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Rights, citizenship and political struggle

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journal contribution
posted on 27.07.2021, 12:57 authored by Guy AitchisonGuy Aitchison
© 2015, © The Author(s) 2015. This paper adds a new perspective to recent debates about the political nature of rights through attention to their distinctive role within social movement practices of moral critique and social struggle. The paper proceeds through a critical examination of the Political Constitutionalist theories of rights politics proposed by Jeremy Waldron and Richard Bellamy. While political constitutionalists are correct to argue that rights are ‘contestable’ and require democratic justification, they construe political activity almost exclusively with reference to voting, parties and parliamentary law-making, neglecting the vital role rights play in political struggle outside and against the official institutions of democratic citizenship. In contrast to the political constitutionalist stress on the patient and reciprocal negotiation of rights within formal electoral processes, this paper locates the political nature of rights in their conflictual logic as ‘claims’ in multiple spheres that function to mobilise oppositional support against powerful adversaries and challenge dominant understandings. An activist citizenship of rights is frequently necessary, it argues, given the structural barriers of power and inequality that distort legislative decision-making and lead to the denial of fundamental moral entitlements to less powerful groups. The paper provides an illustration of activist citizenship taken from a contemporary squatting movement centred around the right to housing, Take Back the Land. In exercising the moral right to housing, for which they demand political recognition, through the occupation of vacant buildings, the practices of Take Back the Land reflect the conflictual dimension of rights as claims in keeping with their historical role in empowering subordinate groups to challenge unjust relations of power and inequality.



  • Social Sciences and Humanities


  • Politics and International Studies

Published in

European Journal of Political Theory






23 - 43


SAGE Publications


AM (Accepted Manuscript)

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© The authors

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Dr Guy Aitchison. Deposit date: 27 July 2021

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