Monday, 17 November 2014

Citizenship, sovereignty and doing citizenship differently

This week David Cameron announced the possible creation of powers to cancel the passports for up to two years of UK nationals who travel abroad to fight for the Islamic State. The measures are designed to counter the 'existential threat' posed to Britain by 'extremists'. Civil liberties campaigners have accused the Government of 'dumping suspect citizens like toxic waste', because the plans would effectively make people stateless by stripping them of their citizenship.
If you're interested in freedom and equality then there are plenty of arguments against this proposal. For me, what's most sickening about it is it's such a blatant wielding of sovereign power over people, and in a way that completely ignores issues of race and class among other factors.
But the notion of citizenship is not one that sits easily within an anarchist perspective. Theoretically at least, to criticise this proposal – and effectively argue in favour of citizenship - can also feel problematic.
Citizenship is conventionally thought of as membership of a political community - the nation - contained within a political territory - the state. The 'benefits' of membership exist as rights and responsibilities conferred upon us by a political authority. Hence, citizenship is fundamental to state sovereignty and vice versa, so being pro-citizenship is a problem if you are anti-state.
But what about thinking of citizenship without a state?
If we strip it back to basics, citizenship can be thought of as a set common of agreements between people on what we see as our rights and responsibilities to each other. I could say that it is a system that seeks to instil and guarantee care and equality between people. In doing this it is a part of making a community and therefore a part of making a political – power-full – space. Citizenship adds up to a set of agreements that make us recognise each other as political subjects.
The problem is that citizenship within a state is something so far removed from the idea of agreements between consenting people. Within a racist, patriarchal capitalist system that has a long history, citizenship is distorted beyond recognition as an agreement that we ever consented to.
Furthermore, within the framework of the state, citizenship has become thought of only as a legal status that is given to people by the state; something that is static and unchanging. From this perspective it is rarely approaches as a process that is enacted by people, and re-created all the time in the way that people behave as citizens or not. It is a legal status too, but it is also defined by the way we behave, and in that sense is beyond the views of the government as to who or what is a good citizen. We enact citizenships and in doing that, change it. In that sense citizenship is dynamic. Through our action we reinforce, as well as contest and hence change what citizenship is and means.
Some say it is this very distinction that is the problem; that if we need to tell each other we are equal, then there's some kind of inequality already present for that to be necessary. But I think this unnecessarily presents social organisation as inherently negative or authoritarian. Whereas wherever people live in common, having ways to make visible hierarchies can be an incredibly positive way of nurturing equality that would be extremely difficult without them. Citizenship can enable equality.
Coming up with ways that people can enshrine care, well-being and equality into their relationships with each other is very much a concern of anarchism. So I don't think its citizenship per se that's the problem, but how it's used within the state system.
Thinking of citizenship in terms of agreements of care that politicise its subjects enables us to separate citizenship from the state, because it enables recognition that we enact or create citizenships all the time, in many different spaces and communities beyond the state. Acts of citizenship are acts where people recognise each other as valuable in and of themselves. In that sense they happen between people who might already be excluded from citizenship / denied certain rights. People without papers coming together to discus how to organise their camps in Calais is an act of citizenship even if it is not generally recognised as anything political at all. Whenever a group comes together and discusses how they want to be together, that is a little act of citizenship.
I am against Cameron's proposal because I am against the dominant conceptualisation of citizenship that is implied in it; that sees citizenship only as a web of rights conferred by the state. So the issue for me is not about how to be anti this proposal and also anti citizenship, but rather that we talk about citizenship in a different way, and continue to focus and explore the citizenships that we create and enact in our localities.