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Renegotiating the social contract

Saskia Hollander | 27 June 2014

It has become common sense to argue that the recent growth of the global middle classes goes hand in hand with an increased sense of global citizenship. Around the world, people are demanding renegotiation of the social contracts with their states. This is marked by a rise in civic countermovements and public revolt. But can global citizenship flourish in an era of increased competition between the middle classes in the North and the South?

During the third plenary session of the EADI General Conference, entitled ‘Re-Defining Citizenship in Contemporary Development Discourse’, some of the participants presented a rather optimistic view. Nancy Birdsall, President of the Centre for Global Development, argued that the dark shadow of the global economic crisis generated a rise in civic activism around the world. The emerging middle classes, from Brazil to Turkey to China, have taken to the streets to demand a new social contract with their states. Fueled by social media, there is an increased awareness - especially among the young and the better educated - that their governments are incapable of countering the power of the global market. Birdsall’s optimism was shared by Francisco Ferreira, Chief Economist for the Africa Region at the World Bank, who spoke of a ‘virtuous circle’ in which economic progress, the new emerging middle classes, and a rise in global citizenship go hand in hand.

However, it is questionable whether this optimism is justified. As Adrien Gurza Lavalle, Associate Professor at the Political Science Department of Sao Paulo University, Brazil, correctly pointed out, citizen action is something different than citizens’ rights. And indeed, the suppression of the public uprisings in countries like China and Brazil, as well as the often aggressive police response to the Occupy protests in the US and the Europe, suggest that too much optimism is premature. Moreover, while the concept of global citizenship would assume some sense of belonging and communality among protesters around the world, their activism is mainly fed by frustration aimed at their national governments rather than a sense of global solidarity.

Global citizenship or global frustration?

A number of important parallels can be drawn when looking at the underlying parameters of the various revolts. As Olivier Consolo, former Director of the European NGO Confederation for Relief and Development, pointed out, these countermovements have local underpinnings and mobilize citizens on the basis of frustrations felt a local or national level. This was underscored by Ferreira, who perceived the middle-class’ uprisings around the world as the result of higher aspirations fueled by rising prosperity in emerging economies. When economic growth stagnated, these aspirations often turned to frustration, as we have seen in China and several Latin American countries. According to Ferreira, the Brazilian government, for example, got away with providing poor public services for a long time because it offered the rich middle class low taxes in return. With the emergence of a lower middle class, this is no longer the case. Faced with rising taxes, this group now demands reform of public services, as they cannot afford the better but expensive privatized services of the rich. Yet, despite renewed social contracts being demanded in many parts of the world, the protesters’ agendas are diffuse, and they can hardly be considered part of an overall global narrative.

What is more, in the rich countries in the North, we are even seeing a decline in global solidarity. In these countries, the divide between the ‘winners’ and the ‘losers’ of globalization is also growing. As the outcome of the recent European parliamentary elections illustrate, this has led to a revival of right-wing populism. A large part of the middle classes in the North are falling behind their counterparts in the South and this, as Branco Milanovic said in an interview with The Broker’s research editor Evert-Jan Quak, is resulting in anti-globalization policies and potentially even protectionist tendencies. Moreover, the declining appetite for providing aid among Europe’s citizens casts further doubt on the much heralded rise in global citizenship.

A new social contract...but for whom?

Furthermore, the ‘virtuous circle’ of economic prosperity and rising civic activism does not apply to all parts of the world. After 20 years of sustained economic growth and rising GDP per capita in Sub-Saharan Africa, poverty is still falling slowly and, according to Birdsall, one can hardly speak of an emerging African middle class. It is unlikely, she said, that the African ‘strugglers’ (those living on an income of 2-10 dollars a day) will soon acquire a genuine middle-class lifestyle in which they enjoy economic resilience and security. These people are still largely dependent on the state, the reason why, according to Ferreira, no social contract is being re-negotiated in Africa.

A declining civic space

Consolo, too, emphasized that not everyone is participating in the virtuous circle. He spoke of a declining civic space, as citizens’ rights and their involvement in democratic decision-making are under threat everywhere on the planet. As Lavalle rightly pointed out, citizenship is not only about being politically active, but also about the institutional opportunities that citizens have to become political agents. According to Consolo, it is exactly this dimension of citizenship that is being eroded. Despite rising civic activism, there is no space for civil society in formal decision-making channels. Not at national level, where democracy is being hollowed out due to a lack of citizens’ voice about their governments and the economy, or in the global arena, where decision-making is largely detached from public scrutiny as democratic processes of accountability are still based on the nation-state. Solving this ‘double democratic deficit’ requires multi-stakeholder representation on the global stage.

Moreover, Consolo added, global citizenship requires not only increased channels for civil society to participate in and influence global decision-making, but also equal participation of all countries in this process. The global South remains largely underrepresented in negotiations on a social contract on a global scale, like those now under way as part of the post-2015 process. In Consolo’s words, ‘the G77 is trying to re-invent itself in the post-2015 agenda with even less access than many NGOs’. International inequality not only creates tensions within the post-2015 process, it also bears the risk of reinforcing polarized tendencies between citizens in the North and the South.

Despite the optimism about burgeoning global citizenship with which the plenary session started, it does not seem justified to cheer too soon. An important question that needs to be answered is what exactly drives political activism in the North and the South. As we have heard throughout the sessions at this conference, Western perspectives on processes of modernization and democratization cannot be applied indiscriminately to countries in the South. It has become clear that political activism in the global South is mainly driven by economic motivations (see for example ‘The NIMBY’ middle classes’), rather than by shifts in political values. Perhaps most importantly, we have learned that the concept of citizenship cannot be detached from persisting inequalities both within and between countries.