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The Case for Humanity (Part IV)

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A technologically-advanced species with the capacity to destroy itself had better learn how to work together.”


This piece, which marks the conclusion to my four part series making the case for universalistic internationalism, addresses the more concrete details of my proposal. The earlier articles in this series formed a sequence. The first discussed the arguments for a nationalist approach to international politics, conceding that arguments about universalistic internationalism often failed to present compelling accounts of the sources of meaning people need in their lives. The second article developed a broadly Kantian critique of these nationalist arguments, maintaining that the enforcement of homogeneity by state institutions would constitute a very great wrong, which cannot be justified simply by pointing out that it necessary to engender a sense of meaning and belonging in the population. The third article deepened this position by drawing upon the writings of Søren Kierkegaard and Martha Nussbaum to demonstrate that nationalism provides a deficient sense of meaning and belonging, while presenting an alternative centered on the idea of making individuals more capable of “becoming what they are” in a social context.

This last article presents why I think we needn’t see the individualism associated with universalistic internationalism as devoid of existential significance relative to nationalist alternatives. If anything, I follow Kierkegaard in believing that such an individualism offers deeper possibilities for all people to find meaning in their lives. But this remains only an impossibility so long as political institutions prohibit or fail to do all they can to make individuals more capable of “becoming what they are.”

This is where I believe international institutions can play a key role. As the world celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this past December, we would be wise to remember the solidarity and moral courage the principles enshrined therein represented. This is especially true as memories of the Second World War fade, and populations seem more and more willing to once again flirt with far-right ethnocentrism and post-modern conservatism’s false promises of stability and belonging. The promise of the Universal Declaration persists, though we have faltered in upholding its most generous principles. Considering how to renew support for the internationalist project will mean looking at this failure and considering how to do better.

The Failure of International Institutions in the Twentieth Century

In 1948, the world came together to issue the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which opened by proclaiming the inherent dignity and inalienable rights of all individuals across the globe—and committing the international community to realizing justice and peace for all. While there remain understandable controversies about the cultural specificity of some of many of the rights enshrined, it was remarkable how many states have at least nominally endorsed the principles and rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration. Through the late twentieth century, the non-binding principles enshrined in the Declaration were buttressed by the formation of a robust collection of international laws governing everything from the treatment of civilians in war time to the rights of children. Perhaps most significantly, the international legal system enshrined the economic and social rights of all in documents such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. These reflected the belief that it was unjust for anyone to be denied the resources necessary to lead a reasonably satisfying life. It also embodied a post-War commitment to ameliorating gross inequalities of all sorts—from inequalities between nations generated by war and colonialism, to the economic inequalities which contributed to the rise of violent radicalism on both the political left and the political right. There was a recognition that such extreme inequality between people could only ever lead to feelings of hopelessness and anger, which, in turn, laid the seeds for intense conflict.

Unfortunately the aspirations to establish a more egalitarian global community were gradually diluted and finally abandoned. As Quinn Slobodian observes in his great new book Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, the impetus towards greater equality gradually gave way to demands for international institutions to “encase” the market from redistributive efforts by democratic states. This project had a paradoxical dimension. It was a political effort to establish an immense array of legal mechanisms to protect corporate and financial interests by protecting them from politics. This included demanding certain kinds of economic and social rights for such interests—such as rights to unlimited private property, to political influence, to insulate capital from taxation efforts and so on, while denying that the egalitarian rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, And Cultural Rights had any moral or legal validity.

This has led to extraordinary situations where the right of the super-wealthy to shelter their money from domestic taxation is considered sacrosanct, but the right of all individuals to water remains controversial. Moreover, the neoliberal effort to encase markets went beyond just protection. Institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank gradually pushed developing states to engage in “structural adjustment programs,” limiting or eliminating redistributive policies in order to receive high interest loans and participate in the neoliberal economy.  These efforts also took place in developed states in a less dramatic manner, with the welfare state being rolled back in the name of competitiveness, while inequality is rising. Eventually, it became clear that even the democratically-elected leaders of developed states could not withstand the pressure of neoliberal plutocrats. The 2008 economic crisis and the bailout of large financial institutions who felt little loyalty to their host countries was a spectacular demonstration of this, as was the imposition of austerity measures on Western countries such as Greece in 2015.

