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Global Democratic Theory

A Critical Introduction

Daniel Bray & Steven Slaughter



This book emerged from a joint belief that our various reflections on the problems and future possibilities of democracy were occurring within a distinct subset of broader accounts of democratic and political theory. These reflections are expressed in a literature that examines the changing nature of democratic theory and practice in a context of globalization, global governance, and transnational civil society. We refer to this literature as “global democratic theory” and believe that it can play an important role in guiding contemporary movements for democratization. As such, the primary aim of the book is to provide academics, students, and politically engaged citizens with an accessible account of the impact of globalization on democracy, the main theories of global and transnational democracy that have been developed in response, and a critical analysis of their key claims and prospects in practice. We hope the book will be a significant contribution to the literature because there is currently no single volume that brings together the scholarship of global democratic theory in this time of increased attention to globalization and democratic change. Given that so many scholars working in this area have published in Polity Press over the last two decades, it seemed appropriate to publish this book with them, so our first thanks go to the many staff at Polity who have supported this area of scholarship over the years. A special thank you also goes to the people who specifically contributed to the production of this book, particularly Louise Knight for her initial interest in the project.

This project was made possible with the help of a number of people who contributed invaluable academic and personal support. Steven would like to thank Andrew Scott and the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University for their assistance and support. We would also like to thank several research assistants who helped in various stages of this project, including Uschi Steedman and Mark Ryan. On a personal note, Steven would like to thank Yvette, Zara, and Lucinda for their love and support during the writing of this book. Its final stages coincided with the birth of Lucas Nakata Bray who has brought boundless joy and many sleepless nights to Daniel’s life over the past year. A very special thank you goes to Sana for her love, patience, and strength during this time.

Democratic Theory in a Global Era

The contemporary global era is characterized by new modes of power and authority as well as shifting patterns of social interaction in which democratic ideas have an uncertain place. This uncertainty stems from the fact that democracy has become the main principle of legitimate political rule at the same time as global forces outside democratic control have increased in importance and threaten established forms of public representation, participation, and accountability located within the state. To varying degrees, democratic relationships of representation and accountability between citizens and their state are increasingly blurred as political decision-making becomes more densely embedded within complex and overlapping forms of globalization and global governance. Indeed, the contemporary era is characterized by the increased significance of global and transnational forms of authority comprised of regional and International Governmental Organizations (IGOs) like the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN), and networks of civil society actors ranging from networks of activists such as the World Social Forum (WSF), to networks of experts such as international science academies and the World Economic Forum (WEF). Furthermore, the power of the state to organize economic life is now significantly conditioned by the operation of global market forces and transnational corporations (TNCs). Generally speaking, there has been a displacement of decision-making from the state to global forms of governance and global markets. In this context, David Held (1998: 21) claims that “the idea of a political community of fate – of a self-determining collectivity which forms its own agenda and life conditions – can no longer meaningfully be located within the boundaries of a single nation-state alone.”

These global and transnational dynamics have created a number of significant challenges to contemporary understandings of democracy. First, the core democratic capacities of states are undermined by the growing ability of global governance and global markets to limit the meaningful choices available to governments and their people. Second, the shift of power to global and regional institutions creates “democratic deficits” where increasingly numerous and complicated tasks of policy-making are conducted beyond the accountability and oversight of the domestic publics of democratic states. Third, new political opportunities for promoting democratic practices have arisen in global and transnational networks involving a host of NGOs, social movements, and experts (Scholte 2002, 2011b; Dryzek 2011). On many issues, for example, human rights activists, business elites, refugees, climate change scientists, and religious leaders claim to speak for global or transnational constituencies that go beyond state interests. Many of these actors claim to serve democratic functions of representation or public scrutiny, or make demands for more inclusion and accountability in global governance in the name of democracy. Overall, the impact of globalization on democracy appears considerable and the

implications of this are troubling, not only for the categories of consent and legitimacy but for all the key ideas of democracy: the nature of a constituency, the meaning of representation, the proper form and scope of political participation, the extent of deliberation, and the relevance of the democratic nation-state as the guarantor of the rights, duties and welfare of subjects. (Held 2006a: 292)

In this context, traditional understandings of democracy are under significant challenge, prompting the development of new theories and practices that attempt to grapple with these transformations and create democratic mechanisms that transcend the nation-state.

