Whether one favors globalization or not, we have to admit we live in a world of ever-growing interdependence and interconnectedness. In fact, our interdependence has grown beyond anyone’s imagination.  On June 23, 2016 for example, a referendum was held to decide whether Britain should leave or remain in the European Union. Although with small margin, a majority of Britons voted to leave the European Union and the implications of that national and local event will no doubt have enormous global consequences.  The same can be say about the impact of climate change for the planet, in a way that what we do locally has a global impact. Another example of our interdependence is a food crisis, which reflects how dependent we are on each other’s production and policies to feed ourselves for our survival.  We cannot escape the fact that today what happens in one part of the world can trigger a chain-reaction across the globe.  However, in parallel the world is also witnessing the resurgence and birth of aspirations for localization and for a greater role of local governments. The global and local dynamics are no panaceas for current challenges facing humanity, and both offer advantages and disadvantages for well-being and democratic governance.  But centripetal and centrifugal forces are creating a number of contradictions between globalization and localization.  A dimension of this paradox was at full display in the referendum in Britain on whether to leave or remain in the European Union.

The European Union – often known as the EU – became a supra economic and political partnership involving 28 (now 27 with the exit of Britain) European countries. It began after World War II to foster economic cooperation, with the idea that countries which trade together are more likely to avoid going to war with each other. It has since grown to become a “single market” allowing goods and people to move around, basically as if the member states were one country. It has its own currency, the euro, which is used by 19 of the member countries, its own parliament and it now sets rules in a wide range of policy areas – including on the environment, transport, consumer rights and even things like mobile phone charges. One can argue that the EU is the largest expression of democratic governance in the world, with an executive body in the unelected European Commission, a legislature in the European Parliament and the Council of the EU and a judiciary in the European Court of Justice.

Member countries have to operate within the structures of this larger body, as well as with their own national and local structures. And there lies the basis for those who argue against this type of macro democratic governance structures, as interacting and dealing with them, it is argued, could be undermining the more national and local dimensions of democratic governance and not creating any value for localized human well-being and/or opportunities to thrive. The claim here is that power is so far removed from the people that impact is minimal, and therefore anger and disillusionment are inevitable because this macro governance and economic structure does not address localized challenges.

To be fair, national and local governments’ performance may have something to do with the anger and disillusionment.  When I was working in Eastern Europe, I was privileged to witness closely the process of accession into the EU of countries like Bulgaria, Romania and others.  The preparation involved a complex and multi-pronged re-engineering institutional process where local and national actors where intimately involved in the creation of planning units and mechanisms to articulate policies top-down and vice versa. There was no general recipe for this process, although it was influenced by the specifics of each country.  This was a long-term process involving substantive investment, equalization funds, and institutional design to ensure articulation.  I had written a couple of articles on this process and generated a concept, the “reduxtension” of the State as a way to explain the simultaneous expansion and reduction of the State’s sphere of action and its continuous political re-constitution as a result of centrifugal and centripetal forces.

When sociologist Roland Robertson in the 1980s was one of the early users of glocalization, what he was explaining was the early phases of what was eminently the beginning of a systemic process involving global and local factors and actors producing unique outcomes in different geographic areas of the planet. Four decades later, glocalization is also producing the diffusion of democratic governance and the expansion of political spaces within, and outside the state.  As it is illustrated in Figure 1, the traditional state model is involved today in an organic evolution, and democratic governance has become a more complex process.  While democracy as a system of governance appears to still enjoy support, the political and institutional mechanisms at all governance levels to create effective policies in favor of people’s well-being appear to be without the necessary legitimacy and efficacy.

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The platform of glocalization today responds to two major tendencies. First, as was argued in the book the World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, because of globalization is now possible for more people than ever to collaborate and compete in real time with more other people on more different kinds of work from more different corners of the planet and on a more equal footing than at any previous time in the history of the world-using computers, e-mail, networks, teleconferencing, and social media.  Second, it is also clear that political power is being diffused top to bottom, across and within states.   What is less clear, however, is whether under these conditions democratic governance articulation is possible and whether this distribution of power downward, across and within spaces is being matched at the micro and meta levels with capacity to absorb and use it effectively.  The modern State is being pulled and pushed between two competing forces: a more “centripetal” (inward) and another that is “centrifugal” (outward), and in the middle leaving many political spaces open for governance-building and articulation.  In this context, some political spaces (e.g., cities) are being more assertive and strategic in taking advantage of these new power trends, while others are being left behind, and remain dependent on more traditional governance approaches and/or even turning to radical responses (i.e., international crime, narco-traffickers, radical terrorism).

