In recent years, mainstream liberal political theorists have been caught in a conceptual problem of their own making. States have begun denationalizing their own citizens as a counterterrorism measure. Most liberal theorists are uncomfortable with the use of denationalization as a counterterrorism tool. But, despite objections, states continue to denationalize their citizens. In the UK, Shamima Begum recently lost her fight before the Supreme Court to restore her citizenship. Suhayra Aden recently lost her Australian citizenship through an ‘automatic’ process, in which her case was not even reviewed. Theorists like Christian Joppke do not seem moved by the kinds of arguments that are being made against denationalization. Joppke writes that citizenship is a ‘privilege’ rather than a fundamental right, and a ‘contract’ that states can tear up if citizens abuse it. The liberal opponents of denationalization seem to be losing the argument. They are failing to convince their opponents, and they are failing to convince national governments.

Attempts to stop denationalization are failing because of the way liberal theorists conceptualize citizenship. Taking Joppke, Lenard, and Carey as recent prominent examples, I will show that these theorists tend to have what I will term a ‘transactional’ conceptualization of citizenship, in which the state protects the rights of citizens and in return the citizens perform the duties of citizenship. The ‘transactional’ conceptualization of citizenship is the dominant liberal conceptualization.

At the same time, Lenard and Carey also have an intuition that human beings have human rights, irrespective of whether they possess citizenship or perform the duties of citizenship. On a transactional view of citizenship, a citizen’s failure to perform the duties of citizenship potentially calls into question the citizen’s entitlement to the rights of citizenship, and therefore potentially the right to citizenship itself. But, on a human rights view, some of the rights associated with citizenship—including, potentially, a right against statelessness—must be protected by states even if citizens fail to perform their duties.

As I will show, Lenard and Carey try to reject denationalization by asserting human rights against transactional citizenship whenever a contradiction appears in the transactional account. In the areas where a transactional conceptualization of citizenship does not offer adequate protection against denationalization, the liberal theorists call upon human rights to fill in the gap. This leaves citizenship in a precarious position, because the right to a transactional citizenship is being secured by unconditional human rights. A citizenship that is transactional, i.e., that depends on performance of duties in exchange for rights, cannot comfortably be secured by rights that are guaranteed irrespective of whether duties are performed. Joppke disagrees with Lenard and Carey in large part because Joppke’s argument is more internally consistent—it takes seriously the liberal position that citizenship is transactional, that it involves a contract that can therefore be violated.

Because Lenard and Carey remain committed to the transactional view of citizenship, they cannot easily repudiate denationalization without undermining citizenship as they have conceptualized it. Lenard and Carey are arguing that citizenship is so important that we have a human right to be protected from the loss of it, but by making transactional citizenship unconditional they corrode its meaning. Insofar as liberals take citizenship seriously, as a meaningful concept, this corrosion produces dissatisfaction with Lenard and Carey’s accounts.

Leftist accounts of citizenship can avoid this problem by framing citizenship as ‘constitutive’ rather than ‘transactional.’ For Louis Althusser, the state, through its apparatuses, constitutes citizens as subjects. If the state is responsible for the way citizens are constituted, it is plausibly responsible for the acts citizens perform on the basis of the way they have been constituted.

Paradigmatic liberals cannot take this position because they have individualist first principles. For these liberals, the individual is real, and other abstractions—like states and classes—are to be dismissed or heavily qualified as reifications. This means that for these liberals, the state can only be a person by fiction. It can only act through the actions of the individuals who personate it, and therefore these natural persons remain individual moral agents who can be criminalized for their acts. Drawing on the work of Sean Fleming, I’ll show how thoroughly this individualism is baked into liberal international law.

Liberals like to accuse Marxists of denying the agency of individuals, and over the last few decades this has pushed Marxists like Étienne Balibar to provide and defend accounts of individual agency. While Balibar’s view is armored against liberal critiques, Balibar’s view cannot be used to explain why denationalization is wrong. In some ways, it aids and abets liberal denationalization policies, by over-emphasizing the agency of revolutionary actors. Old-school left-wing views handle this problem much better, by straightforwardly challenging the idea that the individual is a capital-R “Real” thing. But in the neoliberal era, individualism is hegemonic, and denationalization is an inevitable consequence.