This book examines how democratic theory has sought to engage with these changing contours of democracy in light of the impacts of globalization and global governance. Democratic theory is the field of scholarship that examines the challenges and possibilities of public rule and in recent decades has increasingly considered the ways in which the democratic practices of the state are being undermined by contemporary global forces. Indeed, Anthony McGrew (2002b: 269) points to a “transnational turn” in democratic theory: a widespread contention that democracy needs to be rethought in light of the impact of globalization. Many scholars are exploring how democracy can adapt to a globalizing world by examining prospects for democratic institutions beyond the state, as well as developing the democratic potential of transnational activism, civil society, and global public spheres (Archibugi and Held 2011; Bohman 2007; Bray 2011; Dryzek 2006; Goodin 2010; Scholte 2011b). At the heart of this literature are a variety of different normative proposals for democratic change in response to the impact of globalization. These proposals critically examine whether the state needs to be transformed in order to be democratic in this context, and challenge long-held assumptions that democracy must reside within the state by developing arguments for democracy at the global or transnational level. This book critically analyzes these proposals to identify the problems and possibilities of global and transnational democracy.

The central premise of this book is that the possibilities of democracy are being reshaped by globalization and global governance in ways that provide both new obstacles and opportunities for democratic practice. This has generated significant scholarly and public debates about the prospects of democracy in a global era. This book refers to this literature as “global democratic theory” and provides an assessment of the value of this scholarship and the possibilities associated with rethinking and redesigning the practice of democracy, including the possibility of creating democracy beyond the state. In order to provide a systematic examination of how specific accounts of democratic theory have responded to globalization, this book considers three key questions:

  1. What are the problems that accounts of global democratic theory seek to address?
  2. What are the normative claims of different accounts of global democratic theory?
  3. To what extent are these accounts of democratic theory feasible?

These questions guide our examination of the various proposals for altering the substance and scope of democracy, including developing democratic practices beyond the nation-state. The one thing that is relatively certain is that anything we might one day call democracy beyond the state will not look the same as the democracy within the state (Dryzek 2011: 214). Indeed, the approaches considered in this book reveal a wide range of views about the future of democracy and its possible extension to the global level. By examining the development of global democratic theory, this book provides glimpses of what these democratic futures might be.

Globalization and Democratic Theory

Global democratic theory has attempted to rethink democracy by considering the impacts of globalization. While the meaning of democracy is fundamentally contested, the underlying idea that most scholars share is that democracy entails the political practices through which the people govern themselves, which contrasts with oligarchy and dictatorship. While democracy has its origins in the direct rule of an assembly of citizens in ancient city states, since the eighteenth century the idea of democracy has become associated with public rule within a nation-state. Modern democracy is institutionalized as a representative system that involves competitive elections and a publicly determined rule of law which “came to be practiced (and only practicable) in a territorial entity with definite borders wrapped around a people who constituted a nation” (Saward 2006: 402–3). The spread of representative democracy during the twentieth century precipitated an exponential growth in democratic theory scholarship addressing questions regarding the social preconditions for democracy, the ways democratic institutions could be more effective and accountable to the public, and, importantly for the purposes of this book, a core concern with how democracy can adapt to changing political contexts.

