Theory Teacher's Blog

Against “Global Citizenship”?

Please note that in the title of this post I am putting “global citizenship” in quotation marks, in part because it’s unclear to me what the phrase means exactly, and in part because it’s equally unclear to me what it could mean to be for it or against it. Hence the question mark.

What is clear is that university administrations across England, the United States, and Canada are jumping on the bandwagon of this concept, funneling money into programs that promote it, and using it as advertising to pull in top students and grant money. For instance, the University of British Columbia has recently started a “global citizens project,” but, interestingly, the executive summary that outlines the goals of that project admits to being unable to define what global citizenship is… and admits the concept’s lack of any determinate meaning precisely in the section where one might expect a definition, the section subtitled “the meaning of global citizenship.” Instead what it does say with certainty is that even though they don’t really know what the concept means, they all agree that they are “excited” about it and want their university to “demonstrate leadership” by fostering it. As I think about this global-citizenship bandwagon, what seems to me to be the case is that once a concept has been repeated enough times and has captured enough imaginations, then everyone is forced into having a relationship to it somehow — either as fans or as critics, as insiders or as outsiders.

On the one hand, I can see the motivation behind the idea. The growing power of multinational corporations since the 1960s, the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1995, and the international deregulation of certain commodity markets alongside the new technologies such as the internet has led universities to want to prepare their students for the transnational movement of capital, commodities, culture, people, and information. In addition, many see the concept of global citizenship as a call to an ethics of responsibility — to do something to ameliorate the negative effects of global capitalism in other nations such as sweat shop labor, the on-going slave trade, disease epidemics, and the disruption of local cultures and ecologies that leads to war and famine. There is also the sense that certain problems such as global warming, disease, and terrorism can only be solved if all the world’s nations cooperate.

But on the other hand, there is something a little vacuous and misleading about the concept. What is citizenship? One is a citizen because one participates somehow in the governance of a community. In the liberal formulation of citizenship in terms of rights, one has the right to vote, own property, form associations, speak out, etc. In older forms of citizenship in Europe and the American colonies, political power was based in land ownership. And in some African countries, political power was partly based on the size of one’s household, including wives, children, servants, etc. Historically, not everyone has had the rights of a citizen. For instance, in the United States, women were not guaranteed the right to own property until the mid-nineteenth century in most states or the right to vote until 1920, and African Americans did not get the right to vote until 1870 with the 15th amendment (or really until 1965 with the Voting Rights Act.)  So, if we are actually all global citizens, then it seems that we are all severely disenfranchised because we don’t vote for a “global government” or appear to have any official means of political agency at all, except through our national government (i.e., our national government’s participation in the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization.)

Thinking about it historically, it is somewhat curious that as soon as we finally achieved full enfranchisement for all adults within the United States, we then began to do two things simultaneously: (1) imagine our citizenship beyond the boundaries of the nation, and (2) start building a big wall between us and Mexico (because apparently one has to live on this side of the border in order to be a global citizen.) And it is also somewhat curious because in many of the former colonies of those European nation states, people are still struggling to gain full enfranchisement and political power. What does it mean that as soon as the former colonies in the third-world became politically independent of the first-world (as so many of them did in the 1940s — 1970s), then the people of the first-world people began talking of global citizenship? Is global citizenship a form of neo-colonialism? Might the concept be the ideological mystification of a new form of colonialism in the postmodern, postindustrial, high-tech “knowledge-based” economy?

In fact, if we consider the global NGOs (non-governmental organizations) through which “global citizens” perform their ethical responsibilities towards peoples in other nations, then we might ask ourselves whether these NGOs unintentionally (or intentionally in some cases) undermine the nation-based forms of enfranchisement in the countries they claim to be helping. In other words, what happens when a group of people in Kenya or Guatemala look to a foreign-based non-governmental organization to gain political power and financial support for their local infrastructure instead of to its local government? Is this what global citizenship is? Moreover, consider that in many of the former colonies, such as Kenya’s, the government has to pay between 10 and 30% of its tax revenue to service its debt to multinational banks based in New York, London, and Tokyo — a debt these new nation states incurred as part of the deal brokered for political independence from Europe. At the same time, the governments of the U.S., Great Britain, and Japan funnel money back to those former colonies through NGOs in the form of foreign aid. The USAID dollars provide jobs for thousands of idealistic college students and young “global citizens” in the United States — that much is obvious — but a lot of that money also often comes back to the United States by supporting subsidized agriculture and industries. In other words, because it is U.S. agriculture and U.S. technology that is being used to develop the third-world country, the aid dollars end up doing more to develop the first world than the third.

So, what is a global citizen?

