Booked is a monthly series of Q&As with authors by contributing editor Timothy Shenk. For this special podcast edition, Tim spoke with Atossa Araxia Abrahamian about her book, The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen (Columbia Global Reports, 2015). Use the player above to listen to a recording of their conversation, or read an edited version below.
Timothy Shenk: One of the statistics in this book that blew my mind is that, by some estimates, there are upwards of 10 million people who are stateless in the world today.* How did that happen?
Atossa Araxia Abrahamian: This statistic is from one of the UN agencies. It’s really hard to get an exact number for obvious reasons. These people are not documented, so governments don’t really have a good grip on how many there are and where they are. It happened in many different ways. Let’s start with the Persian-Gulf countries, because those are the ones I talk about the most in The Cosmopolites. When we talk about the Gulf states we have to remember that they are quite new—they were formed in the past fifty, sixty years at the earliest. These borders were not there before, and many of these countries were British protectorates. When the borders were drawn and these states were formalized as nation-states, a lot of people didn’t sign up to register as citizens early on. Many populations in that region were nomadic, and they thought, “Why should I sign up? This is where I’m from.” But as these states‘ bureaucracies grew, it became more and more important for people to be documented. Many of those people—called the Bidoon in this region, which means “without” in Arabic—have tried to sign up since, but the Gulf States are not always so accommodating. It varies by country and it varies by person. There is a wide perception that the resistance is a form of racism or tribalism, and of these governments being really stingy. When you are an Emirati citizen, you have a house provided for you, you get a stipend, you get cash when you get married. They make Sweden look stingy. But these benefits are paid for with the oil money, and you can hardly call it a social democracy.
Shenk: A social plutocracy?
Abrahamian: Right. And the benefits are largely distributed among a very, very small group of people, who are mostly related to each other. So you can see why it would not be in the state’s interest to include more people in this group. As a result of all these factors—tribalism, racism, regionalism, and money—people remain undocumented and stateless. What this means practically speaking is that they don’t have citizenship papers, which makes it very hard for them to travel outside of the country. They can get permission from the state, but it’s a pain. Try to imagine a situation where all the undocumented people from Latin America in the United States couldn’t be deported, because they had nowhere to go, and no government was claiming them.
Shenk: This question of the 10 million stateless is an issue in contemporary politics. But, as you show, it’s also a recent development within a longer history of what you and many others call “cosmopolitanism.” How do these two fit together?
Abrahamian: Cosmopolitanism is one of these terms that gets kicked around a lot and I guess the original meaning of it comes from ancient Greek, when the stoics would say “I am a citizen of the world, I am a citizen of the universe.”
Shenk: You portray it as a battle between the Cynics and the Stoics.
Abrahamian: The Stoics had this idea of cosmopolitanism as broad and inclusive, and the Cynics thought of it more as being outside the state, and individualistic. To this day, we still have this tension. We have people who believe that global citizenship, which is often used as a stand-in for cosmopolitanism, is something that should include all of us. You have the term global citizenship used in a lot of contexts, which is distinctly not inclusive. Global citizen sounds like a credit card. It sounds like a frequent flyer lounge. It sounds like Davos. As one of the people I cite in the book says, there has been a corporate hijacking of the term.
Shenk: That’s a fantastic phrase.
Abrahamian: I thought so too. And so where does statelessness fit into this? When you’re a citizen of the world, you might not necessarily identify with a particular state. When you identify with more than one country, you can feel a little stateless, because you might not have the same ties and allegiances, or maybe you have lots of them. But at some point, if you do have lots of them, what’s the point of having one at all? Why can’t we just all have all of them? Some of that is personal for me: I have three citizenships and I have always felt a bit stateless, even though I am distinctly not on paper. If anything, as my friend likes to say, I am “over-stated.” And a very small number of people translate their cosmopolitanism into becoming stateless by choice. We have those who choose to live outside the state and opt-out. The most recent example of that are libertarian or anarchist thinkers.
Shenk: The grandson of Milton Friedman—Patri Friedman—is involved with this, right?
Abrahamian: He’s a little different. Patri Friedman is chairman of the board of an organization called the Seasteading Institute, which is a form of opting out. Seasteading is this concept that one can build man-made islands in international waters to function as new states.
Shenk: Peter Thiel is really behind this too?
Abrahamian: Right. The idea is that the more states we have, the more choice we have between where we want to live and what kind of government we want to live under. Effectively speaking, it also means that maybe you don’t have to pay taxes, if you choose to live in a state with no taxes. We see this playing out in the passport economy. A totally legal way to avoid American taxes or European taxes is to renounce your citizenship and take up citizenship of one of the many countries that now sells it. And this has proved to be quite attractive to the libertarian set. Another libertarian activist, Roger Ver, actually went as far as to buy a Saint Kitt’s citizenship and renounce his American citizenship. He said it was largely for political reasons rather than tax reasons, but we all know the two come hand in hand in these circles.
