Citizenship politics - part 3 - RSA

Citizenship politics - part 3


  • Social brain

I fear readers will approach the final instalment of my three-parter on citizenship politics with all the enthusiasm of a vegan starting work placement in a steak pie factory. I had my doubts as to both the intellectual and entertainment value of these posts and as the comments have dried up (not that I’m not enormously grateful for those who have posted) my worst fears have been confirmed. Tomorrow I will gather up the pieces of my shattered self esteem and return to more palatable fare; some jokes about dogs perhaps?

Anyway, let’s get it over with. I said yesterday that I would respond to the criticism that citizenship politics was not a politics at all (so now I am offering my own response to my own criticism of my own ideas - John Donne was wrong; I am an island and they’ve just cancelled the weekly ferry).

From the perspective of citizenship politics, how do we respond to the  the questions; ‘who are we?’, ‘who do we need to be?’ and ‘who should we be? Being mercifully brief here is my answer:

‘Who are we?’ Citizenship politics tends to emphasise the social nature of human beings and our species’ unique capacity for empathy and reciprocity. It argues that human beings are capable individually and collectively of functioning at a higher level and that this is the ultimate goal of human progress. But citizenship politics is not naively optimistic about human nature, indeed it recognises the frailties of individual judgement and the need to understand and to restrain our ‘animal spirits’.

‘Who do we need to be?’ Citizenship politics calls for a radical re framing of debate about production, consumption, and growth. A great challenge facing global humanity is how to continue to achieve economic progress within the ever more pressing limits of nature (climate change, biodiversity, finite resources). In relation to question of well-being, of the environment, of what David Halpern calls ‘the hidden wealth of nations’, citizenship politics means developing a more critical and holistic debate about the purposes and trade-offs of economic progress.

‘Who should we be?’ Citizenship politics returns to classical and enlightenment themes in urging an ambitious account of the good life well lived. This life is one in which we have freedoms and entitlements but where also full membership of society carries with the expectation of engagement in the public sphere, the aspiration to live as far as possible within the means available to all in a shrinking world, and a commitment to norms and behaviours which foster social reciprocity.

The practical question for citizenship politics is this: what are the ways of thinking, the circumstances and the policies which are most likely to promote sustainable and fulfilling ways of being for the 21st century. Which again calls to mind the criticism that citizenship politics is just a rather highfalutin way of describing what all politics ultimately is about.

But, as Will Davies reminded me in his comment yesterday, the way we present knowledge reflects the angle from which we look at the world. Citizenship politics is such an angle, one that involves stepping back, trying to make new connections between different ways of seeing, simultaneously trying to understand more deeply what is now going on for the human race while holding fast to the possibility of achieving something quite different. Maybe it is an angle that is better for looking than for doing – this is certainly the impression I get when I discuss these ideas with practical politicians. Then again, maybe the RSA can one day demonstrate what it means to apply these insights, values and ways of being across an organisation.

Now I’ve finished I find myself re-enthused. If only, dear reader, that was true of you too.

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