The Logical Extreme of Citizenship

What is the logical extreme of citizenship? After re-reading Carl Schmitt’s essay “The Concept of the Political,” I’m inclined to answer: the logical extreme of citizenship is death.

What I mean is that by being a citizen of a modern state, you ultimately have to acknowledge the possibility of having to die for the state to which you belong. When the state to which you belong declares war against another state, or is itself under attack from others, you, as a citizen of that state, will ultimately be asked to kill others and prepare to be killed by others. That is the logical limit of citizenship–death.

Of course you can evade the responsibility, or qualify for certain exemptions that exclude you from this possibility, but such exceptions do not hide the fact that ultimately, by becoming a citizen of a state, you have essentially given up your right to life.

This possiblity might be very remote, so remote, in fact, that hardly anyone ever thinks about it. However, the very possiblity of it illustrates the extent to which the state has ultimate coercive power over its citizens: after all, there can be no greater coercion than to force someone to give up his life for the state.

And death is merely the most coercive form that state power has over its citizens, but the extent to which coercion plays a role in defining citizenship is pervasive yet little noticed. For one, as a citizen of a state, you are bound to obey the laws of that state, no matter how unjust they actually are or how unjust they appear to you.

Even in a democratic society, where political liberities might be presumed to be the greatest among all other political arrangements, coercion is still prevalent. In fact, coercion in a democratic society is arbitrary in a moral sense. The fact that you belong to the majority or minority on a certain issue is morally arbitrary, but because you happen to belong to either the majority or minority, you end up either coercing those in the minority or be coerced by those in the majority.

Granted, the modern state also guarantees certain fundamental liberties, and such guarantees can offset some state coercion. But then we get back to the limits of citizenship: the state cannot guarantee your right to life, because ultimately, it must acknowledge the possiblity that under certain situations, it will ask you to give up your life, and it will use its coercive powers and appratus to make sure that that happens.

To me, this is a crucial point, because without life, all other liberties are meaningless. But if the state cannot guarantee you this most fundamental right, then to what extent is its guarantee of other rights and liberties meaningful? After all, freedom of conscience and the right to assembly mean exactly jack shit when you are dead.

So the question then becomes: can the state ever legitimately ask its citizens to give up their life? And if so, what are the conditions that would make it legitimate?

Is consent alone the answer? I am skeptical, because there are plenty of examples when consent alone does not make something legitimate. For example, someone might consent to be enslaved, but the presence of consent alone does not make slavery legitimate. And since we are talking about matters of life and death here, I’m not sure consent, by itself, is sufficient.

I have no answers, but I think that if citizens are being asked (and forced) to potentially give up their lives for the state, some kind of answer must be given.


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