Radical Democratic Citizenship: Amidst Political Theory and Geography

Claire Rasmussen & Michael Brown. Handbook of Citizenship Studies. Editor: Engin F Isin & Bryan S Turner. Sage Publication. 2002.

What and Where is Citizenship?

‘Citizenship?’ she cocked her head quizzically and looked beyond me, ‘You mean like standing around on July 1 waving flags saying, “Yay Canada”?’

‘No,’ I quickly replied. ‘I mean how people are being political around AIDS—at various times and places in their daily lives. How doing things like participating in the AIDS Quilt display—whatever else it is—is about claiming rights, duties, and membership in a political community.’

‘Oh, I see. Okay, sure, I’ll talk to you about that.’

This awkward exchange took place in 1993, as Michael secured another interview in his participant observation research on radical democracy and AIDS politics in Vancouver, Canada (Brown, 1997). It exemplifies both the promise and dangers of reconceptualizing citizenship from a radical democratic perspective.

Radical democratic theory, a term that gained currency through the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, seeks to revive the centrality of citizenship: an identity believed to be enervated or eliminated in liberal and Marxist theory by limiting political relations to the realm of the state or the economy, ultimately reducing citizenship to inefficacious flag-waving. To expand the importance of citizenship, radical democracy seeks to put forward a conception of democracy as a way of life, a continual commitment not to a community or state but to the political conceived as a constant challenge to the limits of politics. The woman’s activism around the Canadian AIDS Quilt display thus wasn’t beyond or outside politics—nor could it be completely reducible to ‘the political.’ But the political was a situated moment or dimension in that space. The goal of radical democratic theory is to generate an anti-essentialist politics that continually attempts to redefine itself in order to resist the exclusion of individuals and groups in the formation of the social order. The theory takes up the mantle of democracy to embrace the commitment to equality and participation but includes the radicalization of politics through a commitment to constant social change—and actions like the quilt display did change things. Drawing from a broad spectrum of theoretical sources and a history of social movements, radical democratic theory has generated a wide-ranging debate about how to define politics and how it ought to be practiced. The discussion has brought together political theory and practice and has provided an alternative to Marxism and liberalism on the Left (see for instance Mouffe, 1992, 1993). The consequence has been a reinvigoration of citizenship and recognition of the complexity of political struggles by marginalized groups. The attempt to bridge the gap between theory and practice and a range of theoretical resources has initiated dialogue on the Left but, as the dialogue incorporates radical democracy, it continues to struggle with the same problems it identifies in other theories of citizenship.

As an urban political geographer, Michael sought to spatialize Mouffe’s theoretical project, which is not to say that he was testing radical democratic theory. In his ethnographic research on geographies of Aids activism, he was interested in pressing Mouffe’s claims about ‘new spaces of politics’ literally: to understand how the ‘whereness’ of these new forms of citizenship mattered to their constitution, efficacy, and failures. In this way, the premise is that radical democratic theory could aid in understanding new forms—and locations—of the political responses to Aids in Vancouver during the early 1990s. For this reason we narrate that research as a means of explicating radical democracy throughout this chapter. Thus, in what follows radical democracy is placed both in terms of its theoretical underpinnings and through empirical practices. To understand both the commonalties in and the differences between radical democratic and other forms of citizenship, we trace its history from the early stages in which it attempted to redefine the category of ‘political’ in order to democratize the category of ‘citizenship.’ Second we examine how the redefinition of citizenship through radical democratic theory enables new forms of political resistance that avoid the exclusionary tendencies of other forms of citizenship. Finally we address the multiple theoretical perspectives now falling under the category of radical democracy, a project making ambitious attempts to unite diverse theoretical and practical political perspectives and practices.

Beginnings: Staking Out Territory in the Era of Postisms

Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985) may be arbitrarily identified as the text that inaugurated the theorization of radical democratic citizenship. As the text’s subtitle, Towards a radical democratic politics suggests, it was intended to stimulate a rethinking of both democratic and radical politics, and their potential combination. Published in 1985, it emerged at what Laclau and Mouffe identified as a ‘crossroads’ in left-wing thought and politics. In both theoretical and actual terms, Marxism had proved to be, to state the case mildly, a disappointment, and largely powerless to stop the rise of the right wing in the United States and Western Europe. In their introduction, Laclau and Mouffe stake out territory they called post-Marxist, a category they hoped would indicate their commitment to leftist politics while also engaging in emerging debates between Marxism and post-structuralist theory in continental theory, and in debates between liberals and communitarians in Anglo-American theory. What Marxism and other competing theories on the Left lacked was a thorough theoretical understanding of how to define politics and the activity of political subjects. The purpose of a radical democratic theory was to wed the radical project of social change and the democratic project of empowerment by expanding the field of the political, both theoretically and practically.

