Ref. :  000001545
Date :  2001-07-24
Language :  English
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Author :  Patrice Vermeren

For about 15 years now, the citizen has once again become a philosophical character, or to use Gilles Deleuze’s terminology, a “conceptual character” (1) , something he had not been for a long time. You could say that this character had a history: born in Greco-Roman Antiquity and reappearing periodically, such as to conceive the French Revolution, or the nation in Argentina at the end of the 19th century (2) . But he also disappears, leaving the indissociably philosophical and political stage that is his favourite place, for example on the occasion of a military dictatorship or with the events of May 1968, for the benefit of other conceptual characters; the people, the exiled, the revolutionary, the immigrant. And when he reappears, he is always displaying a range of new meanings, thereby reconstructing a tradition whose origin may be real or mythical, and which defines its orthodoxy by the exclusion of what it is not, so legitimising a modernity which is not pure repetition of the same, but invention.

Citizens do not exist because there are institutionalised rights. Rather, citizenship comes from the perpetual act by which one never ceases to become a citizen again and again, without being able to remain in the state of citizenship. The citizen is, in a way, a virtual citizen who cannot be a citizen in action at every moment. Reinventing the political would then be to reinstate the subject as a political subject. The citizen as a philosophical character becomes a rare figure: you are not a citizen all your life, but at certain moments you find yourself being one. All this implies a way of thinking: if we think of citizenship as an act, how is it possible to perpetuate the act?

The result is that the redefinition of the conceptual character of the citizen can no longer work in a positive genealogy, but comes to confront its otherness which constitutes it. Claude Lefort uses an analysis of totalitarianism as post-democratic to show the disastrous effects of forgetting politics and to provide as a never-ending question that of the institution of a free political regime: “Democracy is the accession of the sovereign people which for citizens becomes the new identifying pole. Moreover it is right to add here that in the modern democratic society, the identity of the people is destined to remain enigmatic, permanently in search of itself (3) .” It is against this indecisiveness in the democratic regime that, in the totalitarian system, the phantasmic image of a one-people can originate, searching in the egocrat for a speculative image of its illusory substance. Hence its definition of democracy as “savage democracy”: “It is true that in a way nobody has the exact formula for democracy, and that it is more profoundly itself when being savage democracy. Perhaps that is its essence; as soon as there is no fixed reference point from which social order can be conceived and fixed, this social order is constantly in search of its foundations, its legitimacy, and it is through the protest or demands of those who are excluded from the benefits of democracy that this same finds its most efficient spirit (4) .”

By the same logic and from a reading of Marx’s manuscript on the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843), Miguel Abensour develops the idea that in the constitution of the political democratic space, it is the contra which is decisive: “It is to the contra position that we owe the institution of the democratic city which gives conflict the creative force of liberty, already recognised by Machiavelli and Montesquieu, who welcomed in the perpetual struggles between senate and plebeians the chances of freedom for Rome. This conflict which brings about liberty is multiplied: to this political space where antagonistic poles are formed, where subjects of dispute are expressed, where struggles are organised, is added a new essential conflict between democracy and state, not only because the big players take hold of the state and because the people are against the big players, but because the state represents a permanent degenerating danger for democracy. It is enough for democracy to leave the field open for the latter to swell to the point of wanting to become a unifying force (5) .” Namely the idea of a return of the Machiavelian moment where the place of the political would be that of real and free men. The decay of the state is thought of here in a properly political context, since it allows the fulfilment of man by his passage to the political: “Man’s sociability and universality are only realised by the passage through the political: the people gives itself its own constitution; it is not defined from outside by an established order or by a given constitution which fixes it in place. On the contrary, in this movement of constitution in both senses of the term (foundation of self and founding text of politics), it knows and realises itself, not as an individual, but as a people. The generic being of man is revealed through the political (6) .’

This philosopheme of citizenship takes on its full meaning at the time of Europe and “globalisation”: it is not about finding the homogenous space of the nation state, as if it were a recourse against the dissociation between citizens and “decision-makers” in the “global village”. It is about inventing a public space and a political space under the banner of isonomy, a vivere civile, a political action orientated towards the constitution of a citizen people, transforming power into the power to act together, in short, to go from power over to power with and between men – the between being that place where the chance for a communal world is to be won.

(1) Gilles Deleuze, Qu’est-ce que la philosophie? Minuit, Paris 1991.
(2) Oscar Teran, José Ingenieros: Pensar la Nación, Alianza Bolsillo, Buenos Aires, 1986; Susana Villavicencio, Neoliberalismo y politica: las paradojas de la “nueva ciudadana”, Revista de Filosofia Politica, Madrid, 2001; Horacio Gonzalez, Eduardo Rinesi, Facundo Martinez, La Nación subrepticia, El Astiller Ediciones, Buenos Aires, 1997.
(3) Claude Lefort, “La Terreur révolutionnaire”, in Passé Présent no. 2, 1993.
(4) Miguel Abensour, “Réflexions sur les deux interprétations du totalitarisme chez C. Lefort”, in La Démocratie à l’œuvre, under the direction of C. Habib and C. Mouchard, Esprit editions, Paris, 1993.
(5) Miguel Abensour, La Démocratie contre l’État. Marx ou le moment machiavélien, PUF, Paris, 1997.
(6) Olivier Roy, Marx anar et moderne, in Critique, 601- 602, 1997.

(This article synthesises a longer study by the same author. It can be found in French at the following address : Le citoyen comme personnage philosophique)

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