Benjamin Studebaker: Indigenous Peoples, the State and Citizenship

Amid all the fallout from Donald Trump’s highly controversial restrictions on immigrants from several majority Muslim countries, another significant announcement from the White House has largely escaped media attention: the decision to restart construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline. This proposal triggered a wave of protests in the latter half of 2016, particularly around the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Campaigners argued that the pipeline represented a threat to the sovereignty of the indigenous peoples living on the reservation, particularly in terms of the environmental hazards that such a pipeline could unleash. However, what is often missing from the popular conversation on Aboriginal sovereignty movements is an understanding of the way in which the state has constructed a certain conception of citizenship that enables indigenous peoples to value their sovereignty over arguably more meaningful goods, such as socioeconomic opportunities.

In today’s episode of The Provocateur, I talk to Benjamin Studebaker, a doctoral candidate in politics at the University of Cambridge, about the relationship between indigenous peoples, the state and citizenship. We develop some of the themes from his blog post discussing the issue of Native American sovereignty and link them to broader issues to do with the ways in which states legitimate themselves by allowing different citizens to want different values and the resultant implications for indigenous policy when these values conflict. Ben has also kindly provided some outline notes, which I reproduce below.

You can listen to the podcast here:

Outline Notes:

I. Many different views of citizenship—of what it is that citizens share in common that makes them citizens (liberalism, republicanism, civic nationalism, ethnic nationalism, identitarianism, pluralism vs. Pluralism). All of these views tend to presume that people have things that they want to get out of citizenship and they build states for these purposes—people use the state to get power and use that power to construct a kind of citizenship which reflects their values and beliefs.

II. But people are not free in this way—their identity and beliefs are not individualistically chosen, they are instead acquired through interaction with material and social conditions. Who is ultimately responsible for those conditions? The sovereign entity—the state.

III. States need to legitimate themselves to secure stability. They will be recognized as legitimate when citizens want the things that states provide. So successful states will tend to create citizens whose desires and expectations match the state’s capabilities.

IV. In cases of inequality, states must be pluralist to some degree—they must create different kinds of citizens whose desires and expectations can be met in different and unequal ways. Pluralism also has other adaptive advantages—if all citizens want the same thing, it is easier to satisfy them, but to fail one citizen is to fail all of them, which means that when states do fail the failure is total and often fatal. In a pluralist society, states can satisfy enough people enough of the time by constantly cobbling together different coalitions of satisfied groups. However, this pluralism allows some groups to be persistently neglected by the state—especially anti-pluralists.

V. With respect to indigenous people, the state attempts to pacify them by socializing them to want what they get. So if Native Americans are going to live on separate reservations with some level of autonomy (but under grossly unequal socioeconomic conditions), they must be made to value the kinds of goods they can have—cultural purity and autonomy, not material prosperity. But this autonomy and culture are mirages—the state created them to see these constructs as valuable and then supplied them with conditions under which they can be realized. In the meantime, it creates other citizens with entirely different values which it enables them to actualize under entirely different conditions.

Further Reading:

Beiner, R. (ed.) (1994) Theorizing Citizenship. New York: SUNY Press.

Lukes, S. (1974) Power: A Radical View. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Parfit, D. (2011) On What Matters, 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rawls, J. (1993) Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Strawson, G. (2011) Freedom and Belief. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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