Theorizing Citizenship
Edited by Ronald Beiner
State University of New York Press, 335 pages, $19.95

What does it mean to belong to a political community? Is such belonging, which we call citizenship, important? What binds a body of people together in a political community and sustains their bond over time? These questions are both highly theoretical and eminently practical. In recent years we have seen Germany reunified, a European “community” formed, nations of Eastern Europe torn by ancient hostilities, and heated debate in this country (and elsewhere) about the issue of immigration and about affirmative action aimed at making minorities fuller participants in our common life.

Theorizing Citizenship is an excellent collection of essays by political theorists and philosophers, many of them well known (e.g., Pocock, Walzer, MacIntyre, Habermas, Kymlicka). They seek to bring theory to bear upon the practical problems of civic belonging, placing our contemporary concerns against a long and rich background of Western reflection upon the nature of political community. Many of the arguments are rich and detailed, and all will repay careful reading.

Who belongs? Why belong? The first developed attempt in our history to answer these questions came with the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome”especially with what theorists term “civic republicanism,” given its chief articulation by Aristotle just as the polis was, in fact, nearing the end of its golden age. Characterizing this articulation as “one of the great Western definitions of what it is to be human,” J.G.A. Pocock summarizes it as follows. “What makes the citizen the highest order of being is his capacity to rule, and it follows that rule over one’s equal is possible only where one’s equal rules over one. Therefore the citizen rules and is ruled; citizens join each other in making decisions where each decider respects the authority of the others, and all join in obeying the decisions . . . they have made.” This activity of ruling and being ruled, the life of politics, is a distinctively public activity. As free participants in politics, citizens shape their own lives and thereby bring their nature to its highest fulfillment.

The activity of ruling and being ruled is not something one does simply as protection against the tyranny of a despot, nor does one participate in politics as a means to securing any private good. On the contrary, freely participating in the shaping of civic life simply is what it means to be fully human. But, alas, this life will be possible for some only if others”slaves, servants, and women in Aristotle’s Athens”see to the daily needs of private life, and it will be possible only in quite small communities (as Rousseau, the greatest modern theorist of civic republicanism, made clear). Inevitably, or so it must seem to us, such an ideal must come under intense pressure”in practice from those who are excluded, and in theory perhaps even from those who are not. Pocock locates the first theoretical move toward greater universality of the civic community with Rome. In an empire, citizens cannot regularly meet face-to-face for deliberation about public affairs. “Belonging” comes to mean something different. A citizen was “someone free to act by law; free to ask and expect the law’s protection.” A citizen was one entitled to be treated in certain ways, and citizenship was determined by membership in a community of shared law rather than residence within a particular territory.

One might, however, soon wonder why only citizens were granted special entitlements, why we should distinguish between the citizen and the human being. Once residence in a particular territory, shared history, and active participation in public life become unnecessary for citizenship, we are on our way to the liberal tradition of politics. This tradition, in Ronald Beiner’s words, is “concerned with upholding the dignity and inherent rights of individuals understood as instantiations of a universal humanity, and so it is unclear why this philosophy would accord any special moral status to the claims of citizenship.”

Among the essayists in this volume it is Joseph Carens who presses this point most insistently. Had a reviewer no obligations to his readers, I would be tempted to present Carens’ essay as intentionally satirical; for it is a kind of reductio ad absurdum of a certain understanding of the Western liberal tradition. Carens argues that “borders should generally be open and that people should normally be free to leave their country of origin and settle in another, subject only to the sorts of constraints that bind current citizens in their new country.” Drawing on the work of John Rawls, he suggests that “one could not justify restrictions on the grounds that those born in a given territory or born of parents who were citizens were more entitled to the benefits of citizenship than those born elsewhere or born of alien parents. Birthplace and parentage are natural contingencies that are ‘arbitrary from a moral point of view.’”

Thus, in an argument purporting to extend the implications of a liberal politics, we meet the tyranny of “the” moral point of view. I do not mean to underestimate the force of Carens’ claim. The suggestion that universal community uproots all claims of particular attachment is the philosophical equivalent of the theological argument that grace does not perfect but destroys nature. Taken alone, however, that theological argument has never been satisfactory. Jews have not been drawn to it at all, and even Christians have regarded a life that transcends all particular bonds as a special, and nonuniversalizable, calling. They have described even heaven not simply as a universal community of generic individuals but as a “vast friendship” in which all share, in different ways, the praise of God.

