Feb 11, 2024

From Citizens of Nations to Citizens of Cities

By Yavor Tarinski / trise.org
From Citizens of Nations to Citizens of Cities

[C]itizens today no longer even approximate the high and eminently human standard of citizenship that was established in the Hellenic world—a meaning that must be recovered, as well as the personal and social training, or paideia, for producing citizens.
~Murray Bookchin[1]

Often, when people advocate for the reinvigoration of citizenship in response to ongoing crises, they are faced with an argument that views this concept as too exclusionary to be able to offer any meaningful path forward today. The citizen, the argumentation goes, is an individual part of a homogenous whole, which tends to reject anyone else from the outside.

This line of rejection of citizenship comes from a confusion that has fused the notion with that of the nation. As it is well-known, the concept of the citizen emerged in Ancient Athens, and was inseparable to that of democracy. Although the classical Athenian society was plagued by patriarchy and slavery, it nonetheless dared to advance a radical concept for its time – that of popular unmediated participation in the self-management of the city.

As philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis underlines, the equality among citizens of Ancient Athens was not based on the granting of equal passive ‘rights’, but active general participation in public affairs.[2] This conclusion of his is based on that of the ancient Greek philosophers as well, who perceived democracy and citizenship in similar way: for Herodotus as well as for Aristotle, it is the power of the demos, unmitigated in regards to legislation, and the selection of magistrates via sortition and rotation, instead of election of representatives.[3] Thus, anti-colonial revolutionary thinker CLR James underlines the importance of the fact that in the context of Ancient Athens it was the public assembly of all the citizens that was the government.[4]

In this framework there was a direct link between citizens and their topos, i.e. the space they inhabit, within which they share ideas and experiences, thus forming an organic community. The two were interwoven into a whole – a vibrant civic life where the city and the citizen body are one and the same. Thus, this context vests citizenship with an essence, not only of bearing passive rights, but mainly of active participation in decision-making and passion for political deliberation. It is no wonder then that in Ancient Athens those who refused to take part in the self-management of the city were considered idiotes, from where our modern word idiot originates, whose meaning, however, we have limited.

The alteration of the concept of citizenship began with the Roman Empire. Also plagued by slavery and patriarchy, it began pacifying the essence of what being a citizen means. The citizen body was detached from active political participation and was identified instead with rights to property, to contracts, to legal services, to immunity from some taxes, as well as to vote and hold office within a vertical bureaucratic apparatus (not to be mistaken with the non-mediated collective decision-making practiced by the Athenian citizenry).

The meaning of citizenship was further confused with the rise of the nation-state from the sixteenth century onward, when the entire framework of political discourse was greatly altered. Within this new heavily bureaucratized context a new process began – that of nation-building. Each state has the need of a corresponding national body that is best suited to internalize it. This process homogenizes, often through violent means, diverse populations that happens to find themselves on the same side of a border, enforcing upon them a single language, culture, flag, managerial class etc.

The internalization of the state via the nation alienates further populations from any meaningful political participation – statist bureaucracies seek to expand their control to the smallest settlement and mingle with its management. It strived to do the same in other spheres too, even as personal as the sexual one. In such heavily bureaucratized environment the illusion of political participation is sustained through the ritual of elections for representatives – a process too distant both temporally and spatially from everyday life to even remotely resemble politics. At this point the citizen is a citizen only by name, not by essence.

In this framework citizenship is instead transformed into the legal side of national belonging. Each individual has to cover certain criteria in order to belong to a nation, and to those who do states grant the status of citizens. In this environment the citizen does not participate, instead he belongs. His identity is detached from the temporal and spatial dimensions of communal life, being trapped instead into the repetitious loop of national myths where nothing is essentially allowed to change. It’s no wonder then that xenophobic far-right formations often exclude on the basis of citizenship (i.e. on national belonging).

Rightfully people feel fearful of such exclusionary logic, but they often do the mistake of refuting the identity of the citizen altogether, instead of the systemic framework that nurtures xenophobic and racist attitudes. This is a mistake because the concept of citizenship has the potential of taking us beyond the parameters of the contemporary system and offer an alternative path. This, however would necessarily imply the radical redefinition of citizenship and a return to a different understanding of it: not as the passive belonging to an abstract national whole (which promotes passivity and alienation, and always sustains the danger of turning the people into mob), but as an active participant in public affairs (which implies getting people outside their homes and reconnecting them with their social environment).

There is much to agree with social ecologist Murray Bookchin when he claims that by ignoring the city and citizenship, we do so at the peril of becoming isolated from the great mass of humanity which is threatened by anonymity and powerlessness.[5] We cannot tackle the root causes of racism and discrimination – namely alienation and isolation – without creating a radically different environment that allows for collective action. And as Hannah Arend reminds us, action, as distinguished from fabrication, is never possible in isolation; to be isolated is to be deprived of the capacity to act.[6]

One such alternative is opened by reconnecting citizenship with the spatial and temporal dimensions of communal life that materialize through participatory grassroots institutions such as the general assembly and the popular council, which are in turn capable of reproducing this culture/paidia of passion for politics. Even someone like Alexis de Tocqueville, a supporter of vertical electoralism, cannot but recognize the cultural merits of direct democracy:

[L]ocal assemblies of citizens constitute the strength of free nations. Town-meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it.[7]

In one such framework the citizen is someone who has the passion for participation in the processes of self-management of communal life. Sociologist Sally-Ann Akuetteh argues that direct political participation is also indispensable in resisting racism and discrimination since it empowers everyone, including marginalized and minoritarian groups:

[P]articipatory democracy which embodies the ideals described above would allow individuals to be established as citizens in a way that racism, sexism, homophobia cannot obstruct. Aside from the creation of a greater sense of community, “othered” individuals can use this process as a tool to resist and enlarge the scope of the norm. This component of participatory democracy is even more relevant especially since the oppressed are the best representatives of themselves.[8]

There are no absolute guarantees nor magic tricks through which to make the lowest of human sentiments, such as racism and xenophobia, simply disappear. But we can nonetheless make efforts at restructuring the political architecture of our societies so that we leave as little space to them as possible – by giving voice and right to participate to all members of society, without excluding anyone. One such step is to reinvigorate collective life, get people out to meet those with whom they share space, experiences and everyday life.


[1] Murray Bookchin, Urbanization Without Cities: The Rise and Decline of Citizenship (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1992), pxviii.

[2] David Ames Curtis (ed.), The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 275.

[3] David Ames Curtis (ed.), The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 276.

[4] CLR James, Every Cook Can Govern: A Study of Democracy in Ancient Greece & Its Meaning for Today (1956) [available online: https://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/1956/06/every-cook.htm%5D.

[5] Murray Bookchin, Urbanization Without Cities: The Rise and Decline of Citizenship (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1992), pxi.

[6] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), p188.

[7] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy In America (1831) [available online: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/de-tocqueville/democracy-america/ch05.htm%5D

[8] Akuetteh, Sally-Ann, “Democracy for Resistance: Employing Participatory Democracy as a tool for Social Resistance” (2018). UNF Undergraduate Honors Theses. p23.

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