Hugi Magazine #33: MP3 Power

Hugi #33 header graphic

Should human beings be considered global citizens? (By David Hoghton-Carter)

The idea of global citizenship is an old one, but it is perhaps only recently that it gained much meaning beyond the dreams of philosophers and bohemians. It is an incontestable fact that few people around the world actually consider themselves to be full-fledged members of a global political community, and there is certainly no single, coherent global political apparatus that can readily compared to a complete and functioning state. However, the phenomena of globalisation has brought about a change in the nature of world politics, and global citizenship – as the idea that all human beings should enjoy the same citizen rights and responsibilities by virtue of all being members of a single political community – can now be meaningfully discussed as a potential solution to worldwide political issues.

First, I should outline my view of globalisation and its impact. To me, globalisation involves much more than the rise of free trade and liberal-capitalism. The global economy isn't new or unique; for example, academics are very much aware that the late Victorian era exhibited all the characteristics of a liberalised laissez-faire economy, and may even be considered more open and unregulated than today's world economy. Modern globalisation is a process that can potentially manifest in a variety of different ways: the liberal-capitalist economy represents an ethos that has been built from the foundations of globalism. Its architects could, and hopefully still can, build something different on the foundational structure instead, emphasising different kinds of values.

The two important underlying factors of globalisation are the rise of mass communications and the proliferation of people and groups able to meaningfully act within the political domain that stretches beyond the local domain or the national domain to the global domain. By a 'rise of mass communications', I mean the root cause of the feeling that the world is 'shrinking' into a single community, with distance and geography meaning less than they once did. Radio, television, telephony, the internet and rapid transportation mean that local communities and isolated individuals are able to maintain an awareness of events far away, and maintain contact with people and groups far away, as though those geographically far away things existed a mere few minutes down the road. As a consequence of this, people and groups have been better able to participate in shaping political policy, or participate in the many and varied elements of civil society – including community groups, political parties, pressure groups, political demonstrations and charities – in a way that can have a tangible effect on the political process.

However, the problems inherent in globalisation as it currently is are what are leading to the need for human beings to be considered united in kind in political reality, not just as a philosophical abstract idea without any real-world meaning. Large-scale anti-globalisation demonstrations over the last decade, reports and investigations by journalists of various kinds, and the growing body of popular and academic literature which I am adding to here, point to a feeling that major global institutions have too much power and serve only certain vested interests at the expense of many people worldwide. We – that is, politically and culturally aware people who have access to the varied manifestations of the communications revolution – are also aware of rising global environmental concerns and of the great injustices and humanitarian catastrophes abroad in today's world.

Some writers and academics, though, continue to emphasise the idea that the most important characteristic of the modern form of globalisation is interconnectedness. However, this term is deceptive, implying a much greater degree of parity in the relationships between the various nations, groups and institutions involved in it. As highlighted by academic writers such as Jan Aart Scholte and Emmanuel Richter, interdependence emerges in the reliance of Western countries upon the cheap goods produced by those in poorer nations and in the reliance of those who produce these goods on the meagre wages paid their employers. Such people often find themselves ultimately working for 'western', or at least 'westernised' companies, whose policies are formulated far away based on ideas which do not focus on their well-being. Though the wages paid to by 'westernised' companies enable their poorest workers to earn more than they would be able to earn otherwise, the choice is a harsh one and rarely comes with any guarantees of security; when other options available include subsistence agriculture, cottage industries which are unable to compete globally, and sometimes begging, it is not much a choice at all. Whilst outdated, the term "wage slavery" is not completely inappropriate. Overall, this is hardly the kind of equitable relationship implied in the common use of the idea of "interconnectedness".

So, I agree with Andrew Dobson, who argues that it is the asymmetries of power created by globalisation that best characterise this phenomena, challenging the idea of interconnectedness as it is outlined by David Held. Dobson, quoting Vandana Shiva, notes that,

"The 'global' in the dominant discourse is the political sphere in which a particular dominant local seeks global control, and frees itself of local, national and international restraints. The global does not represent the universal human interest, it represents a particular local and parochial interest which has been globalised through the scope of reach. The seven most powerful countries, the G7, dictate global affairs, but the interests that guide them remain narrow, local and parochial."

The problem is not the system itself as such, but the political actors within it – the governments of nation-states who have the strongest voice in international politics, alongside the dominant interests within their own electorates. Thus, political actors which do not have the economic or political power to extend their reach beyond their own locality can only act locally and can only wield effective influence upon local populations, whilst powerful states are able to exercise power in all localities in which their goods and services are desired or their military might is feared. In the process, whether by intention or by default, the illusion is created for those who have an awareness of global affairs in powerful states that the world is somehow more interconnected than in days past, when in fact it can (without much hyperbole) be seen as a continuation of traditional realpolitiik through other means.

