Volume 11, Issue 2, Spring 2001

Dismantling the Leviathan: Citizen and State in a Global World
Seyla Benhabib

The modern nation-state in the West, in the course of its development from the 16th to the 19th century, struggled to attain four goals: territorial dominion, administrative control, consolidation of collective cultural identity, and the achievement of political legitimacy through increasing democratic participation. Yet contemporary developments--such as the rise of a global economy through the formation of free markets in capital, finance, and labor; the increasing internationalization of armament, communication, and information technologies; the emergence of international and transnational cultural networks and electronic spheres; and the growth of sub- and transnational political actors--herald the fragmentation of all four of these state functions.

Globalization brings with it an increasingly volatile context in which the administrative-material functions of the state are embedded--one that far exceeds the state's capacities to influence decisions and outcomes. The nation-state is too small to deal with the economic, ecological, immunological, and informational problems created by the new environment; on the other hand, it is too large to deal with the aspirations of identity-driven social and regionalist movements. Under these conditions, territoriality is fast becoming an anachronistic delimitation of material functions and cultural identities. As a global economy undermines the power of nation-states to define redistributive policies and to achieve economic justice, alternative sources of cultural hegemony are provided by the inter- and transnationalization of culture, the movement of peoples across porous state borders, and the rise of global media. Democratic legitimacy now has to be attained in nation-states where the "we" is increasingly frayed and amorphous. While the crises of redistributionist politics affect solidarity across social classes, the rise of multiculturalist and identity-politics driven movements fragment the "we" and render the nation-state's boundaries fluid and porous. Who are "we"?

Against this background, I will focus this essay on the recent literature on political membership and citizenship. Political membership is but one aspect of a theory of citizenship, albeit a crucial one. It concerns the institutional processes of access to, and acquisition of, the status of citizenship. It deals with the principles and institutions of incorporating aliens and strangers, immigrants and newcomers, refugees and asylum seekers into existing polities. What should be the normative principles of democratic membership in a world of increasingly deterritorialized politics?

Membership and the Paradox of Domestic Sovereignty

Democratic rule means that all members of a sovereign body are to be respected as bearers of human rights, and that the consociates of this sovereign freely associate with one another to establish a regime of self-governance, under which each is to be considered both author of the laws and subject to them. Since Rousseau, however, we know that the will of the democratic people may be legitimate but unjust, unanimous but unwise. "The will of all" and "the general will" may not correspond either in theory or in practice. Democratic rule and the claims of justice may contradict one another.

Yet this paradox of democratic legitimacy has a corollary which has been little noted: every act of self-legislation is also an act of self-constitution. "We, the people" who agree to bind ourselves by these laws, are also defining ourselves as a "we" in the very act of self-legislation. It is not only the general laws of self-government that are articulated in this process; the community that binds itself by these laws defines itself by drawing boundaries as well, and these boundaries are both territorial and civic. The will of the democratic sovereign extends only over the territory which is under its power; democracies require borders. At the same time that the sovereign defines itself territorially, it defines itself in civic terms: full members of the sovereign body are distinguished from those who "fall under its protection" but who do not enjoy "full membership rights." Women and slaves, non-Christians and members of nonwhite races, as well as servants and propertyless white males, have historically been excluded from membership in the sovereign body. They are, in Kant's famous words, "mere auxiliaries to the commonwealth."

Furthermore, as was the case with the American and French Revolutions, "we, the people" empowers itself as the sovereign in the name of truths held to be universal and self-evident, namely that "all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights." Thus the democratic sovereign draws its legitimacy not merely from its act of constitution, but, equally significantly, from the conformity of this act to universal principles of human rights that are said to precede the will of the sovereign, and in accordance with which the sovereign undertakes to bind itself. "We, the people" refers to a particular human community, circumscribed in space and time, sharing a particular culture, history, and legacy; yet this people establishes itself as a democratic body by acting in the name of the "universal." This tension between universal human rights claims and particularistic cultural and national identities is constitutive of democratic legitimacy. Modern democracies act in the name of universal principles which are then circumscribed within a particular civic community. This is the "Janus face of the modern nation," in the words of Jürgen Habermas.

By focusing on this constitutive tension of democratic communities, I will articulate a vision of transnational political membership. I will argue that the rights and claims of others--strangers and foreigners, refugees and asylum seekers, immigrants and temporary workers--should be considered a central aspect of any understanding of membership in liberal democracies, and of theories of justice focusing on interstate relations generally.

