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Urban Life and Citizenship: the Future of Freedom

Juan Antonio Guerrero, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Wed, Mar 4th 2020


What does it mean to be a citizen in today’s Western societies? There is often talk of a certain discomfort with the responsibilities that come with citizenship. Why?[1] We will look here at three areas where we spend our daily lives as citizens. They shape and establish in us some “habits of the heart,” to use the well-known expression of Alexis de Tocqueville, who referred to customs, to what the ancients called mores.[2] The study of these habits “enlightens us on the state of society, on its continuity and on its long-term vitality.”[3] The three areas that seem to us to be of particular importance for the problem that we intend to address are the public space, work and the family.

The public space

Besides home and work, there are other places in the city where we spend a lot of time. We have become familiar with some of them in recent years: shopping malls, roads, buses, subways, train stations, terminals and airports.

The common characteristic of these places is that they are non-anthropological spaces, “non-places”: places of “anonymity,” without human relations and without shared history. They do not encourage relationships or common purposes, and we can walk through them absorbed in our own thoughts, lost in another image of ourselves.[4] They are transit spaces where most of the activities of those who move within them “consist in concealing or barely mentioning who they are, where they come from and where they are going, what they devote themselves to, their business, their origins or their objectives…. Urban life can therefore be compared to a great masquerade ball,”[5] in which who you really are remains hidden.

In “non-places” no one has an identity of their own: you are travelers or consumers, you can see exotic people, and this gives the feeling of cultural variety, but we all do the same thing: pay at the checkout, show our passport, get a stamp on our ticket and so on. Each user is expected to observe the rules and behave appropriately and predictably.

These spaces are very appropriate for the prevailing individualism. They are usually liked for the feeling of freedom they create. You can buy anything or go anywhere  without anyone knowing. You are anonymous. The metaphor for those who frequent these urban places is the “invisible man,” who desires a relative invisibility: that is, to be considered, yet without ceasing to hide one’s true face, taking advantage of a “generalized myopia”.  This is how the “invisible man” is seen: he makes himself visible, but he cannot be controlled because he is invisible.[6]

These spaces solve certain existential problems, and therefore are practical, comfortable and well organized for these purposes. But we would make a serious mistake if we transferred them to other areas of life as models of social relations and organizational processes. What would happen if we transposed this type of relationship to the community of our neighbors, the school, the university, the Christian community, the political party or the trade union? The model of the invisible man does not apply to questions where one has to be oneself and show one’s face.

It would already be an important step if this organizational model were to remain limited to its own issues. But preventing it from entering other areas of life is not enough. The organizational modalities of “non-places” are permeable not only for their characteristics, but also for the habits of the heart they induce in individuals. When we organize spheres such as politics, education or the Church, it is good to keep in mind that in “non-places” we get used to a centrifugal freedom, to a life of fragmented individualism without bonds, to a communication without reciprocity.

1) Centrifugal freedom. The present-day experience of freedom has a rather close relationship with the life we live in these spaces: the free choice between many possibilities – the more the better – without constraints and without conditioning, with total independence from the decisions of those who stand around us. But this is an atrophy of political freedom. If this is practiced while participating in the construction of the common world, such spaces will not help to form the necessary habits of the heart. Rather, they will make them impractical. We can compare these places to a restaurant with an extensive menu, where we can choose between a large number of dishes, but without ever being allowed to take part in their preparation. In our individual and common lives there are aspects that cannot proceed well if we are mere consumers or users. There are areas of our existence that require our active participation in order to develop.

2) Fragmentation of individuals and their relationships. These “non-places” owe part of their success to the fact that their users are fragmented and their relationships have been emptied of substance. The communication between the users of these spaces is impersonal and anonymous. There is little in common with consumers who shop in the same supermarket, or who use the same railway station, even though they have the same individual aims. It is difficult to imagine common action between users of large supermarkets or public transport.

3) The loss of reciprocity in the relationship. The fragmentation of users makes the communication of space with each of them more effective and unequal. It is a non-reciprocal communication. “Non-places” communicate with the user via signs or speakers. Users, on the other hand, communicate with the large space through their individual conduct: they buy or they do not buy, they ask for refunds, complain to the cashier and so on. But this is like saying something quietly in the midst of a deafening chorus of screams; individual behaviors are dispersed in the statistical law of large numbers, becoming in practice irrelevant: think of the protests about airplane delays, lost luggage or inefficiencies in supermarkets.

