23 August 2013


'Arendt, Human Rights, and French Philosophy' (APSA 2013 Annual Meeting Paper) by Justine Lacroix comments that
Contemporary French thought provides an especially instructive ‘laboratory’ for examination of the meaning and present-day relevance of Hannah Arendt’s famous chapter ‘The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man’ (1951). The polarised interpretations the piece has elicited (and continues to) in France raise issues that also form the core of contemporary debates about the possibility and meaning of cosmopolitan citizenship. This paper shows that Arendt’s article furnishes two distinct interpretations in Francophone analysis that correspond respectively with two contemporary critiques of cosmopolitanism. According to the first, Arendt’s meaning was that human rights can only be realised within a determined national collectivity. The second interpretation reads Arendt’s text as an invitation to pronounce human rights obsolete, on the grounds that they are inextricably linked to an assertion of the sovereign violence of the nation-state. In counterpoise to these two interpretations, this paper foregrounds alternative readings by Miguel Abensour, Etienne Balibar and Etienne Tassin, suggesting that Arendt’s work in fact embodies a ‘political’ conception of human rights that neither devalue abstract humanism, nor launch an assault on hypocrisy in human rights rhetoric, nor restrict human rights to the framework of a national collectivity. Finally, the paper explores Arendt’s positions further with an examination of the European ‘case’, which provides a contemporary illustration of the real achievements – yet also the limits – of this embryonic form of cosmopolitan citizenship.
Lacroix concludes with an endorsement of "Etienne Tassin’s view that far from mere ‘collateral damage’ from European unification, clandestinity in fact represents the heart of the European conundrum; its importance far surpasses the boundaries of ‘a mere question of border policing, which would leave intact the radically new logic on which political Europe is built’"
It is as well to recall, indeed, that Renaissance humanists and Enlightenment thinkers also dreamed of freedom of movement, and that Kant based his theory of cosmopolitan rights on the principle of universal hospitality. In this perspective, the political recognition of foreigners, and beyond it a generalized right to free movement, is a useful criterion to evaluate how far public power succeeds in honouring its cosmopolitan goals.
In this sense, rather than constructing a European people on an extended scale, it would be more in harmony with the cosmopolitan spirit to pursue this movement towards the ‘denationalisation of rights’, to the benefit of Europeans of course but also of those who do not belong to ‘its’ nations, in order gradually to make Europe an arena for the construction of a ‘universal field of rights’ premised on a partial dissociation of nationality and citizenship, hitherto all but inseparable. Another possibility to take into account is Pierre Hassner’s suggestion of conferring European citizenship upon those who, as refugees or stateless persons, do not, or no longer, have a territorial state within the framework of which they may access. Hassner referred to groups with an ambiguous or incomplete status, and argued that if European citizenship, if it must in any case be partial and paradoxical, may as well embrace these qualities by welcoming those who are unable to be citizens elsewhere. This would, Hassner argued, be one way of circumventing the dilemma between the stark abstraction of human rights and national citizenship. Though Arendt’s federalist views remained vague in institutional terms, her insistence on the necessity of breaking the automatic equation of nationality with citizenship can hardly be in doubt. A pluralisation of demoï would in this regard be more consistent with her reasoning than a mere translation of the national demos into a European demos, which could only ever reproduce national logic on a larger scale.
This is particularly relevant to the endeavour of conceiving rights in relationship to democracy by recalling that the demands of right and those of democracy ‘are connected by a doubly unstable definition. Rights are sought and consolidated. Democracy submerges them and sets the bar higher. This is its untameable essence, which can never be reduced to mere institutional mechanisms’. Yet here we must remain cautious: if it is doubtless necessary to leave behind an overly institutional or formal definition of democracy in order to conceive of cosmopolitan citizenship, it seems a little precipitous simply to substitute ‘struggles for rights’ for the principle of a self-legislating people. Conceiving of cosmopolitan citizenship means rather to seek a possible connection between the national and the transnational, between approaches to political commitment termed ‘liberal’ and those of a more ‘republican’ bent, between struggles for equal rights and collective self-determination initiatives. To reflect on democracy in an age of globalisation means to ‘complicate’ it, following Pierre Rosanvallon’s expression, but not necessarily to change conceptual register completely.
Beyond this, conceptualising cosmopolitan citizenship means recalling too that citizenship is also a status. This is important in counterpoise to a tendency, prevalent among several theorists of radical democracy, to think about citizenship merely as a form of political action and to deconstruct it as a status. On this specific point I therefore disagree with James Ingram – to whom we owe, beyond this, a remarkable elucidation of Arendt’s political conception of human rights – when he writes that ‘she (Arendt) conceives of rights not as a status but as an activity’ and that ‘“a right to have rights” is not a right to a status in a political community but what Balibar calls a “right to politics itself” – to participate in political processes aiming, among other things, at the invention of new rights, new forms of inclusion and empowerment’.
However, citizenship must not be recognised only as an attribute of those actively involved in political mobilisation. Many individuals who do not wish to or cannot demonstrate in the public sphere nonetheless enjoy its rights. As Alison Kesby demonstrates in her critical exploration of the conception of the political subject in Jacques Rancière’s writings, Rancière appears to take as given an ability to demand ‘the rights that one does not have’; hence the danger of excluding those who cannot be directly involved in political action, whether because of a handicap or, for instance, imprisonment or seclusion preventing meaningful action. We may add that ‘ordinary’ citizens who do not wish to be involved in public life also have the ‘right to rights’ even if they only enjoy what has been won by others. As the French philosopher Alain put it: ‘No one is worthy of rights. This is the very foundation of rights.’ And returning to Arendt, we find that she also repeatedly emphasised in her article ‘We refugees’ (1943) that it is the loss of a legal status in the world that has made pariahs of stateless persons. ‘Very few individuals’, she wrote, ‘have the strength to preserve their own integrity if their social, political and legal status is simply thrown into doubt’.