Remembering David Held: Political scientist who unpacked the tango of globalisation and democracy

The professor and author argued that democratic global governance was critical to keeping far-right populism in check

Anthony Giddens
Wednesday 13 March 2019 15:12
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Held speaks at Rome’s Luiss University in 2015
Held speaks at Rome’s Luiss University in 2015

Professor David Held was a distinguished figure in the fields of political theory and international relations. He took his undergraduate degree at Manchester University, graduating in 1973, and subsequently studied in the US, gaining a PhD at MIT three years later. Held, who has died aged 67, had his first academic post at the Open University and occupied a range of scholastic positions before eventually becoming professor of politics at the LSE.

Later, he moved to the University of Durham, where he became master of University College. He co-founded Polity Press, a leading academic publisher, in 1984. His productivity was extraordinary: Held authored or edited some 60 books over the course of his career. (These include 2014’s Gridlock: Why Global Cooperation is Failing when We Need it Most and 2004’s Global Covenant: The Social Democratic Alternative to the Washington Consensus.)

Two themes dominated his writings: the origins and nature of democracy; and the impact of globalisation upon the contemporary world. He wrote about the history of democracy from its origins in ancient Greece through to the present time; but concentrated most of his attention on issues current today. He lived through, and wrote about, the three major phases in the development of democracy over the past several decades: the uneasy coexistence of western democracy with communism; the period of the “end of history” after 1989, in which it seemed that democracy was set to spread across much of the world; and the current era, in which liberal democracy is threatened by the rise of far-right populism and authoritarian political leaders.

One of Held’s main contributions to political thought was his emphasis that democracy within states must always be understood in relation to wider issues in the international order – above all as the world becomes increasingly interconnected. As globalisation advances, democratic governance above the level of the nation-state is a crucial complement to the internal politics of states – even if its advance is fraught with problems and conflicts.

Held was a pioneer of the idea of “cosmopolitan democracy” – the notion that the ideals of democratic government do not stop at the borders of nations but are crucial also for transnational institutions. While such ideals stretch at least as far back as Kant, they achieved and new and contemporary relevance with the ending of the Cold War. Democracy on the international level, Held argued, cannot simply ape that within states, but must take a different form. The core idea behind cosmopolitan democracy, in the words of Held and his collaborator, Daniele Archibugi, was “to globalise democracy while at the same time democratising globalisation”.

Held speaks at Oxford University’s Department of International Development in 2013 (ODID/YouTube)

In the 1990s this ambition seemed for a while a realistic one. Yet, as Held noted later, the governments of the leading states, including the US, did not respond to such appeals, even though they were echoed by many advocates across the world. The International Criminal Court remains the only major reform of this sort introduced since 1989. The ideals of cosmopolitan democracy nonetheless remain fundamental if we are to cope with the problems of an increasingly interdependent world.

The “end of history”, of course, itself ended quite precipitously. Today all the talk is of a crisis of democracy, affecting many if not all of the liberal democratic states. In the shape of the current confrontations between the US, China, Russia and other major states or power blocs, geopolitics is back big-time.

The crisis of liberal democracy, Held argued in his most recent writings, cannot be understood solely in terms of internal conflicts within states. The deep drivers of change here are to be found at the intersection of the national and the global. It is only by exposing these to view that we can hope to grasp the reasons for the retreat into nationalism, coupled to the rise of far-right populism. As compared to 1989, globalisation – world interdependence – has advanced much further than ever before, as a result of instantaneous digital communication and the increasing economic interdependence of states. Yet there is a vicious circle here rather than a positive one, for a range of reasons. The world is in “gridlock” rather than coping with collective problems and dangers.

Accelerating interdependence is undermining the very international institutions needed to help shape and control it in the interests of the world community as a whole. The rise of China, India, Japan and other Asian countries has created rival power blocs. International agreements are hard to bring about just at the time when we need them the most. The problems we have to face on a world level – such as climate change – are thus exceedingly difficult to cope with and may even become intractable. Our tools of global policymaking are under severe strain.

“The result,” in Held’s words, “is a dangerous drift in global politics punctuated by surges of violence and the desperate movement of peoples looking for stability and security.” We are at risk of being entrapped in a vicious circle, operating on a global scale and refracting into national politics.

In his last writings, Held noted the similarities between the current period of world history and the 1930s – “the clamour for protectionism, ineffective regional and international institutions, and a growing xenophobic discourse that places virtually all the blame for every problem on some form of Other.” Held rejected pessimism, however. We can and must learn from the mistakes of the past: this is a world both of high risk and unique opportunities for reshaping our global future in a positive way.

David Held, political scientist, born 27 August 1951, died 2 March 2019

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