Migration and the Shortcomings of the Nation State – An Interview with Seyla Benhabib

13 min read
Transnationalist Theories, Contemporary Struggles
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Some people maintain that some restrictions on immigration are necessary, in order to protect legal and political principles of a country. You have often asserted that individuals with different cultural identities can strengthen a society’s constitutional laws, thanks to what you call a “jurisgenerative politics”. Could you explain it to us?

Seyla Benhabib: According to me, an immigrant person introduces a new subjectivity into the host society, and brings in a set of new demands. If we look through some of the most sensitive questions recently to have come out across Europe – the hijab, polygamy and the debate about the setting of courts or legislations consistent with sharia – we realize that these cases emerge from a profound cultural challenge that could be productive. Democratic liberalism founds itself on principles and values: the constitution fixes some principles, which in their turn reflect fundamental values about nature and human dignity. It is anyway necessary to bear in mind that values are abstract and place themselves on what we could call a regulatory level. In every specific case, we should identify some values and principles that are more fundamental than others and, according to them, handle different ways of living within our cultures. Obviously, there can be principles of incompatibility: for instance, I do not accept the principle of polygamy, because I believe it is not egalitarian, it violates gender equality and women’s dignity. But there are also occasions when our disagreement must be subordinated to attempts to find a “human” solution to certain problems. It is just in these attempts that a jurisgenerative practice is produced: there is a “jurisgenerative praxis” whenever there is a confrontation with new subjectivities and demands, which allow us – or forces us – to rethink the true basis of our constitutional principles, and sometimes pushes us towards a new and diverse articulation of our fundamental values. This usually occurs when we discuss issues such as equality, when we question ourselves about the legitimacy of wearing hijab at workplaces or the legitimacy of homosexual marriages. 

You have extensively examined the ways migratory processes have transformed the institutions of citizenship in contemporary Europe. And you have written that, “despite the wishes of coherent politics about immigration and asylum at an intergovernmental level of communitarian institutions, the juridical and institutional conditions of migrants and asylum-seekers varies considerably in European Union’s member States”. What you believe to be the causes of this lack of homogeneity? 

It is worth remembering that immigration has always had much to do with history and the construction of national identity. If the United Kingdom and Spain nowadays have to deal with different problems, this is due also to their different histories. Thus, facing immigration-related issues, every country somehow faces its history, which in its turn is influenced by migrations. But let me go back to the specific frame of the European Union’s problems: the status of those who come from a third country depends on the corpus of laws and regulations in force in any European country. Recently, a directive has been issued that aims to define “civil citizenship” for those who belong to third countries: it acknowledges the necessity of making compatible the rights of all individuals residing in Europe, including those who do not enjoy a full political citizenship. In The Rights of Others I’ve underlined the wide variation within the EU concerning social and cultural rights, which depend mostly on the social and juridical formations of every country. Generally, there have been attempts at overcoming juridical and social fragmentation, but areas where differences are excessive still exist. I refer, for instance, to the right to vote in local or regional elections and generally to political rights. In some European countries, such as Holland and Ireland, long-term residents have the right to vote for local and sometimes even regional elections, while this right is not granted by countries hosting the majority of immigrants, such as Austria, Germany and France. It’s a problem of democracy and representation: how can individuals who have lived in a country for thirty or forty years be excluded from democratic participation and denied their right to express themselves? It is a serious menace for the continent’s democratic structure.

“The themes of immigration and asylum – you wrote in The Rights of Others – are time bombs in the hands of demagogues and politicians of the Right, ready to explode at any time”. Contrary to demagogues and right-wing politicians, you believe that granting all human rights to migrants and asylum-seekers and decriminalising their status are “among the most important duties for cosmopolitical justice in contemporary world”. How could this duty be fulfilled?