If the public sphere in which citizenship is exercised were like the one described above and the types of organization and relations of “non-places” were extended to the whole of community life, we would be faced with the death of citizenship. We would have a citizenship governed by the megaphone, without a shared history, without a significant reciprocal presence; a public environment where people do not meet and do not know each other, where the discussion of common problems is insignificant because they have been transformed into individual problems because of an organization with respect to which everyone relates individually, with the loneliness and vulnerability of their hearts, with signs, with anonymous voices, with human figures replaceable by machines. We would find ourselves plunged into “soft despotism.” “Despotism” because tyrants subordinate the public sphere to their private interests; and the fact that a tyrant can be impersonal, in an “organization,” changes little. “Soft” because instead of propping up the organization with terror, it does so with seduction.

The triumph of the new organization, in which we all basically consume the same things, frequent the same places, carry out the same activities and so on, is that it makes us live with a feeling of freedom. However, as we go along, we are gradually impairing our ability to say something and to participate in our common destiny, the ability to exercise our freedom. One wonders whether the organizational modes of “non-places” have not already established themselves more than is appropriate, and whether we are not now understanding citizenship according to user and consumer patterns. The politics of our times seem to be a battle of “loudspeakers” between a few candidates. The only thing we citizens need do is to support one or the other of them, until they can impose themselves; then, once we are alone, we find it hard to grasp what the loudspeakers are saying, and even less do we manage to oppose their hullabaloo.

The workplace

Our work life, its conditions and evaluation have changed substantially, with serious consequences for family, social and political relations. We will report three consequences.

1) The quality of life is deeply affected by the fact that work is confused with paid work. This is an immediate consequence of industrial development, with its idea that only those tasks that produce market exchanges are to be considered “work.” But also requiring time, effort and dedication is the maintenance of “social cohesion,” in whatever respect it is considered, involving family ties, those in the neighborhood or in the community.[7]

The same can be said of the education of future generations, which cannot be left in the hands of professionals alone. What would happen if we learned how to live in society only from the instructions of teachers, social workers, psychologists, pedagogues and so on? The most important aspects of life in common can only be taught free of charge, and this is an intrinsic requirement of them. Maternity, paternity, proximity or the bond between citizens cannot be commodified.

When adults interrupt what they are doing to reprove a child for crossing the street without looking around, they are teaching them not only to cross the street, but above all that adults have to worry about children simply because they share the same society. They are teaching them that in this society we are all connected, so that we care about each other selflessly, the more mature for the youngest. And this is not something that can be entrusted to the teaching of a professional.

The side effects of this way of thinking about work have affected the condition of women and the family. Today what the Americans call the double income family is very common and paid work outside the home is considered a sign of women’s equality.[8] The consequences of these changing roles for the family are important, although difficult to assess.[9] In any case, we are faced with a road with no return, which, however, requires a redistribution of parental functions.

2) The intrusion of economic functional logic into other areas of life. As Zygmunt Bauman[10] points out, the two institutions that have characterized social integration par excellence have been the factory and the military. The meaning of a healthy body was defined by a person’s ability to work or to serve in the military. Both institutions produced docile and obedient subjects needed by the state. The factory layout was replicated in the family. The man – husband/father – exercised vigilance and discipline in a way proper to a foreman in a factory or a sergeant in the army, with obvious consequences for the condition of the wife.

On the other hand, in private and family life an implicit system of costing was introduced, starting from economic life, which changed the meaning of paternity and maternity.[11] Paternity involves great sacrifice. Children are no longer an economic resource, as was the case in past eras, but instead pose many problems: loss of freedom, well-being, opportunities to benefit from alternatives, and are a source of concern.

It has also been claimed that a greater extension of the functional relations of the market to other areas has impoverished the production of meaning and ties. The neoliberal offensive in this context consists in neutralizing the conflict, orienting the emotional urges of the masses toward regressive and authoritarian forms of identification. The consequence, for politics, is its transformation into a spectacle and the return of the charismatic leader.[12]

3) The psycho-physical stress of the worker. In the new capitalism it is proclaimed that “the market can be oriented by the consumer like never before.” This means that large companies bind themselves to small companies or individuals with short-term contracts, as the market is too volatile for long-term planning. On the consumer side, this is a win-win situation, but from a labor point of view, for those who have to satisfy the whims of the market, human costs are high. Richard Sennett draws attention to the new ways of organizing time, and in particular that of work, as the characteristic mark of capitalism in our time. He sums them up in the formula: “No long term.”[13]

The stable world of the three decades following the Second World War no longer exists. It allowed life to be planned beyond the short term. In the world of flexible business, which is an archipelago of related activities, work is organized into teams that require of members a lot of effort, malleability and chameleonic personality. Some business schools teach that, in a context where everything is short term, institutional loyalty is a trap.