Radical democracy’s continual commitment to the concept of citizenship announces both a relationship to and a break from Marxist commitments. Marx was skeptical of the emancipatory potential of citizenship, which he referred to as a ‘political lion’s skin’ (Marx, 1977: 46). For Marx, the danger of universal citizenship was its false promise of equality masked by the formal equality accorded to the status of citizen. Writing specifically about the question of citizenship, Marx argued that to eliminate religious preference as a category of citizenship was to banish religion to the private realm as if it did not make a difference in actual political, power-laden relationships. The category of citizen drove a wedge between the public, political citizen and the private self within civil society, hiding the real sources of power within the sphere of the private. With respect to the emergence of Aids and the rise of lesbigay political identities by the early 1980s, Marxist theory would have an especially difficult time, ignoring them entirely, dismissing their relevance as bourgeois ideology, or prompting a necessary rethinking of the multiplicity of politics (e.g. Castells, 1983).

To retain the category of citizenship without falling prey to the depoliticization of social relations, Laclau and Mouffe began from both a theoretical and practical consideration of left-wing politics and a rethinking of the location of power within society. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy begins with a historiography of the concept of hegemony within Marxist thought. The Gramscian category of hegemony resisted the reduction of politics to a relationship with either the state or the economy and instead highlighted the everyday relationships of power that enabled systems of domination to function. Beginning with hegemony was an attempt to envision a bottom-up form of politics where power is located in and can be challenged not just at the institutional level but, potentially, everywhere. Laclau writes:

Hegemony is not a type of articulation limited to the field of politics in its narrow sense but it involves the construction of a new culture—and that affects the levels where human beings shape their identity and their relations with the world (sexuality, the construction of the private, forms of entertainment, aesthetic pleasure, etc.) (1990: 189).

The emphasis on everyday forms of power was in part a response to actual political engagements on the Left, including the rise of social movements such as feminist, anti-racist, and environmental. New social movements defied both the centrality of the working class to leftist projects and the public/private boundaries that had defined politics in relationship to a fixed coherent public sphere or a privileged geography. The theoretical conclusion drawn was that the terrain of the political must be expanded to consider a wider range of potentially political activities and locations because power operated at a range of sites and the definition of politics itself was the chief site of politics: ‘the distinctions public/private, civil society/political society are only the result of a certain type of hegemonic articulation, and their limits vary in accordance with the existing relations of forces at a given moment’ (Laclau, 1990: 185). With respect to Vancouver, this rethinking impelled the point that public and private ‘spheres’ are often materialized in material locations. Thus where in the city people did their politics must be considered broadly, since a preordained map would be theoretically reductionist. This point has implications for scholars who are trying to make sense of ‘new’ and ‘old’ spaces of politics (Brown, 1999; Staeheli, 1994, 1996).

If in part inspired by actual political struggle, radical democracy was also a response and challenge to existing democratic political theory that could not explain why social movements had emerged at a particular historical juncture nor incorporate them into their boundaries of the political. The democratic element of the theory was the expansion of politics to enable a broader contestation of power in spheres beyond the state or the economy. However, Laclau and Mouffe also believed that democratic theory at present was inadequate to the task and therefore, they called for not just an expansion but a radicalization of democracy, a move they felt was both theoretically necessary and strategically sensible. On the one hand, previous conceptions of citizenship were exclusionary, based upon a definition of the political primarily in relationship to a state, a community or the economy. But more than a theoretical error, the Left’s embrace of these models of citizenship was also a strategic mistake. The Right had long been engaging in cultural politics that recognized the key insight of radical democracy: power operates through hegemony, or identity-forming practices that require a politics attentive to forming, not just appealing to the interests of, political subjects. Therefore, the Left needed to develop similar theories and strategies that recognized the relocation of the political and worked to democratize it.

In seeking different ways to conceive democratic citizenship, Mouffe’s The Return of the Political (1993) dealt with the contemporary debates within democratic theory, focusing primarily on debates between liberalism and communitarianism. Her text drew on Carl Schmitt’s identification of the paradox inherent in liberal democracy, the tensions between the liberal emphasis on the autonomy of the individual subject and the democratic impulse toward unity/community (Schmitt, 1996). The tension could not be resolved through the privileging of the liberty of the individual subject above the public good or the primacy of the common good above that of the individual. Rather, for Mouffe (2000), the paradox was the solution. Rather than choosing between the options or resolving the tensions, she proposed that the conflict between the competing political principles was the location of the political. The subject of politics and the terrain of politics were mutually constitutive and engaged in a constant struggle. The inability to resolve political questions enabled a reinvigoration of the political sphere by making no questions uncontestable and all issues potentially political and enabling no a priori exclusions from the political sphere as either private or epiphenomenal.

