Saturday, October 15, 2005

Global Democracy

Lots of Marxists are still around, still talking as if democracy were unimportant, compared to economic equality. But in the world as a whole, the dispute about its value is settled. By popular demand there has been a world-wide spurt of democratization, which is still going on. Governments nowadays have to claim they’re democratic, even if they are not. And those that are democratic fare better in their economic development, disproving the old argument that it’s a choice between freedom and . There’s really nothing left to argue about concerning the value of .

Yet all democratic states have vast room for improvement internally, and even more in their foreign affairs. In fact, some democratic states are the most predatory ones on the planet today, and I need not remind you which ones. (But there have been worse states than these, God knows. A Nazi or Communist superpower would make today’s Uncle Sam look like Santa Claus.)

The human project of creating an ideal democracy is still in its preliminary stage. Yet we already have begun the next stage: the democratization of the international arena. We can stretch our imagination in salutary ways merely by exploring the idea.

The recent attempt to reform the (which basically failed) was one small step toward . Had it succeeded, it would have given greater representation and security to weak nations and defenceless populations without disputing the primacy of the nation state system. Any such approach, which seeks only to equalize the power of existing sovereign states, is a conservative way of democratizing the globe.

A slightly more radical variant of this approach is sometimes discussed hypothetically: to establish a third house at the United Nations — one in which representatives would be elected by direct . Numerous kinds of constituencies have been suggested for directly electing delegates. For example, one way might be for international NGOs to elect delegates whose authority would be comparable to those representing nations in the .

Here, however, I want to consider other means of democratizing the globe that would empower individuals and groups, not just nation states. There are already powerful transnational bodies, of course (e.g. the , , and ), but they are far from democratic. Everyone agrees that they must become more and more , though, by itself, that would not make them more democratic. The rich countries have, and want to keep, most control in these bodies. The best that reformers can hope to accomplish is to increase the representation of weaker states within these transnational bodies’ decision-making structures.

But let’s imagine bolder measures than these. One truly daring idea is to begin democratizing privately owned . That would amount to a genuine revolution, albeit a nonviolent one. A recent book, The Corporation, by British Columbia law professor Joel Bakan, reviews the historical development of this business institution. As Bakan points out, the law gave the same status as persons, yet imposed on their directors only this legal obligation: to try to make money for the stockholders.

Today we are seeing the effects of this law. If a director tries to prevent her company from doing harm, a court may rule that she has wrongly violated her fiduciary responsibility to the stockholders. In ’s opinion, the law requires, in effect, the officers of a corporation to behave as sociopaths.

But, as he reminds us, corporations were invented by human beings and can just as easily be reformed by human beings. We can revise corporate law to constrain the pursuit of profits, so that officers must protect the environment, consumers, workers, and the human rights of everyone whom the company affects.

I personally would be delighted with this legal change — for starters. But I am not convinced that directors would necessarily comply with these new mandates, since they represent the stockholders. I want to go even further. I’d add another requirement: that all corporations must include certain directors who are elected by to represent environmentalists, employees, consumers, and human rights defenders. Such directors will be in a position to monitor the corporation from inside.

That’s what might look like. To get it, we have a long way to travel. But we can take the first step on this journey right now.


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