UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s “if you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere” quip is maybe history’s most cynical reading of Hannah Arendt.
Arendt’s point in her essay on human rights, of course, is that universal human rights are a lovely idea in theory but in practice they can only be enforced for citizens through membership in a state (functionally a nation-state, since all states tend to degenerate into tools of a national group’s interest rather than a properly pan-national or civic institution. That’s my takeaway on that point 8 months after reading the essay, anyway; I need to go back and check).
The problem, then, is that stateless persons, or refugees, or other unpopular minority groups – i.e. those most in need of universal human rights protections – would be unable to have them enforced. You really are a ‘citizen of nowhere’ without state membership and recognition. But for Arendt, of course, this was not an end point. How can we build properly international political institutions to enforce human rights and protect people who have been rendered stateless by repression, war, economic of climate-related displacement, etc? Arendt makes a critique of the human rights discourse but it’s supposed to be constructive; it’s supposed to prompt us to work on solving the problems it identifies and she assumes we don’t want the world to be a piece of shit.
May’s position, of course, stops short of this. “Without membership in the nation-state you are a citizen of nowhere (so piss off if you aren’t British).” This is the exact ugliness that prompted Arendt’s chapter on “the Decline of the Nation State and the End of the Rights of Man” in the first place. It’s a good read, especially if you want to glimpse down the very dark road the Brexiteers are taking the UK right now.
Okay, that concludes this outburst of political theory, please carry on with your lives now.