Development or Change – Today’s Challenges for an Emerging Global Society

The following are notes made in preparation of a presentation in La Habana, Republic of Cuba in December 2012.


The background of this presentation is actually far away – a presentation given by my friend and colleague Laurent J.G. van der Maesen at the 2012 Life & Development Forum in Hangzhou. From there some interest had been established to colleagues here in Cuba. Last year’s forum has to be characterised as

  • global in its very character
  • however, emerging from China and actually even more from the work in Hangzhou and thus marking a specific shift in global development – a shift that can briefly be characterised by emphasising the fact of glocalisation: the recognition of the importance of localities in the part of the global processes. This is not simply a matter of the effects of globalisation on localities but also a matter of recognising the actor perspective of these entities.

Looking at the general agenda of global developments, there are surely many contingencies. However, one may point on at least the following moments as characterising.

  • the future will not be ‘capitalism as we know it’ – and it may be added that we probably even fail when utilising the traditional ‘concepts’ and categories as neo-liberalism, nation state and the like as analytical tools;
  • the future faces the challenges of a new and fundamental threat from the side of environmental hazards
  • with this we have to challenge and overcome following the roots of today’s capitalism, namely the individualism as a major source of mal-development.

NB: In this light socialism had been to some extent caught in the same danger, namely as far as applied the basic principle of capitalist development for an extended time: the focus on the development of the productive forces (with reference to Marx: the development of department I) had been initially surely important; however, it would have been necessary to determine a point from where development is not about development of productive forces, thus implicitly the orientation on quantitative growth of consumption but about development of the quality of goods produced in department II, i.e. the development of means of consumption (in the widest sense) as means of developing social quality.


The thesis is that in order to fully understand today’s challenges we have to look at the roots of capitalism in a more complex way – reaching beyond the economic and subsequent political perspective. In other words it is about fundamentally allowing the return of political economy in its true sense as investigation of the

organic unity of economy and polity

(Perry Andersen).

Such an approach stands against the development of a theory of political economy in a traditional sense of a politico-moral backing of economic processes as we know it for instance from Adam Smith.

Arte. Es la naturaleza creada por el hombre

(José Martí)

A major and fundamental flaws of capitalist development can be seen on the following moments:

  • the emergence of the bourgeois individual
  • based on the – apparent – loss of ‘ontological relationality’ (Slife)
  • leading to the redefinition of social activities as contractual relationships
  • undermining space for social action, while – though only for some – increasing this space on the individual level.

However, seeing this pattern as societal phenomenon we may summarise it as – for capitalist societies secular – process which Niklas Luhmann famously expressed by saying

All could be different but I nearly cannot change anything.

Paradoxically this goes hand in hand with the fact that the individual is made responsible for everything, being seen as rational actor with unlimited capacities to shape his/her life.


I do not want to discuss in detail any question of human rights and relevant questions of legal philosophy (see Herrmann: God, Rights, Law and a Good Society; Bremen/Oxford: EHV Academicpress, 2012; Rights – Developing Ownership by Linking Control over Space and Time; Bremen/Oxford: EHV Academicpress, 2012). However, one point is of crucial importance, namely the fact that the Universal Declaration argues solely on the basis of the understanding of individualism in the form in which it emerged from the Western enlightenment. Seen in this perspective it is no surprise that it actually emphasises the ‘normality of the capitalist mode of production’ – with the legimitation of employment as actual basis of human existence, thus also providing a ground for defining ‘citizenship’. And furthermore it is from here that human rights are defined as ‘moral obligation’ (see Herrmann: Presentation Narrowing the Gap Between the World’s Richest and Poorest. Contribution for the Deutsche Welle GLOBAL MEDIA FORUM 2011).

For further exploration we may briefly look at a briefing paper Human Rights and Poverty: Is Poverty a Violation of Human Rights? Edited by the Centre of Economic and Social Rights. It

suggest[s] that violations of human rights can be cause, consequence or constitutive element of poverty.

This is surely important – and it has to be acknowledged that the document mentions as one of the consequences also

the destruction or denial of access to productive resources [which] can clearly cause poverty.

