Tyler Cowen on global inequality

Tyler Cowen sounds a bit like Voltaire’s Pangloss when he argues, as the New York Times headline puts it, that we are living “all in all, [in] a more egalitarian world” (link). Cowen acknowledges what most people concerned about inequalities believe: “the problem [of inequality] has become more acute within most individual nations”; but he shrugs this off by saying that “income inequality for the world as a whole has been falling for most of the last 20 years.” The implication is that we should not be concerned about the first fact because of the encouraging trend in the second fact.

Cowen bases his case on what seems on its face paradoxical but is in fact correct: it is possible for a set of 100 countries to each experience increasing income inequality and yet the aggregate of those populations to experience falling inequality. And this is precisely what he thinks is happening. Incomes in (some of) the poorest countries are rising, and the gap between the top and the bottom has fallen. So the gap between the richest and the poorest citizens of planet Earth has declined. The economic growth in developing countries in the past twenty years, principally China, has led to rapid per capita growth in several of those countries. This helps the distribution of income globally — even as it worsens China’s income distribution.

But this isn’t what most people are concerned about when they express criticisms of rising inequalities, either nationally or internationally. They are concerned about the fact that our economies have very systematically increased the percentage of income and wealth flowing to the top 1, 5, and 10 percent, while allowing the bottom 40% to stagnate. And this concentration of wealth and income is widespread across the globe. (Branko Milanovic does a nice job of analyzing the different meanings we might attach to “global inequality” in this World Bank working paper; link.)

This rising income inequality is a profound problem for many reasons. First, it means that the quality of life for the poorest 40% of each economy’s population is significantly lower than it could and should be, given the level of wealth of the societies in which they live. That is a bad thing in and of itself. Second, the relative poverty of this sizable portion of society places a burden on future economic growth. If the poorest 40% are poorly educated, poorly housed, and poorly served by healthcare, then they will be less productive than they have the capacity to be, and future society will be the poorer for it. Third, this rising inequality is further a problem because it undermines the perceived legitimacy of our economic system. Widening inequalities have given rise to a widespread perception that these growing inequalities are unfair and unjustified. This is a political problem of the first magnitude. Our democracy depends on a shared conviction of the basic fairness of our institutions. (Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson also argue that inequality has negative effects on the social wellbeing of whole societies; link.)

The seeming paradox raised here can be easily clarified by separating two distinct issues. One is the issue of income distribution within an integrated national economy — the United States, Denmark, Brazil, China. And the second is the issue of extreme inequalities of per capita GDP across national economies — the poverty of nations like Nigeria, Honduras, and Bangladesh compared to rich countries like Sweden, Germany, or Canada. Both are important issues; but they are different issues that should not be conflated. It is misleading to judge that global inequality is falling by looking only at the rank-ordered distribution of income across the world’s 7 billion citizens. This decline follows from the moderate success achieved in the past fifteen years in ameliorating global poverty — a Millenium Development Goal (link). But it is at least as relevant to base our answer to the question about the trend of global inequalities by looking at the average trend across the world’s domestic economies; and this trend is unambiguously upward.
Here is a pair of graphs from The Economist that address both topics (reproduced at the XrayDelta blog here). The left panel demonstrates the trend that Cowen is highlighting. The global Gini coefficient has indeed leveled off in the past 40 years. The right panel indicates rising inequalities in US, Britain, Germany, France, and Sweden. As the second panel documents, the distribution of income within a sample set of national economies has dramatically worsened since 1980. So global inequalities are both improving and worsening — depending on how we disaggregate the question.

The global Gini approach is intended to capture income inequalities across the world’s citizens, not across the world’s countries. Essentially this means estimating a rank-order of the incomes of all the world’s citizens, and estimating the Lorenz distribution this creates.

We get a very different picture if we consider what has happened with inequalities across the world’s national economies. Here is a graph compiled by Branko Milanovic that represents the Gini coefficient for GDP per capita for a large set countries over time (link):

This graph makes the crucial point: inequalities across nations have increased dramatically across the globe since 1980, from a Gini coefficient of about .45 to an average of .54 in 2000 (and apparently still rising).

Finally, what about inequalities within nations? This OECD report provides comparative data for 27 countries during the period 1975 and 2010 (link). They find that income inequalities increased in most of the countries studied. This report does not cover all countries, of course; but the findings are suggestive. Here is their summary finding:

And this is the most important point: most of these countries are suffering the social disadvantages that go along with the fact of rising inequalities. So we could use the OECD report to reach exactly the opposite conclusion from the one that Cowen reaches: in fact, global inequalities have worsened since 1980.

Thomas Piketty’s name does not occur once in Cowen’s short piece; and yet his economic arguments about capitalism and inequality in Capital in the Twenty-First Century are surely part of Cowen’s impetus in writing this piece. Ironically, Piketty’s findings corroborate one part of Cowen’s point — the global convergence of inequalities. Two French economists, François Bourguignon and Christian Morrisson, made a substantial effort to measure historical Gini coefficients for the world’s population as a whole (link). Their work is incorporated into Piketty’s own conclusions and is included on Piketty’s website. Here is Piketty’s summary graph of global inequalities since 1700 — which makes the point of convergence between developed countries and developing countries more clearly than Cowen himself:

So what about China? What role does the world’s largest economy (by population) play in the topic of global economic inequalities? China’s per capita income has increased by roughly 10% annually during that period; as a population it is no longer a low-income economy. But most development economists who study China would agree that China’s rapid growth since 1980 has sharply increased inequalities in that country (linklink). Urban and coastal populations have gained much more rapidly than the 45% or so of the population (500 million people) still living in backward rural areas. A recent estimate found that the Gini coefficient for China has increased from .30 to .45 since 1980 (link). So China’s rapid economic growth has been a major component of the trend Cowen highlights: the rising level of incomes in previously poor countries. At the same time, this process of growth has been accompanied by rising levels of inequalities within China that are a source of serious concern for Chinese policy makers.

Here are charts documenting the rise of income inequalities in China from the 2005 China Human Development Report (link):


So rising global income inequality is not a minor issue to be brushed aside with a change of topic. Rather, it is a key issue for the economic and political futures of countries throughout the world, including Canada, Great Britain, the United States, Germany, Egypt, China, India, and Brazil. And if you don’t think that economic inequalities have the potential for creating political unrest, you haven’t paid attention to recent events in Egypt, Brazil, the UK, France, Sweden, and Tunisia.

World history


World history is more timely today than ever. “Globalization” is almost a cliché, from “The world is flat” to “the homogenization of cultures” to the “commodification of place.” Everyone recognizes the fact of globalization in the contemporary world. But we need to understand the many ways in which many parts of the world were deeply and systemically interconnected long before the post-World War II wave of revolutions in communications networks, rapid travel, containerized shipping, and military power contributed to the current interconnectedness of most countries and peoples. We need a strong historiography for the global world. And we need better and more detailed understandings of the histories of many of the regions of the world, taken in their own terms.

To be most productive, however, we need to approach the tasks of global history with some fresh thinking. There are several key points that have emerged as fundamental.  The first is to be vigilant about making Eurocentric assumptions about development and change.  Whether in the domains of politics, economics, or culture, it is crucial to avoid the assumption that Europe set the model for developments in key areas of historical change.  New historiography of Eurasian economic development illustrates the power of an approach that avoids Eurocentrism, including Bin Wong (China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience), Ken Pomeranz (The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy.), and Prasannan Parthasarathi (Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not: Global Economic Divergence, 1600-1850).

A second is to expect variation rather than convergence. There are many ways that human societies have found to solve crucial problems of coordination, order, production, and the exercise of power. Global historians need to be alert to the development of alternative institutions of politics, economics, culture, or social cohesion in different locales. In particular, it is important to take note of divergences as well as parallels in the political and economic development of great civilizations like those of India, China, Southeast Asia, or West Africa.

