Does World Society Require a World Government?

I am currently doing research to develop the concept of “world society” that first appeared in my essay “Critique of the Concept of ‘the System.’” What follows is a brief response to the most frequent question I get when I mention a world society: Do you mean a world government? The thoughts, though, are scattered because I’m only in the preliminary stages of research. I strongly invite feedback, criticisms, and debate through email or in the comments.


By “world society” I do not necessarily mean a global government. That is a distinct possibility, one that has been suggested by many of the architects and thinkers behind our current global order, Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Russell among them. It has also been repeatedly suggested by big names of the current technician class, such as Bezos, Musk, or Zuckerberg. And the idea appears in nearly all internationalist movements, from the politicians and diplomats in the UN to hobbyists campaigning for a new universal language. But a global government is not the most likely result in the short term (that is, the next few decades).

John Burton in World Society even suggests that a global administrative structure like those we are used to with states would be impossible for world society. He writes:

This world human society is clearly not a political or an administrative entity. It comprises smaller societies such as states, nations and local communities, and even smaller social groups such as business organizations, schools and families. World society will never be an integrated whole… One reason is an administrative one: effective decentralization of decision-making that gives people a sense of participation, and which takes account of local conditions, will increase with the passage of time and not decrease. Another reason is a psychological one. People have a need to identify with others: first the family and kinship groups, then wider social groups, then the nation and the state. Very few people are able to identify with world society. Each of these separate social groups is influenced in its behavior by its own material circumstances including climate, geographical position, available resources and living standards, and by its traditions and culture. Each has its own fears, envies, hopes and ambitions.

There is also difficulty applying state concepts like law to international relations. Certainly lawyers have attempted to do this, but in the absence of administration more powerful than the United Nations, it is an impossible task. So for the time being, world society is simply a society, and it is more apt to talk of governance than government.

The very concept of a world society undermines traditional notions of the state. Much has been written already about the association between globalization and the rise of non-state actors in politics. It has a bit of a “wild west” feel to it. Before technological and economic development unified the world’s states, the traditional Westphalian state system, and even its modifications after WWII, worked just fine. But as we gained a more global frame, those who study “international relations” began to talk of “international anarchy,” that is, the idea that theoretically no state has a means to govern other states, except through persuasion or force. It is possible, then, for organized groups to bypass the state entirely, to go straight to a global audience for its campaigning and lobbying. This is precisely what we see today. Theorists in international relations argue it incessantly: Huntingdon’s Clash of Civilizations, for example, argues that awareness of a world society is strengthening pre-state loyalties, signalling that global conflict will be more between cultures, races, and religions than between states; Kaplan in “The Coming Anarchy” argues similarly, and points out the role environmental crises will play; and van Creveld’s Rise and Decline of the State deals with the topic generally, emphasizing especially the role of technology.

This might seem to contradict what I and others have written previously about the tendency for civilizations to develop greater unity as they “progress.” But the primary force shaping our sense of unity and identity is our environment: either our ecology, in more traditional ways of life, or our technology, in the more civilized. Global unity is the product of technological and economic development, to which our institutions are responding.

Previously, like in the time of colonization, this meant greater institutional unity as well. That whole process was absolutely essential to facilitating greater technological and economic unity: establishment of trade routes and trade relations, various developments in communications networks, etc. But, interestingly, by the 60s we saw organizations like the UN, themselves signals of greater world unity, facilitating an apparent process of disunity: decolonization. This seems to be in direct contradiction to primitivist ideas, which suggest greater unification among and between populations of people. It is easily explained by the specific economic situation: with the benefits of colonization, like greater technological unity, already established, it became possible for institutions to relax their strongholds over colonized areas, freeing them up while maintaining the benefit of technological and economic dependence. Galbraith writes:

The engine of economic well-being was now within and between the advanced industrial countries. Domestic economic growth — as now measured and much discussed — came to be seen as far more important than the erstwhile colonial trade… The economic effect in the United States from the granting of independence to the Philippines was unnoticeable, partly due to the Bell Trade Act, which allowed American monopoly in the economization of the Philippines. The departure of India and Pakistan made small economic difference in the UK. Dutch economists calculated that the economic effect from the loss of the great Dutch empire in Indonesia was compensated for by a couple of years or so of domestic post-war economic growth. The end of the colonial era is celebrated in the history books as a triumph of national aspiration in the former colonies and of benign good sense on the part of the colonial powers. Lurking beneath, as so often happens, was a strong current of economic interests — or, in this case, disinterest.

In addition, before decolonization the UN mostly negotiated relations between a few major states, the colonizers themselves. Decolonization allowed them to integrate, piecemeal, greater areas of territory into their institutional apparatus. Whereas before relations between colonized African regions might have to be dealt with through their colonial owners, after decolonization the territory could campaign independently. This is similar to the way the French Revolutionaries broke up guilds, families, and other small groups units to, as Jacques Ellul put it, “atomize” the individual and force him to cleave to the new state institution.

