Saturday, January 03, 2004

Consumer and Citizen

Over the holidays, I briefly met a couple at a friend's house who were visiting from Canada. They are highly-educated, professional people.

I was struck by how different they are from most Americans -- at least most Americans that I know. First of all, they don't have any particular allegiance to Canada or any other country. I also got the impression that they view politics or the modern state system as antiquated, a kind of historical relic to be overcome or surpassed. Their view of politics or government is that it exists simply for providing services like healthcare (which actually was the only source of patriotism or national pride for them). Although America is often accused of making people "consumers" instead of "citizens," I was impressed by how little my northern counterparts thought government, politics, and citizenship (not just the Canadian variety, but all varieties) ennobled them. They didn't dislike Canada at all; they just didn't think politics or the state were that important. Their view (which is probably the view of most educated Europeans) actually makes them more consumers (at least of government programs) and less "citizens" than Americans.

For their part, they were struck by American displays of patriotism (although they stopped just short of criticizing them). They might have been even more impressed had they been in a different part of the US than Northern New Jersey.

The philosophic source of the popular "consumer-citizen" dichotomy is, of course, Rousseau. The modern standard for criticizing the modern human being, the "bourgeois," was set by Rousseau who invented the word or first used it in the pejorative way we recognize. According to Rousseau, the bourgeois is "nothing," split between natural self-interest and duty, neither natural man nor a loyal citizen (an ancient Spartan or Roman, for example), disunified in his partial loyalty or allegiance to himself and others and, therefore enervated. Modern states dedicated to the protection of rights rather than the formation of character do not promote allegiance, though they can make onerous demands; therefore, modern politics creates the bourgeois who follows the law only because he has to, not because he wants to.

Nevertheless, I wonder whether Americans would look less bourgeois to Rousseau than citizens (if I may use that word, despite Rousseau's objection) of other developed countries whose more socialistic tendencies claim to have some connection to him.

Finally, there are some severe limits to using Rousseau's understanding of citizenship which is something like simple dedication to a political community or patriotism regardless of the ends of that community. A kind of formalism doesn't allow his inquiries into citizenship to advance to judgments of different regimes.

Patriotism aside, a government or regime (if it may be called that) that produces human beings without respect for or understanding of the political may be judged negatively at least on the grounds that it is fostering a kind of obfuscation. But that judgment may come from an older way of looking at things than Rousseau's.


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