Author's Response to GTI Roundtable Party Time?

Heikki Patomäki

In the future, we will see many world political parties (WPPs). The idea of a WPP is generic. While our capacity to envisage our common existence from a planetary perspective and to organize politics accordingly is valuable in itself, I am advocating a particular vision for the form such a party could take. This ambiguity has triggered a number of critical comments, so let me be clear: what I propose is that we establish a democratic socialist world party. At the same time, however, I believe that in a pluralistic and non-Eurocentric world, there will be other simultaneous and substantive ideals around which future politics revolve.

What could a democratic socialist world party do under the current institutional and political-economic conditions? As Karl Marx famously said, actors “make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Certainly, there have been better world-historical moments for global democratic ideas, such as the end of the two world wars and the 1990s. If anything, the world is now disintegrating, in part as a result of the rise of nationalist populism. This rise has been strongly fueled by the 2008–9 crisis and its consequences, but its deeper causes are related to the process of neoliberalization that started back in the 1970s. Moreover, in spite of many campaigns, it remains the case that there is still no world parliament (or government). Even if the idea of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA) was realized immediately, it would probably give greater voice to members of national parliaments, rather than creating space for anything resembling global political parties proper. No global elections are yet in sight.

It is reasonable, at least tentatively, to see the current situation in terms of Karl Polanyi’s double movement, although clearly, history does not simply repeat itself. There is no pendulum of history. Moreover, we cannot go back to what Axel Honneth calls the intellectual fictions of the age of the Industrial Revolution, namely that historical progress is necessary and that it will be carried forward by a particular class with fixed interests.1 While the working-class movement in England and elsewhere emerged from a variety of real socioeconomic conditions, it was actively nurtured by socialists who believed in its world-historical role. The socioeconomic conditions are different in the twenty-first century. For instance, industrial workers form a declining share of the labor force across advanced industrial countries.

Changing realities require new ideas. The idea of transformative global agency is purported to make a wide rational appeal across different social classes: “This is what is reasonable for us to do!” As Richard Falk puts it, “The very adversity of circumstances and the severity of global risks is giving rise to a radical populist consciousness.” In addition to these risks, and the acute sense of injustices and asymmetries of power, there must also be a positive direction. David Christian expresses the positive part of the idea eloquently: the challenge is to construct “a new and inspiring vision of where we humans are today, a vision that can inspire optimism and ambition about the planetary task of building a sustainable future.” Indeed, this is the main aim of my call for a WPP.

The making of a collective agency is a process of active and reflexive engagement among the world’s people. The nineteenth-century socialists, believing in their world-historical role, established trade unions, various associations and societies, and labor and socialist parties. The making of a working class shaped the development of industrial capitalism, and also, together with the twentieth-century catastrophes, led to the establishment of dictatorial and often violent single-party socialist regimes across the world. We need to learn from these historical experiences, both the negative and positive lessons they have to offer. We must avoid again being mired in the intellectual fictions of the age of the Industrial Revolution and must acknowledge the diversity of elements that fed into the process of forming the nineteenth-century working class. The majority of these associations, unions, and parties were struggling to democratize society, and often succeeded.

Similarly, we can see the emergence of global civil society, along with the possible coalescence of a world political party, as part of a broad process of global transformation. Citizens across the world are disillusioned by national politics. In response to the latest rounds of globalization, many national parties have become post-democratic. Consider the fate of Syriza in Greece, for instance. What happened was not simply an example of Michels’s iron law of oligarchy (which posits that oligarchy is the inevitable fate of all complex organizations). More importantly, the debacle of the summer of 2015 illustrated the power of creditors over debtors in the world economy and the lack of equitable rule of law in worldwide financial relations. During past decades, a large number of countries in the Global South went through similar experiences, instigating the emergence of global debt campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s.

Civil society is about associational life and public space. Since Hegel introduced the term into the modern discourse, several different conceptions of civil society have emerged, reflecting different ethical and political aims of public associations. Table 1 summarizes four of conceptions, each of which expresses particular historical discussions and developments. Variations 2 through 4 all contain ideas important for emancipation and increasing social freedom. It is, of course, true that many contemporary civil society organizations are financially dependent on the powers that be, and even those that are not, tend to focus on one or two limited issues. This does not negate the idea that civil society organizations can do important work and foster ideas of global justice and democracy. Moreover, in a good society, the freedom of association must prevail. As Roy Bhaskar puts it, despite the very real weaknesses of civil society, its social virtues remains “a domain of innovation, initiative and enterprise necessary to a dynamic, pluralistic socialist society.”2

Approaches to civil society

Table 1: Approaches to civil society
(click to enlarge)

Broadly, a political party is best seen as an instance of public association. A typical national political party is an association that has achieved the right to nominate candidates in elections and thereby contest and claim the political power of the state. A party has to have a wide program covering multiple complex issues, for its aim is to take part in making laws and budgetary decisions.

