Reclaiming Citizenship

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Bertie Ahern’s socialist conversion occurred around the same time he took up reading Robert Putnam.[1] Putnam was famous for writing Bowling Alone, an appraisal of the erosion of personal connections in modern society. So inspired was Ahern, that he set up the Taskforce on Active Citizenship. Since they reported in 2007, little appears to have been acted upon. Citizenship is, however, one of the most vital elements of any democracy and this essay comprises a critique of the Taskforce report and an attempt to map priorities for a progressive idea of citizenship in Ireland.

The Return of the Citizen

The renewed focus on citizenship among academics and political theorists is partly associated with a concept of crisis in democratic life. The recent past has seen a trend in developed western democracies toward lower voter turnout, declining party association and a general corrosion in the constitutive elements of democratic engagement (see Norris, 1999). The renewed examination of citizenship has often been undertaken against a background assumption that democratic life needs to undergo a renewal, perhaps even a perpetual renewal, to halt any potential for decay in the vitality of the polity and thus of democratic life.

The academic focus on citizenship has not, unsurprisingly, yielded a unanimous response dilemma of citizenship, engagement and the problematic of negative and positive liberty. This renders the transmuting of any academic-theoretical perspective into practical policy likely to be difficult, not least because of the exacting standards of ethics under which political philosophy occurs. The dilemma for the Taskforce was to translate many perspectives, some not at all political-theoretical, into a coherent body of work that led to definite proposals.

This process can have both positive and negative side effects. First, it forces political philosophy on citizenship into the realm of praxis and ‘what can be done’, and this is a very helpful step in creating a testing ground for political philosophy. However, there are notes of caution to be sounded since any accommodations made between competing ideals of citizenship might be done in the name of political expediency, (for example, the short space of time within which the Commission worked and, perhaps, concern for the interests of those sponsoring the report i.e. the government of the day).

I don’t wish to take up too much time giving a dissertation of the models of citizenship which find favour among academics. Perhaps it is most simple to outline that the dominant model at work today is, by and large, liberal citizenship – a citizenship premised on legal rights and relatively few obligations outside of voting and jury duty. It prefers to give maximal private scope to the citizen with little state intervention. There is little onerous activity expected of liberal citizens – they are encouraged to get involved but left alone for the most part. In their briefing document, though, the Taskforce appear to depart from this model, citing the Civic Republican tradition as the one from which they are working.

The civic republican tradition sees the public political sphere as the area of self-government in the sense of giving self-direction to politics and society. As such it is not merely the resolution of conflicts among rights; rather it is an ethico-political space of self determination of citizens[2]. Great importance is attached to the idea of self determination as it is both demanded by the theory of civic republican democracy and also a necessary means to perpetuate that democratic rule.

Citizens are the guardians of their own system of government, they are responsible that it remains in proper working order and required to act so as to better its constitution. Citizens therefore are obliged to be informed so as to better engage in the political realm, holding office, deliberating on policy and politics as well as undertaking jury duty etc. Participation is the realisation of an “intrinsic good” namely the exercise of autonomy and self direction within a democratic space.

The civic republican tradition therefore attempts to draw a finer line between the realm of the individual and the realm of society at large. The individual is active in their capacity as a citizen to further the common good and their own good, which consists in self direction, informed decision making and control over the direction of the state and polity – though not confined to this. The division does allow for a great deal more normalisation giving scope for society to dictate certain behaviours to individuals – primarily in the political realm – such as voting, discussing and active democratic engagement.

The space between the public and the private thus overlaps; they inform each other and the well being of the individual does not take place outside of the wider social setting in which the individual finds herself. That insight creates a far more robust public sphere and a far more onerous concept of citizenship. Being a citizen is not just a repository for accessing rights but an ethical category which carries with it obligations to give direction to rulers and the rules of governing the state – a “thicker” concept of citizenship.

