Globalization and Exceptional Powers

A growing number of progressive intellectuals now claim that the transnational character of many present-day political tasks overwhelms the existing capacities of liberal democracy. The ongoing internationalization of capitalist production and financial markets, unparalleled movements of immigrants and refugees across borders, the spectre of ecological disaster: the global character of each of these problems allegedly cries out for new forms of global political coordination. In this view, the marriage of liberal democracy to the nation-state severely limits its ability to grapple effectively with the most pressing dilemmas of our times. Transnational problems call out for transnational solutions, and only an invigoration and concurrent democratization of supernational political authority offers a reasonable chance of stemming liberal democracy’s decay in the face of recent global trends.1 Proponents of this thesis, including Jürgen Habermas, typically argue that we can only maintain the historic achievements of liberal democracy (including the welfare state) if global regulatory devices can succeed effectively in countering transnationally based structural pressures on existing liberal democratic political institutions. For Habermas and many others, we can only ‘catch up’ to the transnational character of present-day political problems by strengthening international devices while simultaneously bracing their liberal democratic features.2

Although much can be said in defence of this position, in my view it both overstates the novelty of the quandaries faced by contemporary capitalist liberal democracy and understates their tenacity. The main reason for this is that even critical discourse on globalization and liberal democracy misses the significance of the most important conceptual innovation of the globalization debate within recent social theory, the idea of a compression of space and time. Globalization involves much more than the rise of global financial markets or the emergence of novel environmental problems; it also pertains to a fundamental shift in the space and time horizons of human experience in our century, driven in the final analysis by economic and political mechanisms that pose a direct challenge to the most defensible features of modern liberal democracy. I hope to demonstrate the centrality of the idea, of a compression of space and time for democratic theory by arguing that this recent addition to the conceptual paraphernalia of social theory sheds fresh light on an ominous trend within twentieth-century political development: virtually everywhere within the ‘advanced’ liberal world, legislative and parliamentary power has experienced a decline, whereas executive and administrative institutions have tended to gain poorly defined grants of substantial legislative power. The concept of the compression of space and time not only helps explain the relative impotence of many contemporary legislatures, but suggests that liberal democracy’s present ills represent more than a sudden or unprecedented development. The recent losses of democratic sovereignty lamented by Habermas and others are simply the latest chapter in a gradual erosion of democratic legitimacy directly linked to the revolutionary implications of the ‘shrinkage’ of time and space long evident within capitalist liberal democracy. By placing the concept of the compression of space and time at the centre of democratic theory, we can begin to refocus critical thinking about globalization on a series of vital questions often ignored.

For those familiar with recent discourse about liberal democracy, a surprising discrepancy becomes apparent. Despite normative liberal theory’s impressive recent revival, a growing body of empirical literature continues to document the depth of both familiar and novel pathologies exhibited by liberal polities. Although many progressive-minded political and legal theorists today celebrate liberalism’s virtues as a political and legal philosophy, their empirical-minded colleagues increasingly have been forced to turn their attention to worrisome trends in ‘real-existing’ capitalist liberal democracy.


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