Democratizing Global Governance:

Strategy and Tactics in Evolutionary Perspective

Zapatistas at the Zocalo in Mexico City


Christopher Chase-Dunn


Bruce Lerro

Institute for Research on World-Systems

University of California, Riverside

 (v. 3-18-2008) 12216 words

Abstract: This paper examines the contested idea of global democracy. It presents a world historical view of the evolution of global governance – how the polity at the world-system level has evolved of the the past several centuries – and it examines contemporary social movements that are seeking to democratize global governance institutions. It is argued that those who want to democratize global governance must take up the problem of helping to further construct a global multilateral world state in order that the challenges that humanity has created for itself may be met in a collectively rational, sustainable and humane manner in the 21st century. Transnational social movements and progressive semiperipheral national-states are seen as the agents that will challenge the powers that be and move humanity closer to a democratic and collectively rational global commonwealth in the next several decades. 

To be presented at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association session on Friday, March 28, 2008; 8:30 am San Francisco. Session FA04 on “Conditions for and paths to global democracy”  organized by Mathias Koenig-Archibugi and Jan Aart Scholte. Discussant: Friedrich Kratochwil

This paper is IROWS Working Paper #40 available at

Over the last centuries global governance has evolved in a more democratic direction, as indicated by the abolition of slavery and formal colonialism and the establishment of a global human rights regime, though the latter is only partially institutionalized and enforced. The political ideal of democracy, despite continuing contestation about its meaning, has become increasingly adopted by the world's peoples and the existing institutions of global governance fair badly by comparison to even the most tepid definitions of democracy. The majority of the peoples of the Earth have little knowledge about or say over the existing institutions of global governance. Democracy within nation-states, though a laudable goal and in many cases a valuable achievement, does not add up to global democracy, because it says little about the nature of relations among nation-states or about governance at the global level. Existing global governance institutions mainly reflect the outcome of World War II. 

Contested Definitions of Global Democracy

      Democracy is a contested concept in both theory and practice even at the national level (Robinson 1996). And the idea of global democracy is even more contested. Most political theorists do not apply the idea at the global level, and when one does it immediately brings up the issue of European cultural hegemony and the relevance of the idea of democracy to non-European civilizations. For many global democracy is simply the addition of more and more national democracies – parliamentary governments in which fair elections decide the political leadership of the national state. This is the subject of most of the democratization literature in the social sciences and is the guiding approach that forms the basis of most of the discourse in global politics as states seek to justify their actions by appealing to the idea of democracy. But a growing number of transnational activists contend that global democracy should mean much more than this. The peoples of the world live in a single social system, and decisions about what will happen in that system are the relevant foci for understanding the meaning of global democracy. In a global democracy the majority of the people of the Earth would have say over the decisions that affect their lives.  The simple addition of national democracies does not necessarily add up to global democracy because national states have unequal power, and the question of global democracy turns importantly on the nature of relations among the national states. When the problems are global, the democracy should be global, meaning that the majority of the people of the Earth should be able to have meaningful influence over the institutions of global governance. These institutions have evolved over the past several centuries and an analysis of the prospects for global democracy needs to begin with an understanding of the historical evolution of global governance.

            Our approach questions the idea that parliamentary democracy in single states, even when most of the states in the system have this kind of political system, adds up to global democracy. Some states are much more powerful than others, and their policies affect people all over the Earth.  We call this the problem of global vs. single-state democracy.

      The second focus of our essay is on the issue of the contested nature of the idea of democracy. Here we will note that the definitions of democracy have themselves been issues of political struggle both within the discourse of the European Enlightenment and in the discourse about Eurocentrism. Our goal is to move toward the formulation of a global consensus about the meaning of the idea of popular democracy. This requires knowledge of this history of political struggles all over the Earth, and an understanding of the historical evolution of human societies over the last 50,000 years (Chase-Dunn 2007).

            The democratization literature mainly has studied how and why some societies have been able to institutionalize parliamentary systems for the peaceful transition of power by means of popular elections. This is a very important literature and much has been learned about the conditions that are favorable for stable parliamentary regimes.  Charles Tilly’s (2007) recent summary and conclusions based on decades of studying the political history of national societies provides a useful roadmap to the conditions under which a national state responds to the will of its average citizens. Tilly’s analysis shows that democracy at the national level is tenuous and difficult to sustain, even in states where it has become rather institutionalized. He also makes the important point that a state must have capacity and must be able to contain the autonomy of internal elite challengers to popular power (e.g.  the military).  Though Tilly does not do it, his analysis is usefully applied to the issues of global state formation and global democracy (see below).  Tilly rather underplays the “external” factors that have had important consequences for national democracy and he does not address, in this book, the issues raised by globalization.

            A world-systems perspective on national democracy would at least notice that it has been successful core capitalism that has been the main support for institutionalizing parliamentary systems in the most developed national societies. The core countries of Europe, the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Japan, along with semiperipheral India, have been the most successful and stable cases of national parliamentary democracy. The rest of the world has had a very difficult time institutionalizing parliamentary democracy, though there have been recurrent waves of democratization in the parliamentary sense (Markoff 1996). The main reason for this is that the hierarchical division of labor between the core and the periphery concentrates greater resources in the core, making alliances between potentially competing elites and cross-class alliances more stable because there is a bigger pie to share. In the periphery struggle to control the state apparatus is more often violent because it is the only game in town.  To be sure there are exceptions, and many semiperipheral and peripheral national societies have been able to achieve at least the trappings of parliamentary democracy, especially in the latest wave.

            We do not wish to minimize the important differences between formally democratic regimes that operate according to the law versus lawless and arbitrary authoritarian regimes. Achieving formal parliamentary democracy and the rule of law are huge gains for people who have not had them in the past. A visit to any of the contemporary societies in which local elites with their own implements of coercion are the main enforcers of social order is all that it takes to produce great respect for civil rights and the due process of law.  But we do wish to point out that formal parliamentary democracy, even in those societies in which is it most heavily institutionalized, is not necessarily the best of all possible worlds.