First of all, we should stop condemning migrants as if they were criminals. Also, we should acknowledge the change: the condition of refugees is changing, because they’re mostly economic refugees, as we have seen, and not political refugees. Still, people usually say we should not “concede” too much to economic refugees, and we should instead engage to make them reach a higher standard of living (and this is right, even though not enough). But there’s something we really need, that is opening our minds and admitting that migration is a universal human condition, not an exception, and that human history exists only thanks to migrations. Migrations are not a recent product of modern times, while the territorial regime of sovereign States is. Migrations have started being a problem once nation-States decided to exert control on borders in a centralized manner. What’s tragically ironic is that everything can cross borders – often evading the State’s control: money, news, viruses. But human beings keep being persecuted by the State through military and police forces. If only we widened our moral horizons, we’d stop regarding migrants as dangerous individuals who make an attempt against our societies’ integrity, and we would think of them as strangers in need, who press for the universal host’s duty. This does not mean we should automatically allow them to be part of the community we live in, but it should help us to understand that strangers are not enemies, but human beings whom we have the moral duty to assist and aid. Also, we cannot ignore the issues of global distributive justice, since in most cases world migrations are closely connected to economic problems, even if we often forget to analyse these connections. This concerns increasing migrations from Mexico to the United States, as determined by Nafta agreement that has excluded from the market Mexican farmers unable to cope with the competition of American products; but it concerns also some African migrants, who try to reach Mediterranean countries. Among migrants, in fact, some slogans read: “We’re here, in your countries, because you’ve been there, in our countries”, “We have not crossed the border, the border has crossed our lives”. Thus, if we wish to achieve a cosmopolitan, global justice, we should examine the interdependence between the economic and distributive dimensions and migrations. To do so, we need to understand how big actors, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation or the World Bank structure the global economy. After reaching this new sociological view about the way institutions organize the global system in terms of cooperation and competition, we could raise the question of global justice. Obviously, solutions to these issues cannot be delegated to single States, since they are “autistic” and tend to think mostly of themselves, nor to a sort of world council, hierarchically structured. We should turn to cosmopolitan federalism: some decisions are to be taken at a subnational level and others at a transnational level, in a coordinated way. 

In the preface of The Rights of Others you wrote that we have entered an era in which “the borders of political community, as they were defined within the nation-State, are no longer able to shape belongings”. Several interpretations are given to the crisis of the Westphalian model of State sovereignty and subsequent changes in the forms of citizenship. Could you expound the main mistakes of what you call “the school of the decline of citizenship”?

This school has been named after David Jacobson’s Rights Across Borders: Immigration and the Decline of Citizenship, and gathers all those authors who believe migrations to be radically altering the relations between the State and its citizens. I have got “sociological” objections to the supporters of the “decline of citizenship”: they do not realize, in fact, that the decline of the meaning of citizenship is not due to migrations but probably to that reconfiguration of political spaces which is the basis of migrations themselves. Anyway, citizenship is even to me a really serious concept, I believe it to be a quite important form of belonging. But I think there are several nuances of citizenship, belonging and participation. I do not agree with theorists like Sandell, according to whom citizenship is the only relevant element of individuals’ public or political identity, nor do I agree with cosmopolitan theorists of hybridism, like Homi Bhabha. Unlike the latter, I believe there will always be a relation between political “engagement” we accept towards a Constitution and its institutions and principles. As an American citizen, I have got duties towards the US political community; but I was born in Turkey, a country in whose history I’m still deeply involved, so I’m very serious also about my commitment towards Turkish society, even if I can not express it through my vote.  At the same time, I am a cosmopolite, and I believe in European conventions. We need to be more conscious of the multiple forms of our belonging. Also, we should pay more attention to the way these forms may reciprocally influence one another, sometimes conjugating, other times interfering. 

The trend towards the fragmentation of citizenship thus becomes “an aspect of contemporary globalisation”, and can turn out to be productive. But you underline that relations and multiple and transverse forms of loyalty to national borders can produce a democratic citizenship “only if they’re supported by an active involvement and a real assent to representative institutions which are publicly responsible and transparent”. Do you mean we should reconfigure and strengthen citizenship through what you call “democratic iterations”? 

