Constructing World Political Agency

January 24, 2024

This is my contribution to GTI Forum What’s Next for the Global Movement? In effect, it summarises some of the ideas of World Statehood: The Future of World Politics.

Common problems and contradictions can be (at least partly) resolved by building better common institutions. Yet collective action for this purpose can be arduous to organize, especially in a world characterized by disintegrative tendencies. In any event, these processes take time. This can be conceptualized as a quasi-Hegelian scheme of development of consciousness, whereby actors shift from passive egoists to advocates for change and solidarity. Responses to common problems and related contradictions involving a likely counterfinal outcome can develop through several modes and levels of learning. At first, actors take the environment as fixed in terms of their choices, but soon they can realize that there are equally reflective other actors, and that the situation is strategic and game-like. This realization leads to attempts to organize collective action. However, if the costs of initiating and organizing collective action seem high, the strategic short-sighted reasoning tends to point towards no collaboration. This is the classic free-riding or Prisoner’s Dilemma type of game-like situation, which in the world of myopic and self-regarding actors tends to result in worse outcomes for all. The goal of the next learning phase is to build a foundation for solidarity and perhaps also a common identity, the continued existence of which typically requires organizations and institutions.

While trust and solidarity help with organizing collective actions, they not only depend on the prevailing modes of agency but also are subject to manipulation by the most powerful actors. Communication is the first key to the successful organization of collective action, and the development of trust and solidarity is the second. In the past, communication often required frequent physical presence, but with new technologies, actors can communicate across space in real time much more easily. However, unless members of the relevant group come to know and trust each other, they are unlikely to be able to overcome the contradiction.

This generic scheme of transformative institutional change is applicable to many different situations and types of actors, individual and collective, including states. Collective actors such as states are not only built on particularistic ideologies (nationalism) but are also multifarious systems. Those acting in the name of a state occupy simultaneous positions at multiple sites of power and levels of organization, and this increases complexity. Yet, in the contemporary world, usually only states can change or create new international law and thereby only they can establish new common institutions on a global scale. This may change in the future, but for the time being, transformative movements are dependent on states.

Reality involves complex multi-path developmental processes that can be interwoven or contradictory in various ways. There are many possible outcomes of the dialectic of thesis and antithesis: a simple refutation of a relevant proposition, a combination of the opposing assertions, a synthesis by making a general claim that preserves the insights of both thesis and antithesis, or a qualitative improvement of the dialogue by means of conceptual complexification and innovation, perhaps taking the dialogue to a new path or level. Many dialectical moves are un-anticipatable.

Analogically, in the context of currently prevailing global problems and contradictions, there are many possible rational directions of world history, some of which can be at least in some regards un-anticipatable. These directions are also a matter of dialectical disputations, always occurring under concrete world-historical circumstances. This is what the openness of world history means. Any claim about the rational tendential directionality of world history has to be understood as a normative argument. A new transformative movement will not come about semi-automatically but can only be realized through transformative praxis.

The question of “building experiments of movements unity” is not the right question. Uniting all movements is not a reasonable goal. First, any attempt to build a movement of movements is likely to repeat the experiences and mistakes of the World Social Forum process. Its identity has been defined in negative terms only. To maintain pluralism and facilitate the participation of many, it has been preserved as an “open space,” implying that it has no agency and can make no decisions. As no one can speak on behalf or in the name of WSF, it has no transformative capacity or power. Communication in open public spaces is an important part of democratic processes, but it is not the answer to the problem of agency. Second, many organizations aspire to do something like this, especially on their own terms, which can lead to competition and power struggles, instead of cooperation. Third, the plurality of actors is good: a vibrant civil society is an essential part of contemporary democracy and also ensures the possibility for many to participate. A biological analogy to an ecosystem is also apt.

The development of global transformative agency for the twenty-first century can come about only through a learning process towards qualitatively higher levels of reflexivity and higher-order purposes, including planetary and even cosmic purposes. A transformative movement can consist of many elements and forms of agency, but I would nonetheless emphasize the importance of a new emergent type of agency. While a world political agency can assume different forms, my basic hypothesis is that a world political party is likely to constitute a key moment in the process of constructing such an agency. The construction of democratic world political agency takes time and will be an experimental process. The raison d’être of the party must lie in furthering transformations and various new institutional forms in which the planetary public realm can be organized. For this purpose, the sufficiently shared opinion will be forged into a program of change. We can distinguish between three moments of transformative global-democratic action:

  1. Activities within the confines of established institutions
  2. Advocacy to transform global institutions and create new ones
  3. Participation in the newly formed global institutions

These three moments also form a logical order: (1) activities within existing institutions can include (2) advocacy of, and legislation for, global-democratic institutions characteristically assuming state-like tasks and functions, constituting an emergent layer of world statehood, while successful attempts at creating institutions of planetary democracy (3) make participation in them possible. Over time, new institutions will become established, and the cycle can continue from (1) to (2) to (3).

As the process progresses, the role of world parties will become institutionally central, and different ideologies will organize themselves into more parties, which critical civil society in turn will criticize, often for good reasons. This process—as part of the open-systemic process of world history—involves the possibility of human imagination inventing yet new forms of agency and institutions.