Globalizing Democracy

by Benjamin Barber

The American Prospect magazine, September 11, 2000


Can globalism be governed? Or, as a first step, can we start by building a global civil society? Until recently, one could took in vain for a global "we, the people" to be represented. That is now changing. There is another internationalism, a forming crystal around which a global polity can grow. Effective global governance to temper the excesses of the global market does not yet exist; however, international activism by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has made some surprising gains. People who care about public goods are working to recreate on a global scale the normal civic balance that exists within democratic nations. Consider the following:

* A young woman named Jody Williams, with celebrity help from a princess (sadly deceased), creates a worldwide civic movement for a ban on land mines that actually enacts a treaty.

* A Bangladeshi visionary, Mohammed Yunus, develops an idea for micro-financing, which makes mini-loans to women in third world societies, which at once jump-starts enterprise and liberates women from traditional servitude.

* Striking fear into retired tyrants everywhere, European public opinion and spirited English law lords make possible the arrest of a Chilean ex-dictator. III health got Pinochet temporarily off the hook, but the Chilean Supreme Court has lifted his immunity and the tocsin has sounded. Dictators are no longer safe in their retirement havens.

* Women's groups from around the world meet in Beijing in a demonstration of international solidarity that asks nothing of national governments and everything of civic institutions that are powerfully reinforced by their actions.

* Multiplying coalitions of workers, environmentalists, students, and anarchists use the Internet to fashion a decentralized, non-ideological resistance to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), effectively capturing media attention by taking to the streets in Seattle, Washington, D.C., and London-Prague in the fall is next!

* Citizen groups use "Good Housekeeping seal" methods to underwrite safe fisheries ("dolphin-safe tuna") and rug manufacturers without child labor (Rugmark), while students at Duke University initiate a movement to ensure that campus sports apparel is not manufactured in child- exploiting sweatshops.

* The market-friendly, stealth Multilateral Agreement on Investment that would further erode national attempts to regulate foreign investment is subjected to broad citizen scrutiny and indefinitely deferred.

* Global Internet communication among groups facilitated by organizations like Peter Armstrong 'S and Globalvision's new supersite are diverting the new telecommunications from pure commerce to the public interests of global civil society.

* Europe responds as "Europe" to coalition between Austria's traditional parties and Jorg Haider's reactionary Freedom Party, signaling the potency of an emerging transnational public opinion operating across state boundaries.

* Hundreds of NGOs gather in new international organizations like CIVICUS, the World Forum on Democracy, and Transparency International, and begin to develop the kind of civic networking across nations that corporations have enjoyed for decades, courtesy of the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland.

* President Clinton offers the corporate leaders at Davos a "wake-up call" reminding them that there are "new forces seeking to be heard in the global dialogue' " progressive forces that want to democratize rather than withdraw from the new world order.

What is afoot here? Davos is a good place to begin. For nearly 30 years, the world's multiplying multinational corporations, transnational banks, and speculators have met every February in the Swiss ski resort to network, strategize, and acquire legitimacy by mixing with invited statesmen and intellectuals. Davos has been a fit symbol for an international arena in which the "three-legged stool" of government, civil society, and the private-market sector on which stable democracies are said to rest has been transformed into a tottering toadstool held up by a thick and solitary economic stem.

Markets have escaped the boundaries of eroding national frontiers and become global, but governing organizations have not. This has created a perilous asymmetry: Global economics operate in an anarchic realm without significant regulation and
without the humanizing civic institutions that within national societies rescue it from raw social Darwinism. National boundaries have become too porous to hold the economy in, but remain sufficiently rigid to prevent democracy from getting out and civilizing the larger world. We have globalized our economic vices - crime, drugs, terror, hate, pornography, and financial speculation-but not our civic virtues. The result has been a growing tension between the beneficiaries of globalization and just about everyone else, a tension symbolized by the unrest in Seattle last fall, and in Washington, D.C., and London last winter.

Yet while it has not yet attracted the attention of the media (inured to good news and preferring to celebrate globalization uncritically and treat resistance to it as Luddism or worse), the new millennium has in fact brought new efforts at overcoming the global imbalance. In June more than a dozen democracies-including not only the center-left regimes led by Bill Clinton, Lionel Jospin, Gerhard Schroder, and Tony Blair, but also South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile-met in Berlin to discuss how they might redress international injustices. A few weeks later, nearly 100 nations met in Warsaw under the somewhat hyperbolic banner of the "community of democracies" - are there really 100 "democracies" in the world? fifty? twenty!?-to seek an even broader consensus for a democratic concert of nations.