In making this argument, I will first examine the objections to political deterritorialization voiced by civic republicans. Because citizenship entails membership in a bounded community, and because the right to self-determination of the boundaries as well as identity of this community is considered fundamental to democracy, civic republicans see political globalization as undermining democratic citizenship. I want to illustrate that these fears are exaggerated empirically and that, philosophically, civic republicans like Michael Walzer are wrong to conflate the boundaries of the ethical community, which is inherently culture-bound, with those of the democratic polity, which is not culture-bound in the same manner and to the same degree. I conclude by maintaining that liberal-democratic practices of immigration and naturalization, far from undermining the civic community, can enhance the value of specific legal and institutional traditions by making erstwhile strangers and foreigners into partners in a community of democratic interpretation and articulation.

Civic-Republican Skepticism and the Right to Political Membership

In this essay, I accept the distinction between immigrants on the one hand and refugees and asylum seekers on the other--although in reality, many people become immigrants because they have been made refugees by their home governments, and some, though not as many as their opponents would like to claim, demand refugee and asylum status because they are, in truth, "economic refugees" (i.e., more properly, immigrants).

Yet I uphold the refugee-immigrant distinction, even though it is inadequate to deal with the complexities of the flow of peoples in a globalized world. I do so because, from the standpoint of international law as well as moral philosophy, the duties and obligations we owe to strangers who seek entry into our communities on the grounds that they are persecuted--for their ancestry and ethnicity, beliefs or convictions, or because war, persecution, or natural disasters make their homes uninhabitable--is of a different kind than the obligations we owe others who choose to live in our midst. The claims of refugees and asylum seekers do generate stronger obligations of compliance on the part of receiving communities. Denying refuge and sojourn to refugees and asylees would violate a fundamental rule of human morality--namely, to aid those in need--as well as stipulations of the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Therefore, recipient communities must stand under a "stricter burden of proof" to show why such claims are unworthy of recognition, or how or why recognizing them would jeopardize not just the economic standard of living but the very survival of the receiving communities.

Current international practice, however, is much more lenient. Michael Walzer aptly summarizes common thinking about these matters:

To take in large numbers of refugees is often morally necessary; but the right to restrain the flow remains a feature of communal self-determination. The principle of mutual aid can only modify and not transform admissions policies rooted in a particular community's understanding of itself [emphasis added].

I think this formulation sets too easy a standard of compliance for the involved governments. What exactly counts as "admissions policies rooted in a particular community's understanding of itself?" Walzer is among the few contemporary theorists to have discussed how significant questions of membership are to theories of justice and democracy. Yet his position is built around one aspect of the paradox of democratic legitimacy that I articulated above--namely, that of the collective self-determination of a democratic people--while leaving the dimension of universal human rights fully unrecognized. Walzer privileges the will of the political sovereign while seeking to allay the possible injustices and inequities that may result from such acts and policies by emphasizing a community's ability to exercise fairness and compassion, sensitive contextual reasoning, and moral openness. I argue that this strategy is inadequate and that dilemmas of political membership in liberal democracies go to the heart of the self-definition, as well as self-constitution, of these polities precisely because, as liberal democracies, they are built on the constitutive tension between human rights and political sovereignty.

In an elegant passage which has been extensively quoted, Walzer writes:

To tear down the walls of the state is not . . . to create a world without walls, but rather to create a thousand petty fortresses. The fortress, too, could be torn down: all that is necessary is a global state sufficiently powerful to overwhelm the local communities . . . . The distinctiveness of cultures and groups depends upon closure and, without it, cannot be conceived as a stable feature of human life. If this distinctiveness is a value, as most people (though some of them are global pluralists, and others only local loyalists) seem to believe, then closure must be permitted somewhere. At some level of political organization, something like the sovereign state must take shape and claim the authority to make its own admissions policy, to control and sometimes restrain the flow of immigrants.

There is a quick slide in Walzer's argumentation from the value of "the distinctiveness of cultures and groups" to the need for "closure" and thus the justification for "something like the sovereign state" to control boundaries and set admissions policy. Walzer does not distinguish between the methodological fiction of a unitary "cultural community" and the actual, institutional polity. A democratic polity with pluralist traditions consists of many cultural groups and subgroups, many cultural traditions and counter-traditions; furthermore, the "national" culture itself is formed by the contested multiplicity of many traditions, narratives, and historical appropriations.

