The Citizens of Nowhere
A new, rootless, placeless ruling class is emerging
over the world.
New Statesman, 1st September 2003
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
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
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.