Essay

Extinction Rebellion’s occupation and reappropriation of London’s streets, monuments and civic space reflected a widespread hunger to redraw the lines of engagement between citizens and state.

Towards a new social contract

What does it mean to be a citizen in 2019? The Oxford Dictionary defines the word as ‘A legally recognised subject or national of a state of commonwealth, either native or naturalised’, or ‘An inhabitant of a particular town or city’. Both definitions imply that citizenship is a passive state, an accident of national affiliation or geography. Neither begins to capture the complexity of a concept that is both heavily contested and emotionally charged.

Our understanding of the concept changes from culture to culture, generation to generation, and according to personal perspective. Even with the benefit of hindsight, we have failed to reach consensus on how the concept of citizenship came into being. Its emergence in the city states of ancient Greece is variously characterised as a defensive response to the fear of slavery or a reflection of the fact that the existence of slaves afforded free men sufficient time to participate in public life.

What remains consistent is the assumption that the privilege of citizenship goes hand-in-hand with obligations, responsibilities and rights. These range from the minimal – paying taxes, respecting the law – to a broad spectrum of expectations encompassing political participation, military service, community service and adherence to explicit or implicit codes of civic behaviour.

Modern democracies hover between two opposing views of the nature of civic duty. The liberal view sees and accepts individuals as acquisitive rather than political. The role of the state is to provide the stable framework – legal protection, essential services, security – to allow individuals to pursue their natural inclination to further their own interests and accumulate private wealth. In return, citizens are expected to pay taxes and abide by the law. The civic view sees citizenship as an active role: the ideal citizen is not just public spirited, but politically informed and engaged.

Brexit Britain is in the process of self-reflection about its own definition of citizenship. In the most literal sense, citizens are facing the transition from dual EU and UK citizenship to being UK citizens alone. The academics Richard Ashcroft and Mark Bevir make the argument that, since the overwhelming majority of those who voted for Brexit were citizens of both, the vote can be at least partly understood as a relative evaluation of the two different citizenships, with Leave voters taking the view that the economic and political rights associated with British citizenship are undermined by their status as citizens of the EU.

The fact that many voters claim to have acted on false or insufficient information suggests that citizens failed in their civic duty to keep themselves sufficiently informed to be able to play an educated role in political life. Or that the establishment – in the form of our political leaders and the media – failed in their fundamental duty to speak the truth and keep the populace informed. Either way it indicates a failure of the civic conception of the contract between citizen and state.

The resurgence of widespread political protest represents a reaction to this failure; a vote of no confidence in the system’s ability to represent the needs and values of its citizens; a resistance to the essentially liberal model of democracy in which, for the vast majority, political engagement is limited to casting the occasional vote. The invasion of London’s streets and squares signals a hunger for a different kind of citizenship: one that asks more of its people but – hopefully – promises to give more in return.

The new wave of movements based on participatory democracy, including calls for a UK citizens’ assembly, are notable for understanding that a commitment to active citizenship is part and parcel of a call for wholesale political change. Ashcroft and Bevir agree, arguing for a fully federalised UK, restructured to encourage greater participation and ownership among those who identify primarily with local agendas and issues. Extinction Rebellion (XR) has channelled a groundswell of grass-roots activism and protest into a decentralised mass movement which aims to mobilise 3.5 per cent of the British population – around two million citizens – into active rebellion, demanding radical changes to power structures, wealth distribution and approaches to climate change.

Three months ago, this seemed like an outlandish, if laudable, ambition. Then in April, XR orchestrated the most significant campaign of mass non-violent direct action in the UK’s recent history. Hordes of protesters descended on the capital to highlight how little time the world has left to halt manmade environmental breakdown and to exercise their democratic right to deliver their mission statement – along with countless personal and group letters to MPs – to parliament.

XR’s mission statement is a direct reflection of this two-way contract between citizen and state. On the one hand, they are calling on government to commit to better and more truthful communication with citizens. On the other, they are demanding the establishment of an empowered national citizens’ assembly to oversee the creation of a democracy fit for purpose, along with a policy of devolution ‘to the lowest level’ that would give regions and localities increased powers over policies, decision-making and laws. Its political ambitions are underpinned by a call for a participatory democracy grounded in a more tolerant – and more active – society. These go hand-in-hand with a demand for the UK to cut carbon emissions to zero by 2025 – a reflection of the fact that modern-day citizenship comes with obligations to the planet as well as to the state.

While determinedly non-violent, the movement is unapologetically subversive. More than 1,000 people were arrested for acts of civil obedience during April’s protest. Which makes it all the more astonishing that the campaign has garnered informal and formal support from members of the establishment. The Labour Party has spoken in support, comparing them to Chartists, suffragettes and anti-apartheid activists; the sainted – and ultimately vindicated – historic civil rights protesters of the past. Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth addressed the crowd directly, expressing support for a citizens’ assembly and pledging to make climate change a central focus of Labour’s health and wellbeing policy, while former Labour leader Ed Miliband declared that the government must declare a climate emergency and introduce a ‘green new deal’. Some protesters who spent the night in custody reported that the police treated them with respect and expressed sympathy with their cause. The lines between establishment and rebel are being rapidly redrawn.

This confusion – or emergence of a new consensus, depending on your point of view – was made visible in the occupation and transformation of London’s squares and streets. The impact on the city first became apparent on 15 April as protesters stopped traffic at Oxford Circus, Marble Arch, Waterloo Bridge and the area around Parliament Square. The ‘invasion’ gained momentum as protesters – or rebels – occupied sites across the capital and around the UK. London was soon awash with images of protesters subverting the function – and the symbolism – of London’s public spaces and claiming the city as their own.

These images stand as a reminder of the extent to which our built environment reflects the values of a bygone age. Successive generations have shaped the city to reflect the whims and priorities of the ruling elite, or to serve the needs of commerce or the demands of the motor car. Monuments and statues celebrate past heroes. Buildings reflect an organisational hierarchy increasingly under threat. It’s not yet clear where this new spirit of rebellion will land. What clear is that we are entering into a new social contract; that disaffected citizens are beginning to seize the obligations, and the privileges, of active citizenship – and are not in any hurry to let them go.