Thursday, May 7, 2015

reclaiming citizenship - draft 2

reclaiming citizenship

This text is a 2nd draft of a text published march 19. Unfortunately I forgot to note that it was a first draft and so apologize to those readers who were not forewarned (ouch! - it makes me look like a duffer, too...) As was my original intention, I invite readers comments,  suggestions, criticism and questions. 

The New Responsibility: citizen self-empowerment, taking responsibility for the little piece of turf I stand on. There is nothing novel in this idea. Its roots go back to the Revolutionary ideologues of the Enlightenment who brought us the French and American Revolutions (and later, the Russian, Spanish, and Chinese Revolutions). The term "citoyen", citizen, was made a term of honor. (footnote 1) As citizens, all should be considered equal (at least before the law). Liberty, Equality, Fraternity! Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité! Libertad, Igualdad, Fraternidad!

                         American Revolution, the "Betsy Ross" flag

           In periods of systemic breakdown such as we are living through, the cultivation of virtue in our backyard is all that could reasonably be expected. If virtue retreats from the public space - and the public space itself disappears under neocon ideology (note 2) - then virtue must, of necessity, retreat to its most sheltered refuge: the individual the family, the neighborhood.

          "Conquering New Worlds" is the project of another age: been there, saw that, now suffering the hangover from.. Our time of transition makes different demands on us, offers different opportunities. 

         One of the more surprising of these new opportunities: our real (physical, living) world has a near infinity of ecological niches and few of these have been really explored or understood in any detail. Think of how the microscope opened up a whole new universe to human comprehension - all without moving a step, without crossing a sea. The "new" world of microbial life was literally hidden under our noses all the time! We simply didn't have the means to perceive it. Today, we need a new mental microscope to perceive the opportunities - and challenges - of the post cheap fossil energy world we are entering. The need to develop such a mental tool led to my reconsideration of the old right wing buzzword, "responsibility"..

            Taking responsibility for one's own piece of turf means different things to different individuals. The existentialist philosopher, J.P. Sartre held that life is a "project" that we are responsible for:

"L'Homme est absolument libre, il n'est rien d'autre que ce qu'il fait de sa vie, il est un projet. Sartre nomme ce dépassement d'une situation présente par un projet à venir, la transcendance."


Wo/man is absolutely free, s/he is nothing other than what s/he makes of life, s/he is a project. Sartre considered this capacity to move beyond one's current situation via a future directed project a form of transcendence. We transcend a current undesirable situation by projecting ourself mentally into a project and then physically acting so as to bring the project into reality. Our projects provide us with significance, meaning, self-expression, creativity, adventure, dignity, status..

           One recalls here Nietzsche's idea of "self-overcoming", of aiming high to hit high..

            Given the state the world is in, taking responsibility means the creation of Cultural Refugia to save the best fruits of the last 6000 years of Patriarchal Culture: calculus, the Periodic Table, the scientific method, the ideal of citizenship, democracy, human rights, feminism, Enlightenment Universalism. All the good stuff we want to save from the barbarian hordes.. All the good stuff we payed such a heavy price to obtain! (note 3)

            Taking responsibility for one's own piece of turf implies, for an occidental, re-empowerment of the citizen. To be blunt, the citizen must take back control of our democracies which we have stupidly turned over to corporate interests in return for the cornucopia of mass produced goodies they have delivered us.

            One definition of fascism reads:

control or seizure of the State by the corporate elite

                          guess who?

            Democracy means rule of / by the People. If we take this definition literally we must admit that, as citizens of democracies, we have let ourselves be brainwashed by the corporate agenda which is to maximize profits. Hyperconsumerism maximizes profits. The advertising industry is a form of psychic manipulation targeting the (hyper-)consumer, inducing him to consume above and beyond his needs in order to maximize corporate profits. Large multinationals - owing allegiance to no country or citizenry - are the biggest, most competent and influential players in this game: think coca cola, auto manufacturers, electronics, food, media, publishing - just about everything today! For these corporate behemoths, questions of long-term sustainability, national security, public health play, at best, secondary or tertiary supporting role to profits. If proposals do not maximize short term profits these "public good" concerns are quickly jettisoned, remaining as pious - but empty - words to hypnotize those who are only too willing to believe the hype. 