However, the overall formulation of the three points suggests that rights are a matter of provision rather than a matter of constituting and maintaining ‘active citizenship’. Talking then of the three dimensions of

respect, protect and fulfil

is more about a top-down approach than allowing the development of a bottom-up-approach towards rights. And indeed, this supports the thesis that HR are fundamentally an add-on, established to secure a capitalist world order. As any law, human rights law is also just a means – in the words of Iredell Jenkins:

Positive law assumes an ordered social context that exhibits certain deficiencies: it envisages more desirable – an ideal – ordering of the context; it prescribes the steps to be taken in order to move the actual towards the ideal; and it orders that these measures be instituted. That is, positive law is at once expository, normative prescriptive, advisory, and imperative. But it is positive law as a means to an end …

(Jenkins, Iredell: Social Order and the Limits of Law. A Theoretical Essay; Princeton: Princeton University Press 1980: ibid. 75)

Based on such an approach we face the following fundamental limitations in the relevant HR-debates:

  • they are very much based on supposedly eternal and socio-independent moral standards (it would actually not be far from here to speak of a-social standards)
  • the ‘we’, the collective identity, is reduced on aggregates of individuals, even defining ‘collective actors’ as the state, organisations, corporations etc. as ‘legal personalities’
  • finally not allowing to understand global structures and processes as other than the conglomeration of national actors, thus remaining in the limits of international relationships, not seeing the global order as genuine identity in its own right.[1]

Though it is at this stage only a short point, I think it is important to point out that many of contemporary debates focus too much on ‘technical’ and ‘individual solutions’, particularistic in character, to current challenges. These remain very much in the framework of individualised strategies. Though surely an important contribution to overall debates, we can point on the important limitation of the work by Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen. In short their orientation is about development of humans and not about human development, let alone about development of human relationality. This means not least that an important perspective remains faded out, namely the perspective of socio-human existence as part of a complex socio-natural setting. Thus we may also say that the major and fundamental problem of the dominant conceptualisation of human rights remains founded in the dissolution of the individual from its genuine social context. With this we find the reduction of the social as matter of relationships of individuals.


Obviously, this falls short in providing a fundamentally valid perspective on today’s structures. Early capitalist societies had been moving to a systematic de-socialisation of personalities and the undermining of genuine social processes. This could be seen in the difficulties Adam Smith faced in maintaining moral standards within the taken economic perspective – finally resulting in the tendency to separate the question of wealth of a nation from moral sentiments. And equally we can see these difficulties when it comes to German philosophy as for instance expressed in the tension of different reasons in the works by Immanuel Kant.

The Social Quality Approach redresses this flaw by focussing on the social, understood as noun. It

may be conceived as the result of the dialectic (constitutive dependency/c.i.) between processes of self-realization and the formation of collective identities.

(Gaspers, Des et altera, 2013: Connecting ‘Human’ and ‘Social’ Discourses …: 24)


For the further discussion I want to refer to more recent debates, not least stimulated by developments in Latin-American countries, in particular Bolivia, Ecuador and in the meantime Venezuela. The main point of reference is the constitutional principle of buen vivir or vivir biene. Important is that the standard of defining rights and for the definition of the social is not the individual and his/her well-being. Nor is it about the human existence as such. Instead,

  • understanding the individual as principally relational
  • considering the human existence as part of the overall natural existence
  • emphasising the relation between social and nature as fundamentally constitutive
  • and finally seeing social existence not least as matter of ability to accept collective responsibilities.

The emphasis is on ‘joint existence’ and its sustainability.


With this in mind, the following issues are of utmost importance – here posed as questions that have to be elaborated and on which the answer has to be searched.

  • the what of production has to be asked anew. Point of departure is Engels’ formulation of the ‘determining factor in history’ according to the ‘materialistic conception’ (see Engels, Frederick, 1884: Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Preface to the First Edition). Whereas in the first instance this had been very much about the development of the means of production, and in particular the development of the productive forces, we are now facing a different situation. In one respect we have to reconsider the meaning of the production of the second department, namely the means of consumption. Though we are apparently living in times of overconsumption, this is not completely true: in actual fact we can see overconsumption in parts of world society going hand in hand with the lack even of the basic means of sustenance in other parts (see in this context for instance Milanovic, Branko, 2011: Global Inequality. From Class to Location, from Proletarians to Migrants; The World Bank Development Research Group. Poverty and Inequality Team; September 201; Working Paper 5820). Another important factor can be seen in the fact that a large part of ‘production’ is actually concerned with processes of transaction. Already in 1994, Douglass C. North, with reference to John J. Wallis and North from 1986 makes us known of

an empirical study that 45 percent of U.S. GNP was devoted to the transaction sector in 1970

(North, Douglass C., 1994: Economic Performance Through Time; in: The American Economic Review. Vol 84.3: 359-368; here: 360)

These are issues that need to be investigated more thoroughly not least in a global perspective.

