Globalization and global political theory

How much we can do for ‘distant strangers’ is of course a matter of great controversy: most would accept that our role should not be limited to that of spectators.

David Held Pietro Maffettone
11 October 2016

Haiti. Wading through a flooded street after the passing of Hurricane Matthew in Les Cayes, Haiti, Oct. 6, 2016 - the country's biggest disaster in years. Dieu Nalio Chery/Press Association. All rights reserved.It is literally impossible to shy away from global political theory. Pick-up your cell phone: where do the minerals that make-up its circuits come from? Are the revenues generated by the sale of such minerals used to benefit the people of the country in which the minerals were extracted?

Take a look at any piece of clothing in your wardrobe. Where was it made? What were the working conditions of the people making it? Were these conditions the reason for jobs being outsourced to that country, and income and employment lost in yours? Or vice versa? Switch on the news. There is a new scandal about corporations evading or avoiding taxes just about every month. Lists of rich individuals hiding their wealth in fiscal ‘havens’ are leaked almost as frequently.

Are these the inevitable implications of the free mobility of capital? If capital cannot be effectively taxed, because of tax competition between different countries or commitments to particular types of fiscal policy, does not labour pay the price?

We could go on. The point is simple: globalization has made our lives more interconnected than ever. Our daily lives stand for uninterrupted chains of physical, economic, political and ultimately moral relationships with strangers on all parts of the globe. It is imperative to stand back and reflect more analytically about these issues, if we are to be able to understand and act upon them in an informed and reflective manner.

Moral issues and normative debates

The links between globalization and global political theory are clearly mediated by cultural, political and intellectual trends that defy a mechanical or formulaic reconstruction. To name just a few: the end of the Cold War, the emergence of the human rights regime and of the responsibility to protect doctrine, and the spread of democratic ideas, etc. While globalization has profoundly affected our political lives, it has had a significant impact on how we think about moral issues. There are at least four ways in which globalization has altered normative debates.

First, globalization has intensified global and regional patterns of exchange (political, economic, cultural) and thus has made us aware that our actions have implications that do not stop at our own borders, but have wider and more far-reaching effects.

Second, globalization has accelerated the emergence of global collective action problems. Yet, it has also contributed to a new sense of urgency about establishing global cooperation to address them. It is appreciated that to do nothing about financial market risks, terrorism in the Middle East or climate change, among many other global challenges, is to encourage enormous instabilities and to invite lasting damage to the fabric of our institutions.

There has been the realization that our overlapping collective fortunes require collective solutions – locally, nationally, regionally and globally. And there has also been a widespread acceptance that some of these challenges, if unaddressed, could be apocalyptic in the decades to come.

Taken together, the first and second elements relate to the traditional Rawlsian idea that cooperative activities generate benefits and burdens and that these burdens and benefits have to be distributed in a nonarbitrary fashion if we want to avoid injustice and unfairness. In a similar way, drawing from a broadly democratic perspective, the first and second elements highlight the great array of issue areas in which power is exercised without clear accountability mechanisms, and the associated potential for political and economic domination that unaccountable power inevitably generates.

Third, globalization has increased our awareness of distant suffering. This may seem like a trivial point, but it should not be underestimated. From a purely causal perspective, awareness of a given situation is a necessary condition of our ability to do something about it. But there is more to it than the latter idea suggests. Awareness of suffering, especially through the kind of visual awareness that modern telecommunication technologies allow, can play an important part in the development of empathy and, paraphrasing Peter Singer, in expanding the ‘moral circle’. Empathy, as many authors in the history of philosophy have argued, is not to be disparaged – it can motivate people to act and, in so doing, become the starting the point for real political change. 

Fourth, globalization has also made us aware of the fact that we can do something about the plight of those who live very far from us. How much we can do for ‘distant strangers’ is of course a matter of great controversy. Witness the endless debates on the effectiveness of humanitarian and development aid. However, most would accept that our role should not be limited to that of spectators, and that passivity in the face of the suffering of distant others is unacceptable.

Put differently, our ability to affect the life prospects of distant individuals (limited as it might realistically be), shapes our reflections about the nature of our ethical universe, as it implies that our relationship with distant strangers can be a source of genuinely normative obligations, that is, obligations that specify a set of actions and policies that we may realistically try to implement.

Complex issues

Of course, much more can be said about the general links between globalization and normative political theory. However, one thing is overwhelmingly clear: given the sheer complexity of the issues we face and the increased moral urgency that so many of them engender, we simply cannot afford not to think about them. And that is precisely the task that we have set ourselves in Global Political Theory (just published). This book discusses the many ways in which global politics permeates our moral lives, sets out the core concepts we need to make sense of this world, and analyses many of the key political and moral challenges we face in order to both understand and address them. It is a very useful starting point to come to terms with a different political world and the moral challenges that it creates.  

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