Liberal democracy, at its apparent moment of world historical triumph, is besieged. The ineffectiveness and timidity of economic policy in advanced capitalist states suggests a scission between the de jure sovereignty of those states (the legitimate right to rule in a demarcated territory) and their de facto autonomy (the capacity to rule independently). Tossed on the high seas of a Promethean international economy, governments seem unable to do any more than bind themselves rhetorically and institutionally to the perceived dictats of structural deflation, fiscal rectitude and deregulated labour markets. Within the European Union it is clear that sovereignty has been pooled and power redistributed to an extent that neither political elites nor European publics had calculated for. If national governments have so little independent power, why bother voting for them? If power has passed elsewhere, to effectively unaccountable supranational political institutions or international economic actors, then on what does the legitimacy of democratic politics rest? The widespread distaste with which politics is currently contemplated in the West cannot be separated from these issues. At the very least it suggests that the legitimacy of liberal democratic politics, although as yet uncontested by alternative systems of governance, remains in need of substantial moral justification and practical reform. Such a historical conjuncture demands a democratic response that is both international and national in its orientation, and that understands the liberal democratic state at the confluence of global and local forces. In David Held’s Democracy and the Global Order we may have such a project.footnote1 It is simultaneously a reconstruction of the normative presuppositions of democratic thought, an exploration of the international economic and social enmeshing of nation-states, and a provocative call for the democratization of both polity and economy, nation-states and the international state system.
Of course, Held has not been alone in engaging with these issues. The idea of globalization has received considerable attention. Neoliberals have argued that significant differences between national economies are being progressively eroded as a homogeneous global economy emerges. They have welcomed the emergence of truly free global markets in capital and goods (though, interestingly, not in labour), celebrate their efficiency and delight in the corresponding diminution of an essentially
Alongside these empirical studies, there have been significant recent innovations in normative and practical terms. The developing discourse of universal human rights, international law, and global environmental regulation have all furnished important resources for Held’s work.footnote3 Where he departs from them is in placing these isolated mechanisms and issues in a much broader political context and insisting that geo-governance is not simply a more effective model for elite cooperation but a central site of contemporary politics. That politics must be democratically accountable if it is to be in any sense legitimate.
In response to these debates, Held’s project in Democracy in the Global Order has three main elements. First, he has challenged the dominant, indeed hegemonic, model of liberal democracy, but on its own ground, arguing that its own internal premises logically demand a more radical model of democracy than hitherto considered acceptable by liberal democrats. Second, in so doing, he seeks to revitalize the case for political intervention in capitalist economies on the basis of democratic rather than egalitarian arguments. Third, whatever the internal merits of liberal democracy, or any other model, it is clear that the implicit relationship between national political communities of fate and sovereign nation-states will no longer suffice. Held seeks to demonstrate the degree to which both conceptually and empirically the notion of an indivisible, territorially demarcated sovereignty has been rendered irrelevant in a more globalized world. In the face of these changes, he proposes a cosmopolitan model of democracy.
In contrast to idealist celebrations of liberal democracy’s triumph, Held is resolutely materialist. Liberal democracy’s triumph is explicable only in terms of its enduring relationship with the modern state. Liberal thought has provided a series of robust justifications for the creation of