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Debating Democratic World Federalism
Dale Carrico   Sep 5, 2007   Amor Mundi  

Over at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology another IEET Fellow, Mike Treder, recently raised the question of Democratic World Federalism and asked me for comments.

I was more or less in agreement with Mike’s view, but I found myself reacting less sympathetically to some of the things people were saying in comments, and that shaped my own response. 

Here’s a snippet of Mike’s initial framing of the debate, and then a couple snippets from comments that preceded mine (follow the link to do justice to what everybody actually said), and then I’ll post my own response in full.

Mike began by framing the discussion as a matter of “Federalism versus centralized government,” which seemed to me to be rather lost on some of the commenters, since they seemed to reflexively think of government as always only “centralized” and “monolithic” and so discussed the prospects of Federalist governance through that lens rather than against the grain of it as Mike proposed.  He continued:

It seems to me that this development [world government] is inevitable, at some point, but there is less certainty about the form this new system might take.  For the purpose of discussion, let’s stipulate that some type of world government will take hold within the 21st century. So, what kind of governmental system would work best? Should it be centralized or distributed? Are problems best solved through a top-down or bottom-up approach? Do optimum solutions emerge, or must they be imposed?

Mike went on to quote what I consider to be a very cynical argument by Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation, who proposes an “experimentalist” approach (which in general I find very appealing, since I think planetary multiculture demands quite a bit of diverse institutional experimentation, so long as this “experimentation” is never anti-democratizing nor anti-consensualizing), which amounts I think in his case always only to throwing up trial balloons to loot, dismantle, deregulate, and privatize public investments in vital social support and render certain public decision-making bodies unaccountable to the people they affect (let’s privatize this school! let’s privatize this public highway! let’s privatize this army! let’s privatize social security in this state! and on and on and on). 

Then Mike went on to remind his readers of certain technodevelopmental “trends” and of what he takes to be their eventual (but likely near-term) impacts—which is a perfectly understandable move given the focus of CRN, the interests of his readers, and his own preoccupations, but it is a move I think is ultimately less relevant to the discussion than it might initially seem (about which, more in a moment). 

Finally, Mike set the discussion in motion with this statement: “Okay, it’s 2027, and you are in charge of designing a structure for the first-ever system of world governance. What do you think will work best, and why?”  For me, the shift from the present to “the future” here, as well as the introduction of the idea of “designing government,” especially a design presumably crafted and implemented by a singular person, even in principle, introduce worrisomely anti-democratizing assumptions into the very framing of the debate that is to ensue (Mike himself is a strong advocate for democracy, so I’m not saying that this is some stealthy sinister intention, I’m saying it is a structural entailment likely to derail the conversation from the terms Mike would likely intend).

One commenter (Eric) observed: “Twenty years from now the world will still be made up of many nation-states…unless some ideology has succeeded in forcing their rule upon the rest. The infrastructure of world government, or proto-world gov’t, won’t be able to act that quickly.”  Of course, most versions of world federalism would be perfectly compatible with the continued existence of still-recognizable nation-states.  The metaphors and claims about a “slow-moving” government infrastructure seem to me to imply a number of interesting assumptions about how monolithic and overbearing States by definition must be, and I directed myself to those assumptions in my response. 

Another commenter (John) proposed that “the only reasonable scenario I can see leading to a world government in that time frame is [one in which] a small group gains nanofacture (or [some] other balance-shattering) capability and rapidly develops highly effective monitoring and force-projection abilities at a minimum. They then use those abilities to prevent others from replicating their work or otherwise threatening their ogliopoly/monopoly—which implies at least a partial world government overseen by that small group.”  Again, what intrigues me here is that talk of “government” as such seems to imply for many talk of military coup d’etat and tyrannical rule of majorities by minorities through overwhelming force, and again it is to these assumptions that I think we must address ourselves.  The fact that these assumptions make recourse to science fictional rather than conventional paraphernalia of militarist governmentality actually introduces little that is new into such discussions, it seems to me. 

My friend Jamais Cascio (yes, the fellow I was praising in my last post so much) pointed out that “both political history and social psychology strongly militate against the idea of a unified global government absent the presence of an external competing entity.”  I don’t think democratic world federalist politics, properly so-called, would be “unified” in the sense that he seems to mean here, so I don’t think his point has force, although I am sure that incumbent interests that have status and privileges to lose in a more democratized world are very likely to seek to frame the politics of democratic world federalism in ways that trigger the psychology that Jamais is talking about here, so he is providing a useful reminder of that particular rhetorical tripwire.