Not unrelated to the civic republican tradition is the concept of deliberative citizenship. Honohan argues that a deliberative concept of political engagement is precisely what a theory like civic republicanism can lead to, as it realizes their concept of obligations to become one of engagement and participation. [3]

Civic society needs to be both robust and effective i.e. having a causal relation to the governance of society. This space pervades private and public life, any engagement between citizens might constitute acts in the public sphere – thus the political is a widely defined space of interaction, formal and informal, and the citizen is required to participate because of the inherent ‘will to autonomy’. Social autonomy is necessary for the realisation of individual autonomy.

The citizen is at once a communicative and political actor and communication is a political act informing a process of decision making through the iteration of opinions. This decentres political power away from elites and sees all citizens as capable of informing and influencing politics. For the most part, republicanism is summed up in Benjamin Barber’s assertion that “self government is carried out through institutions designed to facilitate ongoing civic participation in agenda-setting, deliberation, legislation and policy implementation”[4] while liberals would stress a less-onerous model of citizenship and democracy. The republican tradition does privilege the individual but sees the collective self-government as a bulwark against the forms of liberalism that can end up cannibalising itself via apathy and disinterest.

Progressives have long worried that the onset of neoliberal markets turn people from citizens into consumers. In compensation for emasculation in the political sphere, we are overloaded with products invited to take our pick and relax. The rest of the process is taken care of. Into this narrative arrives the Taskforce, borne out of concern for alienation, for pressure and for isolation that is taking root in Irish society. The return of the citizen to public discourse is welcome – it offers us a chance to engage with the vital question of bringing people to the heart of the system. It also offers the chance to take a powerful concept, a site of radicalism and integrate it into existing narrative – to neutralize it and incorporate it.

The idea that we all are endowed with “purchasing power” (as Conor McCabe detailed in his excellent exposition of Michael Zweig) in lieu of social power has taken root. We do not measure our effectiveness as members of society by what we do on a political sphere we measure it by how much we can purchase, squeezing value and product from producers. The social dynamic is transactional between consumers, everyone is buying something – well anyone that can afford to. That dynamic is happily dismissive of politics and the political, transactional relations occlude a perspective of solidarity and self-government, a perspective vital to democratic life.

The self-identification of us as consumers rather than citizens marks the success of the thin model of citizenship but also the scale of the challenge progressives face if they wish to deploy the concept in a radically different fashion, to deploy it with meanings of solidarity, of recognition and of self-government and public good. To that end the Taskforce report is interesting as an exercise of neutralizing that which it sets out to accomplish.

Taskforce on Active Citizenship

The Taskforce on Active Citizenship appears to have a mandate to synthesise this spectrum of theoretical opinion into a systematic policy framework. There are a number of dilemmas that the Report was required to address, both in the terms of reference and also in the nature of the task it undertook. The terms of reference for the Taskforce make clear that the concern is the development and growth of civic culture. The terms are the boundaries of exploration but also indicate that direction has been given by government as to how the Taskforce might develop its project. These terms make reference to political engagement, yet it hints at a far wider scope of analysis suggesting the need to focus on citizen engagement and voluntary life as equal factors.

The need to integrate philosophical work into the policy framework can be seen in their initial publication which is a reflective document on the concept of citizenship. In this document we see that the Taskforce are engaging with the theoretical work in an attempt to give direction to the practical policy considerations. It is important to spend a brief period considering this document as it gives concrete insight into the perspective of “official Ireland”.

The document states that it takes its root on citizenship within the debate on Civic Republicanism. The Taskforce therefore signals its intent to situate citizenship within a different impulse, an impulse to accommodate the individual but situate them within a social setting. Vitally the Taskforce suggests that citizenship is not solely about a conflict of rights or entitlements, rather about a wider capacity for shared action to exercise economic, social and political power to achieve shared goals.[5]

This impulse is further exemplified by the introduction of the sociological concept of social-capital to the debate on citizenship. The social capital perspective emphasises the value to individuals of being embedded within communities and enhancing the sense of social solidarity. The resulting concept of Active Citizenship stresses the importance of the community as a site of citizenship. The social capital perspective emphasises the value of networks of local communities, working on issues important to them. The incorporation of the social capital element into the concept expands quite markedly the civic republican space for citizenship.[6] The resulting concept appears to track quite heavily towards a concept of citizenship as community volunteerism.