In the new context, employees must understand that they cannot depend on the company; therefore, they become marketable: “Detachment and superficial cooperation are better suited to the current reality, rather than behavior based on the values of loyalty and service.”[14] Trust, loyalty and mutual commitment are values that are no longer valued. They are seen as counterproductive. The new institutions are characterized by the strength of weak links. Strong ties depend on a long association, precisely what has become superfluous today.

The consequences of this situation on the family, on social relations and on political life are predictable: how can we strengthen social cohesion if we do not have time for common realities? Where do we learn the gratuitousness and the necessity of sacrifices, needed in city life and human relations, when economic calculation has become a habit of the heart? Where do you learn to appreciate the strength of the bonds and pacts maintained over time, so necessary for a genuine political life? How can one teach children to contract and maintain a commitment, when for them this is an abstract virtue they see applied nowhere? How can one prevent the family itself from succumbing to this short-term philosophy?


Today as yesterday we feel good in the family, yet the reasons that lead us to see the family institution as besieged by the same forces that have impoverished work and civic life have not disappeared.[15] In addition to the collateral influences of the evolution of work on the family, of which we have already spoken, we can highlight three characteristics of the modern urban family that change habits of the heart, but not always for the better.

1) The separation between discipline and affection. Today, the family, rather than endorsing strong values, is the bearer of emotional warmth. If before, traditionally, it educated by means of discipline and affection, faced with social pressure it has turned into an emotional refuge, taking as a paradigm the relationships of friendship between equals, rather than those of parent and child. The state, on the other hand, in the socialization of individuals has progressively taken on roles that traditionally belonged to the family. “The school, professional help and the group have taken the place of most family functions, and many parents are very happy to delegate their functions and to be for their children only friends and older companions.”[16]

This separation between discipline and affection, according to Christopher Lasch, makes it possible “to develop character traits that are more compatible with totalitarian regimes than with democracy.”[17] The split between discipline and affection is resolved in endorsement of the morality of “feeling well,” which makes one’s subjective moods the main objective of happiness, and dilutes any genuine concern for the common world.

2) The entrance of individualism into the relationships of couples and families. The relationship of the couple is increasingly conceived as a kind of pact in which each of the contracting parties brings their own demands for independence and individual life. The “for all” becomes a matter of consensus and mutual agreement, and the “for ever” is for now and for as long as it lasts.[18]

An interesting study of individualism in the life of a couple[19] shows the unravelling of the bond between young couples who begin to live together in an attempt by the two members to maintain freedom and independence. When one partner feels the need for independence, as is normal if the starting point is individual taste, problems will arise. Many of them have the feeling that everything was better when they were separate: in fact, in the time they spent with their loved one, each of them gave 100 percent. One of the striking facts of the study is that young couples lack activities which they can engage in together, and their common life is mostly composed of the succession of individual activities. The same problem can be found in many city or youth associations.

3) Television in family life. Since the mid-20th century, families have made room for a new member, who speaks out on everything and imposes behavioral models for almost all areas of life. Talking about the sacredness of the domestic hearth has become like a hypocritical discourse in a world dominated by gigantic corporations and by the mechanism of mass marketing that, thanks to television, has insinuated itself into our homes.

Today we live the effects of the television monopoly, linked to the desire to reach the widest possible audience, offering viewers raw products whose paradigm is the talk show or reality show, explicit exhibitions of experiences to satisfy voyeurism or exhibitionism.[20] Democracy theorists have always taught us that it is a system that needs virtuous citizenship to function. It seems that neither old paternalism nor the exploitation of lower instincts can be the ideal basis for democratic citizenship.

The future of freedom

Hannah Arendt – a privileged witness to what happened in the 20th century, a persecuted Jew in Germany who had to flee to the United States – was a narrator of the trial against Adolf Eichmann, one of the worst criminals of the Nazi regime.[21] While she had expected to meet an evil person, Arendt found that Eichmann was a bland individual, incapable of thinking, incapable of judging good from evil, a man who followed orders. This made her understand “the banality of evil”; that there is no need to be evil to inflict immense suffering It is enough simply not to think, to have inhibited the ability to judge or discern between good and evil; that is, to behave automatically, hiding behind an “it is” done, an “it is” imposed, or “it is” carried out.

