chapter  5
23 Pages

Public and private in Hannah Arendt’s conception of citizenship

In recent years there has been a renewal of interest in the question of citizenship and the related distinction between the public and the private. In Britain the Conservative Party launched in the early 1990s the so-called ‘Citizens’ Charter’, while the current Labour administration has implemented policies, such as welfare to work, that rest upon the idea of responsible citizenship, linking the idea of rights to that of duties each individual owes to the community. In Italy the current governing coalition, led by the Democratic Party of the Left, has stressed the theme of citizenship rights and placed it at the centre of its political programmes. Citizenship has also been linked to the debate concerning the distinction between the public and the private. The feminist movement has been at the forefront of a struggle to redefine the boundaries between the public and the private, arguing that many issues previously regarded as falling under the domain of private choice or individual preference, such as pornography and surrogate motherhood, should become a topic of public debate and in specified cases of public legislation. The same attempt to transform into public issues questions that had been seen to belong to a private and non-political domain has characterized the activities of the gay and lesbian movements, of ethnic and cultural minorities, of orthodox religious groups, and of associations representing the physically handicapped and the mentally disabled. All these groups have attempted to gain some form of public recognition and support, including public legislation, so as to protect their distinctive way of life, their cultures and practices, their values and identities, or their individual and communal well-being. These movements could be seen as an attempt to redraw the boundaries of citizenship, in the sense of enlarging the scope of what is public by transforming what seemed to be purely private issues into matters of public concern. My chapter will attempt to address these questions by looking at Hannah

Arendt’s conception of citizenship. Her conception of politics and of public life in general is in fact based on the idea of active citizenship, that is, on the value and importance of civic engagement and collective deliberation about all matters a€ecting the political community. The practice of citizenship is valued because it enables each citizen to exercise his or her powers of

agency, to develop the capacities for judgement, and to attain by concerted action some measure of political ecacy. In what follows I will reconstruct Arendt’s conception of citizenship around three major themes: (1) the public sphere; (2) political agency and collective identity; and (3) political culture. I hope in this way to show that Arendt’s conception remains important for contemporary attempts to revive the practice of citizenship and to redraw the boundaries between the public and the private.