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Is Citizenship Being Diluted by Globalization?

Is Citizenship Being Diluted by Globalization?

Sociologist Saskia Sassen proposes that international business at one end and poor immigrants at the other are shaping a new status of individual rights no longer tied to citizenship in a national state.

"I do not see us going back to deeply nationalized forms of citizenship."


Is citizenship going the way of the nation-state in our new globalized world? Saskia Sassen thinks so. The University of Chicago sociologist told a UCLA audience why at a March 25 talk sponsored by the International Institute. She began by acknowledging that there have been no really dramatic changes in the laws defining the standing of citizens in recent years. But that can be misleading, she said, because the legalities of who is a citizen and who is an alien have always had rough edges that are being redefined without the need to draft new legislation. "Their very incompleteness contains the possibility of change, and they must be incomplete to retain flexibility." Professor Sassen's talk reported on the research for her forthcoming book Denationalization: Economy and Polity in a Global Digital Age to be published this year by Princeton University Press.

Sassen's central point was that legal rights that used to be given only to citizens are more and more being claimed by large groups of people who rest their claims on international rather than national law or on relatively new legal concepts such as human rights vested in individuals rather than governments. These changes, which weaken governments but are good for individuals who change states or travel internationally, are a consequence of globalization, which moves more people longer distances more often than the societies in which nation-states were first forged and their legal systems constructed.

For Sassen, the clear definition of a citizen is being eroded at the high and low end: at the top of society by growing numbers of employees of companies with a global reach, staff members of United Nations-type organizations, and people with dual citizenship. At the bottom by growing de facto legal rights of undocumented immigrants.

Microelements that Add Up to Big Changes

Sassen pointed to a number of "microelements" that collectively are weakening the institution of citizenship in national states. These included:

Dual nationality. In the last decade, she said, many major countries have begun to authorize dual citizenship. The United States, which has historically been very reluctant to recognize such status has effectively acquiesced. "This is a diminution of exclusive allegiance," Sassen pointed out, "Even ten years ago many countries said no to this status."

Human rights of the body. Until recent years most legal rights were linked to ownership of property or membership in a political entity. As concern with and legislation protecting human rights has become more central, "the body becomes the site for rights" for people who are not citizens and do not own property.

Weakening of governmental sovereignty. Sassen suggested that recent advances in the legal prerogatives of individuals has been at the expense of the previous power of the state. Here she pointed to the constitutionalizing of the right to sue the government. This has been growing in the United States through an accumulation of case law. "Elsewhere it has been written into new constitutions, as in Argentina and Brazil." She said this was almost universal in constitutions written since the mid-1990s. Governments, even if democratically elected, are not permitted to speak for their citizens in all cases but citizens as individuals can preempt the government.

Growing legal rights of the undocumented. Rights that formerly used to be restricted to citizens are being won by noncitizens as well, Sassen said. In the U.S. "these include the right to be paid for work done, protection of human rights, and the right to own property. There is an informal social contract here, unauthorized but recognized. One part of the contract is that if the illegal alien demonstrates good conduct they can raise a claim to be legalized. Though this is not written into law, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States all display a tendency to grant citizenship to long-term illegal residents." These de facto rights amount, she said, to a category that she called "informal citizenship."

"The totality here," Saskia Sassen said, "is a growing distance between citizen and state."

How to Look at Immigrants

Saskia Sassen suggested that the deepening of globalization should make us look on immigration differently. Usually immigrants are regarded simply as individuals who have come to your country for personal reasons. Sassen proposed to see them as "one segment of a complex loop that may begin with corporate outsourcing or a military action." Their final move to a country they have long ties with is more a measure of global interdependencies in which elements of semicitizenship have been extended to people who do not even live in the country they eventually move to.

Despite a vocal nativist opposition to large-scale immigration, she said that falling birth rates in many developed countries increase pressure to look beyond their borders to maintain population levels. "In Europe," she said, "by 2100 there will be 75 million less people than today except for immigration. France, Italy, and Spain have already fallen below reproduction levels."

Immigration also has many faces. The word "immigrant," Sassen told her audience, "brings to mind a picture of a poorly educated low-wage worker. Immigrants are also foreign professionals, IMF and World Bank staffers, international business men and women."

At the high end of society, groups of citizens whose ties to the state are in process of being weakened are "denationalized subjects, global activists, the global financial elites, and people with transnational identities."

Sassen described global activists as people who go to other countries to take part in political activities normally reserved for citizens of those countries. "This is a new element of globalization," she said, "tourists going to do citizens' work, cutting across borders."

Unbundling Citizenship

Citizenship, Saskia Sassen summarized, was really only formalized in the early nineteenth century as modern states developed the record-keeping ability to adequately track those who lived within their borders. Today, she argued, the sharp distinction between citizen and alien is breaking down due to the growth in the number of transnational citizens with a foot in more than one country and the steady extension of more and more legal rights to noncitizens, including outright illegal immigrants.

These tendencies are most apparent in the forty or so global cities like New York, London, Tokyo, or Los Angeles, which she called "strategic sites for new types of political practices." In these cities with their large noncitizen populations "you can join in politics while not a citizen." Lacking only the rights to vote or sue the government, the noncitizens lobby for their positions and take part in many kinds of political activity including street demonstrations. The new tendencies are least evident in rural towns or in suburbs dominated by a single ethnicity or class.

Saskia Sassen concluded by saying "I do not see us going back to deeply nationalized forms of citizenship."