Political Holism

Section 1.5 of The Earth Federation Movement: History, Documents, Philosophical Foundations by Glen T. Martin, IED Press, Copyright 2011



hilosophical history contains a wealth of insightful documents that reflectively consider the basis of a viable and legitimate political and social order. These go back to ancient Greek and Roman thinkers such as Plato (who reflected on the nature of justice), Aristotle, and Cicero. They continue through medieval thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas, and emerge with great vigor in the Renaissance reflections of such thinkers as Athanasius, Duplessis Mornay, and Machiavelli.

       Reflections systematically laying the groundwork for contemporary democratic theory especially emerged in the 17th century thought of writers like Gottfried Leibniz, Baruch Spinoza, and John Locke. During the 18th century, thinkers such as Baron de Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant brought reflection on the social contract through which society defines legitimate government into a powerful focus, helping to define the democratic societies that emerged out of the French and American revolutions toward the end of that century.

       In the 19th century, thinkers such as G.W. F. Hegel, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Karl Marx helped refine and critically analyze democratic theory, defining many of the issues and difficulties faced in the functioning democracies. Marx, for example, saw political democracy (with equal political rights such as voting) as a great step forward, but not sufficient for “substantive democracy”: “Political emancipation certainly represents a great progress. It is not, indeed, the final form of human emancipation” (1978: 35). For “people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quantity and quality” (1978: 169). Political freedom must be accompanied by substantial economic freedom from want and deprivation. Democracy is impossible without actualizing that moral dimension of equality under the law that necessarily includes reasonable economic equality. Marx’s critique was a great step forward in the philosophical understanding of democracy.

The 20th century saw new and deeper understandings emerge concerning the nature of the social contract, the nature of humans in relation to language, the relation between individuals and society, and the role of technology and mass society. Our understanding of the nature, extent, and meaning of the social contract deepened even while serious threats to democracy arose in the form of totalitarian societies like Nazi Germany, the USSR under Stalin, or Maoism in Communist China.

       A wealth of studies and political theories emerged, too numerous to mention here (some of which are listed in the bibliography). Outstanding thinkers such as T.H. Green, Herbert Spencer, Bernard Bosanquet, Ernest Barker, Hannah Arendt , John Rawls, David Held, Benjamin Barber, Errol E. Harris, and Jürgen Habermas created substantial theoretical underpinnings for democracy in the light of a more sophisticated contemporary understanding of the human condition. At the heart of their understanding, as we will see in greater detail, is the insight that democracy requires a genuinely “public space” where persons can transcend their partisanship, special interests, and individual particularities and engage in communicative discussions that, on some level, transform the participants and allows a higher perspective ever more closely representing the common good of the whole to emerge.

Ironically, as suggested above, at the same time that this profound insight into the fundamental requirement of democracy developed during the 20th century, rapidly changing global conditions and technologies began undermining functioning democracies worldwide. This fostered regimes premised on fear and national security that severely curtailed civil liberties and modified the democratic “spirit of the laws” that Montesquieu had identified as a fundamental feature of a social contract predicated on “consent of the governed.”

       The idea of a social contract between people to create government over themselves as an impartial authority, representing the common good and responsible to the people who remain sovereign, was articulated by John Locke, Montesquieu, and the other 18th century theorists. Montesquieu insists on a clear separation of the branches of government, creating a diversity of power centers and the checks and balances necessary to keep government responsible to the people as a whole whom it serves, rather than to special interests, a ruling elite, or an absolute monarch. Locke distinguished clearly between “tacit consent” by the people and “overt consent.” Overt consent is what is given at the founding of the social contract, when, for example, a constitution is signed by the founders and then is ratified in a free and fair referendum by the people whose law of the land it will become.

       The idea of tacit consent presents greater conceptual difficulties. Can people born and raised within a society be said to have given tacit consent to its laws? In Plato’s Crito, Socrates argues that the coherence and order of the society within which he lived, the fact that he was free to leave and never left, and the fact that he was free to “persuade” his government to change its laws, together indicate that he has consented to obey its laws. However, most people are more embedded within their social situations than Socrates appears to have been when he claims he was free to leave at any time. Many people have family, friends, recognition in their local communities, a job, and other forms of significant investment in the societies within which they were born and grew up. The fact that they do not immigrate hardly indicates an active consent to obey laws that they may consider unjust or an active consent to some non-democratic government that happens to reign in their societies.

