Citizenship: The Great Extinguisher of Hope

Hypocritical and random in nature, citizenship is an empty rhetorical shell deployed to perpetuate abuse, dispossession, and exclusion.
"The gulf between the substance of the notion of citizenship and the positive, glorifying narrative surrounding it has never been wider than today." Image: MIT Press Reader
By: Dimitry Kochenov

Citizenship is a very unlikely concept to glorify: Its only purpose is to divide the world and appear unquestionable and “natural” in the face of the most obvious criticism. Its distribution around the world is entirely random and totalitarian: One is a citizen purely on the strength of having been assigned to a particular citizenship by an authority — an authority that brooks no dissent, should you claim to not belong. Your agreement is not necessary and your protests are of no avail, yet everything about you — from life expectancy to your income and basic freedoms inside and outside the assigning state the world over — is in direct correlation with this congenital assignment, in which you can neither participate nor refuse in the majority of cases.

The assignment of citizenship is entirely beyond our control and glorified as logical and “natural,” yet citizenship is not a force of nature: It is designed with certain groups and people in mind, making sure that those who are disliked or regarded as of little use by the relevant authority at any given moment and for whatever reason will surely be kept down at the time of the initial assignment or later. No protests are expected or tolerated: What is “natural” must be accepted.

This article is adapted from Dimitry Kochenov’s book “Citizenship.”

Given the radical differences in quality between different citizenships around the world — some bringing amazing rights, others merely poisonous liabilities — the randomized totalitarian assignment endows citizenship with its core function: the preservation of global inequality.

Distributed like prizes in a lottery where four-fifths of the world’s population loses, citizenship is clothed in the language of self-determination and freedom, elevating hypocrisy as one of the status’s core features. Even considering the truly minuscule proportion of the world’s population that ever changes its citizenship, the grip of citizenship on our lives is close to absolute, even if it is at times unnoticed. Citizenship’s connection to “freedom” and “self-determination” usually stops making any sense at the boundaries of the most affluent Western states. Citizenship, for most of the world’s population, is thus an empty rhetorical shell deployed to perpetuate abuse, dispossession, and exclusion. It is a means of directing former colonials to their unenviable place, spiced with a delightfully attractive hint of nationalism.

Upon critical reflection, the glorified concept of Citizenship boils down to a cocktail of punishing randomness and hypocrisy.

The glorified “citizenship” of political science textbooks, bound up with dignity and rights, could not be further disconnected from the citizenship experienced by the majority of the Earth’s population, delivering violent liabilities and limiting opportunities: an extinguisher of hope. Citizenship, as one of the key tools for locking the poorest populations within the confines of their dysfunctional states, thus perpetuates and reinforces global inequality, making talk of equality difficult to sustain with a straight face, and denying individual agency through its appeal to a “natural” distribution of lifetime opportunities not open to contestation. Upon critical reflection, the glorified concept boils down to a cocktail of punishing randomness and hypocrisy: two of citizenship’s key features, noble justifications aside.

The core business model of this concept has been the extraction of duties from those proclaimed “to belong” in exchange for a state protection racket and associated favors that they can neither choose nor refuse. As a tool for instilling complacency and homogeneity in societies, citizenship has played a key role in silencing dissent and streamlining obedience. In this citizenship does not depend on whether a country is democratic or totalitarian: obedience is required anywhere and citizenship is a tool to instill it, no matter what. Yet it is still generally perceived very positively: citizenship is proclaimed to be magically endowed with “dignity,” “values,” and “freedom” from Kyrgyzstan and Cambodia to Canada and Chad. It is a splendid governance tool that teaches us to ignore the plight of those who have not been assigned the same status at birth as us — a way to justify switching off reason. It is, therefore, crudely nationalist in essence. Yet because of rather than despite all of the above, citizenship occupies a central role in the contemporary world, which is still the world of states, and scholars and politicians compete in offering rationalizing and glorifying accounts of the concept. Citizenship captures our imagination and a good citizen always is said to be ready to die for the values the status installs and preserves.

In my book “Citizenship,” I demonstrate that citizenship’s positive image has little to do with the reality on the ground and the causes of this deep disconnect are not difficult to uncover. Long overdue is criticism of the liberal nationalist traditions inspiring the popular visions of citizenship today — either explicitly or implicitly. Discussion of citizenship as a positive force is impossible outside of a dreamworld where every nation is set in a vast expanse of nothingness. It is fundamental to focus on citizenship’s essential, built-in chronic pathologies that I outline in the book in order to start a nuanced debate on the possible place that citizenship could occupy in the world of tomorrow.

