Some thoughts on global citizenship
Flitting in and out of the recent Advance Australia meeting in New Delhi, I was asked to speak about global citizenship. The audience, mostly Australian diaspora living in India, were interested in down-to-things like India’s impossible visa system for foreign residents and the like.
I completely sympathized, but I did give allow myself abstract thinking about what exactly does global citizenship mean.
Citizenship in a nation-state is effectively a social contract. A citizen agrees to behave himself, pay his taxes, serve in the military and not cause too much public nuisance (frat parties and prostate problems exempted). The state agrees to provide the bases of economic prosperity, enforce law and order, and makes a stab at keeping red tape to a minimum. There is generally some legitimizing process, like an election, for the contract to work.
But think: this shouldn’t work in a global context. Most of the people in the world don’t see themselves as owing something to a global political entity. And such a global entity, unless you think the United Nations or maybe English Premier Football League pass muster, doesn’t exist to provide anything return.
Yet this feedback does exist. Millions of people back and forth across the globe, a fair number of them have a fixed and safe process by which to do this. Huge amounts of capital, goods and services are exchanged between nations in a controlled and regulated manner. Warships from many nations enforce the safety of sea-lanes. And it goes on.
The weakness in global citizenship is that the social contract is overtly top-heavy. The governments of the world largely allow free-ish trading and cross-border capital flow because they accept it is broadly in their best interests. They contribute to collective global security for the same reason. They allow immigration, with the odd hiccup and act of regression, to take place.
But most people in the world don’t necessarily recognize there are services being provided through the collective action of the world’s governments. They accept their citizenship obligations to the nation-state in which they reside, but don’t see themselves as having any real obligations to the global system they reside in. Why? Because they are two or three steps removed from that system, too far to appreciate how it benefits themselves.
In fact, many see facets of the global system of services as inimical to their interests. Free trade for example. Other services, like sea lane protection or international phone calls, are simply taken for granted.
Global citizenry is thus lopsided. It is like a nation-state where the government does something, but its people don’t really understand they should be reciprocating. Obviously, the lack of a political process connecting the two levels is crucial.
But it makes global citizenship just a bit fragile. If the grassroots blames the world-system for their troubles, then the concept starts to fray quickly.
You get, for example, the rioting and social unrest being experienced in Greece today. Which is just a little ironic given that much political thinking on citizenship has its origins in the works of Aristotle and the workings of the ancient Greek polis.