Shenk: In one of my favorite parts of the book you contrast Roger Ver with Garry Davis, an earlier cosmopolitan activist with a very different political orientation. Can you talk about that comparison?
Abrahamian: Roger Ver represents the Cynic with the big “C” view of cosmopolitanism, the opt-out view. Garry Davis represents a much more inclusive, broad, and universal notion of global citizenship or cosmopolitanism. Garry Davis was formerly American, and a Broadway actor. After fighting as a pilot in the Second World War and losing his brother, he was quite shell-shocked, and he realized all of this really bad stuff that’s going on in Europe is not really people’s faults, it’s these institutions of nations and of citizenship that pit one man against another and cause us to perpetuate such bloodshed. So Davis flew to Paris, walked to the U.S. embassy, and declared that he was going to renounce his U.S. citizenship and become a citizen of the world. People didn’t really get it at the time. Certainly his descriptions of the U.S. Embassy in his books are pretty funny. He said they were just totally baffled. They made him swear on a Bible that he knew exactly what he was doing, and he walked out a free man. The renunciation process is largely the same today. You have to pay a fee now, and you have to fill out some more forms, but essentially you have to be abroad, you have to go to the embassy, you have to declare that you want to do this. The numbers of people renouncing their U.S. citizenship have been climbing, so they have raised the fee, and there is often a wait, which is very interesting too. That’s largely a result of tax law.
Davis went on to make the first DIY world passport with a piece of paper which he laminated. He, as an American, was in France on a visa. As a former-American, stateless person, he was able to get a permit to stay for a certain amount of time but that ran out. And, that was just when the UN came to town. He read somewhere that once the UN establishes itself, it is on sovereign territory. And so, Davis thought, what better place for a world citizen than international territory? So he went and camped out at the UN cafeteria for a while in order to not get kicked out of France. When they tried to kick him out, he would say ”That’s illegal, I don’t have papers to be in France.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s what Edward Snowden did in the airport, and that’s what Julian Assange is still doing in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. They must be really sick of him by now. Davis was the precursor to all of these guys pulling these tricks.
Shenk: You discuss Ver and Davis in the same chapter. Ver is this thirty-something, rich, Silicon Valley–affiliated guy living in the Caribbean islands. And Davis is in his nineties when you meet him, and you say there is something a little tragic about him. He’s penniless and he still has his campaign that he believes in but also a sense that the world has passed him by. It’s clear that while you realize there’s something superficially attractive about Ver’s project, it’s also rotten at the core. But it was harder for me to pin down what you think of Davis.
Abrahamian: Davis was a complicated character. He alienated a lot of his family; he was a difficult man, by all accounts. I met him and he was totally charming and a little kooky, and he was getting on a bit. I think that the Garry Davis project today feels really dated, perhaps because it came out of a time when there was still hope about internationalism. Now we think of the UN and we think, they still haven’t done anything about Syria? It’s frustrating. These institutions are very much part of the system, and the thinking that brought them about just seems a little stale. Davis was no fan of the UN to begin with. He described it as sort of a stillborn institution. He didn’t really have much faith in what it could accomplish. But there was a certain idealism after the wars that Europe and the world would be able to rebuild.
Shenk: A real sense after the Second World War that the world could be transformed.
Abrahamian: That the world could be transformed, and that we can transcend borders and nationality in a way that is meaningful. What we got was globalization. Not that that wasn’t around before, but we got it in a very corporate, financialized way. And that paves the path for people like Ver who find legal loopholes that they can exploit. Now you can buy citizenship in about a half dozen countries. No one is breaking the law. In a lot of ways it is a natural byproduct of global capitalism. Everything is for sale, of course citizenship is for sale. It shouldn’t be as shocking as patriots make it out to be, actually. And, I suppose the system grew out of disillusionment around the internationalism that came out of the Second World War, and also the advances of global finance.
Shenk: One of the things I loved most about Cosmopolites is, it would have been really easy for a study of global citizenship to focus on only the top 0.1%, but the place where you spend the most time is not with Davos men, it’s with this archipelago off the southeast coast of Africa. How do the Comoro Islands fit into this story?
Abrahamian: Everybody knows about Davos men and the global elite, and of course borders exist a lot more for the poor than they do for the rich. The rich figured out how to benefit from this system, and this is why it exists.
Shenk: One of my favorite moments is when you point out, rich people are expats, poor people are migrants, and destitute people are refugees.
Abrahamian: Exactly. There is this whole vocabulary that we use to describe different classes of people who cross borders and who move away from where they’re born. So the Comoro Islands is a pretty new sovereign state, which used to be a French colony. For several years the government sold Comorian citizenship in bulk to officials in Abu Dhabi, who then handed them out to the stateless people in their region in order to document them. The whole passports-for-cash transaction was arranged by a Frenc