Citizenship, Pluralism and Political Action
Michael Walzer, Institute for Advanced Study 10 July 2014

I want to begin with the old idea of citizenship. Before “rethinking” that idea, as we are asked to do today, let’s first think about it. What do republican citizens look like? (Or what did they look like? But I am going to continue using the present tense.) They are men and women marked by what we call “civic virtue,” which means that they are politically active, they are engaged in public deliberation and debate and also, when necessary, in war. They are committed patriots: they devote time and energy to the common life, and they argue among themselves about the commitments it requires. As Rousseau says, they rush to the assemblies; they are ready (not eager but ready) to risk their lives to defend their country.

It used to be only men who were citizens, who were active, engaged, and so on, but starting with the levée en masse of the French Revolution and as a result of the extension of suffrage over the next century and a half, citizenship has become a universal calling. And if everyone shares the responsibilities, then everyone also shares the privileges and benefits of citizenship: the commitment of one’s fellow citizens, solidarity, mutual defense, education, welfare, legal equality, and the vote—these are the rights of citizens or, at least, they are the rights that citizens argue about. Citizenship means collective self-determination, which is both a responsibility and a benefit. The citizen who accepts the responsibilities and enjoys the benefits and participates in the arguments about what the responsibilities and benefits should be—we can think of him or her as the hero of a certain kind of left politics, named in the 1960s “participatory democracy.”

This work of collective self-determination was historically taken to require some degree (a high degree) of cultural homogeneity—a common history, language, religion, and a strong, uniform public educational system geared to the production of citizens. Rousseau on Poland provides the model:

“At twenty, a Pole ought not to be a man of any other sort;

he ought to be a Pole. I wish that, when he learns to read,

he should read about his own land; that at the age of ten he

should be familiar with all its products, at twelve with all

its provinces, highways, and towns; that at fifteen, he should

know its whole history, at sixteen all its laws; that in all

Poland there should be no great action or famous man

of which his heart and memory are not full…”

This is the charm of Rousseau: he always drives his arguments to the point where they are no longer believable. But here you have an idea, a little over the top, of what the education of a republican citizen might be like.

National service when it is universally required, a citizens’ army, also provides an education for the common life: it is, or it can be, both an expression of commitment and a training for it. Civic holidays marking a national history are also both expression and education: everyone joins in the celebrations and to some degree at least learns the history. I remember Memorial Day in my hometown, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, circa 1946, just after the end of the War: it was indeed a civic ceremony; virtually everyone in the city came, walking to the cemetery (we marched from school), listening to speeches, remembering the war and those who died fighting it, remembering also what the war was about. Of course, you could say that this was just preparation for the next war, but it would be wrong to think of it only in those terms. It was also the kind of bonding that makes a common life possible—that makes (I will come back to this) the welfare state possible.

Now, what happens when nations become heterogeneous—or when heterogeneity is recognized after many years of denial? What happens when the large-scale migration of desperate refugees and of men and women looking for a better life, immigrants legal and illegal–what happens when these people produce radically diverse populations, multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-national, multi-cultural? One response to migration and diversity is a new agitation for inclusion and human rights, rights that don’t depend on longstanding political membership and shared memories–the triumph, we might say, of the French revolutionary “rights of man” over the “rights of the citizen.” We see the triumph most clearly in the extension of many citizen rights to resident aliens and other non-citizens, including illegal immigrants or, at least (in the US), their children. This is the work of the liberal-left (I am in favor of it), but it is strange work, for the more rights are extended to non-citizens the less citizenship means. We are in the process of devaluing citizenship for the sake of humanity. This may be the right thing to do, but it leaves the left without the model of the virtuous, activist, self-determining citizen. It becomes increasingly difficult to sustain a common civic culture.

Compare Memorial Day in the US today to the holiday that I described a moment ago; the holiday has been moved from a fixed date, 30 May, to the nearest Monday, which turns it into a long weekend or a short vacation. So almost nobody walks or marches to the cemetery; the holiday has become a vacant day—which is what a vacation is, a day without any fixed activity. Memorial Day has been emptied of its collective character; now it belongs to individual families and to individuals simply, to do as they like.

