How is the State Changing in the Globalization Process?

Reflections and discussion points for a federalist culture in the 21st century

, by Giampiero Bordino

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How is the State Changing in the Globalization Process?

According to a widely-shared definition, the State, at least the modern State, consists of three basic elements: a territory, its people, and a sovereign power. If this is true, every analysis of the transformations affecting the State brought about by globalization cannot but take those three elements, which are all present and interact with each other, as subjects for reflection.

The “end of the territories” (according to Bertrand Badie’s definition), transnational mobility and hybridization of peoples and their identities, and the erosion of sovereignty are three phenomena we are immersed in, which affect us personally and continuously, and which, therefore, we have to be aware of and interpret. The federalist culture, that deals with the State and its features, and even proposes (being an ideology) both a model of political structure for the world, and a key for interpreting human history, shall not shun such a task. It must propose a theory and a project for the 21st century, globalized by the economy and completely transformed by scientific progress.


In concrete terms, to start with, what about territories, the spaces we live in and in relation to which we traditionally give a “definition” of ourselves? First of all, the territory is not a datum but a construction: historically, there is a political power, the State, that gives it boundaries, makes it become the specific area where its rules and obligations affect the people living in it, gives it a name, thus determining an “inside” and an “outside”.

But globalization and the scientific and technological revolution in transports and communication that made it possible and still fuels it, have started to “de-construct” such territories, conceived in that way. In fact, territories are crossed more and more by transnational streams of goods, capitals, people, information data and signs (images, sounds, values). Such streams – the “outside” entering inside – increasingly escape State’s controls, regulations and directives. The spaces for social relations and activities become more and more numerous (think of the communication space on the Web, or that of finance, or that of the communities of the diaspora), break the continuity and unity of State territories, cross their borders, interconnect through transnational networks parts of those territories.


The State’s second constitutive element – the people – is also increasingly subject to the dynamics of globalization and scientific and technological revolution. The migration processes of various nature and origin, and transnational mobility of professions and labor are the main factors of change. The real or pretended (by national myths and ideologies) homogeneity and unique identity of peoples (made today more and more hybrid by migration processes, by the presence of transnational diasporas, by old or more recent forms of mobility that run across territories and States), is lost. Many hundreds of millions of people all over the world – an ever increasing number in ever more territories – have hyphenated identities (Anglo-Indians, Chino-Americans, Italo-Australians, etc.) or in any case “floating” identities; they feel as multi-belonging, acquire multiple citizenships, experience the diversity and complexity of languages, cultures, religions, go through several life experiences and models.

De-constructed territories and hybrid, diaspora-experiencing peoples: this is the difficult puzzle politics and States have to deal with in the global era. How to make human groups of different origin, language, culture, religion, live peacefully and profitably together on the same territory –although disarticulated, as we said, into many relational spaces that may even become more and more transnational? How to avoid the risk of identity conflicts and “ethnic cleansing” that such a complexity may imply? Which institutional architecture, which social and cultural policies shall be devised to cope with this?


Finally, the third constitutive element of the State: sovereignty. In the traditional definition, it is the power “that does not recognize any other power above itself and is the source of all powers below itself”. In practice, there are now many signals and reasons showing on the one hand a change in sovereignty’s ways and forms, and on the other its increasing erosion. At the root of sovereign power’s mutation and erosion are many factors, not occasional but structural: in a horizontal and functional aspect, the emerging of civil societies, not only national but also global. From below, the rise of regional and local powers; upwards, the development of forms of intergovernmental and, in some significant cases, even supranational power (like the European Union, in the first place). The increasing functional autonomy of civil society – economic actors, intermediate social bodies, associations and so on – is under everybody’s eyes, and many of us experience and practice it every day in our work, profession, political or cultural activities, volunteer work. Civil societies, whose actors (not only big companies, but professional associations, representatives of the so-called Third Sector, NGOs, etc.) are more and more capable of negotiating with the State their role and normative domain, and give themselves potentially global horizons. They ignore frontiers and jump over them, create transnational networks, link together the “local” and the “global” much more than what State governments can do. To take a meaningful example, NGOs, according to a UN estimate, are today 44,000, are present all over the world and tie together its various parts. Globalization and the scientific and technological revolution feed the growth of civil society more than that of the States, and let a truly global civil society form and develop, a global public opinion the States are more and more often obliged to come to terms with.

Secondly, as we said, State sovereignty is changed and eroded by the growth of local and regional powers, which claim, negotiate and often conquer in the field their own autonomy. Sovereignty is less and less “the source of all powers below itself”, as per the classical definition, because globalization is proposing ever more often to the local levels reasons and opportunities for greater autonomy, if not separation.

