Rethinking citizenship beyond the nation state. Interview to Engin Isin

By Teresa Pullano
This interview is the first feature anticipating the Transeuropa Journal, which will be distributed during Transeuropa Festival in May. Online version of the journal will be available soon on
Engin Isin is the Chair in Citizenship studies and Professor in Politics and International Relations at the Open University, in London. He also directed the Center for Citizenship, Identity and Governance. Of multiple origins, he has worked for fifteen years at York University, in Canada, before coming back to Europe. Deeply rooted in a cosmopolitan experience, the work of Isin focuses on the possibility of overcoming the often narrow horizon of the nation, in order to open up the possibility for forms of community more intense and free. The interview takes place in London, for a conference around the work of the French philosopher Étienne Balibar and the idea of a form of citizenship without (national) community.
Q: The idea of a form of citizenship that goes beyond the nation seems today to be the privilege in large part of liberalism and much lesser of critical theory or movements. You understand political theory as a form of activism, therefore which is the idea of political and social emancipation that could be associated to the transpassing of national frontiers? 
My aim is to develop categories that enable us to think all men and women as political subjects, thus avoiding reducing them to national groups, identifying themselves through natural elements, such as race, gender or ethnicity, such as being black, being a woman, being homosexual. National constructions are the perverse effect of the generic character of notions such as humanity and the state. We have to rethink the idea, formulated by Hannah Arendt, of ‘the right to have rights’. For Arendt, we need to think the citizen outside of the categories of nation and humanity and within the framework of the state. The state is the supreme protector of the political subject. Arendt stresses how the state and the nation have been associated and conflated, creating numerous problems. Stateless people are therefore deprived of any kind of protection. Form here stems Arendt’s critique of human rights, which fail to provide protection to the people when and where they need it. In political life, when you are deprived of a nationality status, being just ‘human’ doesn’t help. As a consequence, even if it is great to acknowledge civil rights, you still treat a ‘negro’ as a ‘negro’. But what Arendt is unable to ask is how to treat a ‘negro’ as a political subject. 
Q: The idea of citizenship is very ambiguous, it can play a conservative role, justifying the status quo and class as well as social differences, but it can also act as a tool of emancipation. How can we conciliate these two aspects?
The fiction at the basis of European citizenship is the one of a political subject that goes beyond any form of belonging to traditional, tribal and kinship relations. The autonomy of the liberal individual is the reason of the superiority of the West over the rest of the world, according to the classical interpretation by Max Weber. Liberalism, bourgeoisie and capitalism make a triangle that structures the foundation of the state, especially the nation-state. This is therefore the narrative of the dominant class, that described its dominant subject as the ideal subject of politics. Presented as going beyond any kind of affiliation, this is instead a very specific and rooted subject. At the beginning, he was male when women were not considered as political subjects. But that has changed as a result of struggles. He was a property-owner: the inclusion within the sphere of politics of the working class or of those who do not own property is also a recent achievement as a result of struggles. He was heterosexual and of bourgeois morality. He was white. Yet these grand narratives reveal instead a specific subject, affiliated to a very specific ‘tribe’. A particular group, constituted by bourgeois, white, male, heterosexual and property-owner constituted itself as dominant group. Saying that implies nevertheless incorporating the struggles for the ‘other’ forms of citizenship with respect to this dominant citizenship. This means the opening towards ecological, gender and cultural identifications. It is not possible to think citizenship without its ‘others’. The project is thus the one of delineating a genealogy of citizenship in order to redefine it. In this way, citizenship can be seen as that form of political subjectivity that allows the others, the dominated and subjugated, to make claims. This must be the source of a new inflection on the meaning of the ‘right to have rights’ to the city and to the polity.
Q: In your attempt to redefine contemporary political subjectivity, you tried to develop a new idea, the one of ‘acts of citizenship’. Is this a new way to envisage collective action and political engagement? Can you tell us what you mean with this term?
The question we need to ask is: what enables new subjects to constitute themselves as subjects of politics? The notion of “acts” is one of the least theorized concepts in social theory. I started to think precisely about the notion of “acts of citizenship”. I have an activist background, thus I was asking myself: what compels people, what motivates people, what mobilizes them to say: it’s not only unjust what I am observing but it is also intolerable. That’s the foundation of an act. We can rethink the well-known act of Rosa Park. My point of view is psychoanalytical-political: while many people recognize injustices, what did mobilize Rosa Park and nobody else? It’s not enough to notice injustice, but one has to find an injustice intolerable. This is what it means to “act”. In this sense, a speech is not an act. Socially, theoretically, politically, there is room to theorize that: what mobilizes people to take risks? As activist, if you don’t feel that you are putting something on the line, we know that it is not genuine. We need thus to distinguish between deed and opinion, between deed and word. This is not devaluating the word, which would be a hypocritical act, but to give the deed some theoretically autonomous, irreducible power. What constitutes an act? This cannot be answered individually, it calls for collective work.
