The global #occupy movement seeks a cosmopolitan democracy. Here’s why they should read David Held

http://www.flickr.com/photos/sqrlyearlynyc/6221379837/sizes/m/in/photostream/ CC VBlessNYC

On 17 September, around one hundred people set up a camp in a small private park a block away from the 9/11 memorial site in New York. Their example has swiftly grown and spread around the world. Mainstream media has been confused by the fact that Occupy activists make no single demand and have no spokesman. This is an example of new networked leadership. The protestors are united in a sense that their democratic system is broken.

In Europe, Germans cannot believe that those in Greece were able to put themselves in such a precarious financial position, and Greeks are angry about having to take severe welfare cuts perceived as orders from the IMF, European Commission and European Central Bank.

 CC mkhalili

Earlier this year the UK public, whose trust in politicians is extremely low, rejected voting reform that could have changed the system, perhaps because they no longer believe that national electoral system is the problem. 

The link between these groups is the feeling of powerlessness in the face of forces they cannot control.

David Held’s book, Democracy and the Global Order, published in 1995, to some extent foresaw this. There is now, particularly following the global economic crisis, a deep underlying public understanding of the subject on which scholars such as Held have been writing for decades.

Democracy in its current form is being deeply tested by globalisation. How we respond to this should be the greatest debate of our time. Though they cannot yet articulate it, the occupiers of Wall Street, Bay Street, Paternoster Square and the Puerta del Sol are partly appealing for a new cosmopolitan democracy in Held’s model.

Democracy and the Global Order

Essentially the book is a call for a renewed form of democracy, a form that can cope with the complexities of a modern global life and its economic, political, social and cultural facets. Held argues that the Westphalian model of state sovereignty and autonomy is outdated, in both a real and normative sense. In this model sovereignty is granted both internally, by those in a territory of a state, and externally, through recognition by other states. Autonomy is the power and freedom of a state, and the state alone, to set rules for its territory.

Held argues that the UN Charter model has altered the Westphalian model of states somewhat, introducing the concept of the legitimacy of a state, granted by respecting democratic values and human rights [i.e. the ‘international community’ intervenes in Afghanistan, Libya etc.]

Held further demonstrates that the autonomy of states is constantly being reduced by environmental governance, world economic forces, the increase in international organisations, the growing power of civil society associations and changing political and cultural identities. These converge to radically change the governance environment in which the modern state finds itself.

His question, ultimately, is how can democracy be achieved in this interconnected, overlapping world, in which there are so many centres of power?

His answer is to start from the guarantee of individual autonomy. Autonomy is the the ability to take self-conscious, reasoned decisions on the matters that affect you. It requires legal delimitation of various sites of power (be they economic, biological, cultural etc) to ensure the possibility of political participation.

From this, Held develops the concept of a cosmopolitan democratic law. Since any global force can affect individual autonomy regardless of location or state membership, laws to protect autonomy must be realised globally. They must also guarantee autonomy in the various bodies politic and the various sites of power, which are multifaceted: from local to global, from cities to states, from corporations and entire economic markets.

From 1995 to 2011

Until now, the world has lacked the mechanical solutions for organising polities around the issues that affect them. But social media, and a little Arab Spring inspiration, can connect people (like Google+ circles!) around the issues they care about, regardless of national borders. The occupy movements are trying to give some physical presence to global online movements. The banking industry globalised long ago – that’s why they run the show. It’s time global democratic governance stepped up too. 

Below is the manifesto from the ‘United for #globaldemocracy movement’, though movement may be too strong a word, published in the Guardian on Friday. (Geeky spot: note how they list New York as though it were a country)

United for #GlobalDemocracy
On 15 October 2011, united in our diversity, united for global change, we demand global democracy: global governance by the people, for the people. Inspired by our sisters and brothers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, New York, Palestine-Israel, Spain and Greece, we too call for a regime change: a global regime change.


In the words of Vandana Shiva, the Indian activist, today we demand replacing the G8 with the whole of humanity – the G7,000,000,000.


Undemocratic international institutions are our global Mubarak, our global Assad, our global Gaddafi. These include: the IMF, the WTO, global markets, multinational banks, the G8/G20, the European Central Bank and the UN security council. Like Mubarak and Assad, these institutions must not be allowed to run people’s lives without their consent. We are all born equal, rich or poor, woman or man. Every African and Asian is equal to every European and American. Our global institutions must reflect this, or be overturned.


Today, more than ever before, global forces shape people’s lives. Our jobs, health, housing, education and pensions are controlled by global banks, markets, tax-havens, corporations and financial crises. Our environment is being destroyed by pollution in other continents. Our safety is determined by international wars and international trade in arms, drugs and natural resources. We are losing control over our lives. This must stop. This will stop. The citizens of the world must get control over the decisions that influence them in all levels – from global to local. That is global democracy. That is what we demand today.


Today, like the Mexican Zapatistas, we say “¡Ya basta! Aquí el pueblo manda y el gobierno obedece“: Enough! Here the people command and global institutions obey! Like the Spanish Tomalaplaza we say “Democracia Real Ya”: True global democracy now!” Today we call the citizens of the world: let us globalise Tahrir Square! Let us globalise Puerta del Sol!

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