Transactional Citizenship and Human Rights in the Liberal Denationalization Literature

In prominent liberal arguments against denationalization, transactional accounts of citizenship are explicitly used alongside appeals to human rights. On the one hand, Lenard argues that ‘the right to citizenship should be treated as a basic human right.’ On the other hand, Lenard also says:

‘It is reasonable to require nonresident citizens, who return from abroad to reside, to fulfill some obligations before their full set of citizenship rights are returned to them.’

For Lenard, citizenship is still transactional, in the sense that citizens owe obligations to their states and must complete those obligations to receive the rights of citizenship. Lenard avoids the implication that they can be denationalized for failing to fulfill their obligations by placing the right to citizenship in the human rights box. But this leaves it very unclear where the line is between the rights that are so critical that they are entitled to be in the human rights box and the rights that are conditional on the fulfillment of obligations. The transactional account sits uneasily alongside the human rights account, and it is easy to begin to pull at the argument from both directions. If the right to citizenship is important enough to go in the human rights box, why not put more rights in that box? If some rights are conditional on the performance of obligations, why not have more rights be conditional in that same way? There is no clear principle for determining when human rights apply and when transactional citizenship applies, and the two approaches often have contradictory implications.

Carey similarly appeals to human rights. In addition to arguing for a human right to be protected from statelessness, Carey argues that when a dual citizen has one of their citizenships revoked, ‘consideration is rarely given to the extent to which a person’s human rights will be protected by their alternative citizenship’. At the same time, Carey joins Barry and Ferracioli in associating ‘meaningful citizenship’ with ‘the idea of engagement of the right sort with the political community in question’, contrasting this with forms of citizenship in which citizens ‘abuse’ the benefits of citizenship by refusing to acknowledge ‘any substantive duties’ toward co-citizens. For Carey, meaningful citizenship is therefore grounded on the acknowledgement of duties in exchange for rights, and is therefore transactional.

If meaningful citizenship must be transactional, this produces bizarre circumstances in which we have a human right to meaningless citizenship. On Carey’s view, citizens who ‘abuse the rights of citizenship’ must still be treated as citizens, even though they lack meaningful citizenship. Rather than offer an alternative conception of citizenship that defends its meaningfulness in these cases, Carey leans on his liberal readers’ willingness to recognize a human right against rendering people stateless. Once this human right is granted, Carey rightly points out that it becomes very difficult for states to coherently denationalize citizens. But this leaves large numbers of people protected from statelessness but also unable to enjoy meaningful citizenship. We are left to conclude that citizens who abuse the benefits of citizenship are nonetheless entitled to ‘meaningless citizenship’ on human rights grounds. This argument is valid, but it goes through at great cost to the concept of citizenship, stripping it of its meaningfulness. It results in large numbersof people who do not have ‘engagement of the right sort with the political community in question’ but must still be defined as citizens.

Joppke is deeply frustrated by these liberal academics, arguing that they:

‘…draw an idyllic and reality-resistant picture of ‘singular and unique’ ties between terrorists and the citizenship they despise; ‘intrinsically grave harm’ is said to be inflicted here, separate even from ‘the harm of statelessness’.’

Joppke accuses ‘terrorists’ of using citizenship as a ‘tactical weapon’. He wants these abuses treated as a violation of contract, and he is dismissive of human rights arguments, which in his view neglect the degree to which citizenship—especially ‘lucrative OECD-state citizenship’ has become a privilege that most of the world’s population does not enjoy. Joppke leans on the transactional conception repeatedly, arguing that immigrants seeking citizenship make a ‘contract’ with states, and that if citizens can break the citizenship contracts through renunciation, it is only fair if states can denationalize in turn.

