A Question on Liberal Citizenship


Joaquín Jareño Alarcón
(Universidad Católica de Murcia-UCAM)


The concept of citizenship is so central in the domain of political philosophy that it deserves a particular analysis. Particular because it has to do with the relations between the individual and the State, as well as with the society. In this occasion I will deal with one of the possible uses of the concept, namely, the liberal use, assuming that such a central concept as citizenship is has changed along different societies and the different political conceptions. To get to the axis of the discussion, I will firstly make a previous brief reflection upon some historical views of what being a citizen mainly implies, followed by that of the liberal idea of the individual as an autonomous self, and the significance of his/her relation to the State. After these considerations, I will try to argue that a concept of citizenship is possible to make sense of in liberalism, and that this interpretation has had a strong influence in our present use of such concept. To finish with, I will try to reflect on a particular case as that of the European Union to analyze if the liberal idea of citizenship applies to it.

To begin with, we could metaphorically say that citizenship is something connatural to human beings in so far as we think of ourselves as social individuals. In a sense, this could be so, due to the fact that the concept citizen assumes the social dimension of human beings as something essential as well as a part of the construction of their own identity. But being a citizen has to do with the existence of a political structure, with the existence of institutions that conform it. Only if they exist, we can speak of the arising of citizenship as such. It is so that we are entitled to say that it is a political concept, not a social one. Nevertheless, this strong distinction seems to be blurred sometimes if we focus our attention to certain conceptions of citizenship, as that of Aristotle, at least when in his Politica talks of slaves as not completely human and, therefore, unable to become citizens1. Strictly speaking, however, the basic links of the individual in the concept we are dealing with, are those which arise between him/her and the political structure.

The history of the different societies shows us cases when the social commitments were so strong that there was no clear division between the social and political levels in a particular community, so that it happened to be as essential and special relation between the group and the very self-conscience of the individual. There was no sense of real autonomy, for instance, in Ancient Greece poleis, where the whole community acquired a strong sense of belonging and commitment that has allowed historians to talk about the Hellenic prejudice. As Aristotle firmly points out in his Politica, being inhabitant is a requisite to be citizen, but being citizen means much more -and is very different from- being inhabitant. In this case (as opposed to the liberal idea) the citizen belongs to the city. And this particular sense of belonging and commitment was thought to be stronger in smaller cities where people could know each other, and could easily gather to deliberate. As we will see later on, "liberals reject the intrusive apparatus and rigid controls necessary to inculcate virtue and achieve the manageable homogeneity required by the demands of ancient citizenship"2.

The French Revolution introduced important changes in the concept, and some of them have become paradigmatic in their use. The development of that concept carried with it the abolition of distinctions, since it was thought that social and political order could be destroyed by means of class differences and class struggle. This abolition showed the importance of equality (egalité) for revolutionaries, stressing one of the basic features of our present-day concept of citizenship. Nevertheless, though we could say that our concept departs mainly from the achievements of the French Revolution, the sense of commitment attached to it (fraternité) was strongly alien to the liberal idea. Nowadays, France represents one of the best examples of unity between social and political orders by means of this commitment between the citizens and the Republic (la Republique), that coincides with the nation as its political body3: attacking France means attacking La Republique4. This feature of the revolutionary concept of citizenship was avoided by liberal thinkers, though we also have to take into account the importance of those elements whose enlightened influence penetrated the hearts and minds of protoliberal and liberal authors. Not only the idea of equality, but that of self-rule instead of the value given to former institutions representing an arbitrary conception of power, and from that, a change in the idea of sovereignty5.

However, as we said before, that strong sense of belonging to the community, is basically alien to liberal thinking6. The stress on the individual is essential to liberalism, but in the sense that everything comes after it and remains subdued to the conditions attached to that conception. To clarify the main differences, we should pay attention to how classic liberals conceive the human being and, from that I will reflect on the character of a liberal conception of citizenship.

In his work On Liberty, J. Stuart Mill provides an accurate description of the classical liberal standpoint concerning the individual. This is conceived as someone autonomous in the sense that he/she is the only one able to decide about his/her own happiness. It follows from that that the agent is understood to be rational and to have the capacity to realise that which he/she thinks match his/her expectations. The sort of autonomy we are speaking about carries with it the idea of the varying conceptions of the good life held by individuals, and leads to us to a, so to say, moral atomization. This does not mean that all conceptions are of equal value, in the sense that their contents become equally desirable. What Mill is trying to defend is the formal feature of this autonomy, that is, he wanted to preserve any individual from the heavy weight of social pressure. In this sense, he goes a step beyond what in fact the revolutionary concept of citizenship was, because he focussed on the negative view of the relation between the individual and the whole. Tolerance, in this sense, becomes something absolute central, and puts forth how the functioning of the political structure must be understood (and so, how it should be constructed).