            Within the European Enlightenment discourse there has long been a contest between representative formal democracy and popular direct democracy. Bill Robinson (1996) characterizes “polyarchy” as a contest managed by contending elites to legitimize regimes based on huge inequalities. The predominant definition of democracy in the West is a definition that separates political rights from economic rights and that legitimizes and sustains private property in the major means of production. More populist and direct versions of the idea of democracy challenge the radical separation between political and economic rights, and the exclusion of economic democracy from the conversation.  Thus the kind of democracy that has become hegemonic in the modern world-system is the kind that is most congruent with capitalism.  It protects private owners of the major means of production from most claims on their property and profits by narrowly defining the proper terrain of rights.

            Polyarchy undercuts direct democracy and defines certain claims as outside the bounds of rational discourse based on a narrow political philosophy that has evolved from the conservative branch of the European Enlightenment discourse. The leftist versions –- anarchism, socialism, and communism – have been vanquished and proclaimed dead in the celebration of the “end of history” and the victory of rational capitalistic democracy.

            The critique of Eurocentrism has also challenged the hegemony of the polyarchic definition of democracy. Many of peoples of the colonial empires had indigenous forms of small-scale political regulation that allowed people in local communities to have input in decisions that were made in matters that affected their lives. In the contemporary popular resistance to globalizing corporate capitalism, many voices are reasserting the authenticity and value of these tradition political institutions (e.g. Shiva 2002).

      Movements that mobilized people around ideas of community self-reliance were frequent responses to the calamities of rural market integration that combined with droughts and famines to produce the huge and disastrous “late Victorian holocausts” during the great wave of capitalist globalization of the late nineteenth century (Davis 2001). These indigenous movements often employed millenarian ideologies in which the good king was to return or the powers of the universe were expected to intervene to destroy the invading railroads and the white devils that were held to be throwing the natural balances of the universe awry. People discovered that they could produce their own food and entertainment without having to subject themselves to global market forces and threatening technologies far beyond their control.

            Much of the post-colonial critique of Eurocentrism has assumed that it was the ideology of the European Enlightenment that was a main tool in the colonial subjugation of the Third World by European states. And so the ideologies of rights, the separation of church and state, and other elements of European thought have been rejected as so many relics of domination. It is not liberal ideology that caused so much exploitation and domination. Rather, it was the failure of real capitalism to live up to its own ideals (liberty and equality) in most of the world. That is the problem that progressives must solve.    

      The first point to make is that democracy is not a European invention and neither has it been a European monopoly. The European discourse of democracy as an invention of the classical Greek city-states is full of contradictions. The economies of most of the Greek city-states were based on slavery (Bollen and Paxton 1997), while the polities of nomadic foragers, which are everywhere on Earth the ancestors of all peoples, were egalitarian systems in which all adults participated in making the important collective decisions of the group.

Over the last twelve thousand years most of the regions on Earth experienced a process of the emergence of hierarchical social structures in which elites came to dominate and exploit the masses of peasants and workers. But the struggle over control has never ceased, and indeed the cycles of rise and fall that characterize all hierarchical systems stem in part from the basic conflict over control that is the contest of democracy.

      This said, we do not agree with those who see all states as equally exploitative, though neither do we agree with those who paint the contemporary national democracies as the best of all possible worlds. Hierarchies have been necessary for the coordination of ever-larger and more complex societies, and societies that are less hierarchical (or smaller) have had to erect their own hierarchies or perish in the struggle with more hierarchical societies. And so nearly all societies on Earth have undergone state-formation or become incorporated into existing states.

            But all states are not the same. There are real differences among modern states in the extent to which political and economic rights are extended to all the citizens and the majority participates in consequential political decision-making. While we agree with Robinson, that this is partly a sham because it legitimates the rule of capitalist elites, we also find it important to point out that the sham is better than no sham. Truly authoritarian government is worse and so the problem is to help those who do not yet enjoy national polyarchy to get it, and to move beyond polyarchy in those states where that is possible. And we also need to democratize global governance. At the global level polyarchy would be preferable to the current situation in which the institutions of global governance rely on the institutionalized structure of the interstate system to veil the realities of global power and authority.

      But we also agree with Robinson that polyarchy is often used to undercut more radical movements of participatory and direct democracy that are seen as threatening the interests of capitalist elites. And we also wish to raise again the issue of global democracy and to imagine the possible future existence of a democratic and collectively rational global commonwealth.


Capitalist Globalization and Global Governance

          We understand the historical development of the modern world-system in terms of the evolution of institutions. These key institutions: commodity production, technology and techniques of power, have been shaped by struggles among contending powers and between the core and the periphery over the past six centuries as Europe rose to global hegemony.

            The story of how global orders have been restructured in order to facilitate capitalist accumulation must be told in deep temporal perspective in order for us to understand how the most recent wave of corporate globalization is similar or different from earlier waves of globalization. Of particular interest here is the phenomenon of world revolutions and increasingly transnational antisystemic movements. In order to comprehend the possibilities for the emergence of global democracy we need to understand the history of popular movements that have tried to democratize the world-system in the past.

World Revolutions

The evolution that occurred with the rise and fall of the hegemonic core powers needs to be seen as a sequence of forms of world order that evolved to solve the political, economic and technical problems of successively more global waves of capitalist accumulation. The expansion of global production involved accessing raw materials to feed the new industries, and food to feed the expanding populations (Bunker and Ciccantell 2004). As in any hierarchy, coercion is a very inefficient means of domination, and so the hegemons sought legitimacy by proclaiming leadership in advancing civilization and democracy. But the terms of these claims were also employed by those below who sought to protect themselves from exploitation and domination. And so the evolution of hegemony was produced by elite groups competing with one another in a context of successive powerful challenges from below. World orders were contested and reconstructed in a series of world revolutions that began with the Protestant Reformation (Boswell and Chase-Dunn 2000: 53-64).