Third, it is important to avoid the conceptual schemes of nationalism and states. “France,” “Indonesia,” and “India” are places with diversity and internal variation, and they each followed distinct rhythms of consolidation as states and nations.  It is often more revealing to look to regions that cross the boundaries of existing states; we learn much by looking at the dynamics of change in regions that are smaller than nation-states (the American South, for example, as an economic and racial regime that had little in common with Northern cities); and it is sometimes the case that we are best off considering the histories of dispersed peoples and activities (Zomia (James Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale Agrarian Studies Series)), diasporic histories (Tai Lands and Thailand: Community and the State in Southeast Asia), bandits (Bandits, Revised Edition)).

Fourth, the way in which we consider historical time sometimes needs more critical reflection. Victor Lieberman’s focus on the punctuated patterns of consolidation that took place from Burma to Kiev is one aspect of this reflection; the world’s clock was synchronized in a pattern that was quite distinct from the internal patterns of change in each of the affected countries.  And the historian needs to be attentive to both clocks. Likewise, world historians need to be open to considering temporality on a range of scales — from the months of the Terror to the decades of contention that preceded and followed the French Revolution, to the century and a half that separated the French Revolution from the Chinese Revolution.

Fifth, the global impact of environmental factors needs to be given the emphasis it deserves. Climate change, exhaustion of woodlands, extension of mining and extraction — all these processes and factors influence human activity at a range of levels, and their impact needs to be assessed carefully on the basis of historical and physical data. Mark Elvin’s environmental history of China is a great example (The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China).

Finally, world historians need to pay particular attention to the mechanisms of influence through which places exchanged cultural and economic material in the long centuries from the development of substantial Mediterranean trade in the ancient world to the shipping lanes of the contemporary world. Trade, the diffusion of ideas through cultural contact and migration, the effects of the book trade, the military logic of colonialism, the advent of organized long-distance communication and travel, the creation of international governance institutions — these mechanisms of social exchange constitute many of the pathways through which global integration occurs, and their dynamics are worthy of close attention by historians.

Significantly, almost all these factors find their way into the work of many recent historians who are taking on the challenge of making sense of the history of the modern world. World historiography is on a very promising trajectory.

Universities and the world

Many universities have significant international relationships with educational institutions in other countries. In some instances these are intended to support students who are interested in study abroad; in other instances they establish the foundation of faculty-to-faculty research collaboration; and in yet other cases they involve the coordination of specific academic programs for the benefit of students at both institutions.

Why do these relationships make sense from the point of view of the fundamental mission of an American university? How do international programs further the teaching and research goals of the domestic institution? What advantages do they create for students and faculty?

There are several factors that seem particularly convincing to me.

First, the exchange of students is undoubtedly of great value.  It is a commonplace that our students will face an increasingly global environment in their careers. Accountants will perhaps spend professional time in Malaysia or Mexico; engineers will work on projects in Nigeria or India; and when university students gain advanced degrees in law or medicine, they too are likely to find that they will need to be able to work productively in an international setting. So it is plainly a good thing for undergraduate students to gain familiarity with other cultures and confidence in their ability to navigate relationships outside the United States. Many of these advantages also accrue when foreign students come to study on the domestic campus.

Another important aspect of globalization is the fact that the extension of knowledge is occurring on every continent. Medical research, agricultural research, engineering research, and research in the social sciences and humanities are no longer wholly rooted in one’s own university or domestic consortium; instead, there are important developments taking place internationally which it is important for cutting-edge researchers in the United States to confront. So research collaborations are fruitful on both sides — both for the US-based academic researcher and the researcher in China, Brazil, or France. The transfer of knowledge and innovation is not one-directional; instead, scientific research in the United States can benefit from exposure to current research developments in universities throughout the world.

Another benefit of international collaborations among universities is more diffuse but not less important. This is the fact that country-to-country relations are likely to be improved when young leaders in those countries have had the opportunity to gain knowledge and affection for the traditions and strengths of the other country.  There are thousands of Saudi, Chinese, and African students currently studying in the United States, and it is undoubtable that they will take their positive experiences and their better understanding of the people of the United States home with them when they return.

The point is sometimes made that there are important forms of competition between countries which make the free exchange of advanced research findings problematic. This is plainly true in the area of military technology, and it is also true that it is difficult to draw the line between innovations that have military applications and those that don’t. But there is specific Federal legislation that prescribes limits on the export of specified technical knowledge.

Outside the military sphere critics of international collaboration sometimes make the point that scientific and technical expertise is a major factor in the economic competition that exists in the global marketplace. These critics make the argument that we give up our future economic edge by sharing scientific and technical research too fully. We don’t have to look only to the economic competition that exists between the US and China to make this case — there are many good examples of technologies that were developed in US universities but commercialized by European companies.

These concerns are not wildly wrong. But I continue to believe that the greatest benefits will flow from a relatively free system of international scientific and technical cooperation. The synergies resulting from cross-country collaboration around specific research projects in medicine, engineering, energy, and computer technology are likely to be large and a source of advantage for all nations.

Transnational labor activism

One of the characteristics that observers notice when they consider the anti-globalization protests of the past decade or so is the extent of transnational relationships that exist among activists and activist organizations. Sidney Tarrow provides a scholarly examination of these kinds of movements in The New Transnational Activism, where he tries to understand the organizational and situational circumstances that either facilitate or impede calls to popular action concerning large issues that affect many countries.  (Here is a post on transnational activism and an earlier post on anti-NATO protests in Strasbourg a couple of years ago.)  This is important work, and transnational activism is certainly an important feature of the world scene today.  Our attention, though, is often restricted to the recent past when we think about transnational activism.  So it is useful to consider earlier periods in the twentieth century in which movements succeeded at some level at bringing together multi-national coalitions in support of an important social or political cause.

One important instance is the international alliances that emerged in the radical end of the non-Communist labor movement in the 1950s.  Nicola Pizzolato’s recent “Transnational Radicals: Labour Dissent and Political Activism in Detroit and Turin (1950-1970)” in a recent issue of international review of social history (link) is a great case study in this light. Pizzolata provides a very useful and detailed account of the political and theoretical developments that transpired in Detroit and Turin among activist workers and thinkers during this period. It is well worth reading for that reason alone. But it also provides a concrete instance of a situation in which workers and activists, located within the industrial system in different parts of the world, were able to form their own understandings and strategies concerning those industrial realities, and the degree to which there was meaningful interaction among these groups.

The piece is particularly interesting to me for the light it sheds on the development of an important strand of radical African-American thought during the 1950s and 1960s. (Also because I had the remarkable pleasure of meeting one of the principal players in the story a few years ago, Grace Lee Boggs.) African-American militancy took a different shape within the industrial labor force than it did in much of the rest of America, and it is a story worth understanding. Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin’s Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution is a valuable monograph on the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.  Manning Marable provides a thoughtful foreword.  Marable provides a quick sketch of the development of the movement:

By 1968, more than 2.5 million African Americans belonged to the AFL-CIO. Yet the vast majority of black workers were marginalized and alienated from labor’s predominantly white conservative leadership.  In 1967, black militant workers at Ford Motor Company’s automobile plant in Mahwah, New Jersey, initiated the United Black Brothers. In 1968, African-American steelworkers in Maryland established the Shipyard Workers for Job Equality to oppose the discriminatory policies and practices of both their union and management.  Similar black workers’ groups, both inside and outside trade unions, began to develop throughout the country.  The more moderate liberal to progressive tendency of this upsurgence of black workers was expressed organizationally in 1972 with the establishment of the Coalition of Black Trade Unions.

