At a civics class in a Soviet high school many years ago, a friend of mine asked the teacher, “Comrade Zubkevich, we have been speaking about the values and duties of citizenship, but which citizenship do we actually have?” At the time, the Soviet Union was breaking apart, and flags on government buildings were changing regularly. Silence fell over the classroom. “I do not know,” the teacher said.
Several months later, I got my first passport — a red Soviet booklet with the emblems of a non-existing state and a stamp saying “Russia.”
Nobody knew: the Soviet team entered the 1992 Olympics under the white flag with five Olympic rings, the “Commonwealth of the Independent States” was too ephemeral and the Soviet Union, seemingly, was no more. Several months later, I got my first passport — a red Soviet booklet with the emblems of a nonexisting state and a stamp saying “Russia.” Virtually all borders except the likes of Cuba, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine were sealed for the holders of such a document. And it was upon finding this booklet among old papers several decades afterwards that, now a Dutch professor of constitutional law, I decided to write about citizenship.
Studying citizenship, one discovers that it is still common to use words such as “values” and “self-determination” to describe a world order where punishing randomness and hypocrisy reign. Patriotic nationalism aside, at its core, citizenship is nothing more than a random status of personal obligation to a legal system granted by public authorities, with no participation of the bearer in the majority of cases. Outside the issuing state, where it is usually invisible, citizenship’s key function boils down to the preservation and reinforcement of global inequalities, as well as the distribution of liabilities to the majority of the world’s population, mostly former colonial subjects.
The assumption that all citizenships are valuable is flawed. This would only be true in a world where the authorities issuing the status guarantee at least roughly comparable standards of self-fulfillment and personal empowerment to all — where citizenship would universally grant rights. In such a world, it would not matter which citizenship status you hold.
In our world however, we are greeted by the color of our passport: the citizenship of some produces a global glass ceiling, while others enjoy significant rights. Swapping my Russian passport for a Dutch one, I realized that while nothing has changed about me as a person, I am treated radically differently anywhere I go. This is the random privilege that contemporary citizenship upholds.
Swapping my Russian passport for a Dutch one, I realized that while nothing has changed about me as a person, I am treated radically differently anywhere I go.
Claiming that the allocation of citizenships worldwide is logical and clear would also be incorrect. At the macro level, such a claim means trying to find the logic in rigid, pre-modern caste structures: is it not logical that a son of a brahmin is a brahmin, just as the son of an American is an American? At the micro level, such a claim is problematic too. For example, tenured professorship is irrelevant to citizenship in Switzerland, but enabled citizenship in Austria until 2008; having a Jewish mother can make you Israeli under Israel's Law of Return.
Examples of these contradictions and complications are endless: What is taken for granted as best practice in one country can seem almost outrageous in another. All in all, it is crucial to realize that there cannot be a “worse” or a “better” method of assignment to a caste. It is the repugnant assumptions underlying the very rationale of a caste system that are intolerable, especially in modern democracies.
Citizenship “quality” as it describes the ability of citizens to travel without visas, settle and work abroad and find economic opportunity correlates very neatly with the global distribution of wealth. While the absolute majority of the most economically developed countries offer their people elite super citizenships, the biggest share of the population of the world live with substandard citizenship status. By maintaining the borders between countries, citizenship upholds this inequality.
Citizenship is at a crossroads now: the dominant narrative is not sustainable. While still widely glorified, citizenship shows itself to be entirely hypocritical in a context where its success can no longer be measured by delivering on the ethically and morally repugnant constituents of its essence. If we believe in the ideals it proclaims and apply those globally, citizenship is bound to perish. When we understand citizenship’s actual functioning in faithful, accurate terms, it cannot under any circumstances be justified.