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Digits won’t replace states

September 20, 2019

I’m all for new technologies that subvert convention — but i’m cautiously sceptical about this piece on new multilateralism from Anne-Marie Slaughter in the Financial Times.

I love the sentence “while antediluvian men strut back and forth on the world stage beating their chests, a different kind of multilateralism may be on the horizon.”

Slaughter argues that the Internet makes new forms of digital cooperation both imperative and inevitable. A new UN “Declaration of Digital Inter-dependence” signed by business people and philanthropists like Melinda Gates and Jack Ma asks politicians to try to solve specific problems alongside leaders from business, civil society, labour, academia, faith groups, women and other marginalised communities.

It’s a good idea. Digital tools — like, presumably, social media and other forms of instantaneous mass communication — make global new forms of cooperation among these people possible. We should probably also get wise to their potential, because they also raise risks and challenges. “Isis can recruit a global army online, before and after its physical ‘caliphate’ has been destroyed. Companies can create currencies without a national mint or central bank.”

The digital Declaration proposes “new governance structures for the digital world of the future, which will supplement and could ultimately swallow the UN, at least as we have known it.”

Slaughter is quite right that politicians should listen to a range of different groups, and that in the future they’ll probably have no choice but to do so. Conventional democracy confined to nation states is woefully inadequate. We should be voting across international boundaries on issues of collective importance — especially climate change — using supra-national and local structures. Marginalised peoples for the first time have a voice. Technologies exist to allow us to make our voices heard on issues that concern us, from the local to the global. Those issues should be dealt with at the appropriate level rather than abandoned to stale, compromised representatives in a distant legislature which nobody really trusts any more.

We should probably be voting with our smartphones, often, on specific issues that concern us: refuse collection, schools, health, energy, equality. Part of the reason for Brexit and Trump is a power deficit: the old governance institutions of the twentieth century don’t reflect our demands (if they ever truly did). People want a bigger say in how their lives are run, and they’re finding new ways to connect, beyond old physical communities. There’s little doubt that digital space should play a bigger role in multilateralism.

But it’s the forces of power that make me sceptical. As Slaughter implicitly acknowledges, it’s all very well asking politicians to work with other ‘stakeholders’, but politicians do what serves their and their paymasters’ interests. Most probably aren’t going to surrender power voluntarily to other leaders. Social progress is taken, not given.

It’s noteworthy that the Declaration was launched by billionaire business leaders, not ordinary people or grassroots non-governmental organisations. The global 1% spent the last few decades building the plutocracy. Why would they hand over control? In fact, this sort of initiative is probably the billionaires’ way of maintaining it; hegemony in practice.

Despite the potential for liberation in digital technologies, they are controlled and controllable — and the potential source of mass unfreedom. Edward Snowden’s new book speaks with terror about China’s “utterly mind boggling” surveillance capabilities being replicated on the global stage. Closed-circuit television cameras on every street corner feed back to a central, government-run observation centre which also tracks and watches you through your smartphone.

Facebook shelved Libra because of the widespread outcry over its potential harm, and because US Congressmen for once did their job, subjecting it to scrutiny. Because of obvious vested interests and power, the US dollar will continue to hold sway, not Bitcoin.

A more serious problem with the FT piece is that it’s a bit blind to the full meaning of multilateralism — that it’s about several sides sitting down and physically negotiating rules, often about boring, bricks-and-mortar things. Rules, thrashed out between states, often protect the very marginalised stakeholders that Slaughter lists. Here, we argue that multilateralism is a matter of survival for the least developed countries, and that it must cater to their national interests in somewhat technical areas like rules of origin in international trade and intellectual property. The harmful impact of rich countries’ behaviour in macroeconomic management, tax havens, subsidies, climate and immigration must be addressed in global interactions between rich and poor nations: states, not only communities or digits.

The excellent A New Multilateralism for Shared Prosperity published by UNCTAD and Boston University’s Global Development Policy Centre argues that a global green new deal should feature the rather offline tasks of securing full and decent employment at a livable wage; a just society and caring communities; and a sustainable future. None of this implies swallowing the UN, more revitalising it.

That’s not to say that digital space won’t play a role in new forms of multilateralism, or that new communities shouldn’t be brought into discussions. But multilateralism will for some time probably continue to involve real people sitting down in physical rooms discussing often rather mundane, analogue technicalities. I hope that a new form of multilateralism is on the horizon, but in the meantime, unfortunately, the antediluvian white men will continue to strut.

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