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Citizenship in a polity not only signifies membership in that community, but also the rights and duties that come with it. The ideal of citizenship grew from ancient Greece and Rome, but it has varied with the world’s shifting political paradigms, expanding to allow more people into its framework.
The core meaning of citizenship is membership in a community. Beyond that core meaning, conceptions of citizenship have changed greatly over time and place, as to the nature both of the community and of the membership in question. Classically and enduringly, citizenship has been about a political and often a legal relationship: a citizen is a member of a polity by virtue of reciprocal rights and duties shared in common. As a membership status and as a behavioral norm, then, citizenship bespeaks an equality of citizens; but citizenship also thus entails inequality, in distinguishing citizens from noncitizens.
The historic origins of citizenship lie distinctively in ancient Greece and Rome. Unlike the advanced civilizations that developed in the river valleys of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China, the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome were founded on the primacy of the city-state regime. The city-state (polis) of fourth-century BCE Athens produced the first classic theorist of citizenship, Aristotle (384–322 BCE), who expounded Athenian citizenship as a matter of “democratic” self-governance, with citizens (polites) at once “ruling and being ruled.” Notably, however, most of the adult inhabitants of Athens—women, slaves, and even resident aliens such as Aristotle himself— were not eligible for citizenship. Citizenship was thus a privileged legal status and a restricted participatory civic ideal. In the Roman republic, with its earliest territorial expansions in the fourth century BCE, the government began to extend the status of the citizen (civis) far beyond the city of Rome itself, in order to secure Roman rule. Expansions of the republic, however, increasingly precluded an active political role for most citizens, who had no opportunity to participate in the institutions of government, which remained centered in Rome. Even in the late republic of the first century BCE, however, an ideal of “civic virtue”—of the citizen’s devotion to the polity—shaped Roman public culture, as exemplified in the classic legacy of the philosopher, politician, and lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BCE). During the ensuing centuries of the Roman Empire, however, citizenship became principally a formal matter merely of imperial jurisdiction and administration. With the decline of centralized imperial rule in the fourth and fifth centuries CE, the classical idea of citizenship went into eclipse.
Medieval Eclipse and Neoclassical Renaissance
During the medieval period it was not only the collapse of centralized government that diminished the significance of citizenship in the European West; the rise of Christianity brought a profound challenge to the classical primacy of citizenship as a societal ethos. According to the great Church father Augustine (354–430 CE), in his masterpiece of Christian cosmology The City of God, men’s allegiance to a “heavenly realm” posed a superseding alternative to all earthly allegiances. Furthermore, throughout medieval Europe the growth of feudalism brought regimes of decentralized government based on networks of inherently fragmented political allegiances. Citizenship, as it had in Athens, once again came to refer typically to association with a city or town. Citizenship meant the enjoyment of “liberties” as privileges or immunities granted to the members of a local urban community in its corporate capacity, for example, the English borough, the French bourg, and the German burgh.
The revitalization of urban life in parts of Europe eventually brought enhanced meaning to citizenship, notably among the preeminent city-states of Renaissance Italy. The commercial and civic vitality of such cities and the revival of the study of Roman law in leading universities fostered a neorepublican ideal of participatory citizenship. This neoclassical conception of citizenship in early modern Europe was elaborated in a rich literature of “civic humanism,” most famously, from the pen of the Florentine politician and scholar Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527).
Sovereignty, “Civil Society,” and Revolutions
Dating from the early modern era, the rise of powerful nation states found legitimization in cogent theories of monarchical sovereignty, such as those of Jean Bodin (1530–1596) and Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679). Such theories held that political identity lay in the direct personal relationship of every “subject” to the “sovereign.” Even in regimes of absolute monarchy, however, modern individual identity tended over time to become more than a matter of the political status of the “subject.” Commercial development brought increasing political and extrapolitical significance to individuals’ economic and social endeavors in the milieu of “civil society”; and the activities of civil society promoted attitudes of citizenship that supplemented and complemented the civic identity of the “subject.” This incremental reconception, from “passive subject” to “active citizen,” was also promoted by the very statism of centralizing national regimes, not least, for example, in their efforts to routinize general taxation. But, even more important, in England, America, and France, respectively, revolutionary neorepublicanism generated profound reconceptions of citizenship.
In reaction to absolute monarchy, including struggles for religious toleration and freedom, notions of popular sovereignty began to cohere in various theories of rights, whether legal or natural, that focused on the political importance and integrity of the individual. In England among the propertied elite, there emerged a developing political culture of individual “patriotic” vigilance against arbitrary government that climaxed in antimonarchical revolutions in the seventeenth century and that became institutionalized in the eighteenth. During the European Enlightenment more generally, various “social contract” theories accorded an essential civic role to the individual, for example, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712–1778) morally impassioned vision of the citoyen as the individual constituent of “sovereign” government, and in Immanuel Kant’s (1724–1804) seminal philosophy of modern liberal individualism.
