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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Side of Citizenship

By Tamar Pitch

Today, citizenship does not provide people with equal protections. Those who depend on the support of the state are often marginalised, as security is defined as the protection of the dominant majority. An interview with sociologist Tamar Pitch.

What is the connection between security and citizenship?

From a philosophical point of view, citizenship and security have been connected since modernity. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes saw security as the aim behind the creation of the state; since the lives of individuals were in constant danger in their original, anarchic state of nature, they came together to form a social contract that created a Leviathan, a political state whose task was that of protecting its people from threats both inside and outside. When a group of individuals create a state, they also become citizens of this state, and in this sense citizenship is directly connected to security.

This conception has been around for centuries, but later, during the so-called ‘golden 30 years’ (roughly from 1945 to 1975), the creation of the welfare state has extended the meaning of security. From that time citizenship did not only provide protection from victimisation, but also – or mainly – signified social security, that is to say the collectivity assuring every citizen the means to be a citizen, including pensions and family benefits, as well as health, disability, and unemployment insurances. Later on, from the late 1970s, the Hobbesian meaning gradually returned, with the receding of the welfare state, and security once again came to mean protection from criminal victimisation.

How is citizenship related to nationality?

There are different conceptions of citizenship. As well as the legal meaning, according to which one is simply a member of the collectivity that forms a nation-state, British sociologist Thomas Humphrey Marshall assigned a different meaning to citizenship in the 1950s. He defined it as the entitlement to all the rights that were granted to a citizen in a state: these were civil, political, as well as social and economic rights. Thus, citizenship as entitlement to rights and citizenship as membership in a nation state coincided: a national of a country was also entitled to all these earlier mentioned rights. This meaning of citizenship still exists, but with the decline of the nation state it has been eroded to some extent. Social and economic rights, for example, are not granted in the same way as before: welfare cuts and the privatisation and outsourcing of social services have severely curtailed universal welfare provisions.

At the same time, we should not forget that in most continental constitutions, as well as in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, certain rights are recognised for all people, regardless of their nationality. This includes, among others, the right to liberty and security, the right to private and family life, and freedom of thought and religion.

However, when we look at the deployment of security policies and the rhetoric of nationalist politicians, there is a distinction made between ‘real’ citizens who do not require help from the state (the kind of help which is not as evident in our neoliberal regime, as it was during the years of a stronger welfare states), and those who depend on state help. These people, in turn, are defined as either ‘worthy’ or ‘unworthy’ poor. The first group may be deemed as deserving state resources (though they are stigmatised for this); the second are considered dangerous and bad, and thus in need of being controlled and repressed.

In what ways are advantaged groups benefiting more from the protections of citizenship?

Let’s take men and women. On paper, men and women in our states have the same rights recognised. But men have more resources and more power to use these rights. And you can say the same in relation of white people and people of colour, or heterosexuals and homosexuals: the people that constitute the dominant majority have more opportunities to use their rights than those who do not have the same cultural or political resources.

We can make a similar distinction when we look at the issue of security. Security policies are usually constructed around a standard subject: a white, middle-aged male person. And it says a lot about the absurdity of the current nationalistic security rhetoric, that if you were to apply the policies demanded in that narrative to be used against migrants and refugees with the promise of making women secure, you would either need to put all men behind bars, or throw them out of the continent, since the main threats to women (and also to men, in fact) come from men, and most of the time it is not some strange, unknown man, but someone known to the victim, someone they may even share a home with. Women are much more likely to be victimised inside their own four walls than out on the streets.

In your article ‘Security Politics and Citizenship in the EU’ you write that with the new Hobbesian turn of security, there has been an emphasis on making it harder to commit crimes, instead of dealing with the root causes. In what sense was this shift obvious?

The security turn I’m talking about took place both at the national and the local levels, against so-called common crime, disturbances, illegalities, etc. (the most prominent example for that is former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s deployment of zero tolerance policies in New York City[1]) and at the transnational level, namely in EU policies towards migrants, terrorism, and so on. This turn, especially on the national and local levels, was and is being justified in the name of the protection of possible victims – all of us, or, better, those of us who are considered ‘good citizens’. I have argued elsewhere (but I am certainly not the only one) that ‘victim’ is the other face of the neoliberal subject: on the one hand, this subject is supposed and required (in the name of freedom) to provide for him/herself without depending on anyone, especially not on state resources, and to take risks and shoulder alone the consequences. On the other hand, he/she is also constructed as the potential victim of common crime and terrorism, and therefore in need of protection by the state, which holds the monopoly of legal violence. Loïc Wacquant, perhaps exaggeratingly, talks about a shift from a welfare to a penal state. Also, more and more we can see the trend that only by assuming the status of ‘victim’ can one have a ‘voice’, and only then might your requests be recognised as worthy of attention.

