07 December 2018

Rethinking Global Governance for the 21st Century

In July 2018 the International Panel on Social Progress (IPSP) issued a three-volume report on Rethinking Society for the 21st Century. Patterned on the International Panel on Climate Change, reflecting four years of debate and preparation, and published by Cambridge University Press, Rethinking Society assesses prospects and perspectives for social progress in the forthcoming decades. Two professors at the Graduate Institute, Gopalan Balachandran and Grégoire Mallard, coordinated the report’s chapter on “Governing Capital, Labor, and Nature in a Changing World”, which explores the nature and meanings of “global governance”, and its unfolding tensions. Here they share their insights and experiences of working on this project.

The project and its people

Grégoire Mallard. The IPSP involved over 300 researchers from all parts of the world. Our chapter comprised seven other authors – Olufunmilayo Arewa, Lucio Baccaro, Tim Büthe, Andrea Nightingale, Pierre Pénet, Dominique Pestre and Anthea Roberts – from various disciplines to review debates and developments about governance in our respective fields. This was a challenging exercise as we had to form a consensus on what our respective fields could say about the issue and from what perspectives they could be studied. Every scholar came with their expertise: for some, the Global North with a focus on the IMF, the European Central Bank and finance, for others, labour, environment or the Global South. So, the goal was to bring together experiences from both the Global North and the Global South. We also had to identify the time that gave birth to the term “global governance”.

We had three meetings to discuss the goals and deliberations at the start of the project, in Turkey, Lisbon and Geneva. For me, personally, it was a great experience to work with this wonderful cohort, and Bala was the best leading co-author I could have dreamt of partnering with: he not only brought his immense knowledge of historical processes, but also his political sagacity, and his genuine modesty – a much-needed component in the making of a chapter authored by nine very different and equally gifted authors. Besides, the Graduate Institute has deep connections with the IPSP as two of its faculty members – Shalini Randeria and Vinh-Kim Nguyen – are involved in the steering committee.

Gopalan Balachandran. Leading the IPSP report’s chapter on global governance was a unique and interesting experience. Though I have led a large research team before, this experience was different because my co-authors were from such diverse disciplinary backgrounds, covering law, political science, sociology and environmental studies, besides of course history.

It may seem a bit old-fashioned, but it was important to me from the start to have a clear, cogent and intellectually coherent framework capable of fostering conversations across the disciplines, both among the authors and more widely. The last thing one wanted was for the chapter to meander into banalities or descend into “drafting by committee”. With such disciplinary diversity, it seems, even looking back when everything is done and dusted and the result is there for everyone to see, that it was a formidable challenge that I could only have accepted from a sense of adventure.

Fortunately, this sense of adventure did not turn out to be misplaced. The credit for that largely goes to my fellow co-authors. The IPSP report has an interesting structure: each chapter has two coordinating lead authors (CLAs) and several lead authors (LAs). Chapters are about 35,000 to 40,000 words long, so about half the length of a monograph. Along with the invitation to be a CLA, the IPSP sent me a list of several names, mainly or all very senior figures, from which to select a fellow CLA. But I am glad they consented to go beyond this list and invite Grégoire to join me as a CLA because this was very much a joint project from the start. Personally, too, I greatly enjoyed working with Grégoire, from whom there is always something to learn.

Selecting the LAs was another interesting and knowledge-filled exercise. They are all very accomplished and busy scholars with established and growing reputations in their respective fields. Most also knew the others only by reputation, so, however you look at it – professionally, disciplinarily, interpersonally or inter-culturally, not to mention the challenges of distance and coordination across all these factors – there was much at stake for everyone. It was indeed a minor miracle that we were able even to come together, let alone, despite the inevitable hiccups which mercifully proved manageable, that we could take the chapter to a successful conclusion. The LAs were wonderful, both individually and as team players, as nice personally as they are professionally accomplished, and it was a pleasure to work with them. And that, even before I begin to consider everything I learnt during this three-year-long process.

Taking a good look at “global” and “governance”

GM. What we do in this chapter is to not treat the term of “governance” from a purely normative point of view, that is, good or bad, and rather situate it historically. We ponder on what are the forces behind this turn from the international community of states, notably deregulation, which largely gave market actors more room to define their own regulations, so that self-regulation has become an important feature of what we call “global governance”. Some authors are very critical of the boom of governance, which for them marks the deregulation of labour, the rise of neoliberalism and the financialisation of economy. This is the negative view. The other view is very positive as it considers that governance creates more accountability. Citizens are more empowered than in previous periods because they are in a position to ask questions to the government. They are more involved in the activities of international organisations and international negotiations, giving room to not only private organisations but social enterprises and NGOs. Also, governance itself is a horizontal process, not a vertical one, and it is more inclusive too.