As commenters point out, a world political party could not claim that role in a world state, simply because no such state exists. But the party itself would constitute a public sphere, and the existing international regimes, or systems of regional and global governance, would provide sites for a public sphere and political actions. The raison d’être of the world party must lie in furthering transformations and various new institutional forms in which the planetary public realm can be organized. For this purpose, largely shared opinions among participants will be forged into a program of change, which can also involve direct or indirect participation in elections in different countries and organizations. We can distinguish between three moments of transformative global democratic action:

MOMENT 1: Activities within the confines of established institutions.

MOMENT 2: Advocacy to transform global institutions and create new ones.

MOMENT 3: Participation in the newly formed global institutions.

These three moments form a logical order: activities within existing institutions can include advocacy of, and legislation for, global democratic institutions. A grouping of like-minded countries, supported by global civil society and WPPs, can suffice for establishing a new global system of governance. These systems can be functional and yet democratic. Successful attempts at creating institutions of planetary democracy make participation in them possible. Over time, new institutions will become established, and the cycle can continue from MOMENT 1 to MOMENT 2 to MOMENT 3. Each step in the process changes the constellation of forces in global politics and the ways the WPP strategy adapts. There is no end to history; and not all new institutions will have to be planetary in scope. Global institutions can, and in many cases should, increase the contextually overlapping, multi-layered autonomy and social freedom of actors, learning from experiences in an experimental spirit.

Since the 1990s, I have been involved in developing and advocating several specific global utopias (or eutopias as I prefer to call them), from a debt arbitration mechanism and global taxes (including a global greenhouse gas tax) to a twenty-first-century version of Keynes’s clearing union. I particularly favor building support for workers’ rights and trade unionization on a planetary scale, both out of solidarity and to increase global aggregate demand. Another key idea is to regulate and maintain aggregate efficient demand on a global scale, which presupposes the coordinated institutionalization of economic policies between nation-states and functional international organizations, coordinated for example through a world parliament. These reforms would be critically important as well for global peace and security, since root causes of conflicts and securitization tend to lie in the sphere of political economy. We need to build a more cooperative and equitable world.

The rational tendency of world history is toward green global Keynesianism, which would enable us to achieve democratic control over the mechanisms and processes of the capitalist world economy. Nonetheless, how well any of the proposed institutional arrangements will work is contingent. There are also deeper aims, such as furthering human emancipation and the development of all on the thin layer of life on our fragile planet, all in the wider context of cosmic evolution. This generic aim should, in my view, constitute the key idea of a democratic socialist world party, thereby encouraging a diversity of emancipatory projects across scales from local to cosmic, focusing for instance on the idea of commons. It would be premature to write a detailed program for a WPP before the process leading to its creation has begun; at this point, we can only outline a broad direction. And, to reiterate, there will be many WPPs.

Let me conclude this response by outlining three scenarios about the future role of WPPs in global politics:

(A) A world political party—or a number of them—forms in the near future, proving decisively important in future transformations.

(B) Transformations emerge mainly from within the existing structures of power (global “gorbachevs” rise in response to crises, resonating with wider societal developments and new ideas); new democratic systems of global governance precipitate the formation of WPPs that assume important functions.

(C) Current developments lead to a global military and/or ecological catastrophe; a world party assumes leadership and establishes a democratic world state (this is the well-known scenario of W. Warren Wagar in his A Short History of Future); soon, the world party is then challenged by other world political parties, carrying the project of emancipation further, perhaps into new and hitherto unimagined directions.

My general anticipation is that WPPs will be in the center stage of future world politics, regardless of which scenario comes to pass. The current system is not sustainable economically, politically, militarily, or ecologically. Of course, I favor Scenario 1. To avoid a catastrophe, or an elite-led development, the time to establish a democratic world political party is indeed now!

Reflexively, the democratic socialist world party would recognize a widespread tendency towards post-democratic forms of governance. These oligarchic tendencies would have to be countered by cultivating the republican virtues and courageous participation of its constantly shifting groups of activist members. This is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for ensuring democratic responsiveness and learning. A WPP will be a continuing historical experiment.

1. Axel Honneth, The Idea of Socialism: Toward a Renewal (New York: Wiley, 2016).
2. Roy Bhaskar, Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 2008), 235.

Heikki Patomäki
Heikki Patomäki is Professor of World Politics at the University of Helsinki and co-author of A Possible World: Democratic Transformation of Global Institutions.

Cite as Heikki Patomäki, author's response to GTI Roundtable "Party Time?," Great Transition Initiative (February 2019),

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