Equally significantly, Walzer does not distinguish among principles of cultural integration and principles of political integration. Cultural communities are built around their members' adherence to values, norms, and traditions which bear a prescriptive value for their identity, in that failure to comply with them affects their own understanding of membership and belonging. Surely, though, there is always contestation and innovation around such cultural definitions and narratives: What does it mean to be an observant but a non-orthodox Jew? What does it mean to be a modern Muslim woman? What does it mean to be a pro-choice Catholic? Cultural traditions consist of such narratives of interpretation and reinterpretation, appropriation and subversion. In fact, the more alive a cultural tradition, the more contestation there will be about its core elements. Walzer invokes throughout much of his work, including but not limited to Spheres of Justice, a "we." This "we" suggests an identity without conflict, a unity without "fissure." It is a convenient methodological fiction, but its consequences for political argument can be invidious.

Political integration refers to those practices and rules, constitutional traditions and institutional habits, that bring individuals together to form a functioning political community. This functioning has a twofold dimension: not only must it be possible to run the economy, the state, and its administrative apparatus, but to do so, the legitimacy of the major societal institutions must be recognized by the community. The legal-rational authority of the modern state rests not only on administrative and economic efficiency, but also on belief in its legitimacy. But principles of political integration are necessarily more abstract and more generalizable than principles of cultural identity, precisely because modern states presuppose a plurality of competing as well as coexisting world views, precisely because in the modern state political life is one sphere of existence among many others with claims upon us, and precisely because the disjunction between personal identities and allegiances and public choices and involvements is constitutive of the freedom of citizens in liberal democracies.

Of course, there will be some variation across existing political communities as to what the constituents of such political integration will be; the typology of civic and ethnic nationalisms indicates such a range. Nonetheless, in liberal democracies, conceptions of human and citizens' rights, constitutional traditions, and democratic practices of election and representation are the core normative elements of political integration. It is to them that citizens as well as foreigners, nationals as well as resident aliens, have to show respect and loyalty, and not to the vagaries of this or that cultural tradition.

Precisely because Walzer conflates cultural with political integration, many of his wise claims about immigration and naturalization policy create the impression that they are the results of, what Kant would call, "contracts of beneficence." Walzer cannot thematise the dual, fractured identity of the members of the modern democratic sovereign as bearers of human rights qua moral persons on the one hand, and as bearers of citizens' rights and members of the sovereign on the other. In his view, the dualism of universal human rights principles and the exigencies of sovereign self-determination are eliminated in favor of the right to collective self-determination. Repeatedly, citizens' identity is given a thick cultural coating, while human rights are contextualized. In a passage remarkably reminiscent of Edmund Burke's critique of the French Revolution, Walzer writes: "Men and women do indeed have rights beyond life and liberty, but these do not follow from our common humanity; they follow from shared conceptions of social goods; they are local and particular in character." We may indeed wish to ask how a conception of "shared social goods" is to provide a conception of rights since, pace Walzer, it is rights claims that, more often than not, are invoked to arbitrate among conflicting conceptions of social goods.

The democratic people constitute themselves as sovereign because they uphold certain principles of human rights and because the terms of their association interpret as well as flesh out these rights. Of course, the precise interpretation of basic human rights and the content of citizens' rights must always be spelled out in the light of the concrete historical traditions and practices of a given society. But these principles are not exhausted, either in their validity or in their content, through their embodiment in specific cultural and legal traditions. They have a context-transcending validity claim, in the name of which the excluded and the downtrodden, the marginalized and the despised, mobilize and claim political agency and membership. The history of democratic reforms and revolutions, from the workers' movements to the Suffragists, from antidiscrimination to anticolonial struggles, widens the circle of addressees of these rights, as well as transforms their content. It is precisely because these rights claims have a context-transcending quality that they can be invoked by those who have been excluded "from shared conceptions of social goods" and for whom the "local and the particular" have borne stigmata of inequality, oppression, and marginalization.

I have started this section by accepting the necessary, even if problematical, distinction between refugees and asylees on the one hand and immigrants on the other. Walzer, I explained, represents the civic-republican voice in debates around citizenship and immigration. He upholds the right of the democratic sovereign to define borders and boundaries and to enclose the geographical as well as civic territory. But he confuses political with cultural norms of integration, and for this reason, his perspectives on the political incorporation of foreigners and immigrants have the character of ad hoc considerations. In the final analysis, human rights claims become the thinnest of moral reeds in Walzer's seemingly sturdy thicket of cultural ties and bonds.