Is this all right? Some will say that it points the way to the end of patriotic fevers, xenophobia, nationalist fierceness, and ultra-nationalist nastiness. Countries will mean less to their inhabitants, because many of these inhabitants won’t be anciently established; the graves of their grandparents will be somewhere else; the ground they are living on won’t be holy ground to them and its vistas won’t evoke historical and personal memories. The common life of this heterogeneous people will be less intense and therefore less engaging; in Rousseau’s terms, it will provide a smaller proportion of the happiness of each individual; private life will be more and more important.

Think of this as the political/social victory not only of cultural pluralism but also, and perhaps more importantly, of liberal individualism. Most Americans don’t ask what they can do for their country–as John Kennedy urged them to do in his 1961 inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” That was a republican plea, and it did get some response in the ‘60s. But I think it is fair to say that the response today is pretty feeble. And this feebleness is a liberal victory, even though many liberals might complain about it. It comes as a combination of things: private life, market relations, and an odd mix of local and global culture (with a strongly binding national culture mostly missing or less powerfully present than it used to be). Now countries are defended by professional soldiers, and they are ruled by professional politicians, by the experts the politicians hire, and by the market oligarchs to whom they defer. We see, we live with, the social consequences: growing inequality; a numbing sense of political powerlessness and apathy among ordinary people; the disaggregation of parties and unions, which are the centrally important associations of activist citizens, enabling their activism. And, strangest of all for someone like me who grew up with the citizen-as-hero doctrine, the last decade has seen (in the US and perhaps in Europe too) the growing popularity of libertarianism, a politics opposed to any kind of collective action, even to government itself—the ideology of men and women for whom collective self-determination is a lost ideal and who value only the self-determination of the self.

Under these conditions of hetereogeneity, cultural pluralism, and radical individualism, what will happen, what has happened, to the solidarity that underlies and sustains the welfare state? If we don’t feel closely connected to the other inhabitants of our country, if we don’t have a common history, religion, etc., and if we think of ourselves as a Sartrean “series” of disconnected individuals (not even families since more and more people are now living alone in what the US census calls “the single person household”)—if all this is true, who will support the welfare state politically or willingly pay the taxes it requires? Who will spend time and energy in political arguments or in political action? Who will rush to the assemblies?

At the same time, intricately connected with what I’ve just described, there is a new globalism; it isn’t quite the same as the internationalism of the old left (it’s much less politically partisan than the old left was), but I suppose we should think of it as the 21st century version of internationalism, manifest in organizations like Doctors without Borders, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International. Humanitarian aid for people in trouble across the globe, aid of many different sorts, is very popular today, perhaps more popular than domestic welfare. If we have fewer engaged citizens in our own country, we have more and more engaged citizens of the world; activists abroad. These global engagements don’t seem to make for a vibrant liberal/left politics at home, and I don’t think that this is mere coincidence. It is actually easier, given the conditions I’ve described, to defend human rights in other people’s countries than to join the struggle against inequality in the US (or Italy, or Germany, or the UK). In fact, the new human rights agitation has been accompanied by a kind of political demobilization at home. Something similar is true of environmentalism, which fosters global concern but hasn’t produced the necessary political energy to change potentially disastrous domestic policies. Recall Rousseau’s angry line about people who love humanity but can hardly focus on the family next door (or, in the environmental case, on their own grandchildren).

So, this is our question: How is it possible (or, is it possible) to promote what we’ve have come to think of as global justice, universal human rights, ecological sanity, and at the same time sustain a vibrant local political culture, republican activism, participatory democracy? An American politician whom we remember by his nickname, Tip O’Neill, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, once said: “All politics is local.” That’s probably not true anymore, if it ever was, but it is true that for most people the quality of their lives, though powerfully affected by global economic trends, is first of all determined at home—by the physical security that the states provides or doesn’t provide, by the competent or incompetent management of the economy in which they work, by the way their taxes are collected and allocated, by the good or bad education provided for their children, by the quality of the health care available to them, by the strength or weakness of the welfare system, by the integrity or corruption of the civil service, and by the enforcement or non-enforcement of environmental standards. Of course, there are states so desperately impoverished or so deeply divided that their governments can do virtually nothing in these areas; they barely function; they are “failed” states. But the greater number of states, even relatively poor states, even states heavily dependent on the global economy, can do a lot to provide a decent life for their citizens—if their citizens are capable of demanding that they do a lot.

