ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

The State, Democracy and Global Justice

One of the striking features of classical political philosophy until recently was that it assumed that principles of rights, sovereignty and distributive justice should operate at the state level. Global changes have not only questioned this dichotomy between domestic and international affairs but also raised concerns about the moral basis of politics at the international level. This paper argues that much of the confusion surrounding the analysis and justification of the need for global justice arises from the disparity between the wide usages of the term justice as it occurs in ordinary discourse related to humanitarianism and the way it has to do with the basis for making distribution of goods among citizens. It broadly proposes the need for reassessing concepts like state, democracy and sovereignty; to question membership-based sovereignty as the decisive determinant of democratic participation while working towards devolving decision-making to regional and local levels.

The State, Democracy and Global Justice

One of the striking features of classical political philosophy until recently was that it assumed that principles of rights, sovereignty and distributive justice should operate at the state level. Global changes have not only questioned this dichotomy between domestic and international affairs but also raised concerns about the moral basis of politics at the international level. This paper argues that much of the confusion surrounding the analysis and justification of the need for global justice arises from the disparity between the wide usages of the term justice as it occurs in ordinary discourse related to humanitarianism and the way it has to do with the basis for making distribution of goods among citizens. It broadly proposes the need for reassessing concepts like state, democracy and sovereignty; to question membership-based sovereignty as the decisive determinant of democratic participation while working towards devolving decision-making to regional and local levels.


I Introduction

ecent years have witnessed momentous political transformations across the world. It is a moment when fundamental religious and cultural conflicts emerge as the main point of contest within political debate and action. Along with these conflicts, the end of cold war bipolarity has brought about a debate on the future of world politics and among other things the need to rethink the moral basis upon which a new international coexistence could be based. Beyond the worldwide economic and political changes, the undoing of socialism, the weakening of national self-determination, lies the conceptual problem of envisioning the way forward beyond the current impasse. The conceptual gap comes into focus when we revisit some of the views on democracy written four decades ago. Some scholars argued against the cold war dogma that all democracy is liberal democracy and proposed that there were three conceptions of democracy in the world: the socialist conception, national liberation model and the liberal conception.1 Many of the ideas of socialism, national liberation, and liberalism referred to then have now been radically transformed.2

A second conceptual gap exists on the issue of inequalities in income and wealth distribution arising out of the relationship between the recent geographic expansion of democracy and the economic phenomenon of globalisation. This general indifference towards inequality seems to stem from the excessive confidence in the triumph of democracy as a political and social system around the world. The formal equality envisaged between citizens and the right to hold government accountable has never been so widespread. This remarkable geographic diffusion of the liberal democratic state in the so-called “third wave” of democratisation has been energetically encouraged by the US and its European allies. However, despite the institutions of global governance and liberal democracy the world remains divided as ever into the rich and poor – a world according to the United Nations 1996 World Development Report where the richest 358 people owned as much wealth as the poorest two and a half billion [Taylor and Flint 2000:2].

In this paper I shall begin by critically examining two principal approaches in the search for global justice: cosmopolitanism and the dialogue among civilisations.3 Towards this end the paper raises some theoretical and normative questions related to two central issues of classical political theory: the relation between state and sovereignty; and the scope and limits of distributive justice. The first issue relates to the way sovereignty in the international context means states should be regarded as independent in all matters of internal politics and implies sole rights to jurisdiction over a particular people and their territory [Held 1995]. In recent works the paradigm of sovereignty as indivisible and unlimited has been seen as anachronistic as it ceases to play the same rule in an increasingly interdependent and multicultural world. The second issue relates to widespread global inequalities that are not governed by any sovereign power [Havel 1992; Dunn 1995; Gotlieb 1993]. The question is whether the global triumph of democracy will allow the curtailing of a state’s sovereignty to the extent needed to curb distributive justice violations as is deemed correct in the case of human rights violations or is the entire notion of democracy confined to states and will be largely absent from transnational arenas.4

II Cosmopolitanism and a Dialogue of Civilisations

There are widely differing opinions about how moral norms should be established beyond states but in the past for cosmopolitans the causes of suffering and the terrains from which these causes were to be removed were largely within the boundaries of the nation-state. Debates about international distributive justice are also not a new feature in political philosophy. In their private letters, newspaper columns and manifestos, Marx and Engels were among the first to discuss the novelty of global capitalism and predict that this would allow capitalist society to expand.5 They also pointed out ways in which states and regions are affected by international trends. Many socialist writers expressed concern for distributive justice in a definition of unequal exchange.6 But again in these writings the interest in justice was mostly viewed with the aim of shifting the balance between the world’s wealthy and impoverished.

Recently there is a demand to first bring about political stability and civic peace in nations in order to secure fundamental human goods including a measure of distributive justice [Elshtain 2003]. What is interesting to note is that support for the inequalityinstability hypothesis has come from both neo-liberals and rights theorists.

Framing the debate in a manner in which demands for stability outweigh the demands for democracy and justice came close on the heels of the political transformations in the post-cold war international order and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.7

One of the most influential approaches in western political theory that have tried to tackle the conceptual issue is that of a cosmopolitan global morality. Charles Beitz distinguishes between cosmopolitanism as a moral ideal and cosmopolitanism as an institutional claim where the former focuses exclusively on the moral obligations owed by individuals to each other and latter explores the moral nature and rights and duties of political institutions [Beitz 1999]. Cosmopolitanism as a normative idea believes that principles of justice should apply to all individuals regardless of nationality and citizenship.

Some scholars like David Held have adopted the view that in an age of globalisation, citizenship cannot be confined within the boundaries of nation states; it must become transnational. Proponents of cosmopolitan citizenship advocate the need for a cosmopolitan democratic law to which citizens whose rights have been violated by their own states could appeal [Held 1995].

The increasing interconnectedness of varied local cultures and the development of culture without a clear anchorage in any one territory have made several theorists focus on global culture. Hannerz defines cosmopolitanism “first of all an orientation, a willingness to engage with the other…There is the aspect of a state of readiness, a personal ability to make one’s way into other cultures, through listening, looking, intuiting and reflecting” [Hannerz 1990:239] and concludes that cosmopolitanism is an orientation which should be actively cultivated in order to counteract discourses of cultural essentialism and to facilitate global democratic governance. Claims of this kind deny that membership in a particular cultural community is constitutive of a person’s social identity and a condition of her individual autonomy. Here cosmopolitanism about justice is a thesis about the irrelevance of cultural boundaries for the development of justice.

Martha Nussbaum has turned to the rich philosophical history of cosmopolitanism that has been variously argued for by the Greeks, the Stoics and Enlightenment philosophers. Kant’s concept of cosmopolitan citizenship rises above the particularity of a single nation. What in her view links classical stoics with modern enlightenment philosophy is not so much a shared cosmology or teleology but rather a shared trust in the role of reason seen as an essential feature of human beings – a trust that she finds to be under attack today [Nussbaum 2003].

Four key positions that unite these responses on cosmopolitanism are: individualism, universality [Pogge 1994], human emancipation, and the commitment to internationalism, that is, to the conviction that the struggle for human emancipation is by definition global [Camilleri 1998:9].

In the religious field global endeavours have received a tremendous boost with the questioning of the basis of political modernisation, i e, the secularisation of politics [Bilimoria 1993]. This is manifested in inter-faith meetings and especially in the institution of a Parliament of the World’s Religions. In 1993 the German theologian, Hans Kung’s (1991) study on “global responsibility” was made the basis of a declaration adopted by the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago.8 It was meant to supplement and provide moral underpinnings for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The participants affirmed that a common set of core values is found in religions; that these form the basis of a global ethic but they have yet to be lived in heart and action.

Another conception that has generated a lot of interest in recent years is the “dialogue of civilisations” that has been set against the background of religious endeavours mentioned above. One way forward in this regard has been the stress on cultural and religious traditions, a sense of the sacred and an attachment to community. Any project aimed at evolving international ethical standards must rest upon prolonged and dynamic interaction between cultures. It is argued that inter-religious and intercultural dialogue can help articulate a new internationalism that goes beyond economics or technological independence [Chandra 1997].

The proposal for a dialogue of civilisations officially launched by former president Khatami of the Islamic Republic of Iran was envisioned in international meetings and conferences in different forms by UNESCO that also declared 2001 as the year of the Dialogue of Civilisations. Khatami writes that the Constitution “states that the rule is Allah’s…but it also states that this Divine rule is based on people’s opinion. Man is Allah’s representative on earth and the right to rule does not refer to any specific person [Khatami 2003].9 In this way a huge body of literature today illustrates a character of Islam that seeks to educate and encourage good conduct rather than coerce; it is open to reinterpretation on all matters except those at its core and finally it is open to participation by the members of the community rather than dictated by the mullahs.

Similar concerns inspire philosophers like Charles Taylor to take up the example of Theravada Buddhism which has two central notions: the first is that ultimately each individual must take responsibility for his or her own enlightenment; second, the application of the doctrine of non-violence is viewed as a call for a respect for autonomy of each person. Even though the defence of human rights is different from the western justification of rights as it is not grounded in the doctrine of human dignity, it also proposes an alternative way of linking together the agenda of human rights with that of democratic development [Taylor 1999].

Central to all these cosmopolitan ideas and dialogues between civilisations is an abstract moral appeal since they point to a utopian goal of global justice. The demands for justice derive from an equal concern that we owe in principle to our fellow human beings. But many doubts have been expressed of the cosmopolitan ideals mentioned above by those who propose a dialogue of civilisations.

The first critique of cosmopolitanism is that even though in principle we are concerned with human beings all over the world, the institutions which make this possible are only present in socalled liberal sovereign states. This would be analogous to the requirement that within a state, the legal institutions of private property, right to life, liberty, and so on allow people to pursue their aims without any prior conceptions of the good of the community or social milieu they belong to.

Secondly the European Enlightenment, it is argued, has focused on several values that are central to the Anglo-American worldview such as individuality, moral equality, rationality, etc.

However, given that over time colonialism, late capitalism and modernity and now globalisation have ruptured traditional attachments and community life in many non-western countries the dialogue of civilisations stresses the global resurgence of culture and religion in world politics and identifies the “quest for cultural authenticity as the main political issue in the new relationship between the western and non-western world” [Petito 2003:109]. Unlike the responses of cosmopolitanism that “share a political commitment to a western-centric and liberal global order, the dialogue of civilisations points towards and calls for a review of the core western-centric and liberal assumptions upon which the normative structure of the contemporary international society is based” [Petito 2003:110].

Thus the dialogue of civilisations emerges as a critique of the contemporary western-centric and liberal global order proposed by liberal cosmopolitanism not only in the sense that the latter represents western political hegemony but also because it ignores the centrality of cultural and religious identities in every day practices of existing communities.10

However, there are many problems that emerge in arguing for the idea of a dialogue of civilisations as the moral basis of a multicultural and global world on three fundamental grounds; religion that remains a fundamental aspect of all these dialogues, human rights and its alleged nexus with liberal democracy, and the implications for women rights.

