Against a backdrop of Brexit, now is a pertinent time to rethink our ideas of society. Jon Alexander suggests that when we consider ourselves citizens rather than consumers, communities are stronger and more effective
Shortly after taking over as prime minister, Theresa May put “the spirit of citizenship” right at the heart of her vision for Britain. In his farewell speech in January, Barack Obama declared the citizen “the most important office in any democracy”. He and Michelle have placed citizenship at the heart of their vision for his Presidential Center in Chicago and the associated Obama Foundation. Suddenly, it seems citizenship is all the rage.
But a hot concept is a contested concept. Because of its surface associations with legal status and national boundaries, the idea of the citizen is at risk of co-option by those who want to divide people. Indeed, for all the positive potential in May’s speech, at last year’s Conservative party conference she was guilty of exactly this, arguing: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”
Such statements corrupt the true spirit of citizenship, setting up a choice between identities that is both dangerous and nonsensical. I can be a citizen of my town, of England, of the United Kingdom, of Europe, and of the world, whether or not any of these have a legal status. Thinking and acting as a member of the community at each and every one of these levels is what it takes to live a good life; not choosing between them. Citizenship is not a question of what passport we hold; it is an idea of who we are as human beings, a question of what we can do, and what we should.
Citizenship is not a question of what passport we hold; it is an idea of who we are as human beings
As such, the idea of the citizen is better understood in contrast to two other ideas of who we are: the subject, and the consumer. The story of the last century is the story of an underlying shift from one to the next, in search of a fuller human experience.
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In the early days of the 20th century, we were subjects: we were told what to do by our betters, with little or no power to shape the course of our own lives. Coming out of the second world war, this idea was replaced by the consumer. We gained the power to choose and the right to complain. As a shift from the subject, this was liberating, a raise in status that should not be underestimated. The idea drove huge improvements in material standards of living across the world. It has, however, outlived its time.
What’s coming next is the citizen. If, as consumers, we gained the power of choice, as citizens we are gaining the power to shape the choices. If, as consumers, we could seek the best deal for ourselves as individuals, as citizens we are starting to work together to understand what is best for us as collectives.
Once you start to look at the world through this lens, you see the change happening in every aspect of society, everywhere, much of it reported in the pages of Positive News. In politics, it is the shift from representative democracy – limited to the occasional consumer choice of the vote – to the participatory democracy of Taiwan’s Gov Zero movement, Better Reykjavik’s civic forum, Portugal’s nationwide participatory budget, and Mexico City’s crowdsourced constitution, for example. It is the shift in perception of the role of business: from exploitation to empowerment, from shareholders to stakeholders, from profit to purpose. Perhaps most importantly, in local communities, it is the shift from consumers complaining to citizens reinventing structures from the ground up. From nimbyism to swimbyism (Something Wonderful In My Backyard), manifesting in everything from local food to local energy, and supported by the explosion of local currencies.
The citizen is coming. But it is fragile, and not yet fully formed
That all this is happening is undeniable: the citizen is coming. But it is fragile, and not yet fully formed. The consumer remains, shaken but intact, and its sustained dominance as an idea is driven by its dominance in our language and our media. Such words matter: they are the scaffolding on which we build our thoughts, values, attitudes and behaviours. This, in the end, is why it is so important that today the idea of the citizen must not become co-opted or reduced.
Being able to name this change will be crucial to our ability to bring it into being.
Jon Alexander is founding partner at the New Citizenship Project, an innovation company that aims to speed the shift to a more participatory society.
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