So, we had to basically assess how these two currents of governance are historically mapped out in five interconnected fields, which are finance and macro-economic management, trade, investment, environment and labour. They are interconnected in the sense that deregulation manifests differently in these five fields. Consequently, we have paid attention to the autonomy of scholars working in the five thematics.

GB. Three things were clear from the start, especially to me as a historian, but also happily to my other colleagues. First, “global governance” was not something already out there. It was not natural or inevitable, but a contested project still taking shape – remember this was all well before the political developments of 2016 – and open to intervention from many directions. Second, the same was true of the “global”, and indeed, “governance” could in itself be productive of the “global”. Finally, “global governance” was not an unambiguous “good”, and scales, levels and modes of governance could look very different depending on the relative priority accorded (in alphabetical order of course!) to accountability, efficiency and equity, and the trade-offs between them that one is willing to accept.

It is one thing, however, to acknowledge these points in principle, quite another to work through them in our respective domains. In the end, we had many productive conversations about these priorities and their implications for interpreting changing scales and modes of governance in our five domains. It was also fascinating to learn how particular modes or layers of governance were normalised across or within particular areas, and how these then sought to engage with evolving challenges. Such engagements involved politics in the broadest sense of the term, i.e., contestations over terms, meanings, sources of knowledge, ethics, mobilisations of the above, as well as diverse agents, contexts and milieus, structures, outcomes, and so on.

Research outcomes and insights

GM. Many findings have surprised us during the course of the research. For example, we found out that nobody had ever carried out research the way we did – never before had experts come together to look at the effects of the rise of global governance in those five fields, and notably how regulation has been affected in the last thirty years by the financialisation of the economy.

We tried to see whether a dialogue between the Global North and the Global South was possible. Our starting point was a critical approach, drawing on the theoretical literature of scholars like James Ferguson or neo-Foucauldian authors. However, some scholars do show potentialities of redress in the system, for instance in the system of arbitration that has been in a sense associated with the opening of capital markets. Those markets still need protection for their fund investments in the Global South. Countries in the Global South have criticised modes of capital investments and government structures for curtailing the rights of people to change public policy, as happens for example when companies sue states for having changed laws that in their eyes harm their interests. Our project tried to consider all those tendencies and furthermore to identify issues where new opportunities of alliances and new unexpected outcomes might occur. We are therefore not pessimistic as we focus not only on the inequalities produced by governance but also on the possible emergence of alternative regulations in lieu of the current one.

GB. I would like to speak to what historians can bring to projects like this. Historians are in a particularly privileged position in that they have potentially the tools and skills to look through and beyond the grids within which, otherwise, our outlooks and imaginations can tend to calcify. It also helped that I had studied global macroeconomic management as part of my graduate training in economics and later also as a historian. The international financial system and central banking were precocious exemplars, as it were, of both “global” and “global governance”, and have luckily remained areas of interest through my own career transitions. I have also worked on worldwide offshoring of labour and employment. So, in terms of both my own research interests and the broader perspectives I could bring as a historian to the chapter, it was an enriching and fulfilling experience.

This experience of collaboration also reinforced my belief in history as an approach and method. History is potentially the nimblest of disciplines – which is what attracted me to it in the first place. It is possible, of course, to research the past through wooden or rigid frames, but at the end of the day, the great promise of history lies in its inherent capacity to be rigorous (I mean analytically rather than only empirically, though one may debate what “empirical” means in relation to rigour) without being rigid. It is a gratifying insight that working on this chapter helped reaffirm for me.

Full citation of the chapter:
Balachandran, Gopalan, Grégoire Mallard, Olufunmilayo Arewa, Lucio Baccaro, Tim Büthe, Andrea Nightingale, Pierre Pénet, Dominique Pestre, and Anthea Roberts. “Governing Capital, Labor, and Nature in a Changing World.” Chapter. In Rethinking Society for the 21st Century: Report of the International Panel on Social Progress, edited by IPSP, 2:491–522. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. doi:10.1017/9781108399647.005.

Interview by Aditya Kiran Kakati, doctoral candidate in International History and Anthropology and Sociology, and Sucharita Sengupta, doctoral candidate in Anthropology and Sociology.

Front picture: extract from an early flight collecting card, Les utopies de la navigation aérienne au siècle dernier, ca. 1895. From the Tissandier Collection at the US Library of Congress. Flickr photo by trialsanderrors/CC BY-2.0.