Those who argue that a civilisational dialogue is to take primarily in the context of religion should also concede that diverse claims of religious groups have become contestants in the public sphere of democracies and are embroiled in demands for legal recognition and resource allocations from the state and its agencies to preserve and protect their religious practices and ways of life. In most communities there is considerable disagreement about how collectively given norms and practices that have been inherited should be interpreted.

Today, a global revival of religion has made it a key factor in the analysis of numerous issues as we see from the strength of the anti-abortionist religious rights group in the US, in the rise of Hindu nationalism, and other fundamentalist groups and their variants in the Muslim world. At the same time, the advance of communications technology has added a new dimension to these global cultural flows, in particular as “they give expression to Muslim cultural politics in the form of resistance to western imperialism” [Bloul 1998:146] and to women’s rights.

Most of these arguments are based on faulty premises. A common claim is that religion and culture are overlapping categories; cultures are clearly definable wholes; and cultures correspond to territorial groups. In all these premises the idea of culture as the property or characteristic of a group is essentialist. These premises have grave political consequences of how injustices among groups should be redressed. Even if these faulty premises are rejected in many writings, the struggles for democratisation that expand recognition of new groups get caught up with the need to preserve minority religious cultures rather than to claim equality for all cultures.

The second question relates to the liberal democracy-human rights nexus. Liberal democracy encompassing political representation, participation, and the free formation of associations, movements and parties, has been closely tied to development of individual rights. Since the institutional framework of all existing modern democracies stems from a group of specific liberties which have developed within liberal states it is generally assumed that the historical bonds between them and liberal democracy will have to be maintained for either of them to endure.

Having conceded that, at the same time we have to endorse that across the world religious movements of various sorts struggle to articulate, pursue and maintain individual and group rights in ways that often differ from liberal notions of citizenship rights and democratic participation. This difference is relevant in a social context where individuals identify more strongly with duties or obligations to religious and social communities than with the rights of individuals inspired by the natural law tradition.

The major challenge for developing a conception of a dialogue of civilisations is about these rights and the question of state compliance with human rights norms especially for women’s rights. The issue is complex as many developing countries accuse governments of subordinating human rights concerns to other foreign policy goals. On the other hand, it could be argued that the rejection of international law as cultural specific and biased towards western norms and values is related to the fact that imprisonment without trial, torture and unlawful killing of citizens is common in many countries.

This resistance sometimes overlaps with opposition to universal standards for human rights that comes from religious-minded scholars, post-structural feminists and non-liberal states. There have been challenges from these different positions to the principle of universalism that moral standards are decided by cultural values. Conservative states specifically argue that the idea of rights is bound up with their western origins and have little meaning for other cultures [Verma 2002]. International standards on women’s rights are seen to collide with cultural and religious groups at the national level. The other problem is that enforcing women’s rights means that special attention be given to the private sphere which implies reinterpreting notions of female dignity, autonomy, bodily integrity and sexuality that are embedded in the cultural norms and institutions defined by religion.11

III Justice and Democracy

Given the problems with both cosmopolitanism and the dialogue of civilisations I wish to argue in the remaining parts of this paper that it is conceptually mistaken and tactically unwise to appeal to justice at the international level on the basis of moral norms or religion and culture. If we are to reassess the moral basis of an international order we shall have to stretch our normative and explanatory frameworks especially with regard to justice, equality and democracy. My thesis rests on the premise that there is a close association between the concept of justice and that of inequality. But given the magnitude of inequalities in which class, race and gender are interwoven in new ways we encounter a whole new set of problems in conceptualising justice.

First the post-war development process built on the exploitation and degradation of nature and of third world peoples and communities has raised questions related to the nature of knowledge. Central to this economic model and to its notions of progress are both fragmentation and uniformity which in Vandana Shiva’s words destroy the living forces which arise from relationships within the web of life. In her book Monocultures of the Mind, Shiva argues that monocultures of production underlying global systems are affecting not only the sustainability of the earth’s resources but also the diversity in knowledge and cultural practices that make human life sustainable [Shiva 1993].

The second change relates to work organisation and practices. The assembly line production and standardisation of work procedures– that is routine of work and more recently the push for flexibility in labour has been a model for industries in the post-Fordian production processes. The other key factor is an abundant and cheap source of labour that draws multinationals across borders more so since the era of trade liberalisation. The phenomenon of flexibility of labour often translates into part time, temporary and shift work all of which means lack of benefits for an unorganised labour force. Related to this is the gendered nature of the labour force, a process that goes hand in hand with export processing zones, service industries (data processing, telecommunications, tourism, finance and insurance) and an informal sector which is connected to export production through subcontracting.

The most important question relates to the concept of exploitation. Is it an appropriate articulation of injustice in international economic relations and if so in what form? There is a general understanding that the Westphalian system of international relations is based on state sovereignty. This implies that internally the state is expected to have supreme legitimate power and externally it is entitled to non-intervention by other states.

The traditional Marxist perspective of exploitation focuses specifically on how workers who own neither capital nor land end up being taken advantage of because of their class situation. Although they voluntarily enter a situation of work for wages they do not receive the value of their labour power. Now exploitation across borders requires an analysis of international employment credit and trade systems which can occur when the capital of one state moves to another state to establish employment relations there and to generate profits that can be repatriated to the capital’s home state. Foreign or multinational companies can thus be the medium for international exploitation. But there is another medium for exploitation – in terms of extraction of labour surplus. Even though the migrant workers send money home or eventually return with savings or acquired commodities to their home states, they have been exploited because they have produced more than the value of their earnings. However to stop this exodus, for example of south Asian workers to the west Asian states, would end the exploitation process but not injustice.

