Selling Citizenship

The idea of buying citizenship tends to invoke Bond villains or the louche drifters in Graham Greene’s novels. But it’s also a very real practice that offends nationalists, rankles politicians, and incites populist rage. It hints at a breakdown of the social contract, a “marketization” of everyday life that was practically unimaginable just ten years ago, and perhaps even the creeping obsolescence of the nation-state itself.

Since the mid-2000s, citizenship has become a legitimate, above-board industry, one of the high-end services that bankers, lawyers, consultants, and accountants come together to provide for the global elite. At the same time, the existence of a passport market allows repressive governments to treat nationality as a commodity to dispense, withhold, and revoke as they please.

While researching my book, The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen, I looked at how this state of affairs emerged, reading about everything from the constructed nature of national identity to the legal ins and outs of multiple nationality. This list is by no means exhaustive, but together, the texts here begin to offer a varied account of why, how, and where citizenship is being bought and sold today.

Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson

Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities is widely regarded as the most important book in print on the origins of nationalism—and, by extension, nationality. The book draws from history, literature, politics, and theory to document how individuals living in a country came to consider each other compatriots. It’s worth reading and re-reading; it’s also wonderfully written.

“The Man Without a Country” by Edward Everett Hale

On May 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln expelled an Ohio congressman named Clement Vallandigham from the Union for speaking out against the war and expressing sympathy for the Confederate cause. Edward Everett Hale, a writer and Unitarian minister, was so outraged by Vallandigham’s statements that he wrote “The Man Without a Country,” a cautionary tale inspired by the events intended to discourage Americans from behaving unpatriotically. The story tells the tale of a treasonous protagonist, Philip Nolan, who is sent off to sea for criticizing the Union; it’s been adapted for film and radio multiple times. But little could Hale have known that, a century and a half later, American citizens would choose exile of their own volition.

The Birthright Lottery: Citizenship and Global Inequality by Ayelet Shachar

Citizenship is inherited by blind luck and plays a tremendous role in determining our fates. Given that it is so unfairly and arbitrarily assigned, shouldn’t there be a way to redistribute its benefits in a just society? The Birthright Lottery frames the acquisition of citizenship as a problem of distribution, not unlike the inheritance of wealth, and discusses the responsibilities of citizens in wealthy nations to help their less fortunate peers.

Beyond Citizenship: American Identity After Globalization and At Home in Two Countries: The Past and Future of Dual Citizenship by Peter Spiro

Because Peter Spiro writes regularly on citizenship in a post-national context, he’s frequently invited by leaders in the passport industry to speak at events. He’s also one of the first scholars I spoke to about the business of selling citizenship, back in 2011. In Beyond Citizenship, Spiro’s main thesis is that twentieth-century ideas about American citizenship don’t hold up anymore, and that bonds between Americans, which once largely rested on their common American-ness, are being replaced by other commonalities: politics, sexuality, gender, shared interests, race, and business. His most recent book, At Home in Two Countries, explains how dual citizenship has gone from being regarded as a threat to international society, to an almost prosaic status held by diasporas, business elites, and people of mixed heritage.

The Dog by Joseph O’Neill

The Dog came out as I was reporting the stories that ultimately ended up in this book. Reading it was downright eerie, because it is, thematically at least, The Cosmopolites’ fictional equivalent. Set in pre-recessionary Dubai with a jet-set, rootless lawyer as the main protagonist, O’Neill's book conveys a deep-rooted anxiety about what it means to be an ethical person on a global scale. It even features a stateless servant who acquires Comorian citizenship and is sent away from the Emirates.

The Sovereign Citizen: Denaturalization and the Origins of the American Republic by Patrick Weil

The best-known cases of denationalization occurred in Nazi Germany, but until the 1970s, the United States would routinely strip Americans of their citizenship for political and administrative reasons. Patrick Weil, a visiting law professor at Yale and a fellow at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, pored over Supreme Court archives to write a meticulous history of denationalization law in the United States, from the deportation of anarchist Emma Goldman to Afroyim v. Rusk, the ruling establishing that US citizenship cannot be involuntarily taken away from a citizen by the state. This history is particularly relevant today, when US politicians advocate stripping homegrown terrorists of their nationality, and when Western countries like the UK actually do so with complete impunity.

“Should citizenship be for sale?” by the European Union Democracy Observatory on Citizenship

This debate, published by a European think tank, came about as a result of the European Commission’s talks on Malta’s citizenship-by-investment program and the tremendous amount of controversy it provoked around the world. It gives an excellent overview of the ethical, political, and legal issues that we ought to consider when talking about whether citizenship should be bought and sold.

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is an editor at Dissent. She is a citizen of Canada, Switzerland, and Iran, and lives in Brooklyn, NY.

This list of recommended texts appeared as “Further Readings” in The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen, published by Columbia Global Reports.