I am going to argue for the necessity of political action across borders, but I want first to insist on the continuing importance of the state and its activist citizens—and of the dangers likely to ensue if the citizens go missing. So, think for a minute about the state activities that I just listed: this is what domestic politics is about; these activities should be the subjects of civic engagement. Their character is not determined by reference to human rights; you can rarely succeed in reducing inequality or improving welfare services by going to court, let alone by going to the World Court. We might say that all human beings have a right to live within a state (or some other effective political entity) that actively addresses the issues that matter in their lives. But inside such a state, the arguments are not primarily about rights. How to organize an educational system or a welfare system, how to divide the budget between these services and those, how to allocate the tax burden, how to safeguard the environment and “grow” the economy—these are political questions that require political work, which should be the ordinary, everyday work of the citizens. But today it isn’t that; we’ve let it get away—How? Why?

I think that the general story (there is also, always, a particular story, some of which I’ve already described) has a lot to do with the pervasive, maybe the natural, tendency toward oligarchy and hierarchy—which we see in all human societies and which runs stronger, I suspect, in radically heterogeneous societies. We can still learn a lot from the sociology of Robert Michels writing about German social democracy, and of Pareto and Mosca focused on Italian politics and society. The rise of elites in the economy and the state, their steady aggrandizement, and their staying power—I mean, their ability to pass on much of what they possess to their children—this is all well-known, even if our democratic commitments sometimes lead us to repress what we know. Every human society produces hierarchies of wealth and power, and today this production takes place not only within societies but across them, in global society, where international banks and multi-national corporations function in ways that bring great wealth to the few and periodic crises to the many. In the old days, in the state of active or potentially active citizens, this steady tendency toward hierarchical arrangements was sometimes interrupted by insurgencies of the subordinate classes—uprisings of previously passive citizens who joined in powerful social movements and who produced social-democratic regimes, welfare states, and upheavals or, at least, disturbances in the old hierarchies.

Right now, what we most need in all the Western democracies are new insurgencies. Occupy Wall Street was an American example that didn’t quite come off or, better, wasn’t sustained for long enough (perhaps because its anarchist leaders didn’t believe in leading). But Occupy gives us a sense of what an insurgency is like. It’s not the same as a revolution, since insurgency is a defense of democracy within what is supposed to be an already democratic state. I am thinking of things like (in my own country) the union movement of the 1930s, the civil rights movement of the ‘60s, the feminist movement of the ‘70s, and the defense of gay rights in the last two decades—none of which, to be sure, turned the US into a just and egalitarian society, but all of which moved against the grain of hierarchy and made things a little more equal for at least some Americans.

But insurgency does more than that. It creates citizens or, more accurately, it represents the self-creation of citizens. Of course, you can be born a citizen, as most of us are, and there are legal ways of becoming a naturalized citizen. But citizens, I mean, active, engaged citizens are created or self-created through politics. And so insurgency isn’t only a move toward participatory democracy; it is also an example of it. Let me tell a story, again, about my hometown, Johnstown, PA.

Johnstown was a steel town, pretty much owned by Bethlehem Steel, one of the largest US companies. The older workers were from Western Europe, mainly from Germany, the newer workers were from Eastern and Southern Europe, mostly Poles and Italians, immigrants or first generation Americans. There was a company store, and no union. Johnstown was the place where the Little Steel Strike of 1937 was broken, the attempt to organize a union defeated, so it seemed, decisively. But that defeat wasn’t the end of the story. The struggle to establish a steelworkers’ union continued with help from Democrats in Harrisburg, the state capital, and New Deal liberals in Washington. A Senate committee, led by the Progressive Senator from Wisconsin, Robert M. LaFollette, launched an investigation into what had happened in Johnstown. Its report condemned the mayor and members of the City Council for their role in breaking the strike—they had been, and probably still were, in the pay of the steel company. And then, in 1941, with the war looming and the federal government eager to prevent any stoppage of steel production, a union was finally organized: in the election organized by the National Labor Relations Board, the workers voted 4-1 for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee.