Another problem arises in the analysis of the flow of transnational capital into the software industry which is viewed as responsible for producing a new kind of a capitalist class even though most founders of software firms are drawn from the middle class building on their cultural capital of higher education and on the cultural and social capital acquired through professional careers [Upadhya 2004:5148]. However, I would argue that the identity of this emerging transnational class (that comprises NRI technological entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, executives of large and medium size IT companies and managers of MNCs) and their role in extracting labour surplus is too early to assess in the context of India.

What is crucial to exploitation, then is the assertion that exploitation lies not in the economic exchanges, whether of labour and wages, credit or interest or of goods but in the distribution of productive assets. Thus there is a need to change the distribution of productive assets, which underlies exploitation. For many scholars the concept of exploitation applied to international economic relations turns out to have limitations. While exploitation remains a relevant moral category it is not fundamental to the issue of justice in international economic relations. Rather it is important to focus on the more basic injustices involved in the unequal distribution of productive assets and the technology they embody.

This brings us to the way a partial and contested separation or contradictory unity of politics and economics exists under capitalism which has implications for democratisation of contemporary politics. Conventional liberal democracy relies on the frequency of election of representatives within an enclosed political community. Participatory democracy involves a wide variety of organisations and associations which are alienated from party politics but are active in civil society. In contrast to a view of participatory democracy, representative democracy tends to encourage a passive individualism rather than a collective citizenship. Furthermore democracy allows formal political equality to coexist with and to some extent gloss over material inequalities and exploitation. Thus according to Ellen Wood “issues of exploitation, domination and resource allocation, which in noncapitalist modes of production were bound up with political power, are in capitalism at least partially depoliticised and transformed into distinctively economic issues” [Wood 1995:20].

Liberalism’s formal equality of free individuals in capitalism has its counterpart in the sovereign equality of independent states. But in the era of globalisation, migration of peoples across states, market flows and information flows have altered definitions of sovereignty, legitimacy and the state. Most significant is the emergence of a set of international norms of distributive justice that justify humanitarian intervention but do not question the institutional basis of inequalities in resources to which I will return to in the following sections.

IV Globalisation and Distributive Justice

Much of the confusion surrounding the analysis and justification of the need for global justice arises from the disparity between the wide usages of the term justice as it occurs in ordinary discourse related to humanitarianism and the way it has to do with the basis for making distribution of goods among citizens [Campbell 1974]. This confusion is compounded because much of the normative concern with global justice has tended to focus narrowly on political justice and human rights, and less attention has been given to the question of social and economic justice. The dialogue of civilisations and some of the theorists espousing cosmopolitan approaches overlook the issue of distributive justice even though it is widely acknowledged that income disparity has widened rather than narrowed [UNDP 1997, 2001].

Many times the debate on global redistribution is interpreted as a requirement of humanity. Indeed in the last few years humanitarian aid has been forthcoming as natural disasters have affected many parts of the world. But focusing on humanitarian duties as part of a global ethic does not fully locate the source of global poverty. Humanitarian assistance differs from duties of justice in three interrelated ways: (i) humanitarian assistance is a short-term commitment with a definable goal as opposed to duties of justice that would aim to redress inequalities between societies; (ii) humanitarianism ceases to be binding once the short-term commitment is fulfilled for it acquires a defined critical level of development in contrast to duties of justice that apply so long as the circumstances of justice, viz, limited material resources and conflict of interests exist. Finally, unlike humanitarian assistance that does not directly address the global structural context within which countries interact, norms of justice apply directly to the background structure and critically assess the distributive outcomes of the global order [Rawls 1999].

In recent years there have been analyses of global economic inequality that focus on institutions as both the cause and the site of reform in the fight against structural roots of global injustices [Kuper 2002]. There is a growing recognition that the global structure has an economic basis in the capitalist mode of production [Nielsen 1991]. Even theorists more open to the principles of global free markets argue that there is a need to re-examine the basic operating assumptions of state sovereignty, resource ownership, free trade and citizenship and legitimate entitlements [Barry 1982]. Apart from the economic sphere, it is now recognised that international laws tend to work towards the advantage of multinationals, and patent laws defined by international organisations like the WTO tend to favour industrialised and research-oriented countries. Thus the methods and policies of global financial organisations like the IMF, the World Bank, the G-8 and the WTO have been attacked for entrenching the interests of big businesses and affluent countries.

Given these criticisms Thomas Pogge defends what he terms a “global resource dividend” [Pogge 1998] and Hillel Steiner proposes that all persons have a natural right to an equal portion of the earth’s natural resources [Steiner 1999]. International distributive justice continues to have support amongst social movement activists and those involved in public campaigns for cancelling third world debt, proposing principles of fair trade and taxation on international money markets.

In The Law of Peoples, Rawls attacks this kind of a cosmopolitan position and defends the ethical significance of nationstates [Rawls 1999]. Rawls’ position is not only against the conception of cosmopolitanism, and a dialogue of civilisations but also utilitarian concerns that emerge in a defence of a global ethic. The latter takes the form of far-reaching obligations on the part of the wealthy to feed destitute people regardless of the geographical location of the rich or the poor [Singer 1972; Barry 1971; Beitz 1979]. In what follows I will critically examine Rawls’ intervention in the debate on global justice.