       Does the right to vote indicate consent of the governed? There are, of course, many variations on this right, and many ways governments can allow people this right without compromising their undemocratic or even dictatorial character. In his study of the United States entitled Democracy in America that appeared in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville speaks of a kind of universal tacit consent that characterized the society in the United States. He characterized it as a general feeling among the people of a “consensus universalis. This feeling was perhaps generated by the right to participate in government and the freedom of speech and association that prevailed (in addition to voting), a freedom that allowed even many minorities to form associations and become active political advocates.

       In her 1972 discussion of Tocqueville’s observations, Hannah Arendt asserts that this consensus universalis, if it ever existed, has been lost in the United States, having been replaced by lobbying for special interests and party politics directed toward winning power for certain interests rather than political debate based on alternative conceptions of how best to realize the common good of the whole society (1972: 85-102). This loss of a sense of the legitimacy of today’s democratic societies is clearly a worldwide phenomenon. The idea of a common good, developed and pursued through citizen participants who feel they can effectively participate in the generation of the laws under which they are governed, is disappearing from many so-called democratic societies worldwide.

       The reasons for this are, doubtless, many and complex. The present writer has had the opportunity to gain some familiarity with the governing of both Bangladesh and Libya, for example. In the former the “Freedom Fighters Movement” and in the latter the "Revolutionary Committees Movement” claim to be struggling against odds to keep alive what each perceives as the original democratic spirit of their society. Threats to this struggle come from a number of sources, including fundamentalist religious forces within each of these societies. However one evaluates these claims, perhaps the intent of these movements are not that different from movements in the United States like “People for the American Way” that struggle against the destruction of democracy within the U.S. by fundamentalist religious forces and other right wing threats to a free society.

However, the reasons for the threat to democracy within many nations today have much to do with a globalized world that has generated immense forces transcending the boundaries of nation-states. The development of ever-faster and ever-more-lethal weapons in a militarized world threatens civil liberty within nations and forces their governments into a national security state mode. Gigantic global economic forces, stripping economic independence and internal economic control from nations, means that governments can no longer protect their citizens in the interest of a common economic good. The consequent separation of extreme wealth for a few within every nation and serious poverty for the majority further erodes the social contract.

The disappearance of basic resources such as fresh water and arable land worldwide (and the power for foreign interests to control the internal resources of sovereign nations) has forced governments to take measures that appear to violate the social contract. Global climate activity has created major droughts, storms, flooding, and other severe weather patterns that, again, force governments to interrupt the coherence, consistency, and regularity of the social processes of free association, dialogue, and citizen participation that appear fundamental to generating a consensus universalis among the population.

These globalized historical forces will necessarily worsen over time, making it clear that there is no possibility of reversing the historical process and returning to the kind of “democracy in America” described by Tocqueville in the 19th century. If democracy is to be protected and defended, this can only be through a new social contract that is now globalized to the point where an Earth Federation government can deal with the international forces (military, economic, resource depletion, and climate destruction) that now destroy legitimate political processes everywhere on our planet. Consent of the governed within a free society cannot function when government exists in a perpetual state of emergency, which is exactly what our globalized world order has imposed on all nation-state governments.

     The idea of an active consent of the governed within a sustainable society that protects peace, freedom, and justice to the point where the citizens recognize that government represents their will and their sovereignty can no longer happen at the nation-state level. Even the most powerful nation-states have lost the ability to sustain functioning democracy within their borders. We return to the inseparability (described above) of the moral dimension from the dimension of political responsibility. Our moral and political responsibility requires that we establish a genuine community among human beings living on the Earth, a community that necessarily requires a protected planetary public space where genuine dialogue and communication can take place.

How are human beings to come together in a forum capable of action to reach, through honest dialogue and debate, a mutual understanding concerning the realities of our human situation (its totality) and how are we to move into the future on the basis of this understanding? How are we to reach collective decisions on the coordinated actions that must be taken to create and protect a future for humanity and our common home, the Earth? It is clear that there is little public space for genuine discussion within nations, since their false assumptions about negative freedom have led to an internal space dominated by slogans, ideologies, accusations, public relations, and other forms of strategic language. The wealthy plutocracy, on the one hand, and government with its militaristic propaganda, on the other, colonize the internal informational spaces within nations. However, at the planetary level, there is no significant space at all for open dialogue. There are no global institutions at present that might even make this a genuine possibility.

