The age of citizenship is nearing its close.
The idea of citizenship was linked, in its Latin derivation, to the city (civitas), civility (civilis) and to other related words which implied urbanity, civic norms, and hospitality. In the age of liberal democracy, born from the constitutions of France and the United States in the late 18th century, citizenship as an idea anchored the rights of citizens to participate freely, fully and equally in political life.
The developments of the subsequent centuries saw the birth of the idea of representation, of elections and of political parties, all seen as ways to further express the rights of citizens in large countries. The problem was that in this view, the city was the boundary of citizenship and in modern times this boundary morphed into the boundary of the modern nation-state. As Michel Foucault showed, the era of the nation-state was also the era of censuses, territorial sovereignty, panoptical incarceration and a general rise in governmentality, by which he meant the penetration of state power into every aspect of human life.
Still, the original idea of citizenship retained a kind of spectral life, as it became the legal basis of national identity (as formalised in the universality of passports, for example). In the course of the last three decades, we have witnessed the rise of extreme nationalism, and national citizenship was no longer sufficient as a credible basis for belonging in the political community.
Citizenship was no longer sufficient. The nation-state now needs what I call ‘statizens’.
What is a statizen?
Here, India is the pioneer, notably with the National Register of Citizens mechanism in Assam, which already seems to have become an example for other states in India. The violence of the NRC policy has many dimensions, which include anti-Muslim violence, anti-migrant policies, extraordinarily cruelty towards marginal populations, impossible demands for proof of citizenship and efforts to consolidate Hindutva control of all regions which adjoin other (Muslim) nations.
The dimension which concerns me here is the new centrality of bureaucratic documentation as the sole and over-riding criterion of citizenship.
The statizen is one who belongs because he has been granted a state-certified document. All his or her rights flow from that fact alone. There is a complex history here. We could go back to the census and its workings in colonial India as well as to various forms of registration for property, security or social benefits, both during colonial rule and after Independence in 1947. But throughout the century and a half of this prior history, state documentation was seen as proof of an identity which had other roots, whether territorial, familial, religious or natural.
This extra-state source of citizenship has been withering for some time in India and the decisive moment of its demise was the success of the Aadhaar card. Many activists protested against the Aadhaar card on the grounds that it would become a basis for controlling dissent and identifying political enemies rather than serving as a tool for social entitlement. They were not wrong.
The real innovation of Aadhaar was not its bio-metric infrastructure but its success in defining a state-issued document as the basis of all of life – voting, rations, loans, taxation and more. Aadhaar was the midwife of the birth of the statizen in India.
The NRC policy is simply a weaponisation of the logic behind Aadhaar. And it will surely spread to other states. The new forms of documentation mark a troubling new moment in the rise of statism over nationalism.
When the nation-state was born as a political form, the state was seen as the guarantor and bureaucratic tool for ensuring the proper allocation of rights, protections and freedoms to national citizens, but nationality was the justification for state power. Now, a little more than two centuries after the birth of the nation-state, the state and its powers have become the primary source of value, normativity and legitimacy, and the nation is a flexible concept which is a secondary attribute of citizens.
Thus, extreme nationalism is simply the alibi and trojan horse for something far more dangerous, which is extreme statism. And extreme statism requires a population of statizens, that is, inhabitants whose very right to life (as well as to liberty, dignity and well-being) depends on their documented status as statizens.
It is true that the first victims of this process are the poor, the marginal, the displaced, the occupied and the minor. But we – erstwhile bourgeois citizens – are next in line. All of us will have to endure the price of being turned from citizens into statizens. And the price for some of us will be exclusion, expulsion or extermination.
This is not a minor or incremental change. It is a potentially major change in the logic of political sovereignty in India and elsewhere. It is a tectonic shift which explains what has puzzled many of us in trying to account for the global shift to right-wing populist authoritarian regimes.
Nationalism – white, brown or yellow – is no longer an end but a means, a means to the democratic installation of anti-democratic regimes. Right wing rulers win elections, but their aim is not so much ethno-national purity as the absolute power of states to define affiliation, belonging and legal existence. The electoral blocs which voted for Modi, Trump, Erdoğan, Bolsonaro and many other dictators, may have been motivated by racism, anti-globalism, fear of economic displacement or the like, but they were electoral fodder for a bigger project which is the eclipse of the nation by the state.
The process of making the state sacred is not without precedent. The Soviet Union and Mao’s China are major examples of state-defined nationalism, in which ideas about the ethnic uniqueness of Han Chinese or of ethnic Russians were not an end but a means to establish the overarching power of the state.
Going further back in time, many of the great empires of the world, such as the Roman, the Ottoman, the Mughal, and the British were also not about ethnos but about the sacrality of the ruling royal house.
But today’s statizens are the undesirables of failed democracies, of modern nation-states that have opted to drop the idea of “the people”, the “demos” or the “citizenry” in favour of the counted, documented, loyal and certified supporters of the state. In India, they can be Hindu or Muslim, Dalit or Brahmin, Kashmiri or Adivasi, as long as they line up with ruling regime. This is the sole requirement of a statizen.
Some of us have long recognised the need for a fundamental change in the universal acceptance of the architecture of the nation-state. Our hopes have been fulfilled but in a horrible way.
The sacrality of the nation is about to be democratically eclipsed by the sacrality of the state.
States will now define who belongs to them, they will war among each other for global resources, they will make cynical alliances, they will manipulate global capitalist possibilities – for resources, for technologies, for markets and for profits, all to advance themselves.
And since authoritarian populism is the best way to assure compliant statizens, it is likely to be the hegemonic ideology of the coming decades.
India is committed to this new religion of the state, but it is not alone in this. Everywhere we see the transformation of the state into a new political form, which claims monopoly of both political means and moral ends.
Statizens will provide the “democratic” army of this new form.
Arjun Appadurai teaches in New York and Berlin and has published widely on globalisation and South Asia. His forthcoming book (with Neta Alexander) is Failure (Polity Press, UK, 2019 Fall).