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It is claimed that although the European debate about social rights has concentrated on the formation of citizenship, American political and social theory has focused almost exclusively on civil liberties and individual rights. The specific characteristics of American history – the Declaration of Independence, slavery, the Civil War, the persistence of the race issue and the civil rights movement – explain this fundamental difference. This article explores some of the exceptions to this claim in the work of sociologists and political scientists such as W.E. DuBois, Talcott Parsons, Morris Janowitz, Rogers Smith and Michael Schudson, but the contrast between individual rights and social rights remains important. The American tradition is explored primarily through the work of Judith N. Shklar whose approach to cruelty, misfortune and inequality represented a major and innovative approach to what we might call the phenomenological foundation of justice and rights. She emphasised the importance of earning a living to the basic American understanding of dignity and responsibility. The article concludes by speculating that the credit crunch and more importantly the endemic character of unemployment and under-employment in the modern economy radically undermine access to rewarding employment for the majority of the population. These economic and social changes – ‘the financialization of capitalism’ – make the defence of social citizenship more rather than less important.


Institute for Religion, Politics, and Society

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Journal Article

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