“Citizenship” is a Scam

Membership in a nation is supposed to be a guarantee of equality and human rights. But, as two recent books attest, the concept of citizenship has been unequal from the start, and is increasingly decoupled these days from anything that even looks like safety, freedom, or fairness.

Since the heyday of Joseph McCarthy and the John Birch Society, it’s been an article of faith among American ultraconservatives that the U.N. is some kind of nefarious international cabal intent on taking over the world. Maybe as a result, it’s also a longstanding shibboleth of good liberals that the U.N. is a Good Thing, perhaps weaker than one might like but possessed of noble intentions and organized around worthy goals. Asked what those goals are, liberals will often say something like: “to protect human rights around the world.” In actuality, though, the U.N. from its earliest days has essentially self-declared that protecting human rights lies outside its job description. That protection, the U.N. decided—at the urging of its most powerful constituent states—should be the job of national governments, via the mechanism of citizenship. 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, promulgated to great fanfare at the U.N. in 1948, formally instantiated national citizenship as the answer to the problem of human rights enforcement. In the same breath that this document grandly proclaimed: “the inherent dignity and…the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” it asserted, anticlimactically, that “… everyone has the right to a nationality.” In other words, in Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase, the “right to have rights” would henceforth be accomplished not through existing as a human being, but by being a citizen of a specific country. If you had citizenship, the U.N.’s thinking went, your rights would be guaranteed by your national government. This did of course leave the problem of refugees, of whom there were a lot in 1948, just a few years after the mass displacements of the Holocaust and World War II. Under this citizenship-oriented system, those who did not “enjoy” (as the official terminology liked to put it) the protections of a sovereign state had no other entity to appeal to if their so-called “inalienable” rights were, well, alienated. Following this logic, therefore, the U.N. declared the urgency of providing nationality to all stateless people—sometimes, as in the case of Israel, going so far as to support the creation of entirely new countries in order to provide refugees citizenship (without having to allow them to settle in Western Europe or North America, of course). In this chaotic post-war moment, national citizenship was being inaugurated not just as one political or social good among many, but rather as the primary—maybe the only—viable solution to the problem of assuring human rights around the globe.

Critics of this approach—many coming out of the decolonizing countries of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East—correctly pointed out that there was a more fundamental issue with the premise of guaranteeing human rights through citizenship, bigger than the logistical problems posed by the existence of stateless people and refugees. This problem lay in the indisputable fact that not all states were equal—in material resources, political clout, military might, etc. And if all states were not equal, then citizenships were not equal—and if citizenship in a state were the only mechanism for protecting human rights, then human rights protections would therefore never be equal either. Indeed, many thinkers at the time viewed the nation itself as a profoundly insufficient vehicle for traversing the path to a fairer world. “Over a long period of time,” the anticolonial activist Frantz Fanon wrote in 1961, “the colonized have devoted their energy to eliminating iniquities such as forced labor, corporal punishment, unequal wages, and the restriction of political rights. This fight for democracy against man’s oppression gradually emerges from a universalist, neoliberal confusion to arrive, sometimes laboriously, at a demand for nationhood… [but] national consciousness is nothing but a crude, empty, fragile shell.” 

Today, more than seventy years after the U.N. grandly debuted the Universal Declaration as the fundamental basis for a new and more equitable world order, this basic issue remains. What kind of meaningful human rights claim, for instance, can a citizen of the modern nation-state of Syria make on an authoritarian government still clinging to power after more than a decade of civil war and state-inflicted violence? What about states like China and Russia (or, arguably, the U.S.), where numerous forms of political and social expression are restricted by the government? Relying on national citizenship to do the work of rights protection means that, in practice, there is no such thing as a “universal human right”: all rights are totally contingent on place, moment, or circumstance. 

This situation, Dimitry Kochenov argues, is no accident. His book Citizenship (published as part of MIT’s “Essential Knowledge” series in 2019) is a searing critique of the concept of citizenship, which he understands not as a modern civic institution designed to protect the rights of ordinary people, but as a blunt instrument of global inequality and oppression. Citizenship, he writes, is essentially a “historically violent and ultimately totalitarian status of premodern nature, both rigid to an extreme and capriciously random in how it is assigned, leaving no room for choice or merit, glorying in its sexism and racism. … The ideals [citizenship] emerged to defend have little to do with all that drives the thinking behind a good society in the contemporary world.” In other words, citizenship originated as a political expression of hierarchy. Its further development in the modern era—including its novel formulation as a building block of the international human rights regime—doubled down on those origins. Its contemporary position as the most important venue for the protection of human rights has therefore enshrined global inequity as foundational to an international political system that hypocritically claims to defend the basic principles of justice and equality. 