In particular, the rules of the WTO seem to perpetuate this kind of asymmetrical power structure. To paraphrase Dobson, the WTO rules may be described thus: all decisions are reached by consensus, which supposedly allows every member country, even the smallest and weakest, a place at the negotiating table and an effective veto upon policy. However, this kind of decision making requires that all participants enjoy a roughly equal level of bargaining power, and (as the WTO itself recognises), the practical reality is that this is not the case. Therefore, the weak have little effective bargaining power against pre-eminently powerful political actors such as the US, capable of being able to offer nothing of significant value to such states, and can be effectively required to accept rules made by the powerful if they wish to enjoy what benefits there are to participation. These institutions may be formally neutral, but they are, in practice, dominated and therefore controlled by the most powerful political actors. The incentives for global participation are thus generated by the powerful; the idea of a multilateral network of equals is illusory, and aspirational only

For me, part of the problem is that there are institutions which have the power to make political policy for vast numbers of people, and the power to coercively enforce their policies, but which have no democratic accountability to speak of. I would argue that this means that they cannot be considered to have the legitimacy required for them to be able to demand that people comply with the rules that they make. Additionally, there is no reason that I can see to accord these institutions special exemption from the way that we commonly think about our political institutions just because they are neither part of a coherent whole state or because they occupy a tier of power above the conventional nation-state.

In political philosophy, power and authority are distinct concepts: the former refers to the raw, crude ability to rule whether or not the people who are ruled wish it, the latter to the ability to require people to obey because they have all somehow freely consented to the person or institution that holds power to rule over them. In the context of modern democracy, accountability is generally accepted as the minimum necessary condition for consent to be present, based on a set of provisos about the conditions under which this kind of consent is given. Most importantly, certain freedoms must exist, and must be supported by the law. If these conditions aren't met, the institutions of government are not legitimate, and the population which is governed cannot be meaningfully said to be free. If institutions are only accountable to very limited sections of the population, this is insufficient. David Held expresses this kind of argument as "the principle of autonomy":

"Persons should enjoy equal rights and, accordingly, equal obligations in the specification of the political framework which generates the opportunities available to them; that is, they should be free and equal in the determination of the conditions of their own lives, so long as they do not deploy this framework to negate the rights of others."

The WTO, IMF and World Bank (amongst others) have the ability to make political policy which effects the lives of billions of people, and the ability to enforce their policies by applying coercive measures against national governments. However, they are legally accountable only to the leaders of the countries in question, and the asymmetries of power at work in modern globalisation mean that the most powerful are completely dominant, and capable of instituting policies which they favour at the expense of weaker countries. It is easy to see why many people around the world consider globalisation to be little more than a new form of imperialism, but this is not the heart of the problem.

The implication is that whoever these institutions are, in practice, accountable to can set the rules. It is not just the case that, if these institutions are only accountable to elites, this harks back to the days of kings and barons, serfdom and empires. The key factor is embodied in the idea of political constituencies, and the idea that each population chooses its leaders, who tend to act according to the dominant ideas of their own community and are persuaded by the most prominent voices in their own community. If politicians are accountable to their own population, it stands to reason that that they will pursue policies favoured by those they must answer to. So the IMF, WTO and World Bank are effectively controlled by those whose constituency favours, and benefits from, worldwide capitalism and all its trappings. Their own constituencies are world leaders, and the world leaders with the loudest voice are those who are in the strongest bargaining position.

However, as I argued earlier, accountability to elites is insufficient. So the constituency of the IMF, WTO and World Bank, which set and enforce laws affecting the lives of billions, must be all those people. Every human being effected by the policies of the WTO and its kin must be able to have a say in their actions if these institutions can consider themselves to be legitimate – to have authority, rather than just power. And if there is to be a political process in deciding how these institutions are to be governed, the process must be free and equal across the whole population. Nothing less satisfies the principle of autonomy. And the conditions required for this process – with rights, freedoms and duties – sound a lot like the kind of conditions applied to modern citizenship at the national level.

