We shall soon arrive at the grim centenary of the Great War of 1914-18.
The ensuing 30 years heralded a massive change in the world order, not simply because one side won and another lost, but because of what the victors did with their mandate. It began the great schism in global politics: democracies on one side and totalitarian communism on the other. Ironically they shared a common principle: a country for the people by the people.
We have called those struggles ‘World Wars’ for good reason. To Westerners they were all-encompassing, all-involving. To those who didn’t engage they still set in motion political changes that reset the norms of politics and state rule across the planet.
Whether you lived in Europe or China you became affected. As well as forming transnational alliances they also reset the baseline for solidarity within each country. Armies were no longer professional fighting bodies led by the sons of the elite, they were everybody. Everyone’s son and daughter experienced sacrifice. They lost beyond just house and home, but millions gave to the final equaliser: loss of life.
Such absolutes spun our world in two directions. To some it gave permission to demand a country where social support for all people could become the bedrock of the new constitution. In the UK this meant the establishment of the NHS and welfare state for all. In some communist countries it permitted leaders as supreme and absolute as the power they faced down in Hitler to replicate such authoritarianism, but nominally at least on the side of ‘Everyman’.
Totalitarian but egalitarian communism on one side, democratic but egalitarian liberalism on the other.
So how have they both played out?
Most forms of communism are collapsing. Their unraveling has left a form of administrative elite to mop up the power vacuum and maintain dominance through residual oligarchies. Meanwhile similar corporate oligarchies are in the ascendency in Western democracies such that in the richer countries both the wealth and the rule of the nation are increasingly compressed into the domain of the 1 percent. The 1% ruling on behalf of the 1% whilst keeping the rest in their place.
The sense that the people have the right to equality because they equally bore the burden of the world’s war struggles is sinking without trace.
The sense that the people have a mandate to constrain economic despotism is absent within the trickle-down mythology of the global economic order.
The communist/capitalist fissure left untouched a third reality of the war period. That most of the world did then, and does now, live a near-subsistence lifestyle, with little to gain from winning such terrible wars even though many such peoples were conscripted into it.
They were, like the serfs of old, drawn in to battle for the King with the promise of scraps from the victor’s table.
That had always been the way of history. At least until that war period when the countries of Kings and Emperors found a way to redress history’s bias to the ruler and re-write it towards the affairs of the common people. In the new republics the citizen is no longer the henchman in the battles of the elite, but an active principle in their own affairs. A decision-maker at last.
But if the world were a single republic, and its population citizens of that republic, then the choice of capitalism as the principle behind the flow of currency may have been disputed.
After all, money is not the only currency that we exchange. Goodwill and tribal loyalty also make the world go round. If money is the way that we measure value (as opposed to say, person hours or calories of food) then the 1% who own most of it, like the 1% who have access to capital in the UK, will continue to both own and rule the world. They will have all the seats in the cabinet…
No, if the world were a single republic and its population citizens, then the rise and rise of the citizen would relate to a repositioning of power in the global story. Away from the elite as rightful rulers and the people as their serfs and military, and nearer to where measures of life expectancy, access to food and education and democratic influence are indices of success… Where they become in some way a basis of currency, other than gold.
Such a currency would place the wants of the people before the concerns of their masters as true players in their own story. They would live in a world where the preferences of the people would temper the preferences of capital.
In that sense a ‘global citizen’ is not someone who is a global subject. Not a pawn in an international financial power struggle but a player in a global egalitarian uprising. A rectifier of imbalance joined to a new history imagined by the people’s story, not the elite’s.
The challenge of modern democracies is to speak as global citizens who are part of a one-voice uprising where the people are determining their will for their own lives, not living in compromised submission to the interplay of dominant capitalism’s Emperor (as far as you are concerned, that Emperor has no clothes…). It is to use the historic forms of undermining the elite that emerged after a great united struggle such as the world wars before they re-emerge:
1/ asserting the merits of living in supportive egalitarian community where well-being is distributed rather than each person jockeying for position with the feudal overlords
2/ asserting the legitimate power-base of the masses as shared burden-bearers in paying the price of freedom
3/ recognising ‘currencies’ other than money by which we can measure value: trust borne of solidarity, person-hours, shared responsibility for shared resources (please add more!)
The route to many of these may and will include the Millennium Development Goals. But as targets they can look achievable through simple charity and humanitarianism. The fact that they have fallen so far short through this intent is for the same reason that democracy too has failed to achieve trickle-down. The global rule of the 1% for the 1% is winning through but throroughly unsustainable. It is only an uprising of mindset and political will that can address that, not a down-trickle of benevolence.