Equality as a race to the bottom in a world after sovereignty

Challenges and Responses

On the West’s extended and often dramatic journey from national sovereignty to globalization, there have been several significant milestones that mark crucial changes in the nature and role of sovereignty. These changes have in turn impacted the relationship between center and periphery -between the powerful and the marginalized, the West and the rest -in startling ways:

In 1945, the Allied Powers defeated Germany and Japan and brought World War II to an end. In doing so, they established the United Nations and the Bretton Woods system of international monetary institutions. While to many observers, this seemed to bring a centuries old dominion of sovereign nations to an end, in fact it strengthened the hold of the idea of sovereignty over human destiny. For the birth of the U.N. actually announced the emergence of its founder and the world’s sole nuclear power, the United States, as a new sovereign global hegemon. Internationalism was born, but remained deeply anchored in national sovereignty and the national power of its principal sponsor.

In 1961 the Soviet Union, already a thermonuclear power, built the wall in Berlin to insulate itself from the West and signal its own hegeomonic power in a now bi-polar world. Two competing national sovereignties of imperial compass now held the world in a “balance of terror” that marginalized global institutions and turned the United Nations into a pawn of the Cold War. The sovereignty of two colossal super-powers seemed to have erased the sovereignty of every other nation.

In 1989, the Wall came down and with it the Soviet Union. The fall of communism put an end also to the bi-polar Cold War world the U.S. and the Soviets had fashioned from their enmity The United States reemerged as the planet’s hegemon, its military and economic power now reinforced by its “soft” pop cultural power and communications and information society leadership in what Manuel Castells has called a ‘networked world.’ The American empire had become the empire of “McWorld,” yet national sovereignty could no longer be understood as the distinguishing feature of that empire.

On September 11, 2001, unelected and self-proclaimed “representatives” of cultures encroached on by McWorld struck back, offering a brutal tutorial to the United States about the meanings of both interdependence (no nation can go it alone today) and anarchy (no single hegemon can control a global world under the sway of multiple anarchic forces of ecology, disease, crime, capital, migratory labor and terrorism). The meanings of empire were warped (see the provocative and perverse discussion by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their Empire) and although America was the only truly global sovereign power left standing, sovereignty itself seemed to have lost much of its potent historical meaning.

It is in the context of these striking developments that we must today understand issues of global inequality and stressed multiculturalism. Center and periphery persist; the story of the powerful and the marginalized still captures the tragedy of North/South relations.

But the story must be retold to accommodate the changed realities. Neither nations, corporations, nor NGOs can afford to engage one another in the challenges of the twenty-first century without taking their measure.

Each of the milestones noted here marks a striking, though non-linear, transformation of sovereignty, the core construct of modern politics. The modern state was born in the Sixteenth century as an institution rooted in the legitimacy conferred by sovereign power: the power of the ruler to govern by making and executing laws. As Jean Bodin, the first theorist to articulate the modern theory of sovereignty clearly noted, law-giving was the essence of sovereignty. It was Thomas Hobbes and then John Locke who in turn elucidated social contract theory, describing how sovereignty was rendered popular authorized by popular will rather than divine or natural law alone.

The theory of sovereignty grew up then around that reality of new national states, where territory was coextensive with ethnos or national identity and national language. By the Eighteenth Century, it had become the foundation for governance in all modern nation states. The legitimate exercise of power and making of laws was rooted in democratic sovereignty. Sovereignty was the source of every legitimate exercise of power as law giving.

Since World War II, this relatively stable history of politics as a history of the activities and interactions of sovereign states has come under practical assault as well as intellectual scrutiny. The changes signaled by the milestones summarized above describe how sovereignty has passed both from the political sector to the economic sector; and has at the same time moved from the national plane to the global plane.

Some might suggest that this has merely shifted the venue of sovereignty without altering its character. Yet in fact it has undermined sovereignty’s core meaning, which is inseparable from the meanings of both politics and the nation state. The changes have not simply altered but rather have destroyed the essential meaning of sovereignty. In undermining sovereignty, they have yielded rational control over human life, traditionally exercised in legitimate political communities, to the forces of illegitimate non-state powers, or to the anarchy of an illegitimate (pre-legitimate) international system (non system).

