Sovereignty, in any form of democracy, is manifested by the general will of the people. It is inalienable and indivisible. At such time as national sovereignty is surrendered, democracy can no longer represent the interest of all of its citizens. Since it is an obvious precondition for any form of democracy, when sovereign nations/states erode, democracy erodes. It’s that simple and it’s happening today.
Consumerism and globalization has all but destroyed sovereignty. Consumerism transformed citizens into shoppers, eroding America’s sovereignty from within; while globalization transformed the nation/states into secondary players on the world stage, eroding America’s sovereignty from without, both eroding our national autonomy. In the revival of laissez-faire economics and political liberalism, liberty has acquired an exclusively negative connotation. There is endless talk about giving people “what they want,” and how the market “empowers” consumers. The market does not tell us what to do; it gives us what we want. It promises liberty and happiness while, in truth, delivering neither.
Consumerism treats choice as fundamentally private, a matter not of determining some deliberative “we should” but only of enumerating all the “wants” that we harbor as private consumers and creatures of personal desire. Yet private choices inevitably do have social consequences and public outcomes.
Consumer capitalism does not operate by fielding self-conscious advocates of duplicity. Rather, it generates thinking on the model of the narcissistic child, infantilizing consumers to the point where puerility is not simply an option, but a mandate. If the attitudes and concerns that result turn out to undermine cultural values extraneous to capitalism’s concerns, that is too bad. Consumer capitalism encourages individuals to indulge in behavior, however corrupting to civilization, that is useful to consumerism.
Where nations once ruled, corporations and cartels not rooted in rational identities became more prominent; where power had been rooted in assets and goods, natural resources, manufacturing prowess, and military capability, it grew progressively more transactional, ever more dependent on culture, information, and networking, ever less grounded in national sovereignties.
Globalization, visible in economic relations before WWI, became a political narrative in the aftermath of WWII with the establishment of the United Nations, international monetary institutions and the new European order. In 1989, with the fall of Communism and with it the bipolar world yielded not genuine multipolarity but a burst of capitalist triumphalism in which the U.S. reasserted its global hegemony.
Demarcated by markets rather than territorial boundaries, corporations and firms have displaced nation/states as the key players on the international scene. They more often use the displaced nation/states to work their will. Even philanthropists such as the Clinton Foundation, the Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation have become weighty actors in the international marketplace, boasting an economic clout that many nation/states cannot begin to exercise.
Private power now trumps public power because globalization has robbed sovereignty of its force. The U.S. cannot stop capital and jobs from flowing out and illegal immigrants from flowing in. Its public health campaigns cannot interdict HIV or avian flu or the West Nile virus. Secure borders will not impede terrorism or illegal immigration any more than a radical reduction in American auto emissions will curb global warming.
In absolute terms, sovereign nations like the U.S. may not have become less powerful but the world’s interdependent realities have become far less susceptible to sovereign power. No nation/state has ever enjoyed the unrivaled hegemony that defines the U.S. today. Yet, no superpower has ever been less capable of managing its own destiny. This is the paradox of American power as exerted in places like Iraq, Hong Kong, Colombia, Russia, India, and Sudan. The U.S. should be able to prevail and its interest should dominate. But the issues in question are not national, so the powerful sovereign often fails to secure even its minimal interests.
It is not the spirit of patriotism on display at MySpace. It is not the beacon of liberty that shines forth from YouTube. Nationalism’s advocates cheer privatization and globalization and seem not to recognize the contradiction. They desire sovereignty without the state, and global markets without a loss of American greatness. They will get neither.
While granting that sovereignty has passed from the political sector to the economic sector and at the same time has migrated from the national to the international area, some would have you believe that this has merely shifted the venue of sovereignty without altering its character. In fact, it has undermined sovereignty’s core meaning, which is inseparable from the meanings of both politics and the nation/state. The changes have yielded rational control over daily life, traditionally exercised in legitimate politic al communities, to non-state powers with no legitimacy, or to the chaos of a lawless international system.
Interdependence really means that all of the pathologies and problems corroding the modern state have fled the nation and gone global, beyond the reach of sovereign power, while citizens and democracy remain trapped inside a sovereign box.
If globalization and democracy cannot be reconciled, there is likely to be no answer. The entire world will look more and more like Gaza on a bad day – out of control and threatening to all, but without any real benefit to those in whose desperate name the chaos advances. Within nations, the sovereign center to which liberty is tethered will not hold. Among nations, there will be neither center nor sovereignty. Democracy will have no home.
Source: Benjamin Barber, political theorist and author of Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World. You can read his essay in full at this link.