For someone like Joppke, transactional citizenship implies the possibility of denationalization, and human rights arguments are not a compelling defense. Transactional citizenship rigs the argument in favor of denationalization by setting citizenship up as a contract that can be broken. It ties theorists’ hands and forces them to draw on human rights discourses, but those discourses are only persuasive for those who would be inclined to agree that denationalization is wrong in any case. The liberal arguments against denationalization preach to the choir. They accomplish almost nothing, politically. All they do is protect the reputation of liberalism by suggesting that denationalization is an illiberal act when in fact denationalization is directly implied by liberal political theory.

Althusser and Constitutive Citizenship

In Althusser’s work, the subjects of the state are framed as having been constituted by the state’s power. Althusser associates ideology with a discrete set of ‘state apparatuses’. These include the churches, the schools, the family, the law, the political parties, the trade unions, the media, and the arts. He contrasts these ‘ideological state apparatuses’ with the ‘repressive state apparatus’—the government, the civil administration, the army, the police, the courts, and the prisons. For Althusser, the repressive state apparatus functions predominately ‘by repression’ while the ideological state apparatuses function predominately ‘by ideology.’

Each ideological state apparatus has its own ideology, but all of these ideologies are united under the ‘ruling ideology,’ associated with the ruling class. For Althusser, ‘ideology’ is ‘an imaginary relation to real relations.’ But this imaginary relation is created through a set of discrete practices associated with a particular apparatus. For instance, for Althusser, religious ideology involves participating in a set of religious rituals prescribed and facilitated by some church.

Althusser argues that the function of ideology is to constitute ‘concrete individuals as subjects.’ We are constituted as subjects insofar as it seems obvious to us that we are individually ‘endowed with a consciousness’ in which we ‘freely form’ or ‘freely recognize’ the ideas in which we believe.

But at the same time ‘man is an ideological animal by nature.’ We are ‘always already subjects.’ Therefore we:

‘…constantly practice the rituals of ideological recognition, which guarantee for us that we are indeed concrete, individual, distinguishable, and (naturally) irreplaceable subjects.’

This means that for Althusser it is human nature to believe we are in imaginary relations that differ from the real relations. We are always already imagining ourselves as subjects, and so we are always already subjects, even in the absence of ideological state apparatuses. Why, then, does the state need ideological state apparatuses in the first instance? For Althusser, ideological state apparatuses accomplish ‘by ideology’ what the repressive state apparatus accomplishes predominately through repression. Repression makes us do what the state wants us to do. The ideological state apparatuses take advantage of our ideological nature. We want to believe—indeed we always already believe—we are endowed with consciousness and can freely form the ideas in which we believe. The ideological state apparatuses induce us to believe we have freely adopted ideas that imply acting in accordance with the state’s order. If we act in a manner that contradicts the ideas we believe ourselves to have freely chosen to affirm, we appear to ourselves as ‘wicked.’

If the state—through its apparatuses—constitutes its subjects, then the state induces them to believe they have freely chosen the beliefs they have, and that they have freely chosen to act the way they do. If subjects perform acts that liberal theorists frame as ‘criminal,’—especially if they perform these acts remorselessly—the state’s apparatuses are dysfunctional. They have constituted subjects with beliefs that are, from the state’s own point of view, inappropriate, or they have failed to secure the link between appropriate beliefs and appropriate acts. It therefore follows that the state is responsible for constituting its subjects in such a way that they commit acts the state itself takes to be criminal. These acts are therefore an irreducibly social problem, and the move by the liberal state to responsibilize individuals for these acts is a further ideological move that obscures the fact that it was the liberal state that constituted the subjects in the first instance through the ideological state apparatuses.

On this view, the British state is responsible for constituting Shamima Begum in such a way that she committed criminal acts. The Australian state is, in the same way, responsible for the way Suhayra Aden was constituted. By denationalizing these citizens, these states deny responsibility for the way these states constituted these citizens. These states can be straightforwardly indicted on this basis. They exercise an enormous power over the beliefs and actions of their citizens but they responsibilize and criminalize their citizens for the things they believe and the way they act. It is an offensive abuse of the state’s power, to not only constitute citizens in such a way that they commit acts labelled criminal but to then responsibilize and ultimately denationalize the citizens for those acts.