Citizenship is precisely about mass caste assignments in a context where individual agency and all the personal characteristics of the bearers are dismissed by definition.

The gulf between the substance of the notion of citizenship and the positive, glorifying narrative surrounding it has never been wider than today. This gulf has never been more undeniable, either. All those desiring to restore citizenship to some mythic historical ideal — a huge dead-end trend in contemporary literature — are never open about the simple fact that there is nothing to restore, unless they feel like returning to colonialism and strict observance of racist and sexist rules imposed territorially by belligerent societies demanding enormous sacrifices from those who are proclaimed to belong, total submission from those who are not, and tolerating no dissent. Where citizenship is assessed critically, approached through an empirically informed global perspective — rather than a purely normative, one-nation lens blind to the harms the concept has been designed to inflict — there is no place for giving it any undeserved credit for its mythical “value.” Instead, the injustice, the pain, and the arbitrary servile violence inherent in citizenship are bound to be noticed, recorded, and analyzed.

Related: The Dark Side of Citizenship: An expert in citizenship reveals the concept’s totalitarian, racist, and sexist underpinnings and considers alternatives.

The most frequent mistake in approaching citizenship, however, is not related to its inexplicable glorification. It is ignoring the importance of the legal status at the heart of this concept. Underplaying it misrepresents all the essential characteristics of citizenship entirely. Once the status and the rules for its assignment are placed at the center of the citizenship story, the multitude of citizenships around the world and the strict boundaries between them naturally become the focal point of discussion, making myopic confocal misrepresentations very difficult, if not impossible.

This is the context in which we suddenly become able to discover that citizenship is under tremendous pressure, which could in theory endanger the concept’s very survival. Contemporary law and politics are built on the ethical base of equal human worth and the idea of deserving and achievement: The world has officially moved far away from the caste structures of the past. Children in every school are taught to realize their potential by studying hard and taking control of their future into their own hands. The core idea of fairness informing the contemporary understanding of law and politics is inspired by Enlightenment reason and is centered on the belief that the individual is in charge and the authority is able and willing to back its decisions with recourse to valid reasons and clear arguments.

Tragically for citizenship, any appeal to this concept is nothing but shorthand for the denial of all such foundational positions. Worse still, adapting its essence so that contemporary fairness can be incorporated into the story of citizenship is absolutely impossible. Citizenship is precisely about mass caste assignments in a context where individual agency and all the personal characteristics of the bearers are dismissed by definition. It is an abstract totalitarian status struggling to survive in a world where all it has ever cherished and promoted is untenable in principle even if it survives in practice, once it is taken beyond the context of a particular group endowed with the same status. As the realization of this simple fact grows, the prestige of citizenship is bound to diminish very steeply.

The good ship Citizenship is sinking with all its glorious though very dated music playing on board, and only nationalists will be saddened at its loss.

In the contemporary world of reasoning rooted in globally shared understandings — such as equal human worth, agency, and fairness, for instance — a status boasting no compelling rationale on its side beyond simple convenience of the preservation of the status quo — “are you really arguing for bringing down that wall?” — will struggle to survive, and thus is bound, sooner or later, to follow its own foundational features, which are no longer there: sexism, racism, and the intolerance of individuality outside the officially mandated litanies of “good citizenship.” Because in reality our world is not arbitrary and not totalitarian in its ideals, it therefore is not an ideal foundation for classical citizenship: All the hypocrisy in the world will not be enough to misrepresent current cultural and legal developments in a citizenship-friendly vein. The good ship Citizenship, in other words, is sinking with all its glorious though very dated music playing on board, and only nationalists will be saddened at its loss.

How sudden will this sinking be? It is absolutely clear at this point that citizenship is too much part of the current and constantly employed toolbox used to produce, reproduce, and explain our day-to-day reality. Change will come gradually — and this is what we are already observing the world over. With the global rise of intercitizenships, the correlation between the status and the territory of rights is also broken. Moreover, the granting of political rights to expats in situations where non-citizens at home do not vote undermines the core justification behind citizenship today — political self-determination. Nothing is worse for the status of enabling “self-determination” — citizenship’s most routine justification — than making democracies tribal in a global context while governance remains strictly territorial.

If citizenship is becoming increasingly redundant as a proxy for the activation of civil and social rights, at a certain point it also becomes too much of a stretch to claim that it is indispensable for political rights — after all, it is not.


Dimitry Kochenov is Professor of EU Constitutional Law at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. He has served as a consultant for governments, law firms, and international institutions, including the Maltese Republic, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and the European Parliament. He is the author “Citizenship,” from which this article is adapted.

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