Jamais continues: “Whether [such a competing] entity is an alien civilization, a renegade off-world colony, or weakly-godlike post-Singularity AI that decided that space was friendlier than Palo Alto is moot; what is necessary is a reason for Earth residents to believe that surrendering sovereignty is less-costly than trying to compete with the External Entity alone.”  This comment is interesting to me for two reasons:  First, because planetary democratization would involve an unprecedented emancipatory augmentation of individual agency and “sovereignty” for the overabundant majority of people on earth, not its relinquishment, and, indeed, one can be sure that the entities arrayed against such planetary democratization would be corporations and national military hierarchies which are among the most conspicuous barriers to the expression and enjoyment of such individual agency and sovereignty in the world today.  The second reason it interests me is because this provides another example in which a foregrounding of “futurological” detail is not necessarily particularly clarifying, and indeed sometimes threatens to function as a bright shiny distraction from sense, because what is really at stake here, as is so often the case in discussions like these, are basic questions that political philosophy has been addressing itself to for centuries. 

Another commenter (Tom Craver) said things that I mostly sympathized with—a few quibbles aside—and so you should follow the link and read him and the rest in full. 

The next commenter Evan insisted that “It is in our political, physical and spiritual benefit to have many states/nations maintaining themselves how they see fit and each other co-operatively,” but he seemed to think this was an argument against democratic world federalism rather than an argument for it, for reasons, once again, clearly derived from his assumptions about what it is that States really consist of in the deepest sense.  This became even clearer when he went on to say: “A one-world government is utterly ridiculous to contemplate seriously unless we genetically engineer a few people to be as selfless as Buddha, [as] smart as Descartes, and as just as Jefferson to rule over everybody else as Pharoes. But, you know, I bet humans would still rather live free.”  That Evan directly identifies government always only with despotism seems even more likely, I fear, since his earlier claim that “co-operation” is desirable was actually qualified with that deadly article of libertopian faith “co-operat[ion]… through free markets” and since his comment concluded with an enthusiastic endorsement of libertopian Ron Paul.  Perhaps, then, it best to turn our attention away from poor Evan for now.

My own response follows
World government already exists, of course, and so the relevant question is only whether or not that global governance should be democratized, whether or not people should actually have more of a say in the public decisions that affect them—even when those public decisions are presently being made by corporations and militarist state actors. I’ll cheerfully admit that I endorse radical democratization of already-existing globe-girdling decision making, which at present is driven mostly by the perceived interests of incumbent elites. But I can’t predict whether or not the movements working toward this democratization (Green, social justice, anti-neoliberal, copyfight, p2p movements, etc) will actually succeed in overturning corporate-militarist global hegemony since the forces arrayed against them are so enormous, entrenched, and ruthless.

I will predict that every single tiny baby step in the direction of such democratization will be decried robotically by the good folks at the Heritage Foundation as a harbinger of Big Brother, however.  These uncritical reactions and cynical distractions derive, I’m afraid, from a profoundly mistaken understanding of actually-existing government as an overbearing, monolithic, always-only coercive cartoonishly kingly figure, when practices and forms of actual governance have been growing for centuries—see Michel Foucault—ever more institutionally multilateral rather than centralized, administrative rather than dictatorial, and selectively facilitative rather than spectacularly oppressive (and all this is even true in awful eras in which atavistic right-wing notions of a rather embarrassingly kingly “Unitary Executive” capture the imagination and co-ordinate the conduct of so much of this notional and institutional landscape, so much the worse for those who have to cope with these historical moments).

Nanobots, automation, IDDs, longevity medicine and so on are incapable in themselves of circumventing the conceptual impasse that derives from these very basic misconceptions about what states actually are that prevail across the neoliberal, libertarian, neoconservative right wing imaginary that has dominated so much North Atlantic public discourse since 1980, and indeed until people grasp these political basics talking about politics through the lens of projected (and often rather hyperbolic) technical capacities is mostly a deranging distraction.

Democratic World Federalism is not a matter of creating a Big Bad global tyrant or Great Good global angel to rule the planet. All that talk is error, mystification, and distraction.  Democratic World Federalism is a matter of reforming institutions like the UN to make them more representative of and responsive to the people in whose names they deliberate, it is a matter of investing world courts with the authority to enforce global environmental, human rights, labor, wartime standards, it is a matter of subsidizing co-operative monitoring of climate change, pandemics, tsunamis, weapons trafficking, human migrations, and so on.  It is in these terms, rather than through a reconjuration of the hysterically silly anti-communist iconography of the Cold War era and the catastrophically damaging anti-government iconography of the Reagan era, that we should talk seriously about the emancipatory planetary social justice and Green movements that will bring us, via people-powered peer-to-peer education, agitation, and organizing, such democratic world federalism as we are lucky enough to find our way to together.

Dale Carrico Ph.D. was a fellow of the IEET from 2004 to 2008 and is a lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley.


For another perspective on World Federalism, please read “Minority Opinion” and other articles at this site, Thanks Carl

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