What does this shift mean now, in the context of refugees and migrants?

Citizenship has always had both an inclusive and an exclusionary meaning: it distinguishes between citizens and non-citizens.  It is a status that may be extended or restricted, but it always separates insiders from outsiders. Some constitutions – such as the European Constitution, ratified as the Lisbon Treaty – recognise certain rights for all persons, irrespective of their legal citizenship. However, this legal status provides to both citizens and non-citizens of nation states fewer protections, or entitlements, than 30 years ago, because of the erosion of welfare provisions. If we look at security policies and discourses, we notice that they tend, as I said, to separate the ‘good’ and ‘deserving’ (and therefore ‘real’) citizens from the ‘bad’ and ‘non-deserving’ ones.

The link between security and migration, at least on the EU level (and also inside some European states) dates back to, more or less, the early 1980s before which migration was seen and constructed as an economic and social issue.

What should be the response to those who claim that the upper and middle classes already contribute too much in support of the welfare of others?

What I would say is quite simple: in a community we should each contribute according to our resources, and receive according to our needs.

Since nowadays work is getting scarcer, one of the solutions to overcome that situation in which we are preoccupied with the question of who is paying for whom would be the introduction of a citizenship based universal income. Everyone should be granted a fixed amount, irrespective of his or her income and resources, so that nobody may be subjected to the labour-market blackmailing that is leading to lower wages and worse working conditions. This could also be a means of social cohesion, which could create a sense of belonging to a community. We need it very much, nowadays. It could bring us closer together, while security policies do exactly the opposite: they divide people through a dispersion of fear. Yes, we can keep certain people together through fear, but it is a very poor way to construct solidarity.

With the policies that aim to keep us safe, we are excluding those people who need protection the most. How can we overcome this controversial situation?

Through politics. And by politics I do not only mean institutional politics, but also grassroots politics, and education. If you look beyond what the EU institutions or our governments are doing at what is going on in the streets, then things are not that dismal. In February 2017, for example, there was a big demonstration in Barcelona to welcome refugees. I think that we are observing a multitude of fights at all levels that are led by women – from the Polish abortion law protests to the U.S. Woman’s March against Trump.

Protesting on the street is, of course, not the only way, but in order to achieve our goals visibility is important. At demonstrations, we see a multitude of incarnate bodies, with all their relationships, affections, and even hostilities –this helps us perceive them are as real people, with real demands, even if we only see them through photos on the internet.

There is a longing in the people to be kept safe from criminality, wars, and terror attacks. What can a progressive political force tell these people if it wants to reassure them?

Terrorism, common crime, and organised crime are all threats. They need to be dealt with, and that is why we have armies and the police. It is their task to devise the best ways to fight these dangers. But there is no need to emphasise these threats all the time or use them in politics. Security is nowadays used by politicians to gain votes, but the policies that they announce are, most of the time, useless. In Rome, where I live, we have soldiers at almost every metro station, and even tanks near the colosseum; when I see them, I don’t feel safer at all. You can use intelligence services to reduce the risks, but there is no measure that could keep your population one hundred percent safe. And building walls will definitely not protect us from anything.

Many Western politicians believe that a good solution would be to revoke the citizenship of those dual citizens who are involved in terrorism. Would such a measure be acceptable?

I just read that Marine Le Pen wants to abolish dual Israeli-French citizenship for French Jews, even if they did not commit a crime. I don’t approve of this. If someone commits a crime you put them on trial, and then, if this person is convicted, you give them a punishment. But taking away someone’s citizenship is terrible. It reminds me of the writings of Hannah Arendt who became stateless after she was stripped of her German citizenship by the Nazis. For many Jews in those years, the loss of citizenship and the loss of their political status was the beginning of a process that led to their physical destruction.

[1] Zero tolerance policies give a license to the police to repress minor offenses, e.g. harass homeless people or drug addicts. These kinds of policies focus mainly on the crimes that happen on the streets, and are thus visible to a wide range of people (in contrast to those criminal acts that were committed in fancy office of a bank by white collar criminals), thus redefining social problems in terms of security.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Side of Citizenship