Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Transitional Imperatives"
For several decades now, we have been experiencing change of epochal proportions. This transition in human affairs, which has yet to run its course, is perhaps the most profound since the appearance of the first agricultural villages more than 10,000 years ago.
Since the two world wars, we have witnessed the unrelenting application of science and technology to industry, commerce, finance, education, and the media. The sheer volume, speed, and intensity of cross border flows of goods and services, capital, technical know-how, arms, pathogens, greenhouse gases, information, images, and people are transforming the way we live and experience the world. What is less clear and deeply troubling is whether the human species can develop in timely fashion the social, cultural, and political arrangements that can ensure the medium to long-term adaptation of the human species. This is precisely the question which Richard Falk’s essay addresses.
To the predicament we presently face, Falk suggests two possible and, potentially at least, mutually reinforcing paths to constructive adaptation: a new model of citizenship and new forms of statecraft both oriented to the interests of the species as a whole and its deep and enduring connection with nature. Falk’s depiction of these two paths is analytically illuminating and normatively appealing. The case he advances attests to the immense wisdom accrued over a lifetime of intellectual engagement.
There are nevertheless two qualifications which need to be made to the argument as developed in this essay. First, it is not at all clear that the only two relevant entities with which we need concern ourselves are the individual and the state. While each is capable of contributing to more humane and legitimate forms of governance, there are clear limitations to both individual and state agency.
To begin with, the state as presently constituted is but a shadow of what it once was. The structures of the state are in parlous condition not just in failed or collapsing states, but in many of the most advanced industrial states, Europe and the United States included. The legislative, executive, and judicial apparatus of the state is buffeted by market, technological, and societal forces which it scarcely comprehends let alone controls. At the heart of this failure is the decline of political parties, whether of the left or the right—labels which have in any case lost what significance they may once have had. The great invention of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was the modern political party that would serve as the principal agent of political education, popular engagement, and governance within a “national” context. The political party as we have it today has reached its use-by date, and nowhere near enough thought has been given to what might transform it, complement it, or replace it. The emergence of “green” parties has added remarkably little to the sum total of political agency. Until and unless this question is addressed head-on, it is idle to speak of any new form of statecraft.
Similar considerations apply to any new conception of citizenship. There are already millions of people around the world whose sense of identity and intellectual, ethical, and professional commitments are global in scope and orientation. They are as of now exemplars of the “citizen pilgrim.” Their number has not yet reached critical mass, but even if a dramatic numerical increase were to take place over the next ten to twenty years, it is doubtful that such a quantitative shift would produce the desired qualitative change in governance arrangements. What we lack are the appropriate collective movements and organizational forums that can nurture and harness individual human energies and passions and convert them into effective political agency. There is no reason to think that states have the will or capacity to establish, support, or simply act as catalysts for such new forms of mobilization.
To these excruciatingly difficult questions, there can be no simple or single solution. Yet there is one important element that can form part of the solution and which is largely absent in this essay, though not in Falk’s other writings. I am thinking of the ways in which our very diversity—ethnic, religious, cultural, and civilizational—can itself contribute to the formation of a new global ethic and new models of citizenship.
If we consider the world’s major religious and ethical traditions, in particular Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, but also Confucianism, western secular humanism and importantly indigenous cosmologies, we can find a reservoir of accumulated wisdom which views legitimate and humane governance as resting on the dignity of human life, a commitment to human fulfilment, and a concern for standards of “rightness” in relationships between heaven, earth, and humanity (to use the Confucian formulation). Though the criteria used to measure legitimacy may vary considerably from one tradition to another, there is probably sufficient common ground between these religious and ethical world views to make possible an on-going cross-border conversation about human ethics in general, and political ethics in particular.
Such differences as exist within and between the major civilizational traditions need not be inimical to normative discourse. Indeed, it is arguable that an emerging dialogical ethic in a reconceptualised and re-energised public sphere, in which states play at best a secondary role, but in which appropriately wired educational, cultural, and religious institutions play the more decisive role, can richly contribute to the long and painful journey which awaits both the citizen pilgrim and incipient institutions.