After years of the horrors of the regime that had succeeded in making people superfluous, those fears Arendt had expressed were to reappear in her reflection on American society. She called that new evil “conformism.”[22] Her entire work is a defense of the human capacity to act, to judge, to exercise freedom. She was frightened by the extraordinary fear of making judgments that she noticed in the good people of her time.[23] To hide behind the impersonal “it is” to justify one’s actions, behind today’s “it is said,” “it is thought,” “it is done,” “it is coming,” is to abdicate freedom. There may be a feeling of freedom, but not its exercise.

Speaking of the Nazi evil, Arendt knew that “the nonparticipants, called irresponsible by the majority, were the only ones who dared judge by themselves, and they were capable of doing so not because they embraced a better system of values or because the old standards of right and wrong were still firmly planted in their mind and conscience … I therefore would suggest that the nonparticipants were those whose consciences did not function in this, as it were, automatic way – as though we possess a set of learned or innate rules which we then apply to the particular case as it arises … Their criterion, I think, was a different one: they asked themselves to what extent they would still be able to live in peace with themselves after having committed certain deeds … not because the world would then be changed for the better, but simply because only on this condition could they go on living with themselves at all.”[24]

* * *

We have seen that the three areas of our urban life induce some paralyzing habits of the heart. If we are to continue to live with ourselves, our analysis cannot be the analysis of a spectator. The next step is to exercise freedom. The instruments of freedom that enable us to distinguish the ways toward a more human and more humanizing life and to act accordingly are good judgment, prudence and discernment.

In our societies there is an unregulated search for order and organization that aims at transforming the human world into an organic whole, where everything works perfectly according to plan, subordinated to a suprapersonal system. This is the first thing needing discernment.

The anxiety regarding order can be anxiety regarding death and life. On the one hand, human life has something that opposes order: in fact, it is creative, irreducible to uniformity and unpredictable; on the other hand, it itself requires order: in fact, in chaos we self-destruct. There is an order and an organization that kills life and makes people superfluous; there is another order that is a necessary condition for the emergence of creative and unpredictable human life. One order makes the effective participation of citizenship superfluous, and the other makes it necessary and possible.

In the Socratic tradition, the exercise of freedom has two sides: to avoid certain evil and not to fear the possible good. Opposing evil is necessary, but it does not yet mean that we know what we must do. The second step is increasingly modest and contingent. Therefore, the exercise of freedom requires two movements: resistance and action.

  1. Resist paralyzing order and its effects. We need “democratic asceticism” to resist the siren song. It is like leaving a bad habit, like quitting smoking. Individualism, the soft world of undisciplined and effortless affections and the typical middle-class obsession with money, which allows all areas of life to be invaded by functional economic logic, have attractive aspects, but are corrosive from a human and political point of view.

Fragmented individuals, lacking the objective reference of a common world shared with others, are easy to buy and manipulate, with the help of television and other media. It is enough to make them feel good subjectively, to offer them sensations of freedom, the illusion of choosing from a large number of alternatives, the possibility of “being on the air,” adapting to the indices of public opinion and participating in mass shows. We will not be able to exercise our freedom if we are bought and colonized. We cannot keep feeding on what kills us.

2) Acting together for the common good. As de Tocqueville had already intuited, the almost exclusive interest of citizens in family and friends, which emerges from opinion polls, means the death of politics and associated life. Between the warmth of the hearth and the coldness and isolation of “non-places,” there are other spaces of human relationship. A first step to take is, therefore, to broaden the horizon of our relations to spaces in which we are fully ourselves, recognize others and are recognized.

The human and humanizing way of making ourselves freely predictable does not emerge from the abdication of freedom in favor of a suprapersonal organization that wants to keep us isolated and reduce us to impotence, but from connecting with others for common purposes, in conditions of equality and plurality. And it must be borne in mind that a common purpose cannot derive from the intersection of individual and private interests.

