Volume 11, Issue 2, Spring 2001

In Response: Support for Modesty and the Nation-State
Michael Walzer

The first thing that I have to say, though it is of importance only to me, is that I am not now and never have been a "civic republican." I fully agree with Seyla Benhabib that a democratic polity "consists of many cultural groups and subgroups . . . traditions and counter-traditions." I have made my career out of describing differences and defending pluralism. No matter. Benhabib takes on a set of important issues, and it's those that I propose to discuss. Her own argument is for a "disaggregation" of the constituent elements of republican citizenship. That is a fancy way of describing some modest and sensible proposals. But she also hints at a much more radical position. I will try to say something about the tension between her modesty and her radicalism--under five headings.

One and Many. Though Benhabib is careful to acknowledge that there is "some variation across existing political communities" and that the contents of both human and citizenship rights "must always be spelled out in the light of concrete historical traditions and practices," she is mostly reaching for a single description of the contemporary nation-state and a single set of policy recommendations ("harmonized" across Europe and, if only it were possible, across the globe). She gives no examples of how any particular human right might have to be "spelled out" differently given different historical traditions. Indeed, she seems to hold exactly the opposite position: that human rights always and everywhere trump traditions.

But how far she really wants to go, how far any of us should want to go, in enforcing the "trump" is entirely unclear. The notion that there is a single correct policy--whether it is open borders, porous borders, easy immigration, easy naturalization, citizenship in stages--is sure, as Benhabib says, to encounter opposition. That policy would have to be imposed carefully, she says, so as not to generate a politics of resentment and bigotry. She recommends "political education," which actually means, since she is talking about adults, re-education.

But re-education is a dangerous business. It seems to me better, not only prudentially but also morally, to adopt a much wider understanding of difference than she displays. It is not the case that there is a single prevailing or emerging pattern. Rather, there are different ranges of difference (and of commonality) and different kinds of differences in different societies. And there are good reasons to think that immigration, naturalization, and citizenship policies should also be different. Universal human rights can be accommodated in a variety of ways; that is, they can be accommodated if one has a suitably minimalist conception of what they are. The more detailed and extensive the rights, the more they will require a single political regime, which would have to be installed everywhere in the world. And that would require in turn a lot of "political education."

Voting and Participation. As I've said, Benhabib's actual proposals are modest. She argues, for example, that guest workers and resident aliens should be allowed to vote in local elections. That was a fairly common practice in the United States in the 19th century, and it sounds like a good idea, especially when naturalization is difficult and lengthy, or when it is contested. (The U.S. also offers a nice illustration of authentic civic republicanism: the Know Nothing party's proposal in the 1840s that 21 years of residency be required for naturalization. This was supposed to allow the proper political education of immigrants coming from feudal and monarchic countries.)

Benhabib recognizes the danger of her proposal: it might lead to "permanent alienage." Because of this danger, I argue in Spheres of Justice that, in democratic nation-states, resident aliens, guest workers, and any other groups that fit into the old Athenian category of the metic should be put as quickly as possible on the road to full citizenship. Since, in most European countries, all the crucial decisions are made nationally, not locally, the most important pre-citizenship rights are probably those of political and economic organization. Allowing new immigrants to vote in municipal elections would be a useful reform, but it is more crucial that they be able to bargain collectively and participate freely in social movements. I am sure Benhabib agrees that whatever conditions she or I would want to attach to citizenship, the right to organize unions and join movements is unconditional.

Immigration. This is the really hard question--precisely because once people are inside, they are, in one sense or another, at one level or another, participants in democratic decision making. I can't figure out Benhabib's position on immigration. She says she is in favor of porous but not open borders. If "porous" means "not open," then it must be the case that, at some level of political organization, there exists a right "to control and sometimes restrain the flow of immigrants." But that is my position, which she quotes in order to illustrate the "civic republican" position she means to dispute.

Let's consider some examples, actual and hypothetical. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of American history is the long and difficult process through which the Anglo-Americans allowed themselves to become a minority in what they surely thought was "their own" country. Some of them resisted; nativist agitation was sometimes fierce, but, basically, they let it happen. There were economic reasons for this, of course, and vast empty spaces to fill, but still: for long stretches of time, America's borders were not porous but, literally, open. I certainly believe that the Anglo-Americans were right to open them, and would have been wrong to close them. But that is because they were themselves immigrants. I would not expect the Danes, say, or the French, or citizens of any other long-established, territorially-based majority nation, to allow themselves to become a minority in their own country. All the world is not America. In nation-states like Denmark, the cultural nation and the political nation are closely connected, and it seems to me that the first of these has a right to (try to) sustain the connection when and if it is actually threatened. It is that kind of limiting case that establishes the right of closure. Short of the limit, this right can be overridden by other rights. Does Benhabib agree or disagree? She says that "if there is a fundamental human right to exit, there must also be a fundamental human right to admittance." But what does that mean? Admittance anywhere, of any number? Who decides?

Help. Maybe the fundamental human right of refugees is not to be admitted here or there but simply to be helped. Help can take different forms: political or military intervention to change the conditions that forced the refugees to flee in the first place, so that they can go home; the movement of resources into their home country so that they can make a decent life there; some degree of international supervision, by agencies more committed to global egalitarianism than any that now exist, to guarantee their rights at home or to organize economic assistance. As Benhabib suggests, it is necessary to imagine a variety of national, regional, and global regimes, operating at different levels, providing different kinds of help, and engaging the loyalty of individual men and women in different ways. But all that isn't so hard to imagine; the necessary egalitarianism, it seems to me, is much harder. Divided loyalties are a common feature of political life; there has never been a republic that realized the Rousseauian/Jacobin goal of seizing the full affection and commitment of its citizens. I disaggregate my commitments every day.

The State. Nonetheless, the nation-state remains a crucial instrument of democratic politics. In the Fall 2000 issue of Dissent, Goran Therborn argues that states can still control crucial features of their economic life and sustain significant welfare systems. It would be very bad if this were not so, since no global institutions are yet subject to full (or even partial) democratic control. But if state politics is still important, then citizenship is still important, and it would probably be a mistake to go too far, too quickly, in disaggregating its different elements. We still depend on the competence and engagement of the democratic citizen; we ought still to set a high value on the community of citizens.

Nothing Benhabib actually proposes goes too far, too quickly. But her article seems to hint at bigger transformations, reflecting what seems to me an exaggerated account of the decline of state authority and effectiveness. The bigger transformations may well come, most likely as features of a highly undemocratic globalization. I doubt that she or I will welcome them; we may need to be re-educated.
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