V Rawls and Global Justice

To a very large extent Rawls is correct in believing that it is the nature of sovereign states and in particular their comprehensive control over the framework of their citizens’ lives that creates the demands for justice (1999:29). He believes that the priority of individual liberty would leave people free to pursue their own personal ends and the application of the “difference” principle would minimise inequalities of people born into different socioeconomic classes.

At the international level, Rawls’ Law of Peoples is concerned with those aspects of foreign policy that a reasonably just liberal people would find acceptable. To elaborate this foreign policy, the book discusses two kinds of well-ordered peoples, liberal democratic peoples and decent hierarchical peoples. The law also discusses outlaw states and states suffering from unfavourable conditions. However, the liberal requirements of a strong equality among citizens that applies within nation states does not apply to relations between members of different societies. At the international level Rawls finds the main units of that order are peoples, not individuals, and the values have to do with the relations among these collective units. This implies that at the international level peoples owe respect for other values through a society’s respect for other societies which is very different from the way citizens respect other values that they owe to their fellow citizens.

It is this requirement of equal respect for other peoples that is strong enough to impose on liberal societies a tolerance for non-liberal states. Hence while Rawls argues for distributive justice for individuals at the national level, he believes in tolerating non-liberal societies that are burdened or non-liberal especially towards human rights.

Rawls is of the opinion that human rights are a proper subset of the rights possessed by citizens in a liberal constitutional democratic regime or of the rights of the members in a decent hierarchical society. But these rights are not similar to claims made by comprehensive doctrines, religious or non-religious that might base the idea of human rights on a theological, philosophical or moral conception of the nature of the human person [Rawls 1999:81].

In arguing for human rights in this way, Rawls rejects the path of those who believe in a dialogue of civilisations. He also rejects the cosmopolitan theorist who argues that the “foreign policy of a liberal people will be to act gradually to shape all not yet liberal societies in a liberal direction until all societies are liberal”. Thus all persons are to have the equal liberal rights of citizens in a constitutional democracy. This is unacceptable to Rawls for without trying to work out a reasonable liberal law of peoples, one cannot know that non-liberal societies cannot be acceptable [Rawls 1999:83].

Rawls then examines burdened societies which he claims “lack the political and cultural traditions, the human capital, and knowhow, and often the material and technological resources needed to be well ordered” [Rawls 1999:106]. The long-term goal of well ordered societies should be to bring burdened societies like outlaw states, into the society of well-ordered peoples. The reason for this being that Rawls believes that a society with few natural resources and little wealth can be well ordered if its political traditions, law, property and class structure as well as its underlying religious and moral beliefs and culture are such as to sustain a liberal or decent society. Both these arguments illustrate the contrast between the Law of Peoples and a cosmopolitan view (1999:119) in which the latter is concerned with the well-being of individuals and not justice of societies.

What is pertinent to my argument is that for Rawls even illiberal nations that do not allow freedoms can satisfy the conditions for being included in a society of peoples [Rawls 1999:59-66]. I would argue that (unlike cosmopolitan theorists), Rawls in Law of Peoples looks for weak political principles so that liberal and illiberal democratic states can come together. The principle of toleration requires recognising non-liberal societies as equal members of the society of peoples. He looks for weak political principles that must command the consent of all reasonable peoples with different cultural commitments. Thus he accommodates decently hierarchical societies even though he makes it clear that his criterion falls short of prevailing international law, i e, even if they do not have general rights to freedom of expression or to rights of democratic participation. If, on the other hand, he were to search for strong political principles that secure what liberals would regard as a minimally adequate set of rights and resources, then he would face the charge that he was applying liberal principles for societies whose underlying values are different.

The normative ideal affirmed by Rawls’ approach is primarily committed to an ideal of equal sovereign states in which they are bound to an international order by a common set of rules but the conservative drift is clearly apparent in the way he refuses to offer a vision of global justice based on the application of the “difference” principle to all peoples. Rawls’ approach is mistaken for three reasons.

The reasons for this are that he gives priority to “well-ordered” institutions and that he further assumes self-sufficiency of states that precludes any serious consideration of economic redistribution from richer to poorer nations. His analysis ignores the fact that the international economic system creates severe disproportionate burdens for poorer nations who cannot resolve their problems by wise internal policies. The main problem is that the global economy within which structural inequalities are now generated are reflected and perpetuated not only abstractly in terms of global norms and principles but at a more concrete level as well through the policies and methods of established institutional bodies.

Secondly for Rawls, cosmopolitan theorists are mistaken because they are more concerned with the well-being of individuals, and not the justice of societies [Rawls 1999:119]. According to that view there is still a need for further global distribution even after each domestic society has achieved internally just institutions. The Rawlsian minimal decency standard however is one in which it is sufficient for states to remain “stable” and “well ordered”, and to respond to humanitarian disasters but it refuses to attend or engages in defining conditions under which human rights flourish.

Thirdly for Rawls, the domestic factors are the prime cause of a society’s development, including its political structure and culture. Indeed Perry Anderson in his reading of Rawls points out that “it is precisely the differences between political cultures which explain the socio-economic inequality that divides them. The causes of wealth of a people and the forms it takes lie in their political culture and in the religious, philosophical and moral traditions that support the basic structure of their political institutions” (2005:13).

