Transcending World Order Regressions

EDITORIAL, 29 Oct 2018

#558 | Richard Falk – TRANSCEND Media Service

Not long ago I reread a wonderful essay written by my friend Marc Nerfin over thirty-five years ago, published with this enigmatic title, “Neither Prince nor Merchant–Citizen: An Introduction to the Third System, 1981.” The essential position taken by Nerfin is that neither the sovereign state nor the economic order is oriented toward a humane and sustainable future, although both nodes of power remain necessary for the organization of life on the planet. For Nerfin what can alone produce an emancipatory politics is the further mobilization of what he labels as ‘the third system.’ Nerfin offered this definition:

“Contrasting with governmental power and economic power —the power of the Prince and the Merchant—there is an immediate and autonomous power, sometimes evident, sometimes latent: people’s power. Some people develop an awareness of this, associate and act with others and thus become citizens. Citizens and their associations, when they do not seek either governmental or economic power, constitute the Third System.”

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

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

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

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

The United States provided a partially benevolent leadership in world affairs, which while uncomfortably militarist, was still alert to the shared need for multilateral diplomacy and global lawmaking, as well as supportive of the United Nations so long as it understood its limits, that is, not challenging Western geopolitical maneuvers. Similarly, capitalism, still wanting to gain moral advantages in its rivalry with socialism, created social protection systems for much of its population, which while far from adequate, did introduce some degree of empathy into the dog-eat-dog life of capitalist society.

When we consider the present, the situation of prince and merchant seems dismal by comparison. The United States exhibits an authoritarian, demagogic, and plutocratic leadership style that repudiates multilateralism even on the most vital of global challenges. Without even attempting to offer reassurances, Trump champions a law-free sovereignty that is unapologetically dedicated to maximizing its national wealth and influence, backed up by escalating government investments avowedly designed to producing an all-powerful, globally capable military dominance that will last forever.

Such a dark vision was set forth unabashedly by Donald Trump in his recent speech to the UN General Assembly that happily provoked far more derisive laughter than applause, although tears might have been more appropriate. Coupled with Trump’s regressive geopolitics is the simultaneous launch of protectionist trade wars and private sector deregulation that encourages the plundering of the planet, the further dismantling of domestic social protection structures, while being denialist or dismissive with respect to the grave multiple ongoing challenges of global warming, genocidal strife, massive human displacement, and expanding pockets of extreme poverty.

Yet it is not just a matter of this American populist embrace of what seems like a pre-fascist agenda at home and a disastrous retreat from engagement internationally, but structural trends along nationally distinctive yet globally convergent lines. Almost every large country is beset by right-wing ultra-nationalist leadership that mobilizes its base of support by finding scapegoats within its borders to account for mass frustration and anger, and favors walls to exhibit an exclusionary political will, epitomizing a callous rejection of  migrants fleeing combat, destitution, and despair, a sure sign of a fractured humanity. This global pattern signifies structural imbalances that have led to enraging levels of inequality that results in stagnancy or worse for the multitude, while showering unprecedented wealth on tiny economic, often corrupt and criminalized elites.

Whereas Nerfin could invest his hopes in the creativity and visionary potential of people organized for fundamental change, we now have reasons to fear that the manipulation of democratic passions for the sake of order and vengeance will make a woefully inadequate system of world order even worse. The recent Brazilian elections are indicative of what we need to fear and oppose—an unqualified demagogic candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, known for his expressions of hatred toward minorities and campaign promises to drain violently the swamps of government of its corrupt elements provisionally triumphs over traditional social democrats and even market oriented conservatives.

In this respect, we need to question whether and how the energies of the Third System, commoning, and globalization-from-below can be redirected toward emancipatory goals in ways that have mass appeal, or must we look elsewhere to meet the urgent challenges of this bio-ethical moment when organized global society seems distracted from such time-urgent policy priorities as climate change, genocide, and nuclearism.

To be fair, the Nerfin and Bollier perspectives do not expect media manipulated mainstream citizenries to provide the emancipatory energies needed. They are more reliant on accelerating detachment of persons and groups from these central organizing systems of state and market, finding free space to envision and enact alternatives in local settings that are indifferent, or even hostile toward conventional coding classifications of nationality, ethnicity, and religion. Perhaps, such exploratory communities are the crucibles for civilizational transformations that will usher in a planetary civilization guided by human interests when it comes to the global agenda and by local governance with respect to the daily life of communities. Even if this is so, the world order crises that are threatening the human and non-human futures with catastrophe pose emergencies that cannot depend on the long temporal rhythms of axial transformation, which last for centuries when we now are faced with challenges that must be met within decades.

Nerfin recognized that while emancipation was a Third System undertaking, the organization of global complexities still required responsible action by prince and merchant. In this respect, there is no escaping the imperatives of turning the tables on right-wing populism and predatory capitalism if the human species is to find the time, space, and imaginative energies to fulfill the vision and potential of ecological humanism, the only ethos that can build credible hopes for the further unfolding of the twenty-first century.


Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 29 Oct 2018.

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2 Responses to “Transcending World Order Regressions”

  1. With all the admiration and respect I have for Richard Falk’s knowledge and writings, I’m afraid there are three lines in today’s article that clearly define our differences.

    “The United States provided a partially benevolent leadership in world affairs, which while uncomfortably militarist, was still alert to the shared need for multilateral diplomacy and global lawmaking, as well as supportive of the United Nations so long as it understood its limits, that is, not challenging Western geopolitical maneuvers.”

    I don’t know how old Mr Falk is, but in my 77 years on this planet, I have never noticed “the United States providing any sort of benevolent leadership in world affairs, not even partial. All I have seen is the United States frantically persuing Dwight Eisenhower’s ‘orders’: that the United States must achieve “Full Spectrum Dominance, by land, sea and air”. And I have seen the world blindly accept the American dream or plan, opening their territories for the United States to install their own military bases.

    American “benevolent leadership” has meant war after war in many corners of the world, starting with Israel/Palestine, who’ve not been allowed by the United States to live in Peace. What they’ve done to Korea, Vietnam, Angola, Cambodia, etc, etc, is far from benevolent.

    USA’s “multilateral diplomacy and global lawmaking” has been used exclusively to benefit American interests.
    The United States have never been “supportive of the United Nations”. The United States only and exclusively support the United States.

    Since Richard Falk is an expert in Human Rights, I’d welcome a public debate with him on “the role of America and allies on the abuse of the 30 articles of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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