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Kymlicka’s Contemporary Political Philosophy 10

July 4, 2017

Yet he allows that such questions cannot be answered independently of theories of justice nor of more complete institutional testing. Rather, the author focuses on how the deliberative conception of democracy further stresses the concomitant emergence of citizenship theory, to wit:

“On the aggregative model, citizens were assumed to act in a private and more or less self-interested way: any interaction with others was assumed to reflect strategic behaviour about how best to get one’s way (e.g. through bargaining or log-rolling). On the deliberative model, however, citizens are assumed to act in public with the goal of mutual understanding, and not just to act strategically for personal benefit. This is obviously a more demanding picture of the requirements of democratic citizenship. Democratic citizens must be not only active and participatory, critical of authority, and non-dogmatic, but also committed to seeking mutual understanding through deliberation rather than exclusively seeking personal benefit through bargaining or threats. Without citizens who display these virtues, liberal democracy cannot fulfil its promise of justice, and may indeed slowly succumb to undemocratic or illiberal forces.” (293)

Certainly, not all citizens need perfectly instantiate political virtues like those outlined above. But a certain threshold will need to be met. In that case, it then becomes a question of the theory to which that diagnosis should be linked so as to reach that threshold. For, if we concur on the diagnosis, the prescribed treatment nonetheless remains to be determined, and different treatments foresee different methods and outcomes.

To that end, Kymlicka distinguishes two distinct versions of civic republicanism, one which views political participation and active citizenship as intrinsic goods (the “Aristotelian” strand and also known as “civic humanism”) and another which views them as instrumental goods (the “liberal” strand). More precisely:

“One camp tries to persuade people to accept the burdens of democratic citizenship by persuading them that these are not in fact ‘burdens’. The activities of political participation and public deliberation, on this view, should not be seen as a burdensome obligation or duty, but rather as intrinsically rewarding. People should happily embrace the call of democratic citizenship because the life of an active citizen is indeed the highest life available to us. We can call this the ‘Aristotelian’ interpretation of republicanism, since Aristotle was one of the first and most influential proponents of this view about the intrinsic value of political participation. The second camp avoids making any claims about the intrinsic value of political participation, and accepts that for many people, the call of democratic citizenship may indeed be felt as a burden. It emphasizes however that there are powerful instrumental reasons why we should accept this burden, in order to maintain the functioning of our democratic institutions, and to preserve our basic liberties.” (294)

The author begins with the first strand and by noting that it resembles other perfectionist strains of political philosophy, such as those advanced by communitarian approaches, the subject of the previous chapter. Naturally, this attempt to restore the “liberty of the ancients” (Constant) will be viewed suspiciously by liberals. More importantly, the latter can maintain, as against the communitarians, that their approach puts forward the proper assessment of and esteem for contemporary society and the social. Kymlicka notes that Aristotelian civic republicans thus face a demanding test:

“To defend Aristotelian republicanism, therefore, it is not enough to show that individuals require society to lead a truly human life – liberals do not deny this. Aristotelian republicans must go beyond this and show that individuals need to be politically active. As we saw in Chapter 6 (s. 8), this distinction between participating in society and participating in politics has often been obscured by communitarian critiques of liberal ‘atomism’. But when Aristotle said that men were zoon politikon, he did not mean simply that men are social animals. On the contrary, ‘the natural, merely social companionship of the human species was considered to be a limitation imposed upon us by the needs of biological life, which are the same for the human animal as for other forms of animal life’ (Arendt 1959: 24). Political life, on the other hand, was different from, and higher than, our merely social life.” (296)

It is just such a standard that Aristotelian civic republicans are hard-pressed to meet, for contemporary political conceptions center on the notion that politics should serve society rather than the other way around. They must then make sense of whether and how this historical trend might be reversed in order to resemble that more prevalent in Ancient Greece or the medieval Italian republics. One possible solution might lie in the deliberative or discursive democratic conception discussed above and the models of micro-deliberative for a which its proponents expound:

“In order to explain the modern indifference to the intrinsic value of political participation, republicans often argue that political life today has become impoverished, compared to the active citizenship of, say, ancient Greece. Political life has become too large in scale, or too manipulated by money, or too stage-managed by the media, or too dominated by ‘experts’, to be rewarding for most citizens. On this view, if we could create forums for political action at a more human scale (like the face-to-face politics of ancient Athens), and prevent these forums from being colonized by the imperatives of money, media entertainment, or bureaucratic expertise, then people would find politics much more rewarding than they do now. And this republican argument for smaller-scale political forums nicely dovetails with the arguments of deliberative democrats, who also endorse such forums as the best way to put ‘public talk’ rather than ‘private voting’ at the heart of the political process.” (297)

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