Aids politics seems especially relevant to this theoretical attempt at holding these two longstanding perspectives on citizenship in tension. Because it was at once so enormous and thoroughgoing—but also so personal and immediate, Aids intensely prompted Vancouverites to prioritize the right over the good, and simultaneously the good over the right—often around the same specific issue. Consider safer sex campaigns, for instance (e.g. Brown, 1995). Volunteers would head out to public sex areas such as parks and beaches to distribute condoms, lubricants, and other safer sex materials promoting the individual’s right to health and freedom. Yet sex in a public place was illegal according to the laws evocative of community morality. Simultaneously, a quarantine law was resurrected that allowed for the detention of individuals who knowingly spread HIV through sexual contact. The point is not whether or which time liberal arguments ‘won’ over communitarian ones. The point is that they were both at work there and their tension was never-ending, always in process.

Radicalizing the site of democracy required a rethinking of the place of citizenship within politics. Politicizing social relations and resisting the privileging of any particular positions, citizenship could not be defined as a fixed identity in relationship to a state or a community. Mouffe describes citizenship as central to political subjectivity and defines it as political activity involving a struggle for hegemony, possible at any site from an engagement with the state, in the economy, or in the everyday practices of identity formation. Citizenship shifts from being an identity to being an activity, or more precisely a dimension of an activity that is always already understood as something else, too. By expanding who is or can be included in the category of citizenship, radical democracy retains the democratic commitment to egalitarianism, seeing all subjects as political subjects and recognizing a broader range of activities as political and potentially valuable resources for struggle. The means and ends of democratic citizenship, however, are transformed from belonging to a community through prescribed means of participation, such as voting or debating, to any particular goal emergent within a context and any potential means of achieving that goal. So for example, ‘buddies’ were AIDS Vancouver volunteers who provided a broadly defined ‘support’ for people living with HIV and AIDS. Support could be emotional, practical, or even spiritual. Buddies’ roles were impossible to pin down and therefore their citizenship could be theorized across a wide array of social relations: family, charity, social work, even state-client relations.

Radical democratic theory identifies three principles key to understanding contemporary politics. First, all political struggles are temporary and contextual, contingent upon particular power relations that become antagonistic at particular times and places. Second, citizenship or political agency is defined not as an achievement or possession but as a continual struggle within those contingent and therefore constantly shifting relationships of power. Third, the location of struggle is not just between the competing interests of citizens but at the site of subject formation, in the way citizens understand their relationship to the political world and themselves.

The expanded site of politics had several important effects in thinking about the practice of radical democratic politics. First was a renewed interest in cultural politics that in part reflected and shaped British cultural studies. The emphasis on the particularity of specific conflicts as well as the importance of a democratization of cultural issues informed an interest in cultural politics that fell outside of the sphere of traditional politics. Taking aim at the ways that hegemonic representations of subordinate groups reinforced relationships of domination and identifying how counter-hegemonic cultural productions could challenge these power relations, cultural studies went to work identifying the multiple sites where power reproduced itself socially through the media, societal norms, language, etc. What radical democracy proposed was not a Marxist unmasking of the ideological content of everyday life, but a counter-hegemonic project of democratizing access to and possibilities for representation. Rather than seeking an essential truth about politics, the emphasis upon cultural dimensions of citizenship expanded membership in the category of ‘citizen,’ broadening participation in and therefore responsibility for the polity.

The attention to the context of political struggle and the emergence of particular forms of conflict and resistance did not occur just within cultural studies (e.g. Anthias and Yuval-Davis, 1992) but also in an extended discussion of the conditions of emergence of particular struggles and how they played within local contexts. Radical democracy enabled a recognition that the terrain or space of politics was not predetermined and therefore theorization of a shifting object of politics needed to acknowledge the way radical democratic action emerged in real conflicts. Therefore, citizenship was not understood purely as a relationship among political agents but as an interaction between agencies embedded in historical and spatial contexts. Citizenship could not be understood as an abstract set of features or principles but was a concept continually reshaped through actual political engagement in context.