Therefore the understanding of civil society that emerges in the final report is of vital importance in appraising the success or otherwise of the Taskforce’s report. Does it adequately synthesise the sociological and political perspectives alluded to in its briefing document? Or does it lead to a problematic, even paradoxical, policy where active citizenship is more an expression of community involvement than political empowerment?

The main report offers another formulation of active citizenship in the form of a five point definition:

  • support and become involved in different types of voluntary and community activities
  • respect and listen to those with different views from their own
  • play their part in making decisions on issues that affect themselves and others, in particular by participating in the democratic process
  • respect ethnic and cultural diversity and are open to change
  • welcome new people who come to live in Ireland

It is difficult to appraise the report on this definition alone but it appears to continue the process of broadening their stated republican foundation in order to adopt a sociological focus on social capital, face-to-face relations and community volunteerism. The five main recommendations, however, are where this concept is tested, since mention is given to the democratic process. The worry emerges, though, that the second, fourth and fifth recommendations are ambiguous formulations of active citizenship and all five points are entirely consistent with a liberal model of negative liberty and passive citizenship. Thus it is entirely dependent on the concluding recommendations for an assessment of the report.

This trend is followed through on a number of occasions in the report, as the language slowly moves from effecting change or impact on the democratic process to the involvement of oneself in local voluntary or sporting organisations. Worryingly little mention is given to the restructuring of political procedures to encourage citizenly activity. Rather the emphasis is on joining political parties as a means of exercising political power and voluntary bodies in other cases.

In its first recommendation to government, the Taskforce suggests the setting up of an electoral commission to oversee voter registration and education. This recommendation is more procedural than active, in the sense that it retains a liberal focus on democratic-citizens acting solely through voting. There is a mention of citizenship education which doesn’t appear to emphasise the dialogical impetus seen in both the republican or deliberative models outlined above and could merely consist in the teaching of rights and procedures.

The language continues along this trend, with a clear division emerging between questions of political action and community action. Political action, as argued for by Barber above, is given summary mention e.g. in the second recommendation where public services are encouraged to engage more with locals in their community. However the bulk of the second recommendation is focussed on barriers to setting up community groups and the problem of public liability insurance.

The emphasis by the Taskforce has, on the evidence of the first two conclusions, tracked toward an emphasis on the face-to-face element of social capital over and above the political activity of civic republicanism. This is not an invalid path to take. However, it is not entirely consistent with the initial conceptual document nor the major theories of active citizenship outlined above. Instead it gives a more classical liberal complexion to the report than would be assumed. Political life retains its procedural bias and recommendations on political action remain within the realm of improving voting rights and providing education campaigns.

Examining recommendations (iii) and (iv) are helpful for clarifying my position. The third recommendation discussed the creation of a sense of community within the wider polity. Such a concern is characteristic of civic republican concerns of solidarity, however their concern for solidarity arises so as to legitimate the act of self-government and the exercise of autonomy. It appears that the Taskforce has adopted the problematic under the rubric of social capital, e.g. the recommendation of a “know your neighbour” event. This suggests that the problem raised above, of effectively synthesising the political and sociological concerns, has been very difficult. Voluntary activity became widely defined to include sites of democratic power like local authorities and sites of social interaction such as sports clubs.

It leaves us with a report that can recommend enhanced civic education and political education, to ground debate and argument, but one which doesn’t make any effort to address where those arguments get aired. The critical interpretation of the report and the briefing document suggests that the emphasis is on voluntary community activity undertaken by citizens qua person, as opposed to citizenly activity undertaken qua citizen. This is a position far closer to classic liberalism.

The value of helping the community is stressed in terms of the benefits to individual well being and the ongoing development of human nature. There is little emphasis, despite the appraisal and seeming adoption of a civic republican mentality, of increased focus on political engagement as citizenship. Instead it might be more correct to argue that the report summarises the activity of citizens in their capacity as members of a community, rather than full political engagement by active citizens.

