World System Crisis and the Future of Democracy

Democracy began to emerge as an ideal of human relationships and social conduct that can be embodied within various political structures, but which ultimately transcends all such structures.

Democracy began to emerge as an ideal of human relationships and social conduct that can be embodied within various political structures, but which ultimately transcends all such structures.

What is the goal of our human civilizational quest?

Democracy has emerged as a widely recognized global concept only in the last three centuries. The concept was formulated in ancient Greece but merely as one mode of organizing governance within a city-state as opposed to other possible modes (monarchy, oligarchy, aristocracy, etc.). In the Eighth Book of his Republic, Plato considers “rule of the demos,” that is “democratic” rule by ordinary, thoughtless, lustful, and emotion-driven people. He determines that such democracy manifests a chaotic disaster that lays the conditions for tyranny and the destruction of all human freedom and rational social order.

However, the 17th and 18th centuries were the beginning of a realization that democracy is much more than some mode of governing. Democracy began to emerge as an ideal of human relationships and social conduct that can be embodied within various political structures, but which ultimately transcends all such structures. The key insight arising from Johannes Althusius and others in the 17th century was that government and social authority arise from the people and are responsible to the people. Monarchy, aristocracy, or oligarchy are not simply alternative modes of governing with plusses or minuses, they are illegitimate because government must be about the common good of the governed and nothing else.

Concomitant with this insight into the universality of the democratic idea was the growth of the idea of human dignity and corresponding human rights. If the only legitimate government is about the common good of the people, it follows that the people have certain rights that government must empower and that government must not violate. For John Locke in the 18th century, legitimate government must empower the freedom and equality of all, along with their right to private property, and must serve as an “impartial judge” when conflicts among the free citizens arise. According to Locke (and his famous follower Thomas Jefferson), God has given human beings their freedoms and rights, along with a moral law to guide them, and it is the role of government to protect this natural condition of a priori freedom and rights.

These same centuries that saw the birth of modern democratic theory also saw the birth of the scientific method and the progressive advance of a scientific-based world view, replacing world views based on dogmas and ancient sacred texts. As the religious world views were more and more called into question by this emerging scientific world view, a humanism began to develop arguing that human rights and freedoms must be supported for their own sakes and no longer as the consequences of religiously-based world views. In democracy human freedom of religion or no religion is maintained, and democracies must be “secular” in maintaining a strict separation of church and state.

In the late 18th century, the French Revolution defined democracy well as a social order based on “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” Today, “fraternity” has come to mean “community,” so that democracy means an enforceable social order of free people, with equality before the law, and living within a community of mutual support for the democratic common good. Has this ideal been effectively realized anywhere in today’s world? I would answer “no.” Perhaps the growing fascist rebellions taking place in countries around the world give an indication that something is deeply wrong, and that these so-called democracies have failed to achieve anything remotely resembling the ideal of freedom, equality, and community.

What is wrong is that the ideal of democracy that was founded during the 17th century was not only concomitant with the rise of science as mentioned above but also with the rise of a global economic system and nation-state system as well. Most scholars date the modern nation-state system from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that ended the Thirty-year War in Europe and began the system of “sovereign” nation-states, each of which enjoys autonomy over its internal affairs and complete “independence” in its foreign affairs. At the same time international capitalist trade became a growing foundation-stone for the dual dimensions of today’s world system: global capitalism interfaced with a global system of militarized “sovereign” nations. Today, nations, multinational corporations, and global banking cartels compete with one another within an immense globalized economy annually exchanging many trillions of dollars in commerce.

Is this world system compatible with democracy? The world’s economic system operates by the “laws” of economics which are purely mathematical—invest so much into some plan or enterprise, receive such and such a return on your investment, and these profits become the core of a new investment receiving such and such a return, and so on, without end. No mention of liberty, equality, or community. If the process of capital accumulation destroys liberty, equality, or community, that is of no concern to the investment protocol. Hence, the vast accumulations of wealth amidst vast swaths of poverty occur everywhere during these centuries. These consequences destroy democracy at all three levels—liberty, equality, and community—but by and large there is little concern on the part of the capitalists: the 1% who own 50% of the world’s wealth. Social scientists, such as Christopher Chase-Dunn in Global Formation, have pointed these facts out endlessly, yet we wonder why democracy is in danger. Chase-Dunn correctly claims that democracy must be global democracy (1998, xxv).

The same is true for the other face of the World System called the “sovereign nation-state.” Nation-states live in a world of power, strategic maneuvering, economic competition with other states, global propaganda regimes, and perpetual wars. They spend immense quantities of their national wealth on military and war-readiness. Scholars such as Jack Donnelly in his book Human Rights in Theory and Practice, have pointed this out repeatedly. Human rights, even if written into a national constitution, come at least fourth after “strategic” economic, political, and military struggles among the nations. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains “merely symbolic” and plays very little role in either global capitalism, or in the struggles of militarized sovereign nation-states.

Immanuel Kant in the late 18th century was one of the first to point out in his essay on “Perpetual Peace”: beyond the borders of the sovereign states, the relationship is simply de facto war, whether actual fighting is taking place or not. Hence, within the 50% of the world’s nations that claim to be democratic, we have the entire world system against them, against their likely success, against liberty, equality, and community. Any country that has a military and uses it in global political and military struggles (no matter what the justification), is participating in the global destruction of democracy. War of any sort is incompatible with democracy, with human dignity and human rights. We have rights not only to “life, liberty, and security of person” but also to world peace and a protected global environment.