A much more radical current of black working-class activism developed in Detroit. Only weeks following King’s assassination, black workers a tthe Detroit Dodge Main plant of Chrysler Corporation staged a wildcat strike, protesting oppressive working conditions…. The most militant workers established DRUM, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement.  DRUM soon inspired the initiation of other independent black workers’ groups in metro Detroit, such as FRUM, at Ford’s massive River Rouge plant, and ELRUM, at Chrysler’s Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle plant. (ix-x)

Here is how Pizzolato describes the situation:

In Detroit and Turin, these radicals saw the car factories as the key loci for change — laboratories for a possible “autonomist” working-class activity that could take over industrial production and overhaul the societal system — and urged workers to develop their own forms of collective organization, beyond existing labour organization. (5)

The “Correspondence” was a post-Trotskyist version of anti-capitalist theory and activism, rooted in the Detroit auto industry and involving names that are still familiar in Detroit: James Boggs and Grace Lee Boggs, General Baker, Martin Glaberman, Charles Denby, William Gorman and George Rawick (6). (Parenthetically, Wayne State University enters the story at several junctures as a locus for theory and debate.) This segment of politically engaged workers was as critical of organized labor as they were of the companies. A key part of the political activism of the Correspondence consisted in its willingness to confront the racial divisions that existed in society and within the factory.  “[Charles Denby’s Indignant Heart: A Black Worker’s Journal] took a particularly strong stand in support of both the possibility of interracial co-operation among workers and the necessity of an autonomous black struggle” (10).

The spontaneous discontent breeding in the factories and in the working-class neighbourhoods of Detroit and Turin in the late 1960s was captured by some radical groups that had incorporated into their programmes many of the insights gleaned in the previous fifteen years by the Johnson-Forest Tendency, Correspondence, Quaderni Rossi, and Classe Operaia — groups that could engage in a dialogue because, notwithstanding local differences, they located themselves in a similar position within a global opposition to capitalism. (21)

Essentially the developments that Pizzolato describes in Detroit and Turin represent a sustained, theoretically powerful attempt by radical thinkers and activists to rethink the role of working people within a progressive vision. There were a number of strands, but core was the “Johnson-Forest Tendency”, deriving from C. L. R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya. The perspective is “autonomist” — it rejects the idea that Communist parties, workers’ states, or bureaucratic union organizations do a good job of furthering workers’ interests. Rather, workers need to self-organize, both in terms of production and in terms of strategies and actions. Pizzolato makes the point that it is anti-Fordist, anti-Soviet, and anti-bureaucratic union. And, like the Occupy Wall Street movement today, its theorists attempted to go beyond existing radical dogma for a new radical diagnosis.

The narrative of theory, publication, and activism that Pizzolato offers for both Detroit and Turin is fascinating in its own terms. But equally interesting, and crucial to his argument, is his documentation of the transnational connections that existed within this period of radical
thinking and action. C. L. R. James was an internationally recognized voice. But the influence of the Detroit radical groups on European and Italian working class activism required more direct linkages. What were they? Here are a few of the specific linkages that Pizzolato cites.

For six months in 1948 Grace Lee Boggs resided in Paris and established a “daily collaboration” with the members of the group[Socialism ou Barbarie]. (12)

In his native Cremona, Montaldi founded in 1957 a group called Unita Proletaria, that distanced itself from the Communist Party and established direct contact with Socialisme ou Barbarie, Correspondence, News and Letters, And European groups that espoused the same line: the British Solidarity for Workers’ Power, the Belgian Pouvoir Ouvrier, the Dutch Spartakus and others. (13)

In addition to theoretical debates and developments that extended across these specific transnational networks, the examples of large labor actions in 1967 and 1968 — Renault in France, FIAT in Turin, and the Big Three in Detroit — served to communicate strategies, tactics, and a spirit of boldness from one group to another.

It was in this context that the intellectual and personal contacts between Detroit and Turin radicals dating back to the 1950s were rekindled by the almost simultaneous workers’ struggles in the car factories. (24)

The Italians were also keen to know about Detroit, as very little leaked out in the Italian press about labour unrest in the American cities. “Everyone is asking [for] information about the auto strikes in [the] States,” wrote Gambino to Glaberman in 1970. (26)

African-American activist John Watson soon traveled to several cities in Italy in 1970 (his second trip), to share the news about the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. 

What is fascinating about this whole story is the light it sheds on the formation of efforts at understanding and challenging a complex social order. There is an emphasis throughout much of this movement on taking workers’ experiences within the factory as the starting point. This implicitly challenges the preoccupation of the Old Left on the canonical ideas of Marxism and Leninism — the structure of capitalism, the vanguard party. But parallel to this independence of thinking is an independence in acting. The activists within this loose transnational community put the emphasis on workers’ actions, not the actions of bureaucratized organizations (parties, unions, states). And both aspects of this seem to have some resonance with the anti-globalization movement of the past 20 years.

Rawls’s framework for global justice

Rawls’s A Theory of Justice was immediately received as a major and progressive contribution to the theory of justice within existing societies. His Law of Peoples (1999) was intended to carry his basic ideas about justice to the international realm.  (Here is a PDF of a preliminary version of the title essay of the book as published in Critical Inquiry in 1993.) Here is how he defined the goal of a law of peoples in 1993:

The law of peoples … is a family of political concepts along with principles of right justice, and the common good that specify the content of a liberal conception of justice worked up to extend to and apply to international law. It provides the concepts and principles by reference to which that law is to be judged. (43)

In contrast to the reception A Theory of Justice received, his work on the international part of the theory has not had much influence, and was roundly criticized for being too accepting of international inequalities.   Philip Pettit put the point this way in his contribution to Rex Martin and David Reidy’s Rawls’s Law of Peoples: A Realistic Utopia:

John Rawls’s work on the law of peoples is notorious for its anti-cosmopolitan stance: roughly, its insistence that those of us in well-ordered societies do not owe to the members of other societies the sort of justice we owe to one another. (38)

This is exactly the critique that Philippe van Parijs offered to Rawls prior to publication of the book (link).

Given that Rawls’s intuitions seem to have been solidly progressive in other spheres, it is worth considering why he took this very limited view of the obligations of justice in the global context. Why did he begin with the perspective of peoples rather than persons?  (Here I’ll make use of the 1993 statements of the view.)

A number of the critics put their cases in terms of Rawls’s anti-cosmopolitanism.  “Cosmopolitanism” is the view that we are all citizens of the world, and we have positive moral relationships with each other no matter what nation issues our passports.  No one would deny that everyone has some kinds of moral relationships to everyone else — for example, the obligation not to impose harm on innocent people.  But cosmopolitanism extends to the idea of positive obligations — the obligation to render assistance as well as the obligation to refrain from gratuitous harm.  The contrary to cosmopolitanism might be called “nationalism”, but this implies assumptions that Rawls would presumably not have accepted.  So let’s call it “bounded people-ism”: the claims of justice that a person has against other persons extend only to other members of his/her people and government.

One deep reason for the direction that Rawls took was the assumption he made about how to make use of the original position and the veil of ignorance in arriving at principles of international justice.  If this framework involved all human beings, then the results would have been very similar to the argument made in the case of a well-ordered society: inequalities need to be the least system possible consistent with maximizing the position of the least-well-off stratum of society.  However, Rawls chose instead to include “peoples” rather than “persons” in the argument from the original position in the case of international justice. What is a people?

By peoples I mean persons and their dependents seen as a corporate body and as organized by their political institutions, which establish the powers of government. In democratic societies persons will be citizens; in hierarchical and other societies they will be members. (41)

And he directly addresses the question of why it should be peoples rather than persons whose perspectives are represented in the original position for international justice:

Wouldn’t it be better to start with the world as a whole, with a global original position, so to speak, and discuss the question whether, and in what form, there should be states, or peoples, at all? … I think there is no clear initial answer to this question. We should try various alternatives and weigh their pluses and minuses. Since in working out justice as fairness I begin with domestic society, I shall continue from there as if what has been done so far is more or less sound. So I simply build on the steps taken until now, as this seems to provide a suitable starting point for the extension to the law of peoples. A further reason for proceeding thus is that peoples as corporate bodies organized by their governments now exist in some form all over the world. (42-43)

So his reasons for beginning with this premise are, first, we have to start somewhere and there isn’t a philosophically compelling reason to favor persons over peoples in this setting; and second, peoples (and states) exist as actors in the world, so it is feasible to begin the analysis at this level. This way of formulating the original position is designed to establish fair terms of interaction between societies — or in other words,

… fair conditions under which the parties, this time as representatives of societies well ordered by liberal conceptions of justice, are to specify the laws of peoples and the fair terms of their cooperation. (45)

This formulation, of course, immediately precludes certain questions, including all questions of difference in outcomes for the least-well-off in the various societies.  The fact that the LWO in country X are worse off than the LWO in country Y cannot be a factor in this deliberation, and therefore there cannot emerge a positive obligation to transfer resources from society Y to X to ameliorate this difference.

Here are the principles that Rawls arrives at through this construction:

  1. Peoples (as organized by their governments) are free and independent, and their freedom and independence is to be respected by other peoples.
  2. Peoples are equal and parties to their own agreements.
  3. Peoples have the right of self-defense but no right to war.
  4. Peoples are to observe a duty of nonintervention.
  5. Peoples are to observe treaties and undertakings.
  6. Peoples are to observe certain specified restrictions on the conduct of war (assumed to be in self-defense).
  7. Peoples are to honor human rights. (46)

In the final version of the argument in 1997 he adds a final principle:

8. Peoples have a duty to assist other peoples living under unfavorable conditions that prevent their having a just or decent political and social regime.

Later in 1993 he comments on the idea of a human right:

Human rights have, then, these three roles:
1. Their being fulfilled is a necessary condition of a regime’s legitimacy and of the decency of its legal order.
2. Their fulfillment is also sufficient to exclude justified and forceful intervention by other peoples, say by economic sanctions or, in grave cases, by military force.
3. “They set a moral limit to pluralism” among peoples. (59)

Several things are evident from these lists.  First, the obligations represented here are indeed minimalist; basically, they are limitations on the use of coercive means by peoples (states) to achieve their ends.  Even the 8th principle added in the 1997 version creates an obligation only to assist other peoples in achieving a just political regime.  Second, there are no requirements of distributive justice in this list of principles.  Each society has internal requirements of distributive justice; but there is no inter-society requirement of distributive justice.  The fact that there are large inequalities of resources between countries is not a basis for a claim of injustice, according to these principles.

This framework has been strongly criticized by philosophers and others who found that it was far too accepting of global inequalities.  Alan Buchanan focuses on the global inequality part of the story in his 2000 contribution in Ethics. Buchanan holds that even representatives of peoples would not have overlooked the significant inequalities imposed on peoples by the global economic system.  He maintains that the original position concerned with international justice would have to take into account two important facts:

There is a global basic structure, which, like the domestic basic structure, is an important subject of justice because it has profound and enduring effects on the prospects of individuals and groups, including peoples in Rawls’s sense.

The populations of states are not “peoples” in Rawls’s sense and are not likely to become so without massive, unjustifiable coercion, but rather are often conflicting collections of “peoples” and other groups. (700-1)

The first fact, if recognized, would ensure that the international original position would necessarily take into account the inequalities created by this system for different peoples.  He also believes that the second fact raises salient issues for the international original position.  Essentially the issue here is this: what happens when the multiple peoples of a single state come into conflict? By making the assumptions that “peoples within unified states” are the agents within the international original position, Rawls makes it impossible to arrive at principles of international justice that would specify just behavior in the face of civil war or secessionist movements. This approach makes it impossible to address intrastate conflict.

Tom Pogge extends his own critique of Rawls’s position on international distributive justice in a Fordham Law Review article (link) (also included in Martin and Reidy’s Rawls’s Law of Peoples: A Realistic Utopia).  Fundamentally, Pogge is highly critical of Rawls’s failure to arrive at an international theory of justice that provides a basis for critique of global inequalities. In this piece he argues that Rawls’s two theories are in fact inconsistent with each other.

As indicated above, much of this body of criticism has to do with the view that Rawls’s Law of Peoples creates only the most limited obligations across peoples.  His view is not “cosmopolitan”.  But a more fundamental criticism, which Buchanan hints at, is that there is a major strand of injustice embedded within the world system that is wholly invisible within Rawls’s formulation of the law of peoples.  This is the fact that global institutions may create systematically imbalanced economic relations among states, with the result that some states are in a position to take unfair advantage of other states.  This is a form of injustice that would not be accepted within the terms of a domestic society. But there is not basis within the framework of the law of peoples to identify and criticize these types of injustices.

These criticisms are surely correct.  As a theory of global justice, the Law of Peoples doesn’t begin to provide enough of a normative basis to arrive at sound judgments about international arrangements.  I began by asking how it came to pass that Rawls presented such a limited theory of international justice. The best answer I can offer is that he was focusing on the wrong issues.  He focused on issues of war and interstate violence, and he did not sufficiently bring into his view the empirical realities associated with a highly unequal world economic structure.  And this is puzzling, since questions of global inequalities — of resources, of power, and of self-determination — were certainly widely debated at Harvard in the 1970s and 1980s while Rawls’s thinking on this subject was developing.

(In addition to critics, Rawls has some defenders in this area.  Samuel Freeman provides an extensive and reasoned response to many of these criticisms of Rawls’s theory of international justice here (link).)

Global justice

There is a clear and reasonably uncontroversial basis for a simple theory of justice that all nations/cultures can accept. This is grounded a few core values about human development and is expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Millenium Development Goals, and other founding documents of the United Nations. This conception emphasizes several key values:

  • equal worth of all persons
  • value of freedom
  • value of democracy and self-determination
  • the injustice of hunger, lack of education, lack of healthcare
  • the injustice of capricious arrest and state violence (illegality)

These values provide a basis for steering our core institutions and practices in the direction of greater justice: whenever it is possible to reform institutions and practices in ways that enhance one or more of these factors, we should do so.  Policy makers and legislators can ask the question, how will this or that change to a set of institutions affect the well-being of individuals and populations affected; how will the change affect the freedoms and opportunities for self-determination of the people affected; how will it work to increase the effective scope of law within various societies?

John Rawls drew a strong distinction between ideal justice and imperfect justice, and noted that his contributions were directed to the formulation of a theory of ideal justice (Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, 13).  He did not believe that the ideal theory of justice would suffice to provide a road map for creating a more just society.  When we consider the complexity and difficulty of improving the justice of fundamental international institutions and relations, the program of arriving at an ideal theory seems unappealing.  Instead, we need to have some plausible and action-supporting principles that allow for practical improvement in the overall justice of the global system. We need to have some concrete ideas about how to get from here to there.

This approach — the idea that we can improve justice in a piecemeal way — spares us the heroic pretense of offering a general, universal theory of justice that we hope or expect all people can be persuaded to accept. It works from the point of view that injustice is more specific and more widely agreed upon. We don’t need to engage in irresolvable debates about whether there are universal human rights in order to agree that the world will be more just if fewer people are forced into famine conditions.

This is the approach taken by Madison Powers and Ruth Faden in their study of the ethics of global public health in Social Justice: The Moral Foundations of Public Health and Health Policy (link), and it has the clear advantage of pragmatism.  It is pragmatic on the side of moral agreement, in the sense that it makes no strong claims about abstract moral theories that may be controversial across perspectives.  And it is pragmatic on the side of policy, in the sense that it provides an incremental strategy for improving the conditions of justice in the world.  And in fact, the premises mentioned above conform fairly closely to the six dimensions of personal well-being that Powers and Faden highlight: health, personal security, reasoning, respect, attachment, and self-determination.

One of the greatest advocates for justice in global development is Amartya Sen (Development as Freedom).  Sen’s major contribution is the idea of the importance of creating conditions in which people can fulfill and actualize their human capabilities.  Sen’s most recent work on global justice topics is his The Idea of Justice, in which he offers an alternative to Rawls’s approach to the problem.  Here he gives primacy to the value of full human development as a benchmark for global justice.

I turn now to the second part of the departure, to wit the need for a theory that is not confined to the choice of institutions, nor to the identification of ideal social arrangements. The need for an accomplishment-based understanding of justice is linked with the argument that justice cannot be indifferent to the lives that people can actually live. The importance of human lives, experiences and realizations cannot be supplanted by information about institutions that exist and the rules that operate. (17)

Tom Pogge’s work on global justice provides a good bridge between abstract moral theory and practical, real-world issues of justice in a developing world.  Pogge has sought to engage these issues in ways that have real, substantive engagement with the issues of poverty, hunger, and maltreatment that continue to set the stage for the majority of the earth’s population today.  In an important recent volume, World Poverty and Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms, Andreas Follesdal and Thomas Pogge have pulled together an extended working group of scholars and activists concerned with global justice.  The volume took its origin at a conference in Oslo in 2003.  (Here is an article by Pogge on global justice and poverty (link), and here is a video interview with Pogge on the consequences of the global economic crisis on poverty; link.)  Pogge and his colleagues focus closely on the actual workings of international institutions to attempt to measure the degree to which they disadvantage the people of the less-developed world.

Consider for example a long-term contract concerning the exportation of natural resources which the government of some African country concludes with a rich Western state or one of its corporations.  Within the traditional philosophical framework, it is self-evident that such an agreement must be honored: “People are to observe treaties and undertakings” says Rawls’s second principle of state conduct, and the third one adds: “Peoples are equal and are parties to the agreements that bind them” (Rawls 1999). But here is the reality. The African government is corrupt and oppressive, and its continuation in power depends largely on the military.  The sales it conducts impose environmental harms and hazards on the indigenous population. Yet, most of these people do not benefit, because the revenues are partly siphoned off by the small political elite and partly spent on arms needed for military repression. (These arms are suppled by other rich Western states in accordance with other contracts executed, without coercion, between them and the African government.) (5)

Why should gimlet-eyed policy makers take these arguments about global justice seriously?  What does justice have to do with the nuts and bolts of international economic policy reform?  Why should self-interested nations and their leaders adjust their policies to the demands of justice? The humanitarian and moral reasons are self-evident.  But it is also true that there is a powerful reason to care about justice that is based in self-interest.  This is because systemic injustice is itself a threat to national security.  Governments are destabilized, insurgencies are supported, cities experience riots, and anti-liberal violent movements flourish in conditions where masses of people are enmeshed in circumstances of injustice.  Barrington Moore, Jr. made these arguments in Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt (1978), and his conclusions seem even more compelling in the world today.

Ethical thinking for global public health

Here is a fine recent book that brings together recent thinking about development ethics with some of the specific issues faced in the field of global public health.  Madison Powers and Ruth Faden published Social Justice: The Moral Foundations of Public Health and Health Policy in 2008, and it represents a genuinely interesting extended essay on the topic of justice in global health policy.  Here is an early statement of their governing perspective:

Our central focus, only vividly appreciated in hindsight, was in a notion of social justice that went beyond issues of distributive justice, micro-allocational questions of priority setting in medical care, or any number of questions centered on how one individual fares relative to some other individual. Beginning, as we did, with moral questions in public health and health policy, it is perhaps not surprising that our focus in social justice is largely directed at the well-being of people in social communities or groups. (ix)

What is evident here is that Powers and Faden are bringing the perspective of public health into the discussion of issues that have been raised in other contexts (development ethics, bio-medical ethics) without the population-based starting point.

A second important difference in approach taken by Powers and Faden is to take seriously the finding within public health studies that inequalities come into populations’ health outcomes in ways other than inequalities of access.

We contend that it is impossible to make progress in our understanding of the demands of justice within medical care without looking outside of medical care to public health and to the other determinants of inequalities in health and indeed without situating an analysis of justice and health policy in the wider social and political context. (x)

This perspective brings Powers and Faden into a degree of connection to Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson in The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (link).

A third distinctive feature of the project is the authors’ rejection of the goal of arriving at a simple, unified theory of health justice.

In place of some single theory of justice drawn from one of the leading contenders for being the “right” account of justice, we argue instead that most of these other contenders have it wrong.  Indeed, we use the term ‘theory’ somewhat  cautiously. … We choose to steer a middle course on the question, and we agree with Thomas Nagel’s conclusion that whatever we are likely to attach the label of ‘theory’ to in the realm of normative inquiry will reflect an aspiration to develop some systematic but noncomprehensive account of some part of the moral landscape. (x)

The job of justice, as we see it, is to specify those background social and economic conditions that determine whether certain inequalities, that may themselves result from the promotion of other indispensable moral aims, should be seen as unfair. Ours is an account of justice that denies that there are separate spheres of justice, within health policy or within social policy more generally. (x)

Ours is a nonideal theory of justice, intended to offer practical guidance on questions of which inequalities matter most when just background conditions are not in place. (30)

Their central concern is with justice in health; and this comes down to a theory about inequalities.

The central question we pose in this book is, Which inequalities matter most? The aim of this book is to develop a theory of social justice suitable for answering questions of this kind in a variety of concrete circumstances.  (3)

But they insist on the point that theirs is not an “ideal” theory of justice; rather, it is intended to provide the basis for reasoned decisions about the practical, real problems we face in a world of substantial inequalities in life prospects.  Moreover, their account does not begin with a principle of distributive justice, but rather with a conception of the human good.  They offer Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum as exemplars rather than John Rawls (4).

As Sen correctly notes, a theory of justice of this sort begins with some underlying account of what persons “can do and be” (Sen 1993). Theories in this tradition start with ideals, to be sure, but they are ideals of a very different kind from those that form the starting points of Rawlsian ideal theory. (4)

So their theory is one that begins with a rich conception of human well-being and flourishing, not with a contractual deliberation between hypothetical individuals behind a veil of ignorance.  Here is a general statement of their view:

Social justice is concerned with human well-being. In our view, well-being is best understood as involving plural, irreducible dimensions, each of which represents something of independent moral significance. Although an exhaustive, mutually exclusive list of the discrete elements of well-being is not our aim (and may not be possible), we build our account around six distinct dimensions of well-being, each of which merits separate attention within a theory of justice. These different dimensions offer different lenses through which the justice of political structures, social practices, and institutions can be assessed. Without attention to each dimension, something of salience goes unnoticed. (15)

The six dimensions of well-being that they identify include health, personal security, reasoning, respect, attachment, and self-determination (16).

This approach has a lot in common with Amartya Sen’s most recent thinking in The Idea of Justice (as well as Sen’s earlier work and that of Martha Nussbaum).  Here is Sen’s description of his work in The Idea of Justice:

What is presented here is a theory of justice in a very broad sense.  Its aim is to clarify how we can proceed to address questions of enhancing justice and removing injustice, rather than to offer resolutions of questions about the nature of perfect justice. (kl 183)

Here the emphasis is on “enhancing” justice rather than providing a conception of ideal justice.  Sen’s work here is intended to be practical: it should assist policy makers in their deliberations as reforms are considered.  Sen refers to this approach as “comparative justice”.

We are engaged in making comparisons in terms of the advancement of justice whether we fight oppression (like slavery, or the subjugation of women), or protest against systematic medical neglect (through the absence of medical facilities in parts of Africa or Asia, or a lack of universal health coverage in most countries in the world, including the United States), or repudiate the permissibility of torture …, or reject the quiet tolerance of chronic hunger. (kl 225)

In terms of the analysis offered by Powers and Faden, we improve justice by moving a population forward in any one of the six (or more) dimensions of human well-being that were noted.

Inherent in the idea of comparing the justice of several different scenarios, is the idea of reasoning across different perspectives on justice.  Sen is committed to the notion that it is possible to engage in reasoned dialogue with people with whom you have deep disagreements about starting points.  And this theory of comparative justice is intended to help facilitate those reasoned discussions. 