Mill made his own view that of thinking that human knowledge is never fulfilled and is always fallible, that there is no such thing as ONE truth, that human beings change and that those ideas they strongly believe become modified with the passage of time. Together with it, the idea that there is no essential human nature susceptible of being known by all of us, and so that it is wrong to presuppose that there is one true doctrine to teach how to reach happiness and how to enjoy it. That is why Mill stresses the importance of freedom, the significance of limiting the right to coerce, because he is absolutely aware that human beings can only develop as such beings if they do not suffer from any interference in their innermost decisions. So, no one can be obliged to behave in one way because of what others think is accurate or fair. It is important to see that in this conception the human being becomes truly human by means of his/her capacity to choose between good and evil, having no confidence on symmetry as a real foe of liberty. This multiraterality of truth is something central in one of the most relevant contemporary thinkers who retakes some classical arguments to strengthen them to the point of reaching a sceptical flavor. We are referring to Sir I.Berlin who, in his articles "Two Concepts of Liberty" and "Herder and the Enlightenment" attacks the possibility of attaining a basic truth concerning human nature or what the essence of good is, defending a strong pluralism and, in a step further than Mill's view, the incompatibility of human ends.

Berlin stresses what actually is basically important for a liberal idea of citizenship: the negative concept of freedom. He himself writes: "I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity. Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others"7. He reflects on the interest Mill gave to that minimum area of personal freedom which was on no account to be violated. In this sense, individual liberty can be seen as an ultimate end for human beings (though not the only goal). That does not mean that, from a liberal point of view, we have no duties. There is a way to understand morality departing from this conception. As Berlin puts it: "Equality of liberty; not to treat others as I should not wish them to treat me; repayment of my debt to those who alone have made possible my liberty or prosperity or enlightenment; justice, in its simplest and most universal sense -these are the foundations of liberal morality"8.

Seeing the issue from this point of view, we could ask ourselves if a whole concept of citizenship can arise from this way of stressing the importance of individual's freedom. That is, nevertheless, the basic defense liberalism wants to make in the case of the relationship between the State and the individual. In stressing that freedom, liberalism seems to point at the justification of political institutions in terms of a strong support of individual's rights, understanding that they -institutions- are the ones enabled and obliged to help those rights to develop. In this sense, there is a strong commitment with equality as the basis for the social-political construction. All indivuals are -so to say- equally free and have -to begin with- the same basic rights. This formal aspect is something essential for a liberal concept of citizenship. In saying this, we are clearly assuming that a concept is possible and, as we will see later on, very influential.

Liberals9 do not deny the idea of the existence of a political community. Rather, they conceive it as the ground for individuals to put their abilities into action. Indeed, as Mill himself points out, democratic self-government10 is a way for individuals to maintain their autonomy. This has to be understood together with the idea that a political community where democratic participation is performed is only possible if individuals realise that only through the defense of free and democratic institutions they can be free as well, and can take advantage of their own abilities in terms of their own concepts of the good. This is the sort of basic commitment that characterizes liberal citizenship. This supports the idea that neutrality remains untouchable as to what particular expectations individuals have. In a liberal political order the state and its laws remains neutral with respect to the varying conceptions of the good life held by individuals. This neutrality gives shape to the possibility of pluralism, in so far as a particular vision of the good coming from the state or its institutions is not needed to make citizenship effective. If this concept brings with it a sense of identity, this identity cannot be shown through the commitment with any kind of particular view about what good is.

Which are, then, the commitments attached to a liberal conception of citizenship? In previous paragraphs we stressed the importance of the idea of belonging when talking of how the idea of citizenship imposed a particular constraint on individuals. Part of being a citizen was the feeling of belonging to a community or to a very specific social body. This implied peculiar commitments that put the content of being a citizenship into action. Rawls11 makes a quite interesting reflection on these commitments when speaking of the ideal of a well-ordered liberal state. Liberal institutions must make possible human beings' desire for justice and should try to dissolve "men's propensity to injustice"12. So, citizens' commitments are based on these goals in so far as they need institutions to be stable in order to promote and defend individuals' rights. But, as Rawls points out, in fulfilling this commitment, "individuals develop an allegiance to the principles of justice such that they learn to treat fellow citizens as the free and equal beings they are"13. That is, the commitment is basically a commitment to a political community which is, as such, neutral. A community where citizens can actively exercise their civil rights, taking for granted that all are equal in front of the institutions. So, neutrality -in this case- is not absence of any commitment. In the relations between individuals and institutions there is a basic sense of compromise to maintain the political order, that is, the possibility of instantiate rights in terms of the different individuals. And this is only possible through the typical liberal consensus. In this case, for a liberal concept of citizenship to be something real, active, we only need a shared political culture, from which we can create a common legal and formal political identity. That is the point of my reflection.

