Postnational citizenship amidst global public spheres

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Deliberating Publics of Citizens:

Postnational citizenship amidst global public spheres

Stacy Smith

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The years bridging the turn from the 20th to the 21st century have been characterized by forces of globalization: the flow of people and capital and environmental pollutants across national borders poses implications for all aspects of society. In the realm of politics and political theory, questions of rights, sovereignty, and citizenship take center stage. Migrations of people across borders due to economic patterns of global capitalism and political contexts driving refugees and asylum seekers to other states raise thorny questions surrounding the derivation of citizenship rights and status and institutional mechanisms for realizing commitments to universal human rights.

Moreover, since the fall of the Berlin Wall in the 1980s, political actors and scholars alike have expressed widespread interest in democracy and civil society. Democracy is viewed by many, across ideological spectrums, as the end of history in terms of governmental forms; democracy is viewed by some as necessary for and by others as an antidote to the forces of global capitalism. And civil society, that sphere apart from the state and, usually, the economy, is commonly viewed as integral to democratic governance. Strong and vibrant civil societies make democracy possible; weak civil societies tend to be connected to authoritarian regimes. While many associations of civil society form within nation states, the context of globalization also entails associations that form across national borders. Consequently, the public sphere, or the sphere of civil society that consists of people, associations, and organizations engaged in debate and discussion about issues of common concern, also transcends static political borders of states. Thus, according to political theorist Nancy Fraser, it is even “commonplace nowadays to speak of ‘transnational public spheres’” (Fraser, TPS, 1).

In this essay, I map the terrain of political theoretical issues surrounding citizenship education that arise in the contemporary context of globalization. In the first section I describe the “withering” of the nation state as the primary political unit and the increasingly associational nature of the international political arena. I then discuss implications of this decentering of the nation state for questions of political sovereignty and national citizenship and make the case for the importance of public sphere theory as the normative core of the concept of civil society. In the next section I draw upon a Habermasian strand of deliberative democratic theory to develop a theory of citizenship that emphasizes the central role of the public sphere, including the relationship between participation in voluntary associations and civil publics along side formal political publics (i.e. states). I argue that deliberative publics of citizens have the capacity to generate collective identities and solidarities based upon democratic participation in communities of fate, versus membership in national groups, and to influence policy making in both state and international arenas. Finally, in the last section, I bring these theoretical considerations to bear on practical implications for citizenship education. I conclude by recommending a complementary model of cosmopolitan, deliberative citizenship education that emphasizes the relationship between the state and the pluralistic public spheres of civil society. According to this model, the task of democratic citizenship education is to provide young people with opportunities to deliberately practice public ways of being that allow publics of citizens to flourish and impact formal political processes, within the nation state and beyond. I make some specific recommendations regarding the organization of schooling and curriculum that are particular to public education in the United States.

The Withering of the Nation State and The Rise of Civil Society

According to Carlos Alberto Torres, “the question facing us in the process of increased globalization is whether the nation-state and citizenship are withering away.” In Torres’ view, the two concepts—citizenship and the nation state—are necessarily linked because “citizenship has always been associated with the constitution and operation of the modern nation-state” (Torres, AERJ, 2002, 373). In this section I argue that while the nation state is indeed being eclipsed by other forms of political organization, the concept of citizenship should not simultaneously fade away. Rather citizenship should be recast in terms of the changing face of formal political sovereignty, on one hand, and the role of citizenship within the multiple public spheres of global civil societies, on the other.

The economic and political realities of globalization, in particular the movement of people as laborers and political subjects across national borders, brings to the fore questions of national collective identity, membership rights, and citizenship status in new and acute ways.1 Within this context, the question of the locus of rights claims is central: rights are granted by nations as political sovereigns, and claimed by citizens of those states. Yet human rights, which transcend national borders, are also claimed by persons and endorsed by national and international organizations. This tension between national sovereignty and universal human rights leads Nuhoglu Soysal to conclude in Limits of Citizenship that the nation-state’s scope of action is constrained such that:

the state is no longer an autonomous and independent organization closed over a nationally defined population. Instead, we have a system of constitutionally interconnected states with a multiplicity of membership. [Hence]…the logic of personhood supersedes the logic of national citizenship, [and] individual rights and obligations, which were historically located in the nation-state, have increasingly moved to an universalistic plane, transcending the boundaries of particular nation-states. (164-65; cited in Torres, AERJ, 373)

According to Torres, Nuhoglu Soysal’s analysis of the limits of citizenship has implications at three levels. At the first level of citizenship, notions of identity and rights are decoupled. The second level includes politics of identity and multiculturalism. Here, the emergence of membership in the polity is ‘multiple in the sense of spanning local, regional, and global identities, and accommodates intersecting complexes or rights, duties, and loyalties” (Nuhoglu Soysal, 166). The third level is comprised of cosmopolitan democracies, which emerge from the importance of the international system for the attainment of democracy worldwide. Such a system is relatively divorced in its origins and constitutive dynamics from codes of the nation-states (Torres, AERJ, 373).

While some political theorists respond to the withering of the nation state with a call to reconstitute its strength, I find such a response empirically unworkable and normatively misguided.2 In my view, the erosion of the centrality of the nation state necessitates attention to two related phenomena: 1) the rise of other formal political organizations. Such organizations include what Nuhoglu Soysal refers to above as the interconnection of states, in terms of international and transnational political organizations (such as the United Nations and the European Union), as well as the potential creation of world-level sovereign powers; and 2) the relationship between these formal political institutions and the public spheres of civil society. Hence, I draw upon the work of Nuhoglu Soysal, David Held, and deliberative democratic theorists such as Seyla Benhabib and Nancy Fraser to meld a conception of postnational citizenship that is both cosmopolitan and deliberative.

Although I proceed according to the assumption that the nation state is withering in the context of globalization, I warn against a concurrent withering of the notion of citizenship itself. Allowing the fate of citizenship to be linked to the notion of the nation state will result in a further eclipse of public life in the face of encroaching private spheres of the social, in the form of mass society, and the economic realm, in the form of mass capitalism. The nation state we may be able to do without, but proponents of democracy and the public sphere, as the sphere of freedom and political action in concert, must view citizenship in terms of political identities and participatory capacities that democracy cannot do without. Thus, citizenship needs to be recast, set apart from the nation state, and newly theorized in terms of emerging transnational and perhaps global political structures, as well as the public spheres of civil society.

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