I could have stayed in the press centre all day.
The sun was beaming through the tall windows on to the starched white tablecloths. On top of them were laid out all manner of goodies: coffee, fruit from all over the world, iced croissants, cheese. Behind the tables stood smiling, impeccably polite, bow-tied waiters. Everything was free. In the next room, also for free, were rows of computer terminals. A wide-screen TV was beaming out CNN, and official press releases were fed to me at intervals. I stuffed them into my free shoulder bag, which also contained a complimentary CD, glossy book plugging the occasion and a sheaf of specially produced propaganda newspapers. It hardly passed for journalism, but it did pass the time.
This scene could be taken from any of the hundreds of international get-togethers held by politicians, business people and multinational organisations every year. The food bland and international, the press releases multilingual, the buildings all steel and glass and security guards, the delegates with their different coloured faces wearing the same coloured suits. On this occasion, I was at a G8 summit in Genoa, but it could just as easily have been a World Bank meeting in Prague, a World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle, a World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, an International Monetary Fund meeting in Washington or a gathering of the international NGO-cracy in New York. Places, nations, cultures: they were all outside the window, outside the rings of steel. Inside, the globocrats inhabited their own enclosed, placeless universe. I was a guest of the citizens of nowhere.
Whether they are scurrying through summit venues, storming the business class gates in airport terminals, lunching at restaurants with high ceilings and unobtrusive waiters, or drinking bottled water in air-conditioned boardrooms, the citizens of nowhere are our new ruling class. Politicians, corporate top dogs, media stars, “opinion formers” and bureaucrats, they occupy a prism of halogen-lit elitism, the same from Brussels to Bangkok, Sao Paulo to San Diego. Rootless, technocratic, unburdened by the baggage of locality or the complications of history, they exist in every nation but feel attached to none.
For longer than a century, sections of the idealistic left have dreamt of a world made up not of petty patriots, superstitious reactionaries or backward-looking conservatives, but of “global citizens” casting off the chains of geography and nationality to embrace a global future. “Modern-minded” people, wrote H G Wells, an early left-wing globaliser, in 1933, are “waking up to the indignity and absurdity of being endangered, restrained, and impoverished by a mere uncritical adhesion to traditional governments, traditional ideas of economic life, and traditional forms of behaviour”. Those people, he believed, would come together to “make over the world into a great world civilisation”. There are still those on the left who share this dream. What they don’t seem to have noticed is that their ideal of the “unrestrained” global citizen is already a reality. Take a look around you the next time you are hurried through the business class section on a plane. Welcome to the future.
Writing in the NS in June, Bill Emmott, editor of the Economist, house journal of the citizens of nowhere, lauded the achievements of global capitalism. Not only is everything dandy, he wrote, but there is “no backlash against globalisation” and no “growing movement for global justice”. We have been imagining the whole thing. We know this because a recent survey from the US says so. How can Emmott believe this? Tens, possibly hundreds, of millions of people are rising up around the world against the impact of globalisation. You can track much of their activity on the internet without even leaving your office. In January, 100,000 people turned up at the World Social Forum in Brazil to discuss how to replace the globalisation model. Had they all just got on the wrong bus?
The answer is that Emmott, like his fellow globocrats, is simply unable to believe it. He’s read the stories, seen the websites, perhaps caught glimpses of the tear-gas plumes from his summit hotel room; but it can’t really be happening. For in the world of the citizens of nowhere, everything is fine.
“At a global level . . . a huge middle class is emerging,” wrote Emmott. And here, in an imported nutshell, is progress as defined by the citizens of nowhere; a vision of “development” posited on turning everyone on earth into a Wap-wielding, choice-chasing consumer, drifting through a global pleasure garden in which each place is much like every other and everything is for sale.
Stalking a trackless waste of glass hotels and air-conditioned offices, first class lounges and business class seats, Louis Vuitton and Stella McCartney, the citizens of nowhere are the fastest-growing class on earth. But it is not just the Economist-reading right who swell their ranks. It is more complex than that. While the neoliberal citizens of nowhere celebrate the birth of a global market, based on global tastes and global values, another group, the liberal citizens of nowhere, help them along.
Think of those “international NGO leaders”, flying from conference to conference, writing reports about “sustainability” and “the environment”, without knowing what season it is outside the conference room. Think of certain sections of the left who believe, as they always have, that talking about culture or community is at best embarrassingly reactionary and at worst tantamount to fascism; that talking about place is the same thing as talking about race, a sure sign that the speaker is an anti-immigration bigot. These new Wellsians believe that the only way to bring about international solidarity is to cast off the chains of locality once and for all.
In other words, what the citizens of nowhere have in common, as a global class, is stronger than what divides them. And what they have in common is a shared world-view. Cosmopolitan, ambitious, Americanised, urban, materialistic, they are the product of a very specific value system, in which certain shibboleths – the importance of “growth”, the necessity of “development”, a boundless faith in technology, an assumption that they represent the apogee of progress – are never questioned. It is these values that, whether they know it or not, bind them together. And it is these values that increasingly cut them off from those whom they claim to represent, be they peasants from Bangladesh or butchers from Barking.
If you want an example of a leading citizen of nowhere, look no further than our own Prime Minister. Embarrassed by his truculent nation of backward-looking unions, rural grumblers and lawyers in tights, Tony Blair will always feel more at home in a wine bar than an English pub, and would always choose Umbria over Cumbria, Seattle over Settle. For him, community is something that belongs in speeches to the Fabian Society, and local colour something that belongs in paintings, not awkwardly standing in the way of GM test sites and new airport runways.
Why does this matter? It matters because what lies at the root of it is something rarely discussed in modern politics but which, through its presence or absence, defines life for all of us: place. It has long been a touchstone of “progress” that place, and attachment to it, is an anachronism. Our communities are no longer geographical but communities of interest. Barriers are broken down by the mass media, technology and trade laws. Rootless, we gain freedom. Placeless, we belong everywhere.
Yet placelessness and rootlessness create not contentment but despair. Ask an unwilling refugee; ask an alienated twentysomething working in a bank in any of the world’s megacities; ask a postmodern novelist. Capitalist globalisation is building a planetary monoculture of malls, asphalt, brushed aluminium and sliding doors. The rising tide of this global progress, we are told, will lift all boats. The trouble is that some of our boats are anchored; anchored by place, tradition, identity, a sense of belonging. Anchored boats are not lifted by rising tides; they are overwhelmed, and sunk with all hands.
But the citizens of nowhere ultimately inhabit an empty world. They can sample the food of every nation, but they will never know how it is grown. They can stay in eco-lodges in Brunei, but they will never be able to identify the birds that sing in their own country’s hedges. They drink the finest bottled water from their minibars, but they have never drunk from a mountain stream. Never staying in one place long enough to understand it, they take the best of everything but never truly care about any of it. Disconnected from reality, they can make decisions that destroy real places, to which people are connected, at the stroke of a pen.
Like the Victorians who shouldered the white man’s burden, the citizens of nowhere are utterly unable to grasp why anybody would not want to be like them. Yet there is a choice.
The rest of us can join the citizens of nowhere in their empire of the placeless, or we can build new relationships with our own landscapes and our own communities. We can build on our pasts or dismiss them; bleach the human rainbow or loudly defend awkward, stubborn, unprofitable diversity.
Somewhere or nowhere. The choice is ours.