Tensions of Citizenship

By Be Young and Shut up:

In the much debated discourse over the consequences of economic globalization and the pervasive constructs of neoliberal governmentality that is seemingly creeping into every imaginable space of the world today, it appears that the contested frameworks of citizenship and the democratic principles it assumes have once again come into frame. Not only are modified forms of rule merging together the interests of nation-states with multi-national networks of capital and cultural production, similarly complex responses are simultaneously arising from localized bodies of interests and transnational networks of flexible labor produced by the expanding global economy. An array of scholars, namely James Holston, have argued that this contest continues to create a dynamic reconstitution of citizenships, which is moving away from traditional statist conceptions, which served in many ways to maintain highly inequitable forms of entrenched rule, to more insurgent forms [1]. Before conveying how forms of insurgent citizenship are redefining liberal democratic assumptions of citizenship, it is worthwhile to review some of the theoretical principles grounding previous notions of citizenship in order to convey the problematic discontinuities that hinder its actualization in practice.

Political philosopher Michael Walzer works through his articulate conception of liberal citizenship by presenting a functional duality historically embedded within the term, “the first describes citizenship as an office, a responsibility, a burden proudly assumed; the second describes citizenship as a status, an entitlement, a right or set of rights passively enjoyed” [2]. Where did this duality originate? Aristotle, one of the first to theorize the formation of the “state,” reasoned that the state is the aggregate of its citizens and it is the exercise of their role, the responsibilities of citizenship, that gives rise to the state. What constitutes a “good life” according to Aristotle is political association, man’s natural impulse, which inevitably allows for certain virtuous human faculties to flourish. Men, reasoned Aristotle, naturally desire “life together, even when they have no need for each other’s help…the good life is indeed a chief end, both communally and individually, but they form and continue to maintain a political association for the sake of life itself” [3].

The historical trajectory for the precise definition of “men,” however, is key to understanding the problems created by the notion of citizenship. The implication of its meaning, and the boundaries demarcation inclusion from exclusion, would lay the foundation for violent ruptures that continue to reproduce inequalities throughout the world today, as well as a myriad of innovative responses, which would, on occasion, resort to an equal amount of brutality.

Walzer asserts that in the time of Aristotle, Athens was small enough that the lines of difference were obvious and relatively uncontested, that “precisely because of the presence of aliens and slaves, class divisions among the free and native-born, though visible enough, were never overriding and took no legal form; in the assembly every citizen was the equal of every other” [4]. In theory, “men”, unlike women or slaves, who had a tendency to be overcome by passion rather than being ruled by reason, according to Aristotle, were the only ones capable of fully perceiving and enacting the difference between good and evil, the fundamental difference separating “Man” from animal. It is because of this ability and (crucially) its enactment through political participation in creating laws, holding office, or executing rule, which allows for “men” to become citizens. The citizen, according to Aristotle, embodies the very potential for the virtue and happiness of the polis, a truly successful state.

The articulation of the citizen and citizenship would always be assumed along the basis of difference contrary to its universalist and, later, humanist rhetoric. Although the ideology of democracy was based on equality, regardless of economic standing for instance, its conception beginning with Aristotle, was fundamentally based on the exclusion of others, primarily by the expanding and delimiting consensus of birthright [5]. During the Enlightenment period, more than a millennium a later, Rousseau would define the citizen as a free and autonomous individual, “who makes, or shares in the making of the laws he obeys” [6]. Like Aristotle, the humanist philosopher believed that one embodies citizenship, and the equality it portends, through political participation.

Yet while Rousseau might have been inspired by the cosmopolitan ideals violently defended by the Jacobin Party and enacted through the French Revolution in 1789, he certainly wasn’t intending for a notion of citizenry that included the black slaves paraded around the boudois of Paris like monkeys. Although he vehemently believed that private property was the source of inequality, the same man who famously opened his Social Contract with “Man is born free…”, could not at the same time, “put two and two together to discuss French slavery for economic profit as central to arguments of both equality and property” [7] . And yet, ironically, beginning in that same year, inspired by the same theoretical cosmopolitan tenants that incited the French Revolution, the Afro-descended slave population of Saint Domingue would unthinkably rid themselves of French rule. This paradox created by the dialectical relationship of citizenship and exemplified by the correlating events of the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution will come to light later through Holston’s notion of insurgent citizenship.