To return to the less rarefied air of citizenship, Carens’ argument, by finding little reason to exclude anyone from a civic community, can make little sense of what it would mean to belong to such a community. As Alasdair MacIntyre notes in his essay, “patriotism is one of a class of loyalty-exhibiting virtues” that involve “a regard founded upon a particular historical relationship of association.” Citizens who are less deracinated than those pictured by Carens would think, in Michael Walzer’s words, that “to live well is to participate with other men and women in remembering, cultivating, and passing on a national heritage.” Walzer notes how often and how readily the “free-floating intensity” of this sense of national membership can “be turned against other nations, [and] particularly against the internal others: minorities, aliens, strangers.” MacIntyre also grants that patriotic loyalty is “a permanent source of moral danger,” but he argues forcefully that a purely liberal politics is also “a permanent source of moral danger because of the way it renders our social and moral ties too open to dissolution by rational criticism.”

Having begun with the limited and exclusive bond of civic republicanism, our political tradition moved to the greater universality and inclusiveness of liberal democracy. Carens’ argument is one way to dissolve the bonds of democratic citizenship”by arguing that even it has not been universal enough. Extending the boundaries until they are virtually eliminated, he, in effect, loses the ability to explain what it means to belong to a civic community.

But the tradition of liberal democracy can also be criticized from the opposite direction”as suppressing difference and particularity. That approach is taken by Iris Marion Young, who seeks to defend what she calls “a concept of differentiated citizenship.” Liberal democracy, with its push toward universality, treats individuals generically and creates homogeneous citizens. There can be no doubt that Young is at least partly correct in this claim, though this tendency has not resulted only, as she seems to suggest, from pernicious attempts to suppress differences and exclude those who are different. It is also, in large measure, the result of an attempt to be fair and just, to treat all alike.

Such justice does not satisfy Young, however. By identifying what is generically human with the public realm and identifying our particular characteristics with the private, our polity “makes homogeneity a requirement of public participation.” She argues, therefore, that the participants represented in public deliberation should be not simply individuals but groups. Oppressed or disadvantaged groups”including in the United States today “women, blacks, Native Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans and other Spanish-speaking Americans, Asian Americans, gay men, lesbians, working-class people, poor people, old people, and mentally and physically disabled people””should have specific group representation in public life. Citizens who are members of “privileged groups” already have de facto representation and are, in fact, more equal than others under the homogenizing pressure of liberal democracy. For members of oppressed or disadvantaged groups the ideal of full-fledged citizenship is far from reality. A principle of group representation is needed if they are to be fully included in public life. That principle must include even “the institutionalized right to veto policy proposals that directly affect them.”

This, of course, is akin to the theory from which President Clinton drew back when reconsidering his nomination of Lani Guinier for Attorney General, and with this theory Young makes common cause with John Calhoun’s advocacy of concurrent majorities, an irony that indicates how deep is the crisis in our understanding of citizenship. When Carens pressed universality too far, it became difficult to explain what it might mean to belong to a civic community. Likewise, when Young attacks from the other side”the side of particularity”and presses it too far, it becomes difficult to find any common life that we might all one day hope to share. We are caught in what Habermas succinctly describes as “the conflict between the universalistic principles of constitutional democracies on the one hand and the particularistic claims of communities to preserve the integrity of their habitual ways of life on the other.”

None of the essayists in this volume seeks to “theorize citizenship” in religious terms. One wonders, however, whether that might not be helpful. The desire to belong”to get inside”is very deeply rooted in us. We want to be fully ourselves, fully particular, yet united with others in a good no one need fear to share, a common good in which one need not fear to have colleagues. Desiring that so intensely, we too readily create idols. The tradition of civic republicanism in the hands of one who intensely desires to belong”Rousseau, for instance”becomes such an idol, because it depicts a community that demands the whole of our allegiance and offers in return human fulfillment defined as a kind of self-mastery. Liberal democracy is, by contrast, chastened. It offers less”only a kind of generic justice. If that is not everything we desire, as Iris Marion Young rightly sees, it is still a considerable achievement.

To ask more of politics, to ask it to overcome the barriers that divide us, join the Many into One, and unify life, is to ask that politics be redemptive. That it cannot be. Liberal democracy, accepting reluctantly the gap between public and private, attaches a kind of eschatological reservation to our desire to belong. Since we have here no continuing city, we ought not ask for more.

Gilbert Meilaender, a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of First Things, is the Francis Ward and Lydia Lord Davis Professor of Religion at Oberlin College.

Articles by Gilbert Meilaender