From Review of Democracy, a very clear statement of where the conventional wisdom is headed, due to Lenin’s “He who says A must say B” reasons.
Personally, I think the essence of sanity is to say: “I say A but not B, because B is disastrous,” but then I’m a crazed extremist. So I would say that, wouldn’t I?
Professor Dimitry Vladimirovich Kochenov leads the Rule of Law workgroup at the CEU Democracy Institute and teaches at the CEU Department of Legal Studies. His research focuses on the principles of law and the global context with a special emphasis on the rule of law, citizenship, and the enforcement of EU values. His first monograph, EU Enlargement and the Failure of Conditionality, was published in 2008. Before coming back to Budapest, where he completed his masters, he was a law professor at the University of Groningen. He has held numerous visiting fellowships, including at Princeton, Oxford, and NYU Law School. His last monograph, Citizenship, was published in 2019 by MIT Press.
POSTED ON 4TH DECEMBER 2021
Professor Dimitry Kochenov* in conversation with Michał Matlak explains why he believes citizenship is a “perpetuation of the ideas of aristocracy,” sexism, and racism; what can be done to fix this issue; and what motivated him to write “Citizenship” (MIT Press, 2019).
… Q. Why do you think citizenship is such a flawed concept?
A. If we look at citizenship at the national level, then it’s perfect. It’s ideally suited to meet all the liberal democratic institutional aims. It’s a superb tool in order to make sure that everybody’s engaged, that the law applies equally to everybody, and that our democracy is functioning as described.
When you look at the world from the perspective of two, five, one hundred, two hundred states and territories, then all these gains that we associate with the term “citizenship” disappear because as citizenship functions today, it’s basically a tool to instill absolute inequality between the possessors of different statuses under the guise of the promotion of democratic inclusion, liberation, and fairness.
It works in such a way because once you are assigned by any authority to any kind of state via the distribution of this status -which is distributed at random,
The use of the word random to mean a process that is highly non-random reminds me of George Carlin’s joke about people saying, “My friend, who happens to be black …”
of course, it’s not based on your will, identity, or anything else but your blood-citizenship at the international level comes down the perpetuation of the ideas of caste assignment – aristocracy, which the same status precisely fights against at the level of each nation-state since its inception, since the French revolution pretty much.
So how does it work, since ideally the world is presented in any textbook in political science and international law as a world inhabited by equal states? This principle of equality of states also gets extrapolated on citizenship, which means that as a Dutchman I enjoy as glorious a status as someone who’s Pakistani, as someone who is Hungarian, as someone who is American, and normally we don’t compare.
Once we start comparing, and this is an important chunk of my work over the last 10 years, we actually discover that while some citizenships come with rights, the absolute majority of them are about desperate liabilities, and they don’t actually help any of their possessors.
What we see is that a handful of citizenships, usually the citizenship of the former colonizing nations, the so-called “West”, emerge as the “super citizenships” of the world which give very important rights to those who possess them, to those who are granted them. All the rest of the citizenships, citizenships of 4/5ths of the population of the world, are collections of bitter liabilities rather than the depositories of rights. This means that as long as we uphold the story of citizenship as a story precisely of liberation, dignity, and whatever else positive that is connected to it in the popular understanding, we also uphold bringing down those 4/5ths of the world population who were not lucky enough, to quote Ayelet Shachar, to win in the “birthright lottery,”
The way babies are born is not really all that random or much of a lottery.
who were not lucky enough to be born in the right places or to the right parents.
The preamble to the U.S. Constitution explains how the U.S. is supposed to work:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
But that seems pretty racist these days, so you seldom hear about “ourselves and our posterity” anymore.
Back to Professor Kochenov:
What does it mean to us? It means that, in fact, any story that looks at citizenship benevolently is also a story that replicates neo-feudal, bloodline-based, aristocratic understanding of stratifying human societies without any kind of critical idea about what the implications of that are for all the inhabitants of the world. This is exactly the problem with citizenship.
To sum it up, from the tool of equality and liberation, as citizenship was conceived at the times of the French revolution, it evolved into precisely the opposite, the tool of mass-subjugation and irrational putting-down of the majority of the world’s population in the name of precisely those ideals which citizenship now it very busy destroying at the global level.
Probably the last point, and this is I think absolutely clear to everybody once we look at citizenship from the global perspective: citizenship when regarded globally, when your rights depend on your blood and nothing else and when your place in the world, the opportunities you have, the likelihood of any particular career, the worth of your time and the length of your life, when everything is determined by your blood and your blood only, this is precisely what all the national constitutions of the liberal democracies today preach to have abolished.
It’s almost as if different ideas can have merit and need to be carefully balanced off against each other. But that seems pretty racist now that we know the Only True Ideal: that blacks should have as much money and plaques as whites.
Which means that, when regarded globally, the concept of citizenship will never pass the basic constitutional vetting in any country taken individually. It will be something absolutely repugnant to all the ideals in the name of which the French Republic exists. It will be absolutely repugnant and unacceptable for the Germans and for the idea of dignity. It will be absolutely out of question for Americans, and you can continue this list. So, from something great, citizenship evolved into something absolutely horrible and unacceptable.
Q. If we accept your line of reasoning, what should be the political consequence? Should it be the deep reform of the concept, or should it be the abolition of it?
Well, to start with we need to ask ourselves the question: Do we believe in the ideals that citizenship is deemed to be promoting?