Summarising the discussion I would argue that cosmopolitan theories of justice are either limited, utopian and unworkable. In today’s international arena there are huge obstacles to forming global political institutions that have no similarity to the era of national state formation, namely powerful national leaders (anti-colonial and liberation leaders) who command widespread political legitimacy. Global political institutions confront major difficulties of efficiency and legitimacy raising serious questions of their desirability. However, Rawls’ alternative in Laws of Peoples is difficult to sustain given that he still views the state as singular, integrated and fully formed agent on the world stage. He separates principles of justice or injustice in the relations between states from principles used to the evaluation of societies themselves as just or unjust (in terms of denial of human rights, distribution of benefits and burdens, etc) thereby overlooking at how the processes of globalisation have put transnational democracy as central to the understanding of both domestic and international politics.

I have discussed this view elsewhere that from a democratic perspective it is desirable to decentre membership-based sovereignty as the decisive determinant of participation; while it makes sense to encourage the European Union as a model for decision-making, it makes sense to devolve decision-making to regional and local levels too.

VI Conclusion

One of the striking features of much of classical political philosophy until recently was that it assumed that principles of rights, sovereignty and distributive justice should operate at the state level. It was generally accepted that democracy and any legitimate principles of distributive justice should be implemented within states.

One of the consequences of viewing democracy and justice in this way was to give rise to an academic division of labour between political science that focused on the internal study of the state and a separate field of international relations that studied many states. Both have suffered from a paradoxical state-centrism since they took for granted the “modern system of states”.12 The state is the analytical starting point and democracy is confined within the territorial political community. The processes of globalisation have posed very serious questions regarding these assumptions by challenging the democratic deficits in transnational governance and by raising the need for an informal and transnational participatory democracy.

Another aspect of political theory that has been challenged with the debate on global justice is the way conventional liberal democracy relies on electoral democracy within fixed and bounded territories. It is widely recognised that in contrast to participatory democracy it tends to encourage a passive individualism and negative conception of freedom from government interference. Since conventional party politics exclude a variety of groups and issues, it is social movements, political campaigns, NGOs, local community groups and work-based organisations that have been very active. However, liberal democracy’s major divide between economic production and decisions on what needs to be produced, where to invest, buy and sell is based on the partial separation of economics and politics or their contradictory unity in capitalism. This has profound consequences for democracy for it allows gross material inequalities to exist, while also effectively putting the latter outside the scope of democracy. Indeed, liberalism’s formal equality of free individuals in capitalist democracy has its international counterpart in the sovereign equality of independent states and both only make sense in purely political terms.

In the face of economic globalisation which is a complex trend, including globalisation of production processes, global capital mobility, neo-liberal development agendas, and finally globalisation of subcontracting and informal labour it is difficult to limit the agenda of democracy and distributive justice within the state. The state is no longer the main framework for economic policy-making, and governments have been forced to accommodate outside pressures that adversely affect the living standards of ordinary citizens.

The main challenge is whether we can arrive at a workable conception of global justice since there are so many conceptions of local justice. Does global justice entail meeting basic needs for all people, equal access to resources for sustainable development, equal control over means of production or equality of human and democratic rights?

A major difficulty with establishing transnational democracy is that even though an international civil society is a space for democratisation of many societies it does not adequately address the concern for equal norms and values or for that matter a transnational democratic citizenship. If transnational activism by individuals or NGOs is viewed as democratic citizenship then it is not accurate. NGOs may have become key players in the development of norms for the regulation of the environment, the workplace, status of women and the administration of justice but the emphasis on developing abstract and legalist measures of formal equality may fail to address significant power differentials. Indeed the process of adapting global norms can leave dominant practices untouched and can even be complicit with those practices. In arguing for cosmopolitan affiliations other political options are marginalised or forced off the agenda. Indeed, attempts to create a genuinely democratic form of transnational citizenship might have negative consequences for democratic citizenship at the domestic level since it would shift power away from the national level where mass participation and democratic debate is possible.

Therefore in theories of cosmopolitanism, I argue that given the unevenness of globalisation and the neo-liberal agenda the reality may well be western hegemonic values that masquerade as fake universalism. In the dialogue between civilisations, cultural essentialist assumptions perpetuate the current debate on Asian, Islamic and western values. Seemingly homogeneous coherent cultural profiles are compared and pitted against each other. This overlooks internal differentiations if not conflicts and plurality of views that were a distinctive feature of all traditional cultures before they confronted modernisation.

Conceptions of cosmopolitanism and dialogue of civilisations defend a global ethic or values but they do not necessarily defend a plausible account of global distributive justice. Those who defend distributive justice at the global level defend international mechanisms like a global resource tax [Pogge 1994]. Given that many third world states have just recovered from colonialism, they are suspicious of any suggestion that natural resources should be treated as collective international property. It is very likely that the principle that natural resources are the joint possession of the human race as a whole can be misused.

Although many leading cosmopolitans defend a liberal outlook [Nussbaum 2003; Beitz 1979] it is possible for someone to endorse liberalism but reject cosmopolitanism. A clear example is John Rawls who does not endorse the cosmopolitan approach in Law of Peoples (1999) and argues that liberal principles should not be applied to the world as a whole. Yet while Rawls’ argument incorporates a number of useful insights I believe that it is misguided in several crucial aspects. For Rawls, states are seen as black boxes or treated as self-sufficient, internally motivated institutions as if they were autonomous individuals where social classes and interest groups play no role in the making of the state. Rawls’ suggestions for both humanitarian assistance and tolerance at the global level by egalitarian liberals is more concerned with the need to have “well ordered” or stable states and has little concern for any distributive justice between nations. His claim that natural resources are insignificant at the domestic level for development but a cause for a duty of assistance towards burdened societies will not bring about any radical change because it does not have distributive principles to support it. Redistribution from “well ordered states” to “burdened societies” then falls within the charitable category of aid rather than what justice requires in a legitimate fashion.

