Liberalism, Nationalism, Citizenship: Essays on the Problem of Political Community
This book is an important addition to the rapidly proliferating literature on questions of citizenship. It provides a collection of mostly previously [End Page 315] published and now revised essays, written between 1993 and 2003. Ronald Beiner offers a rich normative-philosophical reflection and valorization of the idea of citizenship, specifically to demonstrate that neither liberalism nor nationalism fully honours what he calls the 'civic idea.' In analysing a wide range of key thinkers and how they both neglect and engage questions of citizenship, he begins with the position that 'liberalism is correct in its diagnosis of what's wrong with nationalism, and nationalism is correct in its diagnosis of what's wrong with liberalism.' The purpose of the book is to argue for an alternative option, one that treats political community as an expression of civic identity rather than individual or communalist identity.
The book is organized into two parts. In part 1, Beiner exposes the limitations of liberalism in the development of a notion of civic life. According to Beiner, citizenship offers a sense of sharedness that other discourses fail to provide. He highlights that there is variation in lived civic experiences and membership, although he does not explore what this specifically entails for marginalized citizens. In part 2, Beiner expounds on the virtue of citizenship by examining the insularity of nationalism. He shows that citizenship embodies flexibility in responding to the idea of nation without the menace of nationalism. He also describes the ways in which civic agency varies according to desires of particular nationalisms. While he presents good reasons why nationalist identities need not be favoured over other kinds of identities, he fails to offer compelling reasons why civic and non-nationalist identities are desirable in and of themselves and not simply as a consequence of the failings of liberalism and nationalism. The Aristotelian civic idea as 'an essential human calling' requires further explanation.
Some key ideas about citizenship are found in Beiner's personal account of his own disaporic Jewish location. He appears to be responsive to concepts of belonging, displacement, and hybridity, although he never employs this specific language. Potentially, by drawing upon postcolonial understandings of these concepts (e.g., Gloria Anzaldua and Homi Bhabha), Beiner could bolster the civic idea and undermine the modes of identification that he finds objectionable.
Before he turns to the provocative question of whether Canada is a 'real country,' Beiner does an excellent job of clarifying and developing his critique against the hegemony of rights discourse. He contends that the 'trumping,' 'leveling,' and 'short-circuit' functions of the language of rights thwart the spirit of accommodation and compromise. While the critique against rights is insightful, the sanguine image of a co-operative political community echoes some versions of deliberative democracy that underestimate agonistic accounts of democracy. Nonetheless, Beiner illustrates the urgent need to theorize a vigorous meaning of citizenship, one that is [End Page 316] driven by a weaker version of the Aristotelian archetype citizen and diluted civic-republicanism.
There are still some troubling features in this civic idea. Beiner sometimes suggests that people can move from nationalist to civic identities fairly easily, and that this is desirable. In the case of many Aboriginal nations this is simply not true; nationhood is employed as a resistance strategy to assimilation, as a way to make social and economic claims, and as a necessary feature of the decolonization process. Beiner also argues that the politics of ethnicity offends the civic idea, but without adequately considering that it is not simply that ethnic groups self-ascribe to nationalist (or even non-nationalist) identities but rather that identification is also externally imposed as an effect of racialization.
Though the book does not ultimately supply a radical theory of citizenship, it does make a valuable contribution to critiques of liberalism and nationalism as well as theories of citizenship and community. The analysis is contextualized, nuanced, well-organized, and showered with lively links between theory and practice. It presents a skilful overview of contemporary debates by addressing some of the most important and difficult questions of citizenship and community, and persuasively resituates the concept of citizenship. It is a useful and relevant book for students of politics and political theory.
Rita Dhamoon, Department of Political Science, University of British Columbia