Peter Christoff

I would like to begin by thanking Robert Paehlke for his provocative and positive essay. No sensible person could disagree with his proposition that we need more effective and more equitable global governance, and his article challenges us to consider how this might be achieved.

Paehlke proposes three things: first, that enlargement (globalization) of citizenship will overcome reluctance by states and problems of legitimacy among populations, which are barriers to strengthening such governance; second, that a coherent global movement can become a force for—the third proposition—a Great Transition.

I agree with each of these propositions. I am grateful for the article, but unfortunately, I don’t think Bob’s piece is clear enough about the very tough problems of how we constitute and mobilize around these necessary elements.

My comments are conditioned by my circumstances. I am writing from Europe following the recent European Parliament elections. The resurgence of a resentful ethnic-nationalist politics—powerfully evident everywhere—is fueled not only by immediate economic troubles but also by a strong and related belief in the illegitimacy of ‘distant’ institutions in a borderless continent. This deepening skepticism, and its underlying democratic and legitimacy deficits, cannot be ignored. I have also been heavily involved in environmental movement politics over the last fifteen years. In my experience, existing progressive movements (and not just environmental ones) are increasingly struggling for traction.

Analysis of these experiences must shape consideration of an even more ambitious project: we need to be analytically clear and practically responsive to the weak foundations on which we might seek now to build a Global Citizens Movement (GCM).

Two issues of legitimacy arise. The first is the legitimacy of the GCM, and the second is the legitimacy of the institutions that it is seeking to establish.

Let’s assume the GCM exists and suspend consideration of its form. Why would those in power, sometimes elected to government, care at all about a multitude of extraterritorial voices advocating a program of change—say an Avaaz-style petition of 50 million self-proclaimed ‘global signatories’ calling for changes to the voting system in Canada or China, or for the amendment of some international treaty, or some other action? What of the reactions of the biggest, most populous, and most problematic states, such as China and the USA, whose domestic populations will probably outweigh any possible ‘global’ force?

And what would make people want to join this global movement and see it as legitimate ‘from within’? Clearly, the GCM’s external legitimacy couldn’t come primarily from numbers—although that would certainly be an issue—but rather from its normative purpose, which would also be its mobilizing force.

At the same time, its ‘internal’ legitimacy couldn’t come merely from its normative purpose: it would need to have procedural legitimacy, an organizational form that is transparent and embodies its beliefs, and the legitimacy derived from effectiveness (capacity for successful goal-oriented action).

These issues are not new. For instance, one repeatedly hears conservatives challenging progressive civil society organizations, suggesting that groups like Greenpeace, Amnesty, etc., are neither accountable to their members/supporters nor representative of the views of a larger public. The environmental movement gets around this by claiming the moral high ground, saying that it ‘speaks for nature.’ But claims for justice and equity on behalf of—for instance—developing country populations are hardly straightforward. So the articulation of a normative narrative and organizational ‘spine’ for a GCM will be complicated by the usual issues of authority and representation.

The second issue—the legitimacy of the institutions of global governance (other than those of civil society)—is even more problematic. Paehlke acknowledges the “legitimate anxieties” that many have about global governance, and “the frequently voiced parallel view that citizen-based global cooperation is essentially silly.” The recent EuroParl vote underlines this on a smaller, more intimate geographical scale. But his piece provides no answers to those concerns.

Paehlke’s article only weakly defines his vision of ‘global citizenship.’ It could be either active and robust, or passive and metaphoric (i.e., based in a sort of globalized awareness rather than action for global change). In fact, although I think he generously allows for both, the article mainly talks about active global citizenship. But this doesn’t really solve the problem. Two types of ‘action’ might be considered to help constitute global citizenship: action at the global level, and action with intended global consequences. Both are required.

Paehlke’s preference seems to be for the latter, locale-by-locale support for action on global concerns prior to the establishment of institutions for global government. I’m not sure this addresses the ‘citizenship’ problem sufficiently. Citizenship is constituted of an amalgam of elements—psycho-social, cultural, and political—that are negotiated in and between a variety of institutions and public spheres, and which define the citizen’s rights, duties, and identity.

