Dissidence without Citizenship

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Holloway Sparks, in her work “Dissident Citizenship: Democratic Theory, Political Courage, and Activist Women” set out with the aim to highlight the potential of sights of dissidence in expanding the idea of citizenship and the capacity it holds to democratize participation. She then moves on to the mammoth task of locating in these sites of dissidence a more “expansive” understanding of citizenship that is the dissident citizen, which is pillared on “recognising dissent and the ethic of political courage”. The article coherently recognizes the concerns with most hegemonic understandings of democracy and citizenship be it democratic citizenship, deliberative citizenship, liberal citizenship etc. From these concerns the author builds the significance of locating dissident citizenship.

While the task is novel, it takes away from the dissidents the power that they wield on the modern state. To explicate this argument further, sites of dissidence are locations where truth is being spoken to power. It is here that the people contest laws, policies, privileges, and can demand recognition, redistribution and representation. If this argument holds true, then these sites are locations where the powerless hold power over the modern state. The contention that Holloway Sparks’ idea of dissident citizenship triggers immediately, is in the repercussion of locating citizenship in sites of dissidence. The question that troubles herein is what happens to power in these locations when citizenship as a category is interjected.

Power has a fleeting location, citizenship as a concept has a similarly elusive location of power. Citizenship becomes a state centered concept when questions of legitimate rights are brought in, it centres in groups when it becomes a right bestowed on a particular identity. Though the centrality of the State can not really be absent from the concept of citizenship because questions of recognition and rights will always be the purview of the state. The prime argument of the paper is not to say the dissidence cannot be about citizenship, rather that locating citizenship in sites of dissidence is counterintuitive.

The power that the dissidents will lose can only be understood by first understanding the power that the state holds on its citizens. The State today stands on the narrative of a very specific worldview successfully developed in the intersection of contract and liberal theorists. The power it wields in the form of obedience to laws and rights to resources comes from the idea of legitimacy crutched on being the representative of the people in a democracy. Laws then become the tool for shaping the social and building on this very specific worldview. To simplify this further the individuals are subject to laws, these laws are of two kinds. The civil laws with their punitive measures create norms, the most insidious of these laws would be the marriage and divorce laws. Here in the case of India, the laws stand on grounds of legitimacy from two power structures: the state and religion. They create the first group unit to understand human beings and create a typical ideal of this unit the heterosexual married couple and further create a quantified ideal norm of ‘hum do humare do’. The civil laws along with policies control welfare, redistribution wherein the ideal benefits the most. To locate this argument the ICDS programme in India only accounts for two children. The criminal laws on the other hand are punitive for breaking the very ‘norms’ of the ideal citizen life which encapsulates the sovereign rights, in some states, till now has the authority over death.

These laws create an overarching acceptance and obedience. When the citizens don’t agree with a law they dissent from the particular law, in their illusions of freedom they appeal to state institutions for change. The nature of obedience though remains unchanged. One law might be replaced by another which the people might consider as an agency against the state power. Though the citizen even if they are following laws of their own volition is still obedient to laws at the end of the day, and are hence subject to punitive actions if they don’t set in with the norms. Thus, citizenship creates a subservience to laws and Foucault in his understanding of power was the first to conceive of the same. To quote, “Power would no longer be dealing simply with legal subjects over whom the ultimate dominant was death, but with living beings, and the mastery it would be able to exercise over them would have to be applied at the level of life itself.” Thus there is a discourse present with a set of recurring and regular organizational principles, that is, the narrative structure. This structure builds on stable content which has a very specific understanding of the society. There is a purpose of the narrative, which lies in persuading society to follow that specific idea of the world.

This creates a knowledge system in the society and it helps us understand that law has a tactical purpose which ensures with its complex language and exclusionary jargon that it never reveals the true intention of power. Sites of dissidence hold within them the capacity to challenge this worldview. It has been done actively today with the rise of Right-Wing populism, the world seems to be polarized between protecting privilege and challenging institutions of hate. These anti-populism struggles can be seen as current sites of dissidence which do take us away from Sparks’ example of Rosa Parks. Locating the idea of citizenship in sites of dissidence takes away the capacity of dissidents to challenge the worldview of the state because questions of legality and illegality then become a fair bone of contention. The modern state then gets the control to decide what would be the medium of the challenge, the accepted degree of the challenge, and the challenge in itself. This will fizzle locations of dissidence because of the power that the state now wields on the site and the people.

The Anti- CAA protests started from the universal question of saving constitutionalism and democracy and yet, the site still remained the location of ‘other’. The other was the black population which was now demanding assimilation with the white population. The movement was directly set in the location of assimilated others realizing how that assimilation was half-hearted and the other continues to be the other. The moment the movement took the turn of standing only on the crutch of ‘right to citizenship’, it became particularistic and lost the social capital it had incurred in terms of speaking truth to power. The questions were now posed to the use of public space, questions of civic responsibility, need for ensuring a form of dissidence that does not disrupt civic laws, and most importantly regarding whether the dissidents have the legal right to question?

With the idea of dissident citizenship, Sparks necessitates a position where questions of legality and illegality become more important than the narrative and contention of dissidence in itself. The second reason why dissident citizenship cannot be valorized as the site of giving voice to the powerless is that these sites are discriminatory and hegemonic themselves. Historically situating the Black Lives Matter movement would make the observer uneasy because the performativity of the movement was to paint very specific imagery. The movement captured specifically the voice of the trauma of black men from the working class who were scuffled in public regularly, the black lives became the voice of this specific location. The hegemonizing voice was the demand for civil rights because enough black men had been sacrificed at the altar of the white state. The voice of black women and the atrocities they faced in the form of institutionalized rape and assault culture, the everydayness of discrimination in care work, these voices found no place in the larger argument.

Some of the questions to think about are: Do these dissenters then become less important citizens? Do they not hold enough ethics of political courage? The ethic of political courage for Holloway Sparks was an important component of democratic citizenship. This ethic was an argument for locating morality in politics. The location of this morality is civil society. The ‘ethic of political courage’ is for the citizen to take the task of raising political questions to be a civic responsibility. The ethic being responsibility and the political courage is the component to raise important yet uncomfortable questions. Another concern that remains is which dissident citizen is more important?

The reason why these questions are based on the idea of dissident citizenship is not to disparage the idea completely. The paper agrees with the author that sites of dissidence hold the potential of expanding democratic participation and citizenship, but this is not possible by locating in these sites the idea of citizenship. It is only when the sites of dissidence stay away from the questions of legality and illegality do they hold the capacity to speak truth to power. Dissidence thus becomes the site to fight for citizenship, but not the location of the same.


  1. Havel, V., & Wilson, P. (1985). The power of the powerless. International Journal of Politics, 15(3/4), 23-96. Retrieved March 27, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41103710. Refer to https://www.jstor.org/stable/41103710?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

  2. Sparks, H. (1997). Dissident Citizenship: Democratic Theory, Political Courage, and Activist Women. Hypatia, 12(4), 74-110. Retrieved March 20, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/ 3810734. Refer to- https://www.jstor.org/stable/3810734?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

  3. Foucault, M., & Paul, R. (1984). The Foucault reader. New York: Pantheon Books. Refer to- https://monoskop.org/images/f/Rabinow_Paul_ed_The_Foucault_Reader_1984.pdf

  4. A’shanti F. G., & Linh N. (2021). How Black and Asian American women are working together to overcome racism. USA Today. March 31, 2021, Refer to- https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2021/03/31/how-black-and-asian-american-women-are-overcoming-racism-together-column/7058578002/

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