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The Rise of Instrumental Citizenship

Prof. Dr. Christian Joppke

Prof. Dr. Christian Joppke is the Executive Director of the Institute of Sociology and Professor of General Sociology at the University of Bern in Bern, Switzerland.

Citizenship by investment is part of a larger trend towards ‘instrumental citizenship’, in which citizenship loses its nationalist, state‑sanctified aura and becomes a tool of strategic individuals around the world, both rich and poor, that enables them to pursue their interests. A second example of this trend is ‘external citizenship’, in which people who no longer live in the state of their ancestry retain or actively acquire the citizenship of their parents or grandparents as a form of insurance in case things go wrong in their country of residence. Many contemporary Israelis are in this category, as are scores of nominal Italians in Argentina, and others. A third example is European Union citizenship, a post-national citizenship without duties and loyalties that has ‘instrumentalism’ written on its forehead in terms of free movement rights. Political theorists and philosophers, accustomed to seeing citizenship through the Greek lenses of virtue and participation, have dreaded this trend, but they conveniently overlook that there has long been a competing tradition of Roman rights-providing citizenship with much thinner connotations of identity.

Why is instrumental citizenship becoming so prominent now? At one level, it is a reflection of the divergence between citizenship status and citizenship identity that inevitably follows from the fact of international migration. As almost 97% of the world’s population continues to live and die in their countries of birth, instrumental citizenship affects only a tiny minority — those wealthy enough to acquire a citizenship of their choice (if they are born with one that impairs mobility), the (remote) descendants of emigrants, and the few mobile European movers, to mention only three typical cases. This is a mere fraction of the minuscule 3% in the world who, technically, are on the move. Importantly, citizenship is never an issue for the sedentary majority — they live their lives without ever showing a passport, unless they have the means to vacation in exotic places. The great Austrian lawyer Hans Kelsen once observed that citizenship is “of greater importance in the relations between the States than within a State”. This would be as true now as it was in the 1940s, if the fact of migration had not blurred the lines of the foreign–domestic binary. In its formative interstate context, citizenship is merely a mechanism of attributing people to states, and it lacks the layer of “metaphysical thinking” that it tends to adopt in domestic settings (as another great constitutional lawyer, Alexander Bickel, has said). Realism is the classic paradigm of international relations, and not by accident. By definition, instrumental citizenship is what citizenship is in this domain, both for states, which have always used this mechanism to further their interests, and — this is the novelty — increasingly for individuals, too.

Woman walking through airport holding passport

Indeed, it is historically new that citizenship appears to us in this denuded form. Certainly, each of the types of instrumental citizenship grows out of a specific context, not to be confused with the others. Yet there are significant commonalities. Citizenship by investment is the state mimicking the market, which has otherwise greatly diminished the state’s authority by privatizing almost everything — selling and buying citizenship is surely neoliberalism’s biggest imprint on the citizenship construct. By contrast, the instrumentalism connected with external citizenship is the ironic flip side of the state’s (trans)nationalist assertiveness in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, where privileged access to citizenship for putative co nationals abroad has become a national priority. As for citizenship by investment, external citizenship is enabled by contemporary globalization, yet in a different key and direction. European Union citizenship, finally, grows out of a historically unique project of regional integration in a continent that was ravaged by war twice during its short 20th century, while still participating in a general trend towards the lightening of citizenship in liberal societies.

Accordingly, the increasing internationalization that is called globalization is a significant commonality of all three developments in citizenship. The most important common feature yet is the centrality of the individual and the slighting of the concerns of the community. Citizenship has always combined an individual with a collective element but the innovation is the decided shifting of the balance towards the individual. It may be too strong to depict citizenship as evolving from “contingent” to “sovereign”, as the French historian Patrick Weil thinks it is, particularly if one considers an opposite trend towards citizenship stripping in the context of tougher anti-terrorism laws. The latter is a sober reminder that citizenship itself is not a right or a “right to have rights”,2 as the German‑American philosopher Hannah Arendt famously argued during the 20th century’s darkest hour, nor is it the property of the individual — every passport bears the statement that it is the property of the passport-issuing state, and thus not of the individual who carries it.

Citizenship is, however, still part of a general trend towards legal individualism in liberal societies. Well into the 1960s, a major function of law was the protection of corporate entities such as family, nation, and even God, the latter in the form of blasphemy laws. That this is no longer the case can be seen when looking at laws regulating sex.

American sociologist David Frank, who studied their development in no less than 194 countries, detected a general process of individualization, whereby persons become “disembedded from families, nations, and other corporate bodies, and…re-rendered…as autonomous, empowered actors”. The same individualizing process has long been observed in other branches of the law, such as family law, and, of course, there is the endangered species of blasphemy law.

In most countries, treason as a crime that only citizens could commit has disappeared and been replaced by sedition laws that are indifferent to citizen status. This reflects a weakening of the exclusive, loyalty‑commanding nexus between citizen and nation state. A century ago, Émile Durkheim declared the “human person” the subject of a new “religion in which man is at once the worshipper and the god”. In the meantime, the reach of individualism has greatly expanded, though in the direction of undermining the transcendence of state and community that Durkheim did not foresee and would not have condoned. This is the wave (or should we call it a tsunami?) that instrumental citizenship is riding on.

States, to repeat, have always been strategists in matters of citizenship. And nationalism is often not the opposite but the very content of these strategies, as in the contemporary forms of state (trans)nationalism that enable external citizenship, but, also, in the utilization of symbolically upgraded citizenship for containing immigrant diversity, which is happening in almost every European country today. The novelty is to see individuals too, and not only states, as citizenship strategists. This should be welcomed as a further step in the demystification of states and the empowerment of individuals.

Printed references

1 H. Kelsen, General Theory of Law and State (Harvard University Press 1949) 241

2 H. Arendt, ‘ ”The Rights of Man”: What Are They?’ (1949) Modern Review

Prof. Dr. Christian Joppke holds a chair in sociology at the University of Bern. He has also repeatedly been a Visiting Professor in the Nationalism Studies Program at Central European University in Budapest and an Honorary Professor in the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University. He is a Member of the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration (SVR), which advises the German government on migration and integration policy.

After obtaining a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley in 1989, he taught at the University of Southern California, European University Institute, University of British Columbia, International University Bremen, and American University of Paris.

Prof. Joppke is the author of 10 monographs, most recently The Secular State Under Siege (2015), Is Multiculturalism Dead? (2017), and Neoliberal Nationalism: Immigration and the Rise of the Populist Right (2021). He is a leading scholar on immigration, citizenship, religion, and multi-culturalism, with a recent interest in populism and nationalism.

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