Other ways of conceiving citizenship required that citizenship be understood as a relationship among political agents within a particular public, political space, a homogenous container for political action. The space of the political was strictly bounded by who or what counted as citizenship, whether the polis of the Greek world or the rational sphere of modernism. Radical democratic citizenship did not consider these boundaries as predrawn but as the very object of contestation. If cultural studies concerned itself primarily with how particular identities became political, geographers have emphasized the importance of recognizing how hegemonic formations emerge within particular contexts that shape conflicts and what forms resistance can and does take.

In Vancouver, it became clear that spaces that enabled the sorts of agonistic citizenship that Mouffe proffers were those that hybridized political theory’s classic tripartite map of state/civil society and family. In locations such as the emerging Aids service organizations (ASOs) relations of both state and civil society ebbed and flowed. Grassroots organizations of a gay neighborhood, these organizations were also tied to the state through funding arrangements, contracting, rules, and regulations. People’s own homes became points of condensation for relations of state and family because of buddy volunteers. The ‘eyes and ears of the state apparatus’ they were also part of the ‘families we choose.’ Finally, locations such as the AIDS Quilt display were public spaces of memorial, but also private spaces of family grief. Activism—in the form of education, awareness, and fundraising—works because they were also spaces of grief and mourning for those we lost.

The initial stages of theorizing radical democratic practice included several key changes in conceiving citizenship. First is the changing definition of the political from a predetermined bounded sphere in which political subjects acted upon or formed their interests to an indeterminate sphere of contestation determined by the particular conflict. Therefore, any activity is potentially political, leading to a practice of politics attentive to the multiple sites of politics. Emerging from the redefinition of the political is an emphasis on the particularity of political contests, leading to an interest in the historical and spatial specificity of struggles and why specific social formations become antagonistic and therefore political. Beyond the empirical and theoretical claims that citizenship is practiced and must be understood as an everyday activity of struggle, radical democracy also endorses a normative claim that politics on the Left must endorse democracy and a version that resists ever achieving its own goal. Laclau describes the normative vision of radical democracy as follows:

There is democracy as long as there exists the possibility of an unlimited questioning; but this amounts to saying that democracy is not a system of values and a system of social organization, but a certain inflection, a certain ‘weakening’ of the type of validity attributable to any organization and any value. (1990: 187).

The description of democratic citizenship as a way of life invokes an active citizen constantly engaged in political struggle at a variety of sites, even in one’s own identity. If radical democracy promised the return of the political, what remained unclear was how to generate the conditions of possibility for the democratic ethos to prevail and sustain itself and could the promise of perpetual struggle provide a unified project for the Left?

Fleshing Out the Citizen: Post-Structuralism and Beyond

As radical democracy promised, democracy was an open and changing project theoretically and practically. The context, both intellectual and political, shifted in the 1990s, resulting in reconsideration and deepening of the project of radical democracy. The rise of neoliberalism threatened to engulf oppositional politics altogether. The disenchantment with institutional politics was heightened in the early 1990s with an apparent tempering of the politics of the Left in both the United States and Britain, with a New Left, characterized by the ‘Third Way’ in Britain. Post-cold war politics turned away from the dichotomy of Left/Right and sought out the middle in a politics of consensus-building. Rather than heralding the rise of the New Left, however, radical democratic theory has warned that middle-ground politics in fact is a further elimination of politics, attempting to eliminate disagreement rather than engage in struggle, and therefore is an undemocratic step in leftist politics.

Theoretically, the terrain had also changed with an increasing urgency to find leftist alternatives to Marxism, which many saw as inadequate to address the hegemony of neoliberalism and the new challenge of the Right. Many theorists turned to the language of democracy as a potential project for the Left, generating projects both similar to and antagonistic towards radical democracy as articulated in the mid-1980s. Drawing extensively from Kantian liberalism, Jürgen Habermas has become an increasingly important figure. For Habermas, social consensus is not based upon a priori grounds, such as community or individual liberty, but is constructed through social dialogue based upon agreed procedures of political decision-making that ensure equal and universal participation on the basis of rational agreement.

Against the view of democracy as consensus-building on the bases of universal rationality, other theorists drew from the post-structuralist emphasis upon a political sphere characterized by extreme difference. Jean-François Lyotard in particular proposed a politics predicated on the possibility of absolute difference and the lack of any universal unifying element that was not exclusionary and therefore violent (Lyotard, 1984). Others argue that a politics of difference must be preceded by an ethical commitment to difference and Otherness that also precludes any form of politics claiming a positive identity. Both alternatives conflicted with radical democracy’s opposition to the elimination of conflict via accommodation that characterized the depoliticization they also opposed in Third Way politics.

