I have written in the past about the social force of rights claims; the ways in which they mediate relationships of response and responsibility between subjects who are, for better or for worse, entangled with one another in the complicated play of world making. Earlier this week, Canadian Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander addressed an assembled crowd of journalists regarding Bill C-24, a piece of legislation that would dramatically overhaul the nation’s immigration system. During that press conference, Alexander made a curious claim: “Citizenship is not a right, it is a privilege.” Reflecting on this pithy declaration, I am compelled to return to my earlier thinking on the rights claim as an occasion for sociality. What might it mean to divorce citizenship from the structure of right? What work does the language of “privilege” do for Alexander and his government?
“Citizenship is not a right, it is a privilege.” Rarely in government is so much said with so few words–typically, it is the other way around. To begin with, it is a claim freighted with a smarmy paternalism, akin to the kind of scolding a parent gives a child who demands too much or who protests too loudly–who takes what isn’t deserved. It is a slap on the wrist meant to reinstall modesty, meekness, and undeservingness as the nation’s core affects. And in this sense, it is a claim that produces (or, rather, relies upon and reproduces) a profoundly gendered conception of both the claim to citizenship and the institutions to which that claim is addressed. For if citizenship is a privilege to be conferred through a paternal-parental structure of address, itself wedded to an affective economy that valorizes (stereotypically feminine) characteristics of modesty and meekness, then citizenship itself becomes a site of encounter between a benevolent state imagined to be masculine and a feminized would-be citizen. Within this structure, making petition to the state for citizenship assumes the form of ritualized feminine supplication; a ritual that doubly ‘others’ citizenship claimants by reviving the colonial figure of the feminine “Oriental,” that mysterious and submissive other who must be tamed and normalized through the discipline of the paternal nation-state.
How does the state benefit from this structure? What work does constructing citizenship as a form of gendered privilege do? What problems or contradictions does this articulation seem to solve? To ask after these questions, we may need to ask after the nation state itself. Though the state has always been a complicated and contradictory institution, in its contemporary iteration(s), it must grapple with two seemingly opposed interests. On the one hand, it is actively invested in making its borders as permeable as possible to transnational flows of capital, goods, and labour. Yet on the other, it retreats into itself in the name of defense, shoring up those same borders against immigration and the movement of what Canada now calls “illegitimate travelers.” In light of such split priorities, we might ask how, or in what ways, Alexander’s claims about citizenship intervene in or salve the division; how reworking citizenship through gender and privilege is an attempt to make these seemingly opposed investments work for the state.
If the granting of citizenship is already configured as a benevolent and paradigmatically masculine gesture, then we might also see Alexander’s statement as reviving or conjuring up the figure of the sovereign, the (male) acting subject charged with doling out individual benefits and punishments by fiat. In the context of the state’s split priorities, its volatile and often violent oscillations between permeability and exclusion, this mythical sovereign plays a particular role. I would suggest that it conjoins the Thatcherite vision of a nation absent society–a nation composed only of “individual men and women”–to the contemporary security state, which works aggressively to recentralize the work of population control and management (the gendered valence of Alexander’s claim returns here). The figure of the sovereign allows the state to retain the centrifugal force of neoliberalism, which splits the social into so many individual subjects, yet simultaneously works to (re)bind those subjects to a central, authoritative state apparatus governed largely by fiat; by the arbitrary conferring and stripping privileges in which the security state so heartily partakes (we might think, for example, of the ways in which indefinite detention without charge has become normalized in and among security states, even as those same states justify the practice by promulgating the vague juridical language of a ‘state of exception’).
Alexander speaks this script precisely. In the press, he alloys citizenship to the structure of privilege or gift. In the legislature, he tables bills that would empower the federal government to strip dual nationals of Canadian citizenship if they are found to be members of a force or group with which Canada is engaged in armed combat. The citizenship-as-privilege framework thus conjures up a mythical sovereign authority that sutures the post-social rhetoric of the neoliberal nation-state to the arbitrary patterns of othering, exclusion, and expulsion that characterize the security state. It evacuates citizenship of its sociality by redefining it as a gift to be granted–and revoked–solely by this fictive agent. This is one possible intention of Alexander’s declaration: the production of a new kind of state, one stitched together out of the ideological fragments of Thatcherite neoliberalism and neoconservative securitization, governed by fiat and as if by a single national sovereign.
But if this is the intention, how precisely does it operate? How does this emptying-out of citizenship by way of privilege take shape? How exactly does Alexander’s claim liquidate the ‘withness’ that citizenship seems to name, and to what ends (recognizing, of course, that citizenship, as mediated by the nation-state, is always also a structure of exclusion in itself)? Here is another function of the privilege framework. Rights are not objective, they are not static, and they do not exist outside of their articulations in discourse. This is to say that rights are made up of many things operating together: there is and must be a rights claimant, an institution or body to which that claimant makes petition, a more or less common language (written or spoken) through which that petition is expressed, and certain conditions of audibility and communicability that make the petition comprehensible.
