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 malign state power. Such accounts have provided tempting targets for those more sceptically and less liberally minded.footnote2 Casual inspection reveals that, for all the increase in global trade and communications, most human social action continues to take place on a restricted spatial scale. Historical evidence suggests that contemporary forms of international activity may actually be less than those witnessed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The peculiarities of national economies are surprisingly resilient. Above all, nation-states remain both the sole site of a general political legitimacy and the locus of considerable and enduring powers. Empirically, the jury is still out on these debates. Held importantly moves that debate beyond economic affairs alone. Studies of culture, the environment, political decision-making and international law have all demonstrated the fragility of a purely national politics and the necessity of connecting these empirical debates to the normative questions they inevitably pose.

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 an impersonal legal institutional order, for the emergence of an undivided sovereignty and a theory of rightful rule. While a number of different political regimes have proved compatible with this form of modern state, liberal democratic forms have triumphed because they have systematically been able to mobilize their economies and societies in the effective prosecution of large-scale war, because they have generated the conditions for relative economic successes, and because their capacity to maintain their own legitimacy with their citizens has proved most flexible. Liberal democracy has demonstrated the enduring worth of restricted conceptions of government and the legally bounded exercise of political power, the maintenance of diverse centres of power and the importance of electoral competition and representation as minimal conditions of political decency.

However, the limits of the liberal democratic state are equally clear. First, its conception of the preconditions for effective individual participation in the democratic polity are so narrow that it cannot justify or guarantee more than the most minimal engagement of citizens with political power. Second, its conception of the rightful arenas in which power may be executed is equally narrow. Held argues that liberal democracy, given its embedded commitment to personal autonomy, an impersonal and neutral structure of power and the significance of legally embedded rights and obligations, opens itself up to an internal or immanent critique of such potential ferocity that only a much more radical and embracing model of democracy ought to be accepted as legitimate by liberal democrats themselves.

The key intellectual instrument for prising liberal democratic thought open is the principle of autonomy: ‘persons should enjoy equal rights and accordingly, equal obligations in the specification of the political framework which generates and limits the opportunities available to them; that is, they should be free and equal in the determination of the conditions of their own lives, so long as they do not deploy this framework to negate the rights of others.’footnote4 The epistemological status and practical utility of this principle need to be unpacked. Held argues that the principle is a political concept in the Rawlsian sense; on it can be based a defensible political theory which is embedded in the public political culture of the societies to which it applies. It does not provide a transhistorical justification for political theory nor does it provide a measure against which competing visions of the good life or metaphysical and moral differences can be adjudged. Its theoretical scope is much more specific.