To formulate a theory that resisted both the emphasis upon achieved universalism in Habermasian politics and the depoliticizing potential of particularism in some versions of post-structuralism, Mouffe herself has turned to the resource of the philosophy of language, drawing from Wittgenstein. She follows the lead of James Tully, whose works argue that Wittgenstein offers a vision of a community of language-users that is constituted both by the formal rules of language usage (vocabulary, grammar, etc.) and the ‘family resemblances,’ defined as similarities between linguistic practices that enable communication to function, even if only on partial and uncertain terms (Tully, 1995). While no linguistic utterance ever fully represents the object it is meant to convey, the project of communication does not cease.

Mouffe believes Tully’s use of Wittgenstein demonstrates that political action need not decide between a politics of universalism and one of particularity but instead can use the tension between the two principles as the ground of politics. As particular groups represent their interests as universal, a struggle ensues, as no particular interest ever becomes the universal. Rather than declaring the goal of universal representation, a Habermasian goal, or repudiating any attempt to represent, the Lyotardian solution, Mouffe argues for a consistent struggle amongst particularities. Mouffe calls her middle ground ‘agonistic pluralism,’ an alternative to deliberative democracy that, she suggests, implies a potential end point or solution. Agonistic pluralism, on the other hand, suggests the element of struggle—agonism—among different groups—pluralism—recognizing the value of both particularity and struggles amongst particular elements as their social positions conflict. Central to defining agonistic pluralism is the struggle over defining the community, the central activity of citizenship: ‘a democratic system requires the availability of those contending forms of citizenship identification. They provide the terrain in which passions can be mobilized around democratic objectives and antagonism transformed into agonism’ (Mouffe, 2000: 104).

Like Mouffe, Laclau has also been concerned with balancing the post-structuralist concerns with difference with a search for grounds for waging actual political struggles. Central to his work is the problem of how a commitment to radical democratic citizenship can lead to social change. Since Hegemony and Socialist Strategy Laclau has focused on two key issues for radical democratic theory. First, he addresses the question of how political subjectivity operates without a definite sphere of the political or a preconceived notion of agency. Second, he is concerned with the problem of how a politics based upon and dedicated to the preservation of difference can build coalitions or communities with real counter-hegemonic potential.

For answers Laclau has moved further away from Marxist theory towards psychoanalytic and post-structuralist theories of subjectivity and the social. The concern with theorizing political subjectivity centers on the problem presented around formulating an anti-essentialist politics compatible with the identity-focused projects that characterized the social movements inspiring radical democracy. As previously mentioned, citizenship was not to be considered an identity possessed by subjects but was an activity that constructed identity. Therefore, identity could not be understood as prepolitical, either an authentic essence or the private construction of the subject—the liberal subject, but nor could it be fully determined by the essence of the social structure—the Marxist version. Rather, identity must become the ultimate site of politics, determined neither by the agent nor by the structure but in a process of struggle.

Laclau has drawn extensively from psychoanalytic and post-structuralist theory, particularly the Lacanian concept of ‘Lack’ (Laclau 1990, 1994; see also Laclau et al., 2000). Identity is not pregiven and is achieved through a process of identification. The subject is characterized by lack, an inability to represent itself, while identity represents objectivity, a representation. The agency of citizenship is the act of identification, of seeking identity in familiar forms of representation—ethnicity, nationality, race, gender, and sexuality—that shape but do not determine the identity of the subject. The representations available to the subject are contextually contingent upon particular hegemonic formations and are subject to change. Therefore politics is not about defending the intrinsic interests of a political subject but about a struggle to construct subjects, making identity a primary ground for the operation of politics. The possibility of different identifications and changing hegemonic representations results in the failure of any identity ever to be fully determined and therefore identity is always a location of potential contestation: ‘whatever identity the political agents have can only result from precarious and transient forms of identification’ (Laclau, 1994: 37).

In Vancouver, Laclau’s insights compel us to understand how important issues of lack and identification were to the formation of sexual-gender identity. For many citizens, their activism was linked to their sexuality, because of the high proportions of gay men affected by HIV and the imbrication of homophobia through the responses to the virus by the city and state. Thus the declaration that was frequent in most interviews, ‘I am gay,’ names an identity that structures the possibilities of that subject by placing it within a set of gendered social relations that articulate a relationship to the political world and to the self.