Q: Which are the alternatives to the Western idea of citizenship?
Today, the hermetically sealed political community, that is the nation state, is inadequate in the way we organize our practices around the world and it is bleeding at its edges. There are various responses to that: you can try to revive various forms of new nationalisms; or you can try to recapture it at another scale, that is the idea of cosmopolitan democracy; or, in alternative, you can try to think that this is the moment when we can think differently what it means to be political beyond the domination of Western based, Eurocentric political theory, instead of jumping to cosmopolitan democracy, thus re-inscribing within euro-centric, Greek, Judeo-Christian tradition of thinking about the political. The space in which we are moving into is a space of experimentation. Cosmopolitan citizenship, world-citizenship closes such a space. This is the time to rethink what it means to act politically. But, is it possible to think collectively with Chinese, Indian etc colleagues and activists? Is it possible to institute practices genuinely organized across countries without opening this up to Western domination? This is the political question to ask. If we want a critical thinking, we need to take language seriously. In this sense, I ask myself if it makes sense to use the term citizenship, which belongs to Western political grammar, to talk about political subjectivity. At the same time, it is impossible to find another word without engaging seriously with the issue of citizenship.
Q: In a context of transformation of national frontiers and of repositioning of Western countries in international relations, especially with respect to emerging powers, how do you interpret the crisis that Europe is now going through?
Today, Europe is a particular site of struggle. We need to think about Europe as a site of struggle. As a site of struggle, it is open and various claims are being made. We need to understand what particular forces are making claims and trying to take control of that Europe which is the site of struggle. We can distinguish external forces and internal ones. We cannot think about Europe as a site of struggle without asking what is to be non-European, what is the European other? Europe itself is not hermetically sealed, as a site is not geographically stable and already constituted. It bleeds into Asia, Turkey, it flows into Africa or North-America. It is an amorphous form, whose extensions goes beyond what it is geographically. We have to think about Europe not as a geographical entity, but as a site, not limited in itself. What is at stake with that? The reorganization of different forms of capitalism. We do not have to refer to capitalism with a capital C, but capitalism is multiple, fractured, with tensions and contradictions. From within Europe, one way to approach it is the so-called member states. Those are the ones organizing interests and making claims on Europe and those are the one who constitute a sort of collective that dominates Europe, that is the EU. The dilemma of the left: how do we organize rights in a time of neoliberal domination? We can talk about rights at the European scale, in general terms, but in the end we need to deal with the way in which member states organize concretely rights and interests in Europe. Europe though is not the EU. EU is one actor among others. The EU does not exhaust the European project, even if we do not have to underestimate its significance. Especially on the left, we do not have to think that the EU project exhausts the European project. There is not only one way of enacting European politics.
Q: Todays’ Europe seems to be very far away from being a sort of world avant-garde for cosmopolitanism. Europe is not only becoming more and more isolated and provincialized, but nationalisms and populisms are being revived everywhere within it. How can we envisage a different perspective on Europe’s future?
The financial crisis is coming at a time when already in constituted states of Europe neoliberalism has been flaming the fires of nationalism in various ways. One of the contradictions of neoliberalism is that, by producing self-sufficient subjects, opening markets, autarchic economic and political entities, it has generated numbers of insecurities. One of the consequences is new forms of nationalism, providing a narrative of neo-security. Neo-securitarian agenda thus goes together with the neoliberal one. In Greece, neoliberalism has been imposed with a vengeance. Greece is an intensified site of struggle, but we should not see what is happening as limited to Greece. The crisis is going to choose other points of intensification, such as Spain, UK, Ireland, Portugal, Italy etc. What is at stake is what does it mean to redefine the EU citizen as a bearer of European rights. This is significant for us to articulate. The more it is articulated as a financial crisis, the more we need to articulate it as a political crisis. We need to ask questions: euro, as a zone of finance, we need to think as: as citizens of Europe, what does eurozone owe to its Greek citizens? That is not how that question is posed to bureaucrats and politicians dealing with the eurozone and how to stabilize it. How does European citizen manage to disappear? Beyond and outside parties, what mechanisms and devices can articulate that question? What subject of history can we imagine at the moment who will enable us to ask that question not as a financial one but as a political question?