More to the point, they met for the first time together with a fledgling transnational civil society - a parallel forum supported by Freedom House, Poland's Stefan Batory Foundation, and George Soros (author of a remarkable new critique of globalization called Open Society), with the title World Forum on Democracy. This forum assembled a company of NGOs, foundations, and intellectuals committed to strengthening global civil society; it underscored its novelty by actually holding a joint dinner and several meetings in common with the foreign ministers, who were eventually presented with a document in effect announcing, "Here we are, and we want to be heard." The World Forum plans biennial meetings, with work groups gathering more frequently, but it is by no means the only civil society umbrella group seeking a serious hearing on the global scene.

Last fall the National Endowment for Democracy had already convened the first of what were to be a series of global meetings of its own, the next of which will be in Sao Paulo. Other global civic umbrella groups playing on this turf (finally it is valuable enough to be the venue of turf wars!) include the aforementioned CIVICUS, a group of more than 500 NGOs that has been meeting for a half-dozen years; Transparency International, a German-based civic group focusing on monitoring corruption; and the Aventis Foundation's Triangle Forum on the global future, which met in the middle of July at Robert Wilson's Watermill Center on Long Island for another of a series of trilateral discussions among businesspeople, politicians, NGO representatives, scholars, and (uniquely) artists, including Watermill's creator, Robert Wilson.

All this activity suggests we are entering a new era in which global markets and servile governments will no longer be completely alone in planning the world's fate. And just in time. While President Clinton showed at Seattle that he could talk eloquently about civic and human dilemmas of globalism (in a speech that upset his advisers), there has been no meaningful follow-up. On the contrary, with his fast-track legislation (failed) and his opening to China (apparently successful), Clinton is accelerating a headlong rush to global laissez-faire. Likewise Bush and Gore.

The asymmetries resulting from the rapid globalization of markets in the absence of any commensurable globalization of political and civic institutions are largely ignored by elected officials, even those of the center-left. Ripped from the box of the nation-state, which traditionally acted as its regulator and civilizer, capitalism turns mean and anarchic. The market sector is privileged; the political sector is largely eclipsed (when not subordinated to the purposes of the market); the private is elevated above the public, which is subjected to ruthless privatization at every turn. Liberty itself is redefined as the absence of governmental authority and hence an exclusively market phenomenon, while coercion and dependency are associated with government even when (especially when) government is democratic.

The difficulty nation-states have with globalization comes not just from the force of what is happening in the international arena but from ideological developments within nation-states. The push toward privatization is bipartisan. This is not decentralization-the devolution of power down the democratic public ladder to provinces, municipalities, and neighborhoods-but de- democratization, the shifting of concentrated power at the highest levels from public to private hands. Power shifted from authorities that were hierarchical but also public, transparent, and accountable, to authorities that remain hierarchical but are private, opaque, and undemocratic.

In the unfettered high-tech global market, crucial democratic values become relics. Indeed, because globalization is correctly associated with new telecommunication technologies, the globalized and privatized information economy is constructed as an inevitable concomitant of post-sovereign, postmodern society.


Nowhere are the asymmetries of the new globalism more evident than in media mergers like Disney/ABC, Viacom/CBS, Verizon (Bell Atiantic/GTE), and AOL/TimeWarner/CNN/EMI. These mergers present a challenge not just to economic competition in the domain of goods, labor, and capital, but to democracy and its defining virtues. These include free and autonomous information (guaranteed by the independent existence of plurally-owned media), social and political diversity (guaranteed by genuine pluralism in society), and full participation by citizens in deciding public policies and securing -public goods (guaranteed by a robust public domain). When Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996-the first major piece of legislation dealing with new media since the Federal Communications Act of 1934-it effectively ceded the modern information economy to the private forces that control global markets.

The new monopolies are particularly insidious because while monopolies of the nineteenth century were in durable goods and natural resources, and exercised control over the goods of the body, new information-age monopolies of the twenty-first century are over news, entertainment, and knowledge, and exercise control over the goods of the mind and spirit. When governments control information and news, we call it totalitarianism; when monopolistic corporations control them, we call it free market strategy.