The commitment to anti-essentialism presents a second problem for radical democratic theory and practice, sustaining collective projects capable of confronting hegemony without repeating the exclusions it attempts to avoid. Marxists in particular felt radical democracy was a diversion from real political commitment on the Left. As a means of understanding how identity/identification translated into political struggle, Laclau connected post-structuralist ideas about the ‘emptiness’ of signifiers with the Gramscian concept of articulation. According to theories of signification, specific signs (linguistic or social) acquire meaning, as we have seen, only through identification. So, for example, meaning becomes associated with words arbitrarily and has no necessary connection with their function within the linguistic system or any external, objective meaning. Over time, however, the meaning is sedimented by its shared usage. Laclau believes political identities function in the same manner. Without any necessary content, political identities are subject to change and therefore may become the object of struggle to change their position within the system. Just as a word may be mis-spelled or pronounced, or may be misused or even forgotten, so too can political identities be changed through different use within the system. Identity, therefore, becomes a function of the system in which it operates but is also liable to change through the agency of subjects who, by identifying with a particular identity, may change it.

To understand how identity becomes a site of collective political struggle, it is important to understand why the metaphor of language is central here. Just as language requires a language community to create meaning, so too do political identities imply a larger community whose meanings exist only in relationship to one another. The relations between meanings are such that often when one shifts, others are impacted. So, for example, gender and race acquire meaning in relationship to one another and their meanings, not moored to a determinate content, relate to one another in specific contexts. To understand how these relations can be transformed into political relationships, Laclau uses the Gramscian idea of articulation, the idea that specific commonalties, though not identical to one another, can become the basis of a shared project. Articulation enables a politics that operates at a variety of scales from individual identity formation to mass political movements.

A chain of signifiers that articulate with one another represents itself as unified with a common interest. The example Laclau often appeals to is in a moment of social unrest when a series of unrelated events, such as a factory workers’ strike action, a university student protest and a civil rights action occur in proximity to one another. They are interpreted as shared resistance to economic hegemony and, for example, the initial strike is elevated to represent the shared opposition, a particular representing a common interest. The articulation of the demands together and the representation of a counter-hegemonic interest enable a collective political movement to form (Laclau, 1994). The interest is, of course, not universal but may represent itself as such to present a challenge to claims to universality by the hegemonic power. The emptiness of the signification—its emergence within a context and its arbitrary representation of a chain of identities guarantees that the struggle will not succeed as a universal signification and will eventually itself come to be the grounds of struggle. The progressive stages of identification, articulation, and dissolution guarantee both a substantive challenge to hegemonic power and the promise of an ongoing struggle since any chain of articulations must eventually break. The emptiness of signification is both the possibility and impossibility of citizenship as an identity defined through struggle.

To return to the ‘I am gay’ performative as a site of political contestation, we may see the chains of empty signification at work. The signifier is already in circulation as a term of negativity but is reappropriated to come to signify a range of political exclusions on the basis of the norms of gender and sexuality. ‘Gayness’ articulates together a set of identities with a common relationship to exclusion on the basis of sexuality, those ‘named’ by the identity ‘gay’ and therefore generating a politicized community (see Brown, 2000). At the same time, however, Butler would remind us that the democratization of queer identity requires a persistent recognition of its own failure to achieve universal representation and ‘to consider the exclusionary force of one of activism’s most treasured contemporary premises’ of the achievement of a positive identity (Butler, 1997: 227). And so, for example, while Aids organizations started out as upper middle class gay white men’s organizations, the presence of women, lesbians, hemophiliacs, heterosexuals, drug users, children, homeless people, working class people, natives, Asians and other ‘others’ challenged the exclusions and fixity of a salient political identity through which citizenship had emerged. In Vancouver, Aids was a ‘gay disease’; but it also was not. People who responded to Aids were gay; but they were not. The citizens they were trying to help were gay; but they were not. As Butler would have it, gays’ response to Aids in Vancouver was always ‘queered.’

If the early stages of radical democratic theory focused on seeing citizenship in a wider range of places, more recent work in radical democratic theory has attempted to sketch the outlines of how radical democracy ought to be practiced. Further placing citizenship amidst facets of identity, democratic citizenship requires a commitment to awareness of and engagement in a self-critical politicization of identity.

The core of radical democratic citizenship is an attempt to retain the egalitarian impulse in the idea of citizenship as a means of belonging to a political community without depoliticizing or excluding other elements of identity relevant to power relations. While sympathetic to Marx’s fear that citizenship becomes an ideological veil for other modes of social inequality by declaring a universal political equality, radical democracy maintains that citizenship can be a liberatory identity by remaining an open site of struggle. The balance between the universalizing claims to citizenship and the particular demands to represent the content of citizenship can become the primary site of democracy. The very failure of citizenship to attain universality becomes its emancipatory potential as competing claims to the category of citizenship emerge through political struggle, allowing persistent challenges to any hegemonic forms of social order. As a consequence, the discussion of citizenship has been reinvigorated on the Left (see Shafir and Gershon, 1998).

