The limits of individualism: Why stakeholder citizenship cannot deliver solutions to ecological problems

Stakeholder theory’ originated in the academic literature of organisational management but it has taken a remarkably strong grip on the liberal democracies of the West.

For example, a quick search of the web domain shows New Zealand government ministries, departments and agencies generate a profusion of stakeholder documents. From Ministry for the Environment to the Treasury to the Human Rights Commission, from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage to the Customs Department to the NZAID agency, you could easily drown in stakeholder feedback documents, policy statements, surveys, updates, reports and reviews.

The same holds for the UK and Australia (at federal and state level) too: There are stakeholder consultations, events, sessions and workshops for every group imaginable.

This is the way government now engages with citizens: carefully managed consultation rather than politicisation.

A typical stakeholder consultation exercise was undertaken recently by New Zealand Climate Change Issues Minister, Nick Smith. Nine public meetings were held (at very short notice) in July 2009 to hear views on setting a target for New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions reductions to 2020. A few weeks later, when the government’s decision on a target range was announced, the Minister thanked “New Zealanders and organisations who had made submissions.”

Thank you for your input … and welcome to the world of  stakeholder citizenship.

Andy Scerri (2009) describes stakeholder citizenship in western liberal democracies as the successor to the classical liberal concept of citizenship of the 19th century and the post-WWII social liberal concept of citizenship. And he tells an interesting story in explaining how this happened.

Stakeholder citizenship, by Scerri’s account, emerged from the ‘counter-cultural’ radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s – the movement which challenged the regulated, conformist and bureaucratic world of post-war social democracy and industrial capitalism. What this countercultural challenge put forward was an alternative set of “values of self-realisation, personal autonomy, authenticity and creativity.” Subsequently, however, some of these values have been placed at the service of the Establishment – as “the price paid … for being listened to” (p.472). And, it turns out, many of the individualist aspects of these countercultural values actually fit very neatly into the worldview of post-industrial consumer capitalism that regards us all merely as self-interested, self-absorbed and seeking only to maximise our personal utility.

Undoubtedly, homo economicus is a far cry from the free spirits of the Summer of Love. Nevertheless, “the individualism of self-realization” and personal autonomy has become “the instrument of economic development” (p.473) by way of neoliberal concerns with flexibility, deregulation and choice.

What follows from this today, writes Scerri, is that “the state, business, localised communities and individuals [are seen] as self-orienting competitors in an irresistible, juggernaut-like globalising ‘stakeholder capitalism’” (p.473). So while it is perfectly possible to confront existing conditions as unjust – because the right to do so is integral to the liberal conception of citizenship – such possibilities “continually run the risk of being subjugated to interests sustained by institutions that privilege (administrative) efficiency and (economic) growth” (p.472).

It was perhaps only to be expected, then, at the Auckland ‘stakeholder consultation’ meeting on setting emissions reduction targets, that we would hear Nick Smith defending the extraction and export of coal from West Coast locations such as Happy Valley on the basis that if we don’t sell the coal to India and China, somebody else will. Economy trumps ecology every time, even in the mind of a Climate Change Issues Minister.

Scerri also argues that, in the stakeholder model, the link between private morality and collective reasons for action has been devalued (p.469) to such a degree that it is well-nigh impossible to politicise ethical commitments. Consequently, the norms of stakeholder citizenship form “an unstable basis for ameliorating political tensions and settling ethical contradictions in western liberal democracies” (p.472).

It follows from this present day notion of citizenship that solutions to the ecological crisis are – and can only be – presented as personal responsibilities and opportunities and “across almost all socio-economic classes, ‘neurotic citizens’ must self-author narratives of resolution to pressing existential problems” (p.478). If that is the case, then it’s not surprising that “stakeholder citizenship norms make it difficult to put sustainability into practice” (p.480): somehow we’re supposed to take personal responsibility for action to address ecological problems yet everyone feels paralysed by the sheer enormity of it all.

Rather than describing this as an ‘unstable’ basis for action, I’d prefer to use the term ‘frighteningly inadequate.’

Scerri’s damning analysis of stakeholder citizenship connects well with the insights provided by a number other articles summarised here on well sharp. For example, the sense of individual responsibility for addressing the ecological crisis, which stakeholder citizenship promotes, leads to deep feelings of uncertainty about how to act. This doubt afflicts even the most committed and informed urban activists, as described in research summarised here. The inadequacies of stakeholder citizenship would also seem to be a feature of “The social organisation of denial,” and thus one of several political-economic barriers to effective action on climate change.

Most strikingly, however, Scerri’s comments and conclusions accord strongly with aspects of Barry’s discussion on “Human identity and environmental challenges.” This is perhaps because the way we understand citizenship is a socially constructed representation of how we understand identity. If individual identity is too difficult a concept to work on at a political level, then maybe a new conception of citizenship – ecological citizenship – is something we can aim for.

What might we do to move in that direction? As a response to the atomisation of human society enforced by neoliberalism over the past 30 years, Scerri argues that, across the West, what is required is “a politics of shared and not personal responsibility.” Thus, for greens desperate to see meaningful action on the ecological crisis, there is an urgent need to communicate an understanding of “personal virtues as commitments, and as the products of a social existence” and to address the “very difficult tasks of realising shared political will” (p.480).

To achieve this, Scerri suggests:

1. greens must advocate for citizens acting in common and, wherever such action occurs, must support it ; and

2. greens should be cautious about representing citizenship as individualism directed only at “emending the self” (p.481).

Andy Scerri (2009) Paradoxes of increased individuation and public awareness of environmental issues Environmental Politics, 18(4), 467-485.


Leave a comment

Filed under David, green politics, sustainability

Comments are closed.