As someone who studies 18th-century literature, I can’t help but look back to the past for earlier examples and ask whether there is anything new about this notion of global citizenship. Over three-hundred years ago, back in 1690, a Puritan minister in Boston, Cotton Mather, preached (and later published) a sermon telling his congregation that they were “citizens of the world,” not citizens of England. He meant two things by this remark. First, that they had a mission to convert the whole world to their form of Christianity. They were God’s chosen, and eventually the whole world would be under their Holy dominion. Second, that they were not subject to the laws of England, whose King James II was revoking their charter and putting them under the jurisdiction of a royal governor for the first time. By 1690, Boston was completely dependent on the transatlantic trade networks that England’s navy had to protect (and a lot of pirates were using American ports such as Boston), so arguably, James II’s decision had a point. But against James II, Cotton Mather encouraged his congregation to imagine that they were above the law. I am troubled by the hubris of first meaning and the anarchic, extra-legal sense of self entitlement in the second meaning.

Fast forward to last year, July 24, in a speech in Berlin, Germany, presidential candidate Barack Obama appealed to the concept of “global citizenship” to advance our common humanity and to abide by the rule of international law. In response to that speech, the radical far-right in the United States has criticized Obama and compared him to Adolph Hitler for advocating an imperialist “new world order.” (These reactionaries seem to forget that the “new world order” was a favorite concept of Bush and Cheney and conservative think tanks, whose agenda was, arguably, imperialist in the old-fashioned militaristic way.)

Although few would take seriously the position of this YouTube video that Obama is Hitler or Darth Vader (since the position is both ignorant and insane), there is a kernel of truth within the anxiety it expresses. If we are all global citizens, then that assumes a single form of global governance. What is that form? An empire? A new form of Empire with a capital “E” (as Negri and Hardt suggest in their book by that title…. And as a side note, in the YouTube video above, are we now seeing a curious appropriation of radical leftist theory by the radical right for completely different ends?)

One cautionary lesson that we can take away from Cotton Mather’s sermon is that Protestant Christianity, Catholic Christianity, and Islam all have one thing in common; they all imagine themselves as reformers of the whole world, not just of one piece of it, and their ideology of reformation has historically gone hand-in-hand with the violent conquest, subjugation, and extermination of peoples. (The Catholic Spanish government killed more Native Americans in the name of Christ than the Nazi’s did Jews in the Holocaust.) Although Obama articulates global citizenship in terms of tolerance, respect, and dialogue, I think we must always be cautious about terms that gleefully celebrate a tolerant unity without also recognizing struggle and disparity. Tolerating cultural difference is all well and good, but not if one’s pretentions at tolerance are an ideological smokescreen or cover-up for not honestly addressing disparities in wealth and power.

But, against everything I’ve just written, what if we look at global citizenship another way by looking at another historical example. About 80 years after Cotton Mather’s speech, in 1760, the poet Oliver Goldsmith wrote a novel entitled Citizen of the World, in the form of a series of letters composed by a Chinese merchant living in London for his friends back home in China. The letters enabled a form of satire so that Goldsmith could expose the hypocrisies of England through the naive observations of this foreigner. His misunderstanding of what he sees is meant to lead the English reader towards a greater understanding of his own unreasonable biases, prejudices, etc. What Goldsmith gives us is an ironic sense of global citizenship — an ironic sense that is essential for reason and enlightenment. And likewise, this is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s point when he concludes the “The Custom House Sketch” that prefaces his classic novel The Scarlet Letter with the phrase, “I am a citizen of somewhere else.” His point was simply to express frustration with the politics of Salem, Massachusetts, and to establish a point of critical distance from which he could evaluate his home.

In conclusion, I come back to my earlier statement that the repetition of a concept seems to somehow legitimate it and give it power despite its incoherence. Twenty years ago, not too many people were talking about globalization, global citizenship, and global education. Now they are on the lips of every college administrator, entrepreneur, and advertising executive. It’s hard for someone like me to avoid it. To be for or against global citizenship seems to me beside the point. We live in the world we live in. But, as Goldsmith’s satire teaches us, to ignore the concept’s ironies seems to me to be unethical. And to be satisfied with it as a useful concept for articulating a worldview or an ethos seems just plain lazy.

Since I’m not satisfied with it, I suppose I ought to ask myself, what might be a better concept for imagining an ethical relation to the world? What about the old concept of the “human” from which we get the disciplines of humanities within which I work? One problem with the concept of the human is that it lacks a sense of relatedness to the environment. As some argue, we now live in a post-humanist age (though my fellow blogger Dr. J has critically assessed the notion of post-humanism to propose instead a “weak humanism“.)

Hmmmm… what about “dude“? As Jeff Bridges famously says in the movie The Big Lebowski, “the dude abides.”


November 13, 2009 - Posted by | global

1 Comment »

  1. wonderful article.

    Comment by brahim | February 26, 2010 | Reply

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