Auto-Eulogy For The Citizen-Activist

Reviews

Auto-Eulogy For The Citizen-Activist

Chantal Mouffe, ed.
Dimensions of Radical Democracy: Pluralism, Citizenship, Community.
(London: Verso, 1992).

Though the titular concerns of this volume include pluralism, citizenship, and communitarianism, the editor begins the book by suggesting that the Western political tradition has failed to deliver on its promise liberate the individual, grant perfect equality to all people, and bring all human beings into a state of affiliation one with another. She presents this mainly as the difficulties encountered by each individual as she attempts to define for herself her own identity. Articulation of social affiliation for any individual, argues Chantal Mouffe in the editor’s preface to this volume, has traditionally been confounded by questions of race, gender, power, institutional structure, culture and nationality. In the history of western political theory, however, romantic revolutions in thought and in blood gave birth to democracy: a much more fluid type of social affiliation intended to alleviate this confusion. In fact, democratic social affiliation is distinguished by a purposeful disregard for all previous bases of social affiliation: i.e. democratic social affiliation is characterized as citizenship. However, Mouffe argues, democracy has allowed the concept of traditional citizenship to excuse unofficial repression based on race, class, gender, and ethnicity. Social definition of the individual, she argues, must come to be a multi-communalist process and we must base a new radical democracy on this new layering of affiliations, and the continual erosion and emergence of those community affiliations; citizenship is not monolithic. Judging by the rest of the essays contained in this collection it is precisely this fluid, unmonolithic nature of citizenship which has led to the present state of confusion on the part of the political left with regard to formulating a place for the multi-communitarian individual (especially in Western Europe and North America) as activist.

Though often styled as failed in this book, citizenship and the democracy that engenders it as a possibility, are hopeful in nature. Perhaps then, it is only appropriate that a sense of lost hope is abundantly in evidence in this collection of essays on the concept of citizenship as it was imagined it would be, as it practically occurred, as it has been deconstructed, and as it might be re-constructed. It is perhaps also apropos that by the end of the editor’s preface one can be fairly sure that the book represents not just a discussion of the concept of democratic citizenship, but also serves as an epitaph for it.

In the radiance of the black hole of current postmodernist intellectual trends, announcing the death of a political- theoretical concept as ancient as citizenship seems like a small-town, obit-page commonplace. I draw the reader’s attention to the demise of citizenship not as a moment of epiphany, but only to suggest that the eulogistic aspects attributable to a collection such as this, are neither unexpected nor shocking. The essays included in this collection are concise, well-argued, and well-documented (all of the relevant names are cited and the extant theories re- cited herein), and as such could pass unnoticed for the most part as intellectual wishful-thinking: citizenship should be saved! Yet this volume rises above the level of being merely a collection of mournful, intellectual moaning in the way that it highlights an important failing in leftist writing and thinking: there is too much time spent arguing the finer points of the “contrat sociale” and too little with the education of Emile. Citizenship is dead — to paraphrase Nietszche — not because postmodernism killed it, or because it is incompatible with feminism, but because as a warrant for change, or activism, it is and always has been less practicable than any other basis for the same. Citizenship as a form of activism was exhausted and emptied by a long line of rationalist argument ending with Habermas’s sea of impossible, communicative preconditions. The rational exercise of democracy is this fleeting thing called citizenship and it is not, I would argue, the basis for freedom imagined by revolutionary thinkers such as Rousseau.

The hope held out by democracy has always been to unfetter individual will and development, to free the individual in a social context. Yet, as one of the essayists represented in this volume writes “context is everything.” Such is assuredly the case with the meaningfulness of group affiliations, or community membership, or citizenship; the context for these is the future — human beings bother to affiliate and activate in anticipation of a future state of affairs, most namely that the social entity with which they now choose to affiliate will still exist at some later time. A social affiliation carries with it an intention to perpetuate that social entity or relationship. The notion of the united nature of the political states of lower North America highlights the conundrum thus presented by democracy to its unfettered citizenry — let’s get together and form a nation based on having no national identity.

Rationalism is a manifestation of the recognition of physical and social limitation; education, on the other hand, is an attempt, nay, it is the only attempt to circumvent those limitations by activity. Teaching is not a conserving activity, social affiliation is; education is about increasing possibility and creating change. It is true that context is everything, but context is experienced by people as meaningfulness, and meaningful activity, whatever form it takes, is what brings together the possibilities of tomorrow and the memories of yesterday. Without a future orientation no meaningful group affiliation exists, and though a politics that empowers that sort of nonexistence may superficially seem clever, in the end it nestles against silliness and empowers no one.

I believe that a true understanding of the (oft-cited) rousseauian notion of activism, and source of freedom, should be based on a consideration of his plans for Emile (Rousseau’s imagined protege), rather than on constant regurgitations of an affirmative statement of utopia. Rousseau hoped that Emile would be naturalized by an education unencumbered by social repressions and restrictions. Emile, Rousseau imagined, would be “the natural man,” a creature of his own volition. This would bring to fruition what, for Rousseau at any rate, is true freedom. The particulars, and the imagined results of Emile’s education are indefinitely arguable. More importantly this work answers for us the question of what activity really contains the philosophical aspirations of a person, or a citizenry: a child’s education. Rousseau says educate your children your way, that is the way to grant them (your version of) freedom.

Social affiliation is not a site for activism or for change, it is a consequence of birth. That is what the traditional groupings of class, gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality have been about. Communitarian-, class-, and gender-theorists have “traditionally” allowed the existential nature of democratic citizenship to present group membership as the defining context of human activity. It is time to recognize the limitations of citizenship and community affiliation, to lay our dead to rest, and to pursue change on more active fronts. To continue to hypothesize the democratized individual as the empowered citizen faced with a smorgasbord- like array of choices with regard to social affiliation, severely limits the possibility of change and tends to obscure the more significant, and more truly revolutionary activity of education.

Richard DeLaurell teaches in the Communication Studies Department at the University of Northern Iowa. His primary work concerns the role of mass communications in the formation of social identity.