A week ago, the Departments of Sociology and History at the University of Michigan organized a symposium in honor of Peggy Somers, Theorizing and Historicizing: Political Economy, Rights, and Moral Worth. I have learned much from reading Somers and consider her to be in the first rank of sociologists and theorists of her generation, so I was honored to be asked to contribute to a conference that recognized her work. What follows was adapted from my presentation. – LC
As the subtitle of Peggy Somers’ 2008 book, Genealogies of Citizenship: Markets, Statelessness, and the Right to Have Rights, makes clear, her subject rests on a conceptual foundation taken from Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. That is, the twin ideas that citizenship is the “right to have rights” and that the denial of citizenship takes the form of “statelessness.”1 The architecture of Somers’ compelling argument – including her powerful analysis of the dialectic of citizenship and race in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which unfortunately has proven so prescient for understanding the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico today – is built upon this foundation. To fully appreciate Somers’ use of these concepts, it is important to begin with the understanding that, intertwined in these Arendtian formulations, are political science claims of an analytical nature and political philosophy claims of a normative nature.
Arendt’s political science claim is rooted in her analysis of the historical experience of Jews under Nazi Germany. She finds the immediate origins of the Holocaust in the post-World War One breakup of the Austrian-Hungarian, Ottoman, German and Russian empires. Europe was reorganized into nation states defined by distinct ethnic identities, creating national-ethnic minorities that were denied citizenship in a number of cases. As people who had been the historic target of racist tropes that questioned their loyalty to the community as a whole, Jews and Roma were particularly vulnerable in this new European order, too easily made into "stateless" people with no rights.