Ulrich Brand « Debatte

Ulrich Brand

28. April 2010,

Ulrich Brand

Ulrich Brand is Professor of International Politics at the Institute of Political Science at Vienna University. He studied Political Science and Economics at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Humboldt University in Berlin and the Universidad de Buenos Aires. He earned his PhD at Frankfurt University in 2000. He has published on Global Governance and International Political Economy, state and regulation theory, NGOs and social movements in international politics and on environmental politics.

The assumption is right that little is written on the complex relationship of the two topics. First of all, it is important to highlight that there should be a common but differentiated responsibility in international climate politics. Many countries with so-called emerging economies contribute quite significantly and increasingly to anthropogenic climate change which must be considered. The text is an informed and differentiated comparison of various countries or types of countries; the text highlights increasing conflicts over resources and the fact that climate change exacerbates inequality. An argument is made for a form of deliberative democracy (however, it remains a bit opaque what does that mean exactly). This sheds light on important issues and short-comings of actual democracies. Moreover, it seems important to me that HBS promotes a debate on democracy and climate change policies since there is undoubtedly the danger to promote effective sustainability policies through authoritarian rule. And, not least, in the current debate on the crisis which is dominated by “market” and “state” a tough reminder on the role of civil society is adequate.

In order to enhance the debate, I comment some points briefly.

The argument of cruel choice is important; climate mitigation indeed might stand against democracy and development. However, what the text fails to do is to outline more explicitly the dominant and destructive model of development. Which role does play the competition on the world market and related policies of competitiveness which seems to be the rational of political and social action today? What is with the broadly discussed topic of energy security? In my view and despite all advances, climate change policies remain mainly symbolic or in line with strategies of ecological modernisation. There are little initiatives which really intend to alter the dominant “fossilist” model of production and consumption and related political institutions. In that sense, we need an analysis of the political economy of climate change and relate this to questions of democracy. I would also like to ask if the political conditions in the countries of the so-called developed world are really favourable to combat climate change (Peter Burnell asks this question, too. But he does not consider the socio-economic context). From my perspective this has to do with the fact that the “fossilist” mode of production and consumption is deeply inscribed in the political, socio-economic and cultural system. Therefore, it is important to transform these deeply embedded modes.

Peter Burell´s scepticism towards democratic developments in so-called developing countries is right. However, I would like to discuss in more detail his assumption that there are few alternatives to Western liberal democracies (complemented by more participation and deliberation). Liberal democracy is beside the dimensions Peter Burrell outlines rightly a form to organise social domination and also the domination-shaped appropriation of nature. There is a broad consensus in Western liberal-democratic societies that the only desirable way to alter the mode of development is ecological modernisation and – not outspoken – not to let the global South to “develop” but in dependency.

The democratisation of many countries in the last two or three decades should be acknowledged. However, I want to ask what economic model was established as the dominant one (we can call it neoliberal or something else) and how this model affects democracy and the state. Some call the transformation of the state one towards a “national competition state” (Joachim Hirsch) which increasingly empties out forms and contents of democracy.

I read the text with an implicit or even explicit politicism (even in the last section a broad understanding of democracy is mentioned). There seems to be an assumption that with better political or state capacities, more liberal democracy and an adequate international framework the political system might solve problems related to climate change. However, a political economic perspective would broaden this approach by asking which interests are against profound transformations. Surprisingly, the author does not mention opposing social forces to effective policies to combat climate change like the coal and oil industry (in fact, industry is mentioned once throughout the text).

Another implicit assumption seems to be that the existing social order should be maintained. In many cases this is true but we become a problem if we consider emancipatory struggles against the existing order and its forms of power and dominations. How do we evaluate them when they go beyond the claim for participation under existing circumstances but when they want to change the latter more profoundly? Related to that: What does participation mean? We have now almost 20 years (at least) of growing formal participation of civil society actors but at the same time there are more authoritarian modes of decision-making. The concept of governance – critically read – indicates that political decisions are more and more prepared in commissions and by experts and are taken in intransparent ways.

Finally, there is much debate in political science and IR about the today´s problematic or at least insufficient distinction between a national and an international level; especially when we consider the EU. The argument of the text would be sharpened if it was considered if and how the distinction between (national) democracy and forms of international politics change and blur (cf. already Görg/Hirsch 1998 “Is International Democracy Possible?” in Review of International Political Economy). I try to develop the concept of the “internationalisation of the state” in order to understand better how national societies, the respective states as well as democratic structures and processes are not (and possibly were never) independent from international political, economic and cultural developments.

In sum, we should discuss if an understanding of democracy which restricts democratic structures and processes to the political sphere is not too narrow. Historical and actual experiences, advances and problems of, e.g., economic democracy should be considered. This implies a democratisation of the forms of societal relationships with nature, i.e. democratised access to resources (including the global commons) and therefore a democratised disposition over the means of production, a more just distribution of waste, and an equal use of sinks. When this goes hand in hand with learning processes and accountability of the democratic system but also of individuals and collectives, perspectives might open for the necessary profound transformation of (global)society in order to combat climate change.

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  1. Yes, the paper is opaque on the matter of deliberative democracy, which much better qualified people than me (i.e. some full-time theorists of democracy) say is a pretty accurate reflection of the current state of the discourse. The viability of models of political organisation other than but more democratic than standard western forms of liberal democratic is not discussed in the paper. It could usefully be included in a more extended discussion. The paper simply makes the presumption that in global terms radical political change in a more democratic direction looks less likely to happen than change in a more illiberal and undemocratic direction. This is what most surveys of politics in the world tell us has been happening over the last four years (e.g. Freedom House surveys; Bertelsmann index; etc). And much talk about the rise of China as an increasingly influential world power in the future only increases speculation that future trends might be even less favourable to democratisation (a much cited illustration is Robert Kagan’s The Return of History and the End of Dreams).

    Yes, the paper does not offer an account of the ‘dominant and destructive model of development’ and more specifically the role of the market. This is a separate and huge and relevant debate – relevant to both climate change and to democracy and democratisation as well as to the relationships among these. As such it is worthy of many substantial papers in its own right. You are right to call for more study of the political economy of climate change, although I think the existence of politically influential industrial interest opposed to climate action is mentioned in the paper – but, like so much else, could be only be raised very briefly. The whole issue of democracy/democratisation beyond the formally recognised political sphere also extends the debate in directions the paper could not cover, and where others have much to contribute. But it does not necessarily mean that the conventional distinctions of autocracy, hybrid (or intermediate) regimes and liberal and electoral democracies makes no difference to political practice in the real world.

    And yes, obviously humankind must move away from a ‘fossilist’ mode of production, and the question of how this can happen is much more than an issue of what new technologies are available.

    The impact of globalisation on the state and on the outlook for democracy at the level of the national state is another of those huge debates (or, rather, two debates) where different opinions and points of view can be found. I am not familiar with every contribution, but clearly should investigate the items mentioned in the comments.

    Thank you.

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