Just as in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, medieval jurisdictions and the residues of an ever less potent Roman Empire of the German Nation could no longer deal with the new world of national aspirations generated by ethnic peoples seeking to organize regionally around language and history rather than around continental feudal loyalties, and had to yield to the new idea of the sovereign national state as articulated by Bodin and Hobbes; so today the sovereign nation state can no longer preserve its own autonomy or deal with the new transnational forces that confront its power and test its capacity for justice.

We can witness this evolution in the changing way in which the powerful now do business. When the President of China came to visit President Bush in 2006, his first stop was not in Washington, D.C., but in Seattle, Washington, where he met with Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, Jr. (the eminence grise of real American power). When President Bush visited China later in the year, the most important message he delivered was not to the government but to Chinese consumers: the message was “stop and shop! consume more, save less!” (so America can reduce its trade deficit). Once upon a time a supremely sovereign nation would have used mercantile policy and tariffs to force the exchange balance it wanted. Today, not even economic superpowers like the United States can do so, and instead must resort to pleading and persuasion to be heard at all.

Some may even think Bill Clinton has more impact through the soft power he deploys in his newfound role as media celebrity and global philanthropist than he ever had as American President. Similarly, although Al Gore may yet choose to run for office, he appears to believe he can do more good for the global environment as an educator, NGO director and film maker than as Chief Executive of the United States. In contrast, when the Italian communications magnate Berlusconi traded his commercial power for political office, he appears to have diminished rather than enhanced his real world power. It remains to be seen whether Bernard Kouchner can use the considerable power and influence he secured as founder of the Nobel Prize winning NGO Medecins sans Frontieres to become an influential foreign minister under France’s new President Sarkozy, but many will conclude that in taking the post he left his best (most powerful) days behind him.

The lesson implicit in these examples is that private power now trumps public power because the brute realities of interdependence have robbed sovereignty of its force. The sovereign government of the United States cannot stop capital and jobs from fleeing abroad or illegal labor migration from flowing in. Its public health campaigns cannot interdict HIV or Avian flu or the West Nile virus. Secure borders will not impede homegrown terrorism or illegal labor immigration any more than a reduction in American auto emissions (were Americans miraculously to legislate such a thing) will curb global warming.

Why? Because the new post-sovereign world is one not only one of doctors without borders but of terrorism without borders, not just of films without frontiers but of crime, drugs and nuclear proliferation without frontiers, not just of cross-national capital and cross-national markets but of cross-national labor and cross-national jobs. Sovereign nations like the United States, China and Nigeria have not become less powerful; on the contrary, their military, economic and political hard power capacities are enhanced. But the world’s interdependent realities have become far less susceptible to the impact of hard sovereign power. No nation state has ever enjoyed the absolute hegemony that defines the United States today. Yet no superpower has even been less capable of managing its own destiny. This is the paradox of American power in places like Iraq (war), Hong Kong (health), Columbia (drugs), Russia (weapons proliferation), India (jobs) and Sudan (genocide): nation to nation, the U.S. should be able to prevail and its interests should dominate. But the issues in question are not nation to nation issues, so the all-powerful country often fails to secure even its minimal interests in these domains.

As power changes its stripes, issues of injustice and inequality are affected. That the strong are less powerful does not make the weak stronger, or that they can better secure their own safety, liberty and well-being. But it does allow them to obstruct the way to success for others nominally more powerful. Hezbollah cannot make Lebanon safe and prosperous but it can prevent the Lebanese government from doing so. Al Qaeda cannot topple the United States -it is in the nature of terrorists that they are without power, which is why they resort to violence, fear and blackmail. But it can subvert American values, underwrite a politics of fear within the United States, and in this way weaken its Western enemies. Anarchic global markets permit manufacturers in China to sell diethylene glycol (a cheap poison) as glycerin; it gets mixed into products with ingredients from many countries and eventually sold (nearly untraceably) in products like fever syrup (dozens dead in Panama!) and toothpaste (imported into the United States and other countries).

In a world of interdependence, inequality is not overcome: those at the bottom remain there. But increasingly interdependence prevents those who benefit by inequality from enjoying their spoils. They must live with greater insecurity and uncertainty. The race is not to the top -what I once described as the aspiration to an “aristocracy of everyone” where the bottom aspire to match the best -but a race to the bottom in which everyone loses. The well off never suffer quite as much as those at the very bottom, but their security and happiness are diminished. In other words, interdependence means the powerful, like those they victimize, also suffer from the consequences of anarchy, criminal behavior and injustice. Interdependence distributes the costs of injustice more evenly, not by securing justice for the weak but by exacting penalties from the strong.

