After decades of neglect, the idea of the world state has resurfaced in discussions.
Heikki Patomäki is a social scientist, activist, and Professor of World Politics at the University of Helsinki. He has published widely in various fields including philosophy, international relations and peace research.
The planetary perspective on the future of world politics is commonly associated with life and complex ecological systems on Earth. In the two centuries since the industrial revolution, the world economy has grown by a factor of 70 or 80. This huge economic growth has shaped the Earth system and led to multiple ongoing and interconnected ecological crises. Processes such as virus mutations, the development of science for example in AI and nanotechnology, securitisation of issues such as migration and environment, and peace and war, also shape the future of humanity – as does space expansionism, for global processes have already extended their reach beyond the globe and into outer space. These dynamics have generated increasingly serious existential threats to humanity, which seems incapable of addressing them. In January 2023, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists set the famous Doomsday Clock at 90 seconds to midnight – the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been. There is a need for novel ideas about the future of world politics.
During the 1940s debates about the world state, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: “The crisis of our age is undoubtedly due primarily to the fact that the requirements of technical civilisation have outrun the limited order which national communities have achieved, while the resources of our civilisation have not been adequate for the creation of political instruments of order, wide enough to meet these requirements”. In the 1970s, Immanuel Wallerstein used very different terminology, but shared at least in some essential sense of Niebuhr’s analysis. A world-system is based on a single division of labour and multiple cultural systems. A capitalist world-economy involves endless accumulation of capital, cycles of technological changes, and hegemonic (world) wars, while it lacks a single political system. For Wallerstein of the 1970s, the next stage of world history must be be a socialist world government. Later he seems to have changed his mind, became agnostic about “stages”, and started to adopt ideas from chaos theory. Chris Chase-Dunn has developed further Wallerstein’s early remarks in papers such as “World-state formation: Historical processes and emergent necessity”. These contributions notwithstanding, during the Cold War, the absence of a world state was taken as a self-evident fact, as in Kenneth Waltz’s theory of international politics.
After decades of neglect, the idea of the world state has resurfaced in discussions in several academic fields such as Political Theory, International Relations, and Global Political Economy. Oftentimes, however, these discussions reproduce the antinomies of the (post-)Englightenment era liberal theories. In my book, World Statehood: The Future of World Politics, I develop a new processual understanding of world statehood. I pose questions about world political integration, especially (1) whether and to what degree elements of world statehood exist today, (2) whether the development of further elements and functions of world statehood can be seen as a tendential direction of history, and (3) whether, and under what conditions, a world political community could be viable? These questions imply that the existence of a “world state” is not a categorical yes-or-no question, but rather we must carefully specify the elements and functions that can be associated with stateness. Moreover, process orientation reframes normative questions about the desirability of a “world state”. Evidence about the fate of federations in the modern age indicates that the imposition of common laws and institutions, especially if combined with a capability of violent enforcement of norms, may also decrease rather than increase the chances of peace.
A processual understanding of the evolvement of elements of world statehood must include an account of contradictory forces at play. In the twenty-first century, some forces push towards a world political community but there are also countertendencies (for historical political economy analysis of some recent developments, see this). While the current world economy is grounded on cooperative institutional arrangements revolving around free trade and a monetary and financial system, the world economy contains contradictions that risk aggravating conflicts. For instance, only a few governments may realise that it is contradictory for states to try to export their economic problems to other countries by various means, e.g. by maximising their trade surplus through internal devaluation. Rising uncertainties and inequalities generate existential insecurity, leading to securitisation and populist, nationalist, and xenophobic politics. What is more, global warming, overpopulation, pathogens, shortage of resources, weapons of mass destruction, and so on are not only understood as risks requiring global responses, but they also feed into insecurities.
The current early twenty-first-century situation is only a moment in world history. The argument of World Statehood: The Future of World Politics builds on a processual understanding of the world or, in philosophical terms, on process ontology. Also, time itself is process-based and intimately connected to causation. The moment of “now” is relative to the relevant processes. These processes may be nested or related in some other ways, and some of them endure much longer than others. The meaning of a past event – or limited process – depends on how the wider, bigger, or longer-term processes turn out. Because processes tend to be overlapping and interrelated, this can leave the meaning of an event or process undetermined even when it appears (from a less reflexive and holistic perspective) to have concluded. All this suggests that contemporary realities must be understood historically and reflexively and framed in various scales of time. Large time scales can involve reflections on the meaning and purpose of world history as a whole, including in terms of whether there are “stages” in some sense, or rational tendential directionality (for discussions on rational tendential directionality, see also this).
World Statehood is organized into three parts. The first part, “Cosmopolitical processes”, explores whether world history as a whole is directed towards planetary integration, focusing on the emergence of cosmopolitanism, the world economy, and the peace problematic. The second part of the book, “Reflexive futures and agency”, focuses on the contemporary 21st-century processes of world history in terms of how non-fixed pasts, changing contexts, and anticipations of the future interact. I explain how certain rational directionality is compatible with the possibility of deglobalisation, disintegrative tendencies, and “gridlock” in global governance in the key areas of the economy, security, and environment. A key point is that the rational tendential directionality of world history is contingent upon a transformative praxis. As the number of risks, problems, and contradictions multiplies, so do possible rational responses to them, constituting reasons for holoreflexivity, involving some comprehension of the mechanisms, structures, and processes of the global and planetary whole. Chapter 9, “Towards a world political party”, deepens the analysis of transformative agency (see also this and this). In the final part of the book, “World statehood and beyond”, I develop further the processual and open-ended account of the formation of interconnected elements of world statehood, especially by discussing the cases of a global greenhouse gas tax and world parliament. In the final chapter 13 of the book, I analyze the feasibility of different paths toward global-scale integration and the potential for conflicts, divisions, and disintegration.
This book continues from the final remarks of The Three Fields of Global Political Economy, where I argued that the movement towards global Keynesianism and attempts at responding to environmental and other global problems can be linked in various ways. Breakthrough in one area may be and is likely to become, a model for others, causing a paradigm shift. Sustainable growth must be life-promoting rather than exploiting other life forms and the planetary biosphere. A key question is whether democratic global-Keynesian institutions are sustainable if they remain based, to a substantial degree, on material growth and profit-seeking. As these kinds of questions abound, the inner codes of the whole will evolve under new multiscalar and multitemporal systems of global governance and, for some purposes, government.
Moreover, as explained further in the new book, the inner code of the whole is based on collective human learning. It is from this perspective that I develop a complex account of stages that may co-exist, overlap, and form various constellations in context-bound ways. Moreover, there must be a normative-philosophical rationale for why an alleged “higher” stage may be a better stage, i.e. why each later stage is a better method of reasoning about social rules and principles and thus more adequate for human cooperation and resolving conflicts in democratic terms. At the institutional level, collective learning involves political struggles, on which the future of humanity depends.
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