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In a series of stages in the twentieth century a new collective consciousness has arisen where the globe, rather than national territories, appears as the arena in which the fate of the human species and society will be determined. The concerns of the early twentieth century were dominated by the idea of class conflict producing a crisis of social order. In mid-century the frame for understanding the human condition was very much set by nation-states projecting their solutions to internal conflicts as world-wide recipes.
But these ideas of conflict within society prepared the way for a global vision. We only need an external shock to recognise that implied in the oppositions of us and them, men and women, capitalists and workers, there is a larger unity. We understand that these are relations which variously divide and unite people wherever they are. This is the message of the Palestinian Edward Said who has pointed out that ‘the East’ is an age-old construction of the West in its bid to control the whole world. ‘West’ and ‘East’ imply each other and cannot exist apart.
Numerous shocks in the late twentieth century, from the threatened nuclear apocalypse after the Hiroshima nuclear bomb in 1945 through to the collapse of the Soviet empire and the recognition of the threat of global warming, have brought a sense of a collective fate in relation to the globe as a whole. With global awareness these structural oppositions in society cede primacy to a concern for our collective relations with the environment.
Once we consider all human beings as belonging to one great society there are no outsiders. For much of this century sociologists followed the dictum of Émile Durkheim (1855-1917), the founder of French professional sociology, who sought to explain the social solely by the social. But when we consider the globe as a whole plainly the physical conditions of human existence have an intricate influence on the shape of society. In the late twentieth century world-wide public concern seeks to shape society to accord with sustainable development even as economic growth seems to run out of control. These are contradictions within all our lives rather than a conflict between ‘them’ and ‘us’.
The German sociologist Ulrich Beck calls this contemporary condition ‘risk society’, where we calculate opportunities and threats to ourselves in a world which we do not control. This alerts us to the break from an earlier period of history, the Modern Age, when the progress of human society was considered as a continuous expansion of human control, over nature and over society itself.
This was very much a reflection of the outlook and interests of nation-states as they sought to shape society to the needs of the international system of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Then, nation-state, country and society were taken to mean the same thing. When the question of the relation of individual and society was addressed it was treated as a problem of how the nation-state could ensure the commitment of its citizens to its requirements.
‘Socialisation’ once meant the raising and education of children to become adult members of the nation-state. Now education means the constant process of enhancing the capacities of people to play an independent and responsible part in shaping a world where they choose among societies. Citizenship in the Global Age measures nation-states by the needs of humankind.
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