Dreaming through Citizenship: Compromising and Remaking Power Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

Dreaming through Citizenship: Compromising and Remaking Power

Anthropology is a personal journey for many. Students learn to see society and their own lives in a different light, reflecting on many things that before were taken for granted. In this blog, Nicolás Moreno-Gutiérrez tells how his critical readings of the state inspired a new sense of possibility for the future.

I always thought of power in state-citizen relations as mostly uni-directional. In my world, the state shaped the citizen, molded them, exerted its power upon them; the state carefully crafted a malleable civil society. Thus, citizenship was reduced to the confines of existing power institutions. That conception was challenged when I followed the ‘State & Citizens’ course, in which we were asked to connect our readings about the state to our own lives and surroundings. While I encountered many examples of the way states mold and discipline citizens, I was surprised to discover that thinking about the complexity of state-citizen relationships also encourages us to dream of better futures.

Michel Foucault’s argument about power provided the theoretical underpinnings for my thoughts: he shows that apparatuses of control run so deep, that even our bodies are controlled; we even learn to self-police ourselves. Such notions of subjectification and biopower were taken up by Didier Fassin, who discusses the self-induced apprehension product of racialized policing practices in French banlieues. Javier Auyero and his colleagues similarly explored what it means to relinquish the control of time and individuality in a Buenos Aires welfare office. They argue that those seeking welfare aid are taught they are patients of the state, rather than rights-bearing citizens. Seeing how we are cast as citizens through and beyond the state allowed me to examine today’s socio-political reality more critically: in a highly differentiated citizenship regime, everyone is visible in very particular ways. The struggles of Venezuelan migrants across Latin America who are yet to enjoy equal access to government services and opportunities despite having undergone integration processes, exemplifies this system of unequal citizenship. So do many other disenfranchised groups who must beg for something that for others is a given.

However, this was not what captivated me the most during the course. In the second half of ‘States and Citizens’, we examined citizen empowerment, bottom-up resistance movements, and other forms of individual agency that complicated the Foucauldian approach. Among others, Amade M’Charek, Tania Li, and Thomas Blom Hansen showed that state-citizen relations are a hierarchical compromise in which citizens constantly call for and against the state, make and burn borders, and imagine a better future as a horizon.

A Closer Examination: Compromising Power

The first insight I took from this literature is that every state-citizen relationship is a compromise. As a constant negotiation between two sides that forgo something in exchange for something else, state-citizen relations are “enabling, but uncomfortable”. Power, therefore, is rendered delicate, contingent, ever-changing, dependent on the rhythms and directions agreed in the compromise; it is contextualized and localized. Thus, Foucauldian systems of subjectification are made vulnerable; they rely upon mutual compliance if not agreement, and are dependent upon and woven through personal relations. And so is state authority. With compromise comes agency; limited, yet existent nonetheless. People may challenge current state-citizen relations; they might pinpoint power imbalances, and suggest alternative ways of seeing the world, ways that are fairer, more equitable. Worlds in which citizenship is less differentiated.

In her detailed account of the journey of undocumented migrants through the Mediterranean, M’charek utilizes the concept of harraga to navigate migration’s continuously contested political imaginings. In migration and in other state-citizen compromises, citizens dare to burn and “brave boundaries that are meant to stop them in their tracks”. Harraga is performed to contest and negotiate borders, thus resignifying power; action is not limited to what is currently outlined or conceived, it can stretch above and beyond, always aiming for more. Citizenship, therefore, is imagined and performed as a horizon; sometimes in opposition, sometimes in concordance, but always present as a “perpetual promise of inclusion and public recognition”.

And our future?

The world today is not the world of tomorrow. If state power is seen as a constant – unequal and uneven – negotiation between the state and its citizens, as a constant strife for drawing and redrawing boundaries, of building and breaking borders, and of imagining alternative futures, the world of tomorrow can be a better place. Power can be historicized, situated, related to historical processes; and so can movements of citizen resistance and insurgency. Hence the idea of a compromise. In unpacking power as an ever-going grappling for presumptive futures, I understand that it is not as given as it is made. Resistance, therefore, is never in isolation but in reaction, and the state is a construed entity that perennially configures and reconfigures itself. We can change the terms of the compromise, we can burn borders to build them again, and we can shape a better future. Power can never keep us from dreaming and our dreams are full power.


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