Democracy and a Liberated World System: Actualizing the Progressive Forces Available Today


Glen T. Martin

“And finally, it will transpire that mankind begins no new work, but consciously accomplishes its old work.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Karl Marx

It is often pointed out today that the political left is fragmented and lost under the withering attacks of postmodern deconstructionism, the dissolution of anything resembling a revolutionary working class, and the unexpected ascendancy of ‘global crises.’ How does progressive theory, elaborating the work of Marx and others with insight into the oppressive systems of global capitalism interfacing with sovereign nation-states, deal with issues like climate collapse, population explosion, and diminishing planetary resources that were largely unknown in the 19th century? I will argue here that the proper solution to the global systems of domination and exploitation that Marx identified are simultaneously the solution of our global crises. The only way that we can deal with all these calamities is through a liberated world system that is surprisingly reasonably within our reach.

In their excellent book Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue that the transformation of the early modern state from the “patrimonial nation” of passive subjects (characterized by “sovereign” absolute monarchies claiming the nation as the king’s divine right) to the “sovereign nation” of active citizens (characterized by bourgeois democracies) never transcended the absolute and reified notion of the state as an absolute power over its citizens.  Rather, the emergent concept of the “sovereign state” simply reified the monarchical idea of absolute power over citizens in a new form.  (To ‘reify’ is to treat an abstraction as if it were a real thing that substantially exists.)  They write:

At this point we can see both the proximity and the specific difference between the concepts of the patrimonial state and the national state. The latter faithfully reproduces the former’s totalizing identity of both the territory and the population…. These concepts reify sovereignty in the most rigid way; they make the relation of sovereignty into a thing (often by naturalizing it) and thus weed out every residue of social antagonism…. The transformation of the concept of modern sovereignty into that of national sovereignty also required certain new material conditions. Most important, it required that a new equilibrium be established between the processes of capitalist accumulation and the structures of power. The political victory of the bourgeoisie, as the English and French revolutions show well, corresponded to the perfecting of the concept of modern sovereignty through that of national sovereignty. Behind the ideal dimension of the concept of nation there were the class figures that already dominated the processes of accumulation. (95-96)

These writers are correct in identifying the coalescence of the concept of nation-state sovereignty with the rule of the capitalist class in the period of national state sovereignty. Others, for example, Terry Boswell and Christopher Chase-Dunn in The Spiral of Capitalism and Socialism, have also made this point forcefully.  Hardt and Negri are also correct in identifying the reification process by which the ‘sovereign nation-state’ becomes a kind of god on earth, claiming absolute ‘sovereign rights’ over its territory and citizens and the absolute ‘sovereign right’ to do as it pleases in foreign policy. I have argued at length elsewhere that this ‘sovereign right’ of nation-states in foreign policy is simply a shibboleth for absolute lawlessness and the ‘right’ of the lawless to do as they please. Sovereign nation-states recognize no enforceable laws above themselves.

Hence, the problem of domination and exploitation faced by the contemporary world is literally twofold as these two terms suggest. The stranglehold of the capitalist ruling class globally and its national ruling subclasses in the periphery and semi-periphery of empire must be addressed if there is to be any form of genuine human liberation. But the equally trenchant problem is the reification of state sovereignty in the minds of both rulers and populations, giving the impression to populations worldwide that the form of the sovereign nation-state is somehow natural and inevitable, even though in fact it is simply a collective illusion, just as during the later Medieval and early modern period entire populations believed in the divine right of kings, even though this was also a collective illusion.

Human liberation (at least on the level of law, politics, and freedom) thus requires a twofold transformation from both the stranglehold of the capitalist ruling classes over global and national power-structures and from the reified illusion of the naturalness of nation-state sovereignty. In both cases it is not democracy that is at fault but the fact that democracy remains what Marx termed merely ‘formal’ democracy. Marx understood that there can be no genuine democracy without a realistic global economic system that generates reasonable economic equality among all peoples, which he termed ‘substantive’ democracy.

If democracy means ‘rule of the people,’ the fact is that there has never been a major nation-state or political system that has institutionalized such rule.  Rule of the people means sovereignty of the people in the sense that the concept of ‘people’ becomes an effective regulative ideal governing the operations of government, law, and public institutions in general. Such institutions operate through commitment to a genuine ‘common good’ that is no longer an ideological construct covering up and legitimating the good of the capitalist ruling class. Law and government need to operate in the service of the people, no longer in the service of the ruling classes.