            The idea of world revolution is a broad notion that encompasses all kinds of resistance to hierarchy regardless of whether or not it is coordinated. Usually the idea of revolution is conceptualized on a national scale in which new social forces come to state power and restructure social relations. When we use the revolution concept at the world-system level a number of changes are required. There is no global state (yet) to take over. But there is a global polity, a world order, that has evolved as outlined above. It is that world polity or world order that is the arena of contestation within which world revolutions have occurred and that world revolutions have restructured.

 Boswell and Chase-Dunn (2000) focus on those constellations of local, regional, national and transnational rebellions and revolutions that have had long-term consequences for changing world orders. World orders are those normative and institutional features that are taken for granted in large-scale cooperation, competition and conflict. Years that symbolize the major world revolutions after the Protestant Reformation are 1789, 1848, 1917, 1968 and 1989. Arguably another one is brewing now. Arrighi, Hopkins and Wallerstein (1989) analyzed the world revolutions of 1848, 1917, 1968 and 1989. They contend that the demands put forth in a world revolution do not usually become institutionalized until a consolidating revolt has occurred, or until the next world revolution. So the revolutionaries appear to have lost in the failure of their most radical demands, but enlightened conservatives who are trying to manage hegemony end up incorporating the reforms that were earlier radical demands into the current world order.

            Of particular relevance here is the story of the nineteenth century and its tsunami of capitalist globalization under the auspices of British hegemony. Transnational antisystemic movements, especially the trade union movement and the feminist movement, emerged to contend with global capitalism. Workers and women consciously took the role of world citizens, organizing international movements to contend with the increasingly global organization of an emergent global capitalist class.  Political and economic elites, especially finance capitalists, had already been consciously operating on a global stage for centuries, but the degree of international integration of these reached a very high level in the late nineteenth century. Within Europe the British had created the post-Napoleonic “Concert of Europe,” an alliance of conservative dynasties and politicians who were dedicated to the prevention of any future French revolutions.

            The Royal Navy suppressed the slave trade and encouraged decolonization of the Spanish colonies. The English Anti-Corn Law League’s advocacy of international free trade (carried abroad by British diplomats and businessmen) was adopted by most European and American states in the middle of the century.  The gold standard was an important support of a huge increase in international trade and investment (Chase-Dunn, Kawano and Brewer 2000; O’Rourke and Williamson 1999).  The expanding Atlantic economy, already firmly attached to the Indian Ocean, was accompanied by an expanding Pacific economy as Japan and China were more completely and directly brought into the trade and investment networks of Europe and North America. American Ginseng was harvested in the Middle Atlantic states as an important commodity that could be traded for Chinese manufactures rather than having to resort to payment in silver.

            The success of this wave of capitalist globalization was not completely uncontested.

Within Europe socialist and democratic demands for political and economic rights of the non-propertied classes, as well as for women, strongly emerged in the world revolution of 1848.  The decolonization of Latin America extended the formal aspects of state sovereignty to a large chunk of the periphery.  Slave revolts, abolitionism and the further incorporation of Africa into the capitalist world-system eventually led to the abolition of slavery almost everywhere.

Semiperipheral Development 

            An important aspect of our model of world-system evolution is the idea of semiperipheral development. We note that institutional development in premodern world-systems has most often occurred because innovations and implementations of new techniques and organizational forms have emerged in societies that are in semiperipheral positions within larger core/periphery hierarchies (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997: Chapter 5). Thus did semiperipheral marcher chiefdoms conquer older core polities to create larger paramount chiefdoms (Kirch 1984).  And semiperipheral marcher states conquered older adjacent core states to create larger and larger core-wide empires (e.g. Chin, Akkad, Assyrian, Achaemenid Persians, Alexander, Rome, Abbasid Caliphate, etc.) And semiperipheral capitalist city-states (Dilmun, Phoenician Tyre, Sidon, Carthage; Venice, Genoa, Melakka, etc.) expanded commercialized trade networks and encouraged commodity production within and between the tributary empires and peripheral regions, linking larger and larger regions together to eventually become the single global economy of today.  The modern hegemons (the Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century, the United Kingdom of Great Britain in the nineteenth century, and the United States of America in the twentieth century were all formerly semiperipheral nation-states that rose to the position of hegemony. They did this by transforming the institutional bases of economic and political/military power in response to challenges from contenders for hegemony and to rebellions and revolutions carried out by popular movements that were contesting the injustices of colonial imperialism and capitalism.

             The modern world-system has experienced system-wide waves of democracy rather than separate and disconnected sequences of democratization within individual countries (Markoff 1996). These waves have tended to start in semiperipheral countries and the institutional inventions that have diffused from country to country have disproportionately been invented and implemented in semiperipheral countries first. And  the strongest challenges to capitalism (the communist states) have mainly been concentrated in the semiperiphery.

            The worker’s movement became increasingly organized on an international basis during the nineteeth century.  Organizers were able to make good use of cheap and rapid transportation as well as new modes of communication (the telegraph) in order to link struggles in distant locations. And the huge migration of workers from Europe to the New World spread the ideas and the strategies of the labor movement. Socialists, anarchists and communists challenged to the rule of capital while they competed with each other for leadership of an increasingly global antisystemic movement that sought to democratize the world-system.

The Direct Democracy of Workers’ Councils

In the last 130 years a number of  efforts to constitute direct democracy without capitalists,  the state or a Leninist vanguard party have erupted in the heat of state breakdowns. In some situations these “workers’ councils” emerged along side the state, creating a situation of “dual government.” During the Spanish revolution of 1936 through 1939 workers’ councils spread over a wide terrain, reaching as much as a third of the country. These councils not only governed without the state, but they sometimes abolished the local currencies and began new systems of exchange. These experiments took place during revolutionary periods when official authorities had lost power. These instances of popular direct democracy were often brief. The Seattle General Strike was a matter of a few days, but the Spanish situation of dual power lasted for three years.