The U.N. General Assembly, as is widely admitted, is merely a forum for representatives of sovereign nations to represent the negative sovereign “rights” and the fragmented interests of their nations vis-à-vis one another. Some agencies of the U.N. (such as UNESCO) attempt to create a framework for genuine dialogue among cultures and peoples of the world, but the militarized, political framework of sovereign nation-states everywhere defeats these feeble attempts. A global public space framed by a global community making possible dialogue concerning our endangered future does not exist at the international level of nation-states. Hannah Arendt writes:


Only in the freedom of our speaking with one another does the world, as that about which we speak, emerge in objectivity and visibility from all sides…. The freedom to interact in speech with many others and experience the diversity that the world always is in its totality….is rather the substance and meaning of all things political. In this sense politics and freedom are identical, and wherever this kind of freedom does not exist, there is no political space in the true sense. (2005: 128-129)


“The world,” as an objective set of qualities, processes, and characteristics, only emerges in its fullness through the intersubjective encounter of different human viewpoints with one another. In today’s globalized situation, such a dialogue requires a global social contract. Only such a contract could create a public political space for humans to intersubjectively articulate an objective “world” in terms of which we might take action to forge a decent future for ourselves. Where this democratic public space for authentic politics does not exist, as on the global level, then neither does freedom exist. Human beings on planet Earth are pulled toward a calamitous future, as if by a raging river, yet lack any meaningful freedom to determine their common destiny.

The more this dialogic encounter of differing perspectives is lacking, the more our ideas about the “world” become illusory ideological fantasies. Without genuine dialogue among the diversity of human beings, the more we get institutions like the Pentagon, employing the immense violence at the disposal of its ideological fantasies (ideas about “the world”), and wondering why its policies always lead to unmitigated disaster both at home and abroad. Such illusions (products of a lack of genuine dialogue) are the stock in trade of most of the nations in the U.N. General Assembly.

Freedom and the public space for communicative interaction (politics in its highest, ethical sense) are substantially identical, and neither exists at the global level where concerted action on the part of nations, corporations, groups, and citizens is so fundamental to human survival and the creation of a decent future for ourselves as well as future generations. The “objectivity and visibility” of the world emerge when people dialogue from different points of view and come together in mutual understanding or, at the very least, mutual toleration and respect, which allows them to collectively act to create a future for the community.

Freedom requires not only public space but human beings who have entered that public space as full human beings, not as distorted mouthpieces of some ideology, interest group, or social pathology. The ratification of a global social contract and the creation of the public space of the World Parliament will likely attract the best among us who see the opportunity to express their deeper and common humanity in service to the planet and its citizens. The Earth Federation government will function above the vast concentrations of wealth in banking and multinational corporations and above the fanatical religious or other interest groups that today colonize governments worldwide.

The Constitution is designed to prevent such colonization. Mature human leaders, capable of intelligence and compassion and internally free of compulsion, fear, and hate, will likely staff both the World Parliament and the agencies of the Earth Federation. Humanity will be in the process of taking its next step from fragmentation to wholeness. Psychologist Erich Fromm expesses something of the kind of freedom to which I am referring:


This discussion of “humane experiences” culminates in the statement that freedom is a quality of being fully humane. Inasmuch as we transcend the realm of physical survival and inasmuch as we are not driven by fear, impotence, narcissism, dependency, etc., we transcend compulsion. Love, tenderness, reason, interest, integrity, and identity – they all are children of freedom. Political freedom is a condition of human freedom only inasmuch as it furthers the development of what is specifically human. Political freedom in an alienated society, which contributes to the dehumanization of man, becomes un-freedom. (1968: 89-90)


            The creators of the Earth Constitution deeply understood the urgent need for an institutionalized public space, a viable global social contract, where peoples and nations could together participate within the protected public space of a tricameral world parliament to make those laws and decisions that open up a viable future for humanity. In deeply alienated societies like the U.S. today, what remains of “public freedom” in the national security state has become the “unfreedom” of hate speech, political hypocrisy, partisan dogma, and vicious self-interest at the expense of the common good.

