NEW DELHI: Across the world, elections are increasingly being seen are referenda on globalization. In the developed world, voters express anxieties about the loss of jobs to developing countries; in developing countries, voters excluded from the gains of globalization or made more vulnerable by it are expressing their dissatisfaction against government. Citizens all over the world worry about the loss of control over their own collective destiny that globalization seems to entail. They are frustrated over the fact that while they can elect their representatives, their representatives don’t seem to have options to choose from. The imperatives of adjusting to a globally integrated and competitive economy, and the constraints set by international treaty agreements, seem to all but over-determine policy options.
Proponents of democracy and supporters of globalization are mutually suspicious of each other. Globalization is often opposed in the name of democracy, and democracy is often bypassed for fear that it may slow down globalization. Globalizers often argue that integration into the world economy will inevitably bring democratization in its wake. Is it an accident that only a third of regimes are now classified as authoritarian compared to two-thirds a decade ago? Is the conjunction of this trend with globalization merely coincidental? Democrats insist that globalization is rendering democracy purely formal and divesting powers away from citizens. Globalizers, in turn, can be impatient with democracy. Don’t democracies often jeopardize their economic futures by misidentifying the conditions and policies on which long term prosperity rests? Isn’t democracy simply a reminder of the fact that there is a great disjunction between economics and politics? Economics in a globalizing world has to take the facts of interdependence seriously; politics still operates under the illusion that governments and nation-states are independent entities, free to create a world of their own choosing. A democratic protest against globalization is, on this view, not a vote for long-term prosperity. It is rather a vote for what Marx once called, “Saint Just’s’ illusion” – the craving for an ideal self-governing republican politics that is all but impossible in the modern world.
Like most debates, this confrontation of globalization and democracy is too stylized. The constraints on national policymaking that we attribute to globalization are not as strong as we often believe. A robust measure of self government is still possible. The constraints on democracy, in reality, stem from the political structures of states themselves. As part of a rhetorical battle, globalization gets saddled with causing ills it is not patently responsible for. In India, for instance, globalization is often blamed for everything from starvation deaths of farmers to scarce power and water. But what is it about globalization that prevents a government sitting on stockpiles of food from distributing it to its citizens? And if more is not invested in health care or water supply is it because of the constraints of globalization, or is it because states are captured by vested interests that divert resources to their own good? If anything, states stymie democracy more than globalization. And often those who oppose globalization in the name of democracy themselves have contempt for representative institutions; they ground their authority in that nebulous entity called civil society, rather than formal mechanisms of political authorization.
If opposing globalization in the name of democracy is often disingenuous, bypassing democracy in the name of globalization is downright dangerous. This is the case for a number of practical and moral reasons. Bypassing democracy is morally debilitating because it signifies a lack of faith in the capacities of those very citizens whose prosperity globalization is meant to secure. If globalization has the weight of argument on its side and a demonstrable capacity to bring about change for the better, why should it fear the altar of public reason? A fear of democracy will only make the claims of globalization suspect.
Globalization creates new risks as well as opportunities. Voters expressing dissatisfaction with their economies are not simply opposing globalization per se, but rather asking legitimate questions about the distribution of risks this process entails. Why should particular classes of labor be made more vulnerable by globalization than holders of capital? Why should the low-yield, but risk-averse farming strategies of an Indian farmer with a small plot of land give way to large-scale commercial farming that takes the land away from him? If banks and big creditors can be insured against economic shocks, why can’t self-employed workers? Democracy is one of the more effective ways of bringing to light the risks and vulnerabilities that need to be taken into account. Closed societies with settled social patterns need less open discussion, because the pace of change is slow. The more rapid and far-reaching the change (even for the better), the more important it is to bring to light new risks and vulnerabilities. Any version of globalization that is impatient with democracy is selling itself short on two counts. It is foreclosing the flow of vital information about the effects of globalization. And it is conceding the anti-globalization case that globalization cuts down the possibility of creative solutions to real problems.
Simply put, globalization will be more enduring and successful if it can give reasons to most citizens to go along with it. Cooperation is most productive when it is voluntary, not manipulated or coerced. It is difficult to imagine sustaining voluntary cooperation without going through democracy. Globalizers often throw reasons at people, rather than address reasons to them, as democracy requires. A politics of resentment against globalization is fuelled, not because people (except for the few ideologically over-committed ones) are incapable of understanding its benefits. The resentment stems from a sense that the terms of globalization are often being created in an arbitrary way. To take a prosaic example, very few countries have ratification procedures that subject international treaties to extensive discussion before signing, and they often present them to their legislatures as fait accompli. Democracy, messy and slow as it is, is the only way of ensuring that all the relevant considerations have been taken into account in creating a new architecture for the world. Whether globalization is seen as a process open to continual negotiation at all levels or as a force of nature to be passively endured will make a world of difference to its prospects for the future.
The modern world is animated by two important passions. The first is the possibility of creating a more interdependent and prosperous world that globalizers promise. The second is the desire to inhabit a particular kind of social world that democrats insist on. This is a social world whose important contours are ones that people inhabiting it can freely accept. Successful globalization requires that it be seen as part of a process that creates such a world. In short, it requires the legitimacy only democracy can give. Democracy in turn, will be strengthened if it is exercised in full awareness of the preconditions of a more prosperous and secure world. The two aspirations are often in tension with one another. But the concrete work of politics is to align them as fully as possible. Globalization without democracy will be alienating; democracy without globalization will be imprudent.