Two weeks ago in these pages I brought up the idea of civil societies, and this has generated a number of interesting conversations between me and my more liberal-minded acquaintances. The initial topic of just how powerful is gender in civil society discourse quickly morphed into more theoretical, and heated, arguments on a fundamental point of contention between liberals and realists: the possibility of cosmopolitan democracy, a global democratic government. I am here to argue against such a possibility.
The topic is not a misplaced one in our times. The advent of globalisation has resulted in two opposing movements within international relations. On the one hand, the centrifugal forces of global communication networks and financial systems have decentralised political power away from governments and their ability to deal with the onslaught of global challenges such as terrorism, environmental degradation and health threats, which can no longer be limited to the territorial jurisdiction of Westphalian states. The centripetal forces of globalisation, on the other hand, have sent communities in the opposite direction of greater regional integration such as EU, ASEAN, NAFTA and MERCOSUR as people turn to their local systems of governance to answer these global challenges.
Cosmopolitan democracy attempts to answer the challenges faced by these communities by proposing a structural transformation of the Westphalian system into a democratically elected centralised government. It draws its roots from the Kantian notions of perpetual peace and global human rights and rests upon the idea of global citizenship which moves it beyond simple association and autonomous initiative envisioned by Richard Falk and into the political realm of direct political recognition and legitimacy. Its proponents have continued to advance very convincing models as to how this might be achieved.
- Daniele Archibugy and David Held envision a highly structured, top-down, centralised apparatus of which civil society constitutes the internal composition of the global state.
- James Bohman’s argument rests upon the intersection of international public spheres and international regimes, where the dynamic of civil society and regimes give rise to greater and great number of international institutions around which public spheres can grow beyond the state on which they were focused on before. In short, his argument hinges upon the presumption that cosmopolitan democracy will grow out of the interaction between existing institutions and their evolution based on the pressure of civil society.
- Writers like Molly Cochran place even less reliance upon existing regimes. They propose a grassroots movement towards cosmopolitan democracy, idea based upon social constructivism within the discussion of James Rosenau. While admitting that some top-down direction is required to guide the public in finding its voice, Chochran focuses on the institutional potential of civil society and its decision-making capabilities.
- John Dryzek’s argument, while very similar to Cochran, is a lot closer to that of Habermas in that he views communication and discourse as fundamental to the propagation of civil society towards the goal of cosmopolitan democracy. Yet he takes a different view of what constitutes democracy as he argues that it arises exclusively through civil society and “rarely or never from the state itself.” His focus is on the network of communication between public spheres independent, in his view, of state-led regimes and intergovernmental organisations.
The project is a political improbability due to a whole range of issues: legitimacy, representation, constitution. From a practical standpoint, while modern age of increased communication and travel should have increased social cohesion of civil groups across various states, on the international scale the evidence is lacking. Dissolution of Yugoslavia, increasing number of world states, continued tension within stable prosperous countries like Canada, Spain and Italy over territorial integrity, and the continued resistance of European Union’s public to endorse further integration, all point to a public quite reluctant to embrace the idea of a cosmopolitan identity and citizenship. At the same time United Nations continues to lose its significance in the face of great power rivalries still alive and well in the 21st century. Thus global government is neither likely to form ‘from the top’ nor does it seem to be rise from the below as seen by the continued fragmentation of global societies into a greater and great number of states.
There is, however, an even more damaging and immutable challenge to this project which all of the above authors skirt fearfully around: the inability of its proponent to create a political identity for its ‘global citizens’. This argument rests with the works of Habermas and Carl Schmitt who asserted quite poignantly that political identities require each other for identification and justification, and that a “world state which embraces the entire globe and all of humanity cannot exist”. In other words, there is a biologically predetermined necessity within human nature for there to be an other before there can be a self. To grossly oversimplify the point: a community truly on its own is a community no longer, but a congregation of smaller groups within itself.
On a purely theoretical level, Stanislav Maselnik analyses this argument most succinctly: “a political community which does not protect anyone is a contradiction in terms and has no reason for existence.” He carries the cosmopolitan argument to its logical conclusion of universal inclusion which leads to two unintended consequences. The first is the theoretical and absurd notion that any dissident within global community cannot be ‘human' as any deviation from the law and the consequent punishment involves the imposition of limited or nullified cosmopolitan rights. Failure to do so, as the ‘universal’ nature of cosmopolitanism implies, would lead to political disintegration as no enemy of the community can ever be classified as such.
The second outcome of universal inclusion leads back to the idea of legitimacy and representation. Archibugi and Held’s thesis for example, assigns legitimacy to a global government ruling world community through the distinctly political process of democracy and popular representation. This opens the question as to the status of the global minority. Archibugi and Held gloss over this point, seeming to presume minority acquiescence to the dominance of the majority. Yet the very idea of the existence of minority versus majority returns to the self/other dialectic of the political process.
Thus democratic cosmopolitanism can be viewed as a contradiction in terms. Whether the ideals of a representative world government are introduced from above or brought about through social movements from below, neither can address the final step of theoretically moving below the minimum of two communities imposed by Schmitt’s dictum.