Shifting landscapes of citizenship

In a time of globalization, the renaissance of cultural nationalism is remarkable. Classical countries of immigration, such as Australia, Canada and the United States, have been joined for the first time by the countries of western Europe in this strong global tide towards citizenship testing.
Christina Slade
18 July 2011

What it is to be a citizen is not a simple matter. For an individual to be in a relation of citizenship to a community, whether city, nation state, or the European Union, is a matter of law. What it signifies may be much broader, with assumptions that citizenship carries cultural connotations. The beginning of the twenty first century has seen a number of nation states impose – or refine – tests to ensure that citizens to whom they grant the formal legal status have appropriate cultural attributes.  Not only have the classical countries of immigration, such as Australia, Canada and the United States strengthened or reintroduced stringent tests for migrants to become citizens; the countries of western Europe have, for the first time, also turned to testing regimes. In a time of globalization, this renaissance of cultural nationalism is remarkable.

Citizenship remains a national affair. The book From Migrant to Citizen: testing language, testing culture, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010 which I edited with Martina Mollering, and which was launched at City University London on 28 June, charts the rise of citizenship testing regimes that has characterized the beginning of the twenty-first century. The book focuses on the debate around the introduction of a test for citizenship in Australia, putting it into its international context. The Australian test was introduced by the conservative Howard government following little more than a year of consultation in October 2007, in the lead up to a Federal Election. It was seen as a potential vote winner, but was widely criticized at the time, in particular for its focus on a traditional construction of Australian culture. Questions such as those about Donald Bradman, a cricketer now long dead, were ridiculed. The incoming Labor Government appointed Richard Woolcott to review the test in April 2008 and his report, handed to the Government in August, was made public on 22 November 2008. The major change was that the test will concentrate on the core issue the review committee felt was needed for Australian citizens – an understanding of the pledge.

The fact that some version of Australian test has been maintained even after a critical review is evidence of the strength of this turn of the global tide to such forms of testing, reflecting a shift in debates about citizenship, the role of the nation state, in the understanding of national values, and a transformation of both the concepts and practices of the multicultural state. The Australian, North American and European cases, reveal a broad similarity of approach by different nation states. While this may be a consequence of direct modeling, it reflects a profoundly important shift in the political, philosophical, linguistic and cultural understanding of citizenship itself.

Reading across the national silos

All too often, the various debates about citizenship testing remain isolated. Linguists discuss the level and complexity of language skills required by national tests; cultural theorists examine the cultural underpinnings of the supposed national cultural knowledge that is tested, others describe how those tested interpret the tests. Historians describe the precursors and earlier forms of tests for citizenship and the historical factors influencing their introduction. Lawyers look to the constitutionality of tests; political theorists and philosophers examine the understanding of the relationship between the individual and the state that is presupposed by such tests, and sociologists describe their impact. What is critical is to bring these diverging discourses together, and to identify forms of reasoning about citizenship which survive the disciplinary divides.

The rise or reimposition of citizenship testing and civic integration regimes across the developed world since the beginning of the century creates a discourse of citizenship which contrasts sharply with discourses of globalization. Citizenship testing regimes are under the control of the nation state, and are designed as mechanisms of exclusion, or at least to appear to be exclusionary for political purposes. Citizenship tests are imposed by nations where conditions of life are or are perceived to be preferable to conditions in other countries, in order to limit the number of those moving into the preferred destinations, ostensibly to preserve those conditions that make the country desirable to live in. The mechanisms for citizenship testing are framed in international legislation and are hedged about with domestic and international structures which give them immense power. Moreover those rights are deeply asymmetric. Consular protection for instance varies widely depending on the financial strength of the nation involved. While using shared vocabularies and addressing overlapping political and ethical issues, these formal legal aspects of citizenship are at the far end of the spectrum from the discourse of globalised networked cultural citizenship.