I argue that given the full range of inequalities in which race, caste and gender are interwoven in new ways the task of distributive justice is very challenging. Moreover, the world concerns not only persons but countries and inequalities have to be assessed between states and not only between citizens within the nation state. At most justice would be compensatory and would amount to rectification of the effects or harms caused by economic globalisation but not the causes of inequalities between nations. It is utopian to argue for redistribution at the global level without building equitable laws in property and access to resources for citizens within the nation state. Cultural politics is central to the ongoing realisation of cosmopolitan democratic governance. As the structures of the global political economy and its supporting technological infrastructure carry human rights ideas, including racism, religious fanaticism around the world, I argue for the need for egalitarian global principles and institutions to regulate this interdependency and the need for critically assessing the idea of global justice.




[This paper was first presented at a conference ‘Religion, Human Rights and the Law’, International Conference on Cultural and Religious Mosaic of South and South-East Asia Conflict and Consensus through the Ages, organised by South and South-East Asian Association for the study of religion, IIC, New Delhi, India, January 27-30, 2005. It has subsequently been revised and presented.]

1 See C B Macpherson, The Real World of Democracy, The political basis for an alternative framework in the western discourse can be found in the writings of Francis Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man (1992) published more than a decade ago and Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations (1997). For Fukuyama, world history after defeat of communism will see a remarkable consensus concerning the legitimacy of liberal democracy. For Huntington civilisational differences are more fundamental than differences among political ideologies. These two theses with time have become powerful political frameworks used by key political actors to justify policies of international financial organisations which in turn have been criticised for their emphasis on economic liberalisation.

2 Some interesting views have been offered on the mix of democracy, sovereignty (rights) and disciplinary action by Dipesh Chakravarty (2005) and Partha Chatterjee (2004) in earlier issues of EPW.

3 Throughout I restrict the term global justice to the debate within Anglo-Saxon political theory. This term should not be confused with globalisation although this debate grows out of globalisation studies that tend to focus on the restructuring taking place in the economies of the world or on the power of globalising forces to homogenise culture, politics and social life generally. The main objective of this paper is to examine the way global justice has challenged many of the key components of classical political theory.

4 Clearly dangers are there when the concern for global justice as defined in terms of human rights could be a veiled attempt at unlawfully occupying territories in clear violation of international laws. I refer to Washington’s total definitive rejection of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court over its armies. In this way the US has openly defied the international community in the name of spreading democratic rights and in restoring minority rights while occupying Iraq.

5 See Communist Manifesto 1948. This paper does not look into the wider implications of this argument; that the entire world would follow one pattern of development, or that it constitutes progress.

6 See Guevara 2004, at the Afro-Asian conference in Algeria, February 24, 1964. He wrote, “How can it be “mutually beneficial” to sell at world market prices the raw materials that cost the underdeveloped countries immeasurable sweat and suffering, and to buy at world market prices the machinery produced in today’s big automated factories?” This definition of unequal exchange was part of Che’s appeal made in Geneva on March 25, 1964, at the UN world conference on Economics and Development in the third world. He was concerned that socialism inherently meant overcoming exploitation as an essential step towards a just and humane society. See also ‘Create Two, Three, Many Vietnams, Message to the Tricontinental’, January 1966 where he discusses proletarian internationalism. See also Frank 1971.

7 See Anthony Lewis, Daedalus, Winter 2003. It is now widely believed that the US administration has moved from an emphasis on individual rights to social order after the September 11 attacks. This is evident in the way they have gone ahead with homeland protection even if this curtailed significant individual liberties.

8 The 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions (attended by 6,500 persons) was held in Chicago August 28-September 4, 1993, and this declaration was proclaimed on September 4, 1993.

9 Khatami points out that as an approach the dialogue of civilisations will require the definitions of culture, civilisation and man to be framed in such a way that they do not clash with the very essence of dialogue. Furthermore dialogue among cultures and civilisations entails both speaking and listening. Listening is a virtue that should be cultivated because it is not found easily in everyone (2003:29).

10 This criticism is actually misplaced since Rawls’ position departs from other liberal cosmopolitans in this regard.

11 In general I would argue that resistance to human rights has a lot to do with the nationalist project that has been challenged by democratic change and political identity in many parts of the world. The framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (henceforth UDHR) assumed that the principles of sovereignty and non-intervention and respect for universal human rights were separate issues because they maintained that the domestic practices of governments were not a subject of international concern [Dunn and Wheeler 1999].

12 Three of the most distinguished political philosophers have tried to question this dichotomy. See John Rawls’ Political Liberalism (1995), Jurgen Habermas, The Postnational Constellation (1998) and Norberto Bobbio’s essay on democracy in 1995.


Anderson, Perry (2005): ‘Arms and Rights: Rawls, Habermas and Bobbio in an Age of War’, New Left Review, January-February.

Barry, Brian (1973): The Liberal Theory of Justice, Clarendon, Oxford.

  • (1982): ‘Humanity and Justice in Global Perspective’ in J R Pennock and J W Chapman (eds), Nomos, Ethics, Economics and the Law, Vol 24, New York University Press, New York.
  • Bobbio, Norberto (1995): ‘Democracy’ in David Held (ed), Cosmopolitan Democracy, CUP, Cambridge. Beitz, Charles (1979): Political Theory and International Relations, Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  • (1999): ‘International Liberalism and Distributive Justice’, World Politics, Vol 51.
  • Bilimoria, P (1993): ‘Rights and Duties: The Modern Indian Dilemma’ in Ninian Smart and Shivesh Thakur (eds), Ethical and Political Dilemmas of Modern India, St Martins, New York and Macmillan, UK.

