Frederick Cooper on Citizenship, Inequality, and Difference

CooperCitizenship, Inequality, and Difference offers a concise and sweeping overview of citizenship’s complex evolution, from ancient Rome to the present. Political leaders and thinkers still debate, as they did in Republican Rome, whether the presumed equivalence of citizens is compatible with cultural diversity and economic inequality. Frederick Cooper presents citizenship as “claim-making”—the assertion of rights in a political entity. What those rights should be and to whom they should apply have long been subjects for discussion and political mobilization, while the kind of political entity in which claims and counterclaims have been made has varied over time and space. Citizenship, Inequality, and Difference is a historically based reflection on some of the most fundamental issues facing human societies in the past and present.

What are the biggest differences between how citizenship is understood today versus how it was understood in ancient Rome?

Citizenship, Inequality, and Difference is both an historical panorama and an essay about politics today. As a twentieth-century specialist, I found that beginning with the Roman Empire was quite a challenge. Fortunately, citizenship is as essential a question for historians of Rome as it is for scholars of present-day politics. In both instances, citizenship was less a precisely defined juridical notion than a framework for political action, for claim-making. For the Roman elite, citizenship was an incorporative notion, a means of giving people, including those conquered by military means, a stake in an expanding imperial system. Citizenship under the Roman Republic entailed a voice in political assemblies as well as the right to serve in a Roman legion and to have legal cases tried in a Roman court. The egalitarian dimension of citizenship was in tension with the accumulation of power and wealth by an elite, and such tensions have their echoes into the twenty-first century. When Rome became a monarchy, citizens’ political voice was attenuated—although not entirely eliminated—but citizenship still provided juridical protection. In AD 212 citizenship was extended to all male, non-slave inhabitants of the entire empire. When we talk about the word and the concept of citizenship today as having roots in classical times, we are thus talking about “imperial citizenship,” a concept centered on a diverse polity rather than a homogeneous national society.

Readers might be surprised that imperial citizenship was a focus of debate in the mid-twentieth century. The French government (and less directly the British one) tried to give empire a renewed  legitimacy after World War II by extending citizenship rights to the inhabitants of colonies. French African activists seized on citizenship to claim social, economic, and political equality. Their claims included the right to settle in the metropole, and here we find the roots of the multicultural societies now found in France and Britain, with all their possibilities and problems.

The long-time perspective thus puts into question the idea that citizenship is essentially a national concept. People have claimed rights—and have tried to expand those rights—in a variety of political contexts, bigger than territorially bounded states and smaller as well. Today, citizenship is often associated with a set of rights, but in countries like China, Turkey, and Egypt rights claims are met with strong resistance from rulers. Since the early twentieth-century, citizenship, particularly in Europe, entailed social rights—a right to protection from the state against the risks of old age, illness, and unemployment—but social rights are everywhere under threat. So the usefulness of going back to Rome in thinking about citizenship in today’s world is not so much to find the origins of a certain set of norms or practices as to lay out a terrain of political contestation, where the consequences of incorporation of diverse peoples into a political unit is set against assertion of cultural specificity, where egalitarian ideals conflict with concentrations of wealth and power, where the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion of different categories of people from the body politic are argued and sometimes fought over.

How have different societies reconciled inequality of power among individuals with the equality of status offered by citizenship?

Citizenship in itself doesn’t posit that citizens should be equal in all senses of the term, but because it emphasizes that people belong as a body to a political unit it does imply that there is a relationship of citizens to each other as well as citizens to a ruler or to a state. That opens the door for debates within the construct of citizenship over how much inequality among citizens is acceptable. In Republican Rome, the controversy among writers was about the dangers of oligarchy and greed. In the French Revolution, the new political language emphasizing “nation” and “popular sovereignty” quickly revealed tensions that were not resolved: between the rights of every citizen to equal participation in society and the right to property which implied differences in resources, between popular sovereignty and the exclusion of women from the vote, and between the insistence that overseas colonies were “French” but that most people living there could legitimately remain without rights. Indeed, the idea of popular sovereignty made the policing of the boundaries of citizenship a more acute issue than it had been. In newly independent countries in the Americas as well as French, British, and Spanish colonies, slavery and the status of indigenous peoples—as well as the exclusion of many people from full citizenship on grounds of origins, color, gender, culture, and religion—confronted what seemed to be the fundamental tenets of the political regime.  When territories in Africa and Asia were forcefully incorporated into empires, millions of people were forced into a situation where they were “French” or “British” but were excluded from citizenship. In Europe itself, the mobilization of workers, the development of socialist parties, and the beginnings of welfare policies provoked debates over how much inequality was acceptable among citizens and between citizens and others in the territory. When empire itself came under fire, the debate was not just about political rights, but social and economic rights. Because citizenship as a principle—not just one’s own rights—was in question, some intellectuals and activists argued that whatever rights it entailed should be universal, that the notion of “belonging” had to be pushed upward to include all of humankind as a rights-bearing community. That by the 1970s, with the end of colonial empires, almost all of the world’s population was a citizen of someplace both continued and recast long-standing debates over how much inequality was tolerable within and among sovereign states. And the more universal the concept of citizenship became, the more the situation of people who did not fit into a citizenship regime became a source of tension—people like Palestinians, Kurds, or Rohingya, as well as refugees or economic migrants. The relationship of citizenship and equality has been a part of political thought and political action for a very long time, but in shifting ways.