Citizenship, even as an ideal, was never meant to be truly universal and inclusive. In practice, citizenship eventually transformed into “a right or set of rights passively enjoyed,” rather than the pure political participation it intended. But who has the right to expect these rights? These contradictions might explain why forms of citizenship have altered its form from active participation to a more passive expectation, leading Marx to concede that modern civil society does not produce citizens but an “inauthentic autonomy and fails because it cannot sustain the enactment without continuous violence” [8]. Walzer would assert, however, that the practice of citizenship would always require a “partial reality”, the fluid contest between political involvement and the expectation for “common liberty” [9]. The implicit contradictions between the ideals of citizenship and its limitations based on what Walzer in another article called “desert”, beliefs regarding who deserves what, that continues to create virulent and brutal debate and struggle across the world [10].

Insurgent citizenship presents a framework to conceive of these ruptures that eventually serve to spark and mobilize urban and rural poor communities and exploited labor throughout the space of flows. These dynamic reactions forced into mobilization due to historically entrenched exclusion reveals the intertwined complexities binding the working poor together with the elite “in an unbalanced and corrosive entanglement that unsettles both state and society” [11]. The framework of insurgent citizenship is not simply a model to convey the active demand of rights on the part of oppressed communities based on the principles of liberal citizenship, it is also a method to comprehend the dialectical relationship that gives way to innovation through suppression. Holston gives the example of the urban poor in Brazil, who since the 1970s, continued to migrate into the urban core, establishing themselves in informality, a process the author calls “autoconstruction,” which is not only an innovation of housing but also a mentality through which to transform their daily lives [12]. Making something out of nothing, or very little, as it were.

Scholars, like Faranak Miraftab, have utilized notions of insurgent citizenship to explain the ways the urban poor in South Africa, for instance, are actively inventing spaces through which they can demand their housing rights, thereby enacting their citizenship as well [13]. In a period when global neoliberal policies are magnifying inequalities due to the process of privatization and the increase abandonment of governmentally supported welfare programs, poor and exploited communities are forced to construct innovative strategies to receive the rights and resources promised by state inclusion. The increasing permeability of nation-state borders, the reconstitution of place and home, has generated opportunities (and limitations) for groups to appeal to the fundamental premise of citizenship, the rights of human beings. Those more vulnerable to the limits of citizenship, finding themselves along the very borders of its exclusion, are the ones most likely to continue pressing against its boundaries, grasping and demanding for the rights of human beings, in the hopes of forcing it to continue to transform and expand the limits of its exclusion.


[1] J. Holston, Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.
[2] M. Walzer, Citizenship, in T. Ball, J. Farr, and R. Hanson (eds.), Political Innovation and Conceptual Change, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 216.
[3] Aristotle, The Politics, T. A. Sinclair (trans.), T. J. Saunders (rev.), London: Penguin, 1981, III: vi, 187.
[4] M. Walzer, Citizenship, p. 214.
[5] J. Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology and the Power of the People, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989, p. 4.
[6] M. Walzer, Citizenship, p. 212.
[7] S. Buck-Morss. Hegel and Haiti. Critical Inquiry, vol. 26, no. 4 (Summer, 2000), p. 831.
[8] M. Walzer, Citizenship, p. 213.
[9] M. Walzer, Citizenship, p. 217.
[10] M. Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, Oxford: Blackwell, 1985.
[11] J. Holston, Insurgent Citizenship, p. 13.
[12] J. Holston, Insurgent Citizenship, p. 6.
[13] F. Miraftab and S. Wills, Insurgency and spaces of active citizenship: the story of Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign in South Africa, Journal of Planning Education and Research, 25 (2005), pp. 200-17.

Source: Tensions of Citizenship

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