Citizenship is waning. There are the obvious, brutal signs of this: the police apparently have a free hand to kill and cage certain citizens, more or less as they see fit; the fiscal state is crippled by the ability and willingness of its wealthier subjects to refuse taxation; voters must now share political space with corporations, their new legal equivalents in significant elements of democratic life. In many places, especially poorer places like Greece and Detroit, unelected bureaucracies now explicitly overrule the will of electorates. Then there are the more paradoxical data points indicating the civic crisis. As the value of democratic citizenship declines, for example, those who still have it behave more defensively, throwing up border walls and voting for neo-nationalists. The deportee prison, the mass drownings in the Mediterranean, the rise of Golden Dawn, UKIP, and the National Front: these phenomena signal the dissipation of citizenship as much as the overweening power of the European Central Bank or the quasi-colonial occupation of Ferguson do. When your portion is diminishing, you want to ration it out more stingily. If you’ve only got a little at all, though, what do you do?

This is the question at the core of Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration. What has become of what she calls “the democratic arts”? How can we get our citizenship back?

Allen opens Our Declaration on a comparison of the different ways that her day and night students at the University of Chicago encountered texts. For example, she writes,

Does Toni Morrison want us to believe in the ghosts in Beloved? Does she want us to believe that there are ghosts in our own worlds? Or are they merely symbols? My night students’ lives overran with death—from gunshots and overdoses and chronic disease and battery. They were indeed haunted. My day students, many of them well-heeled and all of them well-insured, were still mostly too young to understand what it means to carry the past around with you.

The encounter between the night students and the Declaration of Independence is the premise on which the book is hung. “As my night students metabolized the philosophical argument and rhetorical art of the Declaration, many of them, and I along with them, experienced a personal metamorphosis. They found themselves suddenly as political beings, with a consciousness that had previously eluded them. They built a foundation from which to assess the state of their political world.” This novel claim—that the Declaration, of all documents, could be a reading in the pedagogy of the oppressed—appears on the back of the book; reviewers open their discussions of Our Declaration with it. It is, in a way, Allen’s warrant to proceed with a new close reading of a document otherwise picked clean years ago.

Allen argues that the Declaration of Independence is a charter for political equality in both its form and its content. Its content is a kind of theoretical model of democratic society: the individual is a sovereign guardian of her own happiness and fate; this guardianship impels her toward a judgment about the state to which she is subject; the realization of this judgment requires mutual recognition of the sovereignty and judgment of other individuals; and the collective institutional result of this mutual recognition, a sovereign state, in turn requires the mutual recognition of other sovereign states. The Declaration’s form—a memo, performing the situation it declares, produced by committee—models the process by which individuals and the representatives they have chosen work through the steps of this process, enacting through conversation the world in which they wish to live. Writing by committee represents a successful performance of democracy, creating by its own process the result it describes.

The obvious criticism of an egalitarian reading of the Declaration is that its authors were tyrants themselves—slavers, patriarchs, genocidaires—and therefore hypocrites. Allen faces this, and grapples with it honestly. “We can change our ideas and our principles a lot faster than we can change our habits. There’s a lot to learn about human beings from studying what it takes to get our habits to catch up to words and principles that have run on ahead. So what are words worth? A starting point. No less. No more.” Allen, in other words, is clear about the limits to the power of language to resolve the contradictions of American society in the 1770s. Declaring that all men are created equal did not, needless to say, make it so.

But historical circumstances did not merely mar the otherwise pristine egalitarianism of Jefferson and friends. The problem is not just disingenuousness. The problem, rather, is that the status of the national founders as petty tyrants enabled their egalitarian declarations. It was precisely because they controlled territory stolen from native people, worked land with slaves, and lived in households maintained by unfree women, that these men were able to make their declaration. The model of republican citizenship that guided the Revolution—arguably Jefferson most of all—posits a fully autonomous citizen dependent on no one and thereby capable of guarding and determining his own happiness. If you do not own land and people, you will of necessity be nested in a network of exchanged interdependencies, equal or hierarchical: on an employer, on lenders, on family, on neighbors, on community, and so on. What it takes to survive as a non-elite person will disqualify you from the founding vision of republican citizenship. That’s why it took another half-century from 1776 even to win full white male suffrage, to say nothing of actually universal suffrage—a chancy proposition, even today.

The American founders were not merely willfully blind to what was under their noses. The oppressive world of colonial America was not a disfigurement of their egalitarian announcements; it was the author. When they argued that the king was making slaves of them, it was less a dazzling exercise in hypocrisy, and more an actual argument: free men are free because they stand at the top of an ecology of unfree dependents. They are equal with each other in the sense that they share this condition of independence, and cannot accumulate more of it by accumulating more wealth or power. It’s a binary system: you’re free and thus equal, or you’re unfree and unequal.

While speech acts are a critical component of political self-assertion, in other words, they are themselves enabled and authorized by a range of forces that they do not transcend easily. Engaging in and with political speech, that is, happens within history. Language alone—whether uttered or received—is an unlikely emancipator if it’s all there is.

It’s of course true that political speech slips the conditions of its creation, and takes on meanings not initially assigned to it by its authors. The place of the Declaration in the canon of national identity makes it a particularly good candidate for this process. And it has long stood as the bold egalitarian counterpoint to the more cautious Constitution. Allen’s work has made me appreciate this point: the document—and the tradition it carries—belongs to all of us now, whether it was intended to at the outset or not. But the effect of this transfer is to empty the Declaration of much of its initial meaning. If there is something useful here, might it be an opportunity for historical usurpation and repurposing, rather than reclamation? This would be a fairly straightforward and defensible position: the Declaration and the tradition it represents are there for the taking. Movements get themselves up in the outfits of their national pasts all the time. Long before the Tea Party donned colonial garb to protest for austerity, Marx wrote of how movements requisition old “names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.”

