Citizens Of Nowhere

In her speech to the 2016 Conservative Party conference, Theresa May threw down a gauntlet:

…if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.

For anyone wondering who or what met the cut, May was helpfully expansive, populating this rather arcane placeholder with the figures of the boss who earns a fortune but doesn’t look after his staff, the international company that eludes the snares of tax law, the ‘household name’ that refuses cooperation with anti-terrorist authorities, and the director who takes out massive dividends while knowing that the company pension is about to go bust. Basically, fat cats with the odd public intellectual thrown in. May contrasted the spectre of the rootless cosmopolitan with the ‘spirit of citizenship’, which, in her view, entailed ‘respect [for] the bonds and obligations that make our society work’,theresa-may ‘commitment to the men and women who live around you’, ‘recognizing the social contract that says you train up local young people before you take on cheap labour from overseas.’ And perhaps astonishingly, for a Conservative Prime Minister, May promised to deploy the full wherewithal of the state to revitalize that elusive social contract by protecting workers’ rights and cracking down on tax evasion to build ‘an economy that works for everyone’. Picture the Brexit debate as a 2X2 matrix with ideological positions mapped along an x-axis, and Remain/Leave options mapped along a y-axis to yield four possibilities: Right Leave (Brexit), Left Leave (Lexit), Right Remain (things are great) and Left Remain (things are grim, but the alternative is worse). Having been a quiet Right Remainer in the run-up to the referendum, May has now become the Brexit Prime Minister while posing, in parts of this speech, as a Lexiter (Lexiteer?).

May moves with apparent ease between three of the four boxes in the matrix under cover of a fundamental ambivalence inherent in the very notion of a ‘citizen of the world’. Marx understood this ambivalence well, recognising that precisely because ‘the bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country’ its antithesis would have to be no less cosmopolitan: ‘the working men have no country.’ The ambivalence persists in contemporary discussion of the concept. Craig Calhoun has memorably punctured much of the naiveté surrounding talk of cosmopolitanism by describing its actually existing manifestations as the ‘class consciousness of frequent travellers’ (he would know). Calhoun argues that the notion of world citizenship comes most readily to the denizens of airport business lounges, who are able to experience a sense of inhabitation of the world as a whole thanks to their credit cards and visa-friendly passports. In a not dissimilar vein, reminding us that Stoic, Cynic and Enlightenment cosmopolitanisms emerged in tandem with the spread of Greek, Roman and European empires, Anthony Pagden offers us the sobering prospect that moral universalism has tended to acquire currency within the institutional context of political universalism: this is cosmopolitanism as the superstructure of empire.

Musing about the prospects for postnational belonging in a perhaps more optimistic time, Arjun Appadurai reworks Benedict Anderson’s account of nations as imagined communities for a globalising world. If for Anderson it is the itineraries of Creole elites conjoined with the phenomenon of print capitalism that shape new nations, Appadurai suggests that global migration and global mass media now provide the infrastructural basis for the imagination of postnational communities. Migration, mobility and movement are as central to Appadurai’s argument as they are to Calhoun’s; but for Appadurai, these are not the sole prerogative of the privileged. The cosmopolitan worlds that he and others write of are brought into being as much by the movement of slaves, indentured and migrant labour, refugees, asylum seekers, dissidents, exiles and trafficked persons, as they are by frequent flyers.

At least one blindingly obvious rejoinder to May’s contemptuous dismissal of the citizens of ‘nowhere’, then, is that while some choose nowhere, others have nowhere thrust upon them. Ask a Syrian. Moreover, while some choose nowhere out of self-interest, others do so in solidarity with those who have it thrust upon them. Haven’t dreams of revolution always relied on the prospect of alliance between the alienated-even-if-not-exploited, the exploited-even-if-not-alienated, and the exploited-and-alienated? As if to remove any shred of doubt, May was equally contemptuous of those who might place themselves in voluntary exile from national loyalty in solidarity with the excluded, vowing that

we will never again—in any future conflict—let those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave—the men and women of Britain’s Armed Forces.

Odd, and odious, how the phrase ‘never again’, once a shorthand for the human rights movement’s determination to hold states to account, is now tethered to a determination to thwart it.

* * *

I went to Yarl’s Wood for the first time in September this year. Few artefacts of the built environment bring out the brutality of the British state more effectively than this place. For a start, it’s called an Immigration Removal Centre. Like the ten other IRCs in the country it exists to hold people in a variety of fraught immigration-related circumstances—because they have pending asylum claims, or are awaiting deportation after unsuccessful claims, visa violations, etc. But the institution’s raison d’etre is summed up in the word ‘removal’: rather like pest control, it exists to eliminate. Yarl’s Wood houses mostly women and families. Hunger strikes, sexual abuse, child detention and deaths in custody, not to mention its mismanagement by the private company Serco, have kept the place in the news since its inception in 2001. But it is only the most high profile of similar institutions elsewhere.

Yarl’s Wood is hard to reach, and has become the site of regular protests largely because of the extraordinary organising efforts of Movement for Justice activists who arrange coach transport from all over the country every few months. A countryside that one might normally describe as idyllic here takes on a dystopian character, as if it exists only to isolate and quarantine. The building is surrounded by an enormous metal fence, so high it’s hard to imagine what exactly it’s intended to exclude or contain: people jumping over certainly, but armed invasion or a prison break appear to have weighed heavily on the minds of the planners. A grim-looking structure, half water tank, half watchtower, stands in one corner of the premises. Think ‘Escape from Sorbibor’ rather than ‘Orange is the New Black’. But it’s the windows, above all else, that symbolize the cruelty of the place: none opens enough to allow more than a slender hand to poke out.


photo: Darren Johnson, IDJ photography

As protesters chant, shout, bang pots and kick the fence, inmates stick their hands out and wave. Handkerchiefs and pieces of cloth flutter out of some of the chinks. Some of the women manage to hang signs out of the windows. On that day in September, one read simply ‘SOS’. The most extraordinary moment in the afternoon came when activists were able to establish telephone contact with some of the women, broadcasting their voices on loudspeakers. The crowd went silent as detainees described, in their own voices, the experience of being separated from children and families and of awaiting deportation into potentially more harrowing circumstances. For the duration of the protest, the monstrously ugly fence becomes something else: a zone of encounter between people whose citizenship of nowhere has been thrust upon them and others whose alienation from the state of which they are citizens or legal residents compels them to extend their solidarity. Very occasionally, the line between the two becomes porous, sometimes in hopeful ways as when former detainees win the right to remain and agitate, on the outside, for the release of their comrades; but perhaps also in the opposite, more worrying, direction.

In recent months, I’ve been following a fierce debate within the UN system over the creation of an Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, something that finally happened in June 2016. During the course of the debate at the UN Human Rights Council, the UK representative supported the creation of this position, shaming opponents of the resolution with some impressively plain speaking: ‘By voting against this resolution you are voting to block the UN from trying to stop violence and discrimination. How is that acceptable? This affects people in this room, and people in my team who are LGBT. Are you saying it is OK to discriminate against them based on their sexual orientation and gender identity? To hit, torture, or possibly kill them? Because that is what you are supporting, if you vote against this resolution.’ But in April 2014, when Rashida Manjoo, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, tried to visit Yarl’s Wood as part of a fact-finding mission to the UK, she was refused entry on reaching the gates of the centre, reportedly on instructions from the highest levels of what was then May’s Home Office (well before she became Prime Minister, a popular chant at the Yarl’s Wood protests has been ‘Hey, hey Theresa May / How many lives will you ruin today?’). Evidently the international governmentality of human rights, of which the British government is sometimes an impassioned advocate, is only ever intended to apply to inferior states. The exposure of state hypocrisy may well be the lowest, most banal form of IR commentary, but hypocrisy is fatal to projects such as human rights that are constituted entirely by their moral purpose.

* * *

Contrary to May’s claim that citizens of nowhere don’t understand the meaning of citizenship, you might think that they, of all people, have the most acute understanding of the entitlements of which they have been stripped. This is the perspective from which Virginia Woolf famously declared

… as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.

Writing in 1938, when the drumbeats of fascism in Europe were growing louder and British public consensus was almost universally in favour of war mobilization, Woolf cannot see how women have a stake in the abstraction that is being described as ‘our country’ or indeed in any country given their centuries-long exclusion from politics, education and the professions. She refuses to join not only the patriotic chorus but also the worthy anti-war society to which the unnamed man to whom Three Guineas is addressed has invited her, preferring instead to champion a Society of Outsiders. Anticipating by several decades queer debates on assimilation and separatism, she questions the impulse towards three-guineasjoining and inclusion. On the one hand, she looks forward to the day when ‘we too can leave the house, can mount those steps, pass in and out of those doors, wear wigs and gowns, make money, administer justice.’ (Perhaps anticipating a future woman Prime Minister, she writes, ‘We who now agitate these humble pens may in another century or two speak from a pulpit.’) At the same time, conscious as she is of the ways in which the male-dominated professions have drawn their societies inexorably into the vortex of war, she asks: ‘do we wish to join that procession, or don’t we? On what terms shall we join that procession? Above all, where is it leading us, the procession of educated men?’ Woolf does not valorise exclusion. She can see the inescapable necessity of women earning their own livelihoods despite the corrupting effects of the professions. The question, as she puts it, ‘is how we can enter the professions and yet remain civilized human beings; human beings, that is, who wish to prevent war?’

Woolf’s answer is to remind readers that although women in her time didn’t have much by way of formal education, they were richly instructed by the four teachers of their ‘unpaid-for education’: poverty, chastity, derision, and—anticipating the privilege debates of our time—‘lack of rights and privileges’ or what she later parses as ‘freedom from unreal loyalties’. Woolf’s advice to women is to reach for ‘some wealth, some knowledge, and some service to real loyalties’ while refusing to be separated from the four great teachers. And lest they appear too self-denying to be useful, she explains:

By poverty is meant enough money to live upon… to be independent of any other human being and to buy that modicum of health, leisure, knowledge and so on that is needed for the full development of body and mind. But no more. Not a penny more.

By chastity is meant that when you have made enough to live on by your profession you must refuse to sell your brain for the sake of money.

By derision… is meant that you must refuse all methods of advertising merit, and hold that ridicule, obscurity and censure are preferable, for psychological reasons, to fame and praise.

By freedom from unreal loyalties is meant that you must rid yourself of pride of nationality in the first place; also of religious pride, college pride, school pride, family pride, sex pride and those unreal loyalties that spring from them.

In this last respect, Woolf finds ironic assistance in the British state itself whose law, at the time she was writing, consigned women to an unequal position in matters of property and citizenship (‘the law of England denies us, and let us hope will long continue to deny us, the full stigma of nationality’).

* * *

Theresa May inveighed against ‘citizens of the world’ in the name of bringing to heel a disembedded capitalism that no longer serves the needs and interests of the community (when have Conservatives done this?). In fact, by disingenuously synonymizing this category with ‘citizens of nowhere’, she also mobilizes and rides a wave of increasingly racist, xenophobic public antipathy towards immigrants and asylum seekers. As political theorists, we might begin to draw a much-needed distinction between ‘citizens of the world’, at home everywhere, and ‘citizens of nowhere’, and to question whether both can fit comfortably under the rubric of cosmopolitanism. As human beings, we might seize on May’s epithet—‘citizens of nowhere’—and, in the manner of Woolf’s Society of Outsiders, make something beautiful and fierce out of it.

The next protest to #ShutDownYarlsWood and all detention centres is on 3 December 2016.


2 thoughts on “Citizens Of Nowhere

  1. Pingback: Citizens Of Nowhere | privateclientweb

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