For glocalized governance, whether at the global, national or sub-national levels, the prospect of re-connecting with citizens and individuals is a key challenge with risks and opportunities. Any strategy cannot ignore the multifaceted and fast-paced context for governance at all levels, global, national and sub-national, and the challenges multi-level governance poses for human development.   The strategy needs to be able to accommodate old and new forms of governance, including new interactive mechanisms to promote and encourage citizen participation in a way that the democratic aspect of governance comes from recognizing and incorporating individuals’ voice in the process of decision making, which goes beyond voting in electoral processes.  The challenge is to target initiatives likely to encourage the development and strengthening of both localized and globalized capacities.

Of course, the dynamics of multi-level democratic governance is more complex. Looking at multi-level governance in different regions in the world today, would probably yield different scenarios.  In spite of greater autonomy and responsibilities of sub-national governments in general, much remains in the existing process of governance that is mediated by national governance.  Also, while governance capabilities are spreading across national territorial spaces, the national framework still plays a key role for the governance dynamics inside the national territory.  In some regions, (Latin America, Asia, Africa), the intensity of the nation state in sub-national affairs remains high.

In spite of multiple challenges, what is happening in the last couple of decades, is a rather fundamental transformation within territorial governance systems. New forms of distributed governance arrangements, based on a more diffused pattern of power and on intermediate levels of government are slowly emerging under Unitarian and Federal Constitutions.  New emerging territorial connections are weaving a new potential pattern of multi-level governance that bears little resemblance to the classic construct. This new pattern (still a work in progress and evolving) is vesting internal communities with new powers, and is promoting work under new principles of cooperation/competition within and across national boundaries, and forcing macro, meso and micro political communities to develop new horizontal and vertical policy capabilities that are in some cases less state-centered, while in others the central state remains the major actor.   This new dynamic involves more complex mixes of intertwined relations, networks and regimes, and governance capabilities that are more diverse and therefore more disconnected. While still evolving, these new complexities have not change the fact that territory (macro, intermediate, micro) remains a fundamental underpinning of governance systems.

If one looks at governance as the general exercise of authority, there is a steady reduction in the absolute or unconstrained power model, although this process is more challenging under Presidential and Unitarian systems (vis a vis Parliamentarian and Federal).  Another key driver of multi-level governance today is the unprecedented economic growth, in particular in developing/transition countries, although wealth and income remain unequal. Increases in the average lifespan, productivity growth, and sizeable public sector infrastructure projects (mainly coming from national governments into sub-national territories), are breaking with one-dimensional governance patterns.

Technology is also another driver for change in glocalization and multi-level governance. For example, it is contributing to broader processes for enhanced transparency and accountability, as well as easier acquisition of public information. Technological advances that shrink distance and the interdependencies that arise from much wider and deeper global economic integration are providing decision makers both at global and local levels with new opportunities and responsibilities.  One hypothesize is that governments with more resources and capacities to use and adapt technology and to expand knowledge and innovation may have a better chance to have a key and constructive role in their political communities than those with fewer resources and weak capacity to adopt use technology and expand knowledge.  Technology is, and will continue to have an impact in re-defining, re-shaping political communities as well as governance and in perceptions people have of their place and power in society, whether global or local.

Two more factors are playing an increasing role in glocalization tendencies. First immigration, internal migration and population movement across States and borders; and second, raising inequalities. Neither globalization nor localization have managed yet to offer new and innovative solutions to these two challenges. In the macro political spaces, the tendency towards greater demographic diversity reflects a variety of factors, from changing age structures to new immigration patterns. Today for the first time, both within and across different parts of the world, demographic shifts are breaking down old constituency patterns and opening up the possibility of creating new ones. What is perhaps unique today and into the future is that this demographic change is happening in a context where there is less insistence or efficacy in the efforts of established authorities to impose identity on people. Should such trend prevail, it would probably be a springboard for further diversity and non-hierarchical forms of governance that can not only accommodate but encourage social differentiation. Likely, smaller micro political communities (municipalities, parishes, counties) may have more possibility to mold their governance structure to the demographic change than macro and supra political communities.

