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Are the world peace marches the start of the rise of global democracy?

By Peter McMahon - posted Tuesday, 11 March 2003

George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard might not be impressed, but everyone else knows that something significant happened on the weekend of February 15-16, 2003. By any estimates, perhaps six million people demonstrated in hundreds of cities around the world against the Iraqi war. Such a concerted expression of popular opinion is unprecedented in world history. It represents a refutation of the usual means of decision making in international relations and in some cases the role of national political elites. Furthermore, it indicates a growing sense of global solidarity, if still defined in terms of opposition.

Indeed, it all begs the question: Are we seeing the early days of the rise of a real movement for global democracy?

It is a commonplace assumption that we are well advanced in a process of total socio-economic transformation known generally as globalisation. Sponsored by certain states, most notably the US, and driven mostly by massive transnational firms and global markets, a single, globally integrated civilisation is emerging on Earth. It even has a crude governance structure, made up of the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. There is also an alternative organisational framework consisting of international non-government organisations, like Greenpeace, Amnesty International and Oxfam, which is increasingly global in scope and concern.


What it manifestly does not have is anything like a political structure to match these entities that is truly grass-roots democratic and global in form. Perhaps, thanks to a raft of rising problems - including the war on Iraq - and constantly improving communications and information technology, such a movement is now taking shape. But even if it is, can it then transmute into appropriate structures and processes to generate a genuinely democratic world government?
The lack of balance between economic trends, which are increasingly global in character, and political practices, which are still national, has been a core point of discussion since the globalisation project got under way. Most human beings still do not live in formal or functional democracies but the idea of popular democracy is well established as the optimal form of governance. Democracy primarily operates at a national level, whatever the formal political structures, so our most important political formations are still national governments.

Two things have happened to spark a possibly nascent global democracy. The first is the increasing construction of a tendentially global network through the rise of progressively more capable information systems. There has been a steady development of international and then global information systems, first through telegraphy, then, telephony, newspaper wire services, film, radio and television.

However, nothing has embodied the basic information power now available through the Internet, which can communicate text, image, sound and video to anyone anywhere on Earth. The Internet represents a quantum leap in capability, facility and accessibility, and it has hardly begun to show its potential for reshaping the way information flows in our emerging world society.

The Internet was, of course, invented and developed by the (mainly US) government-military-educational-corporate nexus that many see as the problem at the heart of various global problems. Due to its inherent technological capability and the existence of a pro-democratic hacker element in its early development, the Internet presents real possibilities for grassroots participation. This capability was first demonstrated when the pro-environmentalists used it to good effect in the RIO conference on global warming back in 1992. Subsequently, various anti-globalisation groups employed it to fight against the MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investment) and to organize demonstrations in Seattle, Melbourne, Vancouver and elsewhere against globalisation. The effective use of the Internet to help organise the anti-Iraqi war demonstrations is just the latest example of its utility. The Internet presents a cheap, effective and reliable means of global networking, something we have never seen before.

It is one thing to have spreading discussion about alternatives and a capacity to put people on the streets to demonstrate, but can this nascent form of participatory democracy develop into a new global political order?

Perhaps it could link up with certain networks already in formation, such as environmentalist, pro-Third World or labour organisations that are trying to organise globally to counter transnational business. Or perhaps it will evolve in some new way that comes out of the potentially revolutionary capabilities of life in cyberspace as popular usage generates a threshold where totally unexpected things happen.


Realistically, it is unlikely that globally focused politics will succeed nationally focused politics for some time but if such a movement does gain strength it would put pressure on national political leaders to pay more attention to global issues. With the lack of action over such pressing issues as global warming, such pressure would seem well overdue.

It is often dramatic events that cause the kind of shifts that permanently change history because it takes such stimuli to generate the necessary popular interest. The war on Iraq and the September eleven terrorist attacks may have results completely different to those that the main protagonists anticipated. They have apparently consolidated the position of George Bush, a US president with the thinnest possible claims to a popular mandate, and made Osama Bin Laden one of the most influential men on Earth. It is ironic that these two narrow-minded theocrats have generated a popular global response that may eventually lead to the end of exactly the sort of non-democratic power that they represent. But then, that is how history sometimes works.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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