The Constitution provides humankind with a carefully worked out structure for democratic world government centered on public freedom. It articulates a process of discussion, decision-making, and action that completes and embraces the historical human project of temporalized freedom that all along (going back to the ancient Stoics) included the entire human community as its most basic presupposition. Its Preamble expresses the dynamics of a mature, compassionate response to the human condition. Its detailed structure as a global social contract invites fully humane and mature human beings to step into that hallowed public space and create the conditions of freedom for all of humankind.

Article One of the Constitution states six broad functions of the Earth Federation – revealing that the sphere of action of the world government shall be all those global problems beyond the scope of individual nation-states. The ability to deal with these global problems constitutes grounds for ratification of the Constitution by the people and nations of Earth. But the ability of the Earth Federation government to act effectively with regard to these global problems depends on the public space created for decision-making by the World Parliament and within the ministries responsible to the Parliament. The history of political philosophy with its reflection on the grounds of human freedom culminates in human beings taking practical steps to create public space and mature public freedom at the planetary level.

The sixth broad function of the Constitution captures something of this dimension: to devise and implement solutions to all problems which are beyond the capacity of national governments, or which are now or may become of global or international concern or consequence.” Drawing on the collective knowledge of the world (especially represented in the House of Counselors within the World Parliament) and the entire World Parliament representing the people of Earth (in the House of Peoples) and the nations of Earth (in the House of Nations), the Earth Federation government makes it possible for humanity to address global problems that are beyond the capacity of the nation-states.

Having understood the communitarian foundations of our individual personal freedoms, political philosophy has articulated the theoretical and practical foundations for democratic and republican forms of government. However, with the ascent to the philosophy of democratic world government, political philosophy now fulfills its historical quest to understand and properly institutionalize the relation between individual and public freedom in its only fully coherent and logical possible form – public freedom for the entire human community that can only be affected through a global social contract (Harris 2008, Ch. 8). The maturity of this planetary political form will enhance the process of transformation toward personal maturity of all the citizens, religions, and associations comprising the Earth Federation.

The social contract within nations can no longer function properly. The democratic agreement between people and government assigning rights and duties to both disintegrates as global forces influence nation-state contracts from without and make functioning democracy focusing on the common good of the nation impossible. Freedom, national self-determination, and self-governance arising from the limited communities of nation-states is no longer possible in the face of a multiplicity of economic, political, environmental, and military decision-making forces beyond the scope of national sovereignty. The social contract, democratic governance, and corresponding human freedom can now only authentically exist at the planetary level.

We have seen that the Preamble to the Constitution for the Federation of Earth provides the most basic philosophical framework for the Constitution through making clear that the “principle of unity in diversityis the only possible coherent basis for planetary peace, justice, and freedom. Unity in diversity is the principle of human maturity and holism that transcends puerile compulsion and fragmentation. And the Constitution itself provides a framework for global public space within the World Parliament encompassing all the peoples and nations of Earth along with the set of institutions, from judiciary to civilian police, necessary to maintain and protect that global public space. Here lies the real significance of the Constitution for world citizens and global thinkers. It culminates the human quest for freedom and draws humanity together into the global community that is already presupposed by every individual life-project and every community of decision-making on Earth.

The practical effects of this planetary political holism will likely result in binding humans together within a framework of common dialogue and decision-making regarding our common human fate. For institutions are established that make all persons equally responsible as legal world citizens before one, universal common law that allows for democratic diversity at every level within the world federal system. It brings the theoretically understood structure of human freedom (that the human community is presupposed in every individual freedom) into the practical public realm by institutionalizing a public freedom for the human community (where that public freedom ultimately belongs) to deal with issues unsolvable at the local and regional levels.

This public freedom is not only a fulfillment of the philosophical quest of political thought over the centuries and a major actualization of our human quest for mature freedom. It is also the foundation stone for human survival and flourishing upon planet Earth – for that survival and flourishing can only take place in freedom – through the establishment of a holistic planetary public freedom embracing and protecting the individual personal freedom (and hence the future) of every citizen of our precious planet Earth.

A new social contract is necessary, a newly-founded global society, in which the participants understand that their freedom, security, and survival depend on their universal affirmation of a consensus universalis. Political holism understands that positive freedom ultimately arises from a planetary human community that has consented to create that global public space necessary for human beings to envision their world and take action to actualize a peaceful, just, and sustainable future for the Earth and all its creatures. The ratification of the Earth Constitution constitutes by far our best bet for affecting this planetary social contract before it is too late.


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