There’s a fascinating article by the geographer Saskia Sassen on Open Democracy which challenges some of the prevailing ‘wisdom’ about globalisation – most notably that it inevitably weakens the power of national government. The article is written in response to Gordon Brown’s announcement in early July that he would hand back certain powers taken by the British executive branch of government from Parliament. As she observes, globalisation strengthens some parts of the executive at the expense of other parts of government.

Her take on this is interesting for several reasons:

  • the trend of the executive acquiring power from the legislature goes back (in the US and UK) to the economic restructuring which occurred in the 1980s – it’s not a post-2001 phenomenon
  • one of the reasons why the legislature loses power is that policies which promote corporate economic globalisation (such as liberalisation and globalisation) strip out oversight functions
  • some of the international agencies which have done most to promote this corporate economic agenda (eg the IMF, World Trade Organisation) will speak only to the executive branch of government, not legislatures
  • the implementation of deregulation and privatisation policies has shifted the distribution of power inside the state. In the US the treasury, the federal reserve, and the office of the trade representative have all become stronger because of globalisation.

Saskia Sassen writes that:

“The deeper and longer systemic trend at work [i.e. going back to the 1980s] is generating a serious democratic deficit deep inside the liberal state. This is evident in a fact mostly overlooked in the globalisation literature: that the executive branch is far more aligned with global logics than its speech-acts might suggest… This argument turns much of the globalisation debate on its head. It challenges a series of firmly held and fashionable beliefs: markets need small government to thrive, economic globalisation is associated with weakened states, strong (including global) markets feed democracy.”

Gordon Brown’s announcement – on Sassen’s reading – is a deliberate step towards increasing democratic participation – one which she hopes others will follow.

Related post: Globalisation meets  its limits