As our approaching circumstance compels us to rethink our communal paradigm, individual persons will be both the essential building blocks and the architects of that transformation. How we each participate is critical. Indeed, a revitalized approach to citizenship may well be a prerequisite for survival. Without transformative behavior at the social base, our species will surely fall short in the radical challenge framed by climate deterioration. We need to reformulate what it means to be a member of society and the obligations and behavior that accompany it, and then embody that new common denominator in the roles we play.
“What we have now is a kind of consumer model of citizenship,” my friend Leon observed. Leon teaches American history. I ran into him while attending his university’s graduation ceremonies last weekend and when I told him I was about to write something on citizenship, he spoke right up. “As consumers of society, we pick and choose off its menu,” he pointed out. “It is essentially a passive posture—empty receptacles at the social tap, so to speak, with a remarkably disconnected social presence. This consumer mentality insures that the social flow is largely top down rather than bottom up. It also disconnects us from a sense of responsibility for the outcome of our social behavior and empowers the tendency to defer to the social producers—such as politicians, financial elites, and advertisers—who supply us with the options we consume. This approach essentially defines life as a standardized multiple choice test rather than an essay question. It also pretty much insures that the inertia of the status quo will hold sway when it comes to social invention. I suspect if we pursued a producer model of citizenship rather than our current consumer one, both the social process and outcome would shift considerably.”
When the graduation was finally over, I used Leon’s exposition as a starting point and launched into trying to figure out how such a “producer” model of citizenship might operate. I came up with a list of Eight Commandments for the Practice of Citizenship:
1. Take personal ownership of our communal existence. Rather than an Other, society is us. However we try to distance ourselves from it, we cannot. Rather, we should accept and propound society as an extension of ourselves and cultivate that mutual identity instead of treating it a condition imposed from outside and over which we have no control. Even if it doesn’t avow as much, society—essentially a collective consciousness and behavior—is by definition participatory. Our actions make society what it is. Recognizing that is the first step towards holding it and ourselves accountable.
2. Engage with each other. Modern life can often be diagramed as a sea of separate cells, each linked to a central hub but not cross linked with each other, an often stultifying arrangement that effectively depletes society’s tensile strength and the energy and vitality at its base. Changing that deficiency requires developing social and political communities of interest among the citizenry that generate focus and nurture communal intelligence horizontally, without using empowered elites to intermediate. The point is to revitalize democracy at its roots with a campaign of cross fertilization within the citizenry.
3. Pay attention and get smarter. Citizens need to be keen observers who prioritize learning about who we are and what is going on. Without that intellectual openness and curiosity, society rigidifies, addicted to dogma and its propaganda, without a fresh flow of insight and understanding that informs all its members and will allow us to adapt quickly and with a minimum of dislocation.
4. Embody democratic values. It is not enough to pledge allegiance. Citizenship in our dislocated future requires us to carry out our values in our daily life and social organization, guided by self knowledge and honest self examination. In this way, citizenship is more a verb than a noun. It is a behavior that has to be carried out in order to be real. And the means it adopts have to reflect the desired ends.
5. Assume responsibility. If society isn’t an Other, then it’s not someone else’s problem. The future will not allow us to kick the can down the road as we have become used to. Our dilemmas must be solved by ourselves. And part of assuming responsibility is holding ourselves and each other responsible when that is called for. Accountability must be developed as both a personal virtue and a collective requirement, generated from the bottom up. When the shit hits the fan, individual discipline and self regulation will often be the only option for providing stability.
6. Generate empathy and compassion. Citizenship will have to include appreciating, understanding, and looking out for each other—providing a support system and an avenue for reconciling our differences and integrating them into a common bond. Helping and caring for others are essential virtues when faced with the necessity of making more out of less. Without an empathetic and compassionate approach to each other, there is no way to make that social arithmetic work.
7. Initiate. As things now stand, there is an ingrained cultural assumption that the ball is put in play at the top and an accompanying reluctance to provide the bottom with more than an opportunity to accept or reject. This is another way we empower inertia. Practicing citizenship means not waiting for the top to figure things out. Without such initiative, society is denied full use of its communal intelligence and of the genius of individual citizens. Citizens shouldn’t just play defense.
8. Dedicate ourselves. Citizenship is a practice, in the religious and spiritual sense of the word: a daily exercise and discipline that has to be carried forward with devotion. This requires citizens who give that role a central place in their sense of themselves and commit themselves to developing their social membership to the fullest extent. As such, they will provide the shock troops of our transformation as the future bears down on us. The citizenry’s ability to remain steadfast in the face of disappointment, danger, and disintegration may well be the difference between foundering and prosperity. We will all need to take the human outcome as a personal mission if we are to have a chance.