Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Democracy in a Pluralist Global Order: Corporate Power and Stakeholder Representation

Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Democracy in a Pluralist Global Order: Corporate Power and Stakeholder Representation

Article excerpt

The primary task undertaken by the liberal-democratic project throughout its modern history has been that of legitimately constituting and controlling the public powers wielded by sovereign states. As such, the principal institutions of modern representative democratic systems--constitutional structures and electoral processes--have consistently been developed with state power as the target for democratic control. However, contemporary democrats concerned with the project of building democratic institutions on a global scale now confront a new and important set of questions about how far we should expect any global democratic mechanisms to resemble the familiar democratic institutions employed within states.

Whereas representative democratic mechanisms have generally been built around preexisting institutional structures of sovereign states (through processes of state democratization), the global political domain infamously lacks any firmly constitutionalized or sovereign structures that could constitute an analogous institutional backbone within a democratic global order; instead, global public power can best be characterized as "pluralist" in structure. (1) A number of prominent commentators have recently argued that this structural difference between state-based and global forms of political power has significant implications for the prospects of global democracy. Most notably, Thomas Nagel has argued that we should not expect a project of global democratization to succeed in the absence of a global framework of sovereign power, since institutions of democratic control need preexisting sovereign structures to "go to work on." (2) If global democratization is to succeed at all, Nagel argues, it must proceed along a trajectory beginning with the construction of sovereign institutions and culminating in the establishment of representative institutions to control them. (3)

The broad goal of this article is to challenge this influential view of the preconditions for global democratization and to explore some possible institutional means for establishing representative democratic institutions at the global level within the present pluralist structure of global power. In so doing, we will consider two questions: (1) How might it be possible to build representative democratic institutions in global politics in the absence of sovereign global structures of public power? and (2) How will representative democratic institutions at the global level need to differ from those within sovereign states if they are to be capable of overseeing and controlling the plural institutional forms of global public power?

In order to gain firmer traction on these questions, we focus our analysis on the prospects for democratic control of corporate power, as constituted and exercised in one particular institutional context: sectoral supply chain systems of production and trade. For illustrative purposes, our analysis draws extensively on case studies of the global garment and coffee industries. We draw in particular on evidence collected during ten months of multisited field research, beginning in coffee-and garment-producing communities in Nicaragua, and following transnational supply chains through to consumption sites in the United States and Europe. (4) Because global production systems in these industries connect some of the world's poorest workers in the global South with affluent and powerful consumer markets and corporate entities in the global North, the exercise of corporate power in these cases generally has significant implications for the basic livelihoods and freedoms of the marginalized workers and producers involved. For these reasons, analysis of prospective institutional avenues for democratizing this corporate power is instructive in thinking through the broader institutional challenges for democrats posed by the current global structure. (5)

The article argues that democratization can indeed proceed at a global level in the absence of sovereign structures of public power. …

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