Thirdly, sovereignty is eroded from above, both by the increasing number of international treaties and networks, which force the States to explicitly recognize powers above themselves (as in the case of the States which are members of the EU, or of those that have ratified the International Criminal Court). There are today, according to some estimates (see Sabino Cassese, Beyond the State), more than 2,000 international organizations (there were only 123 in 1951), more than 100 international courts of various nature and functions, as many quasi-jurisdictional bodies, a very large and growing number of universal norms addressed to both national administrations and individuals. In addition, big processes of regional integration are under way at continental level (the EU, but also the Mercosur, Asean, the African Union, and so on), which may imply processes of reallocation and sharing of State-like (not just economic) powers and functions. As the French political scientist Zaki Laidi wrote, speaking of a “fractal State”, ever more often – in its relations with civil society, local and regional powers, international and supranational bodies – the State is no longer the “Whole”, as per the traditional souverainiste pretence, but only a “part”, and is forced to negotiate its own role and its own power with other “parts” in the form of multi-actor and multi-level governance.

Given this analytical and interpretative framework, and coming to a conclusion, what challenges is facing today such a changing State, eroded in its sovereignty, and grappling, as we saw, with the unprecedented and worrying puzzle of fragmented territories and mobile, diaspora-experiencing peoples? The fact is that traditional States, even the biggest and most powerful ones, are no longer capable of assuring to their citizens, on their own territory, the fundamental “public goods” for providing which they were founded and were, at least in the modern era, legitimized: peace and security, economic development, social cohesion, public welfare, environment protection, education, etc. Those goods, in the globalization era, shall either be produced and assured elsewhere, or can no longer be produced and assured at the level of a single State. In fact, how can good health be assured to one State’s citizens, in the presence of a transnational spreading of diseases or the consequences of environmental disasters occurred elsewhere, in any other part of the world? How to assure security inside one State’s borders, when they become ever more porous, the “outside” can almost always be found inside, and the enemy could live in our own house? All this, among other things, is feeding a regrettable culture and policy of fear and suspicion, that contributes to bring about an authoritarian degeneration of the State, and a crisis of democracy, both as the system guaranteeing rights, and as a process of participation and inclusion.

We have to acknowledge that today the fundamental “public goods”, which are – we must always remember – also the necessary condition for acquiring and enjoying private goods (this was well understood already in the Middle Ages: how can you make business if outlaws control the roads or plague is spreading through the cities?), must be produced at many levels and in many “places” (laws, institutions), including the world. No country, not even the American superpower, can produce and guarantee them alone. And neither the EU could do that, even if it becomes an accomplished federal State.


In conclusion: in the face of those difficult and complex challenges, which proposals and projects are currently on the table? I believe that, if we bar the undesirable prospect of an hegemonic world empire, imposed and in most cases managed by the use of force, there are today on the scene of political ideas only three main theoretical proposals that most of the conceivable theories and projects can be related to: the possibility of a “global governance”; a “cosmopolitan democracy”; and the proposal of a “federal-type state-like organization”.

Global governance

The first, the perspective of a “global governance”, presents unsolved – or somehow removed – questions on two fundamental issues: that of its democratic legitimization, because it entails a governance negotiated between State and non-State actors, where in the end it is not the head-count that leads to a decision, as happens in democracy, but the balancing of organized interests; and that of efficiency, because no “last-resort” power (which also means the possibility of using legal force) is foreseen, and the executive process is essentially left to the actors’ goodwill, or, to be more realistic, to their relations of force.

Cosmopolitan democracy

The second, the perspective of a cosmopolitan democracy, rightly stresses the issue of popular participation and consensus, but removes the issue of power and in particular the assurance that norms at global level are decided and decisions are enforced, as it explicitly excludes from its theoretical horizon the necessity of the availability, and eventual use as a last resort, of legal force.

Federal-type statehood

Finally, there is the proposal of a federal-type statehood, the oldest and most experienced: but, paradoxically, this is a proposal that has to be somehow “re-invented”. The federalist project, as we know it in its theoretical elaboration, on the one hand, and in the practical experience of the States that adopted it on the other, offers answers to the two fundamental aspects of the problem of statehood: its democratic legitimization at the various levels of federal power, by participation and consensus; and efficiency, with the presence of a government endowed with command powers, including last resort power. This being said, it should however be acknowledged that, since both the context (a globalized world, revolutionized by the science of the 21st century), and the problem (the production of global “public goods”, a worldwide democratic statehood) have no precedent, the federal project for the world is to a large extent to be invented. To this end, it is necessary to open ourselves to other cultures and to become available to search for new interpretation categories and new languages.

How to re-read the pre-global federalist theoretical elaboration in the light of the changes under way: the end of territories, the diaspora of people, the erosion of sovereign power? What should be kept of the historical experience of federal States, of “real federalism”, and what should be dropped? How to re-think today the institutional model of multiple government levels, “independent and coordinated”, in the new context of the globalized world? Many questions come to mind, but many answers are not ready yet. There is a big construction yard open in front of us, to which it is worth calling many people, including the “diverse”, to work together in such an endeavor.

This article was originally published in the November 2007 edition of The Federalist Debate, Papers for Federalists in Europe and the World.

Image: the Matrix, taken from Flickr.


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