The question of global government, then, is unclear. World society might develop along two routes: we might be seeing institutional rearrangements that facilitate something approaching a global government, or at least some global administrative entity; or we might actually see institutional atomization, with the tasks of behavior control, conflict management, and so on, traditionally the purview of the state, offset to technology.

I am not yet convinced that we will not see global administrative institutions with a lot of power. But the idea that current institutions will atomize jives nicely with a few trends.

Consider the hopes of many technicians, who talk of technology “merging” into our environment so as to become unnoticeable. In some ways this is already what is happening. International finance, for example, largely runs on an automated algorithmic process; one paper in Nature spoke of a “machine ecology” developing “beyond human response time.”

Non-state and smaller-than-state actors are taking a greater role in world government, particularly cities. Cities are one of the most stable civilized institutions, often surviving the collapse of their respective civilizations or empires. They are also at the core of our financial system; after all, historically, trade routes were developed between cities, not states, per se. A recent CityLab article covers the phenomenon of states claiming their political power when it comes to global society.

Universities are similar to cities, except instead of being the centers of trade and finance, they are the centers of technological and scientific development. They, too, are rather stable civilized institutions (their origin is from the Middle Ages!). And they, too, are deeply influential in international organizations.

It has long been the dream of humanist environmentalists to see a kind of merger between technology and nature. The above-mentioned trends seem to support their vision. I write, for example, in “Refuting the Apartheid Alternative” that there is an idea among some strains of environmentalists to create “island civilizations,” that is, pockets of technological societies that are capable of sustaining large numbers of people. Transportation would be consolidated to facilitate travel between these islands, while the outskirts would slowly be depopulated or returned to nature. Conceptually this sounds a bit crazy, but in practice it only amounts to what we have been doing for a long time: urbanization, that is, the flow of people into large cities; the establishment of trade-routes between cities; and the increased priority of wildlands conservation after the industrial revolution. Nash in Wilderness and the American Mind touches on the way wilderness conservation develops economic utility under global social conditions; and everyone in international relations recognizes the role ecological problems will play in 21st century global politics.

What is clear is that regardless of whether or not there will be a global government, there will be a global identity. Despite what Burton says about people not being able to easily identify with world society, there are numerous trends that indicate the contrary.

For example, it is well-known that universities make a concerted effort to instill in students a “global consciousness,” making students from the most rural background graduate with a similar set of metropolitan, global values. This is no mistake. The International Baccalaureate program, for example, was established explicitly to undermine state loyalties and inspire identification with world society. The paper that formed the basis for this program, “Educational Techniques for Peace: Do They Exist?” set out “to educate children so that they may become members of the human race as a whole, and not merely members of separate nations.” This could be achieved by, for example, learning a borderless form of the world map first, or teaching world history before teaching the history of the students’ home countries.

This, like the UN’s involvement in decolonization, suggests that the current institutional atomization we see is only a set up for loyalty to more international institutions later. This is why although we may very well see aspects of political decentralization, they do not point to a trend toward real autonomy.

3 Comments

  • Robert McGuinn says:

    Interesting. I see this globalization urge in my chosen field of study, biological information management. For example, at first there is a National Database of Deep Sea Corals and Sponges that covers only US waters, but the data that we curate for that database is further aggregated into the International Ocean Biological Information System (OBIS). This global aggregation is a logical stopping point at the top of the hierarchy from very local information to globally organized information. The global aggregation is extremely helpful for enhancing our understanding of the dynamics of biological systems that span the globe. It is also much easier to perform this aggregation if the databases can easily talk to each other, enter Darwin Core standards. This is common, where agreed upon ontologies and semantic linkages allow global ‘harmonization’ of information across scales of organization. These ontological relationships allow data to talk to each other, and fortunately or unfortunately, this will be the basis of how AI’s will ‘think’ about the world. I say, as we build these semantic entities and relationships, we are building the brains of the robots that will eventually kill us all. As we (if we) become an interplanetary species, the logical stopping point for organization will go beyond the globe to ‘multiple globe’ systems of organzation. The ontologies will expand accordingly to embrace the conditions of other planets and we will then have interplanetary databases of biological organisms. No matter what though, the globe(s) will always be a great stopping point for this urge to aggregate scales, given the natural barrier of space and the floating balls within it. Maybe the globe is the ultimate natural break point for organization of information, and possibly human society and governance in general. Not saying it is ‘right’, whatever that means, just that it is a natural urge, especially within the field of biological information management.

  • To me it seems that it makes most sense that an existing body evolves into a world government: UN. It has name, reputation and is trusted by most states. I worked on a sci-fi story to explore the idea: on the symbolic centennial of ww2 (2039), basic income kicks off in member states to facilitate a more equal distribution of wealth. People have more free time on their hands and this results in a deeper interest to explore the galaxy. I will publish the third and final part of this story on my fiction blog next week Friday May 24.

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