The book starts with a basic truth, easy to recognize but too infrequently stated: that citizenship is utterly random. “The fact that someone is Norwegian or Pakistani,” Kochenov writes, “does not have anything to do with the character, talents, education, or aspirations of the person in question.” It is this abstract, capricious, but also inescapable quality that leads Kochenov to label citizenship as “totalitarian” in nature: because, though it reflects no particular truth about an individual, citizenship cannot be jettisoned without serious consequences. (Sometimes, it cannot be jettisoned at all.) It’s a political institution that justifies itself via two basic premises. The first premise is that all citizens within a polity are functionally equal before the government and before the law. The second premise is that there is a fundamental, qualitative difference between citizens of one polity and citizens of another, such that it’s absurd for a state to place noncitizens on an equal footing with its citizens. 

Defenders of citizenship, Kochenov argues, have deliberately obscured citizenship’s hierarchical origins and rebranded it as an institution of justice, equality, and feel-good political participation. They do this primarily by focusing heavily on that first premise, that citizens of a given state are all fundamentally equal under the law. Even if we acknowledge that that this is clearly not true in practice since state institutions don’t actually treat all citizens equally, defenders of citizenship would argue that this doesn’t undermine citizenship as a concept, but just militates in favor of continuing to advocate in practice for the equality among citizens that’s already putatively guaranteed by law. But defenders of citizenship usually don’t dwell at all on that second premise—the unbridgeable gulf between citizens of a state and noncitizens of that state—because then citizenship starts to sound less like a beacon of equality and more like a global caste system. It’s not comfortable to acknowledge that the rights of citizens are inherently defined by the nonrights of noncitizens. 

Of course, citizenship’s internal equity is itself only theoretical; even the basic methods through which citizenship is acquired and passed on are hemmed about by racism and sexism. All countries award citizenship mainly through one of two legal mechanisms: ius sanguinis (blood attachment, meaning you have at least one citizen parent), or ius soli (soil attachment, meaning you were born in the territory).  Historically—including in Europe and North America—women have had limited capacities to pass on their citizenships to their children; citizenship has long been treated as a patrilineal heritage. Similarly, the concept of ius soli has long been delimited by race. For instance, in the European colonial empires, populations of color were not citizens but subjects, despite their residence in the territory of the body politic; and in nineteenth century America, Native Americans were denied citizenship despite clearly being the longest-established residents in the country. So even within citizenries, people have never really been equal at all. Still, the much more fundamental issue is not who gets to be acknowledged as a citizen and on what terms, but the fact that the whole premise of national citizenship inherently buttresses inequalities between citizens of different countries.

As Kochenov writes, once the idea is in place that members in one polity are somehow fundamentally different from members in another—and that both are “protected” by functionally equivalent systems of citizenship—we have a legitimization for limiting migration between the two polities. We can say that the essential “Norwegianness” of Norway requires gatekeeping, and we can say that this is morally and politically defensible under a global declaration of equal rights, because Pakistani citizens have their own parallel government to protect them. Then, as the basic inequities widen between Norwegian citizenship (which, as Kochenov notes, offers health care, high incomes, and above all easy movement into and through any number of other countries across the globe) and Pakistani citizenship (which offers none of those advantages and guarantees that movement will be much more difficult and perhaps impossible), the huge gulf between the actual experiences of Norwegian and Pakistani citizenship becomes a rationale in itself for the erection and maintenance of stricter and stricter border controls. In so-called developed countries, then, anti-immigration policymakers and citizens alike profess the paradoxical fear that migrants from the Global South will bring their “disadvantages” to the Global North with them, sowing social and economic chaos in the host states. We therefore end up with a small number of what Kochenov calls “super-citizenships—the majority associated with the former empires—[that] elevate their randomly assigned holders to remarkable heights in a world of opportunities, compared with all other citizenship statuses in the world,” largely through the right to free movement. A French citizen can travel without restriction to 173 countries around the world; a citizen of Algeria (ironically, once an incorporated part of the French nation) can travel to just 48, nearly all of them outside the developed world. This confluence between the structures of citizenship and the development of punishingly restrictive migration regimes, Kochenov writes, is the main mechanism by which citizenship has emerged as “a violent tool of inequitable distribution of the basic life chances around the globe.” 