At its heart, democratic theory is the field of scholarship that examines the normative purpose and scope of democratic practice, the nature, scale, and membership of democratic communities, and the design of democratic institutions. In this literature, democracy does not just refer to electoral democracy; it refers more broadly to the various overlapping ways in which citizens interact and influence public decision-making processes. Indeed, democracy is an idea and political practice that has always been in flux. Democratic publics and the scholars studying them have always had to respond to changing social, economic and political developments. As Michael Saward (2001: 581) argues:

The idea of “democracy” has always contained within it the seeds of its own transformation. Today, what we mean by the concept is rapidly in the process of becoming more diverse, less symmetrical, more malleable, more complex. In this sense, we may need to become relaxed about a new, “pick-and-mix” conception of procedural democracy. Various devices (such as elected legislatures, citizens’ deliberative forums, the initiative and referendum) are in principle available to enact particular understandings of basic democratic principles of equality, freedom, inclusion, and so on, at different levels of political community. In the light of these points, we can say that a more permissive approach to what may count as “democracy” may in turn foster (and endorse) a further period of fruitful and creative democratic design.

This acceptance of a permissive conception of democracy is important when we consider how the liberal democratic state might respond to globalization. For this purpose, it is important to keep a variety of democratic options on the table rather than focus on only one mechanism of democracy (such as elections) that might be inadequate on its own and forecloses opportunities to build new democratic innovations.

Democratic theory has overlapping analytical and normative aspirations which examine both the existence of actual forms of democratic practice as well as ethical or normative accounts of how democracy ought to be organized. John Dryzek (2004: 143–4) indicates that while liberal democracy has triumphed as the dominant model of democracy in political practice, there are a plethora of diverse and overlapping theories and proposals in democratic theory that contribute to debates about modern democracy and its future prospects. Some of these models are based on how existing political systems actually function; some focus on emerging or latent forms of public activity in which individuals engage with formal political systems like parliaments; and some are purely normative accounts of how democracy should operate. There is also a significant literature in broader political theory which grapples with issues of citizenship and civil society in liberal nation-states, the influence of civil society activity in global politics, as well as prospective theories of global citizenship and transnational civil society in alternative models that explore desirable pathways for democratic practice beyond the state. This work contains accounts of the relationship between a democratic public or demos and political authority, and also includes consideration of the appropriate scale of the demos and how such political communities should be created and preserved.

This scholarly focus is being stimulated by the widely shared recognition that emerging forms of globalization are challenging traditional forms of representation, participation, and accountability within states, as well as opening up new opportunities for political activity beyond the state. Globalization is understood in various ways by different theories of International Relations (IR) and political theory, but central to most understandings is the claim that globalization is a set of processes in which human activity in political, economic, and cultural domains is increasingly taking on a global dimension. As such, globalization has significant implications for the scope of politics and democracy. First, developments in communications technology have empowered a new range of actors to operate in politically significant ways (Held et al. 1999: ch. 1). While states remain important actors in global politics, clearly globalization has made it easier for NGOs, corporations, and terrorist groups to operate across territorial borders. Second, the practical interdependence and mutual reliance brought about by globalization is also being coupled with forms of moral interdependence involving forms of awareness that transcend national boundaries. Today, changing moral relationships are largely driven by increased recognition of global problems, including climate change and the human suffering associated with extreme poverty that plagues many parts of the world. Such recognition is due in part to increased media coverage – otherwise known as the “CNN effect” – and the work of NGOs and activists in publicizing these problems in the media and the Internet. Third, in many domains, the lines between foreign and domestic policy have blurred due to intense and widespread forms of global integration. Issues such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, organized crime, and environmental protection that transcend national borders cannot be effectively tackled by individual states alone.

