Refugee Life

“We must… build our political philosophy anew starting from the one and only figure of the refugee.” (Giorgio Agamben)

If the nation-state is in decline, it is principally because the nation-form, that coalition of fellow natives born of common blood and soil has given way to the denizen-foreigner: the resident-alien who through dint of illegal entry or barriers to naturalization inhabitants a land in which she is not granted the full rights of citizens. It has become popular to decry the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Men and of Citizens for failing to differentiate between human rights in general and those guaranteed only by the state to which one belongs, and no one has done a better job of pinpointing this failure than Hannah Arendt, in her book on totalitarianism, in her essays, and in her self-identification as a refugee without a home or the possibility of return.

Yet if we are to take Agamben’s prescription to heart, we must go beyond the attempts to integrate the fluid populations of mobile workers and refugees of political turmoil into our already existing nation-states. Already, the EU begins to provide a model for a mobile citizenry, maintaining both national sovereignty and the right of transit for those lucky enough to have come from member-states rather than those pariah-states that supply Europe with cheap labor. Yet in size and in delimitation, the EU does nothing more than regionalize the state. It accomplishes no great advances in the science of regimes, it does nothing to reduce the problems of non-citizens or to replace or re-constitute politics around the figure of the refugee.

I find it interesting that the classic ‘civic republicans’ (Aristotle, Machiavelli, Rousseau) all conceive of law-giving (constitution-writing, really) as an act of either a god or a foreign wiseman. A stranger must give a place its laws because only a stranger can be trusted to do so fairly; anyone who expected to be ruled by the law would naturally write laws to benefit herself. As such, the stranger appears a divine figure; he (and it is invariably a male figure) necessarily comes from another world, because the world he is constituting is by definition not the world in which he was born. Even Moses got his nation’s laws from a non-Jew (his father-in-law) and his commandments from God. I would argue that we all appear as strangers to the world we would like to build for ourselves, and as such it is wholly consistent to give our neighbors an equal right to this self-rule.

The problem, here, goes beyond the practical question of the advantages sacrificed in order to share our democracy with strangers. In fact, we must really get rid of the notion of local self-governance if we are truly going to embrace the refugee; it is not simply a matter of naturalizing non-citizens who happen to inhabitant our space, but of remaking the juridical and political order so that fresh immigrants and unexpected guests are the equally empowered. This would be a democracy of those who have yet-to-arrive, which is my own version of Derrida’s famous “democracy a-venir,” the democracy-to-come or the future democracy.

And here I run into difficulties: what could it possibly mean to build a politics of those who are not present? I suspect it would involve a hearty embrace of the constitutional process, by which reconstitution was a regular activity rather than a hallowed moment in the dreary history books. Jefferson never thought the US Constitution would last: he figured we might have twenty years of peace before the slavery question, and the general orneriness of the states, drove us back to the bargaining table.

Yet the constitutional moment is also the most exciting indication of the human potential for political genius. It shows us the meaning of political novelty, since what the founders consituted were their own origins. They gave birth to themselves, which is what Arendt loves most about contrasting Heidegger’s being-towards-death with natality. And in so doing they supplied us a potent model, worthy of repetition rather than simply homage and obsequious self-abnegation. And in many ways, that’s exactly what’s at stake in the tradition that treats the US Constitution as a living document, capable of re-interpretation and re-parsing, available for amendation, dripping with infinite meanings, intertextuality, and all the rest of the Lit. Crit. jargon that does away with certainty and literalism.

Of course, new modes of reading won’t help us with the Swarzenegger problem, or the status of Latinos, or national language issues. But it tastes grand, doesn’t it?

Second Opinions