Citizenship after the citizen’s year 2011. Michele Micheletti

by Michele Micheletti. No notion is more central in politics than citizenship. And none more contested. Citizenship defines how states treat their people, how citizens regard each other, and the common good. Good citizenship practice is crucial for governance. This has been made abundantly clear last year. In different parts of the world and in some cases against all odds, citizens gathered to protest dictatorships, corruption, and socio-economic inequity. They filled public squares and demanded to be heard.  The word 'occupy' gained new meaning. 

Today many of these protests have soured. Some have turned violent, and regime change is unforeseeable in the near future. In others, there is still much to ponder. Even the protests’ more general impact deserves more notice because cultivating democratic citizenship is not only about legalizing the freedoms of expression, press and association. It concerns responsibility for good governance.

So what, then, can we now hope for in the aftermath of the citizen activity of 2011? Political science contributes with a list of expectations necessary for the cultivation of good citizenship that might be worth following up in the years to come.  

First, citizens who have courageously occupied squares and boldly overturned dictatorships must learn when to put a brake on protest. For citizens slowly emerging from dictatorships, the expectation of duty citizenship may seem foreign and flawed. It involves such sensitive matters as obeying their country’s laws and reporting witnessed crimes. It also includes the citizen duties of paying taxes, serving in the military and not cheating on the state. The point here is to take responsibility and contribute to the making of legitimate state authority. Even the state should play a role by respecting and ratifying international conventions (for instance on human rights), stopping their persecution of citizens for their politics and affiliations, and providing good transparency so citizens can keep track of government performance and begin to develop feelings of institutional trust. 

Citizens must, secondly, contribute to active citizenship. After protesting other forms of citizen activity need to develop. For instance by staying well-informed about societal matters and trying to influence them more through electoral participation, involvement in civic associations and political parties and the growing number of do-it-yourself activist tools now available via social media, political consumption and transnational networks. If their conscience requires it, civil disobedience is still an option. But violence and democracy do not go hand-in-hand. What’s important here is that active citizenship be exercised responsibly.  

Importantly, citizens must, thirdly, develop a sense for solidarity citizenship. This means including rather than excluding others in the citizenship project. Citizens must accept (tolerate) people with different opinions and from different religions, ethnic groups, sexual lifestyles, cultures, and so on. Citizens must also respect the rights of children and women. Showing solidarity with people who are different and/or worse off than oneself might frequently mean putting their interests before one’s own and even ending discriminatory thoughts and practices. Without these kinds of values, lasting societal trust and good governance are virtually impossible.  

Solidarity citizenship is not an easy task—particularly not in countries where citizens have been or are divided on ethnic and religious lines, where women’s discrimination is standard operating procedure and children are abused and viewed as objects of labour. Nevertheless, citizenship-making requires that citizens try to understand how bad experience with past events and exclusionary practices can taint their current lives and jeopardize their future.         

Given global developments, good democratic citizenship-making today even includes thinking about the future and nature. Sustainable citizenship asks citizens to consider how their lifestyles might affect the ability of future generations to live a good life as well as reflect on how they use the environment and treat animals. 

Citizenship-making is, therefore, just as important as state-making. It involves complexities and interdependent values. It includes rights fundamental in democracy. But just as crucial is responsibility for how one uses one’s own rights and how one conducts relations with institutions, other people and nature. Without a sound balance of rights and responsibilities, good governance is most likely doomed. 

Michele Micheletti is Lars Hierta Professor of Political Science, Stockholm University.

* This is a follow-up article of Development Vol. 55.2 Citizenship for Change produced in partnership with Hivos. 

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