As a consequence, complex forms of cooperation have developed over recent decades that are generally referred to as “global governance”. Global governance is a contested term but in essence refers to the various forms of international and transnational activity aimed at enabling cooperation on shared goals in the absence of an overarching political authority like a world government (Rosenau 1999; Barnett and Duvall 2005). Here, governance means forms of authority, cooperation or management – be they public or private, formal or informal – that lead to the coordination, control, or regulation of a social activity in order to achieve common goals. From this angle, the nation-state does not have a monopoly on governance and, while playing a central role, it is not the only political actor involved in exercising authority in the issue areas of security, economic prosperity, or environmental sustainability. It is now the case that organizations such as the UN, forums like the G20, regional bodies like the EU, and private organizations like TNCs, business councils, networks of experts and NGOs play an increasingly important role in policy-making (Hale and Held 2012). Jan Aart Scholte (2000: 138–9) argues that these public and private bodies are “supraterritorial constituencies” that are external influences over the operation of state policy-making. In these circumstances, the neat picture of political life contained within the nation-state is complicated by a complex web of governance networks that stretch across territorial borders, which are often highly technocratic and blur traditional lines of representation and accountability. Such networks often place power in the hands of political actors that are unelected and do not reside in the societies in which their decisions are implemented. These decisions may even override domestic regulation and run counter to local preferences, as they often do, for example, in relation to International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan conditionality. This means that global governance is often accused of undermining democracy within nation-states, driving calls for new avenues of participation and accountability for those excluded from networks of global authority.

In this context, some scholars also point to the increasing prominence of NGOs and transnational civil society in global politics as enabling new forms of democratic representation and public accountability, and leading to increasing forms of public engagement with global governance (Dryzek 2011, 2012). This is facilitated by developments in communications technology and the growing prevalence of transnational media networks. While the prospects for a formal electoral democracy at a global level are not strong, these forms of public engagement are democratic in the broader sense of attempting to moderate and hold authority to account that demonstrate some emerging potential for democratic practice beyond the state (Goodin 2010; Keane 2011). The growing numbers of NGOs, monitoring agencies, and global forms of media and communications have created political spaces beyond any one nation-state where state officials and representatives of IGOs often explain and give reasons for their decisions. In these spaces, citizens can engage or witness public discussion involving contests between competing arguments that informs their political views and choices. Recognizing emerging practices of transnational activism and civil society as potential signs of democratization does not imply an inevitable path toward global democracy, but it does widen our perspective beyond elections to see the possibilities for democracy in global governance.

Global Democratic Theory

Consequently, contemporary democratic theory engages in systematic reflection on the problems of existing forms of democratic practice within the state, as well as new possibilities offered by global governance and transnational civil society. This scholarship therefore opens up possibilities for forms of democracy which transcend the state. There are four key reasons why this type of scholarship is valuable, especially in response to contemporary globalization. First, a core focus of democratic theory is to examine the problems and controversies associated with existing forms of democratic practice. This involves forms of internal critique where a specific democratic practice is compared to its own guiding ideals, and also forms of external critique where a functioning democratic system is compared to the requirements of a prospective normative model of democracy. These critical inquiries can reveal gaps between what democracies claim they value and what they actually do, which can stimulate change and suggest conditions for improving the democratic quality of public life. Second, embedded in the vast majority of democratic theory is a deep respect for, and defence of, basic democratic values. While democratic values may be abridged or ignored in the cut and thrust of political life, democratic theory is a field of scholarship that affirms democratic values such as liberty, equality, accountability, civil society, and citizenship. Different scholars emphasize and interpret these values in often radically different ways, but there is underlying respect for democratic purposes and possibilities. In this way, democratic theory serves to remind citizens of the value of democracy and the reasons for adopting, safeguarding, and reforming it.

Third, there is considerable value in democratic theory’s aim to develop ideal forms of democratic practice. If ideals articulate feasible transformations of existing practice, they can act as practical guides to the realization of normatively defensible forms of democracy and prompt public debates about how democracy could better meet public ends. However, even if these proposed models are not fully put into practice by citizens or policy-makers, they are still valuable as tools of criticism that can provide a contrast between an ideal form of democracy and political reality, and thereby expose the problems and biases of the status quo. Fourth, democratic theory focuses upon the ways that democracy can and should adapt to changing political conditions and societal expectations. As Saward indicated earlier, democracy always contains the “seeds of its own transformation.” As an ongoing effort to oppose tyranny as well as meet public ends, democracy requires a constant evaluation of how this system of public rule can effectively attain these ends in light of changing political, economic, social and technological contexts. In this book, we explore how democratic theory has responded to the changes underway in the global era by analyzing the main approaches that seek to consider the democratic promise and problems of globalization.

