Saturday, 19 June 2010

Citizenship is not a spectator sport

Let me start by outing myself: the title is not mine. The line is Robert Putnam's but it's so good, so succinct and so, well, true that I am stealing it and stealing it with pride. I dare say he'd approve.
Democracy. Citizenship. Voting. And we are done till the next time. Right?
Right. If what you want to end up with is Greece.
No? Didn't think so.

So here's the low down.
Greece has a mammoth fiscal crisis and a deep economic crisis. Money supply issues collide with the net deficit in economic outputs across the board; add to that financial mis-management, corruption and the almost total absence of industry and manufacturing, the decline of agriculture and tourism and the untouchability of shipping and you have Greece in the year of our Lord 2010.
And yes our governments are to blame. All of them, since 1974.
And, of course, citizenship does come in, in as far as we voted for them but really what choice did we have? Lesser evil at best. Devil you know at worst.
Citizenship in representative democracies is not all it's cracked up to be. And whatnot.
Political corruption, venality, patronage, complete lack of transparency and accountability all conspire to make politics a sordid occupation anyway. Good people don't run for office and citizens know better than to take the whole damn mess seriously.

So the economic crisis comes with a deep stateness crisis, profound legitimacy deficits and endemic institutional malfunctioning that is never addressed so it only gets worse with time.
And when real problems hit, delays, poor decision-making and finger pointing are the order of the day. Even though real lives may be at risk.

Take this week, for instance.
Our national outstanding debt to medical suppliers and ill-advised attempts to bring down the cost of medications by 35% meant that the pharmas are simply redicrecting supplies away from Greece leaving the country with a serious shortage in, among other things, insulin.
While the government are negotiating down, stalling and scribbling out figures a suspended death sentence is hovering over the country's 800,000 diabetics. There are no two ways about it. The government is failing us. And there is nothing we can do right now.

So we are victims, really. Of our circumstances and our governments. Of our own choices and our own powerlessness. There is nothing we can do. There is nothing we could have done.
We 'called' it, you know. We saw it coming. We shook our heads at the television screen.
But what can one person do?

The answer to that is unequivocal and simple. One person can do everything. Anything. All of it. Or none of it.
You make your bed and you sleep in it.
Of course our governments are to blame. But so are we.
Not because we voted them in. But because we decided that once that was done, citizenship was over till next time.
So we lived within our concentric circles of home, family, clan and patronage bonds. Never feeling responsible for the butterfly effects of our choices and actions. Never thinking that people we don't directly know matter. That we should matter to them. That community is only real if enough people act like it already exists. And unless you act like it exists then it doesn't. Simple as.
Never stopping to think that 'it's no skin off my nose' is the sort of attitude that sustains dictatorships, allows environmental destruction to go on unchecked and breeds the perfect environment for abuses of all kinds.
We are to blame for everything, because we did nothing. Nothing to stop bad stuff from becoming endemic. Nothing to make good stuff part of the picture.

And before the cynics call me naïve, please do some reading.
Civic engagement and civil society participation are statistically positively correlated with economic prosperity, political stability, personal health and well-being, crime reduction – and the list goes on. Engaging with the community builds trust in human interactions and faith in other people. It creates a shared purpose and the conviction that change is possible. It makes corruption seem less of a necessary evil and more of an unacceptable and unaffordable transaction cost. It makes inefficiency seem less unavoidable and failure less inevitable.
Civic engagement teaches people that the personal is the political and back again.
And it teaches people to take responsibility for their actions and expect others to do the same.

I just heard of someone being mugged at needlepoint in front of the National Theatre in the heart of Athens. Junkie, used needle and fear.
Who's fault is that? Who's responsibility? Who's problem?
No-one's, everyone's, yours. Mine.

Greeks were never ones for civil society.
Civic connectedness outside the home, caring and contributing outside the family, protecting and nurturing outside the clan, that's not how we roll.
And now that our streets are full of the homeless and desperate, every street corner crowded with prostitutes and every step shadowed by beggars, now what do we think of social connectedness? Nothing. We think nothing.
We think foreign mafias are to blame for the increase in crime rates and prostitution. We think the influx of immigrants can explain the rising numbers of rough sleepers. We think successive corrupt governments and continuous bad governance explain the state of affairs.
We think we are victims. We think there is nothing we can do.
So we do nothing. We watch and wait and despair.
Because we are convinced there is no other way. Because we have forgotten that citizenship is not a spectator sport.
Because we have forgotten one basic fact of life: if you want change, you need to make it. If you want things to get better, you need to get up, roll your sleeves up and join the fray.

If you want a future then there is only one way to look at this whole damn mess:
Our country. Our community. Our problem.