robert Paehlke points out many important aspects of this transition, but I would like to deepen some of them.
The “new context” that globalization has brought about needs more precise definition. It is the global free movement of capital and other entities which is fundamentally undermining governments as well as the bargaining approaches of the GJM. It is the ability of capital, corporations, bankers, and the rich to move their operations across national borders—often at the click of a computer mouse—that allows them to play one government off against another and to force government regulation into a state of deep ‘regulatory chill’ or, worse, into a race-to-the-bottom. This new context means that governments find themselves outmaneuvered and quite unable to protect any entity—themselves included—that remains nationally rooted. Hence, anything able to move across borders has a decisive advantage over anything that is nationally confined. Corporations and the rich win, while governments, society, small businesses and the environment lose. It is the global free-movement of capital that explains why all governments have become ‘market states.’
This new context also turns democracy into pseudo-democracy. For whoever we may elect has no choice but to implement policies that are attractive to free-moving global markets, investors, and corporations. Governments have no choice but to keep their national economies internationally competitive. Here, Paehlke is mistaken to suggest that governments still have a free choice to select their policies. In France, the example he uses to argue that this freedom exists, President Hollande started out with the intention of a left-wing agenda. But global markets soon called time, forcing Hollande back to the neoliberal status quo.
If we still think politicians are free to set their own agendas, we are sadly mistaken; we have not understood the new context we face. The odd moves governments occasionally make in a positive direction, we should realize, are no more than temporary eddies or counterflows in a river that, overall, is moving in the opposite, negative, market-friendly direction. In a world of global capital, but only national governance, it cannot be otherwise.
So contrary to our present way of thinking is this that we are reluctant to accept it. For to accept that governments are not in control means accepting that they cannot deliver on our demands. This line of thinking indicates that protesting against government policies and trying to get them to change their policies in the way we do now makes little sense. For trying to get the powerless to act is, let’s face it, an oxymoron: a false bargain.
Sensing that established political processes have become redundant, the GJM has turned its hand to CSR, corporate codes of practice, triple bottom line accounting, shareholder activism, ethical consumerism, fair trade, conscious capitalism, micro-credit, and whatnot. But, useful though these are, they cannot succeed in getting any more than a tiny fraction of the market to behave sustainably. Ultimately only binding global governance is capable of ensuring that all corporations, banks, markets, etc., conform to appropriate behavior and standards. Equally, talk of global revolution is naive. To have any chance of success, such a revolution would have to occur in virtually every country simultaneously, because otherwise capital would simply move elsewhere, undermine any revolution, and carry on exactly as before.
Thus we arrive at the crux of our problem: party politics as we currently practice it is redundant, revolution can’t work, and yet, unfortunately, the strategies pursued by the GJM, too, are inadequate. The new context created by the global free movement of capital comprehensively undermines them all. Helpful and valuable up to a point they may be, but ultimately we will find that they are all false bargains.
The only solution capable of bringing free-moving capital and global markets back under public supervision and accountability, such that meaningful reforms become possible, is some form of binding global governance. But this means coming back to politics and so brings us to a central paradox: How can we possibly re-engage with national political systems—systems we acknowledge to be redundant—while turning them into the most powerful tools for achieving our aim? How can we use our national votes to bring about binding global governance? How, in short, do we re-engage with redundant national political systems without falling victim to them?
Becoming a political party, even a transnational one, will not work because unless it gains power in virtually every country simultaneously so that it can coordinate its policies globally, it will be outmaneuvered by free-moving capital. So what is the alternative? What would a new kind of global political action look like in today’s context? To my mind, the principles that a global citizen’s movement seeking to achieve this aim should follow would be the following:
1. A New Semiotics: The pathological system we are now subject to cannot be stopped by any single nation or entity. No one is in control. We are, therefore, all in the same boat. Our struggle, we must realize, is not against anyone. If anything, it is against the destructively competitive system in which we are all caught. No one is to blame but everyone is responsible. Thus, we need to dis-identify from blaming, shaming, and bargaining. This new semiotics thus embraces everyone. It identifies with our deeper evolutionary purpose of achieving an appropriate form of citizen-driven binding global governance.
2. Diversity within Unity. Binding global governance necessarily means global cooperation and coordination. Since binding governance must, by definition, be unitary, it requires a movement that is globally coordinated. Here I disagree with Paehlke. The GJM, if it is to have any chance of success, will have to overcome its postmodern overemphasis on diversity and recognize that unity—a coordinated global plan—also has its indispensable place. Such a plan will be capable of adaptation to different nations, cultures, and political systems and be flexible enough to include democratic as well as non-democratic nations.
3. Simultaneous action: As Paehlke rightly points out, simultaneous action is key. Global solutions can only be implemented if all, or virtually all, nations can be brought to implement them simultaneously. In that way, capital has nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. All nations and their citizens win. Simultaneous action also means we do not need to wait for a formal world government or parliament. We only need the global and simultaneous implementation of various far-reaching policies (e.g., on climate, monetary reform, financial market re-regulation, etc.). Practical, simultaneous, global cooperation is in any case a pre-requisite before any more formal governance arrangements are considered, if they are necessary at all.
4. ‘Political Jiu-jitsu’: On the paradox of how we re-engage with redundant national political systems without falling victim to them, Jiu-jitsu is the art of manipulating the opponent’s force against himself, rather than confronting it with one's own force. A citizens’ movement wishing to establish binding global governance will need to re-engage with national politics in this kind of way. Moreover, it will necessarily utilize our right to vote but in a completely new way. Its methodology will be neither NGO lobbying nor a political party. Instead it would be an unprecedented hybrid type of organization: one that fields no candidates and yet drives existing parties and candidates to adopt its policies; one that works through national electoral systems but is not of those systems. It will allow us to harness and exponentially multiply the power of our votes in a way that puts citizens back in control—so giving us the necessary ‘political efficacy.’ This new way of voting, already being used and showing some promise, is showing that even small numbers of voters can have a disproportionately large influence on electoral outcomes, so offering the prospect of pushing all nations towards adopting, and then simultaneously implementing, the movement’s agenda.
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