Democratic globalization is the idea that all humans share a common interest and should have a common say in the future development of humanity. Its supporters counterpose democratic globalization to existing globalization, which they claim reflects the interests of state, corporate, and financial elites. These groups control policy in existing global institutions and the world’s 200 or so states. Instead, supporters of democratic globalization insist on globalization “from below” rather than “from above.”
Few human communities in history have ever grown up in isolation from one another. In this sense globalization is not new. But the paradox of capitalism’s political economy is that as it has developed in the last five centuries the world has been brought closer together in some ways but become more divided in others. The end of the Cold War in 1989–91 seemed to suggest that this had changed. Market capitalism had triumphed. The next years saw a huge wave of globalization talk and claims of a qualitative shift in global relations. Critics saw the euphoria of this “globo-babble” as the equivalent in ideas of the “irrational exuberance” that seemed to characterize markets at this time. It served to allow corporate and financial interests to try to remold the economy more in their favor.
“Free Market Fundamentalism”
Free market and neoliberal economists argue that markets are welfare enhancing and work best when they are free. They deny that there are serious tradeoffs or choices and argue that if some gain more this is of little consequence. Everyone can hope to gain something through the trickle-down effects of the integration of global markets. These ideas were embodied in the politics of the Washington Consensus and the policies of the U.S. government abroad, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and, from 1995, the World Trade Organization (WTO). “Free market fundamentalism,” as its critics call it, has been invested with a moral character, part of the struggle between good and evil. These ideas are propagandized, advised, and even imposed on many parts of the world as part of the conditionality of Western aid.
Such ideas always had their critics but it was not until November 1999 when a meeting of the WTO in Seattle met with huge protests that this opposition found its real voice. Described variously as the anti-globalization movement, the alter-globalization movement, or the anti-capitalist movement, it developed into an alliance of groups with varied (and sometimes competing) perspectives. They shared a common skepticism about the claims made for globalization and the trustworthiness of the forces behind it. This informal alliance is often chaotic. Nevertheless it has sustained campaigns around the globe and regular meetings of a World Social Forum, initially at Porte Allegre in Brazil but later at changing locations. The movement also began to develop into an anti-war movement opposing U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq and threats elsewhere.
This movement for democratic globalization was immediately attacked as naïve, utopian, and even irresponsible. But it was able to mobilize considerable pressure and arguments in its favor. It was helped by internal critiques of earlier globalization talk and not least by the work of the leading economist Joseph Stiglitz. It also found support from the International Labour Organization’s World Commission on the Social Dimensions of Globalization (2001–04), which concluded that “seen through the eyes of the vast majority of women and men, globalization has not met their simple and legitimate aspirations for decent jobs and a better future for their children.”
Supporters of democratic globalization challenge the way in which existing globalization is shaped by the interests of powerful states (the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, Japan) and the major multinational corporate interests. Some even suggest these interests now form the basis of an unaccountable transnational ruling class. They argue that there can be no truly democratic globalization without there being a local democratic base. This democracy must extend to the democratic control of the economic and social structures of the world. Even where formal democracy exists there is a large democratic deficit, and at the global level there are no structures that allow the proper relationship to the interest of the mass of humanity.
Current global governance reflects the interests of powerful states. The United States plays a decisive role followed by the other members of the G8 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom [UK]). The United Nations (UN) is dominated by its five veto-holding permanent members (the United States, UK, France, Russia, and China). Leadership of the IMF and the World Bank is shared by Europe and the United States, but with the United States having a de facto veto. The WTO is formally more equal at the level of state participation but actually operates on a two-tier system of the same powerful insider states and supplicants outside.
These and similar institutions are characterized by a lack of transparency and accountability. Key decisions, especially in trade and finance, are even negotiated by ministers with limited input from their government colleagues, let alone their parties and their electorates. This is sometimes justified as putting control into the hands of experts and so “depoliticizing decision making.” What it actually does is enable global policy making to be subject to the influence (if not be determined by) big companies and their lobbyists who have direct access to the decision-making process. This accounts for the narrow and self-interested priorities of existing globalization, which conflict with the interests and priorities of those on the outside. The global arena remains a lawless one. There is no legality independent of the interests of the powerful. Such “global law” as exists tends to codify the interests of the strong, since they determine and enforce it. Its use is highly politicized and it is used effectively when it is in the interests of the powerful states and their clients.