Miracles interrupt a natural series of events or an automatic process, contexts in which they constitute what was absolutely unexpected.[25] The exercise of freedom is a miracle. To be human is to be able to take initiatives, to begin something new and to work miracles. The exercise of political freedom cannot take place in solitude, but requires the plurality of men and women and, like miracles, it is not only a question of will, but above all of faith. Hope must be placed in groups that bind themselves in equality and plurality around a shared faith. They are the bearers of the future of freedom.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 01 art. 2, 0120: 10.32009/22072446.0120.2

[1].    Certainly there is a perception of a certain impotence: it seems that control over the forces that govern our lives is diminishing. Cf. M. Sandel, “The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self” in S. Avineri – A. de Shalit, Communitarianism and Individualism, New York, Oxford University Press, 1996, 25; 28; C. Taylor, Il disagio della modernità, Rome – Bari, Laterza, 1994. H. Fenichel Pitkin’s book The Attack of the Blob, Hannah Arendt’s Concept of the Social, Chicago – London, University of Chicago Press, 1998, is dedicated to the same theme. The search for solutions to the problem through a reflection on its roots and on its philosophical, legal and political consequences has generated the debate between liberals and communitarists that has marked political philosophy over the last two decades. It has featured authors such as John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Robert Nozick, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer and Alasdair MacIntyre.

[2].    Cf. A. de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. A study by Robert Bellah has disseminated the expression and expanded it to “conscience, culture and practices of daily life”: see R. Bellah et al., Le abitudini del cuore. Individualismo e impegno nella società complessa, Rome, Armando, 1996, 345.

[3].    Ibid.

[4].    Cf. M. Augé, Nonluoghi, Milan, Elèuthera, 1993, 74.

[5].      M. Delgado, El animal público. Hacia una antropología de los espacios urbanos, Barcelona, Anagrama, 1999, 13ff.

[6].    Cf. ibid., 17.

[7].    Cf. Z. Bauman, Lavoro, consumismo e nuove povertà, Troina (En), Open City, 2004.

[8] .    On the other hand, according to Bauman, the transition from the working conditions of domestic craftsmanship to those of the factory was anything but emancipatory for men: it was rather a submission to patterns of behavior imposed under the threat of misery, which were passed off as freely adopted.

[9] .    There are studies that go both ways. Some highlight the problems that the entry of women into the labor market has caused to the family: see A. Wolfe, One Nation, After All: What Middle-Class Americans Really Think About… New York, Penguin, 1998, 88-124; others instead celebrate the new balance gained by the family institution, once it has become normal for both men and women to work: see R. C. Barnett – C. Rivers, She Works, He Works: How Two-Income Families Are Happy, Healthy, and Thriving, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1996.

[10].   Cf. Z. Bauman, Lavoro, consumismo e nuove povertà, op. cit.

[11].   Cf. J. A. Schumpeter, Capitalismo, socialismo e democrazia, Milan, Etas, 2001.

[12].   Cf. P. Barcelona, Il ritorno del legame sociale, Turin, Bollati Boringhieri, 1990.

[13].   R. Sennett, L’uomo flessibile. Le conseguenze del nuovo capitalismo sulla vita personale, Milan, Feltrinelli, 2016, 20.

[14].   Ibid., 23.

[15].   Cf. C. Lasch, Rifugio in un mondo senza cuore. La famiglia in stato d’assedio, Vicenza, Neri Pozza, 2019.

[16].   Ibid., 14.

[17].   Ibid., 13. These traits are: a strong group attachment; fear of loneliness; alienation from the past; strong interest in the authenticity of relationships, without the mediation of conventional forms of courtesy or respect for the individuality of others; lack of introspection and inner life.

[18].   Cf. A. Spadaro, “Vivere: esperienza o esperimento? Riflessioni in margine a un saggio di Filippo La Porta” in Civ. Catt. 2005 IV 458-466.

[19].   Cf F. de Singly, Libres ensemble. L’individualisme dans la vie, Paris, Nathan, 2000.

[20].   On television and its submission to commercial interests, see P. Bourdieu, Sulla televisione, Milan, Feltrinelli, 1997.

[21].   Cf. H. Arendt, La banalità del male: Eichmann a Gerusalemme, ibid., 2013 (or. 1963).

[22].   Charles Taylor spoke of “soft despotism” in reference to our Western democracies; cf. C. Taylor, The Malaise of Modernity.

[23].   In the morals of moderation and tolerance of the American middle class, the fear of making judgments has been transformed into the “virtue” of not criticizing what others do: cf. A. Wolfe, One Nation After All…, op. cit., 72; 126 ff.

[24].   H. Arendt, “Personal responsibility under dictatorship.” From a conference held in Boston in 1964.

[25].   Cf. H. Arendt, “Che cos’è la libertà?” in Id., Tra passato e futuro, Milan, Garzanti, 1999.

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