Prof tackles hot button issue of global citizenry in new book

A new world order is emerging with a shifting of political power back to the people, even in the most remote corners of the world, says York Professor Daniel Drache, whose new book Defiant Publics: The Unprecedented Reach of the Global Citizen (Polity Press, 2008) sheds light on the hot button issues of identity, citizenship and authority.

It is the dramatic expansion of the global sphere of interaction, made possible by new information technology, coupled with a palpable distrust of authority that is driving this change in the political landscape – and governments better beware, argues Drache, associate director of York’s Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies.

The evidence points to a return of power to the people, he says. Just look at the ousting of the Bharatiya Janata Party in India four years ago, the election of José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as Spain’s prime minister in 2004 and again this spring, as well as the protesting and disruption of World Trade Organization meetings wherever they take place.

Citizens from the strategic middle are rising up and searching for alternatives to those in power, says Drache. Micro-activists –concerned with social justice, poverty and the environment – are making their voices heard around the globe, particularly in the global south.

This redrawing of the lines of power, he says, is in large part a product of the explosion of new information technology that has brought news and images to even the most remote areas. It has also made it possible for people to interact, whether locally, across the country or across the world, in a way that wasn’t possible before the technology boom. It is how word of events in China, Myanmar and Tibet is getting out despite the best efforts of authorities. These are the pressing issues that Drache delves into in Defiant Publics.

Left: Daniel Drache

“My book is really framed by the dramatic expansion of the global sphere of interaction, the interactive communication by new information technology, and the decline of authority, that people don’t trust those in authority. You know, pops is no longer tops in the family and this has large consequences for society,” says Drache. “There’s been this massive, what I call shift, at the bottom of society as power is devolved downwards and this has led to an explosion of micro-activism of all kinds. People are getting their heads into the game against the elites, against their policies, against conventional wisdom and often against the grain.”

There are two things happening, argues Drache. There’s the anti-globalization movement and there’s the micro-activists spurred on by the widespread availability of information technology. Together these things have altered the political landscape. Just over a decade ago there were about 10 million people online, there are now over a billion along with close to 1.5 billion cellphone users in the world.

“These new information flows have empowered the user in a way we never saw with television or radio,” Drache says. It’s a new perspective on the public agenda not seen since the Gutenberg print revolution. “And creating these social networks either at the base of society or transnationally or across countries has, I think, changed the dynamic of power in all countries.”

The spread of information technology and with it knowledge of the world, along with the means to communicate anywhere, has roused people from their slumber. The dynamics of power have shifted from the multinationals and the political class, to include hundreds of millions of activists worldwide. “This is a very exciting period because we’ve really seen the return of the public needing a place to be heard. This is what political elites worry and are anxious about – that the agenda that they have controlled in large measure is coming apart. Bush and Blair, supporters of the war in Iraq, have gone from hero to zero and publics everywhere are deserting this electoral option and are looking for alternatives.”

There is now a new culture of dissent and opposition, Drache argues. People are standing up for their beliefs. It started with the battle of Seattle when activists protested the WTO meetings and continued in Cancun where WTO negotiations fell apart. “I think this became the kind of hinge moment where publics woke up and wanted to change the course and direction of globalization, particularly dealing with the social impact.” This was the beginning of the anti-globalization movement.

“So I think the fact that the anti-globalization movement moved from the margins to the mainstream was part of the, at the global level, a fundamental change in giving people the belief that globalization was not a runaway bulldozer and we were not bound by fate and destiny to accept the agenda that the political class had insisted there were no alternatives for.”

Drache says governments everywhere should take heed and underestimate the influence and effect of the people at their own peril. “I think what we’re seeing happening is something quite profound, which is the rebirth of modern politics.”

Drache is also the author of Borders Matter: Homeland Security and the Search for North America (Fernwood Publishing, 2004) and Continental Illusion (Siglo XXI, 2007) as well as editor of several books, including The Market or the Public Domain: Global Governance and the Asymmetry of Power (Routledge, 2001) and Big Picture Realities: Canada and Mexico at the Crossroads (Wilfred Laurier UP, 2008).

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer