The State and the Stateless

February 23rd, 2006  |  Published in Political Economy

Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism is generally remembered for its analysis of the totalitarian state itself. But what struck me on reading it was the discussion of the European milieu from which the totalitarian states emerged. Europe in the interwar years was characterized, says Arendt, by a historically unprecedented conjunction of two factors:

  1. Massive numbers of stateless people, who were no longer citizens of any sovereign state
  2. The generalization of the nation-state form across the entire world

What this meant was that there was no “uncivilized” space on earth left for the stateless to resettle: “[w]hat is unprecedented is not the loss of a home but the impossibility of finding a new one” (p. 293). In this context, stateless people became an insoluble problem: permanently outside the law, shuttled back and forth between states which all denied responsibility for them, and subject to arbitrary police domination wherever they found themselves. Such a state of
affairs, says Arendt, led toward the concentration camp.

The crisis of the stateless people developed from what, in contemporary parlance, we might call a “bug” in the Enlightenment conception of rights. As set forth in the “Declaration of the rights of man,” human rights were grounded in nature, in an abstract humanity outside of history and social institutions. But it turned out that such rights could only be defined if people were assumed to be members of some political community–a people, a nation. The existence of stateless people vitiated this assumption and led to a form of unfreedom described most chillingly by Arendt:

There is no question that those outside the pale of the law may have more freedom of movement than a lawfully imprisoned criminal or that they enjoy more freedom of opinion in the internment camps of democratic countries than they would in any ordinary despotism, not to mention in a totalitarian country. But neither physical safety–being fed by some state or private welfare agency–nor freedom of opinion changes in the least their fundamental situation of rightlessness. The prolongation of their lives is due to charity and not to right, for no law exists which could force the nations to feed them; their freedom of movement, if they have it at all, gives them no right to residence which even themjailed criminal enjoys as a matter of course; and their freedom of opinion is a fool’s freedom for nothing they think matters anyhow. (p. 296)

Notice what this quote assumes about the state. It assumes that if one is a citizen of a state, “the prolongation of one’s life” can be due to right and not to charity; that one can have a “right to residence” in accordance with one’s right to movement, and that one’s freedom of opinion matters and is politically operational. Yet the development of the state today has tended to erode all of these assumptions in one or another way.

In the dismantling of the welfare state and the imposition of neoliberalism, we find an attack on the notion that a state has any duty to provide for its citizens. In the creeping irrationalism of political discourse, combined with the cacophony of media voices, we see the meaninglessness of “free” opinion. And in the status of illegal immigrants, we see a people whose movement is tacitly
tolerated, but who lack all rights to residence.

Arendt says elsewhere that the stateless benefit from committing crimes, for then the state must at least recognize them as an exception to the social norms, rather than as a human being outside of norms altogether. An analogous thing has happened to illegal migrants; witness the following news item:

Immigrants toiling illegally in New York state can sue for lost wages if they are hurt on the job, the state’s highest court ruled Tuesday…

The Court of Appeals reinstated the state Supreme Court ruling, saying there was nothing in U.S. immigration law that prevented the worker from receiving lost wages since there was no proof he used fraudulent documents to get the job. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 “does not make it a crime to work without documentation,” Judge Victoria Graffeo said in the decision, the AP reported.

Here of course, the worker becomes a person in the eyes of the law not by committing a crime, but by having a crime committed against them. But it is the nature of the crime that is interesting. Within the employment contract, the worker is within the law–only by being economically exploited do illegal immigrants count as people. It really is true, as the Marxist economist Joan Robinson once said, that the only thing worse than being exploited under capitalism is not being exploited under capitalism.

So to return to the theme I raised above: what sort of state are we moving toward? Philip Bobbitt has theorized a transition from the “nation state” model which collapsed after 1991, and the new “market state”. The former aimed to maximize the well-being of its citizens (however those were defined), while the latter aims only to ensure the market conditions under which people can compete for advancement.

Thus the state no longer grounds itself in a people–so what does define the boundaries of a state? One major role of states is to print and defend national currencies. This is of particular importance for the United States, which has the luxury of printing the currency which is used as the global standard of bank reserves and key commodity transactions. As a consequence of “dollar hegemony”, there is now a global dollar economy which is quite distinct, both in its membership and its territorial boundaries, from the collectivity of American citizens. What are the implications of this?

In much commentary on the imbalances of the global currency regime, it is implicitly assumed that if there is a contradiction between the the state and the nation, it will ultimately be resolved in favor of the nation: thus there will ultimately be a devaluation of the dollar and a fall in American consumption which restores “balance” to the global economy. But what if the state instead manages to disentangle itself from the nation? That is, what happens if we all become a kind of “stateless” people?

This brings us back to where we started. Many of Arendt’s comments on totalitarianism are disturbing in their contemporary resonance. Of those Boer war-era “camps [which] correspond in many respects to the concentration camps at the beginning of totalitarian rule,” which “were used for ‘suspects’ whose offenses could not be proved and who could not be sentenced by ordinary process of law” (p. 440), I hardly need to elaborate. But what is most pernicious about the cavalier use of the word “fascism”, in reference to the present state of affairs, is that it stops our thinking at precisely the place where it should start. Now, more than ever, we must dig into the diverse historical preconditions and political elements which led toward the fascist turn–the state-form first among them–in order to see how these apply in our conjuncture. The result will be an analysis which is more than facile phrase-mongering; yet I fear it will be no less chilling for its subtlety.