Sunday, November 15, 2009

With God On Our Side

In 1997, in the aftermath of that year's Education White Paper, an Advisory Group on citizenship education was set up. In its report, published the next year, it approvingly quotes from a submission by the Hansard Society.

Programmes should be established to promote political discourse and understanding, as well as encouraging young people to engage in the political process. Further, they should encourage tolerance and respect for individuals and their property, irrespective of a person’s gender, race, culture or religion. They must also encourage young people to behave honourably and with integrity, as well as promote respect for the rule of law. Young people must be encouraged to develop leadership and team skills in order to promote self-discipline and self-motivation. They should be encouraged to take pride in themselves and the communities to which they belong, as well as to see themselves as citizens of the world.

Other than the last clause of the last sentence, which invokes a non-existent polity to imagine oneself a member of, after the first sentence I fail to see what any of this has to do with citizenship in particular at all. Citizenship is presumably to do with it is to be a citizen. What it is to be a citizen is presumably something to do with your relationship to political authority; in particular, to be a citizen is to have certain political foundational rights, including the right to have rights. Whether political power can rightly be exercised over me without any formal mechanism for me to hold it to account seems to me to have pretty much f*ck-all to do with whether I am capable of motivating myself or not. You don't get to be a citizen because you're a paragon of moral virtue; you get to be a citizen because your life is profoundly shaped by the political institutions you live under and so you have a right to hold it to account in certain ways.

Using the idea of citizenship as a convenient banner under which to gather everything that you might think would be desirable isn't just evidence of an inability to make fairly elementary distinctions, but also I think rather politically dangerous. For one thing, it disguises trade-offs. In a community which isn't tolerant of people irrespective of their gender, race, culture or religion, presumably it's quite difficult to be both tolerant in that way and proud of one's community. Which of the two goes? What if political participation requires me to make compromises damaging to my sense of self? Where's my integrity then? A policy programme which has ruled out, a priori as it were, the possibility of conflicts amongst its various ends by seeing them all as part of the same idea is going to fail because it cannot understand that sometimes it has to make choices between them. Either no choice gets taken at all and so resources are wasted pursuing competing ends, or, rather than publicly laying out their grounds for choosing some ends over others, officials choose on their own private and probably confused grounds, and political power is made a little less accountable - which is rather ironic in a programme designed to promote citizenship.

That's not all either. There are at least two other things wrong with this kind of project, centred around a notion of citizenship which fails to see that it is but one, rather specific, political relationship. First, it puts the onus for dealing with any structural political failings a system has on the average citizen, rather than on the political actors who are both familiar with and presumably benefitting from the failing system. If politicians are worried about the way in which the population at large seems ill-informed about and contemptuous of them, they might think about what they've done wrong rather than what the population at large has. Second, hand-waving in the general direction of citizenship seems to encourage all kinds of disturbingly illiberal communitarian claims about what's best for us. For example, quite apart from thinking that we should generally be proud of our communities, apparently without any consideration of what they or we are actually like, the report ends by endorsing remarks made by the then Lord Chancellor, in which he said that "[o]ur goal is to create a nation of able, informed and empowered citizens who... recognise that the path to greatest personal fulfilment lies through active involvement in strengthening their society". What if I don't like my society? What if what society wants to do to strengthen itself is something I find vile? What if I'd rather stay at home and read a book, or indeed, sit on the sofa, drink beer and watch football? Can I not achieve personal fulfilment like that? Will Kymlicka said of citizenship theory that it is mostly 'old wine in new bottles'; it seems more like vinegar to me.

Thursday, November 05, 2009


I'm reading Roberto Saviano's Gomorrah. I'd seen the film first, which I think is actually fairly faithful - at least to the sense of the book, if not quite the sequence or precise arrangement of the episodes it catalogues: the dilapidation of Scampia's concrete monstrosities; the inventive yet nonetheless cheap horror of the violence; the way in which a consciously fatalistic lust for power ends up seeming the only comprehensible reaction; and above all, the total integration into and indeed perfect service of the global economy. But one thing above any other struck me. Although it's quite shocking to think that Pelle Italiane and the other faux designer shops on the Seven Sisters Road are probably run by Camorristi, or to read reports of the blankness of adolescents in Naples' hinterland, the death toll really stops the breath. The Troubles, assuming Saviano and Wikipedia are to be trusted, did not manage to kill more people than intra-Camorra feuds from the mid-seventies onwards. Admittedly, Northern Ireland has a smaller population than the Province of Naples, but presumably a greater proportion of the killings took place in the Province of Naples. The average rate of Camorra killings alone is higher than the present homicide rate for any Western European state. In comparison, the total number of murders in London in the year to September was 128; that's 13 less than the average of organised crime killings over the twenty seven years to 2005 for an area with less than half population. If people must make comparisons to The Wire, then rundown areas of the UK seem not to be the place to start.