The State and the Individual in Liberal Accounts of State Responsibility

Althusser’s account is too top-down for many leftists, let alone liberals. Liberal theories of state responsibility are grounded, fundamentally, on the moral culpability of individuals. Fleming points out that there are two broad kinds of state responsibility theory current in establishment circles these days—the analogical view and the functional view. The first kind, associated with political philosophy, takes the state to be analogous to an individual, and therefore responsible in an analogous sense. The state is treated as a ‘corporate moral agent’ with a form of responsibility that is separate from individual responsibility but analogous to it. In this way, the analogous view makes state responsibility conceptually dependent upon the notion of individual responsibility. Fleming says that analogical views hold state responsibility to have ‘equal standing’ to individual responsibility. We might say that these views hold state and individual responsibility to be ‘separate but equal.’ The move to make state responsibility dependent on individual responsibility and equal to individual responsibility makes it impossible, on this view, to use the notion of state responsibility to critique the responsibilization of individual citizens.

The second kind of state responsibility is the kind that is in fact inscribed in international law. On this functional view, the state is not considered analogous to the individual, but is treated as a moral principal in a principal-agent relationship. Here states are principals on behalf of which their officials act rather than agents in their own right. The state can be responsible for what its officials do in its name. At the same time, the officials can be held individually responsible for anything they do that is considered a crime underinternational law. This allows the functional theory to criminalize the officials who commit war crimes while at the same time demanding that subsequent officials pay reparations on the state’s behalf. This view makes individual officials responsible for the actions of the state, responsibilizing them for the state’s acts. It only recognizes individuals as acting as state agents insofar as they are state officials. Ordinary citizens do not count as officials, and therefore are not considered responsible for the state’s acts. Conversely, the functional theory doesn’t make the state responsible for the behavior of its ordinary citizens—only its officials. It does not use state responsibility to in any meaningful way qualify individual responsibility. It merely assigns to the state a reparative duty on top of the criminal liability to which its agents are subject.

In both the analogical and functional theories, the state is treated as a separate actor from the ordinary citizen. On the analogical view, state responsibility is separate from individual responsibility, but equal to it. On the functional view, public officials act in the name of the state, but ordinary citizens act on their own agency, for which they are responsible. Neither kind of theory is interested in the sense in which states are responsible for the way the citizens themselves are constituted. There isn’t even any felt need to deal with such positions. Both theories are compatible with a transactional conceptualization of citizenship, and both are compatible with denationalizing citizens.

Balibar and Denationalization

As liberal political theory has become increasingly fixated on preserving and articulating the moral agency of individuals—and thus the possibility of responsibilizing individuals for the state’s acts—there has been a tendency for the left to emphasize a latent agency in citizens. For Étienne Balibar, there is a dialectical tension between the sense in which an individual is an agentic citizen and the sense in which an individual is the subject of a sovereign state. The two modalities cannot be disentangled from one another, and thus there is an endless alternation between the ‘becoming-citizen of the subject’ and the ‘becoming-subject of the citizen.’ Balibar argues that these modalities not only succeed one another but that, ‘more profoundly,’ they ‘precede and condition one another.’ Balibar describes this as an attempt to navigate ‘a narrow and uncertain path between the Charybdis of penalization and the Scylla of medicalization.’ If we deny the sense in which the subject is a citizen, we medicalize the subject by denying the subject’s agency. Yet at the same time, if we deny the sense in which the citizen is a subject, we penalize the citizen by denying the citizen’s subjection.

Balibar argues that the tension between the two modalities is not fully resolvable, but he does go on to argue that ‘the citizen can be simultaneously considered as the constitutive element of the State and as the actor of a revolution.’ So, while the subject is constituted by the state, the subject always at the same time retains the capacity to take revolutionary action, and in this way the subject is always becoming a citizen.