Like most social movements, these councils began by simply reacting to the abuses of the existing order. Workers wanted higher wages, better working conditions, and more justice. But once the authorities lost power, the workers found themselves doing far more than they bargained for. The workers councils were inventive and festive, producing new forms of collective organization. In Spain, following the failure of Franco’s coup attempt, at least one third of the country’s firms came under worker self-management. Most of the worker-run firms achieved production records than before the coup, despite the chaotic conditions of the civil war.

The organizational forms that emerged in the workers’ councils expressed a good deal of creativity with respect to democratic models of economic governance. The central organization of the councils, the main body that took decisions, was the general assembly. Resolutions by the general assemblies were carried out by mandated delegates who had no independent power of their own (unlike representatives who, once elected have power to make their own decisions). These delegates were instructed to implement decisions made by the assembly. Secondly, these delegates were often rotated so that no one would get too comfortable being a permanent authority. Lastly the delegates were immediately revocable. Any abuse of power was grounds for immediate termination. There was little in the way of bureaucratic procedure that would delay replacement of a delegate who was deemed to be abusing power.

            Workers councils emerged in the following locations and times:       

q       The Paris Commune of 1871

q       The St. Petersburg Soviet of 1905

q       The Russian Revolution of 1917  

q       Short-lived experiments in Poland, Italy, Germany and Bulgaria between 1917-1920

q       The Seattle General Strike of 1919                                                                      

q       The Spanish Revolution of 1936 (for most of the first year and then on and off until 1939

q       The Hungarian Revolution of 1956

q       The French General Strike of 1968

q       The Chilean Revolution 1970-1973

q       The Factory committees in Argentina and Venezuela and Peasant councils in Brazil which are going on now.


The Evolution of Global Governance

            We conceptualize a global polity that has long been composed of national states in which elites have carried out the jobs of international relations, but that is increasingly becoming an arena of direct popular participation. Cheap and global communications technologies have accelerated a trend toward the formation of transnational social movements that has roots in earlier centuries. Ideas of democracy that are deeply institutionalized in modern societies are being increasingly applied at the global level. Both elite policy-makers and transnational social movements have begun to raise issues about the democratic nature of existing institutions of global governance.

            The notion of global civil society imagines a human population of the Earth that is informed about global issues and contemplates action toward the solution of problems that are held to be global in scope. Transnational social movements, understood as both religious and secular, have long contested the institutional structures of global governance, but the participation of large numbers of non-elites has expanded to a new level in the contemporary global justice movement. Demonstrations protesting the G-8, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization have become frequent and hundreds of thousands of people from all the continents have attended the meetings of the World Social Forum.  This explosion of global citizenship has been facilitated by the Internet, as local movements easily scale up to become national and then transnational in order to confront issues that appear to have no local or national solutions.

The terminology of “North-South relations” has come to refer to the relations that wealthy powerful countries have with poor and less developed ones (Reuveny and Thompson 2008). The terms we prefer are core, periphery and semiperiphery defined as structural positions in a global hierarchy that is economic, political-military and cultural. The core-periphery hierarchy at the global level is organized spatially, but it is not simply a matter of latitude as implied by the North-South terminology. It is a complex and multidimensional hierarchy of different kinds of interrelated power and dependence relations.

Global governance has long meant “international relations”—the economic, political, military and cultural interactions among a large number of sovereign states. This is the political system that became institutionalized in Europe with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and that was subsequently spread to the whole world as the system of colonial empires became transformed into an Earth-wide interstate system. The system of sovereign states was never purely an anarchy of competition and conflict. Governance took the form of leadership and dominance by a sequence of powerful states – the hegemons-- and their allies, but hegemony was intermittent. During the periods of hegemonic rivalry the interstate system came to resemble the model of anarchy that is inscribed in many theories of international relations. Giovanni Arrighi’s (2004, 2006) model of systemic cycles of accumulation analyzes the evolution of global governance in a sequence of hegemonies. As Arrighi (2006:166) says, “…hegemonic states play governmental functions at the global level…”.

The interstate system and the rise and fall of hegemonic core powers has been somewhat modified over the past two hundred years (since the end of the Napoleonic Wars) by the emergence of international organizations that operate in between and over the tops of the national states (Murphy 1994; Boli and Thomas 1999). This emergence of multilateral institutions has been called “political globalization” and is seen as a possible precursor to eventual global state formation (Chase-Dunn et al 2008). Saskia Sassen (2007) and Bill Robinson (2004) have also analyzed the ways in which national states have become reconfigured in the last decades of the twentieth century to serve as institutional instruments of an emerging transnational capitalist class. Thus global governance is structured as a system of allying and competing national states, the rise and fall of hegemons, and an increasingly dense system of public and private institutions that are international and transnational in scope.

Hegemonic rivalry and world wars have been the main mechanism for “choosing” global leadership (Modelski and Thompson 1996). This primitive method of sorting out the consequences of uneven development is what needs to be replaced by a form of global governance that can resolve conflicts peaceably. Some think this has already been archieved by the emergence of multilateral global governance institutions. Others fear that these are not strong enough to withstand the storm of another round of hegemonic rivalry.

      At present the main public institutions of global governance are the United States government (the current declining hegemon, but still a military superpower) the United Nations Organization, the Group of 8 most powerful national economies (G8),  and the international financial institutions that were founded at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944 (the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization). The main non-public institutions are the large transnational corporations and the NGOs and social movement organizations that are taking political action on a global scale. Contemporary global governance is shaped by the complex interactions among all these national, international and transational institutions as well as by transnational NGOs, business firms and other non-state actors (e.g. transnational social movement organizations). Transnational NGOs and social movements first emerged in the 19th century. The number of these, and the sizes of their memberships, have grown greatly in the decades since World War II (Tarrow 2005; Smith 2008).