Rights, in this sense (as I’ve written before), though often spoken about as objects that one does or does not possess, are relations. They require speech, they require that this speech be heard as speech, and they require institutions to act on that speech in a way roughly commensurate with the substance of the claim. The right is a form of social intercourse. It gains its status as a right only and precisely because it is claimed, asserted, rehearsed, and spoken in public; because it gathers bodies and institutions together in the work of speaking, hearing, and translating. This is as much the case for the right to citizenship as any other: it is a space of and occasion for social intercourse. Citizenship-as-right requires speaking, hearing, and acting, and it requires political and social conditions under which all three are made possible. To put citizenship in the orbit of the right, then, is to allow citizenship claimants to make bids on sociality and intelligibility, to participate in public economies of hearing and comprehension. It is to open the realm of social intercourse to the claims and participation of others/Others. Certainly, the right does not in itself guarantee such participation, insofar as the gates separating intelligibility from unintelligibility remain racialized, gendered, and historically and linguistically inscribed. But minimally, the right keeps open the possibility of an expanded publicness. It provides a framework for speaking that extends rather than limits opportunities for speech.
The privilege of citizenship, by contrast, requires none of this sociality. As privilege, citizenship rests solely in the hands of the imagined sovereign who presides over a non-society of individuals. As privilege, citizenship is emptied of the social content of right. It is reworked from a (not unproblematic) way of thinking relationality, belonging, and nationhood as social questions into a disciplinary instrument to be arbitrarily deployed and retracted in accordance with the exigencies of the security state. The forms of social intercourse that make a right a right, those complex circuits of speaking, hearing, comprehension, and rehearsal that hold open the possibility of an expanded publicness, are thus entirely split off from the notion of citizenship. Citizenship, that is, ceases to function as a space for speech.
The discursive dislodging of citizenship from the grip of right is thus a form of what M. Jacqui Alexander (Pedagogies of Crossing, 2005), drawing on Rae Langton, calls “illocutionary disablement” (p. 123). This is a “kind of silencing” wherein “the speaking agent does not have the requisite social authority and is disabled from performing illocutionary acts in the relevant domain, the domain where they matter most.” It takes shape under discursive and political conditions that allow certain authority figures (like Chris Alexander) to “stop another’s speech from counting as the action it was intended to be” (emphasis in original). Illocutionary disablement is the making-unspeakable and de-actioning of speech acts. It is the ensemble of discursive, political, rhetorical and disciplinary tactics–for instance, the cleaving of citizenship from right–that conspire to make certain utterances fail as forms of action. To once again paraphrase Langton and Alexander: it is a way of hypostatizing speech in “the amber of disqualifying metaphors” (p. 153).
While citizenship as privilege, then, may permit the claim to citizenship to be spoken, it deliberately deprives that claim of an audience by divorcing it from the domain of hearing named by the right. It stops that claim from counting by keeping it separate from those who might count it. Again, here is Langton: “Let them speak. Let them say whatever they like to whomever they like, but stop that speech from counting as the action it was intended to be” (as cited in Alexander, 2005, p. 123).
Citizenship is often understood as the staging ground for rights claims. That is, citizenship rights are in many ways the precondition for securing what we might call secondary rights. One must have the right of American citizenship, for instance, to stake a legitimate claim upon the American ‘right to free speech.’ The rightness or wrongness of accepting the nation-state as the arbiter of rights claims is, of course, is another problem worth addressing. But at present, this is how rights operate as a practice and technology of subject-making: the state grants basic rights of citizenship, and these rights become the ground upon which we articulate subsequent rights claims through collective political action and policy formation.
What happens, then, when citizenship itself is removed from the structure of the right altogether? What happens when the very precondition of rights-claiming is redefined as a privilege over which some imagined sovereign has sole jurisdiction? As Hannah Arendt once put it: what happens when the subject is deprived of the right to have rights? For Arendt, this social (and indeed, illocutionary) impoverishment evacuates the very possibility of making claims upon rights; it produces a negative space of non-recognition that empties out the hope for an expanded, contestatory citizenship. To the extent that it blocks certain subjects from entering the space of social intercourse where they might appear as subjects “outside of” themselves and “for others”(Butler, as cited in Gordon, 2012, 123), it is a deprivation that contributes to the making of what Arendt in the Origins of Totalitarianism calls “superfluous” people; people who might be disappeared without a trace, who are barred from even registering as people, who are undone in advance of all publicity.
The deprivation of the right to have rights, which emerges in the course of emptying citizenship of its social content, is in this sense (as Arendt claimed) a proto-genocidal one. Not only does it make mass disappearance possible, but it integrates this possibility into the very structure of belonging that citizenship-as-privilege names. It is a deprivation balanced on the ethically untenable belief that one is ultimately free to choose–whether by sovereign fiat or the granting of state privilege–with whom to cohabit this earth. And that choice, as Arendt wrote, points toward genocide. Or toward what Donna Haraway has more recently called “exterminism:” the making-killable of certain populations (When Species Meet). It is a choice that retreats to some imagined position of sovereignty from which we produce and deproduce subjects, make and unmake lives. Where we count, and where our failure or refusal to count–our unaccountable (because finally sovereign) un-counting–puts others at risk of being uncountable.