Globalisation, the state and the democratic deficit

About the author
Saskia Sassen is professor of sociology at Columbia University, New York, and at the London School of Economics.

Gordon Brown, since he became British prime minister on 27 June 2007, has proposed a series of administrative changes that - if implemented - will alter the distribution of power between the executive and legislative branches of government. These have been broadly welcomed by most of the political and media class as a shift from both the over-centralisation and the personalisation of the decade of rule of Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair. What most commentators have overlooked, however, is that Brown's reforms, announced in the House of Commons on 3 July (and summarised in Table 1) take on added significance in the context of the democratic deficit engendered by globalisation.

This brief article addresses this point by referring to contemporary political developments in the United States as well as Britain - though the institutional trends evident in these two countries are only illustrative of the wider predicament of liberal democracy across the globe.

Saskia Sassen is professor in the department of sociology at the University of Columbia and at the London School of Economics. Her latest book is Territory, Authority, and Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton University Press, 2006), based on a five-year project on governance and accountability in a global economy

Also by Saskia Sassen in openDemocracy:

"A universal harm: making criminals of migrants"
(August 2003)

"Fear and camouflage: the end of the liberal state?" - part of openDemocracy's worldwide symposium, "What does 2006 have in store?"
(December 2005)

"Free speech in the frontier-zone"
(February 2006)

"A state of decay"
(May 2006)

"Migration policy: from control to governance"
(13 July 2006)
A democratic deficit

A crucial point that Gordon Brown's programme highlights is that the common view that globalisation causes the liberal state as a whole to lose power is simply wrong. The impact of globalisation is actually more complex. Some parts of the liberal state (including the executive branch of government and some of the key agencies under its control) actually gain power; at the same time, the various policies promoting corporate economic globalisation (privatisation and liberalisation) have the effect of eliminating oversight functions and thus hollowing out the legislature.

The systemic trend of reinforcing executive power while emptying the legislature took off in the 1980s in developed countries regardless of the political party in power: the United States, Britain and France are three emblematic (and very diverse) cases. This trend long precedes the "war on terror", and underlines the importance of distinguishing between the growth of executive power per se from that associated with the post-9/11 era. In this perspective, the period since 11 September 2001 can more clearly be understood as anomalous, a state of exception.

The implication of this approach is to understand that the deeper and longer systemic trend at work is generating a serious democratic deficit deep inside the liberal state. This is evident in a fact mostly overlooked in the globalisation literature: that the executive branch is far more aligned with global logics than its speech-acts might suggest. The major supranational regulators (the International Monetary Fund [IMF] and the World Trade Organisation [WTO], for example) negotiate only with a state's executive branch; one effect is that the executive branch becomes more "international" while the legislature becomes more "domestic".

In this light, Gordon Brown's proposed changes can be seen as addressing more than the excesses associated with Iraq and the larger war on terror; they reach towards an engagement with a democratic deficit that is becoming hardwired into the liberal state due to the enablers of corporate economic globalisation at work inside its institutions. By seeking to involve the House of Commons into a whole range of state affairs hitherto reserved to the executive, and by bringing the parliamentary chamber into the discussion of international agreements, Britain's new leadership is inaugurating a major new phase for the liberal state.

How not to do it

The historical significance of Gordon Brown's proposals can be measured by referring to the modern political experience of the United States. Here, the competition for influence between the executive and legislative branches of the government is seen as necessary for democratic health. The sharpening of executive power over the last six years is seen largely as exceptional, the work of the George W Bush-Dick Cheney administration, enabled and justified by the war on terror. The consequence of this line of thinking is that once the war is settled and/or Bush-Cheney are replaced, "normal" levels of power-asymmetries between the executive branch and Congress will return.

This is a reasonable expectation - but from the perspective of research on economic globalisation (rather than the politico/military domain of the war on terror and its exceptions) something else stands out in altering the power-relations of the executive branch and Congress. It could be called a "second history", and it begins in the 1980s when the current phase of globalisation intensified. A generation's work has been to build a global corporate economy that has inserted itself inside the national state apparatus in three ways that have fed the power of the executive and weakened Congress.

First, the economic deregulation that took off in the 1980s began to hollow out Congress as it lost oversight functions, many of which wound up in the executive branch of government in the form of specialised regulatory commissions. The resulting changes were not limited to a shift to the private sector that fed privatised forms of authority (the common focus in most scholarship on the state and globalisation, including my own past work).

Second, the way in which this deregulation took place marginalised Congress - and that means out of the public limelight and public debate. Ronald Reagan did not go to Congress and ask for new laws; rather, his administration reinterpreted existing law (which was New Deal law from the 1930s). To get to deregulation through law that authorised and promoted a major role of the state in the economy is quite a leap, and can be seen as an illegal extension of executive power. What matters here is that it kept Congress from doing what it should do, law-making, and it further enhanced the power of the executive branch as the de-facto architect of the new law. Thus, contesting the law-making capacity of Congress long precedes the current administration and its state of emergency.

Third, the implementation of deregulation and privatisation policies has had its own autonomous effect on the distribution of power inside the state. Certain parts of the US government (such as the treasury, the federal reserve, the office of the trade representative) have become stronger because of globalisation. This in turn feeds the power of the executive branch, especially insofar as the executive seeks to control the public administration. Further, key actors in the supranational system, such as the IMF and the WTO, will - as noted above - deal only with the executive branch, further removing it from democratic accountability.

The democratic challenge

Many theorists and analysts of globalisation have tended to consider the state as a whole, and either argued that not much has changed for "the" state or that "the" state has become much weaker. Even the more nuanced versions that emphasise state adaptation tend to offer only a variant of this view. What is missed is that economic globalisation has had its own autonomous effect, separately from questions of national security, in sharpening executive power and in undermining the legislature. I see globalisation as having brought about transformations inside the state, which though partial and highly specialised, are foundational - and they are deeper and more consequential than is routinely understood. To get at these changes it is necessary to enter "the" state.

This argument turns much of the globalisation debate on its head. It challenges a series of firmly held and fashionable beliefs: markets need small government to thrive, economic globalisation is associated with weakened states, strong (including global) markets feed democracy. The issue in question is no longer one of "the" state confronting global powers and either not being affected or being severely weakened. It is a profound redistribution of power inside the state. A massive and growing democratic deficit is affecting many states across the world. It is part of a systemic trend that it is essential to address. Gordon Brown has shown the way; will others follow?

Table 1

Gordon Brown proposed on 3 July 2007 that "in twelve areas important to our national life, the prime minister and executive should surrender or limit their powers - the exclusive exercise of which by the government should have no place in a modern democracy." The British prime minister suggests that parliament should assume or share powers in areas at present exclusive to the executive.

These areas are:

  • - the power of the executive to declare war
  • - the power to request the dissolution of parliament
  • - the power over recall of parliament
  • - the power of the executive to ratify international treaties without decision by parliament
  • - the power to make key public appointments without effective scrutiny
  • - the power to restrict parliamentary oversight of the intelligence services
  • - power to choose bishops
  • - power in the appointment of judges
  • - power to direct prosecutors in individual criminal cases
  • - power over the civil service itself
  • - executive powers to determine the rules governing entitlement to passports and the granting of pardons.