The Last Citizens
February 02, 2023
The Last Citizens may already have been born. The ideals that made it possible to be democratic citizens of a nation protected by international human rights have become so corrupted, and indeed purposefully distorted, that it is far from clear that anyone is still a citizen in the sense that came to exist immediately after World War II. But the Last Citizens are still citizens in at least one sense: they remember what it means to be part of a democracy of rights... and even the capacity to remember what this means provides some glimmer of hope for the future.
Despite its influences in the ancient world, citizenship in the sense of belonging to a democracy of rights is a comparatively contemporary idea. Unrest in the imperial nations brought an end to the old faith in the divine right of kings that had sustained monarchy as the sole legitimate mechanism of rule. The English Civil Wars ended in 1649 with the execution of Charles I - a situation previously unthinkable. Yes, one monarch had executed another, and wars of succession had a long history, but this was something different. The king was found guilty of asserting "unlimited and tyrannical power to rule according to his will, and to overthrow the rights and liberties of the people". The world's first Bill of Rights arrived forty years later. But we were not yet citizens.
There is a certain irony to the way that the American Revolution was also a revolt against the British crown, that is, against the monarchy formed through a merger between the Scottish and English crowns. The throne had been restored after the English experiment in republicanism ended in failure after just eleven years, but it now faced in 'the colonies' what it had previously faced at home: revolution. Yet the Declaration of Independence in 1776 still did not create citizens, and even the constitution of 1789 did not allow for this understanding until the addition of the Fourteenth Amendment, in 1868. Conversely, the French Revolution that followed soon after proudly announced in 1789 the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
As Benedict Anderson remarks of these events, the combination of a revolution followed by a declaration of rights and citizenship created a model for a nation that could be creatively 'pirated', and citizenship spread around South America and the former imperial colonies bordering upon the Pacific with a certain inevitability. Anderson's claim, oft repeated but seldom fully appreciated, was that the arrival of widespread printing created novels and newspapers that allowed people to imagine themselves as part of the same community. These imagined communities were the origin of the nation in a sense that was radically different from that of monarchy. No longer subjects, we were now citizens.
The usual interest in Anderson's arguments is rather shallow, since it is taken as a diagnosis of nationalism, taken in the negative. But Anderson's interest was broader and more intriguing - he expressly denies we should think of 'nationalism' as an ideology, like liberalism or fascism. Rather, he sees 'nationalism' as akin to 'kinship' or 'religion' - as different ways of imagining human relationships. Indeed, a large part of his book is taken with showing how the imagined communities of religion served a role similar to that of the nation in the half millennia beforehand: people imagined themselves as members of a religion that united them with vast numbers of strangers long before they imagined themselves as members of a nation.
To be a citizen of a nation, however, is to recognise one's membership in that nation, just as to be a Hindu, a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, or a Jew is to recognise one's membership in that religion. In both cases, what matters is not merely recognising membership of a set, but a metaphorical brotherhood and sisterhood with others who also belong to that set. Those who leap from Anderson's book to nationalism-as-ideology misunderstand his purposes. Racism, he argues, justifies repression and domination within the nation; nationalism leads to wars with others in order to protect 'our' land. Whoever loves their nation is willing to die for what it represents, just as one who loves God is willing to die for that faith represents - and contrary to how this is usually taken, this need not mean being willing to kill.
The lazy assumption that these imagined nations are a pathology betrays us. We are lured into thinking that those people who believe in nations are terrible and need to be excluded and repressed. In other words, demonising the love of a nation is itself a path to the bigotry being reviled - a pattern we have seen so many times, with each and every belief system whether religious, national, or secular. In this regard, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, whatever its flaws, attempted to transcend nationalist bigotry by declaring not only rights for everyone, but a right to citizenship itself (a right to belong to a nation). It was a spirited attempt to make good on everything that had gone wrong when the old conception of 'Natural Rights' that had fuelled the Revolutions had been discredited by the two World Wars.
No, nationalism as such is not necessarily our problem. Indeed, it was love of the United States that led people to protest against the Vietnam war in the 1960s, as Anderson himself later made explicit. The citizen of a nation is capable of feeling ashamed of crimes their country has committed, for which the concept of 'not in my name' carries some weight. While we are still citizens, we must have this connection to a nation, because it is only in the context of a democratic nation that we can be citizens, and we can be so solely if we belong to that nation. It is the erosion of this sense of imagined community which is precisely why citizenship has begun to unravel.
The problem, as Chantal Mouffe brilliantly explored in the early twenty first century, is that the 'left' and the 'right' ceased to be mutually engaged in citizenship any more. The entire point of this original division, which commenced in the French Revolution with the first seating of the National Assembly, was to distinguish two different perspectives within one common nation. But as Mouffe traces, the 'left' gradually lost this commitment, and this in two ways: through adopting extreme forms of individualism, that elevated the individual and denigrated the nation, and also through an obsession with a zealous rationality that is often named 'Science' but has nothing whatsoever to do with scientific practice.
Thus for those caught up in the imagined tides of the 'left', identarian politics invited people to join different imagined communities - as LGB or one of its later permutations, as neuro-diverse, as queer, as black, as trans, and ultimately, when all the seats outside of white and male had been taken, as these final accursed categories, which became the reviled and excluded remnants of the identarian parade. These alternative identities pulled people away from imagining themselves as part of a democratic community united as nations. Nowhere was this clearer than in the nonsense of the last few years, when the mistaken belief that experts could establish, at the drop of a hat, scientific and therefore medical truth, led people to abandon citizenship for a brutal and ignorant technocracy. Nations were suddenly irrelevant: what mattered was your chosen identity and your loyalty to a specific political surrogate for scientific truth.
Between these two forces, the imagined ideal of the citizen in a democracy of rights was entirely torn apart. Rather than the 'left' and 'right' having different imaginings about the same nation, the 'right' continued to imagine the nation, while the left began to imagine internationally, which is to say (like the subjects of the English and French crowns before them), they began to imagine an empire. As I wrote in The Third Accord, our image of citizenship has thus been torn into two fragments. The 'right' clings to the image of membership in a nation that belongs to them, while the 'left' has carried the freedom to dissent to an absurd extreme that now denies any disagreement. For this 'new left', any attempt to imagine belonging to a nation has become secondary to the coalition of imagined identarian communities united in commitment to an empire of magical science.
Nowhere is this collapse of the ideals of citizenship clearer than in the cries of 'Not My President' and the deranged denouncement of political opponents as inhuman, evil, and beneath contempt, such that any thought of compromise or debate with them is unthinkable. The absolutism of monarchy has returned in the divine right of idiots to believe in their own stupidity so completely as to become incapable of listening to any other perspective at all. On this path, even censoring free speech and tampering with elections becomes morally justified because 'they' cannot be allowed to 'win'. The United States has all but lost any notion of citizenship because it has abandoned its commitment to debating disagreements and working collectively to forge a common image of what the nation could or should become. And the other nations are never far behind the mistakes that the United States leads the world in making.
Yet all is not lost. The Last Citizens may indeed have already been born, but these are still the people among us willing to listen and compromise. These brave souls - or those that follow them - might be able to forge the third accord, to reunite the many different worlds of our one, shared planet into a common political ideal. Those that were seduced away from freedom by the deceptions of a false necessity have at least this one redeeming quality: they still believe in ideals... it is just that our collective imaginings have been so corrupted they can now cause only harm. We must rebuild either the notion of citizens within democracies of rights, or an ideal that can replace it. And the only way this can come about is if we discover how to pursue this momentous undertaking together.
The opening image is a detail from Citizens by Chris Arlidge. No copyright infringement is intended and I'll take the image down if asked.