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Transcending World Order Regressions?

  • Richard Falk
  • July, 2020
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Nerfin apologetically notes that citizenship is at its roots a distinctively Western experience of societal participation in the shaping of collective life

Not long ago I reread a wonderful essay written by my friend Marc Nerfin thirty-five years ago, and published with this enigmatic title, “Neither Prince nor Merchant-Citizen: An Introduction to the Third System, 1981.” The essential position taken by Nerfin is that neither the sovereign state nor the economic order is oriented toward a humane and sustainable future, although both nodes of power remain necessary for the organization of life on the planet.

For Nerfin what can alone produce an emancipatory politics is the further mobilization of what he labels as ‘the third system.’ Nerfin offered this definition: “Contrasting with governmental power and economic power -the power of the Prince and the Merchant-there is an immediate and autonomous power, sometimes evident, sometimes latent: people’s power. Some people develop an awareness of this, associate and act with others and thus become citizens. Citizens and their associations, when they do not seek either governmental or economic power, constitute the third system.”

It is suggestive that Nerfin defines a citizen by what someone does by way of action, either singly or collectively, rather than as a formal status conferred by the decree of the state. He also observes that to be part of the Third System is to forego any ambition to exercise state power or to participate in the global economic order. In other words, citizenship implies autonomy of action and aspiration, but it is not reduced to the ideology of liberal individualism that tilts international human rights in Western civilizational directions, which would weaken its universalist claims.

This orientation has definite ideational links to the commoner movement that has been conceptualized in the writings and activism of David Bollier [See e.g. Bollier, Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the life of the Commons (2014)] who envisions a positive human future on the basis of joint action by individuals, groups, and communities that seek lives and livelihoods independent of state or market, pointing to an upsurge of cooperative undertakings along these lines around the world. Similarly, my assessment of neoliberal globalization that is negative about what I identify as ‘globalization-from-above,’and rests hope upon the potential transnational mobilization of movements in the spirit of ’’’another globalization’or ‘globalization-from-below.’It is a perspective that also insists that it is the creativity of people acting within the confines of civil society, not the projects of state and market, that possess emancipatory potential given our historical circumstances. [See Predatory Globalization: A Critique(1999)]

Nerfin also apologetically notes that citizenship is at its roots a distinctively Western experience of societal participation in the shaping of collective life, and other civilizations are fully expected to have their own ways of vindicating participation as the basis of an experience of positive belonging to a larger human collective. Aside from these nuances, the central claim is that only the peoples of the world, acting spontaneously, collectively, and purposively, can achieve the sorts of transformations that human survival and ecological sustainability depend upon. It is this clarification by Nerfin that establishes illuminating affinities with the work and ethical engagements of Bollier, Johan Galtung, Robert Cox, Stephen Gill and many other thinkers who have freed themselves from the blinkering perceptions of global issues and world order as set forth by the ‘realist’mainstream, that is, those out of touch with reality, accurately and humanely conceived.

In rather profound ways, what Nerfin wrote more than three and half decades ago is more relevant to our current situation than when it was written. At the time, although the world was certainly imperiled by the Cold War, featuring a menacing nuclear standoff, predatory forms of capitalist expansion that were unperturbed by the persistence of mass misery or by the bloody interventionism that accompanied the sunset wars of the colonial era. At that time, compared to the dismal present, there were sources of normative promise and widespread hope, not least of which were the collapse of European colonialism and the liberation of hundreds of millions formerly captive in the global South.

The United States provided a partially benevolent leadership in world affairs, which while uncomfortably militarist, was still alert to the shared need for multilateral diplomacy and global lawmaking, as well as supportive of the United Nations so long as its limits were understood as limited, that is, not designed or empowered to challenge Western geopoliti...

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