Waves of Globalization

            The decline of British hegemony and the failure of efforts after World War I to erect an effective structure of global governance led to the collapse of capitalist globalization during the depression of the 1930’s culminating in World War II. In our perspective capitalist globalization is a cycle as well as a trend. The great wave of the nineteenth century was followed by a collapse in the early twentieth century and then a reemergence in the period after World War II. The global institutions of the post World War II order, now under the sponsorship of the hegemonic United States, were intended to resolve the problems that were perceived to have caused the military conflagrations and economic disasters of the early twentieth century. The United Nations was a stronger version of a global proto-state than the League of Nations had been, though still a long way from the “monopoly of legitimate violence” that is the effective core of a real state. The Bretton Woods institutions – the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were intended to promote Keynesian national development rather than a globalized market of investment flows. Free trade was encouraged, but the key efforts were about the tracking of international investments and the stabilization of national currencies.  The architects of the Bretton Woods institutions were chary about the effects of volatile waves of international capital flows on economic development and political stability because of what they perceived to have been the lessons of the 1920’s.  The restarting of the world economy after World War II under the aegis of the Bretton Woods institutions and U.S. support for relatively autonomous capitalism in Europe and Japan succeeded tremendously. But the growing power of unions within the core, and the perceived constraints on U.S. financial interests imposed by the Bretton Woods currency regime, along with the oil crisis of the early 1970s led the U.S. to abandon Bretton Woods in favor of a free world market of capital mobility. The “Washington Consensus” was basically Reaganism-Thatcherism on a global scale – degregulation, privatizing, and reneging on the “social contract” with core labor unions and the welfare state. The IMF was turned into a tool for imposing these policies on countries all over the world.

            This U.S./British-led neo-liberal regime of global capitalism was a response to the successes of the Third World and the core labor movements, not in achieving true global democracy, but in getting a somewhat larger share of the profits of global capitalism.  The attack on the institutions of Keynesian national development (labor unions and the welfare state), was also a delayed response to the world revolution of 1968 in which students, women, environmentalists, Third Worldists, indigenous peoples, democracy movements,  and radical parts of the labor movement had critiqued and resisted the inadequacies of the welfare capitalism and business unionism from the Left.  The new right appropriated some of the ideology and many of the tactics of the 68ers, -- demonstrations, civil disobedience, guerilla armies, drug financing, mobilization of subnations, etc.  These tactics have come back to haunt the powers that be. In the recent wave of blowback some of the organizations and ideologies formerly supported by the U.S. CIA as instruments against the Soviet Union (e.g. Al-Queda) have  turned against their former sponsors, employing dirty tricks to besmirch symbols of global power and to murder innocent bystanders in the heart of the core (Johnson 2000).

            We contend that the current historical moment is similar to the later decades of the nineteenth century. Like British hegemony, U.S. hegemony is declining.  Contenders for global economic power have been emerging in German-led Europe and in China-led Asia and post-Soviet Russia has refused to become a playground for Western capital. Popular movements and institutions have been under attack, especially since the rise to ideological hegemony of neo-liberal capitalist globalization across nearly the whole globe.  Anti-systemic movements are struggling to find new paths for dealing with globalized and hegemonic capitalism. New communications technologies, especially the Internet, seem to be facilitating more coordinated and integrated movements in favor of global democracy. The liberatory aspects of decentered and democratized communications potentials are great. But cheap two way and mass communications also promote increasing differentiation and specialization of political mobilization, which can undercut efforts to organize intermovement coordination. We hold that the Internet will be, on balance, a liberatory force, but the big gains in movement integration will probably come as a response to the economic, political and ecological disasters that globalized capitalism is producing now and in the coming decades.

            Much of the contemporary resistance to global capitalism is taking the form of local self-reliance, the revitalization of diverse cultural forms and the rejection of the cultural and technological totems of corporate capitalism. Thus the characterization of the global justice movement protests (Seattle, Genoa, etc.) as “anti-globalization” movements is partially correct, but it is misleading. Self-reliance may take forms that are progressive or forms that promote divisions among the people based on ethnicity, nation or race.  Self-reliance alone is not an adequate strategy for creating a more humane and sustainable socio-political system. Rather the construction of self-reliant communities needs to engage with a coordinated movement of “globalization from below” that will seek to reform or replace the institutions of global governance with institutions that will promote social justice and environmental sustainability.


Imagining Global Democracy

            This means imaging global democracy. What might global democracy look like? And how could we get from here to there.  Global democracy needs to address two main issues: huge and growing inequalities within and between countries; and the grave problems of environmental sustainability that capitalist and communist industrialization have produced.

            Rather than drawing the blueprint of a global utopia and then arguing the fine points it makes more sense to understand and learn from the heritage of earlier efforts to do what we are here proposing.  Utopias may be useful for those who are unable to imagine any possible improvement over existing institutions. But they also function to delegitimize efforts to make social change because they usually appear to be unattainable. The useful approach is to imagine a historically apt next step, one that the relevant constituencies can agree is a noticeable improvement and that is at least plausibly attainable.

            This said, the idea must be sufficiently attractive to motivate risk-taking. So it is possible to err both on the side of caution and on the side of flamboyance.  Global democracy means real economic, political and cultural rights and say for the majority of the world’s people over the local and global institutions that affect their lives.  Democracy of the national state is part of the solution, but not the whole solution. Global democracy requires that the  national states be democratic and that the global institutions be democratic. Thus it requires democratic institutions of global governance.

Objections to the Possibility of Global Democracy

            Neo-Darwinian  authors like Pierre Van den Berge and evolutionary psychologists contend that family and ethnic group loyalties are hardwired into humans by biological evolution, and that this is based on genetic closeness. Humans, like other animals, will always put their own families and ethnic groups first. But there has been a very successful cross-cultural and historical socialization process that has been going for at least the past 500 years that has socialized people to add identification and loyalty to their nation. Some nations are alleged to be based on blood, like families and ethnic groups. But others are constructed around ideas of a common history.

            Nationalism is a result of a long process of nation-building. Today most working class soldiers will willingly die for their country. This means that they will put their life in the hands of fellow soldiers in battle, people that they have no kinship with and most of whom they will never see again if they get out of the military alive. And who are these soldiers fighting for? Other Americans. In other words, more strangers whom they will never meet. The very power the slogan “support our troops” has over the average American is a very powerful indicator of how successful this political socialization undertaking has been. The troops are, after all, strangers.The process of how individuals come to subordinate their ethnic, class, region and religious loyalties to a large national community of strangers is the subject of the huge literature on nation-building.