Are we allowed to believe in any other ideals and argue over the optimal way to trade them off?
The ideas of basic equality, the ideas of respecting the individual dignity of all those who receive this status by birth, and the idea that humanity, especially now in the world of human rights, is something that counts more than aristocratic or caste-based, birthright certifications.
If we answer this question in the negative, and if we say, “well, actually, who your parents are is much more important to determine whether you should be entitled to rights” or “in terms of asking what kind of duties you should be asked to perform”, well, we should stop here because this is exactly how citizenship works.
The trouble is that at the national level, once again, the answer to the question which I have just asked is unquestionably clear. There is no debate about how to answer this question. In the modern world, aristocracy, castes, an unjustified distribution of liabilities, is something that is deemed absolutely unacceptable, no matter what, in any decent national constitution.
So, the question is: What makes us ready to accept, without question, at the international level something that is an absolute no-go, totally non-kosher, and absolutely unacceptable concept at the level of our own constitutional state?
To me, as a believer in liberal democracy and precisely as a believer in modern constitutional ideals, the answer to this question is crystal-clear. Citizenship doesn’t have a place in the modern world because it’s a blood-based justification for bringing people down. We should move on from it.
When I suggested that it probably should be abolished – I wrote a small piece for I-CON entitled “Ending Passport Apartheid,”- there was a lot of angry reactions from all kinds of quarters. People were writing basically hate mail to me saying “you don’t believe in democracy!” And yes, I don’t believe in blood-based democracy in the sense that all our democratic ideals are mobilized in order to justify to those who get the second-rate kind of status and the second rate- Well, in fact, the set of liabilities instead of set of rights- why they should not be entitled to a better hope, to a better future, and precisely to the all the constitutional ideals which we ourselves hold sacred in our member states.
There is a very simple answer to this question. Historically we had plenty of precedents of how these kinds of difficult questions were answered. The fight against citizenship can be compared to the fight against slavery. You don’t need to convince the slave owners that slavery is something bad (well, you need to in practice) but the slaves already know it.
So if you speak with those who have third-rate or fourth-rate, absolutely despicable, low-quality citizenship statuses, which do not allow them to realize themselves in any way in the world, they already know that their citizenships are second-rate and drag them down. You are not bringing any news to them by saying that, actually in fact, the Central African passport is not to be compared with the passport of the French Republic.
Current ideological trends suggest that the moral necessity of moving the population of Central African Republic–like countries to France-like countries will become the great issue of the 21st century.
We are already at the point where the White House reacts in horror and rage to pictures of its Border Patrol employees impeding black foreigners.
Next will be the obligation for us to evacuate them from what they’ve made of their homelands.
By the way, this sounds like the explanation for the Fermi Paradox: the more advanced intelligent life forms on a planet cut their own reproduction rate and become obsessed with accommodating their less advanced, faster-reproducing cousins in the name of equality.
This will only be something that is news to the French, because the French think about the preservation of the aristocratic booster in terms of rights in the world, and well, when you abolish aristocracy, someone will have to share and someone will have to yield, which means that obviously in the Western literatures you don’t frequently find the perspective which I adopt in my little book.
Q. Could we ask you about the consequences for the idea of state, because of course the idea of state is crucial for citizenship. Citizenship defines our relationship with states. Would the idea of abolishing, or fundamental deep reform, require a need to reform our states?
A. … [H]istorically citizenship was a racist and sexist concept, which was only given to white males, essentially. …
If you believe in citizenship, you subconsciously (or sometimes consciously, but then you’re not honest to yourself) engage in majority blaming. Somehow, the absolute majority of states in the world failed to produce a citizenship which is similar in its quality and appeal to the citizenship of the United States.
And it’s racist to believe that, so it must be the United States’ fault.
Some of these states are formerly colonized places, others are former colonizers. And now start comparing the rights which the guys in former colonies got globally, based on their citizenship, compared with the rights which the former colonizers got globally, based on their super-citizenship. We come to the same equation of the racist world of empires. We come to the same starting point presuming that there are not so many white Angolans and knowing that Angolan citizenship is absolutely sub-standard in terms of the kind of rights that it gets to you around the world – especially compared with the citizenship Portugal distributes. It’s absolutely clear that the same racism, which was the main principle of imperial governance, is back with us through the principle of equality of states and through the ideology of the dignity of citizenship.
It’s funny how Trump stumbled upon the extremely triggering example of Norway vs. Haiti, since Norway hasn’t had an empire since … Leif Ericson sailed home? And Haiti hasn’t been under an empire for 225 years.
Contrast this with the statist approach, saying that Angolan’s “haven’t sorted out their troubles”, ignoring the past in terms of the evolution of the statuses of citizenship today and in the past, which every single inhabitant of the world inherits based on blood and ignoring the main racist principle of empire building.
The antiquarianism that’s such an obvious feature of 21st century discourse (redlining!) largely exists to explain why blacks aren’t as rich as whites in the present and, in the future, to explain why whites must give them their property.
By the way our ideology works, we are conjuring up our own nemesis out of our thoughts. And like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters, the intersection of the World’s Most Important Graph and Intersectionalism is a particularly ridiculous nemesis. It’s not like a comet from deep space or some other catastrophe that would be difficult to stop. You just hire a bunch of Mexican-Americans to ride horses and twirl their reins.
But can we allow ourselves to do that?
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