George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard might not be impressed, but
everyone else knows that something significant happened on the weekend of
February 15-16, 2003. By any estimates, perhaps six million people
demonstrated in hundreds of cities around the world against the Iraqi war.
Such a concerted expression of popular opinion is unprecedented in world
history. It represents a refutation of the usual means of decision making
in international relations and in some cases the role of national
political elites. Furthermore, it indicates a growing sense of global
solidarity, if still defined in terms of opposition.
Indeed, it all begs the question: Are we seeing the early days of the
rise of a real movement for global democracy?
It is a commonplace assumption that we are well advanced in a process
of total socio-economic transformation known generally as globalisation.
Sponsored by certain states, most notably the US, and driven mostly by
massive transnational firms and global markets, a single, globally
integrated civilisation is emerging on Earth. It even has a crude
governance structure, made up of the United Nations, the World Trade
Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. There is
also an alternative organisational framework consisting of international
non-government organisations, like Greenpeace, Amnesty International and
Oxfam, which is increasingly global in scope and concern.
What it manifestly does not have is anything like a political structure
to match these entities that is truly grass-roots democratic and global in
form. Perhaps, thanks to a raft of rising problems - including the war on
Iraq - and constantly improving communications and information technology,
such a movement is now taking shape. But even if it is, can it then
transmute into appropriate structures and processes to generate a
genuinely democratic world government?
The lack of balance between economic trends, which are increasingly global
in character, and political practices, which are still national, has been
a core point of discussion since the globalisation project got under way.
Most human beings still do not live in formal or functional democracies
but the idea of popular democracy is well established as the optimal form
of governance. Democracy primarily operates at a national level, whatever
the formal political structures, so our most important political
formations are still national governments.
Two things have happened to spark a possibly nascent global democracy.
The first is the increasing construction of a tendentially global network
through the rise of progressively more capable information systems. There
has been a steady development of international and then global information
systems, first through telegraphy, then, telephony, newspaper wire
services, film, radio and television.
However, nothing has embodied the basic information power now available
through the Internet, which can communicate text, image, sound and video
to anyone anywhere on Earth. The Internet represents a quantum leap in
capability, facility and accessibility, and it has hardly begun to show
its potential for reshaping the way information flows in our emerging
The Internet was, of course, invented and developed by the (mainly US)
government-military-educational-corporate nexus that many see as the
problem at the heart of various global problems. Due to its inherent
technological capability and the existence of a pro-democratic hacker
element in its early development, the Internet presents real possibilities
for grassroots participation. This capability was first demonstrated when
the pro-environmentalists used it to good effect in the RIO conference on
global warming back in 1992. Subsequently, various anti-globalisation
groups employed it to fight against the MAI (Multilateral Agreement on
Investment) and to organize demonstrations in Seattle, Melbourne,
Vancouver and elsewhere against globalisation. The effective use of the
Internet to help organise the anti-Iraqi war demonstrations is just the
latest example of its utility. The Internet presents a cheap, effective
and reliable means of global networking, something we have never seen
It is one thing to have spreading discussion about alternatives and a
capacity to put people on the streets to demonstrate, but can this nascent
form of participatory democracy develop into a new global political order?
Perhaps it could link up with certain networks already in formation,
such as environmentalist, pro-Third World or labour organisations that are
trying to organise globally to counter transnational business. Or perhaps
it will evolve in some new way that comes out of the potentially
revolutionary capabilities of life in cyberspace as popular usage
generates a threshold where totally unexpected things happen.
Realistically, it is unlikely that globally focused politics will
succeed nationally focused politics for some time but if such a movement
does gain strength it would put pressure on national political leaders to
pay more attention to global issues. With the lack of action over such
pressing issues as global warming, such pressure would seem well overdue.
It is often dramatic events that cause the kind of shifts that
permanently change history because it takes such stimuli to generate the
necessary popular interest. The war on Iraq and the September eleven
terrorist attacks may have results completely different to those that the
main protagonists anticipated. They have apparently consolidated the
position of George Bush, a US president with the thinnest possible claims
to a popular mandate, and made Osama Bin Laden one of the most influential
men on Earth. It is ironic that these two narrow-minded theocrats have
generated a popular global response that may eventually lead to the end of
exactly the sort of non-democratic power that they represent. But then,
that is how history sometimes works.