Shaking up citizenship

Development Policy29 May 2007Ellen Lammers

On 20 and 21 April 2007, the Social Sciences and Law faculties of the Free University of Amsterdam hosted an international conference ‘Shaking up citizenship’. This promised to be an interdisciplinary exploration of how globalization affects citizenship, democracy and the role of the state in protecting citizens’ rights. Saskia Sassen, a leading theorist on globalization – gave the keynote lecture (the 18th Globaliseringslezing).1 She conveyed her vision – summarizing her latest work, Territory, Authority, Rights2 – from the pulpit of the Singelkerk, a church in Amsterdam. Although the daughter of ‘two militant atheists’ (her own words), her performance nevertheless conjured up the image of a high priestess.

Sassen argues that globalization is best understood as ‘denationalization’. While the nature and role of state institutions are changing, the nation state itself is not – as some scholars claim, and popular opinion often has it – a disappearing project. It is a misconception that the foundational – not fundamental – transformations of globalization happen outside of, and in opposition to, the nation state. Yet it is true that the distribution of state powers is being altered: there has been a significant shift of power to the executive, while the legislature is being ‘hollowed out’. A ‘democratic deficit’ is being engendered from inside the nation state – with dire consequences for the rights of citizens.

American lawyer Peter Spiro is among those who believe that, in the long run, the state will be lost.3 In his presentation he tackled the intersection of international law and citizenship. International law used to have little say in the question of who is legally entitled to formal membership – i.e. citizenship – of a particular state. These so-called ‘nationality practices’ were a domaine réservée for state sovereignty. No longer. Spiro describes the 1997 European Convention on Nationality as ‘a watershed instrument’ – it was the first multilateral agreement to refrain from condemning dual or multiple nationality as a problem.4 Rather, it shifts the focus from the interests of the state to those of individuals. Spiro is concerned about the downside of this development, that is, the consequences for definitions of community and belonging, and the strength of state-defined identity. One member of the audience commented that national solidarity has always spilled over the physical borders of the state. Whereas Spiro blames this on the encroachment of international law (‘nationality law is the fallen last bastion in the citadel of sovereignty’), Sarah van Walsum (who is studying the impacts of Dutch immigration law on transnational families) believes that international human rights law has the potential to increase the vitality of the democratic process, not least within states.

Nicolas De Genova, assistant professor at Columbia University, then presented the mirror image of Spiro’s scenario. The politics of immigration and citizenship in the aftermath of 9/11 show that more rather than less state power is produced in the US. He offered a gloomy picture of ‘enemy aliens’ and ‘preventive detentions’ in the so-called Homeland Security State. Yet even in this dominant state – which equates illegal immigrants with terrorists and takes away their rights – there is room for counter-action. Witness the May 1st boycott, ‘A Day without Immigrants’.5 Undocumented migrants have managed to reorient the state apparatus away from being obsessed with their presence. Thus, according to Sassen, ‘Powerlessness reveals its possibilities; power reveals its limits’.

Immigration and the politics of citizenship are hot issues. Sassen warns that ‘citizens’ and ‘aliens’ – which she calls the two foundational institutions of our liberal democracies – are not radically different. Both are ‘rights-bearing subjects’ and ipso facto both are vulnerable. The privileged status of the ‘formal citizen’ is threatened (it is her hobby to document the rights that citizens in the US are losing every year, usually without noticing!). Sassen considers the complex immigration issue as a window that provides new vistas on the growing vulnerability of the citizen. She invites legal citizens to make alliances with ‘the alien’, and stresses the need for a stronger international human rights system.

‘Beginnings of transformations can be brutal’, Sassen says. The start of industrialization was. The foundational inequality that accompanies today’s process of globalization is too. But let us not underestimate the power of vulnerability. About the 4 billion people living in desperate situations today, Sassen asks: what histories are they making?


    1. Saskia Sassen is the Ralph Lewis Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago, and visiting professor at the London School of Economics and at the Free University of Amsterdam. She is also director of the TransNationalism Project (TNP) at the University of Chicago.
      Saskia Sassen, keynote lecture on globalization (Globaliseringslezing) at the conference ‘Shaking up Citizenship: Nation, State and Transnational Actors’, Free University of Amsterdam, 20 and 21 April 2007.
      The presentations at the conference are available from the VU website.
      See also the website of the Amsterdam Institute for International Development (AIID).
    2. Saskia Sassen (2006) Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages. Princeton University Press. Chapter 1 can be downloaded here.
    3. For more information about the presenters, see the websites of Peter Spiro, Nicolas De Genova and Martin Lodge.
    4. The European Convention on Nationality 1997.
    5. Immigrant Solidarity Network, ‘A Day without Immigrants’.