  • This leads immediately to the second point, namely the question of the relationship between the different departments, in particular department I (production of the means of production) and department II (production of means of consumption); and it means also to investigate the existence of a department III (production of ‘financial services’) and a department IV (production of services)
  • Both, production in department III and IV point into the direction of a new kind of commons. If treated circumspectly we can see development in a new perspective. The development of department I, reaching a certain qualitative point, serves as point of departure for the development of department II as going beyond satisfying immediate needs, allowing qualitative developments. We find with this development a potential release of additional forces, but also of additional ‘needs’ of a higher order: the mentioned processes of transaction and also the growth of services are pointing into the direction of huge potentials of socialisation – and saying potentials means that the technological conditions, under private ownership and control, are in actual fact developing in a counter-socialising way. However, taking the potentials as point of reference we may speak of a development from the production of commons towards the production within commons, or using a different wording: the development of common production.

NB: Stating this does not mean that the development actually follows this path. In actual fact we find right now an extremely problematic development in a global perspective. It is still very much about continuing the old pattern of industrialisation on the one hand – now shifting anew to the NICs and also to new centres (as not least Japan and China); and this going hand in hand with a qualitative orientation of consumer goods in the ‘traditional centres’ (as in especially US and [in particular the old] EU). However, as much as this development is not about a simple ‘shift’ by way of replacement, it is obvious that this development cannot be socially sustainable (let alone sustainable in terms of a simple environmental understanding).


Let me briefly return to the question of rights in general and in particular human rights. Commonly the Western understanding of rights – this had been outlined earlier – is structurally based n individualism. It may even be said that the very concept of rights depends in its ‘modern’ form on the existence of the bourgeois-citoyen individual. The citoyen – addressed as such during the revolutionary times of – had been understood as individual, socialised at most by reference to the categorical imperative as laid down in 1788 in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of the Practical Reason:

Act so that the maxim of thy will can always at the same time hold good as a principle of universal legislation.

This is based on the assumption of the independent, self-referential though rational individual actor. The understanding of rights developing against such a background can only be protectionist in its very character: it is the protection of individuals against possible infringements by others or the protection of individuals against violation by the state (to some extent an exception in this context is the notion put forward by T. Hobbes). To the extent to which we see the development of ‘modern commons’ – in various ways reflected since a long time, for instance by the common goods, general interest, volonté génerale or volonté du tout …) – and to the extent to which collective actors are emerging as truly relevant (see e.g. Meyer, John W., 2010: World Society, Institutional Theories, and the Actor; in: Annual Review of Sociology, 2010: 36: 1-20), we are asked to develop a new understanding of rights. This may be characterised in short by pointing on two moments:

  • They have to be understood as truly social rights. I come back to the definition given earlier, proposing that the social

may be conceived as the result of the dialectic (constitutive dependency/c.i.) between processes of self-realization and the formation of collective identities.

(Gaspers, Des et altera, 2013: Connecting ‘Human’ and ‘Social’ Discourses …: 24)

  • It has to be added that it is not only about the formation but also about the maintenance of the social. Rights are now emerging not as protection of individuals against individuals but as protection of collectivities against individuals (for a very good example in this context Burghardt, Peter, 18.6.2008: Ecuador. Im Dshungel der schwarzen Pest; in: Wissen – it has to be mentioned that this is not [only] about corporations but also about interests of individual states in their ‘modern’ performance as legal personalities).
  • Importantly, these rights are not emerging from any moral and normative standards but their definition has to reflect the objective development of the productive forces as it had been outlined before when reference had been made to the development of the different departments of production and their relationship to each other.

[1]            This is even more needed as long as we do not have a global actor in the traditional sense (as e.g. a ‘global state’)


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