This book examines global democratic theory as a distinctive body of scholarship by focusing upon five primary approaches to democracy under conditions of globalization. These approaches are: liberal internationalism, cosmopolitan democracy, transnational deliberative democracy, social democracy, and radical democracy. Liberal internationalist theory as argued by Robert Keohane, Anne-Marie Slaughter and others focuses upon a democratic ethic of reform where international institutions act on the cooperative priorities of states and are transparent and accountable to national governments in ways that support democracy at the level of the nation-state. The approach here is aimed at strengthening the existing legal structures of global governance and making IGOs more accountable to national governments. Cosmopolitan theorists like David Held, Daniele Archibugi, and Richard Falk, in contrast, argue for a democratic ethic of humanity which involves the creation of a democratic constitutional order for global governance based on social democratic values, human rights, and cosmopolitan law. Central to the long-term vision of cosmopolitans is the development of new overarching institutions like a global parliament and a major transformation of international relations that would undermine traditional practices of national sovereignty. Transnational deliberative democracy advances an ethic of dialogue as exemplified in the deliberative and republican scholarship of John Dryzek, James Bohman, and Philip Pettit. Unsatisfied with prevailing modes of liberal democracy, this ethic promotes an agenda that seeks to transform governance structures by enhancing the role of transnational deliberation and public reasoning in political life, even in IGOs not likely to be accountable via electoral processes. Transnational deliberation is possible through a range of non-electoral mechanisms like citizens’ assemblies, deliberative polls, and deliberation within specific public spheres that can contest formal authority and incorporate affected people into decision-making processes.

The social democratic approach captures a diverse array of positions attempting to develop a democratic ethic of equality by regulating and possibly transforming global capitalism. This position encompasses efforts by scholars supportive of the Third Way, scholars such as Colin Crouch and Andrew Gamble, who seek to reform global capitalism, and more radical scholars such as Alex Callinicos who seek to promote a revolution that supplants capitalism. The core feature of this approach is the need to focus on the interests of workers and the politics of class in order to develop a state capable of regulating the global economy. Finally, the book considers the radical anarchist approach to democracy exemplified in the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Their approach is grounded in an ethic of revolution that seeks to develop self-governing communities that can resist and overthrow the global system of sovereignty and capitalism. This radical approach argues that the democratic potential of “the multitude” can only be realized outside of the oppressions of “imperial sovereignty” and its corrupted system of property relations. Hardt and Negri envisage post-sovereign democracy grounded in a multiplicity of communities and social movements that challenge the constitutionalism and individualism of liberal politics and lead to a commonwealth that is constituted by new forms of cooperation and affection. However, they argue it is the constituent power of the people that makes democracy so its precise institutional forms cannot be detailed in advance.

This book adopts a practical approach that sees each of the approaches as a distinctive normative response to a core problem that globalization poses for democracy. This means the first task in analyzing each approach is to identify the problematic aspect of globalization that frames its core ethical purpose. Based on its particular reading of the problem, each approach suggests normative and practical solutions concerning the location of democratic authority, the nature of political community, and the institutional form of democracy in a context of globalization. This analysis is conducted by examining the most prominent scholars from each approach to outline its core features. As such, it does not claim to capture the entire range of views within each perspective, or indeed capture all forms of democratic or political theory. Furthermore, some scholars and their specific theories transcend any one of the approaches noted above. Scholars such as Dryzek, for example, demonstrate commitments to cosmopolitan and deliberative impulses. It is also the case that republican scholars can be placed within the liberal internationalist and deliberative positions (and possibly in the social democratic approach as well), feminist scholars can be found within each approach, and Green political theory appears within the deliberative and radical approaches. Consequently, as this book will make clear, the differences within these approaches are often just as important as the differences between them. We have also listed key readings at the end of each chapter to further emphasize the key authors and texts relevant to each chapter.

Importantly, the practical approach of this book allows a systematic examination of the prospects and possibilities for democratic change. By treating each approach as a normative resource directed at ameliorating the problematic aspects of globalization, an examination of its feasibility can be conducted based on an analysis of its proposed pathways of democratization and capacity to generate a constituency for change in a complex environment of complementary and opposing forces. Furthermore, this pragmatism also suggests that each approach need not be advocated or rejected as a whole; aspects of each approach can be used to shed light on different kinds of democratic deficits and as normative resources to promote democratic change in various contexts. Consequently, the underlying practical argument is that it is important see these various approaches as parts of an overarching body of theoretical work attempting to respond to contemporary globalization. Global democratic theory offers the greatest contribution when it articulates empirically relevant and normatively reasonable theories that can be used to guide democratic change in particular contexts, rather than by producing abstract models of global democracy that must be mechanically applied to the world as a whole.

Chapter Structure

This book examines and outlines global democratic theory in two parts. Part I explores the changes to practices of democracy and governance, which serves as the general empirical basis for constructing democratic responses to contemporary globalization. Chapter 1 examines the ways in which the changing role and uncertain future of the nation-state as a result of globalization presents significant challenges for prevailing notions of democracy within and beyond the state. The chapter first examines the different perspectives on the impact of globalization on the nation-state, outlining “hyperglobalist,” “skeptical,” and”transformationalist” explanations (Held et al. 1999: 3–8). It then considers some of the public reactions and debates about globalization, particularly with regard to the rise of neo-liberalism and the “hollowing out” of the state. Finally, the chapter discusses how democratic theory has reacted to these contemporary developments in its understandings of the role and significance of the state in democratic life. Chapter 2 examines contemporary global governance and its consequences for democracy by exploring the ways in which states and other actors create complex systems of rules and decision-making processes to address cross-border problems. It identifies the purposes and problems of contemporary global governance, including important concerns about the legitimacy of global rules and decision-making processes, and outlines the nature of transnational civil society and the possibilities of harnessing it to democratize global institutions. Finally, the chapter argues that the relationship between democracy and global governance has become an increasingly important issue for theorists in a rapidly expanding literature of global democratic theory.

Part II outlines and analyzes each of the five main approaches of global democratic theory in terms of its specific characterization of the problem of democracy, its particular normative claims, and the feasibility of its pathways of democratization. Chapter 3 focuses on liberal internationalism, which as indicated above aspires to make IGOs more accountable to national governments. In Chapter 4, we explore the cosmopolitan perspective that aspires to create a universal form of global democracy based on human rights and cosmopolitan law. Chapter 5 examines deliberative democracy and its concern with cultivating transnational public spheres in which there can be genuine dialogue between agencies of global governance and those affected by their policies. In Chapter 6, we analyze the social democratic response to globalization and its reformist and radical arguments for democratizing the capitalist basis of contemporary globalization. Finally, Chapter 7 outlines a radical anarchist approach to democracy that contests liberal and social democratic approaches wedded to capitalism and the state and instead argues for a post-sovereign world of self-governing communities on a global scale. Finally, the book concludes by considering the value of global democratic theory in helping citizens to rethink and redesign the organization of national and global governance. The conclusion also considers some of the pathways and design choices required to chart a more democratic future within a context animated by globalization and global governance.

Key Readings

Dryzek, J. (2004) Democratic political theory. In Gaus, G. and Kukathas, C. (eds.) The Handbook of Political Theory. Sage, London, pp. 143–54.

McGrew, A. (2002) Transnational democracy: theories and prospects. In Stokes, G. and Carter, A. (eds.) Democratic Theory Today: Challenges for the 21st Century. Polity, Cambridge, pp. 269–94.

Saward, M. (2001) Reconstructing democracy: current thinking and new directions. Government and Opposition 36 (4), 559–81.

Saward, M. (2006) Democracy and citizenship: expanding domains. In Dryzek, J., Honig, B., and Phillips, A. (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Political Theory. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 400–22.