During the American civil rights struggle the adage had it that “you can’t keep a man in a hole unless you get down in the hole with him.” With respect to disease, crime, terrorism, ecological crisis and other comparable transnational pathologies, this truth has taken on special significance for would-be sovereign hegemons. The United States is down in the hole with Al Qaeda in Iraq (where “democracy” is being imposed by force on a hostile population), which is why there is no viable road either to effective withdrawal or sustainable victory there. It is down in the hole with the illicit manufacturers of “glycerin” in China and lead-painted toys (that’s the meaning of free trade).

Yet if hard sovereign power is in decline, and anarchic interdependence on the rise, the soft power of McWorld -the cultural and branding and commercial influence of a global information society -continues to flourish. The United States is losing the war on illegal drugs, but its pharmaceutical giants are winning the war on legal drugs, keeping those inexpensive generics that might help people on the periphery out of the marketplace.

The United States with it belated efforts at “public diplomacy” is losing the propaganda war to Fundamentalist adversaries, but it continues to win the soft media war with its films, television programs and control of “the global information order.” Although the soft brands are distancing themselves from hard-brand USA (McDonalds, for example, has embraced the Gallic cartoon figure Asterix and now serves “McLutece” burgers in Paris), they succeed where the red, white and blue (or the British Imperial crest) fail. Shrek and Spiderman go where the First Cavalry Division no longer dares to tread. And where the Sixth Fleet no longer can intimidate with its guided missiles, MTV, Starbucks, Google, and Coca Cola win friends and influence people with their global brands and savvy video-based cultural marketing. Americans no longer win real wars (because real wars are no longer fought among nations by professional soldiers), but they dominate the video war game market with products like World of War Craft. It is no longer a Nixon in China who transforms a culture, but Google in China that is both reinforcing traditional communist tyranny there (Google has removed democratic keywords to please the government) and undermining it at the same time (Google remains a semi-open door to global information). Asia and Africa have taken American jobs, but those jobs have increased the dominion of the American brands the jobs service.

In the war between Jihad and McWorld, Jihad wins the headlines and guarantees the well-off will not enjoy their prosperity, but McWorld assures that the ultimate victory will belong to pop cultural globalization. A hollow victory it is, however. For the loser either way is democracy and justice. Anarchic globalization and the twin forces of predatory global capital and nihilistic suicide bombers leave little room for global citizens to emerge and for the evolving civic and arts culture of an interdependent world to make its imprint.

But neither can the nationalist forces of old sovereign states contend adequately with the anarchy or the challenges of brute interdependence.

If there is hope, it must be in not only restoring a balance between private liberty and public justice, between markets and democracy, between consumers and citizens, within nations -where privatization and neo-liberal ideology have disempowered citizens in the name of the myth of market freedom; but also in finding innovative ways to establish that balance globally, where anarchic markets and the brute forces of interdependence dominate and there is little in the way of democratic oversight or regulation. Without democratic justice on a global scale, it seems unlikely that those on the periphery will find any real power for themselves, though they may find ways to compromise the power of the center.

What interdependence means is that all of the pathologies and problems troubling the modern state have fled the nation state and gone global, beyond the reach of sovereign power -however imposing in its own terms -while citizens and democracy and the institutions of social justice remain trapped inside the sovereign nation state box. The problems are interdependent, the solutions stilltied to independence; the great questions are global and beyond sovereignty; the remedies are local and bound by sovereignty -a dire asymmetry that puts the center at risk without aiding the periphery.

It would appear then that unless we globalize democracy or democratize globalization unless we can make the participation of citizens that is national and local symmetrical with the power of anarchic players who are transnational and global -there are likely to be no answers to injustice and marginalization. The center will grow weaker without making the periphery stronger. The voices of the powerful will be drowned out by the cacophony of the many voices crying in rage and pain, without allowing those voices to be clearly heard or heeded.

All the world will look more and more like Dafur or Basra or Gaza on a bad day. Out of control and threatening to all, but without any real benefit to those in whose desperate name the chaos is bred.

