Citizenship is the Right to Have Rights

December 30, 2014

Is citizenship really priceless?

James Bridle, in an op-ed on his latest work, Homo Sacer, explores the essence and future of citizenship:

Citizenship is the right to have rights, and our attitude to citizenship, as states and individuals, defines and produces our attitude to other human beings. As we accelerate into the 21st century and the third millennium, citizenship, or the lack thereof, is going to be one of the defining issues. Look at the increasing ethnic and religious fractures of post-Imperial and post-Soviet nation-states, the coming age of sea-level rises and inevitable climate-change refugee crises, the rise of pan-global financial elites, and the increasing individual identification not with the nation-state but with digital space and corporate cloud-services. The cloud renders geography irrelevant—until you realize that everything that matters, everything that means you don’t die, is based not only on which passport you possess, but also on a complex web of definitions of what constitutes that passport. In the new battles over citizenship, those definitions are constantly under attack.

In recent years, I’ve noticed opposing trends around the value of citizenship. On the one hand, it seems to matter less and less. In 2010, my president committed, and defended the right to commit in vaguely exceptional circumstances, the first extrajudicial assassination of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki (along with his teenage son), by drone. And then we saw the revelations about the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping of domestic communications en masse, revealing a cavalier attitude toward the Fourth-Amendment rights of American citizens.

On the other hand, in 2010 the British government seemed to value citizenship enough to strip Mohamed Sakr of his before he was killed two years later in another drone strike. While this case arguably shows a greater respect for the rule of law than the U.S., it’s a peculiarly archaic kind of law which I find all the more disturbing. In ancient Roman law, homo sacer was a person who had been banished, whom anyone could kill for any reason without legal repercussion. At that time, there was no concept of “human rights.” In ours, we have at least the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrined in international law, though the recent revelations in the U.S. Senate’s “Torture Report” illustrate the Declaration’s toothlessness. Thus, it seems that now, as in Roman times, citizenship is the foundation from which all other rights extend.

You might think this makes citizenship priceless, but that hasn’t stopped some small, enterprising countries from putting a price tag on it. Passports for Sale begins with the case of Malta, which offers EU citizenship for a cool $1.5 million. It’s not a new trend—St. Kitts has been selling citizenship since 1984—but it is a chilling one in light of homo sacer. If citizenship is the foundation of all rights, and it can be bought and sold on the open market, then we’re entering a world in which rights are a commodity. (And you thought the uneven distribution of privilege was a bad thing.) Of course, we’re a long way off from that dystopian future. To its credit, the U.S. is exceptional in granting citizenship to anyone born here, though the outcry over the “anchor baby” bogeyman a few years ago demonstrated an alarming contempt for that policy.

When it comes to non-human persons (i.e. corporations), citizenship is another thing entirely. This year saw Burger King announce a plan to “invert” their corporate citizenship, selling out to Canada’s Tim Horton’s in order to avoid taxes on their profits in the U.S. We saw Halliburton do something similar in 2007: after collecting nearly $40 billion in Iraq War contracts1, the company moved its headquarters to Dubai to avoid paying U.S. taxes. It’s a strategy pursued by dozens of corporations each year, which gives citizenship a kind of negative value, as a cost to be minimized. It reminds me of the bit about “flags of convenience” in The Outlaw Sea, in which countries compete for shipping registry fees by offering increasingly lax regulations in a regrettable race to the bottom. Then again, perhaps one day soon a corporation will simply rise above citizenship, literally, by moving its headquarters into the near-Earth orbit and avoid paying taxes to any Earthly power.


  1. As reported by Business Insider