But the challenge for understanding and seizing such an opportunity lies in the moment of the reader, not the writer. The meaning of the document is with us, rather than with the Founders. Allen writes that all Americans “should be able to read or listen to the Declaration, understand the work that it is doing, and carry on similar work on their own account, with no more help in unleashing their capacities than can be provided by the example of the Declaration itself.”

This is where I wish Allen had returned more often to her Chicago classroom. We get only a few pages on her democratic night school. I was left with lots of questions: How did it work? What were its difficulties? How did the students relate to each other? Did they talk about bringing the civic empowerment engendered by the Declaration into their daily lives?

I agree with Allen that all Americans should be able to participate in the democratic arts, and to gain access to them through our civic manuals. But almost everything in the life of an individual citizen today—or one on the losing side of growing inegalitarian divides, anyway—tells her that exactly this action is impossible. Documents like the Declaration are probably more likely to seem like exhibits of this disempowerment than like tools against it.

The trouble is a vicious dialectic of individual and structural disempowerment. (We could argue all day—and many have—about which element set the process in motion. But there’s no need here.) Once this process was up and running, it came to work like this: the individual citizen becomes convinced, for increasingly good reasons, that little she can do will have a meaningful impact on her social and political world. Her attention scatters, her expectations fall, her caution accumulates, and her participation diminishes. The forms of democratic collectivity that she helps to constitute—voter in the electorate, member of the party, worker in the trade union—thin out or disappear entirely. The accountability—or better still, willful decisionmaking—that her collectivity is supposed to enforce evaporates. Now unencumbered by organized, enfranchising democratic collectivities, the state comes to respond preferentially to directives issued by more hierarchical forms of social organization, which, by dint of their undemocratic internal structures, prosper from the assault on citizenship. The parts of the state that serve the citizens en masse wither; the parts that serve surviving (and expanding) concentrations of social power grow. Formerly semi-democratic forms of social organization try to remake themselves to resemble their prospering top-down counterparts (e.g. the university). Concentrations of power become more concentrated; mass disillusion worsens; the cycle repeats. The whole thing is slow-moving enough that at any given moment, you can just about pretend it’s not happening. As Allen puts it, in—arguably—another context, “The hard part is this: how do you know when a government is turning into a tyranny?”

What makes a tyranny a tyranny, as Allen might be the first to point out, is that it’s relational. “What happens when we figure out that our boss or someone else with power over us does not want to aid us or is even out to get us—in the language of the Declaration, to ‘reduce’ us?” Allen suggests that it is in the ultimate willingness to face and embrace social antagonism that political empowerment lies. Homo politicus—the treasured, shrinking version of the self as autonomous political agent—is a belligerent. “When, after a long train of abuses, a string of truth-telling actions, we finally recognize that someone else is our enemy, a yoke of necessity . . . falls upon us,” Allen writes.

Allen suggests that it is in the experience of impelled confrontation with the forces of political inequality that the dominated find their voice. This seems true; lots of historiography and social theory bears it out. (As Adam Przeworski famously wrote, struggle about class tends to precede struggle between classes.) But in the current moment all signals intimate to the powerless not to let this process even begin, to avoid it if at all possible, for it seems likely to end in grief. It’s safer to keep your head down. Our Declaration insists that people will defend themselves when forced, but the book itself enacts a version of this avoidance, opening on a diptych of social inequality—between the callow day students and the scarred night students—and then deciding not to linger on it, as if the children of Chicago’s elite and the members of its working class bear no relation to each others’ statuses; as if the University of Chicago does not itself help reproduce the very forms of disenfranchisement that Allen labors to undo in her classroom.

The appeal of grounding confrontational egalitarian politics in the national past has always been that it makes social conflict seem more palatable and less dangerous by linking it to inherited traditions. Movements on the left wing of the English Revolution of the seventeenth century identified themselves with Saxon resistance to the post-1066 Norman rulers; overthrowing the monarchy and socializing property was simply casting off the “Norman Yoke” imposed by William the Conqueror. The Knights of Labor and the People’s Party in the late nineteenth century mixed incipient modern socialism with Jeffersonian agrarianism in just this way. They claimed to speak for an organic American consensus, handed down directly from the founding, and to call into question Victorian liberal verities from an ostensibly older and more legitimate position. One can criticize the ultimate viability of this kind of politics, but it has a respectable pedigree, and has worked many times to provide newly displaced people with a familiar language with which to criticize their antagonists.

This process, though, has always been a collective one. Common experiences might only become articulable in the language of archaic tradition, but if they are not held in common, they will not be articulated at all. The Diggers in revolutionary England emerged from the experiences of enclosure of the countryside’s common lands; the Knights of Labor and the People’s Party from the rise of industrial capitalism and the collapse of artisanal and agrarian ways of life. Allen writes, “Everyone has the capacity to pick up some bit of information, some observation, which is relevant to the whole picture, and which no one else will have noticed.” Can the Declaration alone validate these observations? Surely, we must do so for each other. This, in fact, seems to be the very process that she argues that the authors of the Declaration went through—comparing their experiences and validating shared grievances. I imagine her students must have done the same her Chicago classroom, to achieve the result she describes. I hope she writes that book next.

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