These are new and difficult challenges and they demand innovative, out-of-the-box responses. To insist either on reinstating forms of national sovereignty no longer relevant to the brute realities of interdependence or to pretend that anarchic markets concealing hidden and illegitimate forces operating in the global marketplace are our only options is to condemn the world to failure. And, worse, leave the periphery untouched. For remember, the core definition of what it means to be on the periphery is to be obliged to pay the price of every inequality, every injustice, every misdistribution of power or imposition of illicit force that can be imagined. In a world after sovereignty where equality means only a race to the bottom, the losers still lose. Global warming, global crime, global terrorism and global anarchy are tough on Paris, New York, Moscow and Tokyo, but they will be far worse for Kano, Casablanca, Cairo and Katmandu. We will all pay, but the poor will pay the most. Which is the indelible meaning of “periphery’.

What kinds of approaches are there to the anarchy of interdependence that privilege rather than marginalize the powerless? Is there a Rawlsian strategy in which (as John Rawls proposed) justice can be secured by assuring that such inequalities as persist go to benefit the least well off? These questions are crucial. The tentative responses that follow are hardly definitive. Rather, they suggest ways of approaching the questions that are fresh. Before enumerating them in the briefest way, let us put aside the “easy” way out, that is now no way out at all.

Some still hope that the old “new” international institutions of the post-World War II world including both the Bretton Woods international financial institutions (IFI’s) like the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO, and the United Nations system can, if reinvigorated and reformed, make a contribution. To be sure, if they are totally reformed so that they become new and genuinely international institutions, they might indeed be reinvigorated.

But aside the from political reality, which proved again during the recent and failed effort at Security Council Reform that sovereign nations are unlikely to disempower themselves by genuinely empowering the United Nations, the reality is that these “international” entities remain at their core sovereignty-based. They represent the old nineteenth century “concert of nations” approach to International Relations that reflects and sometime refracts but never deflects or opposes the power of the sovereign nations that constitute them. (For a recent example of the call to resuscitate the Concert of Nations approach, see Michael Lind, “For Liberal Internationalism,” The Nation, July 2, 2007). The U.N. Secretary General’s office may aspire to some degree of global autonomy and neutrality but it remains a creature of the big-power (and ex-big-power)

Security Council and the chaotic little-power General Assembly, both of which mouth the mantras of globalism while continuing to practice and embody the clashing national interest politics of sovereign countries. Few of our international institutions are actually international in any significant sense, least of all in the political domain. Some NGO’s reflect genuinely global norms and interests, but they lack real power.

Here then are some innovative ideas and new strategies aimed at constructive interdependence:

THE ARTS AS A ‘NATURAL’ EXPRESSION OF TRANSNATIONAL COOPERATION AND CONSTRUCTIVE INTERDEPENDENCE: It is not just empty idealism that has lead to the creation of cultural and arts ambassadors for UNESCO and the United Nations. It is the conviction that the arts cross frontiers as effortlessly as HIV and as compellingly as drugs -but to the opposite effect. For an arts-based approach to succeed, however, it will take more than good-will ambassadors and multicultural tours by performers. The critical question is WHY the arts are naturally disposed to transnational multiculturalism, especially given the fact that every real art form is also deeply embedded in a monoculture.

Is it such features of artistic activity as imagination (our empathetic capacity to put ourselves in the place of others) and creativity (self-expressiveness as a capacity that depends on securing others as co-creators, interlocutors and audience)? Is it the common ways of hearing and seeing that trump the distinctive arts of speaking and writing (yet poetry and theater too are transnational)? In short, to explore and use the power of the arts as a transnational communicators, we need to better understand how the arts are constituted.

CIVIL SOCIETY AND GLOBAL CITIZENSHIP AS A ROAD TO GLOBAL GOVERANCE AND GLOBAL DEMOCRACY: It is well-known among democratic theorists familiar with Aristotle, Rousseau, deTocqueville and John Dewey, that democracies are not built top down on clever constitutions and ingenious institution-making, but evolve bottom-up from stored social capital and robust civil societies. Democracy is generated by competent citizens, not the other way around. Abstract rights provide the foundation for the legal edifice of a democratic constitution, but only citizens with a grasp of the relationship between rights and responsibilities, freedom and legitimate power, will be capable of securing rights. As a global strategy, this suggests that the founding of even minimal norms and nominal institutions of global democratic governance are likely to succeed only if they have been preceded by movements that create transnational social capital, transnational civil society and transnational citizenship. Whether these efforts take the form of global movements (women’s movements, workers movements, movements aimed at the protection of children, green movements) or attempts to organize nation-based NGOs on genuinely international basis, they will focus not on top down governance institutions but on the novel civic foundations at the international level that will make those institutions possible. Here is where the arts, social movements and entrepreneurial public-minded business can play an important role: MARKET-BASED TRANSNATIONAL ENTREPRENEURIAL APPROACHES THAT PERMIT PERIPHERY TO APPROACH CENTER: There have been a number of recent experiments with market efforts at jump-starting entrepreneurial activity on the periphery.

