Friday, 7 October 2016

World citizenship - a vain celebration of the 'one per cent's' power

“Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are, without regard to place or person; my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.”
So exclaimed Thomas Paine the great polemicist of liberty. And it sounds great this 'citizen of the world' stuff. It makes us feel ever so grand, that we have risen above the mundane and fractious things that dominate mere nations - our horizons are broader, our eyes brighter and our nobility nobler that those tied to the narrow bigotry of patriotism.

A short while ago I'd have been with you all proclaiming that there are bigger, grander things than nation and arguing that, like Tom Paine, independence of mind escapes us from the bounds of petty nationalism. And it's a lovely comforting feeling being a citizen of the world except for one minor point - there is no 'world' citizenship for us to hold. For sure there are some world institutions - the United Nations and its assorted children, the World Trade Organisation, FIFA, the Olympic Movement - but these are clubs of countries not things that have citizenship.

But despite this, I'm going to indulge you citizens of the world and pretend that your claim has some merit, that saying "I'm a citizen of the world" is a reality rather than an idle piece of philosophical vanity. What does it mean? As citizens of a country do we have duties or does that citizenship confer on us rights and privileges? As citizens don't we expect some things from the government to which we've handed some of our sovereignty, our liberty?

Here in the UK the deal on citizenship (or subjecthood as we properly are) is that our government protects in various way. We expect a police force to stop bad people hurting us or taking our property. We expect some degree of welfare that supports us when we need help. And we expect to be consulted - imperfectly but consulted nonetheless - on the things the government of our nation does. Citizenship isn't some vague statement of cultural association - "but we've so much to share across the world" - but a real, solid and practical thing. A deal between us as individuals and our nation.

So in this world you say you're a citizen of, how does that solid and practical thing play out? Surely this is the myth of John F Kennedy's foreign policy and the neoconservatism it spawned - the idea that we have some sort of duty to the world to enforce our systems onto other places, by force if necessary? Isn't this world citizenship just a personal justification of 'regime change' - after all those poor Afghans and Iraqis weren't properly citizens of our world so we muse, it's a duty to, bring them into the fold of our world polity? And how do we explain a world for citizens that includes the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia, the executing of gays in Syria and the war-created famines that scourge Africa?

Or is your world citizenship something different? A clubbing together of the "1%", those fortunate and wealthy people from everywhere in world who can gather together in fancy hotels, at swish conference venues and in fine restaurants where they can discuss the plight of the remaining 99% and what should be done about it? Is your world citizenship simply another - slightly self-serving - term for what Harm de Blij called 'globals'. These are the people who in de Blij's words have 'flattened' the earth but who control, dominate and exploit the 'locals', the people who are outside that club of world citizens. Such people remind me of J V Jones' Archbishop of Rorn - superficially caring, splendidly 'of the people', yet in truth greedy, devious and exploitative.

So forgive me if I reject your world citizenship as the vainest of chimera, a thing of little substance and almost no relevance to most of the people living on the world. This isn't to reject cultural (or for that matter physical) exploration or to suggest that my rejecting citizenship is also to reject free trade, exchange and movement. In the end the point is that citizenship only works when it is real, when the citizen can see the benefit and when the polity to which we commit as citizens does its part of the bargain.

In the end these allegiances work when people relate to them. And we know that the strongest ties are those closest to us - family, friends, neighbours. Yes we are shocked by the terrible scenes from a war in the middle east, from a famine in Africa or a flood in South Asia. But we'll pay more attention and are more likely to act on the news that our cousin has cancer. We'll get up from the settee and walk to the village hall if they propose building 500 houses out back. We'll protest about a new landfill or a road scheme. But the most we'll do for the victims of those wars, famines and floods is make a donation when the process is easily done while staying firmly sat on that settee.

None of this makes any of us bad people, it's just that, as Kipling told us, god gave us small hearts and we give those hearts to the places and the people we love. And we're pretty comfortable with living in a place where we share language, history, culture and ideas. Instead of highfalutin' concepts like citizenship, we should instead think of community, of place and how we can, to paraphrase Stephen Stills, love the place we're in.


1 comment:

James Higham said...

Nice take, Simon. My response took 20 pages as a post.