The deployment of the category of citizen as an unfixed political signifier, not determined by any political or social border, has brought radical democratic theory into contact with a number of recent trends in political and social theory grappling the unique problems of globalization and persistent capitalist hegemony. By redefining citizenship as the site of subject formation, radical democracy has become a means of talking about identity politics not just as a particularistic struggle for access to the benefits of citizenship but as a shared movement to expand the political sphere and the meaning of citizenship through contingent and ongoing struggles.

Representative of the impact of radical democracy in defining citizenship is David Trend’s 1996 collection Radical Democracy, bringing together theorists as different as bell hooks and Stanley Aronowitz and commitments ranging from feminism to socialism to postcolonialism. According to Trend, radical democracy has invigorated politics on the Left as a model that ‘gives vitality to the impetus for democratic principles. The politicization of social spaces formerly considered neutral makes apparent the often unacknowledged power relations in everyday activities’ (Trend, 1996: 5). The openness to multiple forms of political contestation provides theoretical and practical struggles under the banner of radical democracy. The language of citizenship has crept into numerous discourses about the political.

In feminism, theorists such as Iris Marion Young and Nancy Fraser have appealed to many of the theoretical resources of radical democracy to develop an anti-essentialist feminist politics. Young, Fraser and Butler all claim that identity categories such as ‘woman’ are fundamentally political identities that can be both the basis for hegemonic power and the basis of challenge themselves, without diminishing the power of identity-based politics. Young, for instance, argues that groups may make claims on the basis of exclusion from the category of citizen. Rather than basing those claims upon the shared universal qualities of individuals, thereby depoliticizing the characteristics of the group upon which the exclusion has been based, Young argues that groups rights may demand a counter-hegemonic ideal of community that contests existing boundaries of inclusion and exclusion (Young, 1992).

The multiple locations of citizenship have also enabled a broader discussion of how citizenship may operate on multiple scales, from the local to global (Brown, 1995). While the processes of globalization have modified the boundaries and importance of the nation-state, a concept of citizenship tied to the nation-state seems increasingly untenable. Calls for multicultural or global citizenship resonate with radical democratic emphases on the locating social power at sites beyond the macro levels of the state and the economy and at different scales, recognizing that power is dispersed throughout the social field and is actualized at particular locations. In Vancouver, for example, radical democracy was never simply or solely local politics. Personnel and resources were exchanged with Guatemalan Aids activists. A toll-free helpline placed citizenship in cyberspace that spanned far beyond the city limits. Persons With Aids Society members in Vancouver pressed drug companies to make their products more affordable to PWAs in Africa and other extra-local sites. Immediately juxtaposing the dead individual with the national and international scope of the disease, the Quilt display poignantly ‘glocalized’ Aids. And the International Aids Conference of 1996—including oppositional activism—was held in Vancouver, where local politics imbricated with global issues in multiple ways, not least of which were the glaring inequities between core and periphery in affordability and availability of the newly developed protease inhibitors and ‘drug cocktails.’

Theoretically, radical democracy has deepened its attempts to draw from a variety of resources on the Left, deepening its engagement with both the post-structuralist and Anglo-American liberal traditions. A dialogue has ensued between radical democracy and American pragmatism primarily through Richard Rorty. Committed to a version of liberal democracy that does not require a foundational commitment to any universal qualities of citizens, such as rationality, Rorty argues that radical democracy may offer a non-foundational means of theorizing political identity (in Mouffe, 1996). While Rorty maintains a commitment to liberal values (though for pragmatic and political reasons, not on moral or ontological grounds), he notes the shared emphasis upon identity as contingent and strategic.

Radical democratic theory has also been influential within and influenced by debates about deconstruction. Most recently, Jacques Derrida, not known for endorsing political principles, has argued in favor of a ‘democracy of the future,’ that, like radical democracy, demands a commitment to a fundamental openness in the political field. Derrida’s ‘community without unity’ outlines the ideal of a political community based upon an assumption of difference, without fixed borders and continually shifting (Derrida, 1994, 1998). While deconstruction should not be conflated with radical democracy, proponents have noted similarities in the emphasis upon difference, particularity, and context. The importance of subject formation in radical democracy maps onto deconstructive concerns with the emergence of identities within a context. The emergence of meaning particularly the meaning of citizenship within a particular time and place implies that these meanings are always subject to change and, therefore, power relations are always unfixed and a site of struggle. So for instance, many interviewees would bristle at Michael’s imposition of ‘citizenship’ on their responses to AIDS in Vancouver (however locally sensitive and contextual he was being) through his published work, including this very chapter. For them, what they did was decidedly not ‘citizenship,’ and who is Michael to appropriate their actions’ meaningfulness? Similarly, by stressing specific relations (like buddies) as citizenship, that move does occlude and elide other ways of knowing that relationship. Citizenship is foregrounded, charity and compassion are backgrounded.

