A borderless state?

May 19, 2011

Jacques Derrida’s On Cosmopolitanism is both a call to reinvent and rethink some of the time honoured laws regarding the nation-state and the breadth of globe traversing humans, from citizens to refugees. The essay takes as it’s starting point the desires of the International Parliament of Writers (IPW), an international network of writers that, beyond the dialogue garnered between them, seek to protect their rights to free speech and the physical safety to speak freely.

The IPW proposed ‘Cities of Refuge’; cities that would host exiled or refuged authors and allow them to continue their work. An IPW Cities of Refuge would provide a writer “for one year to a writer nominated through the IPW. The concept of refuge includes accommodation for his/her family, a measure of legal and social integration, access to libraries and cultural events and efforts to offer a public platform and contacts with translators. It also involves a modest financial grant for subsistence – 1,000 Euros a month minimum per single writer was suggested in 1996, with additional small sums for spouses and children.”

Derrida correctly points out that now more than ever, it is easy to publish and be heard through modern systems of communication, making the untransparent subjects of any piece of critical media suitably nervous and willing to suppress the author. Consider the Chinese Communists Party’s filtering of Twitter, Facebook, Google, Youtube or their treatment of dissidents.

Ostensibly there are some parallels to the conditions endured by Hannah Arendt’s stateless refugees (Arendt is referenced in the essay). A writer/minority is forced from their state because of their identity, beliefs and subsequent public espousal. A writer protected in a city of refuge is, however, only a guest.

The concept for Cities of Refuge had some basis in the Law of Universal Hospitality, (interestingly, the beginnings of which were religious) and stated that upon the arrival of a stranger, a host would be obliged to provide them with whatever was needed, for the duration of the stay. Reciprocally, the stranger/visitor would abide the rules and laws of their host. Kant described the ‘international citizen’ who would know no boundary and have the right to universal hospitality. To avoid becoming just ‘a pious and irresponsible desire’ the Law of Universal Hospitality was conditioned by Kant; the right of hospitality is not a right of residence. A sovereign, city, village or residence can offer all of the required and agreed to hospitality but not the right to stay there permanently. As long as the host was not sending the guest into unavoidable danger, they could jettison the visitor and part ways amicably.

Ideas are great because they are free; however it’s not until they are tested against a set of established rules, criteria or accepted norms that their worth is found. Where then, does this leave Arendt’s stateless refugees, the IPW’s persecuted authors or the modern nation-state? Derrida uses as an example the countries party to the Schengen agreement; whilst there is much cooperation between them and more freedom for the citizenry to move within these countries, the collective external border is as strictly controlled as the border of any other nation-state. Calling for the recognition of Kant’s ‘international citizen,’ Derrida is aware of the utopian nature of his challenge; impossible, but the only way forward.

The protected ‘citizens’ of the IPW have their small victory; could the model provide the foundations for a worldwide, free exchange of universally hospitable citizens? My immediate reaction is a resounding ‘NO!’ but like any problem that is too big to be solved in one fell swoop, it can be slowly and persistently broken down into a manageable pieces.


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