The impact on diversity is misleading because sources of content and information delivery appear to be multiplying. Superficially, this trend is pluralist and empowering. Analysts argue that AOL and Time Warner cover different consumer bases, and the new partners, Steve Case of AOL and Gerald Levin of Time Warner, both promise to pursue "open access" on cable so that the owners of "pipes" that carry content do not become monopoly gatekeepers. But it is hardly clear between AOL and Time Warner who actually represents the pipes and who the content. AOL controls online content but as a Web server is also a monolithic Web portal. Time Warner wanted the deal to get its content on the Web; it is a content provider but, via hard cable installations, also controls pipes. AOL wanted the deal to get its Net services on fast hard-wired cable (it currently depends on snail-speed telephone lines). To suggest there is no real overlap, to suggest there is other than one audience and one information market, is to badly misunderstand the technology and to muddy the real issues of monopoly and globalization in the new information society-as, ironically, the Disney corporation's assault on the merger cogently argues.

Indeed, the whole point of "convergence" is to eliminate the features that separate hardware and software, the carriers and the content, until there is a seamless stream of information and entertainment entering your home: one medium, one content, one audience. Telephones, computers, televisions, VCRs, DVDs, video stores, and content companies are the segmented way of the past. The new media company must control them all; in an economy that demands integration and convergence, this means they must control (own) one another.

Monopoly is not an accidental outcome but a necessary condition of doing business in this new world. Vertical integration is a condition of synergy. When Bill Gates insists his integration of an Internet portal into his Windows operating system is a "natural" extension of his original product, he is being truthful. But the truth he tells is that convergence means monopoly, and synergy means vertical integration; that a capitalism still defined by real diversity, genuine competition, differential markets, and multiple firms is an anachronism - these are practices of the industrial past that have no place in the postindustrial information-economy future.

Now this may all represent a new and powerful logic of an information economy that dictates its own imperatives. But no one has spent much time trying to think about how this new economic logic in which private monopoly is a public good impacts the traditional logic of the democratic society, which holds that private monopoly is a public bad. There were good reasons for thinking that many newspapers and magazines were better than a few when the founders wrote the First Amendment. There were good reasons for thinking that broadcast media were public utilities over which the public had special claims when legislators wrote the Federal Communications Act of 1934. There were good reasons for thinking that diversity of content and pluralism of culture were integral virtues of a democratic society when America embraced multiculturalism in the 1980s and 1990s.

Does a change in private technological and economic logic mean that the public logic of democracy must accommodate itself uncomplainingly to that change? Or is it technology and the information economy that need to be reassessed and revised to meet our public goals and common goods as a democratic people? Should private logic dominate public logic in democracy? Are Steve Case, Gerald Levin, and Ted Turner appropriate unelected representatives to shape America's destiny as an information society? Will their decisions become de facto legislation for the rest of the world? These troublesome questions cannot be answered in the context of national politics. The real challenge is whether we can address the erosion of democracy in the asymmetrical setting of global markets, where such civic and political tools as are available to us within nations have gone missing.

Yet the outlook is not quite so pessimistic as the diagnosis suggests. Why? Because there is an emerging international alternative to global markets in new transnational civic organizations and social movements, and there are still political strategies that can oppose privatization within nations and then help nation-states reassert control over the global economy through traditional "concert of nations" approaches. After all, the IMF and the WTO are not supranational organizations, but the tools of groups of powerful nations. They will bend to the will of democratic governments, if leading governments can once again represent the public interests of their sovereign peoples and can find ways to cooperate.


The marketplace functions effectively within nation-states because it is only one of three sectors. The private -business sector is not only balanced by the public- government sector, but the two are in turn mediated by a civil society that, like government, is public and composed Of communities and other collective associations, but like the market is voluntary and free. Within nation-states, it is not the market alone but this stable tripod of governmental, civic, and private institutions that generates liberty and produces the pluralistic goods of free society. Rip the market from its nesting place in nation-states, however, and you have wild capitalism-wild not in itself (it is supposed to be aggressively competitive) but because in globalizing it slips the civilizing embrace of its nation-state hosts.

The turmoil in Seattle at the end of last year and in Washington, D.C., and London in the winter and spring arose from frustration. The protectionist backlash bespeaks a deep insecurity in the face of a world out of control-an exaggerated nightmare of a world in which American soldiers serve under foreign command, Islamic fundamentalists conspire to wage terror on the American heartland, jobs hemorrhage abroad, immigrants inundate the nation and rend its fragile unity. Far from suggesting common cause between American protestors and the wretched of the earth elsewhere, however, this backlash can look like an American version of Jorg Haider's politics of fear. As Egypt's Economy Minister Youssef Boutros- Ghali said, "The world is not represented on the streets of Seattle. The truth is, most of the world's population was inside the conference in Seattle, not outside."