Movements crossing the borders of nation-States do not concern only the people we’d like to live with. Islamist jihadism, for instance, works on a transnational level, and this is exactly why it could become more “effective” than any other progressive alternative. Thus, the transnational character is not enough to give birth to a democratic citizenship, which needs to base itself on democratic principles, to be consolidated through what we call democratic iterations. That is to say, through those mechanisms such as local and regional vote. I firmly believe in the idea that direct participation and the guarantee that all individuals have their say about decisions that concern them are the best instruments to make them stakeholders, as they say. We have seen the results of state politics marginalizing the outsiders: the increase of extreme right movements, neo-Nazis in Germany and neo-Fascists in Italy, Islamist groups among European migrants, movements that draw inspiration from the deepest and most dangerous feelings of marginalisation and oppression. If we want to defuse the dangers these movements represent, we should let all individuals have their say, support their participation to public issues, integrate them, articulate all demands within a legitimate and transparent framework, until each individual becomes an actor of the public sphere.

You maintain that the homogeneity of a people and territorial self-sufficiency are false ideals. Still, you keep believing in the fundamental link between “democratic self-governance and territorial representation”, because “empires have frontiers, democracies have borders”. Why do you think there is no way “to cut the Gordian knot linking territoriality, representation and democratic expression”? In other words, if we assume – like you do – that territorial regimes of clearly delimited sovereign States are recent products of modernity, why can’t we imagine a new “political” product, less bound to territorial demarcation but still democratic?

Representation can run across several roads: we can be represented according to our benefits, our profession, our abilities, by many organisations and associations. In this sense, representation does not need to base itself on territoriality, and rather recalls identity. But democratic representation bases itself on a choice: the choice of living together a common life, the firm belief that our common life’s issues must be regulated, our common interests must be organised according to shared principles; the idea that the laws we submit to are the same for everyone, and we consider them to be our laws: this is why, submitting to them, we do not give up our freedom. Now, let’s see the Gordian knot: living territorially together on the basis of a shared project involving future generations means that our common life contains something really important. The fact that other people may join us is not under discussion, but this implies an engagement to equality, to a form of generational continuity, the ability to consider the laws to which we submit as our own laws, and the possibility of having our say about their definition. This is the heart of democracy, which can be declined in several ways. But this should not lead us to mistake these forms of belonging for the specific forms of an association: being a citizen of a democracy is different from being a member of the World Philosophical Association. In a democracy, in fact, each citizen is required to commit for other citizens, for his or her children, for a shared future within a shared form of life. Of course, it is an ambitious idea of democracy and in fact many people are discussing about “post-democracy”. But thinking that the limited number of people adhering to this ambitious form of democracy can justify a lowering of its demands is extremely dangerous. This is why I keep asking for a strong definition of democratic citizenship. According to me, democracy is not a mere association promoting economic interests, but – as John Rawls would say – a lasting scheme of cooperation, which implies a form of “constitutional essentialism” and the fundamental structures of societies; and I do not see how other forms of representation can satisfy democratic criteria, among which there is undoubtedly territoriality, a form of continuity and commitment for a shared future. This does not leave out any innovative political solution, such as the institution of a world parliament, but it links such a representation to a territorial demarcation.

About the contributors

Seyla Benhabib
Philosopher, Critical Theorist & Feminist

Seyla Benhabib is a Turkish-American philosopher. Seyla Benhabib is a senior research scholar and adjunct professor of law at Columbia Law School. She is also an affiliate faculty member in the Columbia University Department of Philosophy and a senior fellow at the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought. She was a scholar in residence at the Law School from 2018 to 2019 and was also the James S. Carpentier Visiting Professor of Law in spring 2019. She was the Eugene Mayer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University from 2001 to 2020. She was director of the program in Ethics, Politics, and Economics from 2002 to 2008. Benhabib is well known for her work in political philosophy, which draws on critical theory and feminist political theory. She has written extensively on the philosophers Hannah Arendt and Jürgen Habermas, as well as on the topic of human migration. She is the author of numerous books, and she has received several prestigious awards and lectureships in recognition of her work.

Marta Cillero
Communications Manager, European Alternatives

Marta is responsible of EA communications. Graduated in Media Studies, Journalism and Communication. Background in Gender Studies, previously she interned with Anushay Hossain as community manager and research assistant . For two years she has monthly reported for United Explanations and other Spanish blogs. She has volunteer for many years with different NGOs and she has experience assisting in Data Journalism Research Projects.