These developments not only made the world a more unequal place. They also demonstrated that politicians and the average citizens who elected them had few opportunities to actually influence global policy. To many, it seemed like their leaders were utterly beholden to international institutions and economic forces, which could dictate national policy with unprecedented transparency and indifference. They would, at best, make a few gestures to the concerns of ordinary citizens in precarious situations, while continuing to recite the mantras of competitiveness, globalization, and flexibility. This was accompanied by a surge in immigration, much of it supported by these same international institutions and economic forces, in order to fill a demand for cheap and often temporary labor. Simultaneously, the efforts of neoliberals to “encase” the market also extended to enabling capital to move across the globe, often putting many already vulnerable people out of work. Unsurprisingly, many saw the politicians who supported internationalism as putting the needs of firms and foreign laborers over their own citizens.

Given this, it is no surprise that many people turned back to the concept of the nation-state. The internationalist project was supposed to bring about a more equal and rights respecting global community. In some ways it succeeded dramatically, enacting worthwhile programs to distribute aid to the world’s most vulnerable populations. International criminal law also has played an important role in demonstrating that powerful but brutal sovereign leaders can be held accountable for crimes they commit against their people and others. Such a development might have the effect of making the mighty more accountable than ever before. But the internationalist project has failed to deal with many of the world’s most pressing problems. At best, international institutions seems remote and largely powerless in the face of their neoliberal cousins. At worst, they seem entirely beholden to interests, which have little concern for the needs of ordinary people. In the final section, I will discuss how to reform the system to work better for those who have little stake in the internationalist project. My argument is that the way to achieve this is through greater democratization and more pronounced redistributive efforts. If these steps were taken, I believe the internationalist project would find renewed support from many people across the globe.

Conclusion: Democracy and Equality

In the last article, I referred to Martha Nussbaum as providing useful theoretical guidance on what a meaningful individualism might look like. What makes her work so rich is her sensitivity to the empirical and institutional constraints many face in their lives. These have often been worsened by the developments discussed above. Two steps international institutions can take to remove such constraints and make individuals more capable of becoming who there are would be to encourage democratization and redistributive efforts. I will briefly discuss both steps here.

Firstly, international institutions have long suffered from a pronounced democratic deficit. This has been commented on for some time, even by supporters of the internationalist project such as Jurgen Habermas in works such as Europe: The Faltering Project. Generally speaking, the formation of the contemporary internationalist order was very much a top-down project begun and carried through by elites who saw few reasons to consult the general public on their wishes. This was especially true in Europe, which remains the most infamous example of an international legal order that was initiated by high level figures who initially sold their plans to the public as little more than an economic union. All the while, many such as Kojev were fully aware that it would likely lead to ever closer ties. Given this—and the tendency of international law to support neoliberal inequality—it can be no surprise that many are turning their backs on a project they were never consulted on in the first place. The way to rectify this would be to establish greater chains of democratic legitimation for major international institutions. Positions in bodies such as the UN General Assembly might be tied to winning an election held in the various member states.

In regional contexts such as the European Union, elections for the European Parliament could be conducted with greater transparency and with their geopolitical significance highlighted. Finally, there will need to be a concerted and less obviously one-sided effort to promote democratization, or at least civic participation and rights against the state, in countries across the globe. For a long time, the internationalist project has been hampered by claims that it is used to morally shame opponents of the United States and other Western countries, while client states and allies such as Saudi Arabia are given far more slack. This undermines the universalism and integrity of the internationalist project, while essentially abandoning peoples in those countries to their fate. A consistent internationalism must obviously concede to the realism of power in the world, but it shouldn’t do so at such a gross cost to moral principle.

Secondly, international institutions can be oriented to engage in considerably greater redistributive efforts. This includes both within and between states. The neoliberal capture of the internationalist project has severely damaged its reputation, leading many to see global elites as little more than apologists for capitalism and inequality. Rectifying this would mean engaging in far more sustained efforts to ameliorate inequality and mass poverty. One option could be following Thomas Piketty’s proposal in Capital in the Twenty First Century and imposing a global income tax on the super wealthy. This would need to be carried out at the international level, while pushing for far tighter regulations on tax evasion in international shelters, taming the worst impulses of the financial sector. Finally, major international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization would need to be democratized to better meet the needs of developing countries. For too long these institutions have been regarded as little more than mouthpieces for American ideology and foreign policy. This has seriously hampered the credibility of these institutions and undermined the often worthwhile purposes they were originally intended to fulfill.

If these steps were taken, we would go a long way to restoring the reputation of the internationalist project. This is vital to push back against the rising tide of post-modern conservatism and nationalism. It is also key to resolving many of the world’s most pressing problems, which increasingly transcend the boundaries of any given nation state. We all inhabit the same “blue dot,” as Carl Sagan would have put it. A technologically-advanced species with the capacity to destroy itself had better learn how to work together.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf

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