But, defenders of citizenship might object, what about the ways in which citizenship reflects real cultural, political, and economic ties? What about the rights it confers and the duties it requires? Isn’t it a useful way of constructing a state in which participants have a clear stake and a defined and central role? First, the allocation of rights and duties amongst individuals in a given territory has far less to do with citizenship status these days than with other social and economic factors. The most fundamental and basic right of citizenship—the right to live and work in a territory without being ejected or deported—exists for pretty much all rich people anywhere they choose to travel, regardless of whether they’re actually citizens of a given country or not. As for duties: all residents of a territory are expected to pay taxes even if they’re not citizens, and military service in most countries has been shunted onto a mercenary underclass rather than shared collectively amongst the citizenry.

And beyond this disentanglement of citizenship from rights and duties, both nations and international courts over the past half-century have largely rejected the “national belonging” line of argument regarding who may and may not qualify for citizenship; so in a legal sense, citizenship is not widely utilized as an expression of social cohesion or homogeneity. For instance, the 1955 case of Friedrich Nottebohm—a German-born resident of Guatemala, naturalized in Liechtenstein in 1939, who was denied the protections of Liechtenstein nationality because of his lack of “genuine links” with the country—has now been dismissed by the European Union and the European Court of Justice as belonging to an outdated “romantic period of international law.” Further weakening the link between cultural belonging and citizenship is the fact that more than a hundred countries all over the globe—from Lebanon to Poland to France to Turkey—now allow expatriate citizenship, including the right to vote. “Expatriate citizens” are citizens who live permanently somewhere else and often hold another citizenship where they actually reside; meaning that in these countries, non-residents who may have never visited and do not speak the local languages could be empowered to make crucial political decisions in which long-term residents without citizenship cannot participate. This is a “huge challenge,” Kochenov writes, “to the core ideology of the political community and the bounded nation-state that brings it to life via citizenship laws.” Citizenship, in other words, has been decoupled from the (racist, sexist, and classist) institutions of the territorially-bounded premodern government with which it was once intertwined. But if citizenship is no longer an expression of place-rootedness or “romantic” nationalism, it certainly hasn’t transformed itself into anything nobler or more progressive in the meantime: it now stands in isolation as a tool of global hierarchy, reflecting little but its own absolutism. 

Kochenov is joined in this line of argument by the journalist Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, who in her book The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen (Columbia Global Reports, 2015) traces another, related story: how citizenship has become a commodity that can be bought and sold. The first half of the book tells the story of some 40,000 so-called bidoon in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, whose governments—after refusing to grant them citizenship in their own nations—instead bought passports for them in bulk from the impoverished East African island nation of Comoros. The bidoon (the word literally means “without,” and comes from the Arabic phrase bidun jinsiyya, meaning “without nationality”) are mostly members of rural and tribal communities who for a variety of reasons did not register as citizens with the Kuwaiti or Emirati states upon independence from British rule in 1961 and 1971 respectively. (Though Abrahamian does not emphasize this point, scholars have pointed out that both countries’ governments viewed mobile, transnational, mixed-sect communities as a challenge to the establishment of the monarchies, and so actively discouraged rural and tribal registrations in the early years of statehood). This indigenous population of stateless people has been augmented by the more recent presence of the children and grandchildren of migrant laborers from places like the Philippines and Pakistan, born stateless in the Gulf over several generations and now treated as indistinguishable from bidoon of local origin. 

Abrahamian details the sordid exchanges among government officials and businessmen that led the Union of the Comoros to sell “economic citizenship” to the UAE and Kuwait for distribution to the bidoon. This version of a passport reflects a broader global trend that Kochenov describes in Citizenship: the disentanglement of citizenship and territory. An economic citizenship passport technically rendered a bidoon no longer stateless, but explicitly withheld the right to settle in Comoros. In practice, this solution benefited the Kuwaiti and Emirati governments, now relieved of the pressure to include these mostly native populations in their bodies politic, and permitted them to legally treat these new “Comoros citizens” as temporary migrant laborers living in the Gulf on sufferance. For the bidoon themselves, the often forced acquisition of a Comoros passport rendered their position in Kuwait or the UAE even more precarious. Sometimes, as in the case of a bidoon labor activist whose trajectory Abrahamian follows closely, the provision of a passport was designed mainly to make removal possible, since it is virtually impossible for a country to formally expel someone who has no designated nationality. (Having been forced to acquire a Comoros passport, Ahmad Abdul Khaleq was legally deported from the UAE to Thailand in 2012.)  

