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Global governance in an era of weak nation-states

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
30th June 2012


Now that states are too weak to solve planetary problems, how do we move to forms of global governance that can tackle them?

Excerpted from Arnaud Blin and Gustavo Marín of the Forum for a New World Governance:

“There is a great revolution—in fact, the first global revolution in history—deeply transforming the manner by which humankind has traditionally organized itself.

Today the state is no longer equipped to ensure the sustainability of humankind, nor is it able to prevent itself, other states, and private actors from plundering our most precious treasure, our planet, irretrievably. The sudden powerlessness of the most powerful actor of the global stage has been caused by the onrush of globalization, which with breathtaking speed has overtaken the traditional actors of international politics and rewritten the rules of the game of economics. By doing so, it has also fostered the need to devise and uphold what can be described as the global interest, one that should inevitably take precedence over the outdated and ineffectual individual “national interests” that have for centuries determined the direction of international affairs.

This nascent global interest varies from national interests not only in its scope—it is not an aggregation of national interests—but also in its premises. National interests are inherently based on competition, both for resources and for power, in what amounts to a form of political Darwinism where the “fittest” dominate and take advantage of the weakest. In this scheme, “Others” are conceived only in terms of whether or not they constitute a hindrance to one’s national interests.
One of the most insightful discussions of this fundamental point was provided in the middle of the twentieth century by the German jurist Carl Schmitt, who posited that each society defines itself by its opposition to other societies. As such, politics in and of themselves are defined through the dichotomy friend/foe, with the state having historically embodied the most complete form of politics. According to Schmitt, however, the state is a transitory embodiment of politics and when it loses the monopoly of determining who is friend and who is foe, it perishes. Put differently, this means that the potential (and long-term) effects of globalization are to annihilate the very notion of friend/foe, and with it politics and, ultimately, the state itself. Nonetheless, historical processes are not linear and cannot be predetermined.

Schmitt’s intuition and doctrine appear all the more salient with the changes that have come about in recent years where the traditional notion of friend/foe has become increasingly complex as global interdependence has become more prevalent and, more importantly still, as global consciousness has arisen about the vulnerability of our planet and the need to address this existential threat in the only manner possible: collectively.

It is however necessary to avoid any kind of illusory vision of this global interdependence inasmuch as one of the characteristics of the historical period that began at the end of the twentieth century is the mutation of the traditional friend/foe dichotomy, whose very essence is changing. The new global awareness of our common human destiny does not only bring about new social, political, and cultural confrontations that keep the challenge alive of building a world in peace. In addition, ecological damages and risks are such that common human destiny is itself in danger.

It is through this sudden perception of our vulnerability and diversity that the concept of “common goods” and then simply “the commons” has arisen in recent years. Although compounded by the grinding effects of neoliberal policies and practices, “the commons” have increasingly been seen as a benchmark in terms of what politics are all about, with profound ramifications that go to the very root of political philosophy. In other words, this idea pushes us ever closer to asking ourselves, collectively, what kind of (global) society we want.

David Bollier points out that “[a]s a system of governance, the commons offers several critical capacities that are sorely missing from the neoliberal state and market system:

• the ability to set and enforce sustainable limits on markets;

• the ability to internalize the “externalities” that markets produce; and

• an ability to declare that certain resources are inalienable—that is, off-limits to markets.”

Thus, by suggesting that certain resources can be seen as being associated with inalienable rights, what Bollier is saying in essence is that the commons allow us to envision another paradigm for political action, at scales that go from micro-political action to global political action. This is a powerful argument as until now, political theory has been either confined in practice to closed political entities, be they city-sates, kingdoms, republics or empires, or restricted in theory to top-down authoritarian global states such as Dante’s monarchy or Hobbes’s Leviathan. If a system of global governance based on the commons were potentially achievable, this indeed would present a revolutionary breakthrough in human history for it would be the first example of a bottom-up global system of governance.

The twentieth-century political theorist Leo Strauss defined political action simply as concerned with either preservation and/or change. “When it is concerned with preservation,” he suggested, “it is concerned with avoiding that something worse will happen. When it is concerned with change, it is concerned with change for the better.” Our topic of discussion takes us precisely within these two realms: taking care of our Mother Earth, and protecting our environment and its integrity, on the one hand, and changing our modes of governance in order to ensure our collective freedom to access the commons on the other.
The through line of this paper rests on the premise that the commons can act as a central concept that could potentially change our social and political makeup while pushing us to develop new modes of global governance. We will start by examining exactly how the rules of the game have changed radically during the last two decades or so. Then we will briefly step back to address some fundamental questions that go to the root of political philosophy and action. We will then discuss the idea of a global social contract and end with a discussion of how the very concept of the commons will enable us to open the pathway through which we will progress in making these ideas reality. “

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One Response to “Global governance in an era of weak nation-states”

  1. Todd S. Says:

    the manner by which humankind has traditionally organized itself.

    What a very short-sighted and top-down view of the history of humanity.

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