Engaging Authority: Citizenship and Political CommunityAuthor: ed. Trevor Stack Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield International : 27 Aug, 2021 ISBN: 978-1-5381-5910-1
The volume is based on a series of CISRUL workshops, and is under contract to be published in 2021 by Rowman & Littlefield International, in the Frontiers of the Political series edited by Engin Isin.
In the US drama series The Wire, a Baltimore detective asks his colleagues what they make of a young woman pictured in a photo with some of the gang members that they are pursuing. “I like her face,” says one. The other is more specific of the qualities that he sees in her: “Soul, conscience, whatever you want to call it.” He concludes: “She’s a citizen”. Shardene is, the viewers know, a dancer at the gang leader’s club, but the detectives go on to recruit her as an informant. What makes Shardene a “citizen” is not the kind of formal status, defined in legal documents and entitlements, which would set her apart from most immigrants. The detectives do not specify of what community or people she is a citizen, even if implicitly Baltimore or the US may be her home. Neither is it her rights that make her a citizen, although this has been the focus of most scholars. Some will conclude that The Wire‘s detectives had in mind a different meaning of “citizen” from that of most scholars. We disagree.
The detectives do not claim and neither do we that what they see in Shardene is all there is to citizenship. What they do understand is that to describe oneself or be described as a citizen entails a particular relationship to authority. Citizens are understood to be members of a community that we dub “political” in that it is held to self-govern – in the sense that its members are invoked and may also be involved in the business of ruling. This relationship to authority has taken many forms in past and present. In The Wire, Shardene will play her part in criminal justice—the detectives hope—living out a persona beyond those of kith and kin. As such, she stands out in a West Baltimore in which most feel alienated from the authorities that claim to govern in their name – including the aspiring mayor Tommy Carcetti, another lead character of the series. They will not respond to the call to testify against their peers, and may resist or be frustrated in other expectations of citizenship, including getting an education in the dystopic Baltimore school system, or seeking a livelihood beyond the drug-dealing on which other characters depend. The Wire helps us to perceive the complexity of the particular relationship to authority entailed in the idea of self-governing, and the intricacy of political community among the citizens invoked and involved in the ruling.
The variety of citizenship and political community dramatized in The Wire is but a single variation on a theme that dates back millenia, and yet enjoys unprecedented salience in the world today. In the contemporary world, political community is most often envisioned in the form of a “people”. When Scotland voted on Independence in 2014, the debates were followed not only by the world’s nationalists, but by movements as different as the Spanish indignados (now the Podemos Party) with their critique of conventional politics, and the Kurdish rojava cities in Syria which claim to offer plural and hospitable democracy. Hopes for a ‘European people’ faded long before Brexit, but the standing of Europe’s ‘peoples’ will remain controversial as long as the EU exists. Scholars across disciplines have followed suit with a series of debates on what it means to say that a people governs itself. Nationalism, the idea that nations should govern themselves, is frequently questioned, even as it flourishes in the world beyond. The doctrine of popular sovereignty is also vigorously disputed both in the academy and by politicians. Skepticism about democracy, which spreads as fast as democracy itself, and is taken up in the academy in debates, for example, about non-electoral representation. Critical scholars further challenge the principle of representation itself, for example by revaluing what is often dismissed as ‘populism’ and by offering ‘multitude’ as an alternative to ‘people.’
The volume’s aim is not to offer a synthesis of the disparate literatures, some of which stretch back centuries, but instead to bring together scholars with different approaches and foci, with the aim of illuminating different aspects of the particular relationship to authority entailed in the “people”. We are also concerned to think political community beyond the ‘people’ as it is commonly understood – for example, in contexts like that dramatized by The Wire. However, since the term “political community” is used little beyond political theory, and we are keen to engage in debates across disciplines, we have elected to use the term “people” (in quotes) as a shorthand for political community more broadly. Similarly, the term “citizenship” is not suited to all instances of what in the volume we consider political community, but we continue to use it since it retains currency across scholarly debates of our day, as well as in the world beyond.
Assembling a truly inter-disciplinary volume is a challenging endeavor in a highly specialized and often fragmented academy. In order to ensure that the chapters bear on each other, without compromising inter-disciplinarity, we agreed (after a series of workshops) on a common set of questions, which in addition reflect certain commonalities between our otherwise diverse approaches.
- Who claims to govern in the name or person of the ‘people’?
- What kind and scope of authority is being claimed?
- Who is held to be part of the ‘people’?
- What kind of ‘people’ is held to be able or worthy of ‘self-governing’ in the first place?