It should be clear that the only way that this can happen is through breaking the rule of the capitalist ruling class and the illusion of a reified national sovereignty that solidifies, covers up, and falsely justifies their domination. Under any reasonably genuine ‘rule of the people’ it would clearly be impossible to have class rule since the people would understand that class rule can never result in their general well-being or common good. A key factor in the ruling classes perpetuating the illusion that formal democracy is concerned with the people’s common good is the reified system of sovereign nation-states. This system allows citizens to think that there can be some coherent notion that their common good is protected by their government in a hostile world of other militarized sovereign states. Government secrecy in the name of ‘national security’ becomes a cover by which the ruling class pursues its own self-interest.

In reality, this system of militarized nation-states also allows capitalist ruling classes of dominant imperial nations to divide the world into manageable parts (national territories) that fragments the people of earth and drains any power of resistance they might muster to the point where their national ruling classes can be bribed and colonized in the service of the dominant ruling classes of the imperial powers.  Those nations that manage to resist this process in some minimal fashion (e.g. Cuba or the former Yugoslavia) shout to the rooftops (for example, in the UN General Assembly) “we are a sovereign nation. They have no right to do this to us.” However, such rhetoric buys into the very process of reification that reinforces the system of domination and exploitation itself.  The more they embrace the concept of the ‘rights’ of sovereign nations, the more the system is reified and reinforced. Fragmentation colonizes the subjectivity of peoples and the possibility of global solidarity is diminished. The more national sovereignty is embraced, the more human liberation is made impossible.

There is no such thing as human liberation within a fragmented territorial nation-state, for the nation-state itself is part of the problem. The world system becomes a globalized struggle among fragments with clandestine, quasi-legal and democratically illegitimate ‘governance’ by a global capitalist ruling class. This system effectively prevents any serious breaking away from its powers of domination and exploitation. As Noam Chomsky has repeatedly shown, any “threat of a good example” attempting to break free from the world order is systematically crushed or marginalized.

Human liberation, therefore, can only mean global democracy.  Global democracy places the authority for public institutions in the service of the common good of the people of Earth.  There is no other proper locus for democracy.  If the power of creating and operating public institutions is in the service of the common good of the people of Earth, then that will establish the only authority capable of transforming the system of capitalist domination and exploitation and establishing a realistic market socialism, predicated on human dignity and moral values, that generates reasonable economic equality among all peoples.

Secondly, placing democratic power in the service of the common good of the people of Earth is the only realistic scenario that can break the illusion of a reified notion of nation-state sovereignty and the illusion of the lawless ‘rights’ of nations that is at the heart of the militarized and chaotic world disorder that we have witnessed for more than three centuries.  As Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities has pointed out, these absolute entities called nations are really basically “imagined communities,” often arbitrarily constructed for political purposes by some group or class with a desire to colonize people’s thinking in the service of their own power and ascendancy.  There is nothing ‘natural’ about nation-states. 

Many of those today were arbitrary administrative constructions of colonial powers in struggle with rival colonial powers for territory and resources globally. Within the 193 sovereign nations today there are also a multiplicity of peoples who were marginalized or colonized in this process who have lost their democratic and human rights because of it (Kurds, Tamils, indigenous peoples, Palestinians, Tibetans, etc.).  The only truly ‘natural’ community is the human community that includes, in unity and diversity, everyone on Earth.

The liberation of all people can only come about through the ascendancy to global democracy under an Earth Constitution in which both democracy and sovereignty find their proper locus in the people of Earth. As with the concept of human rights, which the concepts of democracy and sovereignty properly embody, both are universal concepts applying to all humanity. They cannot function in a fragmented institutionalized form without succumbing to the evils of war, lawlessness, domination, and exploitation detailed above. The universal concepts of democracy and human rights can only be actualized through universal institutions.

The ratification of a democratic Earth Constitution, therefore, does not project nation-state sovereignty onto the world level in the form of a dominating world state.  This is the illusion and fear propagated by those who remain under the influence of a reified concept of nation-state sovereignty. Rather, it breaks this reified concept of absolute governmental authority over a territorial subject population of ‘civilians.’ We will always need laws, courts, civilian police, and good, transparent government, but these can be understood and experienced by the people as true public servants and representatives of the common good once the concept of absolute national sovereignty has been abolished.

