Footloose cosmopolitans or citizens of nowhere?

Saturday 28 October, 14:0015:30, Frobisher Auditorium 2The new political landscape

When British Prime Minister Theresa May said last year that people who call themselves ‘citizens of the world’ don’t know the meaning of citizenship and are in fact ‘citizens of nowhere’, she caused outcry. Many interpreted this as a post-Brexit return to nationalism and xenophobia, and responded by reasserting their desire to be world citizens or, indeed, ‘citizens of nowhere’.

In fact, global citizenship has long been promoted in schools and universities, and resonates with many people. A recent survey found that 47 percent of Britons somewhat or strongly agreed that they considered themselves more as global citizens than citizens of the United Kingdom. And why not? Many more people can realistically aspire to live and work abroad, and foreign travel has expanded immensely over the last few generations. So what is so important about being a citizen of somewhere in particular? Campaigners for migrant rights often call for ‘No Borders’ at all, suggesting we’d be better off without the boundaries that separate nation states and define where our citizenship rights begin and end.

But what does it mean to be a citizen of the world? There is no world government to vote for or pay taxes to, let alone fight for. The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, while conceding that May was literally correct about the lack of any foundation to global citizenship, insisted that to call oneself a citizenship is to speak figuratively, to aspire to be part of something greater than any nation. So is the project of cosmopolitanism a worthy one? Should we be looking for ways to bring it closer to reality? Or is world citizenship a flight from real politics? Do self-styled cosmopolitans look out to an imagined world community because they dislike or cannot relate to their actual fellow citizens?

Ultimately, is it possible to be an active global citizen in any meaningful sense? Or does the label rather imply a rejection of concrete obligations and commitments in favour of a cosmopolitan, consumer lifestyle?