Strong anti-democratic counter-tendencies attempting to conserve the status quo and/or to take it to radical and highly ideological dimensions remain a key challenge for multi-level governance.  For example, at the macro level there are still many forces that promote the notion of the centralized/autonomous/authoritarian nation state to govern the territory without any regard for universal human rights, or for self-determination. At the micro level, there are also forces that do not support expanding women political participation or deny due process in judicial cases, and even claim conventional approaches of decision making and punishment. And of course, terrorist and rogue state actors in all of their forms remain a huge challenge for democratic governance at all levels.

The immediate challenge emerging is how to articulate macro and micro policies. Most current governance institutions are ill-suited for new and more encompassing forms of governance. A growing lack of legitimacy plagues current democratic governance (see declining voting participation rates, low trust in government rates, and how people perceive asymmetric representation and low performance by government, and persistent perception of corruption and of narrow/political party interests).  And as of yet, there are no clear avenues for the emergence of new forms of governance and/or political representation at all levels of governance. As Manuel Castells argues in his now classic book Networks of Outrage and Hope, “…this change is fundamental because it triggers a crisis of trust in the two big powers of our world: the political system and the financial system.  People don’t trust where they put their money and they don’t trust those who they delegate in terms of their vote.  “It’s a dramatic crisis of trust and if there is no trust, there is no society.”

In some parts of the world unprecedented economic growth, in particular in developing/transition countries, has given way to major segments of population to shift their focus from minimum requirements for survival (food, clothing and shelter) to pursuing other goals (education, mobility, consumer and technological goods). In addition, the trend continues in terms of increases in the average lifespan, productivity growth, and sufficient resources to fund sizeable public sector infrastructure and administration. In other parts, poverty, exclusion and conflict remain the sources of violence, extremism, authoritarianism and demagoguery.

A key element in changing the relationship between identity and authority is the capacity of individuals to engage or participate in making and/or implementing decisions. Current evidence shows that in the macro, meso and micro governance spaces, participation in policy making where measurable is low or not optimal.  At this stage, this is being interpreted as an effort to resist and eventually to break free from arbitrarily imposed rules and ineffective governance.  In terms of strictly cost-benefit analysis, citizens do not seem to see the benefits of a costly participatory process (in time, risks, and organization). For governance, whether at the national or sub-national levels, the prospect of re-connecting with citizens and individuals has both risks and opportunities. On the one hand, the risk of provoking destructive social conflicts and divided nations, and on the other the opportunity to carve a new social contract for more heterogeneous societies.

In these emerging communities the magnitude of the challenge is ensuring the integrity, trustworthiness and interoperability of diverse networks, while at the same time decoupling the 19th and 20th centuries’ fusion of nation, as an identity, and the monolithic state, as an administrative unit. For other countries, that are still consolidating their democratic political systems and enjoying a period of economic expansion, the transformation of society-wide decision-making systems is still part of a political process, particularly because of the sensitivities attached to the devolution of political, fiscal and administrative power to sub-national governments. Given the scale and scope of the societal transitions likely to mark the next decades, the possibility of risk and conflict remains high, and that could have an additional impact on multi-level governance and their institutional capacity to prevent/manage conflict.

But as Manuel Castells explains the title of his book, “yes there are enough reasons to be outraged at what is happening, but there cannot be outrage without hope.” How to bring power closer to the people is a key challenge of glocalization.  Restoring self-governance could inspire both global and local societies with a renewed sense of identity, vigor and pride. It means the construction of new democratic governance structures and a reversal of the degradation of political culture. Glocalization is not a silver bullet, but it is for the moment both an opportunity and risk at the same time. The challenge is how to unlock its potential for change, to improve democratic governance and humanity.

To use Dahl’s assertion in Democracy and its Critics, today we are in the cusp of a great transition from a uni-level to multi-level democratic governance.  As David Held reminded us in one of his articles at the beginning of the 21st Century, democratic governance can become entrenched in wider supra, national, municipal, city and community space, or else it might come to be thought of as that form of governance which became progressively more anachronistic in the 21st Century.  I think the choice is ours.

Written by Gerardo Berthin

This is a conversational blog written and maintained by Gerardo Berthin, a political scientist, who specializes in applied governance policy issues. This personal reflection is not intended to reflect the positions of organizations he is and/or has been affiliated with. All pictures unless otherwise noted are attributed to the author.

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