Citizenship in a global era

Patrick Weil

The Paradoxes of Citizenship as Human Right

Citizenship has multiple different definitions, but three are most often distinguished. The first is legal —linking an individual to a nation-state. The second definition is political and civic. In a democracy, adult citizens elect their representatives, while foreign residents and minors participate in civil and political society in other ways. Finally there is the psychological dimension: “the feeling that one belongs, is connected through one’s sense of emotional attachment, identification and loyalty.” In nation-states, this feeling is created by membership in an “imagined community,” constructed from official cultural frames of social belonging within a nation-state. These three dimensions do not always correspond or coincide, but the legal dimension, manifested through passports and national IDs, confers a legal status upon more than 99% of human beings, independently of their sense of belonging or degree of participation. In this article I will deal with this dimension of citizenship, which is synonymous with “nationality” in international law.

Citizenship―the legal link between the individual and the nation-state―has developed its own independent history. In the last twenty-five years, nationality laws have been the subject of polarizing debates. The first set of disputes concerned the content of these laws. Through historical and comparative studies, scholars have emphasized several “structural” oppositions (ascription vs. consent, jus soli vs. jus sanguinis) that reflect different national identities or meanings of citizenship.

The second and more recent set of debates has arisen from a crisis of legitimacy of “nationality.” Nationality is said to have been undermined both by external compe- tition from other affiliations (sub-, trans-, or supranational, ethnic, religious, gender- related, etc.) and by its own inegalitarian qualities.

I have previously shown how old debates over the differences in the content of various states’ nationality laws have become irrelevant. Nationality laws based on jus sanguinis (a French invention) or on jus soli (a tradition maintained by the British) have their own history developed independently of conceptions of national identity. In this paper, I argue that the second set of debates has exaggerated the crisis of citizenship. In fact, far from being dépassé, national-state citizenship has developed a new vitality. Once based, before the American and French Revolutions, on allegiance to vs. protection of the King, and transformed in the nineteenth century into a conditional status based on rights but also on duties, citizenship has recently reached a new stage of its development as an element of an unalienable right.

In the US, courts and governments have secured citizenship, bringing about a new stage in its development: reversing the traditional dependency of the individual on the state, they recognized that sovereignty belongs to citizens. This model was presented by the U.S. Supreme Court in the late 1950s, but originated in a movement of the whole international community which aimed to guarantee the protections of citizenship to all individuals: it reduced statelessness, securing it for 99.8% of human beings; it gave rise to multiple citizenship and, paradoxically, reinforced nation-states as the main providers of the “the right to have rights.” Far from signifying a “post-national” or “disaggregated” form of citizenship, these legal developments, in the context of globalization, consolidate and reinforce national citizenship. In the context of globalization and the development of advanced technology, a new strategic collaboration between the individual and the state has emerged as their interests have converged.


Kendall Thomas

Defending the Dream: Barack Obama and the Politics of Racial Neoliberalism

Like his predecessors, President Barack Obama has used the powers of the U.S. presidency to support and defend the continued dominance of neoliberal politics and political economy as a mode of governmentality at home, and abroad.  However, Mr. Obama’s presidency may be distinguished from the political and economic neoliberalism of previous administrations in the energy and effort he has devoted to extending the reach and power of what might be called cultural neoliberalism.  If neoliberal governance politics seeks to maintain the power and prerogatives of the market-regulated state, neoliberal cultural politics aims to remake the whole of society in the image of the market.  Its agenda (to quote John Berger) is to cultivate popular consent to, and build a cultural consensus around “a view of the world in which everything and everybody” can be reduced to a “calculation of profit” that can be packaged, promoted, and sold, purchased and consumed.

Barack Obama is the first U.S. President in the neoliberal era whose “background,” “politics,” “professed values and ideas” and personal skills have uniquely positioned him to “sell” neoliberal programs and policies (deregulation, privatization, austerity, unemployment, corporate bailouts and the like) to a group of Americans whose lives, families and communities have been disproportionately ravaged and deracinated by the social decimation, cultural deprivation, and economic devastation that has accompanied the rise of the neoliberal corporate-financial market state.  Retooling the “consumer marketing” that put it in the White House—and placing the person and “personal politics” of the President at its center—the Obama organization has “branded” race to package and promote a distinctively racial neoliberalism.  If Ronald Regan was our first Neoliberal President, Barack Obama is our first Black Neoliberal President.

Like the broader neoliberal project it has served to legitimate, the racial neoliberal ideology (and policy) of which Mr. Obama has served as Salesman-in-Chief continues and consolidates the “economization” of American politics and political culture that was begun under Ronald Reagan, but “in a different color.”  Race has always been a foundational feature of capitalism, but racial neoliberalism is “racial capitalism” on steroids.  The neoliberal “brand management” of race under Mr. Obama has “financialized” and “profitized” black civic publics and black political culture in ways that no American president before him could have done.  Indeed, and even more decadently, racial neoliberalism marks, brands and markets blackness itself as a political consumption good (the symbolic connection to the brutal marking and branding under slavery is both ironic and uncanny).

Racial neoliberalism exploits and increases the economic and political market “value” of race in current “ethno-racial” conjuncture.  (Consider the seamless corporate branding of “diversity” that the application of consumer marketing strategy has made possible.)  At the same time it consolidates and extends the political dominance of the financial-market state, racial neoliberalism provides an ideological alibi which simultaneously “hides and strengthens” the economic order that maintains white supremacy and black inequality in the Age of Obama.  In short, Barack Obama’s racial neoliberalism is   a decidedly illiberal neoliberal racism.

In “Branding the Dream:  Barack Obama and the Politics of Racial Neoliberalism,” I explore the impact and implications of Barack Obama’s racial neoliberalism on and for the future of racial democracy in America. I argue that effective resistance to the neoliberal de-democratization of U.S. politics and political culture under the Obama presidency must reject the ideological siren call of the “post racial” and unapologetically place the defense of vulnerable racial publics and racial citizenship a central component of its political analysis and strategy.