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  • Extract from Dominique Schnapper, La relation à l’Autre: Au coeur de la pensée sociologique
  • Dominique Schnapper (bio)
    Translated by Paul Patton

The Universal Dimension of the Political Order

If every historical nation is specified by its singular history, as invented and recounted by its historians, as well as by its majority language, culture, political institutions and goals, then how does it involve reference to the universal? More generally, in what sense does the society of citizens imply a reference to the modern universal, given that it is a particular form of political organisation which was born at a given moment in history and in a particular region, and which until now has always been national, and given that each society is so specific that none is identical to another and that national identity continues to be a dimension of the identity of each individual?

The universality of the citizen

In the democratic age, the society of citizens is founded upon a potentially universal principle of inclusion: citizenship is in principle open to all individuals, over and above their historical, social and biological differences. In the name of modern values, the political order seeks, as its justification and ambition, to integrate populations as citizens, thereby overcoming their concrete diversities and transcending their particularisms.

Citizenship is not a principle given once and for all - to perceive it thus would be to succumb to an essentialist form of thought - rather, it is a history. The definitions that have been given of citizenship do not coincide; in any case, they were the product of conflicts and compromises between diverse conceptions. The definition has evolved over time. The same principles have been proclaimed yet applied differently according to the historical traditions of each country, and applied differently in the same country according to the evolution of social movements and the relations of force established between them. The - male and propertied - ‘citizen’ of the 1789 revolution in France is not that of the revolutions of 1848. In the one case as in the other, the exclusion of women went without saying. Today, in every democratic society, the application of the principle of citizenship assumes particular concrete forms as a result of the specific political institutions in place: political parties, electoral systems, parliamentary traditions, relations between the central State and local powers, modes of participation by citizens. However, over and above these differences of fact, we can specify what is common to all democratic nations precisely in the degree to which they each refer to a universal principal. 1

The history of universal suffrage reveals the potentially universal vocation of citizenship. The community of citizens appeared historically in the form of a community of heads of family, at the time the only persons considered autonomous and responsible and therefore fully ‘human’. The French revolutionaries, after having proclaimed the universality of the citizen, introduced the notion of ‘active citizens’ which excluded from the full exercise of citizenship children, the insane, the poor, the non-established (including domestics, nomads or vagabonds), women, foreigners and slaves (therefore including blacks), all of these categories being equally referred to the status of ‘less than human’. The progressive inclusion of these different categories into the community of citizens was always a trial - and continues to be so - to the extent that, in each case and in different ways, the social order perceived as natural and therefore normal appeared to contradict the ambition of universal inclusion. When San Martin proclaimed the independence of Peru in 1821, he decreed that ‘in the future the aborigines shall not be called Indians or natives; they are children and citizens of Peru and they shall be known as Peruvians’. 2 However the subsequent history turned out, it is important to remember that San Martin could not proclaim the independence of the Peruvian nation without at the same time affirming the universal vocation of citizenship. Suffrage is not given to all, but its principle reveals a universalist aspiration. In France, it is indeed in the name of universalist arguments that the workers and peasants in 1848, women in 1945, the young and the newly naturalised in 1974, all obtained the right to vote. It is also in the...

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