Liberal political theory has traditionally been structured on the assumption that the subjects of justice are members of a nation-state. Until relatively recently that assumption was very narrow, that theories of justice are bounded by the nation-state – justice is a relationship of co-members.
More recently, theories of global justice have been developed, examining relations between members of different nation-states in different parts of the world. And even more recently the question of immigration has been addressed, looking at relations of justice between members of the nation-state and those who are not members but who are nevertheless within the national border or, more importantly, want to enter.
However, even in this latter work, the assumption has been that those who have entered the nation-state or want to enter it from the outside are actually members of a nation-state elsewhere. This assumption has held even in the extreme case of the refugee. It is only very recently that the question of the stateless has been addressed, those who have no membership of any state.
But even where it acknowledges the existence of the stateless, it is not obvious that liberal political theory is structurally capable of addressing their situation – there may be no answer to the question of statelessness within the limits of liberal political theory. This is because liberal political theory remains centred on the perspective of the member of the nation-state, such that the ‘other’, whether immigrant, refugee or stateless (a person can be all three at once, of course), is seen as a problem for the citizen, a problem which must be solved without disrupting the centrality of the citizen.
When I wrote my book, Philosophies of Exclusion, the major aim of my argument was to show that addressing the question of membership has the potential to undermine the entire coherence of liberal political theory. Immigration is not some marginal question which we can add on to theory, but goes to the heart of that theory and exposes it as fundamentally flawed. My conclusion to that book was that liberal theory had a choice, either to embrace open borders or to embrace its own incoherence.
The question of statelessness reveals that the structural flaws go much deeper than I thought. The problem we face is that liberal political theory has been an ‘insider theory’, a body of theory that privileges the voice of the insider, the one who possesses statehood, the citizen.
That privilege, at the extreme, has meant that this is the only position acknowledged as existing. But even if we recognize the existence of the stateless as a problem for political theory, they are included as a problem for the citizen, a problem that must be solved in the interests of the citizen. The stateless person is the passive object of the question, not its active subject.
But not only has liberal theory been ‘insider theory’ with a specific topology, theorizing from within a nation-state, it has also had a specific topography, theorizing from inside a particular kind of nation-state in a particular area of the world. Liberal theory has a geographical shape, as a body of theory structuring a viewpoint on migration and membership centred upon the interests of members of liberal democratic states in the Global North.
This means that any solution to the problem of statelessness that theory produces will be structured around the interests of those specific members. Any such solution constructed within liberal political theory, even in its more recent international form, cannot be genuinely inclusive and egalitarian, because the negotiation on which that solution is based cannot take place on an equal basis. Indeed, it is likely that any negotiation will still only be between those on the inside, with refugees in general, not only the stateless, remaining on the outside, excluded as participants in any negotiation of a solution.
The challenge we face as theorists is how to break out of this topographic enclosure, in a way that does not assume that there is some neutral theoretical space that we as theorists can occupy so that we can move directly to an answer to the question of statelessness.
Rather, our priority has to be to contribute to the building of a genuinely inclusive theoretical context within which all have equal voices in reaching an egalitarian settlement based on universal principles of justice. In other words, out first task is not to find the right answer to the question, but to find the right way of answering it.
This approach is based on the realisation that everything has to be up for negotiation – there can be no fixed points, because what we take to be fixed points have been fixed by the old topology/topography of theory, and it is those fixed points that need to be challenged. To think that we can arrive at a solution to statelessness based around those fixed points is the mistake. We have to start from scratch.
And this means rethinking not only the concept of the stateless and their rights, but also the concept of the citizen and their rights – we cannot rethink the idea of the stateless without rethinking the meaning of the idea of the citizen, because the inside is defined against the outside and depends upon it. To revise the conception of the outside is to radically threaten the inside.
The fact is that it is the rights of the person who is already safe and secure that restrict the rights of those who seek safety. And this, of course, means that the very idea of the liberal nation-state is also thrown into question, as it is the framework of safety and security for citizens, and at the same time the framework that creates danger and insecurity for others.
This raises two implications. The first is about how we do political theory, specifically in relation to the question of statelessness. This implication is that we need to break out of the citizen/non-citizen binary that this question is currently locked into. Because of that binary the solution is that the stateless become citizens of some state. But the real solution may be that we all become stateless. If citizenship is locked into the nation-state system and that system produces statelessness systematically, then this approach will not do and we have to look beyond the binary.
The second implication is that political theorists, including myself, are not best placed to offer an ethical answer to the question of statelessness. Instead, we should focus on the prior task of constructing an ethical framework within which the question can be answered.
Even then, that ethical framework must be one that recognises the equality not only of the position of the stateless alongside other political positions, but also the voice of the stateless in the process of deciding what that ethical framework should look like. And so it may be that the most important right for the stateless is not the right to membership of a state, but the right to self-representation at all levels of political debate, including political theory itself.
There are, according to current estimates, 65 million forcibly displaced people around the world, a nation the size of the United Kingdom, and 10 million stateless still make a nation larger than many existing nation-states who have a seat at the United Nations and other bodies that decide their fate.
The idea of the Refugee Nation has been raised before, sometimes in odd and disturbing ways, and identifying a voice of the stateless or the refugee of course gets us to the definitional question of who speaks for who in a genuinely representational way. We know the UN definition of the refugee is too narrow and beyond the 65 million displaced there are the environmentally displaced, estimated at 26 million every year since 2008.
And so the democratic puzzle of how a body of people get represented should not be an obstacle of recognizing the need for genuine representation – that democratic puzzle should not be the exclusive property of those who are already citizens. Otherwise, it starts to look like a privilege rather than a problem.
Phillip Cole is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of the West of England, UK. He is author Philosophies of Exclusion: Liberal Political Theory and Immigration (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) and, with Christopher Heath Wellman, Debating the Ethics of Immigration: Is There a Right to Exclude? (Oxford: Oxford University Press). For more on this research, see Cole, P. (2017) Insider Theory and the Construction of Statelessness. In Bloom, T., Tonkiss, K. and Cole, P. (eds.) Understanding Statelessness. London: Routledge.
Image Credit: Author’s own