Sen contrasts his approach to justice with that of John Rawls in these terms:

In the approach to justice presented in this work, it is argued that there are some crucial inadequacies in [Rawls’s] overpowering concentration on institutions (where behaviour is assumed to be appropriately compliant), rather than on the lives that people are able to lead. (kl 203)

Several things seem important to me in both books mentioned here.  First, each is an innovative contribution to issues that are core to what we might refer to as “global justice” — hunger, health, abusive states, educational deprivation.  Second, each is aiming to create a philosophical framework within which practical, real-world issues can be handled in a reasoned way.  Third, each seeks to broaden the moral perspective of contractualism that has set the terms for discussions of justice for the past forty years.  And, finally, each shuns the goal of formulating a general system or a unified theory on the basis of which to judge all possible social arrangements in terms of justice.

These features make the moral ideas of Powers, Faden, and Sen particularly helpful when we turn our attention to trying to influence international practices and institutions in the direction of greater justice for the people of the world.  The arguments are pragmatic, modest in scope, and potentially less bound to a particular tradition of moral thinking.  (Sen makes this latter point quite explicitly: “Some of the reasoning of, for example, Gautama Buddha (the agnostic champion of the ‘path of knowledge’), or of the writers in the Lokayata school (committed to relentless scrutiny of every traditional belief) in India in sixth-century BC, may sound closely aligned, rather than adversarial, to many of the critical writings o the leading authors of the European Enlightenment” (kl 268).)

Merchant capital

Karl Marx was very interested in capital — an abstract concept referring to society’s wealth. And he was interested in the persons who owned and controlled capital — the capitalists. But the primary focus of his lifelong analysis was upon one particular species of capital, what he referred to as “industrial capital.” This is the form of wealth involved in the production process — factories, mines, railroads.  He had less to say about the aspect of capital that designated the exchange process — what he referred to as “merchant capital” and finance capital. This selective focus reflected one of Marx’s main historical opinions — the idea that history moves forward through the development of the “productive forces,” and that industrial capitalists (as well as the industrial proletariat) are the agents of this kind of economic change. Here is a brief description from Capital of the role of merchant’s capital in his analysis.

The reason is now therefore plain why, in analysing the standard form of capital, the form under which it determines the economic organisation of modern society, we entirely left out of consideration its most popular, and, so to say, antediluvian forms, merchants’ capital and money-lenders’ capital. The circuit M-C-M, buying in order to sell dearer, is seen most clearly in genuine merchants’ capital. But the movement takes place entirely within the sphere of circulation. Since, however, it is impossible, by circulation alone, to account for the conversion of money into capital, for the formation of surplus-value, it would appear, that merchants’ capital is an impossibility, so long as equivalents are exchanged; that, therefore, it can only have its origin in the two-fold advantage gained, over both the selling and the buying producers, by the merchant who parasitically shoves himself in between them. It is in this sense that Franklin says, “war is robbery, commerce is generally cheating.” If the transformation of merchants’ money into capital is to be explained otherwise than by the producers being simply cheated, a long series of intermediate steps would be necessary, which, at present, when the simple circulation of commodities forms our only assumption, are entirely wanting. (Capital I, Chapter 5)

According to the labor theory of value, only the expenditure of living labor into the production process of a commodity can create new value; so only industrial capital includes a process that creates new wealth. Merchant capital plays no role in the production process, and it is therefore historically unimportant — or so is Marx’s view in Capital.

If we now look back on European history from the sixteenth century to the twentieth century, this assessment seems badly wrong as an historical observation. Merchants and their companies played key roles in the establishment of a world trading system; they actively facilitated the race for colonies by the European powers; and often they played a quasi-military role in suppressing resistance by locals in distant parts of the world. So “merchant capital” and companies established for the purpose of international trade seem to have played a key role in the creation of the modern world system.

Robert Brenner undertook to provide a detailed historical account of the role of merchants and their organizations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550-1653 (1993). This is a departure from Brenner’s important contributions to the agrarian changes associated with England’s agricultural revolution in the sixteenth century (link), and it is also a much more detailed historical study than his previous works. Brenner is interested primarily in two topics: first, how did commerce evolve in the sixteenth century in England, both nationally and internationally; what were the institutions, organizations, and individuals that emerged as vehicles for pursuing individual and corporate interests by large merchants? And second, how did the emergence of large merchant fortunes and companies interact with the politics of the English state during this early modern period?

To offer a historical analysis of commerce, it is necessary to have extensive commercial data. Appropriately, Brenner’s research depends heavily on good information about imports and exports throughout the period. Here is his compilation of London cloth exports 1488-1614:
So aggregation of voluminous historical economic data represents one important portion of Brenner’s historical research here. The other important part, however, is at the other end of the scale — detailed information about many of the individuals who played leadership roles in the commercial and political developments of the period.
Fundamentally the book is about the political power of the merchant class. Brenner makes the point that English commercial interests were deeply dependent upon English political and military strength in the competition for import and export markets.
English merchants found it feasible to establish the new trades in large part because of the weakening hold of Portugal and Spain over their commercial empires, as well as certain other favorable political shifts in the new areas of commercial penetration. Even so, they could successfully capitalize on the openings presented to them only because of the growing political, as well as economic, strength of English commerce and shipping in this period. (5)
The development of England’s colonies was particularly important for English merchants:
During the first quarter of the seventeenth century, English traders, for the first time, sought systematically to establish commerce with the Americas. Important City merchants had opened up the new trades with Russia, Turkey, Venice, the Levant, and the East Indies that highlighted the Elizabethan expansion, and in each case, had had recourse to their favorite commercial instrument, the Crown-chartered monopoly company. (92)
This meant, in turn, that great merchants had great political interests, both in terms of military policies of the Crown and in terms of the privileges and monopolies upon which their profits depended.  And much of Brenner’s narrative is a careful parsing-out of the deliberate and purposive political alignments sought out by the great merchants and their companies.
The Levant Company’s privileges were indispensable for its elaborate system of trade regulation and, in turn, for the reservation of the profits of the trade to a restricted circle of merchants. As members of a regulated company, the individual Levant Company merchants traded for themselves with their own capital, but were required to adhere to rules and policies set by the corporation’s general court. (66)

Political alignments were especially important during the century of conflict leading to civil war and revolution.

The political activities and alignments of London’s merchant community both expressed and helped determine the character of City and national conflict in the period leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War. From November 1640, London politics and national politics became ever more inextricably intertwined, and ovesears merchants played key roles at both levels…. Civil war became inevitable when City and parliamentary conflicts became fully merged through the consolidation of alliances between the City radical movement and the opposition in Parliament, on the one hand, and the City conservative movement and the Crown, on the other. (316)
An overwhelming majority of company merchants ultimately fell into one of these two allied political categories [of royalist supporters]. But it is difficult to be sure how they were distributed between them … because surviving evidence on the political orientation of large numbers of citizens is available only for the period beginning in July 1641. (317)
But on the other side:
The traders of the colonial-interloping leadership stood at the head of the City popular movement and played a critical role in connecting that movement to the national parliamentary opposition.  The new merchants’ continuing intimate ties with London’s domestic trading community (from which many of them had come) put them closely in touch with a City parliamentary movement that was overwhelmingly composed of nonmerchants. Meanwhile, their activities in the colonial field gave them pivotal links with those Puritan colonizing aristocrates who constituted a key component of the national parliamentary leadership. (317)
If we wanted a single phrase to summarize Brenner’s task in this work, it is the idea that much of England’s politics in the early modern period were influenced or determined by the demands of the commercial sector. The great merchants wielded great political power. And so we need to have a fine-grained understanding of these companies and their networks if we are to understand the coalitions and policies of the period. Contrary to the view put forward by Marx above, merchant capital and its associated actors and organizations were indeed a potent historical factor in modern history.