So: citizenship decoupled from rights, duties, and even residency can now be sold for the various purposes of different nation-states. Equally, this disembodied citizenship can now be bought for the various purposes of individuals. The second half of Cosmopolites details a different kind of passport market: the selling of second, third, fourth passports to wealthy individuals looking for easier travel, tax shelters, and investment opportunities. It is now possible, as Abrahamian documents, “to become, through completely legal and legitimate means, a citizen of St Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, the Commonwealth of Dominica, Malta, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Austria.” A new class of passport “fixers” has arisen in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and North America, who assist would-be buyers with the process of acquiring extra citizenships—without, of course, the inconvenience of actually relocating, or of committing to any sort of political obligation in the new territory. (Sometimes, admittedly, you do have to buy some sort of apartment, even if you have no intention of ever living in it.) 

Reading Abrahamian’s account of the global market in passports, it’s hard not to agree with Kochenov’s generally pessimistic assessment of citizenship. “The glorified ‘citizenship’ of the political science textbooks, bound up with dignity and rights, could not be further disconnected from the citizenship experience of the majority of the Earth’s population, delivering violent liabilities and limiting opportunities: an extinguisher of hope,” he writes in his conclusion. “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.” Rather than guaranteeing and protecting human rights for all people, the modern institution of national citizenship has served mainly to distribute rights unevenly and cruelly, in concert with a raft of other economic and political privileges. As Abrahamian notes, “there’s a late-capitalist logic to the scheme. If citizenships can be bought and sold, why shouldn’t governments buy them for stateless people?” Such citizenship sale schemes are now replacing a citizenship-by-birth-lottery model with one of citizenship-by-wealth. It’s arguably less hypocritical, but it’s just as profoundly inequitable. 

Kochenov seems to think that these developments are examples of capitalism eating its own tail, and are therefore to be encouraged, in a kind of accelerationist sense. He has himself served as a legal consultant for the Maltese government in support of its plan to sell passports to investors, arguing before the EU that it has no standing to regulate processes of citizenship and naturalization in its constituent states. He’s hoping, maybe, that “by marketing passports like merchandise” (as Abrahamian puts it) “the citizenship business has eroded a moral veneer that, for the past hundred years, has come part and parcel with being of a place,” thereby bringing the whole citizenship enterprise under closer scrutiny and perhaps forcing its reconsideration. It seems a risky bet. As any serious observer of capitalism knows, the moral veneer is the least important part of the system; even when it wears thin, the wheels usually keep turning. 

Maybe it’s not surprising that high-profile lawyers in the Global North—however persuasive, powerful, and incisive their critiques—aren’t producing convincing practical answers to the problem of human rights enforcement. Perhaps we should be looking elsewhere—returning, maybe, to some of the more far-reaching political proposals of the era of revolutionary decolonization, when anticolonial activists from Africa to the Middle East were trying to think both above and below the nation-state to imagine fresh organizing principles for a new and more equitable global order. Human rights could, theoretically, be guaranteed by supra-national institutions less indebted to state authority than the internationalist institutions we currently have; but rights might also be more locally understood, oriented, and enforced, as central aspects of grassroots political orders defined and structured by their immediate participants, regardless of where people came from or who their parents were. To return to Fanon: “The Third World must start over a new history of man which takes account of not only the occasional prodigious theses maintained by Europe but also its crimes, the most heinous of which have been committed at the very heart of man, the pathological dismembering of his functions and the erosion of his unity…. So comrades, let us not pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions, and societies that draw their inspiration from it.” As Kochenov and Abrahamian both demonstrate so clearly: when it comes to protecting human rights, the Western-style liberal nation-state had its chance, and blew it. It’s time to try something else.  

More In: International

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue


A superb summer issue containing our "defense of graffiti," a dive into British imperialism, a look at the politics of privacy, the life of Lula, and a review of "the Capitalist Manifesto." Plus: see the Police Cruiser of the Future, read our list of the summer's top songs, and find out what to fill your water balloons with. It's packed with delights!

The Latest From Current Affairs