Limits of Universalism

[Note: This was written for my Comparative Public Policy seminar, but I think readers will find it interesting. Conveniently, it also doubles as a brief review of the book.]

Yasemin Soysal’s Limits of Citizenship serves two principal purposes. First, it offers a historical account of how different European countries have dealt with post-Second World War migration and how these State institutions have influenced how migrants interact with, and organize within, the polity (pp. 35–36). Second, by crafting a chronicle which emphasizes the growing irrelevance of traditional citizenship models, largely as a result of maturing cultural eclecticism, Soysal leads us to her “postnational” model. Soysal’s alternative adopts universalism, solving the conflict between the notion of “human rights” and the traditional, nationalist approach to citizenship.

Soysal gives the impression that she is willing to embrace the complexities of social change. In many ways, there is a sense of predetermination in her narrative. The sovereignty of the State is being challenged by the growing irrelevance of borders as migration levees, and the concept of universal human rights is lessening the importance of national discourse which otherwise decides the relationship between the resident and the State. The author portrays this story in a way that stresses the multifaceted reality of interaction between migrants, the State, and how the sociopolitical landscape — and its reflexivity — influences social progress. Yet, at times the reader gets the impression that Soysal does not go far enough. It is almost as if she accepts complexity when it is convenient, but not when it can potentially damage her conclusions.

The nucleus of modern citizenship, or membership, is a set of “human rights” (p. 42). Soysal’s discussion makes “human rights” almost axiomatic, such that her ideal types almost exclusively abstract away from everything except how States have dealt with the provision of these “rights” to non-citizens. Her “postnational” model, in fact, is one which underscores the separation of “rights” from the State, such that certain provisions are no longer privileges of membership; rather, the State is obligated to respect whatever entitlements “human rights” entails.

Soysal fails to distinguish between types of rights. Classically, “human rights” — more often referred to as “natural rights” — refer to a set of liberties meant to restrain the State. The “human rights” Soysal has in mind go beyond this, encompassing “rights” that oblige the State to provide a service (for simplicity’s sake, we can refer to these as “positive rights”). We can, for the sake of argument, accept the legitimacy of both kinds of rights. But, we cannot ignore differences in their nature; there is a political economy aspect to the issue of entitlements. State services are not provided ex nihilo, but come from resources necessarily extracted from society (i.e. taxation). As such, when we think about the individual as someone entitled to various “rights,” we oftentimes have to consider the other side of the coin: the individual as someone obligated to provide for others. Soysal, instead, ignores this aspect of citizenship.

Soysal is clear that, even in her “postnational model,” the State is “the primary unit for dispensing rights and privileges” (p. 143). The State, therefore, has a responsibility that encompasses people even beyond traditional borders — see, for example, the German treatment of repatriated Gypsies (p. 158). The author does not catch the potential for tension between the entitled and the obligated.

Consider a common theme in the narrative: migrants organize and join the arena of political discourse to guarantee for themselves certain sets of entitlements. See, for instance, Soysal’s description of “organized Islam” (pp. 115–116). Naturally, people tend to be more interested in what they can acquire than in what they can provide, and so there exists a friction between the disproportionate growth of entitlements as compared to the volume of tax receipts. The problem is worse if we think about tax contributions, the fact that a large sum of obligations are paid for by an exclusive social caste (“the wealthy”), and that migrants generally add to the much larger pool of the population that more often than not expect more out of welfare than they can pay in (and, if they live in other countries, then they do not pay in at all).

There are benefits to a cosmopolitan world of “postnational” citizenship, but these benefits all too often lead scholars to ignore the very real costs that come attached. There is a tendency for “human rights” to become ever more inclusive. But, little attention is paid to the fact that if specific States are held responsible for the costs, then there may exist an increasingly divergent disconnect between receivers (the entitled) and givers (the obligated). Simply put, everyone is more interested in being the former than in being the latter, and so there is not as much pressure to distribute obligations along with new rights. This creates factors which will influence the trajectory of changes in the concepts of human rights, citizenship, and membership. Soysal, unfortunately, chooses not to deal with these issues; when, finally, she mentions historical episodes which contradict her model (pp. 156–157), she fails to really engage the problem.

Worst of all, the reader does not get the impression that Soysal is unaware of these problems. Limits of Citizenship simply promises more than what the author delivers. There are hints of Soysal’s radicalism, but she restrains it. She, for example, writes that the relevance of the State vis-à-vis the individual is deteriorating (p. 165), and that there is an evident trend in the breakdown of large States into smaller one as the implications of the right to self-determination flower into their own (p.161). It is almost as she envisions a post national political organization — maybe one that solves the friction between entitled and obligated —, but for some reason prefers not to go that far.

The book is disappointing in other ways, as well.

Early on, the author introduces a distinction between assimilation and incorporation (pp. 30–31). Assimilation can be thought of as the process during which a migrant replaces her original culture with the prevailing national ethos of the polity she is joining. Incorporation — “inclusion” may be a preferable term —, in contrast, is about including the individual, regardless of culture, in the political process. We can think about it in terms of the individual either having to change to become part of society (assimilation), or society changing and expanding to accommodate the individual (incorporation). The Dutch term emancipation (pp. 49–50) illustrates incorporation fairly well: the individual is culturally emancipated from the State, such that society shapes government and not the other way around.

Reading on, there is an expectation that Soysal will focus on this distinction in her description of comparative institutions of integration. Instead, she abandons the approach and universal human rights become her main concern. Her “postnational” model might have been better served had she stayed on course, because the idea of incorporation better describes a world where societies are no longer separated into ethnically homogenous nations. Alas, the reader is robbed of the insight which was expected and Soysal could have delivered.

  • Pete Walker

    “Rights” can only be negative in the sense of the right to be left alone. A “positive right”, i.e. one being owed something he or she never earned or was voluntarily given, is an oxymoron. It could be a privilege, aka a conditional entitlement, but not a right.

    In 1948 the positive right oxymoron got a mega boost from Article 25 of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Declaration_of_Human_Rights; to me a Trojan Horse inside something that made sense at the time. It would have been better to word it as the right to an economic condition allowing the ability to earn (i.e. be left alone by central banks and other criminal activities), and thus be able to voluntarily donate, rather than the oxymoron of an unconditional entitlement.

    • http://economicthought.net/blog JCatalan

      I think the dominant liberal philosophical tradition is where the individual is entitled to a certain amount of “rights,” as to give that individual an equal footing in the polity.

      • Pete Walker

        I agree about the tradition and the book was written within the historical/philosophical confines of the state (polity). I’m just sensitive to how those confines Orwellianize language.

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