             Unfortunately, we humans find it more convenient to displace responsibility for our moral failures than to assume blame. More unfortunately still, the false "innocence" we gain is achieved at an exceedingly high price: our dignity as responsible citizens and adults. The corporations "program" us to consume regardless of the cost to the environment and future generations. But if we take the definition of democracy seriously, we, the citizens, are ultimately responsible for the results because, under democracy, the citizen is king..

             Today, if we are to save some of the furniture from the fire (my Cultural Refugia), we - citizens - must reclaim our authority from the corporate usurpers and the craven politicians who serve them. Reclaiming responsibility means reclaiming authority: "authority" implies responsible use of power - responsibility. Responsibility without power in meaningless: only scapegoats can be simultaneously "responsible" and "powerless". By assuming responsibility for the turf s/he stands on, the citizen also self-empowers, assumes the robe of authority..

             In practice, this leads to the odd situation where a left wing critique of society leads - "paradoxically" - to a right wing conclusion: accepting responsibility in our personal life, in our personal relations with the people around us, accepting responsibility for our little piece of turf. If things are going to change, I must become the local center of change from which all change ripples outwards. The Buck stops with me..

              In practice, this is not an easy message to accept! People on the Left or Center of the political spectrum - even those of the moderate Center Right - accept that at least some of the evils of society are structural in nature. They transcend individual actions or volition. Evils such as racism existed before my birth. They form part of the structure of social reality I was born into. If leftists feel they are losing ground, as today, it becomes tempting to  throw in the towel with the cry that "the System is rigged!" and we are its victims.

              Victimization is a sordid human reality (and probably always will be). But a sense of victimization combined with powerlessness to change the situation can create the toxic social environment we inhabit today. Researchers studying jihadist terrorists who were born in Western countries have noted that some of these people are acting from an intense sense of injustice at the evils inflicted on the Muslim world by the "Crusaders" of the arrogant West. We may choose to dismiss such indoctrination as mere "propaganda" but such an attitude misses the point! The brainwashed youth who joins ISIS may be doing so from noble motives: to avenge wrongs done to innocents (with whom they identify). It's hard to find sentiments more noble than that..

             The common sentiment of powerlessness, of lack of control over our collective (or individual) destinies is, I suspect, a major breeding ground for the various forms of fanaticism and extremism we see around us, from  Global Warming deniers to European neonazis, American militias and jihadist martyr-terrorists.

             How else can we counter these toxic byproducts of the sense of powerlessness, than through the (re-)empowerment of the Citizen, who is each one of us?

                 In order to regain any efficacy at all, the Left, in the coming increasingly turbulent decades, will have to address the question of individual responsibility and its relation to larger social goals. We need to face the question of the relation of the individual - his rights and duties - to his society. We will need to examine the nature of citizenship itself  in this dawning millennium.  

 internal blog links:


1 - (translation follows) Citizen / citoyen: definition, from

"Etymologie : du latin civis, celui qui a droit de cité, citoyen.

Historiquement, un citoyen est un membre d’une cité-Etat grecque, disposant du droit de suffrage dans les assemblées publiques. Il participe aux décisions de la cité relatives aux lois, à la guerre, à la justice, à l'administration...

Pendant la Révolution française, le terme "citoyen" a été réutilisé par opposition au "sujet" (du roi). Il permet de désigner tout homme sans notion de hiérarchie, par opposition à la Noblesse. A noter que, durant cette période, les termes "citoyen" et "citoyenne" ont été utilisés pour remplacer "monsieur", "madame" et "mademoiselle"."

etymology: from Latin civis, one who has right to the city, a citizen

Historically, a citizen was a member of a Greek city-state, possessing the right to vote in public assemblies. He {only males had full citizenship} participated in municipal decision making relative to lawmaking, war, justice and administration.

During the French Revolution, the term "citoyen" was re-employed in opposition to "sujet" (a "subject" of the king). "Citoyen" designated any man without reference to position in the social hierarchy.. During the revolutionary period the terms "citoyen" and "citoyenne" were used to replace the traditional modes of address: sir, madame, mademoiselle,..

2- disappearance of public space under neocon idiotology: 

3 - among the challenges the world faces: climate change, overpopulation, breakdown of essential ecosystems and the natural services they provide, depletion of non-rewewable resources, failure to make a speedy transition to renewable resources and energy systems when we still had time, over-exploitation of renewable resources (thereby functionally converting renewable resources into non-renewable, depleting, ones), the rebirth (or renewed vigor) of racism and religious fanaticism..

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