Conserving Citizenship

We need an account of the redistribution - and decentralization - of power that's commensurate with a multi-scale idea of citizenship, one that adapts to the hyper local as well as it does to the planetary.

Globalization Round Two

With the COVID crisis, globalization has reached a new crescendo. An earlier era of capitalist globalization too was considered good news – bringing the white man’s civilization to the barbarians – until it died on the killing fields of the Somme and then the gas chambers of Auschwitz. But globalization inevitably unleashes forces that weren’t in Pandora’s mind when she took the lid off the box. The horror’s of the previous round were so powerful that an international architecture of ‘world order’ was set into place, with three pillars holding the order in place:

  1. The declaration of human rights as a general principle that set the recognition of certain basic human dignities ahead of national sovereignty. I will talk about this later in this essay.
  2. The institutionalization of the United Nations with permanent members being drawn from the victorious belligerents of WW-II.
  3. The militaries of the United States and the Soviet Union and then the United States alone policing the world.

Seems to have worked for a while, but only by wrapping a taught skin around a boiling pot.

Most of the dinner is made by me. During waiting time, I will create some interesting thing. So I take picture on the glass cover whcih is covered with steam. Sometimes it will give unexpectedly good effect. But, be careful not to burn the lens.晚餐多數是我弄的,有時在等待完成的過程,來點創作,所以用相機拍下佈滿蒸氣水泡的玻璃蓋,困然有時會有意想不到的效果,不過就要小心不要把鏡頭燒了。
Photographer: Thomas Kinto | Source: Unsplash

The Path to…

I am of the mind that good causes more evil than evil. Ha ha right, but the graveyards of the world are full of utopian bones. One day, a friend told me, his father was no longer acceptable, from embedded journalist to embedded enemy. Saw him thirty years later for a few hours.

At the same time, who can stop dreaming and even if we could, why should we?

The fear of revolutionary chaos is arguably one of the virtues of conservatism. Edmund Burke, the English conservative, was deeply skeptical of the French revolution. It wasn’t only the French revolution he condemned; Burke was also one of the few people with influence who condemned Warren Hastings and the East India Company’s ruinous rule in Bengal. The continuous revolution of capitalism should be as alarming to a conservative as the discrete revolution of the state.

In sum, the conservative cares more about stable (and legitimate?) authority rather than unstable autonomy. Nothing new about the distrust of the new; the tension between authority and autonomy runs through every period of human history. Feudal and royal authority curtails human freedom but at the same time, the king or the lord has far greater responsibilities towards his subjects than a capitalist does. The ease of hire and fire is at the heart of capitalism, but would be unthinkable in a feudal setting.

Which is another way of saying that certain liberal virtues of freedom of labor etc are promoted by the self-interest of the owners of capital. Self-interest is not axiomatically bad; Adam Smith pointed out that the mechanics of capital promote certain virtues out of self-interest. However, we should remain skeptical: whose interests are being promoted in the name of the common good?

Perhaps all we need are stable utopias, like stable geniuses.

Citizenship also arises out of a mixture of conflicting impulses towards liberty and sovereignty. Sovereignty emphasizes the role of authority within a territorial state that has a monopoly over violence in its jurisdiction. The question arises: who is sovereign? And the modern answer has always been: the people are sovereign. Which is why even the greatest dictator acts in the name of the people – it’s no mystery that the police state of North Korea is called the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. But sovereignty, whether of the people or of the king doesn’t guarantee autonomy. As North Korea shows, it’s perfectly possible to constrain the freedoms of all in the name of all.

High police presence in Lyon, France, during the 25th weekend of the yellow vests movement.Police violence is at its highest since the 1950s. As of now, 23 protestors and bystanders have lost an eye and 5 persons their hand (source: mediapart.fr, http://tiny.cc/6hd85y)Recently an independant journalist, got arrested (https://twitter.com/GaspardGlanz).Violence continues, even though Amnesty International and the UN condemn the use of excessive force against protesters (source: amnesty.org, http://tiny.cc/3jd85y).
Photographer: ev | Source: Unsplash

Citizenship serves as a counterpart to sovereignty, for it emphasizes the civic freedoms of citizens. The fact that I participate and in fact, I am encouraged to do so, in the political life of my community makes me more than a sovereign subject. To the extent I have realistic access to power – at least at the local level – I am both ruler and ruled. The price for that access is territoriality; only some people can become citizens and the more rich and powerful the nation, the more desirable its citizenship and the more restrictions on becoming one.

Like any other regime with a historical trajectory, sovereignty isn’t stable – if the first round of globalization ended with a global transition from empires to sovereign states, the second round has greatly challenged its rule. The COVID crisis (and the coming climate crisis) are inherently beyond the frame of the sovereign nation state. You can’t tell the virus to only infect the Chinese, however much you wish that were the case. You can’t tell carbon to stop emigrating from the US to India. Money flows from one end of the earth to another because we have removed all barriers. Bugs flow from one end of the earth to another because they don’t care about our barriers. Citizenship is quite new for it needs a nation state to anchor it, i.e., a post-WWII phenomenon for most people. But with sovereignty itself under threat, how will citizenship respond?

One important element of any answer lies in a doctrine of human rights.

Ever since the second world war and the Shoah, it’s accepted principle that certain human rights trump national jurisdiction, where the violation of those rights is case for violations of sovereignty. By force if needed. That doctrine was at the heart of the U.S invasion of Iraq – which shows how a great crime can be perpetrated in the name of the good. Principles of liberty often face their hardest task when asked to translate their abstractions into actions for it’s easy to pass off the interests of the powerful as altruism.

View of typical ruins in the Old City of Mosul after war with the Islamic State, as well as signs of reconstruction.
Photographer: Levi Clancy | Source: Unsplash

Micro and Macro – a promissory note

Citizenship is suffering from two challenges:

  1. The macro challenge of just authority and robust freedom at a global scale – absolutely necessary to address climate change for example and for which the nation state is too small a jurisdiction.
  2. The micro challenge of organizing citizens to solve emergent local problems (say, delivering food to migrants during the COVID crisis) for which the nation state is too crude an instrument.

We need an account of the redistribution – and decentralization – of power that’s commensurate with a multi-scale idea of citizenship, one that adapts to the hyper local as well as it does to the planetary. In doing so, it’s worth asking whether if and how the historical equilibrium between freedom and sovereignty is being disturbed by agents of all kinds: bits, bugs, cells, carbon etc and then speculate on the technologies of governance that might be able to respond to these challenges.

I will start with a round of speculation in my next essay.

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