If radical democracy has become a common, almost hegemonic means of thinking about citizenship, its diversity is both its strength and its weakness. While it provides an alternative to socialism and liberalism on the Left, many critics argue that radical democracy is not a radicalization of either democratic or Marxist theory but represents an extension of liberalism not that different from the theories it critiques. The inclusionary impulse in radical democratic citizenship that wants to incorporate all elements of identity into the realm of politics repeats the very danger Marx warned about, a universalizing category that does not recognize its own exclusions. By locating politics potentially everywhere, the consequence may be to render the category meaningless or trivial.

A second problem presented by the openness implied in radical democracy is its vulnerability to the same critiques it makes of other versions of democratic theory. Mouffe’s distinction between deliberative democracy and agonistic pluralism, presented in The Democratic Paradox (2000) leaves the reader with several puzzles. ‘Agonistic pluralism’ is presumably distinct from deliberative democracy in that it resists the arrival at a mutually agreed upon, rational consensus in favor of constant agonistic struggle towards democratic inclusion. The purpose of keeping the political open is to avoid the violence of exclusion of those outside of the sphere of citizenship. But the emphasis on struggle requires that agonism must remain distinct from antagonism, or disputes that dissolve into or are resolved via violence. While the liberal response to this problem is to exclude from the political intractable and potentially violent conflicts, radical democracy cannot make such a priori exclusions and therefore must find alternative ways to, in Mouffe’s terms, transform enemies into adversaries. Radical democracy does not look to the liberal value of tolerance as a means of resolving political disputes, noting that universal tolerance requires the exclusion of those political issues that may cause intractable conflict. As an alternative, it proposes that the instability of identity and the constant challenges to hegemonic and fixed identities can prevent the ‘Balkanization’ of difference, a move that seems already to presuppose the existence of competing political norms with which to identify and political subjects able to participate in and committed to the democratic project.

If radical democracy was premised upon attention to difference and particularity, the difficulty in distinguishing and mediating between democratic and anti-democratic forms of identity and politics continues to trouble the project both theoretically and practically. The anti-totalitarian and anti-universalist origins of the theory have left unanswered the question of how to challenge groups or movements that are specifically based upon exclusion and difference but still exercise power, often dominant power. The rise of militantly particularistic groups such as the religious Right raises questions about how to differentiate between and respond to different forms of anti-democratic politics.

The challenges facing radical democracy in its attempt to generate an active and context-based conception of citizenship resemble the very problems identified in the Marxist critique of the liberal citizen as too abstract and inattentive to real, material power relationships. The theoretical tendencies to overabstraction highlight the necessity of attention to the context in which political struggles emerge and are played out, in other words the practical grounding of democratic practice. If radical democracy highlights the importance of seeing the activity of citizens as potentially anywhere, spatializing democracy can concretely locate these political moments to continually reexamine the meaning of democratic commitments in certain struggles. For example, returning to the dialogue with which we opened this chapter, we might ask, who is Michael to label the woman’s praxis as ‘citizenship’? What if she disputes that claim and signifies it as charity instead? Isn’t this imposition of meaning onto social relations ironically anti-democratic, since potentially Michael’s framing has been rather more widely disseminated internationally through his writing and teaching? Keeping citizenship a contested and perpetually interrogated category works well in the abstract, but it becomes problematic when it is spatialized in real spaces and times amidst unequal power relations.


In this chapter we have sought to explain the discussions and debates over citizenship that are being reconceptualized as radical democracy and have invigorated political theory. We traced the history of the concept’s origins in response to both Marxism and debates within classic political theory between liberalism and communitarianism and discussed its continual engagement with contemporary theory, most notably post-structuralism. By redefining and expanding the understanding of politics, citizenship is recognized as a practice relating political identities, everyday practices, and political communities. As Michael’s work in Vancouver demonstrates, the lens of radical democracy sees a broader range of practices engaged in continual struggles over political meanings that cannot be confined to a single site. Citizenship understood as the struggle to define the terrain of the political broadens the theoretical and empirical possibilities for democracy. It remains to be seen, however, whether this innovative and in so many ways helpful theoretical turn can navigate the various rocks and hard places it charted for previous theories of democracy and politics.