Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Transitional Imperatives"

Larry George

Over the past several decades, no one has sustained a more exhaustive and compelling critique of the structural injustice, environmental unsustainability, moral bankruptcy, and political irresponsibility of the current international order than Richard Falk. His comprehensive survey in this essay of the accumulating global crises facing humanity today as a result of the failures of this order, and particularly his indictments of the international legal system and the inability of the major global intergovernmental organizations to rise above narrowly construed state interests and hegemonic power politics, is cogent and incontrovertible. Coming up with novel, effective, and viable new forms of citizenship and political action will be necessary for overcoming the limitations of these existing institutions. As such, I greatly appreciated Falk’s thoughtful discussion of how several unexpected recent events and trends suggest at least tentative reasons for optimism, including evolving forms of group political self-identification, the highly publicized transgressions of strong and long-established state security practices and norms by a number of prominent individual citizens, and the emergence of innovative forms of cross-border, non-state political linkages and organization.

Like most readers, I imagine, I found it dishearteningly difficult to find fault with his account of the way that the current geopolitical regime of power disguised as a regime of international law results in a comprehensive absence of effective mechanisms for global enforcement of emerging transnational norms regarding human security needs, thereby compounding the many already formidable impediments to the establishment of a resilient global community. The essay’s general recommendations—for a greater insistence on enforceable equity among powerful and weak states and their citizens in matters of international criminal law, nuclear non-proliferation, human rights, and R2P, for example—as well as Falk’s specific proposals in favor of UN reform, a global people’s parliament, a global tax on transnational economic activity, etc., are all laudable, notwithstanding the many formidable political and material obstacles confronting their implementation. The essay reaches particularly in the right direction in its insistence that to be successful, transnational grassroots activism will have to precede state action, and in its realistic acknowledgement that any broad movement growing out of such activism will have to be nurtured through a difficult birthing process—a process for which, as Falk acknowledges, humanity may or may not have enough time.

At the heart of Falk’s argument is the tension created by the need for new forms of activism and citizenship in a world where existing modes of political agency are both partially empowering and highly constrained. He correctly insists that political identities rooted in and confined to existing state-centric concepts of citizenship are, paradoxically, both indispensable to political action in the present context and, ultimately, hopelessly inadequate (if not counterproductive) in light of the increasingly formidable and multifaceted global challenges facing humanity as a whole. As a simultaneously empowering and self-limiting “juridical and psychological form,” nation-state citizenship is Janus-faced. It is, on the one hand, the sole form within which sustained and effective international political action can be undertaken and carried out within the present system of sovereign states. However, on the other hand, it is incapable of transcending the politically debilitating limitations imposed by that very sovereignty, impeding efforts to ascend to the level of global political consciousness and responsibility and to cultivate the kinds of globally oriented political sentiments and imaginaries that will be required to move humanity beyond its current impasse and avoid the treacherous shoals that lie ahead.

Falk’s point that “the political preconditions for world citizenship are almost totally missing” is well illustrated in his sobering discussion of the internal contradictions of European political identity, including the unsettling ease with which that identity has proved itself so readily capable of backsliding in the face of recent economic, financial, and security challenges. This observation prompts the vexing ontopolitical question confronting anyone seeking to envision or bring into being a regional, much less global, political community where none exists: if politics is inherently a realm of intergroup struggle and agonistic conflict where important matters are contested and valuable interests are at stake, how can the antagonistic energies generated by political engagement be channeled into a higher commitment to a global human community? How can the provisional political alliances and agonistic confrontations that are inevitable and necessary for cooperative political action in such circumstances be prevented from crystallizing, as they inevitably tend to, into fixed political identities defined in terms of particularistic or parochial interest and shared ressentiment and animosity directed against specific designated Others? In the absence of some common, overriding threat to humanity as a whole, is the aspiration for global human solidarity unrealistic, given the fact that all existing forms and structures of ontopolitical identity are the sedimentations of historically constituted responses to past and present common threats—real or imagined, actual or virtual? And does this necessarily mean that political life itself will continue to be inescapably predicated on the presence of some defining, permanent, common adversary or enemy? This fundamental political problematic poses genuinely difficult challenges to any effort to envision a humane and just world order arising from within the prevailing system of culturally pluralistic sovereign states, particularly as the disunities within that system continue to be aggravated by the tumultuous upheavals produced by neoliberal capitalist globalization within an environment of globally declining resources.

