Gross-Wyrtzen on Cherniavsky, 'Neocitizenship: Political Culture after Democracy'

Eva Cherniavsky
Leslie Gross-Wyrtzen

Eva Cherniavsky. Neocitizenship: Political Culture after Democracy. New York: New York University Press, 2017. 232 pp. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4798-9357-7; $89.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4798-8091-1.

Reviewed by Leslie Gross-Wyrtzen (Clark University) Published on H-Citizenship (August, 2017) Commissioned by Emily Mitchell-Eaton

Eva Cherniavsky’s book, Neocitizenship: Political Culture after Democracy, is a provocative attempt to trace the contours of present-day politics in a globalizing capitalist society. Cherniavsky argues that this political moment is one in which the figure of the citizen is dramatically altered from its form within liberal democracy, even as critical theory is ill-equipped to help us make sense of the ways in which this transformation is taking place. Using insights from biopolitics, queer and critical race theory, Gramscian hegemony, and Walter Benjamin’s allegory, she argues that today’s political subject is governed by “intensities” (feelings, desires, aspirations) rather than by an ideological commitment to a normative project. In a mash-up of contemporary pop and political culture that includes Battlestar Galactica and Occupy Wall Street (OWS), the book offers glimpses onto the new political landscape emerging as neoliberal forms of politics disrupt the modern social contract. Ultimately, Cherniavsky suggests that the foreclosure of liberal, representative democracy might open up possibilities for a politics of the multitude, and asks what may be gained or lost in the process.

The theoretical argument Cherniavsky crafts mimics the fractured and rhizomatic logic she identifies in contemporary US civil society. Each of the six chapters approaches political culture from a different, if related, vantage to demonstrate the shift occurring within the state-citizen relationship and the forms that political claims take. For me, the strength of this book arises from Cherniavsky’s argument that theory, honed in critique of the modern nation-state, is insufficient to map the terrain of the still-emergent political order. Thus, she turns to fiction to highlight the diffuse forms of domination and new figurations of agency emerging from a steady barrage of consumerism and constant surveillance. 

The first chapter rehearses the Foucauldian argument made by Wendy Brown (Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics [2005] and Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution [2015]), among others, that neoliberalism signals a shift from the disciplinary norming of an imagined community to biopolitical governance of an atomized population organized around problem-solving and self-care. From there, book chapters alternate between real-world and fictional accounts of “new” politics under neoliberalism. The most compelling chapter examines Paul Beatty’s satiric novel The White Boy Shuffle (1996) to discern a new sort of sovereign subject, one whose resistance to the violence and surveillance of the inner city ghetto takes the form of public and almost playful receptivity—neither capitulation to the murderous logics of power nor the sacrifice of a hero or martyr, but a social “expression of belonging in an unfit community” (p. 83). In a political system where mere exposure of wrongdoing is no longer sufficient to instigate political change, “subaltern publicity” advertises one’s contempt and disregard for the surveillance state despite its pervasiveness. 

Where The White Boy Shuffle “asks what the unraveling of political modernity signifies for social movements and the practice of resistance” (p. 104), the sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica and Bruce Sterling’s dystopian novel Distraction (1998) underscore the shift from a unitary (if imagined) political body to fragmented “dividuals” governed by emotions and identity politics. In Battlestar, the organization and political functioning of remnant humans and their Cylon conquerors provide instructive contrasts between the workings of the liberal political order and its networked successor. While the humans appeal to sovereignty and rule of law as a means of keeping social order, Cylon sociality is simulacral: their bodies and relations, patterned on human society, no longer reference it. Efficiency rather than purity of the social body is the most salient value, though to what end is never clear. Cherniavsky reads Distraction as picking up this theme: an efficient campaign is a worthy one, successfully mobilizing already-existing antagonisms to the current political order. What the campaign aims for (as opposed to what it is against) is less relevant to both politicians and the public.

Less convincing are the chapters discussing real-world examples of “derealized” politics, which Cherniavsky understands as spectacle rather strategic political project. In chapter 2, Cherniavsky argues that American studies programs in former Soviet and Eastern bloc countries are exemplars of ideological projects cut loose from their source. Intended to promote American values of democracy and capitalism, American studies departments abroad are centers of intense critique, and sites for inculcating efficiency and entrepreneurship without the attendant values of free speech, fair elections, or church-state separation. This example intends to demonstrate a new order where capitalism (in neoliberal form) is severed from democracy, and flourishes without an imagined community or a coherent ideology to enroll the state in its interests. I am not familiar with debates within American studies departments, and was left wondering how uncritically committed to Western democracy these departments were in the Soviet period, and whether their non-ideological stance today is more representative of a disenchantment with democratic experiments than the result of a neoliberalizing civil society.

In the final chapter of the book, Cherniavsky wonders how to reconcile politics-as-consensus with OWS, a movement both celebrated and disparaged for the incoherence of its vision. Critics identified OWS’s reluctance to produce a unified platform for change as evidence of the failure to mobilize an effective social movement. For members of OWS, however, politics is defined by the multiplicity of expressions of opposition and critique. For OWS, the political project involves articulating grievances, not making demands to the state or anyone else. Cherniavksy argues that the continual refinement of OWS’s definition of itself and its opposition points to something different than Gramscian politics. Self-constitution, rather than consent, is the order of the day. As a consequence, she questions whether OWS-style protest is political at all, or whether it is merely a simulation of politics enacted by entrepreneurial subjects.

Cherniavsky notes that this quandary does not originate with her: observers of OWS debated whether they were witnessing the emergence of the multitude, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s revolutionary entity (Multitude [2004]) composed not of a people but of a “multiplicity of irreducible singularities” (p. 193). In contrast to hegemonic politics, the multitude seeks not consensus but autonomy as a common good. But how can this be accomplished if the multitude is forever individuated? Synthesizing Hardt and Negri’s political vision and Ernesto Laclau’s critique, Cherniavksy argues that networked, horizontal movements like OWS are the grounds for new politics, but what shape that will take, or what type of political subject will emerge, is still unknown. Cherniavsky’s treatment neglects more robust discussions animating European political theory, such as Jacques Rancière’s contention that true politics rests not with the disciplined citizen who consents but with the unruly subject who dissents (Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics [2010]). In Jacques Rancière’s rehabilitation of politics, OWS does not represent an “after democracy” composed of fractured subjects but an “after hegemony” where autonomous subjects are set free from the mandate to constitute a unified body. The final chapter of Neocitizenship leaves open the possibility for new versions of citizenship to emerge but dismisses the idea that movements like OWS signal it has already arrived. 

Reading Neocitizenship in Donald Trump’s America underscores Cherniavsky’s diagnosis of the current state of politics. Weekly firestorms around the president’s latest tweets, the visible rise of white nationalism in the United States, and the White House’s insistence that all is well seem to confirm Cherniavsky’s account of derealized politics under neoliberalism, where the unreal becomes the actual. The book is especially prescient in describing how progressives, recently so critical of liberalism, are now overtaken by nostalgia for it. I found myself reading Neocitizenship as an opening salvo that will push academic readers to think beyond the conventions or critiques of liberal democracy to speculate on the possibilities for new politics in the neoliberal order. I highly recommend this book to readers in American studies, cultural studies, and political theory.

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Citation: Leslie Gross-Wyrtzen. Review of Cherniavsky, Eva, Neocitizenship: Political Culture after Democracy. H-Citizenship, H-Net Reviews. August, 2017. URL:

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