    Bloul, R (1998): ‘Gender and the Globalisation of Islamic Discourses’ in Joel S Kahn (ed), South-east Identities: Culture and the Politics of Representation in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, ISEAS, Singapore.

    Camilleri, Joseph A (1998): ‘Globalisation and the New Internationalism’ in Camilleri and Muzzafar (eds).

    Camilleri, Joseph A and Chandra Muzaffar (eds) (1998): ‘Globalisation: The Perspectives and Experiences of the Religious Traditions of Asia Pacific’, International Movement for a Just World, Malaysia.

    Campbell, T D (1974): ‘Humanity before Justice’, British Journal of Political Science, Vol 4.

    Chakravarty, D (2005): ‘ ‘In the Name of Politics’: Sovereignty, Democracy, and the Multitude in India’, EPW, July 23.

    Chatterjee, Partha (2004): ‘Empire after Globalisation’, EPW, September 11.

    Chandra, Muzaffar (1996): Human Wrongs: Reflections of Western Global

    Dominance and Its Global Impact, Other India Press, Pune.

    – (1997): ‘A Spiritual Vision of the Human Being’, The Other Side, Vol 17, pp 63-75.

    Dunne, Tim and Nicholas J Wheeler (1999): Human Rights in Global Politics, CUP, Cambridge.

    Dunn, John (1995): Contemporary Crisis of the Nation State, Blackwell, Oxford.

    Elshtain, J B (2003): ‘The Responsibility of Nations, a Moral Case for Coercive Justice’, Daedalus, Winter.

    Frank, Andre Gunder (1971): Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America, Penguin, Harmondsworth.

    Fukuyama, F (1992): End of History and the Last Man, Penguin, NY.

    Gotlieb, G (1993): Nation against State, Council on Foreign Relations, New York.

    Griffin, Keith (2003): ‘Economic Globalisation and Institutions of Global Governance’, Development and Change, Vol 34, No 5, pp 789-807.

    Guevara, Che (2004): Global Justice: Liberation and Socialism, Leftword, Ocean Press, New Delhi.

    Habermas, J (2001): The Postnational Constellation, CUP, Cambridge.

    Hannerz, U (1990): ‘Cosmopolitans and Locals in World Culture’ in M Featherstone (ed), Global Culture: Nationalism, Globalisation and Modernity, Sage, London.

    Havel, V (1992): ‘The End of the Modern Era’, New York Times, March 1.

    Held, David (1995): Democracy and the Global Order, Polity, London.

    Hobbes, T (nd): The Leviathan, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, CUP, Cambridge.

    Huntington, Samuel P (1997): The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order, Penguin, New Delhi.

    Khatami, Mohammad (2003): Islam, Dialogue and Civil Society, JNU, New Delhi.

    Kothari, S and H Sethi (eds) (1991): Rethinking Human Rights, Challenges for Theory and Action, Lokayan, Delhi.

    Kuper (2002): ‘More Than Charity: Cosmopolitan Alternatives to the Singer Solution’, Ethics and International Affairs, Vol 16, No 1.

    Kung, Hans (ed), (1991): Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic, Crossroad, New York, US.

    Kung, Hans and Karl Josef Kuschel (eds) (1995): Global Ethic: The Declarations of the Parliament of World’s Religions, Continuum, New York, US.

    Lewis, Anthony (2003): ‘The Challenge of Global Justice Now’, Daedalus, Winter.

    Macpherson, C B (1965): The Real World of Democracy, The Massey Lectures, Fourth Series, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Toronto.

    Neilsen (1991): ‘Global Justice, Capitalism and the Third World’ in John Arthur and William Shaw (eds), Justice and Economic Distribution, Prentice Hall, New Jersey.

    Nussbaum, Martha (2003): ‘Compassion and Terror’, Daedalus, Winter.

    Petito, Fabio (2003): ‘Havel and the Future of International Relations’, World Affairs, October-December, Vol 7, No 4.

    Pogge, Thomas (1994): ‘An Egalitarian Law of Peoples’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol 23, No 3.

  • (1998): World Poverty and Human Rights, Polity Press, Cambridge. Rawls (1995): Political Liberalism, Harvard, Cambridge.
  • (1999): The Law of Peoples, Harvard University Press, Cambridge. Shiva, Vandana (1993): Monocultures of the Mind: Biodiversity, Biotechnology
  • and the Third World, Third World Network, Malaysia.

    Singer, Peter (1972): ‘Famine, Affluence and Poverty’, PPA, Vol 1.

    Steiner, H (1999): ‘Just Taxation and International Redistribution’ in Ian Shapiro and Lea Brilmayer (eds), Global Justice, New York University Press, New York and London.

    Taylor, Charles (1999): ‘Conditions of an Unforced Consensus on Human Rights’ in Joanne R Bauer and A Bell Daniel, The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights, CUP, Cambridge.

    Taylor, P and C Flint (2000): Political Geography: World Economy, Nation State and Locality, Prentice Hall, London. UNDP (1997, 2001): Human Development Report, Oxford University Press, Oxford. Upadhya, C (2004): ‘A New Transnational Capitalist Class?’ EPW, November 27. Verma, Vidhu (2002): Malaysia: State and Civil Society in Transition, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Colorado, US. Wood, E M (1995): ‘Democracy against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism’, CUP, Cambridge.

    Dear Reader,

    To continue reading, become a subscriber.

    Explore our attractive subscription offers.

    Click here

    Back to Top