How to Democratize the Planet

By Metta Spencer

We have inherited a “Westphalian” world. The basic unit of governance is the territorially-defined State. Each state is a distinct “container” holding its particular citizens and enjoying “sovereignty.” It may be divided into districts (provinces, counties, ridings, etc) whose inhabitants live inside geographical “constituencies.” This Westphalian system is not going away. States and smaller polities will continue to negotiate among themselves, but democracy can involve structures that do not fit this model. Here I want to encourage two ways of enhancing democracy by increasing popular participation and accountability. They are: (a) functional constituencies, and (b) transnational civil society.

Functional Constituencies

The Westphalian system allocates citizenship on the basis of one’s geographical location. In contrast, a functional system allocates decision-making power to relevant stake-holders, without regard to where they live or work. Global governance is increasingly performed by such functional decision-making bodies, which should be accountable to the people whose lives they affect.

Consider some examples. Let’s start with “International Government Organizations,” such as the WTO, the G20, and the World Health Organization, the International Postal Union, and the International Civil Aviation Organization, created in 1944 to promote aviation. All States belong to it, but the stake-holders also include passengers, airline shareholders, pilots, baggage handlers, and environmentalists who worry about airplane emissions. None of these stakeholders are represented on ICAO’s decision-making boards, but they should be.

There’s also Interpol, which pursues criminals across international borders. One of its functional constituencies comprises citizens concerned about the global narcotics traffic —

e.g. whether to crack down harder on the consumers or the producers. Such decisions are still mainly made by sovereign states, without consulting the stakeholders, who include drug users, the bereaved families of addicts, poppy farmers, and drug lords, etc. Instead, the US government decides whether to burn the crops of Afghan farmers. (If Afghans were consulted, they might vote for their poppies to be made into morphine and given to hospitals in poor countries, where patients cannot afford painkillers. The decision-makers should at least POLL the producers and users, as well as certain other functional constituencies, such as the taxpayers who pay for law-enforcement.)

Transnational NGOs also influence global governance. They include the YMCA, Greenpeace, the International Peace Bureau, the International Sociological Association, and the Rotary Club. Although they are democratic, they are not represented in official regulatory bodies, but should be.

Next: corporations. They often wield more power than democratic States. We need to make them accountable to citizens. Various approaches have been proposed. Rabbi Michael Lerner suggests that all corporation charters be issued for only five or ten years, after which their records should be reviewed. If a corporation is found to have violated environmental, economic, or societal standards, its charter would be re-assigned to a different group.

I doubt that this approach will be adopted, so I propose a different solution. I would require each corporation’s assets and plans to be posted on a transparent web site. Also, I propose that several different sectors of society elect large panels of their leading activists. For example, one panel would represent women. Another would be elected by, and represent, consumers. Another would be elected by trade unions. Or environmental groups. Or anti-poverty, or peace groups. The charter of every new corporation should require its directors to co-opt a specific number of persons from specitic panels as full voting members of its board. Those activists will be accountable to the functional constituency that elected them, promoting their concerns in the corporation. Yes, the shareholders will retain most of the power, but capitalism will become more accountable to society.

Transnational Civil Society

Effective citizens need “social capital”—know-how and mutually trusting social relationships. They need to work together to influence decisions. Civil society organizations generate two different kinds of social capital— “bonding” and “bridging” types. Bonding takes place among the members of an organization who are similar in their interests, tastes, and beliefs. Associating with each other builds their group solidarity.

Bridging organizations, on the other hand, are diverse and express their differences openly. It is more challenging to belong to a bridging than a bonding group, for you have to confront unfamiliar or uncongenial ideas. However, such challenges support the functioning of democracy by broadening perspectives and transcending differences.

Transnational civil society organizations are the best “bridging” groups. Whenever we meet foreigners, we are exposed to difficult ideas—at least if we discuss issues in a sustained way. Ideally we would all live abroad for a few years, but this is too expensive. Transnational contacts with people in post-socialist countries have diminished since the end of the Cold War. They too travel today, but mainly to resorts as tourists. We need more sustained dialogues.

I suggest that we use modern technology to expand transnational dialogues. Let’s set up an organization with offices in both Moscow and Toronto, for example, which can organize videoconferencing programs. Fortunately, most foreign students now study English. Suppose set up 500 groups, each comprising eight people—four Canadians and four Russians (or Germans or Peruvians). Once a month for a year, say, four Canadians will gather at a web-cam in Thunder Bay to talk with four Russians in Volgograd about, say, climate change or archaeology or beer-making or nuclear weapons. Whatever they discuss, they will build global bridges and generate social capital for democratic citizenship.