These include most importantly the well known efforts of Mohammad Yunus and his Bangladesh based Grameen Bank (Yunus won the 2007 Nobel Prize for Peace) to secure microcredit financing of local business ventures by the poor (especially women). These micro-loans not only lift them and their families -sometimes their villages as well out of poverty, but empower them as producers and consumers and allow them to become part of the otherwise inegalitarian global marketplace.

Equally important are efforts to address the blights of the periphery through innovative technology, at best technology in which those whose problems are addressed participate in designing and manufacturing (and thereby profit from!) Innovative “glocalist” technologies that allow people to participate in entrepreneurial bootstrapping include hand-held water pumps that permit drawing potable water from three meters underground, repellent infused mosquito nets that prevent malaria and other mosquito spread diseases, filtered “straws” that permit people to consume contaminated water, high-calorie peanut paste ’slurries,’ wrapped in waterproof packaging that offer a fast route to nutrition for malnourished children, inexpensive pre-formed housing with the capacity for solar generation of electricity, tools that fabricate bricks from animal waste or sugar cane refuse, and new modes of transporting water (in plastic tires that can be easily pulled on rough terrain) as well as using if for irrigation. Financed by microcredit, these technological innovations can be locally produced, regionally distributed and employed to alleviate global poverty and underdevelopment. (For two interesting sources on such entrepreneurial technologies see “Summary of Finalist Proposals for the 2007 Development Marketplace,” The World Bank; and “Design for the Other 90%,” the catalog of an exhibition sponsored by the Smithsonian and Cooper-Hewitt Museums, 2007).

CIVIC AND PUBLIC ARCHITECTURE AS ARTS-AND DESIGN-BASED ROADS TO TRANSNATIONAL COMMUNITY: Architecture and public design have always been key elements in pushing for new forms of common space. Today, the emergence of individuals and groups devoted to exploring the ways in which sculpting space, giving art and culture a public face, and designing democratic community, represent a powerful new approach to transnational democracy. The approach has been un-self-consciously evolved by developers like Ron Sher (the founder of Seattle’s civic-oriented Third Place Books and Crossroads Mall); architect planners like Milenko Matanovic (founder of the Pomegranate Center and its Project for “The Art of Creating Community-crafted Gathering Places”); architects and artists like John Peterson (see his essay “Lessons from the Marginalized: A Manifesto for a Truly Public Architecture,”); sculptors such as Richard Serra and Mexico’s Sebastian who design large-scale public sculptures (Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial is a powerful exemplar of this genre); and urban and civic space innovators like Tony Beckwith, Eileen Woods and their colleagues at landscape+arts network services (see their work at Gunpowder Park just outside London in the United Kingdom).

There are evident affinities among these several approaches: all focus on the role of the arts, the artist and culture, and on the movements, social capital and civic infrastructure underlying global democracy. All demand participation in creation, in manufacture and in civic activity by those being ’served.’ All look beyond national frontiers for inspirations and results. None depend on the good will or activity of nation states to achieve results.

Together they suggest ways in which ordinary women and men and their businesses and NGOs and arts centers, as well as their transnational movements and civic interactions (with the world wide web as a crucial new tool that needs its own discussion) can cooperate in remaking our ever more ineffective nation-based world of increasingly obsolete sovereign national states into a transnational world of cooperating citizens. By using creative expressions of cooperative interdependence to overcome the challenges of the realities of anarchic interdependence, and it may be possible finally to impact the all too persistent cleavages of center and periphery that keep our planet from securing either liberty and justice or peace and security for all. No task is more crucial since we now know that there will be neither liberty, nor justice, nor peace, nor security for any, unless they are secured for all -an aim for which neither the old nation-state system nor the new world of anarchic markets and brutal interdependence are fit to realize.

Benjamin R. Barber, Senior Research Scholar at The Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society of The Graduate Center, The City University of New York, the President and Founder of the Interdependence Movement, for Zamyn

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