Ethics & International Affairs Volume 21.2 (Summer 2007): Book Reviews: Globalizing Democracy and Human Rights [Full Text]

Jun 1, 2007

Fiona Robinson (reviewer)

Carol Gould's Globalizing Democracy and Human Rights is an impressive, sweeping analysis of some of the most pressing questions in contemporary political philosophy and international ethics. While the book’s focus is practical—how to "globalize" democracy, and how to make globalization more democratic—Gould does not shy away from hard theoretical questions, such as the relentless debate over cultural relativism, as well as less-often tackled issues of "embodied politics" and women’s rights, and the relationship between terrorism and democracy. The result is a book that is almost overwhelming in scope, yet is saved by a rich, balanced, convincing, and unhectoring analysis.

Gould begins by setting out the main practical problems motivating her work—the global "democratic deficit," or the lack of democratic participation by those who are widely affected by the decisions of increasingly global political and economic institutions, as well as emerging transborder communities. Related to this is the question of how to fulfill people's fundamental rights—especially their economic rights—under conditions of unequal economic globalization, while still retaining social and cultural differentiation. Globalizing Democracy may be read as a follow-up to Gould’s earlier book, Rethinking Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 1988), in which she proposed a view of democratic theory that had a conception of human rights at its core. Globalizing Democracy develops this approach, conceiving of democracy as based on "reciprocal and empathic personal relations" and extending "through plural social and cultural contexts to a transnational and indeed global level" (p. 2). This globalized democracy is facilitated by a strengthened conception of human rights that includes increasing the currency of economic and social rights in international law.

Gould begins by addressing key theoretical considerations regarding the relationship between democracy and justice. Here she seeks to put some "meat" onto the bare bones of procedural theories in order to argue for a conception of democracy that "allows for a more secure basis for human rights than is provided by discourse theory, deliberative democracy or Rawlsian theory" (p. 31). It is in this context that the reader is introduced to Gould's key theoretical turn—her idea of a social ontology—which gives priority to "individuals-in-relation" in theorizing about the nature of social reality (p. 4). While Gould's individuals are partly constituted by their relations, they are also, to some extent, free, self-defining individuals. This process of self-development is crucial to Gould's understanding of human rights, which is built on the idea of positive freedom and which requires access to certain material and social conditions. While the primary material condition is the means of subsistence, the primary social condition is, in a word, democracy.

This kind of theorizing reveals what is perhaps the greatest strength of the book—its "dialectical" methodology (p. 5). Rather than dismissing one perspective in favor of another, Gould demonstrates a willingness, and a brilliant ability, to synthesize and build upon a wide variety of perspectives—from liberal political philosophy to critical social and feminist theory. Indeed, although the book does not advertise itself as a feminist analysis, Gould's accounts of social ontology, embodied politics, women’s human rights, care, and empathy indicate influences by feminist ethics and political theory. In particular, she shows the importance of including these ideas in our consideration of contemporary applications of human rights, justice, and democracy. In doing this, Gould has done something vital for feminist theory—she has brought it into the realm of mainstream political theory and international ethics. While some feminists might complain that the lack of direct references to women and gender empties out the feminist content of this theory, I would argue, instead, that Gould’s general focus helps to convince readers that a concept such as care, for example, as both a moral orientation and a type of work is not unique to women, but an enduring feature of human social existence.

In the final two parts of the book, Gould makes an insightful critique of the dominant models of cosmopolitan democracy, and offers her own approach, which she calls "cosmopolitical democracy" (p. 182), which seeks to articulate a balance between cosmopolitanism and communitarian respect for diversity and social self-determination. Here again Gould manages to achieve what many political philosophers can only aspire to do—provide a compelling account of rights and democracy on a global scale that can accommodate and recognize difference.

The book is not without flaws. Indeed, while I am utterly convinced by Gould's social ontology, I am skeptical that it can provide an "independent criterion of justice" (p. 32). Perhaps it can do something much less ambitious, yet no less important: it can remind us that moral views are socially sited and held in place by relations of authority and power. While Gould's theoretical approach to human rights succeeds in overcoming many of the major flaws of traditional liberal rights discourse, the sites, sources, and structures of power in the international system—both material and "ideational"—remain undertheorized. Finally, in spite of her excellent analysis of the ideas and theorists of care throughout the book, Gould makes the unsubstantiated claim that the "care discussion has as yet had almost no impact on conceptualizing human rights" (p. 143); this overlooks important work done by major feminist theorists, including Annette Baier, Martha Minow, and Jennifer Nedelsky, among others.

These minor points aside, however, Globalizing Democracy and Human Rights is a magnificent book. The final chapter, "Terrorism, Empathy, and Democracy," is particularly revealing in the current global climate. By highlighting the ways in which the lack of democratic possibilities may contribute to the conditions of terrorism, Gould moves the debate beyond the facile moralizing of good and evil toward an approach grounded in the actual political conditions of the contemporary world order. This book should be required reading not just for political philosophers and international relations scholars but also, and perhaps especially, for foreign policy makers in the world's most powerful countries.

—Fiona Robinson, Carleton University

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