How to Democratize the Planet

When we start contemplating global governance, the first proposal that comes up is to strengthen the United Nations: get rid of the Security Council veto, rotate a wider group of its member States, and add a house to represent NGOs and other voluntary organizations. Those are fine proposals, but here I want to add other suggestions.

We have inherited a “Westphalian” world—one in which the basic unit of governance is the territorially-defined State. Each state is a distinct “container” holding its particular citizens and enjoying “sovereignty.” A federal version of such a State is divided into districts (provinces, counties, municipalities, ridings, etc) whose inhabitants are “constituencies” who elect their own legislators, administrators, and judges. This Westphalian system is not about to disappear. States still have lots of power and will continue to negotiate agreements among themselves, but there are other ways in which democracy can operate that do not fit this model. Here I want to encourage two different ways of expanding democracy—not merely ones that are steps toward a unified world government but which instead augment popular participation and accountability. They are: (a) functional constituencies, and (b) transnational civil society.

Functional Constituencies

The Westphalian system allocates citizenship and voting rights to people on the basis of their geographical location and authorizes decision-making by and for each political entity. In contrast, a functional system makes decisions concerning particular domains of issues, and distributes decision-making influence to relevant stake-holders, without regard to where they live or work. Global governance is becoming increasingly performed by such functional decision-making bodies, which may be (but often are not) accountable to the people whose lives they affect. Here, democratization means making such bodies more accountable to their stake-holders. Governance today involves many layers of organizations that are like a stack of pancakes (some thick, some thin, some wide, some narrow) on top of “government”—the 190 sovereign States.

Consider some examples. There are “International Government Organizations,” such as the WTO, the G20, and the World Health Organization. But the list is far longer and includes old institutions, such as the International Postal Union, which governs the world-wide system of mail service, in which we are all stake-holders. Or the International Civil Aviation Organization, created in 1944 to promote the safe and orderly development of aviation. All States belong to it, but the stake-holders also include passengers, airline stockholders, pilots, baggage handlers, as well as the environmentalists who are concerned about airplane carbon emissions. I don’t think any of these categories have delegates on ICAO’s decision-making boards, but they should.

There’s Interpol, which pursues criminals across international borders. There is also a constituency involving the global narcotics traffic, but I don’t think there’s an independent organization that decides how to address the drug problem—e.g. whether to crack down harder on the consumers or the producers. Those decisions are still mainly made by sovereign states, never by the stakeholders — drug users, the bereaved families of addicts, cocaine or poppy farmers, international drug lords, etc. Instead, the US government decides whether Afghan farmers should have their crops burned. (If Afghans were consulted, they might vote to have their poppies bought and made into morphine for distribution to hospitals in poor countries where painkillers are too expensive for most patients to receive. It would be a step toward democratization if the decision-makers even polled the producers and users, though I don’t think their opinions should carry more weight than certain other functional constituencies, such as taxpayers who pay for law-enforcement.)

Now consider transnational NGOs and corporations—which also influence global governance. Many of us belong to international voluntary organizations, ranging from the YMCA to Greenpeace to the International Peace Bureau to the International Sociological Association to the Soroptimist Club. These groups may lobby government or regulatory bodies, but are not represented directly in them. They are democratic but they do not much influence official governance. These civil society organizations could contribute more directly to the decision-making processes of official organizations.

Next: corporations. They are obvious threats, often wielding more power than democratic States. We need ways of making them accountable to citizens without considering socialism the only alternative. Various approaches have been proposed for making corporations accountable. For example, 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.

Since I doubt that this approach could ever be applied widely, I propose a different solution. I would institute rules requiring that each corporation’s holdings and future plans be disclosed on an open web site, and that all its affairs be kept perfectly transparent to public scrutiny. I propose that large panels be elected to represent several different sectors of society. 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 one or more of these elected panels to serve as full voting members of its board. The activists from these panels will be responsible to the functional constituency that elected them, promoting their concerns in the corporation on whose board they serve. The shareholders will retain most of the power, but capitalism will become more accountable to society.

Transnational Civil Society

Effective citizenship in a democratic society requires “social capital”—know-how and mutually trust social relationships. People need to be able to work together to oppose rules or rulers whose decisions they dislike.

The connection between democracy and civil society has been recognized ever since Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his political ethnography of the United States. More recently, Robert Putnam pointed out that civil society organizations all generate social capital, but of different kinds. He distinguishes between the “bonding” and “bridging” effects of different organizations. Bonding takes place among the members of an organization who are similar in their interests, tastes, and beliefs. Associating with each builds internal solidarity.

But some organizations are diverse and express their differences openly, creating “bridges” between networks. They help people transcend their differences. It is more challenging to belong to a bridging than a bonding group, for you have to confront ideas that are not congenial. However, such experiences are a prerequisite for the proper functioning of democratic institutions. You can’t sustain a democracy if its citizens are insular and mistrustful.

Transnational civil society organizations are the best “bridging” groups. Whenever we meet foreigners, we cannot help being exposed to difficult ideas—at least if we have conversations that go beyond the elementary talk of tourists and shop-keepers. The ideal bridging experience is to live abroad for years. Or to participate in cultural exchange programs. Unfortunately, both of these ways are expensive. Transnational contacts with people in post-socialist countries have diminished since the end of the Cold War. We do travel, but have few serious, sustained discussions with the foreigners we meet at resorts. We need more sustained dialogues.

What I suggest is that we use modern technology to promote a vast expansion of sustained transnational dialogues. We need an organization based in both Moscow and Toronto, for example, that can set up discussion groups via videoconferencing. Fortunately, almost all Russians now study English in school. I propose that we set up 500 groups, each consisting of eight people—four Canadians and four Russians (or Germans or Peruvians, as the case may be). Once a month for a year, four people will gather in front of a their web-cam in Thunder Bay to talk with four people in, say, Volgograd about, say, climate change or archaeology or beer-making or nuclear weapons. Whatever they talk about, they will get some benefit from participating. This is the cheapest way I know to build bridges between societies and generate social capital for democratic citizenship.


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