Supporters of democratic globalization challenge this global democratic deficit. At the level of theory, the more radical supporters of democratic globalization question the role of markets themselves. Less radical supporters accept a role for markets but argue that market failure is endemic because, as Stiglitz puts it, markets are always incomplete and information always imperfect. Far from being competitive, the global economy can only be understood through an analysis of the imperfect competition of global corporations and financial institutions which have the power to ignore externalities and exploit informational and other asymmetries.
Contrary to textbook simplicities, comparative advantage does not always produce a win-win situation. Resources do not flow easily from the rich to the poor but often in the opposition direction. Knowledge is not treated as a public good but protected by patents whose reach is being extended by corporate campaigns for trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPS). Knowledge is also being trapped by attempts at “corporate bio-piracy” through the patenting of naturally occurring forms, including the processes of the human body. Powerful states, too, that advise deregulation and state minimization for others regularly protect their own through regulation, subsidy, and protection.
Controversy also exists over the claimed successes of globalization. At the level of individuals there is no dispute that deregulation has allowed a growing concentration of personal wealth in the hands of global elite as wealth and income inequality has increased. At the turn of the new century it was estimated that the 225 largest personal fortunes were equivalent to the income of nearly half the world’s population. The top 15 fortunes equalled the income of the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. If absolute global poverty has decreased, and this is contested, it is because tens of millions now survive just above the $1-a-day poverty marker than below it. No less, “the great divergence” between the worlds’s richest and poorest countries is continuing to grow. Whereas in 1960 the top 20 percent of the world’s population had an income 30 times the poorest 20 percent, by 2000 their income was 80 times that of the poorest.
But not all countries have remained poor. In recent decades rapid progress has been made in East Asia, including more recently China. The problem is knowing whether this is explained by these states following the prescriptions of the neoliberal globalizers or ignoring and violating them as their critics argue. This dispute becomes especially sharp at times of crisis when supporters of democratic globalization argue that global institutions use their power to enforce neoliberal measures as part of a “shock doctrine” that risks undermining economic and political gains in the world at large.
The use of “shock” to enforce “economic globalization” over democratic globalization is seen as an expression of the way in which the “invisible hand” of the market often depends on a very visible fist of power. War and intervention have always been a part of globalization from above. In the 19th century when gunboat diplomacy was used to open markets, it was commonly supported by a moral rhetoric. “Barbarians” were thought to fail to appreciate the benign nature of Western power (even as that power was being used to enforce the payment of odious debt or to force the opium trade to the Far East).
Latter-day Western states have proven equally adept at supporting, even bankrolling, undemocratic states when it is in their interests. When it is not, they use the rhetoric of “humanitarian imperialism” to justify overthrowing those who are now seen to stand in their way. Globalization from above and imperialism are therefore two sides of the same coin. This is even reflected in the “revolving door” effect as individuals move from one job to another. Robert McNamara (1916–), for example, rose from being the first nonfamily president of the Ford motor company to prosecuting the Vietnam War as U.S. secretary of defense (1961–68) to becoming president of the World Bank (1968–81). A generation on, the career of the neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz (1943–) took him through various positions in the U.S. defense establishment including deputy secretary of defense (2001–05) (in which role he advocated the invasion of Iraq and then oversaw the first years of its occupation) to president of the World Bank (2005–07) until he was forced to resign amid accusations of abuse of his position.
Many supporters of democratic globalization argue that the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its subsequent bloody occupation seemed as much about oil and the seizure of Iraqi assets under the guise of liberal deregulation as it was about rescuing the Iraqi people. The reduction, for example, of odious debt accumulated by Saddam Hussein was made conditional on the opening of the Iraqi economy and making its resources available to Western multinationals.
The potential breadth of the movement for democratic globalization can be seen in a number of its achievements. One strand is built on single-issue politics and has often proven creative in mobilizing youth through its association with youth culture and music. The 1980s popular campaigns against debt and South African apartheid can be seen as forerunners of later developments. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) successfully led a campaign against land mines in 1997 against the opposition not least of the U.S. government. As the 1990s neared their end, Jubilee 2000, drawing on the churches, mobilized a huge campaign for debt relief of the poor countries, which chimed with a new wave of youth campaigns, concerts, and the like.
