- The Status of Authority in the Globalizing Economy:Beyond the Public/Private Distinction*
I. Erosion of Public Authority
Over the past decades, the idea that national sovereignty and the authority of the state have been increasingly challenged or even substantially eroded has been a dominant one.1 Economic globalization advancing a neo-liberal dis-embedding of the economy is seen as the major reason for this erosion. Concerns have increased about the negative consequences for the social fabric of societies, deprived of the strong shock absorption capacity that the welfare states had established in the time of the embedded liberalism to use a term John Ruggie coined.2 The concerns have also helped nationalistic movements to gain power in many high-income countries, not at least in the United States, calling for putting their economy first. Accordingly, a number of commentators have announced a return of the nation state.3 In this special issue, we will show that the retreat-of-the-state thesis as well as the return-of-the-state thesis share the same shortcomings. They conflate state and authority. As a consequence, both theses [End Page 3] underestimate important transformations of authority that have taken place since the end of the "short 20th century," to use Eric Hobsbawm's periodization.
With this special issue, we seek to contribute to a more nuanced analysis of the transformation of authority. The issue is the outcome of a conference that took place at the Copenhagen Business School in 2015, hosted by the research project 'Institutional Transformation in European Political Economy: A Socio-Legal Approach' and funded by the European Research Council.4 The conference brought together scholars of law, international relations, political science as well as sociology, which made it possible to create interdisciplinary synergies. The dialogue is an important means to overcome the difficulties each discipline is confronted with when trying to account for the transformation of authority. It helps to disentangle authority and nation state, which all of the three disciplines, law, political science, and sociology, tend to conflate. Law's own epistemology, for instance, grounds on an internal perspective, which hinders it to think through its categories, as legal scholars outline in this special issue. As a consequence, law tends to associate authority with public law, falling short of accounting for its transnationalization by other means than state-based international law. This lack of recognition has major epistemic consequences and requires political science and sociology to step in.
However, these disciplines also need to come to terms with the methodological nationalism informing many of their theoretical notions. Part of this intellectual endeavor is the questioning of the distinction between public and private that often rather blurs than sharpens the analysis. Such a distinction cannot account for the public function of transnational private governance structures such as certifications, ratings, or corporate social responsibility schemes of multinational companies. The study of the mechanisms by which private authority gains legitimacy is essential here. How have specific private modes of governance gained the standing as (de facto) public authority? How does public authority differ from and relate to private claims to authority within or in relation to processes of economic reproduction? Do private standards require less legitimacy because they have little enforcement capacity? Or is it rather the opposite? Do they need more legitimacy because they do not have enforcement mechanisms and depend on broad acceptance? These questions cannot be answered without studying the social praxis of establishing and exercising authority within firms, [End Page 4] specific industrial sectors, and different types of intermediary institutions such as (neo-)corporatist and governance institutions.5 The different contributions map the evolution of (legal) authority, emphasizing its dynamic, contested, and contingent development. They explore the multiple sites where authority has been located and exercised at the local, national, and transnational level and highlight the particular functional and normative features of public authority.
A historical perspective highlights that transnational private authority is not a recent phenomenon. The East-Indian company, for instance, had a number of public functions before the British government gained a more important role in organizing the British Empire, as...