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Kymlicka’s Contemporary Political Philosophy 14

July 10, 2017

With that, Kymlicka concludes his survey of the different forms of citizenship theory and spends the closing pages with the question of what concrete form a politics of citizenship takes. He writes:

“In most post-war political theory, the fundamental normative concepts were democracy (for evaluating procedures) and justice (for evaluating outcomes). Citizenship, if it was discussed at all, was usually seen as derivative of democracy and justice-i.e. a citizen is someone who has democratic rights and claims of justice. There is increasing support, however, from all points of the political spectrum, for the view that citizenship must play an indepen- dent normative role in any plausible political theory, and that the promotion of responsible citizenship is an urgent aim of public policy. This concern with citizenship is found equally amongst liberals, radicals, libertarians, communitarians, and feminists.” (315-6)

Unpaired with this concern is, according to the author, the theoretical temerity needed to introduce the kinds of reforms. After all, if the concern is so great, why do more authors not then call for Good Samaritan laws, mandatory voting, required national service or detached schools? Indeed, proponents of heightened citizenship bewail at once the focus on rights and any threat thereto. Kymlicka finds good reason to maintain thereof:

“There may be good reasons for this timidity, but it sits uneasily with the claim that we face a crisis of citizenship, and that we urgently need a theory of citizenship. As a result, much recent work on citizenship virtues seems quite hollow. In the absence of some account of legitimate and illegitimate ways to promote or enforce good citizenship, many works on citizenship reduce to a platitude: namely, society would be better if the people in it were nicer and more thoughtful.” (316)

As an example thereof, Kymlicka makes reference, in the footnote to the above passage, to the work of Chantal Mouffe and notes:

“For example, Mouffe criticizes liberalism for reducing citizenship ‘to a mere legal status, setting out the rights that the individual holds against the state’ (1992C: 227), and seeks to ‘re- establish the lost connection between ethics and politics’, by understanding citizenship as a form of ‘political identity that is created through the identification with the res publica’ (230). Yet she offers no suggestions about how to promote or compel this public-spirited participa- tion, and insists (against civic republicans) that citizens must be free to choose not to give priority to their political activities. Her critique of liberalism, therefore, seems to reduce to the claim that the liberal conception of our citizenship rights does not tell us how a good citizen would choose to exercise her rights-a claim which liberals would readily accept. Many critiques of liberal citizenship amount to the same unenlightening claim.” (326, n. to 316)

In the end, despite their vigorous rhetoric, the question remains whether citizenship-centric approaches to political theory are not a path which leads nowhere. Such approaches may well be misleading as to the emergence of other forms of vigorous contestation or “counter-publics”. The combination of these considerations leads the author to opine that citizenship theory is, in truth, merely debate on justice by other means. More precisely, having reached an impasse on the principles and scope of distributive justice, theorists on justice shifted the debate to another level:

“Under these conditions, it was no longer sufficient or effective to defend one’s preferred policies in terms of justice. Since our conceptions of justice are themselves controversial, arguing that a particular policy will promote liberal egalitarian justice, say, will only be persuasive to those who endorse that conception of justice. A more effective approach would be to defend policies in terms of ideals that cut across these different intellectual traditions, and that can appeal to people with different views of justice.” (317)

Far from building on the debate over justice, citizenship theory stood in for that debate. Identifying the specific contributions of the different approaches surveyed to this point in the book, the author shows, often in convincing fashion, that citizenship can serve as a mere vehicle for a given theorist’s ideas about justice: libertarians and the passive citizenry; liberals and the disempowered citizenry; conservatives and the degrading citizenry. He concludes:

“In all of these cases, arguments about citizenship are, in effect, a kind of strategic retreat from earlier arguments about justice. What used to be rejected as intrinsically wrong (as unjust), is now said to be instrumentally wrong (as eroding the virtues needed to sustain a liberal-democratic order). This shift has been made in the hope that the instrumental arguments about virtue will have wider acceptance than appeals to controversial theories of justice.” (318)

If we take the author’s claims seriously, then we are led, so he believes, to reconsider the validity, theoretical and strategic, of citizenship-first approaches. In a word, the search for citizenship is hardly disinterested:

“Those on the left look for ways in which economic inequality erodes active citizenship; those on the right look for ways in which welfare policies aimed at reducing economic inequality erode civic virtue. Feminists, gays, and multiculturalists look to find ways in which traditional status hierarchies of gender, sexuality, and race erode active citizenship; conservatives look to find ways in which state policies supporting women, gays, and minorities erode civic virtue. It is difficult to think of cases where people have defended policies on grounds of citizenship that they were not already committed to on grounds of justice. In this sense, it is not clear whether adopting the perspective of citizenship really leads to different policy conclusions from the more familiar perspectives of justice.” (319)

Thus, with citizenship, are we thrown back on precommitments to different ideals of justice. Has progress therefore been made. If nothing else, Kymlicka has given us reason for reflection.

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