In my first part I first want to shortly argue how three huge problems signal the end of the social system we all live in. After that I go into the crisis of democracy somewhat, arguing that next to the rise of populism and the return of the extreme right, the other parties slowly let go of their grand narratives which made most people cynical about politics. To guide democracy through the transition of our world, we need parties that again try to organise around the fractures that divide society. From this follows that citizenship education should be done with a global perspective and be practically organised around the three main fractures of present-day society.
There are three huge problems that show why our society is going through a real transition-phase: globalisation, ecological deprivation and inequality. I will go over them in just a few sentences.
Long before globalisation theory became popular, Immanuel Wallerstein, the founder of world-systems analysis, already showed globalisation was no new phenomenon.(1) Seen from the perspective of incorporation, Wallerstein could show that globalisation was an integral part of the operation of the modern world-system that already exists for more than five centuries. Equally important was that seen this way globalisation in its current phase announced the structural crisis of this system. Incorporating zones that were not yet part of the world-system, because of cheap labour and resources, was the way capitalists could compensate their losses. This means it was their solution to the higher demands of workers within the system who regularly protested against unemployment and low wages, which in their turn were caused by the recurrent crises of overproduction. One could say that somewhat ironically globalisation theory showed that historical capitalism could no longer function as before, because there are no more zones to be found outside of it.
A second long-term trend that indicates the crisis of our social system is the one by which companies can make society pay for the ecological deprivation. Thanks to the work of Naomi Klein, or in our country that of Ludo De Witte, many people now know that we are racing towards the cliff of our global CO2-budget. The pace of that race is so fast no clean technology can save us without drastically changing the political economy of our social system.(2)
There are more such trends reaching their asymptote. One other such trend is the growth of inequality. Never in world history was the gap between rich and poor that big. According to Oxfam the richest 8 people today possess as much as the poorest half of the world’s population.(3) Thomas Piketty has shown how during the last decades capital is taking back what it had to surrender to the others during the post-war period – which must be the best definition of neoliberalism.(4) Add to these the work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, who showed that nearly everything, from life expectancy to violence and mental health, is most affected by inequality, and one gets a good picture of how untenable the situation has become.(5)
For my purposes it suffices to show how this world historical crisis overlaps with the crisis of democracy. Two things are crucial to note.
One. In the seventies unemployment became structural and the attack on social security systems and other public services began. This already was an assault on democracy, but when the last stagnation phase continued scapegoating by extreme right-wing parties became successful again. It were these parties, as Jan Blommaert argues for the Vlaams Blok/Vlaams Belang in Flanders (6), that would incite the other parties with their populist gap between the people and the (left) elite that could only be bridged by a more direct relationship between politicians and voters. And if those voters wanted to limit or reduce human rights, especially those of migrant populations, so be it. The rule of law and the fact that the freedom of speech is not absolute, lost authority. Under the guise of progressive values like gender-equality and secularism – supposedly fully accomplished in our own group – migrants became second-rate citizens in need of forced integration.(7) Those who don’t agree and protest are called otherworldly and are faced with the primacy of politics: once elected no civil society should be allowed to blackmail any government. In times political parties didn’t care too much about ideology anymore, this at least was and is a very clear message.
Two. The tendency of parties no longer offering ideological clarity and that way feeding political cynicism, is called centrism.(8) Under the influence of commercial media and the success of new social media many parties would try and seduce the voter with a more personal style and became more like voting-groups. For the left this meant that the demands of economic democracy and social reform were no longer put forward. Centrism allowed neoliberalism to rule in economic thinking and together with the idea that there was no alternative anymore, democratic choice was severely reduced.
To reverse this trend and try to guide democracy through the transition, we need to realize parties can also organize along societal fractures and starting from group-interests try to convince others with a grand narrative on how to solve the fundamental problems. That would make sure the most important social problems would dominate the political agenda and democratic choice could be restored.
There are three such societal fractures. One is between a closed and an open society – where the extreme right with its ethnic nationalism and closed borders already answers the challenges of diversity and globalisation. The second is between capital and labour. The question here is to what extent and how to fight the growing inequality. And the third is the one between a green market-economy and a just transition: does one leave the ecological problem to the market and technology to solve, or does one think government needs to counter the anarchy in production?
Transition, crisis of democracy, three fractures. From this analysis we can deduce two things for world-citizenship education.
Since the Convention on the Rights of the Child prescribes we educate children for ‘a responsible life in a free society, with respect for human rights and the natural environment’, we have good reason to take the three fractures to focus our attention and structure the knowledge we should transfer.
The second thing is that we should teach students to see the problems on those fractures from a global perspective. Since the working definition of world-citizenship is ‘realize that all people live in one and the same unequally developing world-system and that therefore justice is also a global question’. This definition does not include a world-citizen doesn’t want any connection with his own culture or thinks only a world government can solve our problems. That’s but what opponents make of it. Rather, the definition wants to make us think about how to reorganize solidarity and political struggle on the different scales, from the local to the transnational.