Come Together I: A Citizen of the World or Nowhere, Research Time, 15/03/2017

I'm looking through some classics of Western political philosophy for ideas and concepts to help understand and live in our own turbulent times. You can’t apply a 300 year old idea directly to the problems of the current era.

But the classics are fertile launching points for a complex engagement with perennial problems as they appear in different forms and contexts. You need as many concepts in your thoughts as you can if you want to build a versatile, adaptable politics and way of thinking.

So read the classics. Read them critically. Let the ideas that have inspired people for literally centuries inspire you too.

In one of Theresa May's most infamous speeches since becoming UK
Prime Minister, she threw down a challenging gauntlet: that if you
considered yourself a citizen of the world, you were really a citizen
of nowhere
. The speech was an expression of May's curious new
vision of conservatism: paternal nationalist communitarian. But it
also showed the power that remains in citizenship and membership.
The West’s most fraught and volatile ethical conflict today is about the right to citizenship. Who should have it? Whose citizenship deserves respect? Whose doesn’t? Who do we want to be part of our community? Refugees? Migrant workers? Hyper-wealthy businessmen with eight passports? Stateless people with no citizenship protections at all?

All of these questions reflect different aspects of that core ethical question – Who deserves to join my community?

Citizenship isn't just the brand name of our passports. It's a set of institutions in which we're deeply enmeshed, relationships that determine significant parts of our identities. Citizenship implies a bond among all those who share it that the same set of institutions will, to some degree, protect you.

That umbrella of institutional responsibility defines the boundaries of our community just as much as national borders. It’s a promise of the institutions themselves to the people, that you are welcome here. Yet at its heart, your membership in that community remains voluntary. You really can give it up.

That’s the fact that anchors a lot of Rousseau’s thinking in The Social Contract. That citizenship is always voluntary became a point of political activism. What more blatant way to demonstrate your broken faith in the promise of the state than to give up your citizenship?

A few months ago, I was reading a short book about the – very twisted – politics and economics of citizenship in the 21st century. Atossa Abrahamian described a man named Garry Davis.

I hadn’t heard of him until I read her book, but he was a fascinating and admirable man. Disgusted by the violence of the Second World War, he renounced his American citizenship and literally became a world citizen.

An elderly Garry Davis holding the latest edition of the World Passport.
Technically, he was stateless, but he helped found a non-governmental organization that distributed the World Passport. Oddly, he actually got this travel document accepted as legitimate by many governments around the world. The World Passport was Davis’ lifelong demonstration that a post-national order based on peace and brotherhood was possible.

Mike Gogulski is an American computer programmer Abrahamian wrote about for VICE a couple of years ago. In the mid-2000s, he was living in Bratislava with his girlfriend at the time.

Disgusted with the violence of the American state in Iraq, he gave up his US citizenship. He’s made a living as a bitcoin trader (and launderer) ever since. His wife is a Slovak who works at the Chinese embassy processing visa applications.

His life is happy, if a little dreary. He’s not a globetrotting peace activist like Davis. Instead, he’s content to live in Slovakia with his wife and cat, plugging away in relative at crypto-currency projects.

In their own way, Davis and Gogulski demonstrated in real life what Rousseau argues in The Social Contract. No matter how much we may rely on our governments for a lot of our needs in life, that relationship is voluntary. Fundamental human freedom means that we can walk away at any time.

The practical question is whether you’re willing to live with the consequences. . . . To be continued

No comments:

Post a Comment