Opinion

A new world order

Vusi Gumede

A new world order is in the making, argues Vusi Gumede, where having a meal is just as important as civil rights.

Eric Hobsbawm’s exposition is constrained by the main question he asked in the Mail & Guardian recently (’Beyond the free market”, November 6). He argues that ‘only one thing is already clear [as a result of the global economic recession]—a major shift away from the old North Atlantic economies to [the] South and, above all, East Asia”.

This might be correct, but perhaps the most important fact, propelled by the recession, is that a new world order is in the making. Put ­differently, there is an emergence of new coalescing forces—a distinct characteristic of the current times.

This is far more profound than the ‘major shift” that Hobsbawm focuses on. For the first time, the unipolar world is a thing of the past—very different players are grouping, globally, to bring about the new world order.

The countries constituting the G20 are an example of this. Another example is the ­reference to a ‘global government” in the negotiating documents for the forthcoming climate change conference in Copenhagen.

An instructive case, besides renewed calls for reforming the United Nations Security Council, is a proposal for a ‘global economic coordination council”.

How did we forget?

The fundamental question, to which Hobsbawm alludes, but does not explicitly ask, is: how did the self-evident goals of safeguarding and fostering the human condition elude global human society, even in long periods of unprecedented ­economic growth?

There are three possible explanations. The world has so far been characterised by what British politician William Dunn called the ‘democratic deficit”.

In other words the masses are unable to influence the decisions or public policies that affect their lives. The state, which is effectively synonymous with ‘capital”, serves its own interests and the market has established itself as an end in itself instead of a means to desirable ends, such as freedom from poverty and from under­development.

This has unleashed consequences of catastrophic proportions for the world—the impoverishment of the South, and some parts of the West, and the enrichment of the West.

It is here that Hobsbawm is spot on in his argument that the important issue about an economic ­system is its ‘social and moral ­priorities”. The social processes that have led to a democratic deficit are both socially reprehensible and morally bankrupt.

Leadership challenges

The other possible explanations are leadership challenges and ethics dilemmas.

Leaders are not ensuring equitable distribution in critical fields such as education and healthcare. Governments and their public ­servants do not do what they commit to do; the markets betray human development; and the global governance system serves the interests of the dominant forces, who happen to be well off, at the expense of the already vulnerable.

In about 1 000 days’ time a seven-billionth person will be born—she, as the child is most likely to be a female—will arrive in a world in which the human condition will probably be the same as today, or even worse. Hopefully, the new forces that are emerging will expedite the expansion of human capabilities. As an example, the G20 should focus its efforts on the goals that have eluded us for so long.

Similarly, the Copenhagen ­climate change conference should prioritise commitments towards saving our planet, at least so we can tell the seven-billionth infant that we are on the right track. It would be tragic if the emerging coalescing forces failed to create the new world order, which society is longing for. We are missing another rare opportunity—one presented by the recession.


The philosopher John Rawls gives insightful pointers to what we should be doing, at least in terms of the moral compass that should guide the world we inhabit. In short, just as Immanuel Kant or Luke the Evangelist pleaded, we need to do to others as we would have them do to us.

One way of thinking about what Rawls calls the ‘veil of ignorance” could be to think of what John Locke termed a ‘social contract”—or what Hannah Arendt better formulated as a perspective of the interdependence of human beings. Besides a contract we each make with our nation-states, there is a contract between one another.

Human rights approach

The question is whether this could be done at a global level. Linked to this is the idea of the human rights approach to development. Simply put, having a meal is just as important as civil and political rights.

The emergence of the new global governance also requires new accountability. This could help those who would introduce the girl-child to a new world in the making. She could be assured that, as the seven-billionth person, her children and their children might live in a better world than she.

The direction and content of the new world is up for grabs. It is our duty to ensure that it results in a better world.

Dr Vusi Gumede is a Yale World Fellow at Yale University in the United States and a former chief policy analyst in the presidency.

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