The Rise of Instrumental Citizenship


Citizenship-by-investment is part of a larger trend toward ‘instrumental citizenship’, in which citizenship loses its nationalist, state-sanctifying aura and becomes a mundane tool of strategic individuals around the world, incidentally 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 EU citizenship, which is 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, who are accustomed to seeing citizenship through the Greek lenses of virtue and participation, have dreaded this trend but they conveniently overlook the evidence that there has always 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 reflects the parting of ways of citizenship status and citizenship identity that inevitably follows from the fact of international migration. As almost 97% of the world’s population continue to live and die in their countries of birth, instrumental citizenship concerns only a tiny minority — those wealthy enough to buy 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 the three typical cases. This is a mere fraction of the miniscule 3% in the world who, technically, are on the move.

Importantly, for the sedentary majority, citizenship is never an issue — they live their lives without ever showing a passport, except if 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 is as true now as it was in the 1940s, had not the fact of migration blurred the lines of the foreign–domestic binary. In its formative inter-state 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 (to speak of another great constitutional lawyer, Alexander Bickel). Realism is, not by accident, the classic paradigm of international relations. 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 — and this is the novelty — increasingly for individuals.


Citizenship-by-investment is part of a larger trend toward ‘instrumental citizenship


Indeed, that citizenship appears to us in this denuded form is historically new. Certainly, each of the types of instrumental citizenship grow out of a specific context, not to be confused with the others. Yet there are significant communalities. Citizenship-by-investment is the state’s mimicking of the market, which has otherwise greatly diminished the state’s authority by privatizing everything — the selling and buying of citizenship is surely neoliberalism’s biggest imprint on the citizenship construct. By contrast, the instrumentalism connected with external citizenship is the ironic flipside of the state’s (trans)nationalist assertiveness in Eastern Europe and elsewhere where the 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. EU citizenship, furthermore, grows out of a historically unique project of regional integration on a continent ravaged by war twice during its short 20th century, while still partaking in a general trend toward the lightening of citizenship in liberal societies.

Accordingly, the increasing internationalization that goes by the name of globalization is a significant communality of all three citizenship developments. The most important communality 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 novelty is the decided shifting of the balance toward 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 toward citizenship stripping in the context of toughened-up anti-terrorism laws. The latter is a sober reminder that citizenship itself is not a right or “right to have rights”, as the German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt famously argued during the 20th century’s darkest hour, and it is not the property of the individual — every passport bears the imprint 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 toward legal individualism in liberal societies. Well into the 1960s, a major function of law had been the protection of corporate entities such as family, nation, even God, the latter in the form of blasphemy laws. That this is no longer the case can be seen when looking at the laws regulating sex. American sociologist David Franck, 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 dying 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, Emile 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 had not foreseen and would not have condoned. This is the wave (or should we call it a tsunami?) on which instrumental citizenship is riding.

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, and not only states, as citizenship strategists too. This should be welcomed as a further step in the demystification of states and empowerment of individuals.

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