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International Standardisation and Corporate Democracy

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This chapter explores the role of international standards in governing the world economy. There is a growing literature on how norms of behaviour explain rules of collective action. Here, however, my entry point in the debate will be standards as technical specifications used in production, consumption, and exchange. Wedged in between domestic voluntary measures and global rules, standards affect virtually every aspect of our daily life. Thousands of standards define the interoperability of computers, credit cards or mobile phones, but also the resistance of plate glass. Few people are familiar, however, with the struggles between consortia of multinational enterprises and state regulators for defining standards that allow economies of scale and market access across borders, or not. Current initiatives to develop international standards for funeral services, personal financial planning, healthcare and education, only highlight the manifold implications.

The proliferation of standards is not so much an issue of (inter-) governmental versus non-state norm-setting practices; these have been found to be largely complementary and much less an area of conflict. International standardisation rather points towards an emerging model of “corporate democracy”. According to Heiskanen, corporate democracy departs from the Enlightenment ideal of popular sovereignty or universal citizenship, and represents a rupture with classical liberalism. Instead, “the participation of individuals in transnational governance is not viewed as a matter of universal, formal right, but as a consequence of an individual's holding of certain contextspecific professional interests or concerns”. Standard-setting bodies are highly influential in this domain but provide only biased participation capabilities in this respect. They operate in the interstices between contractual relations and the mandatory rule of the law, remaining largely outside the purview of democratic institutions and therefore, liable to questions concerning their legitimacy.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2006

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