            The existence of nationalism as perhaps the most important socially constructed solidarity in the modern world shows that the evolutionary psychologists are at least partly wrong. Identification and altruistic behavior can be reprogramed by human institutions so that people will strongly identify and cooperate with strangers.  But this does not prove that there are no limits on the ways in which solidarity may be socially constructed. The fact that many nations have important similarities with kinship ties and ethnic groups might mean that the claims of the evolutionary psychologists are at least partly true (see Gat 2006).

            But to what extent does global democracy require that humans identify with and act altruistically toward one another? Is species-being really necessary for global democracy. Do people need to love one another on a global scale in order for global democratic governance to work. As with national states, it would seem that the institutional structures of law, due process, and legitimate authority that is democratically responsible to the majority, could function in the absence of much in the way of global love if people were to simply acknowledge that in order for billions of humans to live on Earth we collectively need some mechanisms for regulating the use of natural resources and for dealing with issues of global inequality. 

            Ironically, nationalism, which is the best argument against the evolutionary psychologists, is itself somewhat of an obstacle to global democracy. It is nationalism that allows elites to mobilize people to fight one another, and national interests are so strongly institutionalized that transnational social movements have a hard time overcoming national divisions. Ulrich Beck (2005) contends that cosmopolitanism based on the recognition and appreciation of social differences is one of the most valuable outcomes of globalization, and that this emergent cultural feature will play an important role in the democratization of institutions of global governance. Cosmopolitanism is helpful to social movements confronting divisions that stem from nationalism. But how far need we go politically with this. Does it mean that progressive cosmopolitans should not ally and work with nationalists. Should they be excluded from political organizations, as Warren Wagar suggested? We think this would surely be a mistake. Globalization has not vanquished nationalism, and in fact the economic and environmental tribulations that are emerging are going to revitalize nationalism as people seek ways to protect themselves from forces over which they have little control. Excluding nationalists is surely a mistake for the movements that want to build global democracy. As with the localists and self-reliance grassroots movements, the job is to find those who will ally with a strategy of globalization from below. 

The Global Justice Movement

While transnational social movements in the West date back at least to the Protestant Reformation, the scope and scale of international ties among social activists have risen dramatically over the past few decades, as they have increasingly shared information, conceptual frameworks and other resources and coordinated actions across borders and continents (Moghadam 2005; Reitan 2007). In the 1980s and 1990s, the number of formal transnational social movement organizations (TSMOs) rose by nearly 200 percent.  While TSMOs are still largely housed in the global north, a rising portion are located in, and have ties to, the global south; the number of TSMOs with multi-issue agendas increased significantly, from 43 in 1983 to 161 in 2000 (Smith  2004a: 6-7, 2004b: 266). This rise in transnational organizing contributed to, and helped to produce the global justice movement.           The global justice movement is a “movement of movements,” that includes all those who are engaged in sustained and contentious challenges to neoliberal global capitalism, propose alternative political and economic structures, and mobilize poor and relatively powerless peoples. While this movement resorts to non-institutional forms of collective action, it often collaborates with institutional “insiders,” such as NGOs that lobby and provide services to people, as well as policy-makers (Tarrow 2001: 10-14; Tarrow 2005a: 55-56; Keck and Sikkink 1998). The global justice movement and its allies includes a variety of social actors and groups: unions, NGOs, SMOs, transnational advocacy networks, as well as policy-makers, scholars, artists, journalists, entertainers and other individuals.

The World Social Forum (WSF) was established in 2001 as a counter-hegemonic popular project focusing on issues of global justice and democracy.[1] Initially organized by the Brazilian labor movement and the landless peasant movement, the WSF was intended to be a forum for the participants in, and supporters of, grass roots movements from all over the world rather than a conference of representatives of political parties or governments. The WSF was organized as the open popular alternative to the World Economic Forum, an exclusive gathering of elite business leaders, politicians and entertainers that takes place annually in Davos, Switzerland. The WSF has been supported by the Brazilian Workers Party, and has been most frequently held in Porto Alegre , Brazil, a traditional stronghold of that party. Whereas the first meeting of the WSF in 2001 reportedly drew 20,000 registered participants from 117 countries, the 2005 meeting WSF drew 155,000 registered participants from 135 countries.  The WSF is both an institution—with its own leadership, mission, and structure—and an “open space” where a variety of social activists from around the world meet, exchange ideas, participate in multi-cultural events, and coordinate actions. The WSF is open to all those opposed to neoliberal globalization, but excludes groups advocating armed resistance (Teivainen 2004). Participants vary in terms of their affiliations with particular movements and different types of organizations. Both participants in unconnected local and national campaigns come together with long-time veterans of transnational organizations and internationally coordinated groups (Smith 2004c). The WSF has inspired the spread of hundreds of local, national, regional, and thematic social forums (Byrd 2005; Della Porta 2005b).

North-South Issues

The focus on global justice and north/south inequalities and the critique of neoliberalism provide strong orienting frames for the transnational activists of the World Social Forum. But there are difficult issues for collective action that are heavily structured by the huge international inequalities that exist in the contemporary world-system. Our survey of the attendees of the 2005 World Social Forum found several important differences between activists from the core, the periphery and the semiperiphery (Chase-Dunn, Reese, Herkenrath, Alvarez, Gutierrez, Kim, and Petit 2008).

Those from the periphery were fewer, older, and more likely to be men. In addition, participants from the periphery were more likely to be associated with externally sponsored NGOs, rather than with self-funded SMOs and unions, as NGOs have greater access to travel funds. Southern respondents were significantly more likely than those from the global north to be skeptical about creating or reforming global-level political institutions and to favor the abolition of global institutions.

This skepticism probably stems from the historical experience of peoples from the non-core with colonialism and global-level institutions that claim to be operating on universal principles of fairness, but whose actions have either not solved problems or have made them worse. These “new abolitionists” are posing a strong challenge to both existing global institutions and to those who want to reform or replace these institutions.

