The Future of Citizenship

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The word citizen appears to have a rather straightforward meaning: an individual legally attached to the state and entitled to certain privileges or rights, he fulfils obligations in return (Habermas 2001b). The question is not how this notion of citizenship has evolved throughout the centuries but whether it is able to play its intended role of generating social solidarity.

Contemporary constitutional democracies are divided into two dominant models, both of which rest on a conception of the state as the primary institution in which political life takes place. The liberal model, which dominates the western world, understands citizenship primarily as a legal status that confers rights and privileges on individuals. It does not see the citizen as the primary political actor: on the contrary, his private activities leave him little time and inclination to engage in politics. Instead, he entrusts law-making to representatives, and views himself as the object of public policies rather than as an active participant in their formulation.

A second model is based on the understanding of the state as an historical community of citizens sharing common values and ethno-cultural traits. This idea is still largely present in the world’s less developed countries. Moreover, it seems to have influenced the way in which some states, particularly post-communist ones, have extended voting rights to nonresident citizens. Though such extensions can be explained by pragmatic considerations, they should nonetheless cause concern for normative theorists.

Despite these differences, conceptions of citizenship tend to share certain dimensions: the political dimension involves rights and obligations vis-à-vis the state; it requires knowledge of the political system and the development of democratic attitudes and skills. The economic dimension concerns the ability to live at a level of subsistence and is linked to the development of social skills, job training and education. Finally, the cultural dimension involves a sense of shared identity and the consciousness of a common heritage.

A fourth dimension of citizenship, the moral one, is concerned with a sense of responsibility towards one’s society. This aspect should be cultivated through civic education and participation in associations, mass media and the neighbourhood.

The debate on the future of citizenship focuses on how to reconcile these four dimensions. Some theorists argue that it is important to recognise that there are multiple spaces of citizenship and that it is therefore necessary to create distinct spheres of citizenship commensurate with the capacities of each individual. Others, however, fear that such a policy would allow citizens to retreat into particular enclaves and not participate in the political life of their society at all.