I think of citizenship as an incompletely theorised contract between the rights-bearing individual and the state. It is in this incompleteness that lies the possibility for citizenship’s long and mutating life. There is room for making and remaking the citizen, including by those who do not belong – both the foreigner outside and the foreigner inside a nation.
Historically, outsiders have been key makers of this incompleteness. They are the ones who have subjected the institution of citizenship to new types of claims across time and place, whether non-property owners in 19th-century England claiming rights to citizenship or gays and lesbians in the 21st century claiming the same rights as other citizens. Women, minoritised citizens, asylum-seekers, immigrants – all have contributed to the expansion of rights for all citizens, often through multigenerational trajectories. Making by the powerless tends to have a much longer temporality than that of the powerful. They may not have gained much power in the process, but when their demands for expanded inclusions succeeded, they strengthened the institution of citizenship.
Today, however, the meaning of the national state and of national membership is becoming unstable. The traditional borders of the modern interstate system continue to be critical for membership and central to the debate about immigration. What is not sufficiently worked into the debate is that these traditional interstate borders, with all their practical and formal variability, are increasingly just one element in a larger emergent operational space for human mobilities.
There are now a number of bordered spaces that cut across interstate borders. These spaces mostly have extremely tight borders – no trafficker can take you across – and enable an enormous variety of flows. At one end, they include the private financial trading networks that are estimated to account for up to 70 per cent of financial trading worldwide; these are referred to as ‘dark pools in finance’ by the US Federal Reserve Bank. Neither the state nor existing national law plays much of a role in these types of spaces.
At the other end from finance, perhaps, is the World Trade Organisation’s General Agreement on Trade in Services, which gives workers a range of portable rights in all signatory countries when a firm hires them through the treaty. We see here the making of a subject with portable rights. It is a possibility not envisaged in most discussions on immigration. And yet, since all immigrants are citizens of some country – there is no such thing as an illegal human being – why can they not also have some portable rights?
More informally, citizenship or formal state-authorised membership has little meaning for today’s mobile global class of the super-rich – they do not need it to gain access to foreign global cities for their business and their mansions. Nor does it matter much for the immobile global class of dispossessed – it gives them few rights and little platform for claim-making. In these cases, the foreigner has far more rights to place than the native.
Do these emergent meanings of membership and foreignness destabilise our inherited meanings? Sovereignty and territory remain key features of the international interstate system, but some of their components have been reconstituted and partly displaced on to other institutional arenas outside the state. Sovereignty has in fact been partly decentered and territory partly denationalised, even as political speech about them has become more nationalist than it has been in a long time.
Can we learn something from Europe’s immigration histories and its recurrent, often murderous hatred of the outsider?
The reasons for past migrations differ from today’s, yet all European countries have taken in immigrants for centuries. Notwithstanding their differences, these outsiders have been reasonably well absorbed over time. They have given us many of today’s citizens. They are not at issue in today’s debates. But in their time, they were the issue.
Anti-immigrant sentiment and attacks happened in each of the major phases of immigration. No labour-receiving country has a spotless record – not Switzerland, with its long history of international neutrality, and not even France, among the most open to immigrants, refugees and exiles. French workers killed Italian workers in the salt mines in the 1800s and objected to German and Belgian workers hired for Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris, in both cases invoking they were the wrong types of Catholics.
History and demography suggest that those fighting for incorporation won in the long run, if only partly. The ‘wrong Catholic’ of yesterday’s Europe lives on dressed in a variety of new identities. The past tells us that differences of phenotype, religion and culture are not obstacles built in stone, nor unsurmountable.
Social membership takes time, and struggle. But it can eventually feed into more formal meanings of membership. Our diversities, our foreignness, can weave themselves into the tissue of complex membership and its inevitable incompleteness.
© Zamyn and the author, all rights reserved. No reproduction, whether in whole or in part, without the prior written consent of Zamyn.