It was, however, in the late-eighteenth-century republican revolutions in America (1776–1783) and France (1789–1799) that modern democratic conceptions of citizenship were first constitutionalized and institutionalized. Drawing on but also transforming English constitutionalism, the new American nation reconceptualized citizenship as a matter of the constitutionally guaranteed fundamental legal rights of individuals. And American law increasingly emphasized the central idea of volitional allegiance as the essence of citizenship. An American law of naturalization, even more liberal than its English precedents, thus developed to supplement the longstanding tradition of citizenship as a status typically acquired on the basis of birthplace (ius soli) or parentage (ius sanguinis). Inspired in part by the American Revolution, the epochal French Revolution, in its natural rights theory, exalted the ethos of citizenship. Moreover, the distinctively antifeudal animus of the French Revolution infused subsequent European ideals of citizenship both with intensified nationalistic sentiments and with burgeoning aspirations for social and economic equality.
Nationalism and Twentieth- Century Vicissitudes
The nationalism and egalitarianism of the French Revolution, together with the individual-rights ideology of American constitutionalism, shaped ideas of citizenship throughout the Western world for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Especially in parts of Europe, identities based on race or folkways variously informed ideas of citizenship. Such particularization of the concept of citizenship accorded with the historicism predominant in much European thought, especially as influenced by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831). At the same time, however, the egalitarian dynamic in citizenship took on increased meaning, especially insofar as representative democratic regimes fitfully expanded the scope, and extended the distribution, of the legal rights of citizens. Amid this growth of representative government, the right to vote became especially emblematic of modern citizenship.
Nevertheless, in addition to the inequality entailed by the distinction between citizen and noncitizen— for example, in national legal regimes of immigration restriction and regulation—modern citizenship has admitted of egregious internal inequalities. In various countries, attributes such as gender, race, and religious affiliation have long into the modern era remained the basis for denying to many adult members of society some of the most important incidents of full citizenship, including property rights and the right to vote. Even more pervasively, according to the critique of Karl Marx (1818–1883) and many later variants of Marxian theory, the economic regimes of capitalism of the modern West have commonly institutionalized a model of “bourgeois citizenship” that, despite incidents of formal equality, nevertheless entails profound material inequality among the citizenry.
In the first half of the twentieth century, totalitarian revolutions and two world wars brought cataclysmic disruptions of the emergent culture of modern liberal democratic citizenship. As the political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) and others began to remark at mid-century, modern citizenship has importantly come to mean the right to have rights; but in various contexts—for example, under the government of fascist or communist dictatorships, and, quite differently, among certain stateless and disaffected populations living without the protections of effective government—the personal guarantees of liberal democratic citizenship have at times been marginalized or rendered nil.
Modern Welfare State and Liberal Democracy
In the aftermath of World War II, especially in conjunction with a European reinvigoration of the modern welfare state vision, there was a return to politically engaged theorizing about the progressive capability of the concept of citizenship. Formative work in this vein includes the classic article “Citizenship and Social Class” published in 1950 by T. H. Marshall (1893–1981). Marshall posited an historical schema of the development of the rights of citizenship in Europe in which three categories of rights—civil, political, and social—were successively ensured to citizens in an evolutionary process of legal and political reform. And in Marshall’s influential view, the history of this evolutionary progress of reform attests to the inherent potential of the concept of citizenship for generalizing, indeed, universalizing conditions of substantive equality.
The concept of citizenship remains a central concern among theorists of liberal democracy. Neo-Kantians, such as John Rawls (1921–2002) in America, and “critical” theorists such as Jurgen Habermas (b. 1929), have led vigorous contemporary debates about citizenship. And liberal “communitarian” theorists such as Michael Walzer (b. 1935) have focused on the idea of citizenship in trying to appreciate the integrity of discrete political communities today in an international arena in which both armed conflict and rational globalization seem endemic.
Complexities and Expansions
Indeed, nothing is more characteristic of the contemporary significance of citizenship than the evident complexity and expansibility of the concept. For example, in well-established “federal systems,” such as those of the United States and Germany, national and state governments, respectively, accord distinctive status and extend independent benefits that create “dual citizenship” in those countries. There are also countries, such as Canada and Israel, which liberally allow dual national citizenship with other countries. And the growing integration of the European Union has heightened interest in what “multinational” and “international” citizenship should and could mean today, legally and culturally. Moreover, there is even a vibrant new school of thought that seeks to promote both an ideal and a program of “world citizenship.”
Yet the variety of the complexities of modern citizenship includes even more than systemization through regimes of federalism, internationalism, or cosmopolitanism. In an increasingly pluralistic world, where the populations of so many countries include ethnic and other “minorities,” citizenship can or should be necessarily “multicultural.” Conceptions of citizenship can be intercultural, as well: in China, for example, modern thinking about citizenship blends Western and Japanese influences with Buddhist and other indigenous traditions. And in but one paradoxical example of illiberal “modernization,” some newly independent southern African countries have drawn on traditional European notions of patrilineal citizenship in order to enact laws that burden women with civic disabilities that depart from precolonial regimes of greater gender equality.
In the modern West and throughout the world, the meaning of citizenship continues to change with the vagaries and initiatives of legal, political, economic, and social change. It is clear, however, that citizenship generally remains both a desired status and a cherished ideal. Indeed, the prospect for the twenty-first century is that, in a world culture of growing claims for political and social inclusion, citizenship will take on ever greater significance as a strategic concept in the public life of communities, from the smallest to the largest.
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