Is it possible for global politics to function in the same kind of way to national politics? I believe it is. Global civil society is the most obvious precursor of this, and parallels domestic civil society in important ways. Today, we commonly see the connection that we have with other human beings in far distant places not just as a philosophical abstract, but as a concrete reality. Full-fledged global citizenship of some kind (not necessarily of the exact kind of citizenship conventionally experienced at the national level) is a logical next step on this path, attaching the same political rights and duties to all human beings. Some philosophers argue that global citizenship would be too demanding upon individuals and produce a conflict of allegiances; my answer to that kind of proposition is, firstly, that people do not commonly experience an entirely insurmountable conflict in their allegiances to their local community and to their nation, and, secondly, that many people already have multiple allegiances, some of which include global communities based on religion, ethnic origins, political persuasion, cultural tastes and personal interests.

Furthermore, people can and do think globally – witness the extent of opposition to globalisation, the rise of environmental politics, and the humanitarian concern of many for the plight of those suffering in far off lands. These issues also demonstrate that certain universally-relevant social, cultural, economic, moral and political issues transcend national boundaries and cannot be considered the domain of any one nation alone. Global civil society as it exists at present is therefore domestic civil society writ large. It aids social cohesion within the political community it is concerned with, it acts to build awareness of politically relevant moral goods, and interest groups serve similar functions in attempting to actively influence political policy as national-scale lobby groups do. In addition, it shows that the political domain of the global citizen is necessarily different from that of the national citizen, focussing on the kind of environmental and humanitarian concerns commonly seen in modern global political debate, rather than on the conventional aims of public service and civic defence.

But for human beings to hold equal rights, freedoms and duties requires that certain basic moral and political standards be applied universally. At the heart of citizenship theory is the idea that all citizenships must be able to claim roughly similar levels of freedom and prosperity; extremes of poverty, deprivation, and exclusion are simply not possible if people are to be able to act as citizen-members of a political community. Thus I tend to look towards a new kind of 'universal political morality' to help in providing the essential backdrop for citizenship.

I would argue that morality should, by definition, be applied universally: to exclude anyone from our moral code in any meaningful way is to fatally undermine it. This kind of approach is based on the ideas of the philosopher Kant, who argued that human beings should be treated as "ends in themselves"; his idea of "the Kingdom of Ends" effectively requires that all dealings and transactions between human beings should be entirely equitable and that no human being is actively exploited, but that every human being is treated as an individual with legitimate aspirations and the capacity to make reasoned choices. Furthermore, he sees every individual as equally competent to make moral choices that legislate for the community as a whole, requiring that each person be held accountable for their own actions, and that those of their actions which have an impact upon others do not create circumstances that the person concerned would not wish to be placed in themselves.

However, I would argue that universal political morality must be as minimal in its scope as possible; in philosophical language, it must be "thin", avoiding including too many rules and provisos. A "thick" conception of global political morality would, I would argue, be inappropriate because of the competing demands of the different moral perspectives of different cultures; not only is there a risk that a particular kind of regional morality will dominate, but it must also allow individual people and communities a certain amount of partiality. To expect universal impartiality – that people will not prefer their friends, family, or regional fellows in deciding how to allocate the resources they have available to them – is well known for being both entirely undesirable and against the grain of intrinsic human values. And the pervasive influence of liberal-democratic ideas upon areas unaccustomed to them has generated significant opposition and often risked subsuming cultures which should be considered valuable in themselves.

Though the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives an idea of the kind of criteria that might be applied, it is both inadequate to the task at hand and indicative of the kind of 'thick' concept of morality which I would reject. Different countries and cultures should be able to build upon the minimum as they wish, under the proviso that they cannot abrogate, distort or ignore the minimum.

I would argue that the kind of approach required to underpin global citizenship is one in which all human beings are able to interact freely as equals, and take responsibility for the morally-relevant choices which they make, accountable for these choices to their fellow human beings. The question then becomes one of whether there are social and political obligations attached to this level of interaction, and whether the individual can legitimately ignore or discard them in the moral choices that he makes. The Kantian perspective, which I agree with, would be that there are indeed moral obligations tied to this level of interaction, just as there are to interactions on the scale of a nation or a city, and that disregarding these obligations renders the actions of the individual unjust. As I mentioned earlier, the attendant obligations of global citizenship would be restricted to those matters which are necessarily global in their scope, including justice, freedom, poverty, peace and the environment.

So, I believe that the implementation of global citizenship would prove to be a great leveller. By the very nature of the demands it would make up all human beings, and the common rights it would grant them as equal members of a democratic political community, it would eliminate extremes of poverty and injustice, and help to generate a new perspective upon the need for ecological preservation. Citizenship as, first and foremost, a state of thought and action which can be brought into being by political participation and moral universalism, potentially underpinned by membership of a global community, is a realistic possibility for the individual.

David Hoghton-Carter