Global Party Formation and the Challenges of Global Democracy

The world-systems perspective holds that the core-periphery global hierarchy is a centrally important structure for understanding and explaining world history and the trajectories of individual countries and regions. The global hierarchy is reproduced over time in the sense that it is hard to move up or down, although there is some vertical mobility. The semiperiphery, composed of large states and national societies with intermediate levels of development, is an important zone because innovations that transform technologies and forms of organization tend to get implemented (and sometimes invented) in the semiperiphery. It is a fertile location that produces structural and evolutionary change. This is the hypothesis of “semiperipheral development” (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997: Chapter 5). The struggle of the elites to move up the hierarchy and to stay on top requires hegemonic strategies that incorporate some of the non-elites into developmental projects, but the resistance of those below to domination and exploitation challenges hegemonic projects with new counter-hegemonic strategies of protection and democratization (e,g, Monbiot 2003). We contend that this systemic core-periphery struggle has been a major engine of world historical social change, and that it will shape current and future struggles over global governance.

The national state, for long the most significant locus of political decision-making and focus point of people’s identities, has been challenged in these traditional functions by international organizations, especially multinational corporations, regional governing bodies, such as the European Union, and other global governance institutions, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) (Markoff 1999; Held 1997). Both elites and popular social movements seek to influence policy-making at multiple geographic scales; they are increasingly drawing connections between national and local issues with global ones however, and becoming more active at the global level.

Many observers point out that the institutions of global governance show a notable democratic deficit (e.g Stiglitz 2002). These institutions lack democratically appointed legislative arms, ombudspersons, and formal policy evaluation mechanisms (Scholte 2004: 211). Scholte points out that, “relationships between national governments and global governance agencies have mainly flowed through unelected technocrats who lack any direct connection with citizens,” and that national governments have given “suprastate bodies considerable unchecked prerogative in operational activities” (ibid.:212). Given the wide-spread perception of this democratic deficit, it is no surprise that social movements and NGOs are making collective efforts to re-gain political influence (Smith 2008; Scholte 2004). Elites, particularly in the semiperiphery, have likewise raised questions about the dominant role played by representatives of core nations within existing global governance institutions and called for their restructuring.

Various scholars and activists argue that global democracy requires restructuring global governance institutions, possibly even the formation of a democratic world government, in order to better regulate the international economy so that it more effectively responds to public needs (Patomaki and Teivainen 2004; International Forum on Globalization 2002; Held and McGrew 2002). Others, however, contend that global governance institutions should simply be abolished.

Many see the WSF as an important instrument for preparing the public to actively participate in and influence global governance institutions.  For example, Smith (2004c: 420) argues that the WSF is a “foundation for a more democratic global polity,” since it enables citizens of many countries to develop shared values and preferences, to refine their analyses and strategies, and to improve their skills at transnational dialogue.  Patomaki and Teivainen (2004: 151) suggest that the WSF “forms a loosely defined party of opinion” from which global parties might emerge and wield influence on world politics.  The last big wave of non-elite global party formation was during and after the world revolution of 1917 when the Comintern, the Third International, brought representatives from national communist parties as well as union, womens’ and youth organizations to huge annual congresses held in Moscow during the early 1920s. There have been official international party organizations since then, but they have played only a small role in global governance (Patomaki and Teivainen 2006).

The World Revolution of 20xx

As discussed above, democracy is a contested concept, but it has become the central legitimizing discourse that supports or undermines contemporary structures of governance. At the global level the existing governance structures are under attack at the same time that new challenges require coordinated action on a global scale. Large numbers of people feel that they have been left out of the miracles of technological change, while others see new technologies as symbols of domination. At the same time the rapidly declining cost of communications has allowed large popular networks to mount transnationally organized campaigns that have challenged the major institutions of global governance, especially the G-8, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization.

            What is happening is the emergence of a global polity in which non-elites are increasingly participating directly in world politics.  This is not an entirely new development. Global political parties such as the First, Second and Third Internationals have challenged the powers that be since the 19th century. But increasing numbers of activists have “scale shifted” to the global level as it has become clear that local and national mobilization have little hope of successfully confronting the problems of global inequality and environmental degradation (Reitan 2006). This transnationalization of social movements has been greatly facilitated by the Internet. After the 1994 uprising of the Zapatistas in southern Mexico, huge numbers of young people in North America, Europe, and eventually South America and Asia, mobilized a decentralized network of local affinity groups that came to be known as Peoples’ Global Action.  In 2001 activists who had unsuccessfully sought a voice in the World Economic Forum formed the World Social Forum as an open space for movements that oppose neoliberalism.

            These developments have raised new issues about the legitimacy of activists who claim to represent the poor and oppressed. How does one legitimate that claim? Within the “movement of movements”  this has proven to be a most contentious issue. Politically engaged popular singers as well as NGOs with professional staffs and funding from governments and foundations are claiming to represent the interests of poor and oppressed groups. The Via Campesina, an intercontinental alliance of small farmers, has excluded non-farmers from participation in their group decision-making because of the perception that NGOs were unfairly dominating the agendas. But even mass-based social movement organizations have legitimacy problems. Have all the constituents been consulted? Who decides on who gets included and who gets excluded? The notions of participatory democracy and grass-roots organizing that are widely accepted by many in the global justice movement favor leaders who are “servants of the community.” But who has defined the community, and have all the members had their say? Democracy is an idea that can be used to critique the activists as well as the powers that be.

            Communication technologies have long been important in both facilitating authority and hierarchy and in mobilizing challenges to authority that have produced the evolution of global governance. And this set of processes is continuing. The Internet makes possible a much greater level of popular communication and collaboration than has ever existed  before.  The ultra-democrats are the most motivated and the most goaded by their own principles to take advantage of the new information technologies and to develop new ways of facilitating group decision-making and collaboration.

