July 31
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Dimitry Kochenov

review by

Sara Iglesias Sánchez

Under the short title ‘Citizenship’, Dimitry Kochenov encapsulates, in barely 250 pages, one of the most complex and difficult subjects from the point of view of law and political theory: What is citizenship really about? This book gives us an eloquent account of everything you never wanted to know about citizenship and yet you dared to ask.

The book is very much about dismantling the mythical glories of citizenship. With a clear and straightforward structure and style, it navigates at a firm pace through the different elements that compose ‘citizenship’: status, rights, duties and its political component. Interestingly, there is no chapter about identity and a sense of belonging. As the author explains in a disclaimer, citizenship is not about identity. This statement already warns the reader about one of the major revelations of the book…

Depicting citizenship as the legal status of belonging, D. Kochenov emphasises its abstract nature, disconnected from the reality of the individual. This essential lack of connection may puzzle a newcomer to the citizenship literature.

The book however leads the reader to grasp quickly the cruel and random effects of the very status of citizenship as we know it through vivid and colourful examples coming from all ages and from all over the world. Citizenship comes up then – unexpectedly for the layman – as an element of global inequality: ‘a ticket to a life that can place you in first class, business, or economy light  -or indeed, not even on the plane’. The book narrates how citizenship has historically been a vehicle of sexism and subjugation of women, how citizenship has played out in the hands of different governments as a tool of political control and how the rules on granting and withdrawing citizenship have traditionally been not only politically motivated but also often openly racist.

The books also offers valuable insights about the true content of citizenship. Citizenship rights are mostly about accessing territory, the right to stay, plus civil, political and social rights. In this context, citizenship clearly emerges as a tool to justify exclusion and normalise discrimination.

Yet the progressive evolution prompted mostly by the development of human rights led to a progressive decoupling between territory and citizenship, leading citizenship rights to progressively lose their exclusive character. The content of citizenship then becomes not only more sparse, but also shaky. Citizenship is no safety net at all: the book presents us with disquieting tales of intra-citizenship discrimination, with states breaking down their own citizenship status in order to deprive some of their own citizens of basic rights associated with it.

The dark side of citizenship duties is explored next, with an analysis of their evolution leading the author to conclude that the value and role of such duties is starkly fading away. This is definitely good news – the value of human rights, peace and the acknowledgement of the individual have prompted the near irrelevance today of duties that used to fill the bag of the ‘good citizen’.

Kochenov however warns us about the perils of such a development: as citizenship becomes less totalitarian and oppressive to become more inclusive, it loses its crucial features and functions. The world of citizenship is not bound to get any better: with the consolidation of a few ‘super-citizenships’ – such as EU or US citizenship – amplifying the randomness and hypocrisy intrinsic to the very notion of citizenship.

Despite its crude content, the book is a pleasure to read. D. Kochenov’s deep knowledge of the intricacies of citizenship and migration systems does not feature in the form of a black letter law text: the book is not about law and it is by no means the typical academic book. However, even though written in an accessible way, the book remains a piece of highly specialised literature. It is a precious distillation of decades of research and analysis by one of the greatest experts in citizenship in a short and enjoyable format.

Turning to our opening question, the author has given us a clear answer: ‘citizenship is precisely about mass caste assignments in a context where individual agency and all the personal characteristics of the bearers are dismissed by definition’. Having discovered the dark DNA of one of the basic tenets of our social building, the reader is now fully aware of the deeply problematic nature of a commonly inoffensively or even positively perceived concept. The crude tone of the book is its true added value: the reader is awakened and disturbed, but also pushed further, forced to imagine or desire ways out or even revolutionary moves. If there were to be a movie on ‘Citizenship’, it would have to be by Michael Haneke.


Sara Iglesias Sánchez is a référendaire in the Cabinet of Advocate General Bobek at the Court of Justice of the European Union.


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