Principles of Political Incorporation in the Global Era

The normative perplexities of human rights and sovereignty can be most acutely observed through the citizenship and naturalization claims of foreigners, denizens, and residents within the borders of a polity, as well as through the laws, norms, and rules governing such procedures. The irony of current practices in most liberal democracies in the world, including the United States, is that whereas social rights and benefits (like unemployment compensation, retirement benefits, some form of health insurance, and in some cases, educational and housing subsidies) are granted to legal aliens and residents as well as citizens, the transition to "political rights" and "the privileges of membership" proper remains blocked or is made extremely difficult.

Once again, though, political practice is changing slowly but surely. In Denmark as well as Sweden, foreigners--that is, Third Country nationals--can participate in local and regional elections and be candidates for them. In Norway, Finland, and Holland, these rights are granted at the local but not regional levels. Similar attempts in Berlin, Hamburg, and Schleswig-Hollstein to grant local election rights to those foreigners who have resided in Germany for more than five years have been declared "unconstitutional" by the German Constitutional Court; however, according to the Maastricht and Amsterdam treaties adopted by the EU member countries, EU nationals residing in a country other than that of their origin are entitled to vote, run for, and hold office at the local as well as EU parliamentary level. What we are beginning to see is a "disaggregation effect," through which the constituents of citizenship--like collective identity, political membership, and social rights and benefits--are being taken apart from each other. One can have one set of rights and claims without the other: one can have political rights without being a national, as in the case of the EU; more commonly, though, one has social rights and benefits, in virtue of being a foreign worker, without either sharing in collective identity or having the privileges of political membership. The danger in this situation is that of "permanent alienage"-- namely, the creation of a group in society that partakes of property rights and civil society without having access to political membership. It is the privilege of political membership which now must be recognized as a right, and not just as a status granted to some by a Kantian contract of beneficence. This means bridging the gap between "civil" and "political" citizenship.

Contemporary societies are complex, fragmented, and contradictory social structures. In such societies, human conduct and interactions assume many and diverse forms. We are members of a family, of a neighborhood, of a religious community, and of a social movement, as well as citizens of a national or multinational state or a federation--and none of these associations need monopolize our affection, allegiance, or identity. While the modern democratic state remains a possible structural expression of democratic self-determination, the complexity of our social lives integrates us into associations that lie above and below the level of the nation-state. These associations mediate the manner in which we relate to the state. If we stop viewing the state as the privileged apex of a form of collective identity but instead view it as a "union of unions," then citizenship should also be understood as a form of collective identity that is mediated in and through the institutions of civil society. In the European context, this means that foreigners' claims to citizenship in a political entity are established not through some hierarchical decision from above, but because individuals show themselves to be worthy of membership in civil society through the exercise of certain abilities and the fulfillment of certain conditions.

What are these abilities and conditions? Length and nature of residency in a particular country are undoubtedly top among such criteria. Minimal knowledge of the language of the host country as well as the proof of a certain "civil knowledge" about the laws and governmental forms of that country are others. Criteria such as these can be formulated and applied reasonably.

The increasing analytical as well as institutional separation of the three dimensions constitutive of citizenship-- collective identity, political membership, and social rights and entitlements--suggests the need to rethink the "identity and virtues of citizens" from a normative point of view. In virtue of what do we establish our claim to exercise political rights? What abilities and competencies must we show to participate in and run for local elections? Increasingly, it is what one does and less who one is, in terms of one's origin, that will and should determine these claims. In light of these considerations, citizenship and incorporation practices in Europe as well as the United States need to be reformed.

Applied to the case of contemporary Europe, this means very concretely that differentials in the legal and political status of European Union citizens and Third Country nationals must be minimized, and that incorporation and naturalization procedures for Third Country nationals must be facilitated and adopted at the European Union level. At present, a European Union member-- let us say, an Italian or a Portuguese national--can take up residence in Paris, Hamburg, or London, and run for office as well as vote in both European Union and local national elections after about six months. However, a Turkish or Croatian national, who may have been born in Germany, France, or the United Kingdom--or a Pakistani or an Algerian who may have resided in a European Union country for nearly a decade--cannot exercise these rights either at the level of the EU or in local elections.

On the one hand, throughout the European Union, national origins and citizenship rights are being disaggregated, in that political participation rights are being granted to nonnationals of various polities. On the other hand, however, the link between nationality and citizenship is being imposed upon Third Country nationals, who are being effectively disenfranchised of political voice throughout the European Union. Furthermore, at present, each European Union member country determines not only its own asylum and refugee policy, but its citizenship and incorporation practices as well. While some efforts are being made to harmonize asylum and refugee practices across the EU, naturalization and citizenship practices show great variations across member countries.