A recent book by Stephen Bown, Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600–1900, picks up the story of merchant capital from a different angle and with a very different level of resolution. Bown is particularly interested in demonstrating the active (and often violent) role that large merchant companies played in the development of the world trading system and the colonial relationships that emerged from the seventeenth century forward. Bown’s central focus is on the individuals and the companies that created the colonial world: Jan Pieterszoon Coen and the Dutch East India Company, Pieter Stuyvesant and the Dutch West India Company, Sir Robert Clive and the English East India Company, Aleksandr Baranov and the Russian American Company, Sir George Simpson and the Hudson’s Bay Company, and Cecil John Rhodes and the British South Africa Company.

Bown opens his book with the story of the Dutch efforts in the early seventeenth century to push English and Portuguese traders out of the East Indies (Indonesia).  The central actor of this story is an employee of the Dutch East India Company and an experienced naval admiral, Pieter Verhoeven. The narrative of Verhoeven’s assault on the Moluccas is a good place for Bown to begin, because it brings together the themes of armed violence and commercial interest that are the core of his book. Verhoeven’s instructions from the board of directors of the Dutch East India Company were explicit:

We draw your special attention to the islands in which grow the cloves and nutmeg, and we instruct you to strive after winning them for the company either by treaty or by force. (10-11)

Bown draws out a story of global competition between nations and trading companies that illustrates the brutality and self-interestedness of colonialism throughout the three-century period he traces. And the chief victims of this violence are non-European peoples from Indonesia to Alaska to South Africa. What the book doesn’t provide is what is so evident in Brenner’s book — a detailed understanding of the political and organizational relationships that underlay these military and commercial adventures. 

Both books have something to add to our own efforts to understand big business in the twenty-first century. On the evidence offered here, business organizations — corporations and companies — have their own interests and agendas, and states have a great deal of difficulty in constraining them to the public good. This is obvious in the failures of large financial institutions to safeguard the interests of the public in 2008 — the harmful conduct of finance capital, but it was equally evident in the behavior of the Dutch East India Company or Brenner’s opening example, the Company of Merchant Adventurers. The hidden hand does not assure us that markets, commerce, and private interest will bring about the common good.

International social science

Last month the International Social Science Council (ISSC) launched a major review of the status of the social sciences worldwide (link).  The report was commissioned and partially funded by UNESCO.  The full report is available as a PDF file, and it is an important piece of work.  It includes review essays by leading social scientists and chiefs of social science research organizations in Europe, North America, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean, and it makes an effort to provide a fairly comprehensive snapshot of the current state of affairs in the institutions, funding, and patterns of collaboration that currently drive social science research programmes in almost all regions of the world.  (It is interesting to observe that there is not a single mention of social science research in Israel.)

The primary focus of the report is on the institutional settings within which social science research takes place globally: for example, funding systems, universities and institutes, peer review systems, and publication systems.  To what extent are these institutions, in various regions of the world, succeeding in supporting and encouraging the kinds of social science research that will further the policy and informational needs of the publics they serve?  And to what extent are there substantial differences across regions of the world with respect to the depth and effectiveness of these institutional supports for the social sciences?

Here are three high-level changes in the social sciences that are noted in the report:

Three changes in the environment of social science production are particularly likely to affect their content, role and function. These are first, globalization, leading to the parallel internationalization of some public concerns and of social science research itself; second, changes in the institutional and social organization of social sciences; and third, the increased role of new information technology (IT) in the production and dissemination of social sciences. (1)

A more pervasive finding that structures many chapters in the report is the idea of “divides” within and across the world’s communities of social scientists.  Most fundamental is the gap in resources and institutional capacity that exists between North and South with respect to social science research:

For any observer of social sciences worldwide, the most striking divide is between countries and regions. There is not much in common between a social science department in a well-endowed university of the global North and a social science research institute in a Southern country suffering from economic and political instability. (3)

(Here is a map indicating widely different levels of spending on tertiary education across the globe:)

But the report also highlights divides across the practices of the social sciences that reflect real differences in intellectual commitments:

From an epistemological point of view, social sciences have been diverse and are characterized by a multiplicity of methods, approaches, disciplines, paradigms, national traditions and underlying political and social philosophies. (3)

Before undertaking such a survey, it is necessary to have a working conception of the definition and role of the social sciences.  The report takes a pragmatic approach; the social sciences are “the disciplines whose professional association is part of ISSC” (3).  But here is the closest the report comes to framing the intellectual task of the social sciences:

The social sciences are concerned with providing the main classificatory, descriptive and analytical tools and narratives that allow us to see, name and explain the developments that confront human societies. They allow us to decode underlying conceptions, assumptions and mental maps in the debates surrounding these developments. They may assist decision-making processes by attempting to surmount them. And they provide the instruments to gauge policies and initiatives, ‘and to determine what works and what does not’. (9)

Another organizing thread in the work of this large team of collaborators is the idea that the social sciences are most valuable when they make a contribution to the solution of important social and political problems.  They specifically refer to a set of common challenges that are of concern to virtually all the regional research communities surveyed here:

Challenges such as environmental change, poverty, financial crisis and inequality, as well as trends affecting human societies such as ageing, marginalization and the rise of cities as strategic economic spaces in the global economy are occurring everywhere but take on different forms according to local contexts. The authors discuss a wide array of challenges and trends, but other challenges such as gender issues, public health concerns, security, food crisis, migrations, diversity and integration, and burning issues and trends could also have found a place in this section. (9-10)

The greatest value and interest of this report is the degree of detail it is possible to glean from the summary reports provided by the regional associations of the social sciences.  This gives a cumulatively detailed impression of the ways in which the social sciences are framed in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America, as well as North America and Europe.  Here is a nice example from Huang Ping’s survey of the status of the social sciences in China, where Ping provides historical context for Chinese social science:

In terms of what we see today, the status of the social sciences in China can be traced back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the first generation of Chinese students and scholars returned from Western countries, mostly the UK and the USA, after completing their degrees or their research.

After the Second World War and since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, social sciences in China have developed along three traditions: Chinese scholarly academia, especially Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism; focusing on economics in line with Soviet influences and Marxist studies; and later, Western approaches.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), social sciences almost disappeared and were hardly taught. After the opening-up process initiated in 1978, social sciences, along with science and research in general, were resumed and given a mandate to support the reform process. The Soviet influence gradually disappeared, and Western, especially US, social science approaches became the most influential. Sociology, for example, had been banned since 1952 and was reintroduced in 1979. During the past decade, traditional Chinese academic traditions have been reintroduced in universities and have caught the interest of an increasing number of students. (73)

The report does not explicitly attempt to map the range and diversity of research priorities in different regions of the world; but it is possible to begin to do so by paying close attention to the surveys offered by the regional associations for social science research. Topics vary across regions. What is more difficult to assess is the degree to which epistemologies, theories, and intellectual frameworks vary as well — though Sandra Harding’s contribution points in this direction. (See an earlier posting discussing work by Gabriel Abend on “Styles of Epistemology” (link).)

Particularly interesting for me are short pieces by Saskia Sassen (“Cities in today’s global age”), Craig Calhoun (“Social sciences in North America”), Akhil Gupta (“Construction of the global poor”), David Harvey (“A financial Katrina?”), Jon Elster (“One social science or many?”), and Sandra Harding (“Standpoint methodologies and epistemologies: A logic of scientific inquiry for people”).

In short, this is a genuinely interesting and detailed review of the status of the social sciences in the world today, and anyone with an interest in the “sociology of the social sciences” and the globalization of social knowledge will want to read it carefully.

A modern world-system?

Immanuel Wallerstein created a huge stir in the 1970s with the publication of The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (1974).  The book is an intellectual masterpiece, synthesizing a vast range of fundamental literature on the economic history of Europe and the world.  You could look at the book as the first serious and extended effort to theorize globalization — a term that barely existed at the time of publication. Or you could look at it as a general theory of colonialism — an account of the pathways and influences through which the metropole dominated and exploited the periphery. It is worth looking back at this work today to tease out some of the guiding assumptions about history, sociology, and globalization it reflected.