Within countries, extremes of wealth and poverty also destroy democracy, giving the rich an immense capacity to rule on behalf of their own interests, to own the news and information outlets, to make huge cash contributions to certain political causes, to hire lobbyists and lawyers for their causes. What chance has democracy got within this world system? Even though there are a variety of conventional uses of the term “democracy,” as in “the local group decided the issue democratically,” when it comes to democratic government, it is impossible to have effective democracy anywhere within such a system.

That is because genuine democracy is a social-political-economic set of ideal human relationships that derive from our universal human dignity. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights correctly states that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” This recognition needs to be legal and structural; it needs to be written into economic and political laws applicable everywhere on Earth. Human dignity involves the recognition that all human beings are self-aware creatures characterized by our ability for free, self-determination within a context of liberty, equality, and community. This capacity is the grounding for human rights, not only all the rights that follow this statement in the UN Declaration but also the “third generation” rights to world peace and a protected planetary environment (Martin 2021).

This legal and structural recognition of human dignity exists nowhere within the dominant world system and wherever it exists within militarized sovereign nations its implementation is nullified by the World System that structurally negates dignity and therefore democracy. This is why hundreds of world citizens worked together to write the Constitution for the Federation of Earth, completed in 1991. Ratification of this Constitution is absolutely imperative if human beings are going to survive and flourish upon the Earth in future generations. The Earth Constitution places human dignity at the center of the democratic world government. Politics, economics, culture, economics, and society become synergistically linked with one another within a world system predicated on the common good and flourishing of all humanity within a framework of unity in diversity.

Democracy, as philosopher John Dewey expressed this, “is a social, that is to say, and ethical conception, and upon its ethical significance is based its significance as governmental. Democracy is a form of government only because it is a form of moral and spiritual association” (1993, 59). Dewey called it the “ultimate ethical ideal of humanity” and linked human dignity with his own idea of “personality, with truly infinite capacities, incorporate with every man” (ibid. 65). For Dewey, our parochial ideas of “class, race, and national territory” inhibit this universal moral ideal of all human beings working together for the planetary common good. He insisted that we need “a definitely organized federation of nations” to actualize this universal human ethical ideal of democracy for the Earth (ibid. 203). Similarly, Professor Errol E. Harris in his book Twenty-First Century Democratic Renaissance, argues that all existing “sovereign” nations are now “illegitimate” and that genuine democracy can only be realized at the planetary level (2008, 134-35).

It was only six years after Dewey passed away in 1952 that Philip Isely and others created the World Constitution and Parliament Association (WCPA) to write a genuine, collaboratively established, constitution for planet Earth. Through four broadly attended Constituent Assemblies that took place in 1968, 1977, 1979, and 1991, hundreds of world citizens, including many international lawyers, worked together to create and ratify the Earth Constitution. Professor Errol E. Harris was part of this movement—people acting with vision, intelligence, and courage to create authentic democracy for our endangered planet Earth—Harris has written an entire book about the Earth Constitution (2014). The Constitution now stands as a beacon of global democracy (translated into many languages) and provides a key to solving our pathological war-making system and our insane continued destruction of our planetary Ecosystem.

Under Article 19 of the Constitution the people of Earth are mandated to begin laying the infrastructure for a global dignity-based system here and now in the form of Provisional World Government. We have held some 15 sessions of the Provisional World Parliament to date and have laid out the boundaries for the 1000 World Electoral Districts called for by the Earth Constitution. In addition, anyone, anywhere in the world, can now register as a global citizen with a voter ID number in preparation for secure online voting privileges under the authority of the Earth Constitution.

Only at a planetary scale can a democratic world government end war and disarm the nations, protect universal human rights, create planetary social justice, and preserve our global environment from destruction. The fascism and wars around the planet today are a direct consequence of the nihilistic and fragmented world system that we inherit from centuries past. Uniting under the Earth Constitution transforms fragmentation into holistic synergy, chaos into democratic social order, and our disparate efforts at ecological protection into a coherent and effective planetary policy.

Here, and here alone, lies the heart and soul of democracy. It is all of us or none of us. Unless we unite under the principle of unity in diversity to resolve our global problems once and for all, it is very unlikely that we will have a future on this planet. Go to http://www.earthconstitution.world, read it, and then make it happen. Voter IDs are open to all human adults, and the groundwork and mechanisms for establishing voter IDs for all persons have been set. It is now open to persons who care about and want to support genuine democracy to begin those simple actions that can make it happen—bringing peace, happiness, and prosperity to all people who live upon our precious Earth. The only credible future for democracy is planetary democracy that affects true world system change. All else is merely idol talk.


Works Cited

  • Althusius, Johannes (1995, orig. pub. 1603). Politica. Trans. Frederick S. Carney. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
  • Chase-Dunn, Christopher (1998). Global Formation: Structures of the World Economy. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Constitution for the Federation of Earth: With Historical Introduction, Commentary, and Conclusion by Glen T. Martin (2010). Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press. Online at http://www.earthconstitution.world.
  • Dewey, John (1993). John Dewey: The Political Writings. Eds. Debra Morris and Ian Shapiro. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishers.
  • Donnelly, Jack (2003). Human Rights in Theory and Practice: Second Edition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Harris, Errol E. (2008). Twenty-First Century Democratic Renaissance: From Plato to Neoliberalism to Planetary Democracy. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.
  • Harris, Errol E. (2014). Earth Federation Now: Tomorrow is Too Late. Second Edition. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.
  • Kant, Immanuel (1983, orig. pub. 1795). Perpetual Peace and Other Essays. Trans. Ted Humphrey. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishers.
  • Martin, Glen T. (2021). The Earth Constitution Solution: Design for a Living Planet. Independence, VA: Peace Pentagon Press.