How did the collapse of empire affect ideas of what it means to be a citizen?

The collapse of empires in the mid-twentieth century entailed a reimagining of history based on a vision of a well-defined society moving as a unit through time.  Not only did elite intellectuals of new states in Africa and Asia carved out of colonial empires try to naturalize the nations they were forging, but elites of France, Britain, and other imperial powers tried to project backwards their national identification onto an imperial past. They not only sought to obscure the violence and exploitation that was part of empire building, but also to deny the incorporative dimension of empire, which they had recently tried to promote. They feared that ex-citizens or recent migrants from former colonies would find in the imperial past a basis for making claims.

What changed when citizenship began to be thought of as a birthright for the inhabitants of a given nation rather than an exclusive status conferred upon individuals who meet a certain set of criteria?

Some scholars have pointed out the limits of “birthright citizenship”—that the luck of being born in a particular place shapes, more than anything an individual can control, a person’s fate. But remedies to birthright citizenship might be even worse than the disease—insisting that people merit their citizenship, making people’s rights subject to invidious distinction-making, to exclusionary notions of who really belongs where. In actual practice, legal regimes have tried various mixtures of jus soli—citizenship based on place of birth—and jus sanguinis—citizenship based on descent from a recognized citizen. The first can be arbitrary, the second exclusionary. We don’t want to lose the sense of common belonging and collective well-being that we share with our fellow citizens. Nor should we lose awareness of the fact that our collectivity was built out of the mixing of people of different origins, that we live among people some of whom resemble us and some of whom do not, and that our well-being depends on interaction with people across as well as within political boundaries. Since neither a rigid politics of national identity nor an amorphous notion of globality corresponds to the reality of today’s world, we need to think in nuanced ways about problems of immigration and integration in our own countries and about the conditions in which people in other parts of the world live.

How did you approach writing this book?

In much of my career, I have liked to change focal lengths: to do archivally-based research on a well-bounded topic and to write about general issues of history and theory in the social sciences. My Princeton book Citizenship between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945-1960 falls into the first category, and the present book, along with Empires in World History:  Power and the Politics of Difference, co-authored with Jane Burbank, falls into the second. Citizenship, Inequality, and Difference began as a series of lectures, and in turning them into a book I tried to retain the sense of an extended reflection on an issue that is as much a concern of today’s politics as it is a subject of historical interest. Writing in such different genres helps to avoid the pitfalls of either. Immersion in the particulars of historical situations helps focus not only on the limited knowledge on which generalizations are based, but also on the uncertainties and contingencies with which people lived. The temptation is usually to start an historical story at its end point, to see how we got where we are, to write off paths not taken and dead ends.  Getting into the nitty-gritty of historical research enables us to reconstruct the hopes, despairs, possibilities, and constraints, in which history was made. At the same time, immersion in the particular can mask the large spatial and temporal scale at which important actors operate.  Moving back and forth between archival research and theoretical reflections, between small and large scales of time and space, while following connections with their extensions and their limits and looking at continuities and evolutionary changes as well as moments of radical transformation seems to me a way to explore the possibilities and limitations of history writing.

What do you hope that readers will take away from reading this book?

Citizenship is both a powerful and fragile notion. Thinking about citizenship historically confronts us with the salience of the choices that we face today, as in the past. We have seen that from the early Roman Empire onward the commonality of citizens coexisted with social hierarchy and political oligarchy. They coexisted uneasily, for citizenship provided a framework for contestation, for some to push for greater equality and for others to use their resources to maintain and enhance their privileges. Citizenship has been an incorporative and an exclusionary notion. Today, we are confronting a world economy that offers a high degree of mobility to commodities and capital, and that fact provides a rationale—if not a reason—for the governments of the most privileged countries in Europe to erode the hard-won social benefits that citizenship has provided. Meanwhile, the closures of national citizenship tempt many people to scapegoat immigrants rather than confront the basic structures of inequality. In other parts of the world, we find citizens vigorously asserting their political rights against would-be dictators, and we see governments willing to kill or drive into exile millions of their citizens in order to preserve their power. Whether in today’s world citizens in different circumstances will be able to make good their claims by defending themselves within a strictly national framework is far from evident. An historical perspective on citizenship reminds us that we need to work with different kinds of political relationships at the same time, to define communities that live together and help each other without walling ourselves off from others. In the future as in the past we need to make our way in a world that is economically and social unequal, politically fragmented, culturally differentiated, and highly connected.

Frederick Cooper is professor of history at New York University. His many books include Empires in World History and Citizenship between Empire and Nation.