What does it mean to be a citizen? The Berliner Gazette‘s Friendly Fire conference (Nov 2-4) is all about the notion of citizenship, whether global, digital or during wartime. The highlight of day two (Nov 3) is a public talk featuring journalist Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, whose book The Cosmopolites has triggered a debate about the commodification of citizenship. Together with media art pioneer Ingo Günther, whose project “Refugee Republic” envisions a global network of refugee shelters, she’ll reflect on global citizenship from the points of view of both the super-rich and the underprivileged.
While doing research for your book The Cosmopolites, was there a key moment when you realised the full extent of the commodification of citizenship – as something owned and marketed by nation states?
The moment I learned about the large legal market for investor citizenship, it became clear that citizenship is much more (or less!) than the emotionally-loaded, meaningful democratic idea most people think of. The very fact that nation-states will sell their passport and the rights that come attached to it in a legal, above-board way says something about how citizenship is now considered: as a commodity, not a reflection of rights and responsibilities. I think the moment I realized this was at a “global citizenship” conference in London; I had assumed “global citizenship” would be a discussion about multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism; instead, it was an opportunity for cash-strapped island nations to promote their passport in the hopes of getting investment.
Sounds pretty dystopian! Isn’t there also a utopian vision for this?
To me, a truly utopian vision is something along the lines of world citizenship, where people can live where they choose regardless of who their parents are or where they’re born, or indeed how much money they have. Over the years, many thinkers, from Saint Simon to Karl Marx, have advocated for some version of this, but it’s usually been along religious or class lines. There’s a reason for that: it’s hard to have an unbounded and unbordered democracy. I wouldn’t go as far as to say we’re hardwired to be clannish or exclusionary, but we also have to take into account basic historical facts that are impossible to undo. Even for the most progressive visions, redistribution mechanisms require some level of coordinated bureaucracy and I don’t think there’s anything utopian about a global bureaucracy (unless it’s fully automated, which presents its own problems!) In the absence of world citizenship and open borders, my idea of a utopia would be one where citizenship was much easier to obtain for all people, and where physical residence takes precedence over ethnicity, religion, or birthplace when determining who is or isn’t a citizen.
For a long time, the democratic system was pretty straightforward: citizens make their voices heard and realise their demands through regular elections. Has that system lost its appeal or relevance?
I think the basic idea of constituents making demands and expecting them to be heard is still a sound one. And there obviously is great power in elections; otherwise we wouldn’t be living in a world with Trump and Brexit. But the political process is corrupted at every step, and it’s now so highly mediated and influenced by corporate interests that it’s affecting the nature of the demands, the rationality of how they’re made, and the outcomes of elections. If you don’t have good information, you can’t make a good decision; if it feels like no one’s listening, you’re unlikely to demand anything in the way that “normal” politics expect you to; if politician are gerrymandering, and if big money is lobbying to change voter ID laws to make it as difficult as possible for marginalized groups to vote at all, maybe you can’t vote. That all adds up.
So has citizenship lost its political currency in the process?
Citizenship – traditionally – involves having rights and responsibilities. I think that there’s less and less responsibility in the equation, and at the same time – perhaps as a result of disengagement and a loss of a coherent national identity – the ‘rights’ component is being eroded with cuts to welfare, austerity, etc.
But it’s worth noting that for a lot of people – especially people who identify as nationalists or patriots – citizenship is really meaningful, and the fact that anyone thinks it’s not is an affront to their world view. Remember “Make America Great Again”? Ironically, in the US these are also the people who are the most opposed to welfare and the social safety net. But that makes sense, too, because the idea of citizenship from an extreme-right perspective is often particularly narrow – it basically contends that citizenship should be only for white people, or people of European descent, or some other ethnically defined group. So it may be undemocratic, but it’s not depoliticized. And if you don’t identify your fellow Americans (or other countrymen) as part of your community, you’re not going to want the government to support them. For the ultra-rich, citizenship isn’t depoliticized, either: more than ever, they have the power to fund and influence political campaigns. That’s an incredibly political vision of wealth and power. It’s just not particularly fair or democratic.
I’ve described groups that tend to be conservative because they’ve captured the narrative in a way that the left hasn’t really been able to counter. Political discourse in recent years has been so centered around the notion of freedom that governments feel they can’t tell people what to do. Maybe that’s a good thing – but it’s undeniable that it also comes hand in hand with citizenship loosening its political meaning.
If we think of repoliticizing citizenship, we need to look at the “blind spots” that have been attached to the concept, e.g. its logic of exclusion based on where people are born, etc. What are for you the main blind spots, and how could we use the current moment of crisis to address and overcome them?
The biggest blind spot is that the people who are going to be the most engaged, proud and – for better or for worse, patriotic – citizens are being denied even the right to legal status. The reason for that, of course, is this ethnic idea of citizenship, which is very destructive. But it’s insane to me that countries like the US seek to deport so many immigrants who’d give an arm and a leg to be American. If you treat immigrants well, they will be your greatest advocates and tremendous assets. Bret Stephens – who’s conservative, mind you – had an excellent op-ed in the New York Times making this point in a Swiftian way: it’s well worth reading.
Which institutional frameworks do you already see emerging that could actually support “global citizenship”?
In my research I didn’t find very much that made me optimistic, to tell you the truth! So many utopian ideas about technology uniting us all did not become reality, many of them were spearheaded by extreme libertarians, and now that we’re faced with a big nationalist backlash that’s probably setting us back several decades.
There are glimmers of hope in socialist politics, but those aren’t engaging with citizenship in a global way – at least not yet. I think it’s unrealistic to expect more open borders or easier access to citizenship for immigrants anytime soon. I think we’re in a period where nationalism is being reimagined; my hope is that it’s defined in a civic, not an ethnic sense. Again, that’s a pretty low bar, but it’s an improvement.
The talk will take place at ZK/U – Center for Arts and Urbanistics on Friday, November 3 at 7:30pm. It will be moderated by Harsha Walia, a Vancouver-based activist, who is co-inititator of No One Is Illegal Vancouver and author of Undoing Border Imperialism (2013).
Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is a journalist based in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, the London Review of Books, and other publications. She has worked as an opinion editor at Al Jazeera America and a general news and business reporter for Reuters. Atossa grew up in Geneva, Switzerland, and studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Columbia University, where she returned for a master’s programme in investigative reporting at the Graduate School of Journalism.