There are indications that after the meetings of Tampere in the fall of 1999 and of Nice in the winter of 2000, European Union countries have adopted the desirability of harmonizing citizenship and incorporation practices as well. Yet here, too, caution is necessary, for these harmonization efforts can be a double-edged sword: they can impel many European countries to realize that no longer are they sender societies and emigrant countries, but are, on the contrary, receiver societies and countries of immigration. Currently, this is true not only for countries like Italy and Spain, but even for countries like Greece and Portugal--erstwhile emigration societies that are now beginning to house large numbers of Albanians, Ethiopians, and North Africans themselves. But accelerating these processes of naturalization and incorporation through efforts at the EU level can also generate reactions in national communities whose political culture and institutions may not be ready to absorb these transformations. Political education about the changing nature of democratic polities is as indispensable as administrative and bureaucratic rationality in these areas.

Whereas European countries still resist the idea that they are immigration societies, the United States has been founded upon this ideal since its inception. The transition from civil to political citizenship is most effectively practiced in the U.S..

While the process of political incorporation of newcomers is faster, smoother, and on the whole fairer in the U.S. than it is in most European countries, U.S. practices also insist upon the link between national status and citizenship to the degree that voting and political participation rights are not granted to legal foreign residents who have permanent residency status. The formation of a global civil society would be greatly enhanced if, in addition to making it constitutionally acceptable and legally easier for refugees and asylees who have fulfilled certain conditions to acquire citizenship, democratic participation rights were granted at the local and regional state levels to those who may be unable or unwilling to complete naturalization and change their citizenship of origin. The practice of dual citizenship, which is currently a murky constitutional and political practice in the U.S. as well as many other countries, could be made clearer and more accessible. Surely, in such cases there will be minimum residency, language, employment, and family status requirements as well. But even in the absence of the full recognition of dual citizenship status, granting resident foreigners the rights to vote and participate in local and state-level elections would--in addition to recognizing the link between civil and political citizenship--presume that these individuals, who already pay taxes and other dues, would also accept the burdens of membership, as well as its privileges.

Porous Borders and Open Minds

The liberal-democratic state is a "union of unions"; while the virtues and abilities that make an individual a good neighbor, a reliable coworker, and an honest businessperson may not be immediately transferrable to the virtues and abilities required by political citizenship, it is just not the case that there is an ontological divide between them. Michael Walzer and other thinkers in the civic-republican tradition are wrong in their attempt to segregate political from civic identities. As I have argued elsewhere, the important question is: What are the social practices through which an "enlarged mentality" can be cultivated? This enlarged mentality enables citizens to exercise civic imagination and take the standpoint of the other(s) into account--which, in turn, enables them to woo the other's agreement on controversial and divisive norms that affect both of their lives. Such an enlarged mentality, which should be considered a sine qua non for the practice, not the acquisition, of democratic citizenship, is based upon cultivating the virtues of membership and association, including the ability to negotiate conflicting perspectives and loyalties and the ability to distance oneself from one's most deeply held commitments in order to consider them from the hypothetical standpoint of a universalistic morality. The democratic public sphere in which these virtues are cultivated is not opposed to global civil society but is an aspect of it.

My conclusion suggests that we should reject the Kantian distinction between the "right of temporary sojourn" and "the right to form more permanent associations." I am not suggesting that they are identical. That would imply that first admittance should automatically lead to full membership--the logical consequence of an "open borders" position. Rather, I am urging "porous borders" that permit transition from first admittance to civil and then political membership along a continuum of transparent, publicly articulated, and constitutionally consistent conditions. Because human rights principles and sovereignty claims are the two pillars of the liberal-democratic state, practices of political incorporation must respect the fluidity of the boundaries between citizens and aliens, nationals and foreigners.
If there is a fundamental human right to exit, there must also be a fundamental human right to admittance, though not necessarily to membership. While admittance does not guarantee membership, it does entail the human right to know how and why one can or cannot be a member, whether or not one will be granted refugee status or permanent residency, and on what grounds. The actions of the liberal-democratic state should be consistent, transparent, and publicly accountable in their treatment of foreigners as well as citizens. In articulating such conditions, the liberal-democratic state must treat the other(s), the foreigner and the stranger, in accordance with internationally recognized norms of human respect and dignity.

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