Progressive Priorities

We can speculate as to why the civic republican model slowly seeped out of the report, why the political became sidelined and why citizenship doesn’t gain any political impetus. Yet what progressives need to do is create competing visions of citizenship. Take a hold of the opportunity which was granted – the return of the citizen to the heart of our discourse – and ensure the concept is not neutered or used as a replacement for voluntary activity.

In a political environment where members of society are ever more willing to disbelieve politicians – as evidenced on June 12th and the decision of the majority of the Irish electorate to vote No in the Lisbon Treaty Referendum – and feeling ever more detached from the processes which dominate their lives, progressives can begin to put meat on the bones of democratic life. The intellectual tools – most notably the very effective theory of civic republicanism – give us a far richer view of human sociality, a far richer view of intersubjective political life.

The Taskforce missed a vital opportunity to reshape thinking on citizenship; they missed a chance to tell citizens not to “return to your communities”, vital as that is, but to “return to government” which is where they belong. The concept of citizenship is a vital element of any democratic system but the Taskforce report deploys such a dizzying array of meanings that it can be rendered impotent as a tool of political action.

Progressives can reclaim its content and use it to reinforce democratic engagement and the system as a whole. Citizens are willing to be the hub of the system, yet asking them occasionally to pick between two dominant parties is not necessarily empowering them. In a paradoxical way it encourages the kind of pork barrel clientelism we are familiar with. We need to use the language of citizenship to develop a concept of republicanism that progressives can get behind. Republicanism premised on the equality of citizens, the vital importance of civic space and civic engagement. The language we use needs to be clear and full of belief. It needs to communicate with people that their power is not the kicking out of government but over and above that it is about forming and shaping the priorities government follows.

The usual reply is twofold:

  1. The process of government is a complex business and involvement of the public is likely to slow it down and lead to worse decisions.
  2. The people are not to be trusted in most matters as they are always looking at their self interest. Enlightened and national-focussed politicians should be trusted while voters just relax.

The first argument has some merit but at no point have I suggested progressives argue we turn the civil service into an amateur civilian body. Instead we are talking about rethinking our political space and the relations which hold between citizens and government. The worry about slow government is often a cover for a worry about what the citizenry might want – once they are appraised and informed they may wish to do something jarring – say levy a new tax (or reintroduce an old one).

Equally the space in which citizenly engagement takes place is not the formal space of representative government by politicians and civil service but the informal settings of daily life. That thinking underlines the degree to which the political and the personal have been successfully severed in our current system. We do not construe citizens as capable of affecting politics in informally engaged ways as well as challenging ourselves to think through the formal means of integrating citizens into the system.

The state is ultimately about service and government is about service to the people. It may not see itself that way but that is beside the point. Service to citizens does not need to be done on a “we know best” basis. The political system, which listens to citizens, puts the human back at the heart of the system. Yet the recommendations of the commission put citizens nowhere near that idea of political action. It confers on them the status of actors in the levels below political life. That is vital to the health of our community but the political level determines the direction we all head in. It is the influence of the second argument that conceptualises that political sphere as beyond the voters. It needs protection from itself, from the evils of populism.

Once again that is to sell short the body politic. Where we are aware of our role in self-government, our place within the scheme of things, another dynamic comes into play – the requirement of recognising others in society and of being forced to confront the differences and the diversities and to think through and understand them. There is no scope for “plugging out” as exists now. The political will not consume everybody’s life – nor should it – but progressives have a vital concept here from which we can build a better society and it is down to us to integrate it into our thinking and give the citizen back their meaning.


[1] Brennock, Mark, 2005, ‘Change in outlook to work and citizens urged’, The Irish Times, 06/09/2005[2] For more see Honohan, Iseult Civic Republicanism or Laborde, Cecile and John Maynor Republicanism and Political Theory[3] Honohan, Iseult, 2002, Civic Republicanism, (London: Routledge)[4] Barber, Benjamin, 1984, Strong Democracy (London: University of California Press)[5] (Taskforce, 2007a: 5).[6] Taskforce on Active Citizenship, 2004, ‘Final Report’ (Dublin: Stationary Office)Image above is by Red Mum, and was taken from her photosteam on the Lisbon Poll.

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