We might model the conceptual space of  citizenship debates as a topological space, with the extremes consisting of, on the one hand, what I will call ‘bare citizenship’, and others have labeled ‘formal’ or ‘political’ citizenship. By this I mean those aspects of citizenship which are defined in international and domestic law: such as the right (not uncircumscribed) to carry the passport of the nation of citizenship. At the other extreme of the space are the cultural practices which are seen as constituting a far less formal model of citizenship, defined in broader terms of identity and belonging to a community..

Between the two extremes lies an interconnecting web of concepts: including the complex and shifting practices of citizenship, the economic forces constraining and empowering states and citizens and creating communities. Theoretical accounts chart the relations between some of these concepts, both normatively and descriptively.  For instance, liberal conceptions of the state have a particular limiting and limited conception of the role of the state as the guarantor of bare citizenship in cultural citizenship. The state is supposed to allow individuals choice as to their cultural practices

Stronger citizenship claims and assumptions

The unreflective (and often untrue) assumption that citizenship is a one-to-one relationship between a state and an individual, in the sense of a bare formal relationship, often slides to a stronger claim that a citizen should have a unique cultural relationship to the nation state. The strong claim is often read as the view that citizens owe allegiance and loyalty to the state to which they belong and to that state alone. Pledges of allegiance, willingness to go to war, and identification with national sports teams have strong emotional overtones which draw on this stronger view. Behind much of the rhetoric of national identity is the view that citizens should belong to and fight for the nation to which they belong, but also identify with the national icons and symbols. The connection is visceral and unreflective, manifest at once in pride in sporting achievements and in pride in  high cultural  achievements – French film, or German music.

The European Union offers an omnium gatherum of  multiple citizenships. By virtue of citizenship in any country of the EU, citizens automatically acquire transnational citizenship in the EU and thereby what is tantamount to multiple citizenships, increasing in number as the EU itself expands. EU citizenship has been hedged about with constraints, for instance, on the rights of citizens of more recent accession states to work in the states of ‘old Europe’; nevertheless such rights exist. Attempts to develop a notion of cultural citizenship for EU members have not been successful; but the notion that there should be such cultural citizenship remains a driving element in EU policy.

Western inconsistencies

The developed nations of the West have come to a position which is, on the face of it, inconsistent.  On the one hand, dual citizenship is offered to those who enter with economic benefit to the country. A wealthy investor, a scientist, or skilled tradesperson can enter many countries, will have little difficulty in achieving citizenship and will not be expected to abandon their pre-existing cultural affiliations. American, British, Dutch, Australian, Canadian entrepreneurs, academics, knowledge workers, teachers, tradespersons, have little difficulty with cultural hurdles: they are permitted to maintain the mother culture.. On the other hand, others, in particular those who come for family reunion, are subjected to rigorous and culturally specific testing and are expected to assimilate on their arrival. To put it in controversial terms, those who are suitably global or transnational in their outlook are permitted diverse cultural attitudes, while on the other hand, those most in need are forced into cultural straightjackets.

Governments consider that they have a right to vet prospective migrants in order to maintain economic well being and the civil society of their nations. Transnational employees are assumed to add to economic well being (at least before the recent global financial crises), and to share at least a commitment to the core practices of a modern state. Frequently, it is deemed that less educated migrants, in particular those from Islamic countries, may not share those values and could indeed undermine the fabric of society.

In effect, the new landscape of citizenship divides the world into those who are citizenship-rich, and those who are citizenship-poor. Those who are citizenship-rich possess passports or the right to live and work in at least one and possibly in a number of prosperous countries. For such citizens, new forms of citizenship such as netizenship offer new opportunities of interacting and participating in debate about global issues. For those who are citizenship-poor – refugees or those whose country of birth does not give great opportunity – the opportunities to participate online still exist, but the lack of a suitable passport can be crippling. In the conceptual space that ranges from bare formal citizenship to cultural citizenship, bare citizenship is presupposed by all other forms of cultural engagement. And bare citizenship is still in the gift of the nation state.  

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