But the passive voice (“a union was organized”) isn’t right. For what really happened in Johnstown, on the ground, starting in the late 1930s and continuing into the ‘50s, was a large-scale political mobilization. Organizers came from outside, some of them socialist and communist militants, sent by the CIO, the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations, but they weren’t the important people. The people who counted, the ones we should remember (and celebrate) were the men and women in Johnstown who responded to the efforts of the organizers. People previously passive and inarticulate, who never imagined themselves as political agents, began to speak out and act. They organized meetings and stood up at the meetings to complain about working conditions in the mills and about the poverty of steelworker families. They asked and began to answer the classic political question: What ought to be done? They wrote leaflets, ran picket lines, negotiated with the police, encouraged each other, argued with workers who held back. And they finally won, established a union, and elected some of themselves as its first officers.

And they changed the lives of Johnstown workers—their own lives. Unionization was above all a kind of collective self-help. Some of the changes were material: suddenly steelworkers had a little money. They were less anxious about visits to the doctor. They could become consumers (not a bad thing, when you have known poverty), buy a washing machine, nicer clothes for the kids; they could afford a summer vacation. Some of the changes involved what we might think of as the politics of everyday: the tyranny of the factory floor was overthrown; the foreman was no longer a master; and all the civil servants in the city were suddenly civil, more accessible and more friendly than they had ever been before. It didn’t happen that Johnstown became an egalitarian society, but its inequalities were significantly reduced. There was less deference on one side and less arrogance on the other; the city became a better place.

Well, we know that what comes next is less inspiring. The children of the militants inherited the union and didn’t have to fight for it; that moment of intense activism didn’t last; as sociologists say, the movement was “routinized”—it became routine. And now, some seventy-five years later, the mills are closed and empty; the union is no longer a presence in Johnstown. And there probably isn’t any union at all where the steel is currently produced, in Brazil or China or wherever. Still, that moment of political creation, those years when men and women came alive as articulate agents of their own destiny, when they claimed their citizenship—that is, it seems to me, a time of supreme human value. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t permanent, so long as we understand that it is recurrent. It will happen again.

At least, I hope so. But can it happen again in the radically heterogeneous society that I have been describing? The Johnstown workers were a diverse lot or so it would have seemed at the time; it probably helped the union effort if the CIO organizers knew a little Polish and a little Italian. But the workers were almost all Catholic and they were all white—Bethlehem Steel didn’t hire Jews or Blacks, and there were no Hispanic or Asian workers in Johnstown in those years. And, of course, they were all men; and none of them were defending gay rights. So, not such a diverse lot, not diverse at all as we understand diversity.

Given the diversity we know, are popular insurgencies possible today? In recent years, the successful insurgencies (in the US) have all been particularist in character, reflecting the politics of difference: the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and the movement for gay rights. Each of these has been a success—I mean, a partial success, like all our successes, but still, we have won some important battles on behalf of Blacks, women, and gay Americans. And America has become, with reference to each of these groups, a more egalitarian society. At the same time, however, with reference to the overall population of the country, we are less egalitarian, more radically hierarchical. Blacks, women, and gays have more opportunities to move up the hierarchy, but the hierarchy has gotten steeper.

The same kind of particularist politics is visible in many other places: the defense of indigenous rights in Latin America, the defense of the Roma here in Europe, the defense of women and girls in states where traditional religions are dominant (and in other states too), the defense of national minorities and of new immigrants. All these political struggles are important and even urgent, but I think it is fair to say that all of them can be won (again, in the incomplete way in which all leftist victories are won) without overcoming the existing social and economic hierarchies. The sum of all the particular victories will not be a society of equals.