Popular Participation in Global Mobilizations

            The digital divide is still an important limitation on the ability of poor and rural people to access the Internet (Netchaeva 2002), but nearly every town in the world now has an Internet café. And wireless cell phone networks allow even those who do not read to talk with distant others. As pocket-sized wireless screens (such as the IPOD Touch) become much less expensive, the digital divide will be pushed much closer to outer edges of humanity. Those who will remain outside of the global web should not be ignored, but they will eventually be a small percentage of the world’s population.

            Global meetings such as those held by the World Social Forum (WSF)  involve intercontinental travel by large numbers of individuals who attend these large gatherings. These meetings are expensive in both money and carbon terms. A much cheaper and cleaner alternative to flying humans from continent to continent so that they may communicate face-to-face is emerging in 3-d interactive digital worlds.

Virtually-enabled Popular Global Collaboration and Decision-making

            One solution is to make even more use of the Internet. Virtual communication will never completely replace face-to-face encounters. But the emergence of three-dimensional interactive virtual worlds can be used to greatly expand popular participation in democratic global governance.

            Encounters in three-dimensional virtual worlds can allow people from the global south to work out group strategies and to coordinate actions without having to travel to distant meetings. At present the best available platform for these encounters is Second Life, a virtual community that is designed by its participants (Ondrejka 2005). The economics of being able to carry on group interactions among distant participants in settings that can be altered to make participants comfortable portend a big future for encounters of this kind.

            Political organizers have already moved in to Second Life. Diplomacy Island is a place that is available for meetings, though the style of this setting is intended to be comfortable for diplomats and representatives of governments.  Commonwealth Island is a meeting place for NGOs and social movements. It has small, medium and large outdoor meeting spaces that are more comfortable for the activists of the global justic movements.    Another Internet technologies that can facilitate horizontal and participatory decision-making is Wiki process software. Rather than a small group of intellectual meeting in a hotel to hammer out a manifesto such as the Bamako Appeal, documents can be collectively and democratically produced by large numbers of people who are located on different continents.

The World Party and Dual Power

            As outlined above, we are not satisfied with polyarchy at the national level. We agree with the critics of polyarchy that it is not the best of all possible worlds.  We contend that real democracy must address the issue of wealth and property, rather than defining these as beyond the bounds of political discourse. This said, we can also learn much from those experiments with collective property that were carried out in the socialist and Communist states in the twentieth century.  State ownership, even when the state is itself truly democratic, creates grave economic problems because of the problem of “soft budget constraints.”  Large firms need to compete with one another in markets, but even more importantly they should compete for financing by showing that they can make a profit. We admire John Roemer’s (1994) model of market socialism in which ownership shares of large firms are distributed to all adult citizens, who then invest their shares in a stock market that is the main source of capital for large firms. All citizens receive a set number shares at the age of majority and when they die their shares revert to the public weal. So there is no inheritance of corporate property, though personal property can be inherited. Firms, large and small, produce for markets and labor is rewarded in competitive labor markets. Small firms can be privately owned.  This kind of market socialism equalizes income, though some inequalities due to skill differences will continue. The economy will still be a market economy, but the democratic state will guarantee security and property, and oversee the redistribution of corporate shares across generations.

            This model of public socialism incentivizes technological change and efficiency without creating and increasing inequalities. It would work well, especially in the core countries for which Roemer has intended it. But when we think about the global economy there are certain problems that are not addressed in Roemer’s model.  The main problem in the global economy is huge differences in productivity between core and peripheral labor..   This is why labor standards in international economic agreements are anathema to workers and unions in peripheral countries. These function as protectionist agreements for core workers, and undercut the ability of peripheral workers to produce commodities and sell them in core markets. The real solution to this is to raise the level of productivity of peripheral labor. So global democracy needs to build institutions that can do this.

            This is why we need to democratize and empower the institutions of global governance, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Movements that seek to abolish these international financial institutions because they are symbols of global capitalism need to either radically reform these, or devise better instruments that can address the issues of core/periphery inequalities.  Market socialism in the core will not be enough. A movement for economic democracy in the core needs also to mobilize for economic democracy at the global level.

            Support for both more democratic national regimes and global socialist institutions is likely to come from the semiperiphery.  We expect that some of the most potent efforts to democratize global capitalism will come out of movements and democratic socialist regimes in that emerge in semiperipheral countries. As in earlier epochs, semiperipheral countries have the “advantages of backwardness” – they are not already heavily invested in the existing organizational and political institutions and technologies – and so they have the maneuverability and the resources to invest in new institutions.

Peripheral countries could also do this, but they are more completely dependent on the core and they are not able to mobilize sufficient resources to overcome this dependency. Bolivia, led by Evo Morales, may turn out to be an exception. The semiperiphery, especially the large semiperipheral countries such as Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, India, Indonesia,China and Venezuela have opportunities that neither core nor peripheral countries have. If a democratic socialist regime is able to come to state power by legal means, and if this regime has the political will to mobilize the popular sectors in favor of democratic socialism, an experiment in market socialism of the Roemerian type could be carried out.  Regimes of this kind may already be emerging in the so-called “Red Tide” in Latin America. More are likely to come forth as the option of kowtowing to the megacorporations and the bond traders becomes more obviously bankrupt.

The smaller semiperipheral countries (South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Israel) may also opt for democratic socialism, but we expect that these will only be able to do so after earlier efforts have been made in the large semiperipheral countries.

These semiperipheral democratic socialist regimes will be the organizational entities that can forge the links among the global antisystemic movements and produce a network for bringing forth the institutions of global socialism. Globalization from below and the formation of global socialist institutions will need to be facilitated by a loose confederation of world citizens organized as a democratic political network. We have adopted the name given to such a confederation by Warren Wagar (1996) – the World Party. But this is not a party in the old sense of the Third International – a vanguard party of the world proletariat. Rather the World Party we propose would be a network of people and representatives of popular organizations from all over the world who agree to help create a democratic and collectively rational global commonwealth. The World Party will be open to people of different nations and religions and will seek to create the institutional basis for a culturally pluralistic, socially just and ecologically sustainable world society – a global democracy.  


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[1] World Social Forum Charter