The concept of “world system” is itself a key component of our current understanding of globalization, in that it captures the idea of causal interconnectedness across the globe among major organizations, firms, populations, and states.  Wallerstein observes that earlier social scientists had usually centered their analysis at the level of the political unit — the nation-state; whereas his own approach is different:

This book makes a radically different assumption.  It assumes that the unit of analysis is an economic entity, the one that is measured by the existence of an effective division of labor, and that the relationship of such economic boundaries to political and cultural boundaries is variable, and therefore must be determined by empirical research for each historical case.  Once we assume that the unit of analysis is such a “world-system” and not the “state” or the “nation” or the “people”, then much changes in the outcome of the analysis. (xi)

But what, more exactly, did he mean by a system?  Did he imagine something analogous to a mechanical system in which the relations among the parts were governed by a few simple laws?  He seems to suggest this possibility when he asks the question, “What do astronomers do?  As I understand it, the logic of their arguments involves two separate operations.  They use the laws derived from the study of smaller physical entities, the laws of physics, and argue that … these laws hold by analogy for the system as a whole.  Second, they argue a posteriori.  If the whole system is to have a given state at time y, it most porrobably had a certain state at time x” (7).  Here he seems to suggest that social systems are tied together by the working of governing laws — a particularly unconvincing starting point.

But Wallerstein’s practice as a sociologist is far more defensible than this language would suggest.  He was in fact sensitive to causal heterogeneity, contingency, and variation in the systemic relations he meant to capture — particularity as well as universality.  So he doesn’t actually treat the modern world system as if it were analogous to a set of gravitational objects governed by fixed laws of nature.

I think the clue to an answer to his working definition of a system is found in his definition of scope in terms of an “effective division of labor”: a set of regions constitute a system in his framework if there is significant exchange and dependence among various of the regions for products, people, knowledge, skills, and resources from other regions.  If Europe, Asia, or the Americas had been “autarkic” in 1700 — that is, if one or more of these continental regions had been a closed economy and society making no substantial use of products, knowledge, resources, or people from other regions — then there would not have been one “world system” but rather several independent macro-regional systems.  And Wallerstein explicitly affirms this point late in the book:

By saying that in the sixteenth century there was a European world-economy, we indicate that the boundaries are less than the earth as a whole.  But how much less?  We cannot simply include in it any part of the world with which “Europe” traded.  In 1600 Portugal traded with the central African kingdom of Monomotapa as well as with Japan.  Yet it would be prima facie hard to argue that either Monomotapa or Japan were part of the European world-economy at that time.  And yet we argue that Brazil (or at least areas of the coast of Brazil) and the Azores were part of the European world-economy. (199)

So in postulating the concept of world system as a framework for analysis of the modern period (let’s say 1700), Wallerstein is laying a few important cards on the table; he is indicating his judgment that there was significant and necessary exchange among virtually all accessible places on the planet.  There were economically meaningful movements of resources, people (emigrants and slaves), crops (cotton, sugar), finished products, and ideas throughout the system of places defining the system of transport and trade.  This in turn implies that we cannot properly understand the workings of the regional economy without taking into account its exchange relations with other regions — or in other words, we need to place the regional economy into the system of international division of labor in which it is located.  And in fact, historians like Ken Pomeranz make a substantial case for the empirical accuracy of that judgment (see for example The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy and The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture, And the World Economy, 1400 to the Present).

If we begin with this assumption — the idea of the substantial interdependence of continental regions in the early modern period — then we are naturally drawn to the question, what were the terms of trade?  Was exchange among regions mutually beneficial, as trade theory would have it?  Or was it extractive and exploitative, as the theory of colonialism would have it?  This is where Wallerstein makes substantial use of the core-periphery framework in his analysis.

The periphery of a world-economy is that geographical sector of it wherein production is primarily of lower-ranking goods … but which is an integral part of the overall system of the division of labor, because the commodies involved are essential for daily use.  The external arena of a world-economy consists of those other world-systems with which a given world-economy has some kind of trade relationship … what was sometimes called the “rich trades.” (199-200) 

Wallerstein was particularly interested in interconnections between places that were the expression of power and commerce.  Core and periphery are linked by relations of subordination — military and economic domination, leading to the persistent disadvantage of the latter in favor of the former.  These features define the “general attributes of a colonial situation” (5).

This analysis lays a theoretical and historical foundation for a theory of globalization.  Wallerstein writes late in the book:

One of the persisting themes of the history of the modern world is the seesaw between “nationalism” and “internationalism.” I do not refer to the ideological seesaw … but to the organizational one.  At some points in time the major economic and political institutions are geared to operating in the international arena and feel that local interests are tied in some immediate way to developments elsewhere in the world.  At other points of time, the social actors tend to engage their efforts locally, tend to see the reinforcement of state boundaries as primary, and move toward a relative indifference about events beyond them. (147)

Where has the effort to theorize globalization gone in the thirty-five years since Wallerstein’s book appeared? A particularly important contemporary voice on this subject is that of Saskia Sassen.  Her recent A Sociology of Globalization (2007) represents a current cutting-edge effort to provide a vocabulary and set of theoretical premises in terms of which to understand the global interconnectedness that characterizes the contemporary world. And she wants to provide a sociology of these processes — that is, she wants to provide a theoretical vocabulary and a set of hypotheses about the causal mechanisms that are involved that are adequate to the problem of describing and explaining the workings of this system. One thing this means is providing a framework within which the empirical details and structures of global networks can be investigated.  Another key point in her approach is her attention to differentiation across institutions and mechanisms.

A deeply important part of her analysis is her effort to overturn the assumption of “linearity” and hierarchy among levels of analysis — the line of thought that assumes that neighborhoods are encompassed by cities, which fall within regions, which fall within states, which fall within international relations.  She argues repeatedly and effectively that this linear scheme doesn’t work for today’s global relationships.  The local neighborhood may be implicated in extra-national relations of immigration, crime, and trade that make it a global place.  More importantly, what she calls “global cities” have crucial relationships at many levels in these supposed hierarchies — local, national, and supra-national.  So the question of scale cannot be defined within a simple hierarchy of relationships of locality, nationality, and globality.  (Significantly, Wallerstein opens his treatment of the modern world system by wrestling with this issue — a discussion that he frames in terms of the idea of the appropriate unit of analysis in considering colonialism.)

Sassen is particularly interested in the networks of communication, finance, and service organizations that constitute the fabric joining what she calls “global cities” (link; see also an earlier posting on regional interdependence). But in this book Sassen broadens considerably the angle of view in order to consider social networks at many levels of scale, including sub-national as well as supra-national.

Sassen makes an important point about international economic power that has a Wallerstein-like feel to it but that would probably not have been true in 1700 or 1970.  This is her view that there has been an important process of “de-nationalization” that has removed traditional powers of the state and placed them in the scope of international economic and finance institutions that are significantly controlled by large economic actors and firms. We sometimes refer to this process as one of “liberalization”; Sassen makes the point that the construction of the new supra-national regulatory regimes is an extended historical process that can be studied in detail.  She refers to the result of this process as the global corporate economy.  One of Wallerstein’s key arguments is that nations in the periphery were dominated and controlled by an economic system run by European nations. Sassen argues for the reality of a world system of regulatory arrangements that subordinates the sovereignty of even previously hegemonic nations to a non-democratic set of institutions and rules that implicitly favor one set of economic actors over others.  But Sassen’s inference from this fact about international economic power is less about north-south exploitation and more about the rising likelihood of global exploitation of all ordinary citizens by powerful extra-national economic forces that are beyond the reach of democratic processes (what she refers to as the “democratic deficit”).

Sassen’s book warrants a close reading.  It proposes a significantly different way of conceptualizing the meaning of globalization, and one that will suggest many new research agendas.

(The Minard trade map above is borrowed from the fascinating blog Cartographia.  The blog has many great discussions of some very interesting maps.)

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