Balibar’s revolutionary action is, from the point of view of the state, criminal action. But for Balibar, the revolutionary act is not grounds for revoking citizenship, it is the realization of the citizen side of the citizen-subject relation. The citizen who does not undertake revolutionary action, who does not commit crimes, is realizing the subject side, behaving as a constituted subject of state power. On Balibar’s view, the terrorist plausibly has a stronger claim on the category of ‘citizen’ than the law-abiding subject does.

Indeed, on this view the terrorist plausibly has a stronger claim on agency than does the law-abiding state official. The official is a functionary, a state bureaucrat, who has advanced up the greasy pole not by exercising revolutionary agency but by conforming to the structural imperatives through which capitalist states, corporations, and markets operate. The officials who rise highest are those that are most attentive to these imperatives and adhere very closely to them. In this sense, the more prominent the official, the more the official presents as a subject. Insofar as this is true, the more power the official has de jure, the less agency the official possesses de facto.

Yet the functional view of state responsibility criminalizes and responsibilizes the state’s high officials, when those officials are, on a plausibly Balibarian view, those most subject to the competitive imperatives that permeate capitalist structures. Truly, we should weep for the high officials, for they are the ones with the least agency of all, the ones who live as near mere instruments of capital.

Balibar’s view is aggravating for liberals, insofar as it celebrates revolutionary action as the realization of the ever-present potential for citizenship in what otherwise appear to be constituted subjects. But at the same time, Balibar’s view in some ways abets liberal efforts to responsibilize, criminalize, and denationalize citizens. Balibar agrees with theorists like Joppke that the revolutionary has agency. Indeed, Balibar offers further ammunition to Joppke by suggesting that the revolutionary has more agency than most public officials and can therefore more easily be held responsible.

Refusing Individualism

It wasn’t always like this. Vladimir Lenin straightforwardly wrote about revolutionary situations, in which subjects are drawn into revolutionary action by material conditions. One doesn’t have to be a Leninist, or even a leftist, to view the revolutionary terrorist as a socially produced phenomenon. For Plato, it is the tendency of oligarchic states to create a class of impoverished drones that eventually causes a revolt in favor of democracy. Even for the post-war liberal Robert Dahl, people’s beliefs about the legitimacy of democracy are shaken by a ‘confrontation with inequity,’ with the ‘injustices of American life and policies.’ On Dahl’s account, it is the policies of the state and the form of life the state creates that disrupts legitimacy and produces revolutionary figures. Dahl even gives Lenin as an explicit example of such a figure!

What’s changed is that within liberalism, and even within the left, subjects are increasingly understood in the Foucauldian sense, as individuals who are tasked with resisting ‘these abstractions, of economic and ideological state violence.’ This positing of the individual as a capital-R ‘Real’ thing, and the dismissal of other possible starting points as mere ‘abstractions,’ privileges the ontology that leads to the transactional concept of citizenship, and thereby offers an ideological carapace for denationalization.

Althusser clearly understood that the concept of the individual was itself ideological. So, too, did Adorno. In Negative Dialectics, Adorno writes:

‘We have to answer that the object of a mental experience is an antagonistic system in itself—antagonistic in reality, not just in its conveyance to the knowing subject that rediscovers itself therein. The coercive state of reality, which idealism had projected into the region of the subject and the mind, must be retranslated from that region. What remains of idealism is that society, the objective determinant of the mind, is as much an epitome of subjects as it is their negation. In society the subjects are unknowable and incapacitated; hence its desperate objectivity and conceptuality, which idealism mistakes for something positive.’

For Adorno, it was necessary to confront the antagonisms in reality. Clinging to the notion that we are individuals with moral agency is a way of avoiding these antagonisms, by responsibilizing subjects for them. Denationalization is the final responsibilization, in which the state denies the citizen’s constitution as a subject, in a desperate bid to expel its own citizens from the totality in which they are inextricably enmeshed.