Seattle then saw the birth of a more openly political and broader movement for democratic globalization. It became difficult for international organizations that had previously met in comfort to come together save in heavily guarded and remote locations for fear of provoking major demonstrations, counter meetings, and festivals of resistance. As opposition to the war in Iraq mounted, an estimated 35 million demonstrated globally in January–April 2003, including some 20 million on February 15. These are the biggest demonstrations ever held and led the New York Times to talk of a new “world second superpower.”
Three political tendencies have played a major role here. One has been the French-based organization ATTAC—the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions to Aid Citizens. This was founded in 1998 with a focus initially on campaigning against global financial speculation, but its interests soon widened to pressuring nation states toward reform. A second strand is a more radical socialist one looking for more fundamental change. A third is the autonomist strand that contests traditional concepts of political power.
Strategy And Tactics
There are four overlapping areas of debate about strategy and tactics. One is whether we can imagine a world in theory, and achieve it in practice, where those who hold power will relinquish their domination in favor of more democratic decision making and whether this democratization is compatible with capitalism or needs systematic change from it. Those who suggest that it is compatible point to the fact that two centuries ago national democracy seemed a dream and was frequently said to threaten the survival of capitalism. Yet it developed in many countries and some now argue that capitalism and democracy can be mutually supportive. Advocates of the need for systemic change argue that earlier democratic advance still involved major upheavals and even then it produced an attenuated democracy. Economic power remains protected from democratic control. It is just this economic power that needs to be challenged to achieve democratic globalization.
The second debate is over organization. But in part because of the negative experiences associated with supposedly left-wing dictatorships, some sections of the movement are deeply suspicious of the dangers of over organization and thought control. Others insist that a degree of centralization and movement democracy is both possible and necessary if the campaign for democratic globalization is to be a success. Spontaneous organization is limited, especially when your opponent is well organized as is existing globalization with its formal state-based meetings, summits, and forums and its informal but real structures of power.
The third area of debate is over alliances within and outside the movement. The role of NGOs is a special problem. Some see them as the basis for a new global civil society. But while the movement for democratic globalization could not exist without them, they are nevertheless often seduced (or forced) to work with the existing system rather than challenge it. Some see the dangers of this reflected in the career of Bernard Kouchner (1939–), who courageously cofounded and led the medical humanitarian NGO Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) only to become a supporter of “humanitarian intervention” and a French government minister, UN High Representative in Kosovo (1999–2001), and French foreign minister. No less a cause of debate is how far alliances would be made with establishment politicians and political forces. The self-appointed rock and film stars who meet presidents one day and popes the next, while pausing to announce the success of a major initiative to a group of reporters on the way, also have a contradictory effect. They bring enormous publicity but also disorientation and confusion and misplaced optimism about where power lies and who is an ally and who is not.
The fourth area of debate is over priorities. The roots of the movement for democratic globalization lie in concerns over economic and social injustices, poverty, unfair trade practices, sweatshops, debt, and so on. Necessarily, though, concern reaches out to other issues like the environment, climate change, and war. Should the movement for democratic globalization embrace all of these or is there some virtue in separating them and emphasizing a narrower rather than a broader agenda? Western interventionism in the new century has provoked tensions as some argued that the movement for democratic globalization had also to be a movement against war while others criticized the danger of having too broad a set of goals. While the strength of antiwar sentiment and criticism of U.S. policy worked in favor of the first view, these tensions were evident within different groups’ countries and between them.
Democratic globalization remains therefore an idea and a movement in motion and development. To its critics it is an unwelcome diversion. To its supporters it is the basis of a new and better world that needs to be built.
- Callinicos, An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto (Polity Press, 2003);
- Bowman Cutter, Joan Spero, and Laura D’Andrea Tyson “New World, New Deal: A Democratic Approach to Globalization,” Foreign Affairs (v.79/2, 2000);
- Mark Engler, How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008);
- Hardt and A. Negri, Multitude (Penguin, 2005);
- Indymedia, www.indymedia.org (cited March 2009);
- Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Penguin, 2007);
- Neale, You are G8, We are 6 Billion (Vision, 2002);
- Ramonet, Wars of the 21st Century: New Threats New Fears (Ocean Press, 2004);
- Stiglitz, Making Globalization Work (Norton, 2006);
- Joseph S. Tulchin and Gary Bland, Getting Globalization Right: The Dilemmas of Inequality (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005).
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