Rightlessness in an Age of Rights: Hannah Arendt and the Contemporary Struggles of Migrants, by Ayten Gündoğlu: Book Note
(Note: I wrote this book review for Human Rights Quarterly: I am posting it with the permission of the editor, Bert Lockwood; the publication information is New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt famously called for the “right to have rights.” Reflecting on her own status as a stateless refugee from Germany, Arendt broadened her analysis to include the problem of statelessness as a whole. Ayten Gündoğdu engages with the entirety of Arendt’s opus, especially with The Human Condition and On Revolution as well as with The Origins, to unpack the various meanings and implications of this call.
Gündoğdu starts with what Arendt called the “perplexity” of the contradiction between state sovereignty and the universal enjoyment of human rights. Then and now, rights are protected--or not--by sovereign states that normally extend their protection only to their citizens, and perhaps non-citizens legally in their territory. The naked human being, unmoored from the state-people-territory framework, has no rights.
Gündoğdu extends Arendt’s argument to cover all migrants, not only stateless people, focusing on their powerlessness and dehumanization. She grounds her analysis empirically in the dehumanization experienced by residents of camps for refugees and displaced people. She also refers to the appalling detention camps now dotting the world’s island geography, where potential refugee claimants live in endless limbo.
Gündoğdu discusses the ways in which human beings actually manufacture, claim, and win human rights. She notes that Arendt criticized the “urge to approach social issues with a moralistic framework centered on compassion,” positioning those who faced injustice as “victims…erasing their singularity and denying them equal standing.”(p. 57) Gündoğdu analyzes the limits of compassion in the treatment of camp-dwellers, people without political agency who are mere objects to be administered. She is correct that compassion is not the best basis for solidarity. Camp dwellers cannot rely on compassion if they are to be treated as equal human beings enjoying liberty. Compassion and charity leave the human being at the mercy of others, mostly those of higher status who cannot help but look down upon those who are their administrative objects.
Nevertheless, the real problem here is not that residents of refugee camps must rely on the compassion of those who administer them. Such administrators are probably well aware of the problems of subjecting residents to charity, but they are limited in what they can do by financial constraints and the state system. The UNHRC, other agencies of the UN system such as UNICEF, and non-governmental organizations such as Médecins sans Frontières are dependent upon voluntary financial contributions from states and compassionate private citizens. These voluntary contributions rarely, if ever, reach the amount needed merely to ensure that residents are not riddled by disease or suffering from malnutrition.
Gündoğdu defends Arendt against charges of élitism made by other philosophers with whose work she engages. Arendt is criticized for denigrating manual and other kinds of labor, but Gündoğdu argues that she views both labor and work as crucial to human dignity. According to Gündoğdu, Arendt defined labor as day-to-day bodily maintenance and maintenance of one’s home and surroundings. This labor grounds the individual in the material world and provides her with a sense of routine, permanence, and community with others. By work, Arendt apparently meant creativity, the ability to make or build something new and worthwhile. Both labor and work are denied to residents of camps. Dependent for their every need on the compassion of others, they endure lives of complete boredom without social roles or responsibilities. This is a degraded form of “life,” without meaning or substance.
Gündoğdu argues that Arendt did not rely on what philosophers call foundational principles of human rights. Rather, Arendt used an approach that Gündoğdu calls “founding.” Rights, she argues along with Arendt, are founded in political action, including “inaugural speech acts that bring forth new rights,” such as the French and American revolutionary documents (p. 209). To show how founding still applies, Gündoğdu describes the political movement of sans-papiers (people without papers) in France in the 1990s. Deliberately referencing the urban sans-culottes of the 1789 Revolution, this late twentieth-century movement demanded the same rights as citizens of France, claiming “rights that they [were] not yet authorized to claim” (p. 189).