It is this disturbing fact, I think, that has led to a revival of Marxism among young leftists (and a few not-so-young leftists) in recent years. Marxists were wrong, long ago, when they argued against the particularist struggles, against feminist agitation, for example, and told us that we should focus all our energies on the proletarian revolution, because that revolution would take care of everyone’s problems all at once. Blacks, women, gays, indigenous peoples, religious and ethnic minorities, and all the rest of us, would be liberated together. In fact, the particularist movements were and still are necessary and important. But it is time now to think again about class. The insurgencies we need today are the insurgencies of people without money, or without enough money; people without jobs; people who are frighteningly vulnerable to the smallest economic downturn, who live on the edge of destitution; people whose children are taught in decaying schools, who are served or, more likely, not served by defunded welfare agencies, who live in slums, who die before their time. And these people are not distinguished by their gender, or their race, or their nationality, or their religion. They are, so to speak, naturally diverse; class is an inclusive category.

The idea of the one percent and the ninety-nine percent, the slogan of the Occupy movement, is not an example of class analysis. It is a populist appeal, and it may be politically useful, but we should be wary of populism (as we should be wary of anarchism), for it isn’t a sustainable politics, it doesn’t change the world, and it is available to the right as much as to the left. The work of building a movement has got to be more focused. It has to be the work of the people who are most in need, and it has to follow from their own recognition of their needs. If there is to be a class movement of people injured or threatened by neo-liberal capitalism, it must be a movement with concrete objectives and a specific program. I don’t know how to produce a focused movement of that sort, but it is possible to prepare for its appearance intellectually and organizationally. And we must also be ready to confront the danger that lies immediately in our path, the danger that, in our newly diverse and heterogeneous societies, the movement we hope for will be pre-empted by a nationalist and xenophobic politics aimed at minorities, immigrants, and refugees. That’s another reason why people on the left should never play at populism. What we need is a revived and militant social democracy, speaking the language of class, whose leaders and activists are not afraid of insurgency, and who are prepared, when the moment of insurgency comes, to join, to organize, to press the insurgents toward a politics of solidarity and mutual aid–and cross-border cooperation.

All insurgencies are local. They depend on some significant degree of commonality, some concretely shared experience of poverty, or oppression, or vulnerability. Though we need to think in terms of class, we can’t pretend that “Workers of the world unite!” is a plausible slogan for the politics we need right now. Obviously, there is a global economy that we have to understand and relate to, but there is no global society of the sort that could provide space for political action. It is still the state, and only the state, that provides political space. But when the insurgencies come—and they will come unless everything we know about mass politics is wrong; growing inequality and growing insecurity will produce a political response, and when it comes, it will spread across state borders. We had a hint of that in 2011, when too much credit was given, I think, to the new technologies and the social media. When insurgency comes, it will run deep—remember Europe in 1848, when communication was very slow but politics, somehow, was very fast.

There won’t be time then for the different groups to work out a common program vis-à-vis global capital and to develop concrete proposals for the reform of organizations like the IMF and the World Bank. That work has to be done now. The first editor of Dissent magazine, where I have worked for many years, once said: “When intellectuals don’t know what to do, they found a magazine.” Well, we need magazines today, and websites, and all other possible outlets for ideological production. But we do know what needs to be done, whether or not we are able to do it. We need to produce a political program for the people in trouble in our own countries, in preparation for their insurgencies, and we need to establish contacts with intellectuals and political activists in other countries and begin the design of a global program. We are citizens first at home, looking for a class politics that transcends cultural difference. Humanitarian aid and human rights agitation abroad hasn’t produced that politics and isn’t likely to, but it is possible that things might work the other way around, that insurgency at home will produce the international connections and commitments that eluded the left all through the twentieth century. Jürgen Habermas has written movingly about the “abject spectacle of a capitalistic world society fragmented along national lines.” But it is in our own fragments, in our own nation-states, that we have to begin. Internationalism is still a distant goal; we can only hope that each local insurgency, as it crashes against the constraints of the global economy, will be a move towards the global agitation that we need. This, at any rate, is what I believe: that if we recapture citizenship at home, it will turn out that the world is not far away.