All this allows us to understand that a liberal idea of citizenship entails, at least in Rawls' case, the execution of political virtues. These have to do with how individuals interact in order to promote and preserve justice, due to the fact that this is what is basically reasonable in a democratic and cooperative society. And, at the same time, these virtues include the shared ability to examine and criticize if the political institutions are fair or unfair. These are the basic liberal-democrat commitments, and stress some main features of the liberal concept of citizenship. So, taking this into account we can say that a common legal and political identity can be established.

Our final reflection must be seen as a result of what has been previously discussed. We have been debating how the basic liberal design of what an individual is has moral and political consequences that are at the basis of a concept of citizenship. What we are going to analyze now is if the concept of European citizenship can show any points in common with the liberal-democrat one. Though I will only stress some elements, the issue deserves a whole study that could be delivered in a different essay. The concept we want to comment seems not to deserve much attention in the Treaty of the European Union. Indeed, it could be criticized because of its vagueness, but the many implications departing from it and directly involved in its creation allow us to reach some significant conclusions.

The concept appears explicitly in the article 8 of the Treaty. It contains the basic characteristics of what it entitles to, that its, the basic lines to exert people's rights. One of the most important things we have to take into account is that the European Union is a particular kind of contract. It is a contract between different States that agree on building a Common Market, a common currency (with the well known problems of agenda and members), a common political enterprise and a common core of rights for individuals belonging to the different countries. These last elements are strongly important. They are so because they show the real significance of the European citizenship, in the terms I want to discuss here. We have to remember that to be a European citizen one must be first a national of one of the Member States, so that the basic commitment is with the State one belongs to. This shows that identity must be found at the level of the States, and that the reluctancy to lose a big part of their sovereignty in many of the countries involved in the European enterprise, only allows us to talk about a formal, but crucial relation between the Institutions of the Union and the citizens. The space created for these has been mainly a space for the development of rights. The Institutions of the Union cannot create any sort of link apart from the design of the ways for the individuals to enjoy their rights. That this is so can be seen in a Declaration of Rights for the European Citizen. Based in the Universal Declaration, plenty of liberal-democrat influence, that list of rights focusses on the possibilities the citizens can enjoy when belonging to the Member States. Because the particular commitments have to do mainly with the basic political attainments to national sovereignty, European Union's Institutions underline the duties belonging to the global obligation to make sense of justice. In this sense, the Tribunal of Justice decides on the application of Communitary Law which has the prevalence over the National Laws. The individuals have the chance to protect their own rights against the influence of their own States, and this situates them on a universalistic perspective so close to liberal ideals. There is no communitarian sense of belonging appart from the one that is shown in the particular commitments arising from the relations between the Member States and their nationals.

The European citizenship entails a commitment of the individuals with the institutions in order to maintain the guaranties to make a space for the enjoyment of rights something real and fluid, allowing its members to support their own perspectives in a domain absent of preconditions. This is the space to attain justice, which is the basic commitment the individuals, in so far as they want to develop as such individuals -that is, with a special identity in their preferences-, have to assume. In so doing, the European concept of citizenship is clearly related to liberal proposals.

1 What we are stressing here is the basic social condition of human beings as something fundamental to be in relation with others but, at the same time, basic to put order into these relations, so that a sociopolitical structure can arise. For Aristotle, though the polis could be inhabited by different kinds of people, only a small number of inhabitants were allowed to be citizens.

2 S.Macedo: Liberal Virtues. Clarendon Press, Oxford 1990, p.98.

3 Cf. J.Habermas, "Citizenship and National Identity: Some Reflections on the Future of Europe". Praxis International, vol.12, n.1. April 1992, p.3.

4 As it has been seen in Mr.Chirac's speeches following the assassination of the Prefect of Corcega.

5 Cf. P.Rétat, "The Evolution of the Citizen from the Ancient Régime to the Revolution"; in: R.Waldinger, P.Dawson, I.Woloch (eds.): The French Revolution and the Meaning of Citizenship. Greenwood Press, Westport 1993, p.8.

6 Cf. M.P.Fitzsimmons, "The National Assembly and the Invention of Citizenship"; in: R.Waldinger, P.Dawson, I.Woloch (eds.), op.cit., p.32.

7 "Two Concepts of Liberty"; in: I.Berlin: The Proper Study of Mankind. Pimlico, London 1998, p.194.

8 Ibíd., p.197.

9 We are talking about liberal-democrats.

10 Nevertheless, Mill was a bit suspicious on the validity of democracy in the sense that he thought that the centralization of authority, and the unavoidable dependence of one with respect to the others could lead to a uniformity in thought, relations and actions (the edition of On Liberty is that of Oxford University Press, Oxford 1998).

11 Whose point of view is strongly liberal-democrat.

12 A Theory of Justice. Cambridge; Harvard University Press, 1971, p.245.

13 P.Berkowitz: Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism. Princeton University Press, Princeton 1999, p.25.