The Brexit vote and the candidacy of Donald Trump are not exceptional developments. They are symptoms of a wider global phenomenon – a pervasive distrust in the political class, an expression of alienation and anger by those who have been bypassed by globalization, and an awareness that our institutions, designed in the 20th century, are not fit for purpose, that is to say, they cannot address the problems of the 21st century.
The paradox is that at the very moment when we need to construct the building blocks of global governance, institutions like the European Union and the United Nations are under attack from the rising tide of populism and xenophobia.
I’d like to make two observations on these developments.
First, global governance is a way of addressing the democratic deficit that is experienced everywhere, not by democratizing global institutions – though that might be desirable – but rather through the role that such institutions can play in devolving power to local levels closer to the citizen. In the British debate about membership of the EU, the leave campaign talked about “taking back control”; my argument is that in a globalized world, it is only possible to do so through membership in global governance institutions like the EU.
Second, xenophobic populism will only lead to insecurity, and global institutions need to develop a cooperative security policy both to address this insecurity and to establish legitimacy.
The global democratic deficit
In democratic theory, a useful distinction is made between procedural democracy and substantive democracy. Procedural democracy is about formal rules – elections, freedom of the media, or freedom of association. Substantive democracy is about political equality; it is about the ability of every individual to be able to influence or participate in the decisions that affect their lives. There’s a huge deficit in substantive democracy. This is the frustration that animates new movements on both the left and the right. “They call it democracy but it isn’t” was the slogan of the Spanish indignados. Similar arguments are made by the populist right.
So what are the reasons for our substantive democracy deficit?
First of all, it has to do with globalization. Procedural democracy applies largely to national levels; we vote to elect a national government. Yet the decisions that affect our lives are taken in the headquarters of multinational corporations, on the laptops of financial whizz kids, or by institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, the UN, the WTO, the EU or NATO. However perfect our democracy in procedural terms at national levels, we cannot affect those decisions. In theory we should be able to influence decisions through national membership in global institutions, but in practice such institutions are shaped more by the interests of the global elite than by ordinary citizens.
Secondly, the global democratic deficit is also the consequence of what I call the sclerosis of the nation-state. I would emphasize three aspects of this:
1) The technology of elections. The combination of polling, focus groups, messaging, and emphasis on swing voters has hollowed out politics and made it very difficult to hold genuine public debates. National politicians often seem wooden, speaking from a prepared script, compared with the insurgent politicians of right or left, or even compared with local politicians.
2) The growth of finance in relation to manufacturing, especially since the 2008 crisis, has meant that political elites are increasingly accountable to their financial backers and to the media that they control. We used to talk about the “resource curse” to explain the political problems faced by states, whose revenue depended on oil and not domestic taxation. It is an argument that applies to all rentier states and the growth of finance has meant that more and more states have an increasing share of revenue that comes from rent.
3) The deep state – the legacy of the Cold War, the entrenched bureaucracy, and the inner tendencies for surveillance and control – is embedded in the 20th-century state. The bureaucratized routines, the pressure from an often outdated security sector, and the career preoccupations of officials and politicians all make it very difficult to depart from knee-jerk 20th-century reactions to problems.
These factors help explain why our institutions are locked in backward-looking mind-sets, and systematically pursue policies that backfire and produce the very problems they are supposed to solve.
Borders to stop migrants merely increase the dangers for migrants; air strikes to kill terrorists produce more terror; engineering solutions to floods or fires exacerbate the underlying causes of these phenomena. And these reactions are reproduced in global institutions composed, as they are, of national members.
So what needs to happen to reclaim democracy? The task of global governance has to be reconceptualized to make it possible for citizens to influence the decisions that affect their lives – to reclaim substantive democracy. Because such institutions are distant, the answer is not necessarily more democracy at global levels, though that might be important. Rather, what is needed is more democracy at local levels, in cities and regions where institutions are closer to the citizens, and where the nation-state can be bypassed to some extent.
For that to happen, the job of global governance is to protect and enable local levels of democracy by constraining global “bads” and promoting global “goods”. For example, global bads might include tax evasion by global companies or short-term financial speculation, environmental damage, or wars. Global goods might include global redistribution, peace-building, or global environmental standards.
We need institutions that tame globalization so that its benefits can be allocated in participatory ways. This is not how they act now but the possibilities for change are greater because they are not constrained by national sclerosis.
It should be stressed that regional organizations like the EU should be conceived as models of global governance. The EU is not a state in the making. Nor is it a classic inter-governmental organization, since it involves an element of supra-nationality and much denser connections. Potentially (and paradoxically in the light of Brexit) the EU is an experiment in the kind of 21st-century institution that we need.
The consequences of populism and xenophobia
The rise of populism and xenophobia and the increasing number of authoritarian regimes has to be understood in the context of the democratic deficit, where frustration and marginalization is attributed to an “other”. In today’s open world, the classic closed and militaristic societies of the 20th century, which gave rise to the great wars of that same period, have been supplanted by a different sort of societal condition – an extreme version of neo-liberalism in which weak formal structures benefit a small predatory and kleptocratic globally networked elite, legitimated by a populist rhetoric, and violence replaces the market as a mechanism for the allocation of resources. Instead of 20th-century wars, what is experienced are “new wars” – a combination of political violence and criminality.
Unlike the 20th-century wars, which were clashes of will, new wars are perhaps better described as mutual enterprises in which the various armed groups benefit from violence either in economic terms or because it is a way of mobilizing around extremist political ideologies. Battles are rather rare. Instead, most violence is directed against civilians. One particular characteristic of such wars is expulsion – displacement on a large scale. Such wars are difficult to end because the various groups benefit from violence and they are difficult to contain because of the global character of the various political and criminal networks.
In these circumstances, traditional approaches do not work. Military intervention merely legitimizes further violence. Talks are very difficult because of the vested interest in war, and only succeed if they offer a privileged position to the various predatory networks. The only possible way to address these conflicts is through global cooperation and a far-reaching shift in the way we conceive of the world. The traditional geopolitical way of thinking about conflict needs to be replaced by a rights-based way of thinking, and this has to be associated with multilateralism and global cooperation. The only way to reconstruct security is through the establishment of legitimate political institutions and the opportunity for making a living through legitimate occupations. Armed groups need to be framed as criminals rather than legitimate enemies. And a global enforcement capacity is required that is more like policing than either military intervention or peace-keeping.
Security is at the heart of legitimacy. We trust our institutions if they keep us safe. The main source of insecurity today is new wars – what is going on in places like Syria, Libya, Ukraine or Myanmar. It is new wars that produce refugees – on levels most of us have never seen before – as well as transnational criminal networks. And it is in new wars that terrorism is nurtured. The failure to address these wars offers an example of the backward-looking attitudes of nation-states. They have to be addressed in a different way by the institutions of global governance, and that in turn could help underpin those institutions.
Getting from here to there
So how can this be achieved? Seen from a post-Brexit British context, Europe and the world seem to be spiralling towards a global new war. Yet if we look beyond the top-down national lens that dominates current discourse, we can observe a lot of social experimentation – civil society networks, for example, that assist refugees, that promote municipal ceasefires, or that establish new sources of livelihoods. Precisely because global governance is less deeply institutionalized than nation-states, there is a possibility of greater responsiveness to this type of civil initiative.
Those parts of the global elite that remain committed to a cosmopolitan outlook need to reach out to those at local and regional levels who are swimming against the tide in their own communities. Perhaps this sounds over-idealistic but these dark times call for a little innovative thinking.
This article is part of our globalization series. You can read more here.