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Fr. 491

March 4, 2014

Chantal Mouffe opens her discussion in “Democratic Citizenship and the Political Community”, collected in The Return of the Political, with the following reflection:

“The themes of ‘citizenship’ and ‘community’ are being discussed in many quarters of the left today. This is no doubt a consequence of the crisis of class politics and indicates the growing awareness of the need for a new form of identification around which to organize the forces struggling for a radicalization of democracy. I believe that the question of political identity is crucial and that the attempt to construct ‘citizens” identities is one of the important tasks of democratic politics. But there are many different visions of citizenship and vital issues are at stake in their contest. The way we define citizenship is intimately linked to the kind of society and political community we want.

How should we understand citizenship when our goal is a radical and plural democracy? Such a project requires the creation of a chain of equivalence among democratic struggles, and therefore the creation of a common political identity among democratic subjects” (The Return of the Political, p. 60).

Mouffe proposes to achieve this chain of equivalence through the tried and true method of splitting the difference between liberal democracy and communitarianism as embodied in the political justice of John Rawls and the civic republicanism of Michael Sandel. At issue in the debate between these positions is the opposition between the premodern citizen’s substantive conception of the common good in political society and the modern legal subject’s negative freedom from public interference in private life. How is one to reconcile the liberty of the ancients with that of the moderns?

For Mouffe, the answer cannot lie wholly with one camp or the other. On one hand, the modern liberal has the right of things in maintaining a distinction in principle between the private and public spheres of life, as well as the priority of the right over the good, such that the modern citizen is free to exercise his or her freedom and equality to pursue the way of life that best suits him or her. This is something that the communitarian tends to forget in the tendency towards more traditional, civic republicanism. On the other, the communitarian is right to maintain that the liberal view of citizenship is an impoverished, instrumental view; the person becomes a mere bearer of a certain legal status permitting him or her to pursue goals without reference to the wider community. Not only do individuals engage with such communities in devising life plans, they have need of some moral view of political society and association to ensure their participation in and support of that society so as to secure its continued functioning and preserve the rights that he or she exercises. Mouffe notes that:

“The absence of a single substantive common good in modern democratic societies and the separation between the realm of morality and the realm of politics have, no doubt, signified an incontestable gain in individual freedom. But the consequences for politics have been very damaging. All normative concerns have increasingly been relegated to the field of private morality, to the domain of Values’, and politics has been stripped of its ethical components. An instrumentalist conception has become dominant, concerned exclusively with the compromise between already defined interests. On the other hand, liberalism’s exclusive concern with individuals and their rights has not provided content and guidance for the exercise of those rights. This has led to the devaluation of civic action, of common concern, which has caused an increasing lack of social cohesion in democratic societies” (ibid., p. 65).

In short, the communitarian correctly identifies the ethical vacuum or malaise in which contemporary liberal institutions have come to rest.

So it is that Mouffe puts forward a synthesized version of the liberal and communitarian views, according to which active political participation is far from mutually exclusive with the priority of the right over the good. On the contrary, the two prove to be in a mutually reinforcing relationship in which participation further secures the exercise of those rights. This establishes the distinctly modern aspect of the newfound rationale for active political participation all the while preserving the radical indeterminacy at the heart of the contemporary liberal regime, an element that Mouffe deems key to the democratic project. This indeterminacy is key to preserving the freedom of the modern individual to determine life-plans and to ensuring equality amongst different parties in pluralist society.

What this synthesis portends for understanding citizenship remains to be developed.

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