Thursday, May 8, 2008

Global administrative law: What's the point?

The major focus of global administrative law is, of course, about finding ways to regulate the activities of global regulatory bodies, in order that the exercise of public power beyond the nation-state remains responsive - and accountable - to the interests upon which it impacts. Is there any real point to this, however, when, as David Rothkopf has suggested recently, the real power and influence in global affairs is exercised by a small, networked group of super-rich individuals that he calls the "superclass", a group characterised by their individual capacity to profoundly influence the lives of millions? Here is Rothkopf's take on what is at stake:

In a world with only two kinds of international institutions -- weak and dysfunctional -- the members of this superclass are filling a power vacuum when it comes to influencing decisions about transnational issues such as financial-market regulation or climate change. (Many countries voted for the Kyoto accords on global warming, but it took just Exxon and a handful of other oil companies to successfully lobby the White House to opt out and undercut the entire initiative.) In so doing, they raise real questions about the future of global governance. Will the global era be more democratic or less so? Will inequality continue to grow, as it has for the past three decades of this group's rise, or recede? Will the few dominate because the government mechanisms that traditionally represent the views of the many are so underdeveloped on a global scale?

I heard an interesting discussion of this book (involving, amongst others, the author himself) on BBC Radio 4's Thinking Alllowed programme last week (available here, for the time being at least - the relevant section starts around 15 minutes in). Rothkopf notes that his book is intended as "a look at how the power structure of the global era is different from the power structure of eras in the past", citing the rapid rise in private actors among the most influential actors in global governance, who together form a relatively homogeneous, networked superclass, "knitted together" by such events as the World Economic Forum in Davos, at and through which they set the global agenda ("Davos is the factory where global conventional wisdom is manufactured", according to Rothkopf).

Is global administrative law useless in such a context? Quite the contrary: the power and influence of the 6000 or so members of this "superclass" can rarely be exercised directly; rather, it must be mediated through the public institutions that are still formally responsible for making decisions and adopting legislation. In theory, it is precisely through the establishment and application of robust administrative law mechanisms, ensuring transparency, participation and accountability, that it can be made much more difficult for public power to be influenced in an undue manner by private interests (without, of course, any naivety as to its capacity to achieve this goal in any ideal manner).

Far from rendering it useless, then, the emergence of the "superclass" provides us with one of the most pressing reasons for pushing on with the global administrative law project to the greatest extent possible (whilst remaining, of course, alert to the danger that the mechanisms and rules thus proposed can themselves function as instruments of capture for dominant interests). As Rothkopf himself notes, at the end of the radio piece referred to above, "we need the public sector empowered on the global stage to represent the interests of the many, so that the interests of the few don’t drive the car…".

This, of course, is precisely the point.

No comments: