The Punishing Arbitrariness of Citizenship and its Effects

Proclaimed to be at the heart of democracy, citizenship obviously thrives the world over, while democracies are in decline. Who is surprised though, knowing that citizenship was created to explain away socio-economic inequality and extract obedience from the population with no regard to the political particular type of a political system. Traditionally, for anyone who thinks differently, citizenship has always been as punishing in a democracy, as it would be in a terrible totalitarian regime.

Outside the issuing state, where it is usually invisible for the bearer, citizenship’s key function boils down to the preservation and reinforcement of global inequalities as well as the distribution of liabilities to the majority of the world’s population, mostly former colonial subjects. Boasting with sexism and racism, its two core building blocks as women and minorities were steeply excluded, either de iure or de facto, from citizenship all around the world until well into the 20th century, citizenship is at a crossroads now: the dominant narrative is not sustainable.

As I explain in a recent MIT Press Book (Citizenship, 2019) anyone who claims that the allocation of citizenships worldwide is logical and clear would be incorrect. The key feature of citizenship is randomness. Consequently, at the macro level, such a claim equals seeking logic in perpetuation of rigid pre-modern caste structures: is it not logical that a son of a brahman is a brahman, just as the son of an American is an American? At the micro level, such a claim is problematic too. For example, tenured professorship is irrelevant to citizenship in Germany, but was a key to immediate citizenship in Austria until 2008; “being active in the diaspora” is irrelevant to Austrians, but can make you a Pole; having a Lebanese mother is irrelevant to Lebanese citizenship, but having a Jewish mother, even without an Israeli citizenship, can make you Israeli. Examples of this diversity in the rules of citizenship are countless: what is taken for granted as best practice in one country can seem almost outrageous in another. All in all, however, it is crucial to realize that there cannot be a “worse” or a “better” method of assignment to a caste. It is the repugnant assumptions underlying the very rationale of a caste system that are intolerable, especially in modern democracies.

Rhetorically, however, all the citizenships are equally valuable – and this assumption, of course, is flawed. It would only truly work in a world where the authorities issuing the status guarantee at least roughly comparable standards of self-fulfillment and personal empowerment – where citizenship gives rights, not liabilities. In such a world it would not matter which status you hold. In a world where there are Pakistanis, whose citizenship is a global liability, and Norwegians, enjoying countless rights — as opposed to only Norwegians and, say, Danes — the story of equal dignity of all citizenships barely holds. In reality we are greeted by the color of our passport – and the huge difference in treatment different colors get is difficult to grasp without experiencing in practice. This is the random privilege that contemporary citizenship is there to uphold.

Citizenship quality – HDI, economic development, visa free travel as well as the rights to settle and work abroad without any permits, which different citizenships grant their bearers – correlate very neatly with the global distribution of wealth as is illustrated by Benjamin Hennig and Dimitris Ballas. The map of the world rescaled based on the GDP where the darker regions correlate to higher citizenship quality using the Quality of Nationality Index methodology is thus radically different from the map of the world produced by rescaling it depending on the population.

While the absolute majority of the most economically developed countries offer their people elite super citizenships, the biggest share of the population of the world are the losers of what Ayelet Shachar has memorably called ‘the birthright lottery’ and live with substandard citizenship statuses. Through controlling the borders between states citizenship is the key tool in the world today to keep it that way.

Citizenship, while still glorified, emerges as entirely hypocritical in a context where its success can no longer be measured by delivering on the ethically and morally repugnant constituents of its essence: if we believe in the ideals it proclaims and apply those globally, citizenship is bound to perish. Once we describe its actual functioning in faithful, accurate terms by looking besides Europe, also across the Mediterranean and besides the US also across the wall, which President Trump is building, citizenship cannot under any circumstances be justified. This is precisely what makes citizenship so fascinating to study: one discovers that it is still à la mode to refer “values” and “self-determination” to describe a world order where punishing randomness and hypocrisy reign.

Author: Dimitry Kochenov IMCM, Chair in European Law and Citizenship, The Netherlands

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