The psycho-social and cultural elements may merely be identity-based and do not necessarily constitute citizenship in its active form. Citizenship—if defined by its collective, purposive action—requires institutional/organizational ‘definition,’ especially if it is to manifest at the global level. This definition initially depends on old and new institutions of civil society—and then the creation of new institutions of a redesigned system of global governance.

Institutions that might give political definition to global citizenship remain unclear in the essay—which explicitly indicates Bob has little faith in institutional developments that would either shape and carry the movement itself into being, or in terms of securing its governance outcomes and structures.

Paehlke argues, in relation to new institutions for governance, that “global, citizen-based political action must precede whatever new institutional arrangements might emerge in the long run.” He notes further that “an institutional structure or central administration [is not necessary]. Movements can be amorphous and grow organically, generally including and spawning diverse organizations, each with continuously evolving perspectives.”

Not wanting to go ‘there’ is understandable. It is a miserable place. Currently, the civil society organizations upon which we might draw—such as transnational NGOs—generally suffer from over-individuation and siloing, even (or especially) within the same ‘theme’ of action. Similarly, we are witnessing the failure of existing formal institutions for global governance in critical areas of concern—like climate change.

Nevertheless, I don’t think that unstructured interventions via new social media can replace more structured forms of association and organization, especially given the cacophony of calls on our attention and for action, and the trolling, that now flood the blabosphere.

If more is intended, including in the shaping of new global governance institutions via electoral participation, or direct action, then I suspect these elements need to be formalized (bearing in mind the earlier concern about democratic and legitimacy deficits).

Further, I believe global citizenship as local globally-oriented action and little more is insufficient to produce an enduring and effective movement and that without the reconfiguration of legal governance institutions, the transformation is likely to be at worst improbable and at best impermanent.

Paehlke acknowledges “establishing political efficacy globally is a spectacularly daunting challenge.” He offers no recipes for doing so—and that was not the purpose of his article—but does suggest three initiatives: campaigns to “thicken” local and national democracy, promotion of a limited global agenda, and a push for local economic diversity.

I agree with these initiatives but disagree when he adds that “an overarching movement plan is not necessary,” that it is enough for participants in the GCM to “share its broad goals, and actively participate in—or simply support—its initiatives.”

The basis for action, the reason for people joining the GCM, cannot simply be a slogan about the Great Transition but greater clarity about what that transition requires and what the problems (and forces) confronting it might be.

Even a limited global agenda needs a coherent linking analysis, and then a series of clearly identified targets, and strategies for tackling them. Global problems can be prioritized. They often have geographically defined locations or nodes where their drivers are strongest: for instance, with climate change, the USA and China. How are these to be tackled?

Last, I feel the article does not engage sufficiently with the problem of power—either the sources of power of an effective GCM or of its opposition. Let’s step back and think about what a vibrant movement of ‘citizens without borders’ engaging in action is likely to encounter. How will the substantial material interests being challenged, the institutions and individuals threatened by this tide, react? How does this play out? Hacktivism? Wikileaks? Mass mobbing demonstrations against the G20 or COPs or Rio+20? The Occupy Wall Street Movement? How exactly is effective and timely change to occur?

Paehlke’s vision offers an exceptionally attractive self-actualizing and decentered path to change, but can also be read as too diffuse, too easily dismantled, too powerless. Its unnamed tensions—between the vision of dynamic, morally charged cultural-revolutionary Global Spring, and the nightmare of voluntaristic and cacophonous movements based on loose associations without clear agreement, directions, drivers, or outcomes—lie at the heart of the crisis of much current civil society activism.

I realize that here I have only offered criticism, with which others may or may not agree. So I again want to stress my gratitude that Paehlke’s article incites us now to address the questions it has brought to light.

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Peter Christoff
Peter Christoff is a political scientist and Associate Professor who teaches in the Department of Resource Management and Geography at the University of Melbourne. His most recent books include Globalization and the Environment, co-authored with Robyn Eckersley, and Four Degrees of Global Warming: Australia in a Hot World. He has served on various government committees on environmental protection and climate policy and is a former vice president and current board member of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Cite as Peter Christoff, "Commentary on 'Global Citizenship: Plausible Fears and Necessary Dreams,'" Great Transition Initiative (June 2014),

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