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Home / Resources / News / Who are we, the citizens?

Who are we, the citizens?

Saskia Sassen

Article by Saskia Sassen
Columbia University 

I think of citizenship as an incompletely theorised contract between the rights-bearing individual and his or her state. It is in this incompleteness of citizenship that lies the possibility for its long and mutating life. There is room for making and remaking ‘the’ citizen, including for those ‘who do not belong’ – whether the foreigner outside or the foreigner inside a country.

Today citizenship is in crisis: but we can and must find yet another version of the meaning of citizenship from throughout its long history and our present conditions. It will require work because we are living through massive restructurings that go well beyond social exclusions and amount to sharp expulsions – you are either in, or you are out. Who is gaining rights in today’s world? Over the last thirty years, it is mostly corporations, and the new global elites do not even need to be formal citizens to go where they want and to obtain what they want. Yet we, the regular citizens, have been losing rights, with a few partial exceptions. On the other hand, while most immigrants are citizens of some country (about 3% are stateless), they are treated as if they were aliens without rights. Further, many migrants are actually being expelled from their life spaces, notably due to the vast land grabs in their countries by firms from the US, Europe and Asia – that is the countries where they often wind up.

In short, there is work to be done. In fact, more and more initiatives are being launched across the world: we all know that we will have to fight to make it a better one.

Looking at Western history, it is the outsiders who have often succeeded in expanding our rights. They subjected the institution of citizenship to new types of claims across time and place – whether it is non-property owners in England’s early 19th century, claiming rights to citizenship, or LGBT people in 2000 claiming the same rights as other citizens. Women, minorities, asylum seekers, migrants, have all contributed to expanding the rights of all citizens in often multi-generational trajectories. ‘Making’ by the powerless has a far slower temporality than that of ‘making’ by the powerful, who can grab and destroy quickly. Yet when the demands of ‘outsiders’ for expanded inclusions succeed, they strengthen the overall institution of citizenship. They may not have gained much power in this process, but their powerlessness became complex – they made a history, a politics.

Today the meaning itself of the national state and national membership is becoming unstable, and either neutralises nationhood or distorts it into a visceral pre-political passion – pre-political because politics is meant to overcome and intermediate the visceral. The traditional borders of the modern inter-state system became and continue to be a critical and marking feature for membership and a key to the debate about migration. What is not sufficiently worked into the debate is that the traditional inter-state border, with all its practical and formal variability, is increasingly just one element in a larger emergent operational space for human mobilities that took off in the 1980’s. This is a space marked by growing divergence between poor and high-level migrants.

whodoeseuropebelongto pic

A. Zanoli, “Who does Europe Belong to?” Ljublana, Slovenia

One innovation is the proliferation of specialised visas enabling firms to hire a particular kind of migrant worker – “foreign professionals” – even as it built new types of walls for most migrants.

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) Mode 4 stipulation gives workers a range of formal portable rights that are recognised in all signatory countries when a firm hires them. This is the making of a privileged subject with portable rights. We can learn from this. It is a possibility not envisaged in most discussions on migration. The starting point should be that most migrants are citizens of some country, a fact forgotten in the language of illegality – there is no such thing as an illegal human being. The challenge then becomes how to make some of the basic rights portable, as we have done for professionals.

More informally, for today’s mobile global class of the very rich, citizenship or formal state-authorised membership has little meaning – they do not need it to gain access to foreign national territories. Nor does it matter that much anymore for the immobile global class of dispossessed for whom citizenship is beginning to matter less and less – it gives them few rights and barely a platform for making claims. Does the fact that hatred towards foreigners can coexist with the partial denationalising of political membership for the rich tell us something about the arbitrary quality of our policies? We should map this arbitrariness: it is valuable information.

In the past, the reasons and origins of migration differed from today’s. But the fact is that all current major European countries have been receiving migrants for centuries. Historical demography shows that most European nation -states have ‘integrated’ foreigners over the centuries. Can we learn something from this history of multiple micro-integrations alongside often murderous hatreds of the outsider?

Anti-immigrant sentiment and attacks took place in each of the major immigration phases in all the countries in Western Europe (Sassen 1999). No labour-receiving country survives close investigation with a spotless record ­. French workers killed Italian workers in the salt mines in the 1800’s 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 suggests that those fighting for integration in the long run have won, even though only partly. The ‘wrong Catholic’ of yesterday’s Europe still lives on, dressed in a variety of new identities – black, Muslim, and so on. But what the past does tell us is that we fool ourselves if we think that differences of phenotype, religion and culture are obstacles built in stone, insurmountable. Are the Belgian and German migrant workers seen in 1800’s Paris as the “wrong Catholics” today’s African and Muslim migrants?

Social membership takes time, and struggle, and does not necessarily give formal rights. But it can eventually feed into more formal meanings of membership. At its best, our diversities, our foreignness, feed into dynamics that value this complexity of membership and its inevitable incompleteness.