Nor does an Earth Constitution in any way institutionalize the power of the global capitalist ruling class. Rather, it breaks the hold of the concept of a national sovereignty open to colonization by a wealthy elite and places the legitimate authority of government where it belongs—for the first time, really with the people.  The economic system is now explicitly designed to provide reasonable economic equality and security to all persons. It can now for the first time become transparent because its operations are no longer exclusively privatized (corporations do not have the rights of private persons) and because it is no longer covered over by the shibboleth of ‘national security’ (militarized sovereign nation-states having been abandoned under global democracy).

National territorial borders become merely administrative borders for purposes of democratically electing representatives and for the operation of local democratic processes—from the local governing of towns and cities, to provinces and states, to non-sovereign national entities—all under the legitimate authority of an Earth Constitution representing the democratic rights of the people of Earth. The marginalized and excluded peoples of the Earth mentioned above can now easily be accommodated with local autonomy and democratic self-government because the idea of protecting national, militarized, absolute borders will no longer matter very much in a pacified and demilitarized democratic world system. The system set up by the Earth Constitution explicitly provides for this kind of democratic accommodation and protection of the diversity of peoples everywhere within the unity of planetary constitutional government.

Secondly, there is no power on Earth at present that can control the global capitalist ruling class (in the form of multinational corporations often with greater assets than many nation-states). The only reasonable option making possible human liberation from the present system of domination and exploitation is global democracy as defined by the Earth Constitution. With ratification of the Earth Constitution, a legitimate authority is created that alone has the democratic power to transform and regulate the global economic system in the service of the common good and reasonable economic equality of all people. 

The Constitution again makes this explicit.  Multinational corporations are not abolished. Their vast infrastructure and technological know-how is very important to humanity. However, these institutions must be transformed and regulated in the service of the common good of the people of Earth (which includes protection of the global environment) and not in the service of ever-more power and wealth for the global ruling classes.  Only democratic world government can have the legitimate right and power to make this happen.

Human liberation, as this is conceived in the critical tradition of non-dogmatic Marxism and progressive political and economic thought from Lukács and Gramsci through Foucault and Marcuse to the contemporary thinkers quoted above, finds its possibility for a liberated world system in a surprisingly coherent and practical solution to our immense, seemingly suicidal problems.  Ratification of the Earth Constitution changes the entire conceptual framework precisely because the older repressive conceptual framework includes elements that block and actively prevent human liberation: the reified system of sovereign nation-states and the institutionalized rule of global capital. It simultaneously empowers the people of Earth with the self-conscious unity and authority to deal with the multiplicity of global crises.

The concepts of human rights, democracy, and sovereignty in the sense of a legitimate rule and law-making authority find their logically proper locus as universal concepts applying to all humanity. As such, they can only be successfully realized when institutionalized for all humanity. The Earth Constitution will unite humanity through the understanding of our common human dignity, a dignity also at the heart of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights but effectively blocked and denied by the world system of sovereign nation-states and global capitalism. Marx’s “substantive” democracy means both reasonable economic equality and the authority of the people to actualize a genuine common good allowing every person to flourish with dignity and personal autonomy.

As Marx puts it in an 1843 letter to Arnold Ruge:  “Freedom, the feeling of man’s dignity will have to be awakened…. Only this feeling…can again transform society into a community of men to achieve their highest purpose, a democratic state.” “Man’s dignity” here means the dignity of all.  The “community of men” here means the entire human community living on the Earth.  The “democratic state,” similarly, means a Constitution for the Earth that places the common good of human beings everywhere at the center of human institutions and makes possible, for the first time in history, a legitimate organization of our common life premised on human dignity and realistic human liberation.

Works Cited

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, 2006.

Terry Boswell and Christopher Chase-Dunn, The Spiral of Capitalism and Socialism: Toward Global Democracy, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000.

Noam Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants, Odonian Press, 1996.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Harvard University Press, 2000.

Glen T. Martin, Assent to Freedom: Practical and Philosophical Foundations of Democratic World Law, Institute for Economic Democracy Press, 2009.

Robert C. Tucker, ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. Second Edition, W.W. Norton Co., 1972.

(Glen T. Martin is professor of philosophy and chair of Peace Studies at Radford University in Virginia and

President of the World Constitution and Parliament Association (WCPA)).