What has globalization done to democracy?

Everyone has opinions about the answer to this question. Those opinions usually take the form of pre-conceived notions, diametrically opposed to each other, and they almost always generate more heat than light – although the tone of the debate is gradually moderating, as globalization critics start to get their act together.

On one side of the well-worn globalization argument, we hear complaints about how global corporations have acquired so much power that governments stand helpless before them, rendering democracy meaningless. On the other, we hear paeans in praise of globalization by people who argue that it’s the basis of our prosperity, that it’s the tide that raises all ships. They don’t have much to say about democracy, but they have a lot to say about government. Their argument typically is that we’re over-governed, and that we’ll all be better off with a lot less government.

Among those who aren’t direct beneficiaries of corporate strength, a common reaction used to be, and sometimes still is, rage. A case in point was the successful Integrate This! campaign against the North American Security and Prosperity Partnership, as well as repeated demonstrations at G8, G20 and World Trade Organization meetings. The protests against today’s G8 meetings – the Occupy Movement – are both less consumed with rage and more formidable than the Integrate This! initiative a few years ago.

If there’s to be a real chance of something like genuine democracy – genuine participation in decision-making by people, not just by corporations – we have to suppress our rage and try to get a calmer understanding of what’s happening and what the possibilities are for doing something about it. I used to teach a course designed to pose this problem, to assess what we can control and what we can’t, and to look at what methods are available for reasserting control over those things we can change.

The idea was to try to understand politics in a global age as nearly as possible to the way it actually is, rather than to sell a view dictated by either pro- or anti-globalization ideology. In this and other posts, past and future, I’m going to draw on those materials. I will be arguing that it is ideology itself that that may prove to be the biggest obstacle to democratic governance in the 21st Century.

Without going into too much detail all at one time, the thrust of my argument is that globalization does indeed weaken the national state, and undermine the authority that flows from the rules of conventional politics. At the same time, there’s widespread cynicism about politics. Voter turnouts are dropping around the world, and I think one of the reasons for that is that, in the face of globalization, government has lost a lot of its ability to respond to voters.

So what happens now? Is democratic politics in a downward spiral from which there’s no recovery? Maybe not. I’ll argue that globalization opens up new possibilities, what my friend Warren Magnusson calls new political spaces, new ways to make our voices heard, and put some muscle behind our demands.

But that new politics is not the same as the old national politics we’re used to. It’s a community-based politics – but not necessarily the kinds of communities we’re used to, either. We usually think of a community as having spatial bounds, as being something like a neighbourhood or a town or a city. The thing about globalization, however, is that it abolishes boundaries. A community now can be anything we want it to be.

It can still be a neighbourhood or a city, but it can also operate on a provincial, national or global scale. There are global communities of people who have environmental concerns, concerns about labour standards, concern about the issues of poverty and hunger. Those are communities too – in fact more so than a lot of neighbourhoods. In my neighbourhood, most people don’t even know each other, and, if I did know more of them, I’d probably find they don’t share much in the way of common concerns.

As I write this, most of us cling, perhaps reluctantly, resentfully, or angrily, to the old politics. At the same time, most of us also participate in some form of networked political action. The old politics isn’t going away, but much of the future of democracy will reside in the new politics.

If you’re interested in pursuing this line of thinking further, check out some of my earlier blog entries on this and related topics:

The age of community: Introduction
What is the impact of globalization on politics?
The age of community and the second modernity
How is global political action organized?

2 responses to “What has globalization done to democracy?

  1. martina mcbride

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  2. Hey! I could have sworn I’ve been to this site before but after reading through
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