Compounding these difficulties, while at the same time suggesting possible sources of animating energy, are the deeply ambiguous cultural legacies of the Axial religions—the great world faiths that have shaped and sustained the major surviving regional civilizational formations of the past three millennia, while displacing or eradicating the vast majority of the world’s earlier non-Axial spiritualities and belief systems. Each of the Axial religious cultures carries powerful spiritual resources and practices with the potential to powerfully inform concrete political action in pursuit of progressive global transformations towards genuinely humane governance. But one need not accept either the premises or conclusions of the late Samuel Huntington’s misconceived “clash of civilizations” thesis to recognize that the contending universalist claims and aspirations of these faith traditions transmit at the same time politically toxic and infectious legacies in the form of dangerously divisive, exclusionary, intolerant, and not infrequently belligerent religio-political identity formations that can be readily exploited by opponents of humane global governance. This is, paradoxically, all the more prevalent as their hold over the spiritual lives of human populations deteriorates, and the divisions between them continue to be exacerbated by the effects of the unfulfilled promises, accumulating negative externalities, and unforeseen or unanticipated malignant social and material consequences of the globalization of Western capitalism and the tele-technocratic rationality associated with it. Whether these faith traditions will turn out to be allies of or obstacles to the eventual achievement of the goals that Falk so eloquently advocates remains among the paramount questions of our age.

A related problematic that Falk’s essay raises is the question of technology itself. Some of Falk’s comments evince a general skepticism regarding the widespread and growing reliance on technology as a means of overcoming the manifold social and political—as well as moral and spiritual—quandaries characteristic of the twenty-first century world (including many created by or resulting from technology itself). In recent years, I have become, somewhat reluctantly, more and more convinced that many of the solutions to the actual and impending problems created by industrial and post-industrial technology will have to be to a significant extent technological. It should, of course, be clear that a presumptive faith in the capacity of technology alone to overcome these problems is tragically misguided and destined to fail. Having said that, however, it seems to me that—to borrow an old metaphor—the genie is out of the bottle, and humanity has, at best, a generation or two to figure out how to get it back under our control.

Nevertheless, there seem to be some grounds for optimism, at least if tempered by a commitment to radical vigilance and the courage to employ appropriately vigorous means to protect humanity and the planet from the deleterious consequences of overdependence on that very technology. Difficult choices are inevitable. It is hard to envision how even a partial withdrawal from technology could be accomplished without aggravating the already existing problems created by, and compounding the already unsustainable effects of, two centuries of accelerating dependence on industrial technology. Emerging advances in such new areas of scientific research as information digitalization, nanotechnology, materials science, robotics, energy storage and transmission, quantum computing, and even the extremely politically and ecologically risky sciences of molecular biology and pharmaceutics, hold out genuine promise not only of alleviating much human suffering and defusing many of the current obstacles to human material and spiritual flourishing, but also of empowering and assisting the political struggles of global activists and citizen pilgrims in the transition to a more humane and sustainable mode of global governance. This would particularly be the case if the dominant roles currently played by corporate, military, and domestic police security forces in driving research in all of these areas can be somehow displaced or mitigated (admittedly an enormous challenge). The present generation of scientists and engineers is already much more globally oriented and environmentally enlightened than their predecessors, and they are no less capable of producing politically aware citizen pilgrims than their contemporaries in other fields.

A perhaps deeper challenge, then, is to come up not only with a vision of what humane world governance might look like, but also with an institutional framework or model capable of institutionalizing and implementing that vision, a set of practices for responding to and taking advantage of fungible technological innovations and advances, and a kind of political activism and citizenship that could mobilize the diverse agonistic energies of those who are unwilling to continue to tolerate ubiquitous injustice. The broad panorama that Falk sketches out in the closing paragraphs of his essay is as compelling a strategic vision for meeting and overcoming these challenges to the collective construction of “a future responsive to the long-term survival of the human species and the goals of maximizing its wellbeing and pursuing global justice” as I have seen. Navigating these perilous waters will not be easy, and success is far from guaranteed. But it never is. If it happens, it will appear first in the form of unlikely breakthroughs, and genuine breakthroughs are always regarded beforehand as unfeasible or impossible. Otherwise, they would not be breakthroughs. The great self-defeating danger is, as Falk points out, not ungrounded speculation, but myopia. Feasibility and possibility are always outside human control in any case, and although the ancient gods have long ago left the building, the human condition continues to be defined by contingency and opportunity, both foreseeable and as yet unimaginable.

Larry George
Larry George is Professor of International Politics and former Director of the Program in International Studies at the California State University, Long Beach. His current research explores the historical relations among human sacrifice, war, and sovereignty.

Cite as Larry George, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Transitional Imperatives," Great Transition Initiative (September 2014),

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