Gündoğdu discusses the 18th century foundational principle for human rights, what Ētienne Balibar calls “equaliberty” (p. 23). This conjoining of the principles of equality and liberty is not enough, however, to ensure the rights of twenty-first century migrants. Indeed, it is not enough to ensure the rights of anyone, including citizens of rights-protective democratic states. Even if citizens enjoy formal legal and political equality and the liberty to pursue their own interests, they may not be able to enjoy all their other human rights, especially their economic and social rights. Enjoyment of these rights requires a sense of community among all citizens and a state that engages in distributive and redistributive measures that ensure everyone’s access to a basic minimum of material security, as well as access to educational and cultural resources that permit all citizens to be efficacious members of their own political community.
How to extend this sense of community to strangers is a difficult question, however. Such extension requires recognition of “others” as human beings, whatever their differences. But such recognition does not mean that these others will be welcomed as full citizens into states that are otherwise democratic and rights-protective. Probably all Gündoğdu’s readers will agree with her principal concerns, that migrants should have human rights, that they should not have to rely on charity or compassion, and that they should be permitted to engage in political action and organization, whether within the camps to which they are confined or in the countries in which they enjoy no or precarious residency rights. These principles, however, confront limited material resources and limited integrational capacities, even in states that welcome (carefully-controlled numbers of ) refugees and immigrants. And they confront everywhere racist and nativist reactions against perceived foreigners. Sadly, the right to belong to humanity does not yet mean the right to citizenship.
While Gündoğdu’s reading of Arendt and other philosophers is profound and her arguments persuasive, her book ignores some legal and political realities. From the point of view of actual law and politics, her conflation of different types of people who no longer live in their homeland is confusing.
Of the 232 million people that the United Nations tells us are people living outside the countries of their birth, some are legal migrants in or naturalized citizens of their new countries: for example, about twenty per cent of Canada’s 36 million residents are foreign-born, among whom most are legal residents and a substantial number are citizens. Figures differentiating naturalized citizens, legal migrants, migrants without legal status, refugees, refugee claimants, and stateless people would have served Gündoğdu’s analysis well. There are only about 12 million stateless people, the paradigmatic group with which her analysis is concerned. While this is 12 million people too many, it is also a far cry from 232 million people. While many migrants are de facto stateless, as Gündoğlu observes (p.4), many others continue to enjoy the legal protections of their natal states as well as of the states to which they move. Not all migrants are seen as “undeserving intruders” (p. 123): this is particularly so in the current round of globalization in which many high-status, highly-educated and wealthy people move easily across borders. Moreover, the book’s title suggests that Gündoğdu confines herself to migrants, but her analysis of the camps applies as much to those containing technically non-migrant, internally displaced people as to camps where migrants or refugees live.
Arendt may have used the philosophical term, “perplexity” to describe the plight of the naked human being without the protection of a state, but to a political scientist there is nothing perplexing about the contradiction between state sovereignty and human rights. The states that drafted the International Bill of Human Rights were anxious to maintain their sovereignty: just as anxious, if not more so, are the new states formed from ex-colonies since the end of the Second World War. Thus, while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims everyone’s right to seek asylum, no one has a right to asylum itself, as Gündoğdu notes: indeed, while everyone has the right to re-enter her own country, no one has the right to enter any other country. What commentators such as Gündoğdu call a crisis of statelessness (p. 35) is not a crisis for actual states, whose governors take for granted that they have no legal obligations to non-citizens who are not resident in their territories.
Nor will political scientists find Gündoğdu’s argument for basing human rights in human action—the “founding” of human rights—rather than in foundational philosophical principles particularly enlightening. That human rights are what human beings claim ought to be their rights is well known. Human rights are bound up in struggle, as Gündoğdu acknowledges. Rights claims change, as do the rights that (some) states grant, as new social groups enter the rights discourse and new aspects of human dignity such as respect for sexual orientation and gender identity are made.
Despite these criticisms, this is a very interesting book well worth reading. While it will be of principal interest to political philosophers, especially those engaged with Arendt’s work, others will also benefit from Gündoğdu’s discussion of the entirety of Arendt’s thought and how it applies to migrants and camp-dwellers of all kinds. Gündoğdu is a brilliant analyst, whose thinking is informed throughout by great empathy and by the very compassion that she herself criticizes.