Mouffe and Balibar on Democratic Citizenship

MouffeChantal Mouffe, “Democratic Citizenship and the Political Community,” The Return of the Political, Verso, 2005 (1993).

Etienne Balibar, “Historical Dilemmas of Democracy and Their Contemporary Relevance for Citizenship,” Rethinking Marxism 20:4 (2008).

As a part of a project to achieve “a radical and plural democracy,” Mouffe tries to articulate how citizenship could and should be constructed as a new form of subject who will “organize the forces struggling for a radicalization of democracy”(60). In order to accomplish this aim, she examines two opposed conceptions of “liberalism” and “civic republicanism” and seeks to combine these traditions by discerning and overcoming the shortcomings they have.

From the liberal point of view, citizenship is based on the assumption that “all individuals are born free and equal”(62) and that the [individual] right is prior to the [common] good (63-4). Under this liberalist assumption is the fear that “today ideas about the ‘common good’ can only have totalitarian implications”(62) by restricting or sacrificing the individual right. On the contrary, civic republican view on citizenship emphasizes the “value of political participation” and individuals “insertion in a political community”(62). For republican, liberty is not just given and can only be guaranteed by the political participation in cultivating the common good.

Facing this dilemma, Mouffe tries to present, as an alternative, “a mode of political association which, although it does not postulate the existence of a substantive common good, nevertheless implies the idea of commonality, of an ethico-political bond that creates a linkage among the participants in the association, allowing us to speak of a political ‘community’ even if it is not in the strong sense”(66). What she found appropriate for that is a mode of human association drawn from Oakeshott: societas – opposed to universitas mode – which is “a mode of human association that recognizes the disappearance of a single substantive idea of the common good and makes rooms for individual liberty”(67). However, what is missing here is the fact that in constructing the respublica, or a political community, there is always division and antagonism between included parts (we) and excluded parts (them).

As a result, Mouffe seems to discern and at the same time unite those two areas of the private domain where individual liberty is secured and the public domain where the ethico-political principle of community is affirmed. In some sense, her model recalls, on the abstract level, Kantian combination of individual ethical freedom and transcendental criteria of objective ethics – thus, nothing seems especially new.

On the contrary, Balibar’s discussion on citizenship and democracy is, indeed, radical and practical.
His suggestion is to retrieve the “lost tradition of revolutions” which will function as struggles for the democratization of democratic citizenship: “Insurrection … would be the general name for a democratic practice which constructs universal citizenship”(528). By appropriating Rancièrian definition of democracy as “a process, a permanent struggle for the democratization of its own historical institutions”(536), Balibar tries to confirm the conflictual – between individual rights (freedom) and social citizenship (equality)– characteristic of what we call democracy today.

Consequently, the idea of citizenship, which is impossible to be “separable from the representation of a community of citizens”(523), is also a constant interaction between the constituting performance to the community and the constituted membership imposed on the citizens. Though escaping the institutionalized and pluralized interpretation of citizenship, however, Balibar’s social citizenship also seems to be trapped in the permanent revolutionization of the subject as have seen in Rancière and Deleuze. If the struggles and insurgencies have to be permanent, why do we have to struggle at all, let alone the historical progression of diverse human rights – women, race, ethnicity, and so on?


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