An Unreachable Dream?

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Professor Pnina Werbner, The Tragedy of Global Citizenship – Beyond The Arab Spring, Manchester Metropolitan University.

 Where did it all go wrong? It is a question, one suspects, that will trouble socio-political theory for some time to come. How was it that, for an all too brief time, what appeared to be a genuine global movement towards a utopian, cosmopolitan society descended so rapidly into the situation we face today? Unity and hope in the Middle East and Africa have been replaced by increased violence and oppression. Austerity remains the watchword of European politics. The ‘99%‘ continue to lose ground on their corporate opposite day by day.
Perhaps unreasonable, then, to expect Professor Werbner to provide all the answers during her hour-long talk as part of MMU’s Global Citizens, Global Futures event. Rather, she opted to emphasise the fact that, from Gaborone to New York, across boundaries both national and religious and transcending divisions of race and gender, there existed at the beginning of this decade a will to democratize the global arena, and a belief that it could occur.
In doing so, Werbner – Professor Emerita of Social Anthropology at Keele University – did not quite administer the last rites to ‘global citizenship’ as the lecture’s title suggested she might. Instead, by re-charting the mechanics and the migration of various uprisings and protests, and by examining their failings, it became apparent that, though adversity is guaranteed and harsh lessons must be heeded, the dream remains far from futile. She began, 

Pnina Werbner

“I called this talk ‘The Tragedy of Global Citizenship’ because that’s my own feeling about this topic at the moment. At the height of the wave of protests that swept the world in 2011, it seemed as if a new era of truly global citizenship was dawning. Across North Africa and the Middle East, in India, Botswana, Israel, Chile, Spain, Greece, the UK and the USA, protesters, many young men and women, were calling for freedom of expression, justice, equality, transparency and accountability. It was like the whole world had these protests and they were calling for widely similar things.” 

“They were calling for an end to tyranny and ‘tycoonery’, as they called it, for the removal of corrupt and authoritarian regimes and for a more compassionate state. Most remarkably, the protests appeared to spread, contagiously, across borders and to infect other protests elsewhere in other, far-removed countries. They were connected not only through their shared values, like equality and transparency; they also shared aesthetic, performative styles. They imitated each other; they travelled across borders memetically resembling one another. In particular, the uprisings in both Africa, especially in Egypt, and the hand gestures and protest styles of the Occupy movement in Spain echoed one another.”
Despite the fact that each protest appeared somewhat localised, each focussing on a particular subject – the dismantling of the welfare state in Europe, regime change in the Middle East, state corruption in India – Professor Werbner argued that the protests were able to spread so effectively due to the perceived ‘rights and wrongs of a shared imaginary of global citizenship’.
“In a sense, all of the protesters were [demonstrating] what it meant to be a global citizen in the 21st Century”.
The lecture went on to trace previous conceptualisations of global community, as well as historical attempts to transcend the sovereignty (as Weber described it, the monopoly on the right to legal violence) of nation states – moving from Emmanuel Kant, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and on to a discussion about more recent United Nations Security Council vetoes by Russia and China.
The ‘tragedy’ described in the title of the talk was embodied, for Werbner, in the events surrounding Egypt’s ‘second revolution‘, which occurred in August this year. Here, she argued, the ‘deep state’, namely the Egyptian army and security forces, were able to direct and exploit divisions between religious and secular society, violently wresting control from the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood. The professor’s own position on this is that ‘boring politics’, including right wing governments, needed to have been tolerated for some time by the Egyptian people in moving towards a cosmopolitan future. The current regime, she believes, ‘is worse than Mubarak’s’.
Pnina Werbner - The Aesthetics and Politics of Popular Revolt: Beyond the Arab SpringElsewhere, since 2011, protest has been suppressed or has simply ‘fizzled out’. She concluded,
“[So] is global citizenship an unreachable, even foolish, dream? At the heart of many of the worldwide uprisings was an anger at neo-liberal policies that allow governments to divest themselves of responsibility towards their citizens. The rebellions protested against huge pay gaps [and] spectacular political corruption … often associated with unresponsive, undemocratic regimes. They aimed for change – tackling regimes and increasing pressure on governments to affect reforms”.
“But what was left after the protests died down? Having failed in the aims of those utopian protests, we have to analyse: Who were excluded from the protests? What deep social divisions did they [overlook]? Furthermore, what impact have the protests had? What has been their lasting legacy – if any? There is evidence that some changes have occurred, in the regulation of financial institutions, for example … but as things stand, dreams have been shattered in the face of the harsh reality of a return to authoritarianism … and highly unstable governments in many countries. [However], for a momentit seemed as though a utopian, cosmopolitan vision could actually be made”.
The Aesthetics and Politics of Popular Revolt: Beyond the Arab Spring Edited by Pnina Werbner, Martin Webb and Kathryn Spellman is due for release in May 2014 published by Edinburgh University Press.
For information on further events from MMU’s Institute of Humanities and Social Science Research please visit
Neil Harrison studies Social History at MMU, he is an aspiring writer, an awful guitar player and a lazy socialist. Follow him on Twitter @looseriver

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