Yet the democratic world really is out of control because the instruments of benign control-democratic governing institutions-simply do not exist in the international setting, where markets in currency, labor, and goods run like engines without governors. Happily, the rising internationalism of transnational civic institutions and social movements promises a measure of countervailing power in the international arena and serves as an alternative to the reactionary politics of Pat Buchanan or Jean-Marie Le Pen.

These civic efforts-the work of citizens rather than governments, or the work of governments reacting to citizens (and not just their own)-embody a global public opinion in the making, a global civic engagement that can alone give the abstraction of international politics weight. The outreach of citizens and civic groups can make entities like "Europe" more than a mere function of economic and security concerns. Coteries of NGOs, the shifting voice of public opinion, and the emergent hand of the international rights movement may not be the equal of multinational corporations or international banks, but they represent a significant starting place for countervailing power. They put flesh on the bare bones of legalistic doctrines of universal rights. James Madison noted that a declaration of rights is a paper fortress from which it is impossible to defend real rights. Rights. depend on engaged citizens and a civic space where their activities are possible. These new transnational civic spaces offer possibilities for transnational citizenship and hence an anchor for global rights.


Even so, these transnational civic projects should not fool us into thinking that Amnesty International or Medecins Sans Frontieres are the equivalent in clout of AOL Time Warner or the IME International markets spin out of control not just because the economy has been globalized, Ink because, nation by nation by nation, we have conspired in the transfer of sovereignty from popular hands that are transparent and accountable to private hands that are neither. We remain transfixed by privatization on the Thatcher/ Reagan/ Blair/ Clinton model, and so we are unable to avail our-
selves of the many potential control mechanisms already in place. We bemoan the absence of governance and international regulation over free markets, though in truth the international institutions most often vilified are ultimately instruments of sovereign nations acting in concert. Their subservience to multinational corporations and powerful banking and financial interests reflects not just some historically inevitable erosion of sovereignty but the willed sellout of sovereign peoples to the myths of privatization. As international civil society grows stronger, it can become a source of countervailing democratic pressure on national governments.

Technically, like the United Nations, the WTO is itself a creature of nation-states. Like the IMF and many other market institutions, it could be regarded as the exoskeleton of international governance. But privatization-globalization's nasty twin-has robbed the nations that nominally control it of their democratic will, and they appear to be servants rather than masters of the new global corporate sovereigns. With animals running the zoo, those who seek such public goods as environmental protection, transparency, accountability, labor safety, and the protection of children look in vain for keepers and finally settle for theatrics, raising a ruckus rather than effecting a change.

Were they to agree on policy, the leading industrial nations could probably work their will at the IMF and the WTO. Ironically, although global markets do erode national sovereignty, a reassertion of national sovereignty as a consequence of domestic political campaigns aimed at challenging privatization could go a long way toward controlling global markets. Currently, the WTO treats national "boycotts" of imported goods, even when they are motivated by legitimate safety or environmental or child-labor concerns, as illegal. Its members can change these provisions. Third world nations worry with reason that first world environmental and safety and minimum wage concerns are a way of putting a human face on protectionism. By imposing impossible- to-meet standards, the United States can win back jobs from developing nations. But if first world governments agreed to pay the price of meeting those standards, they would win the support of third world governments in regulating global capitalism and improving standards worldwide.

National sovereignty is said to be a dying concept, but it is a long way from dead. Sovereign nations remain the locus of democratic society and the only viable powers capable of opposing, subduing, and civilizing the anarchic forces of the global economy. International civil society, the emerging global alternative to world markets, needs the active support of sovereign states for its fragile new institutions to have even a modest impact. Working together as they began to in Berlin and Warsaw in June, progressive forces within the democracies can increase the voice of civil society in how the world is organized and governed-but only if citizens and the new president they elect in November begin to listen to that voice in earnest.


BENJAMIN BARBER is the Walt Whitman Professor of Political Science and director of the Walt Whitman Center at Rutgers University. He is the author most recently of Jihad vs. McWorld and A Place for Us: How to Make Society Civil and Democracy Strong.

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