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Book Review


Frederick Cooper, Citizenship, Inequality, and Difference: Historical Perspectives. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. Pp. 224. Index. $29.95 (cloth).


     Long one of the foremost historians of French Africa, Frederick Cooper moves beyond his wheelhouse both chronologically and geographically in his latest release. Less the result of original research, Citizenship, Inequality, and Difference draws on the most recent historical and theoretical scholarship. In doing so, it deftly joins notions of citizenship in places and times often untethered from each other in the historiography and treats these disparate parts as a whole.

     Despite this ambition, the book is compact and accessible. It is ideal both for college students engaged in formative explorations of the contingency of citizenship and for seasoned scholars whose specific foci could benefit from broader temporal and geographic context. It presupposes no fate for citizenship, nor does it define an ideal form. Instead, as any good historian does, Cooper raises astute questions that invite further debate and study. The book reflects the mind of a scholar long immersed in one of the most critical facets of political economy and social organization.

     The analysis is undergirded by one fundamental point. From its inception, citizenship, e.g. the right to claim rights, has never been a status that individuals inherently possess in relation to a state. Instead, citizenship has operated as a "framework" in which inequality and difference are hashed out (5).

     Cooper offers useful articulations of these contested outcomes. Thin citizenship describes the relationship between individuals and governments, usually framed in terms of voting or other forms of representation. As numerous historical examples demonstrate, even this relatively basic notion of citizenship was, and is, never fully secure. Thick citizenship, or the ability to claim substantive benefits based on one's status as a citizen, including access to social services and regulatory market protections, has been even less secure and more hotly contested, Cooper claims. The oscillation between these two notions across time and space has rendered citizenship and the associated questions of difference and inequality fundamentally dynamic (25–26).

     Relatedly, Cooper also challenges, as he and Jane Burbank did adroitly in Empires in World History (Princeton, 2012), the normalcy of the nation-state as the political unit in which citizenship is defined, gained, lost, exercised, contested, and so forth. Indeed, Cooper's assessment is that despite its ubiquity since World War II, the nation-state has fared no better than other political arrangements, including empires, federations, unions, communities, in bestowing, protecting, and extending political rights and other social benefits, including a decent life free of poverty and violence.

     The book is organized into three chapters. Chapter One, which is the shortest, examines the shifting notions of citizenship in ancient Rome. Born in the city itself, citizenship continued to expand outward, even as political governance devolved from republican rule (circumscribed by gender and free status) to dictatorship.

     Imperial citizenship then, bound together disparate and far-flung parts of the empire through common expectations of political rights and obligations, if not equal participation. Cooper cites the Edict of Caracalla of 212 CE as Roman citizenship's furthest and most dramatic extension, instantly bestowing it on the entire free male population. This was not a democratic citizenship, Cooper reminds, but instead a way to command loyalty and allegiance through the extension of limited rights and protections. Some local autonomy remained intact, as did the power of oligarchs. Rome then, provided a foundation for other forms of imperial citizenship that emerged within the context of European overseas colonization, the subject of chapter two.

     Chapter Two focuses on notions of imperial citizenship in the long 19th century that include discussions of Spanish, British, and French contexts, as well as what Cooper calls "European variations" that include Ottoman, Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian frameworks (75). The analysis is heavier on the former set of examples than the latter, and the chapter perhaps could have benefitted from greater balance in coverage. It also features a curious interlude on the relationship between capitalism and citizenship. While intriguing, the brief section, which seems to posit that citizenship tended to treat workers as individual economic actors and thus worked to dilute their collective power, left this reviewer desirous of deeper discussion. It offered little in the way of examples, and Cooper perhaps could have embedded the capitalism question within the various imperial frameworks offered elsewhere in the chapter. Indeed he does to some extent near the end of the chapter, which covers the contentious extension of social welfare benefits on the basis of a thicker citizenship in western Europe in the early 20th century.

     These criticisms of the chapter aside, readers are likely to come away with a sense that as World War I destroyed some imperial orders entirely and weakened others, the citizenship question remained unresolved. Empire had complicated, not flattened statuses. Personal allegiances crossed national and imperial borders and sometimes ignored those frames entirely. And debates over who could be included or excluded as either equal or unequal members of a citizenry remained as vibrant and contentious as they had been in the Age of Atlantic Revolutions.

     The book's third and final chapter focuses on the myriad contested possibilities for citizenship in the wake of World War I through the fall of the Soviet Union and the formation of the European Union in the 1990s. Cooper is quite clear in his analysis that the imposition by the imperial powers of a nation-state model of citizenship in eastern and central Europe created a host of problems, including that of how to incorporate (or exclude) ethnic or religious minorities into newly formed states. Some problems were immediate. Others took until the fall of the Soviet Union to play out.

     Likewise, the postwar League of Nations Mandates in former Ottoman lands, which delayed the restoration of some form of citizenship for many inhabitants, exacted a heavy cost in human suffering. As Cooper puts it aptly, the "Permanent Mandates Commission represented more the internationalization of colonialism than the universalization of citizenship" (108). Kurds and Palestinians are a case in point.

     Where British and French officials wrestled with the question of universal versus differentiated citizenship in their formal colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, they did so in order to maintain or even deepen arrangements of economic extraction. But they also ran up against competing interests. For example, Indian activists sought at first the reformation of imperial citizenship that extended the rights that Indians allegedly held in Britain to India itself. In response, the white settler dominions in South Africa, eager to maintain privilege on the ground as well as in legal doctrine, forced officials in London to accede to hardline white supremacy that called for continued inequality. The Indian National Congress, which originally advocated equal citizenship within the British Empire, now turned to independence as the solution to the problem of racism.

     Similarly, calls for outright independence in French West Africa and French Algeria came only after experiments in universal citizenship and a name change from French Empire to French Union (later French Community). Officials in Paris understood that if European France did not reform its relationship with French Africa and the French Caribbean, the empire would cease to exist in any form. As prospects for thicker French citizenship in the colonies-turned-territories vis-a-vis the welfare state emerged during and after the 1946 constitutional debates, European settlers in Algeria moved to curb what they saw as the excessive extension of French rights to undeserving Algerians. Racialized notions of authentic Frenchness emerged as well in 1974, when lawmakers thinned citizenship once again for those whose ancestral origins lay outside of European France. And back in Africa, independence did not so much as clarify one's status as a claimant of rights so much as superimpose a nation-state framework on sets of communal relationships and patronage networks with which nationalism (and imperialism before it) has had a tenuous, uneasy relationship.

     Cooper closes the book with a lucid discussion of the central challenges facing citizens and the very notion of citizenship today. First is how to rethink and restructure national and international institutions in ways that accommodate "particularity and commonality" (144). Indeed, citizenship entails today, as Cooper points out, a tenuous embrace of both human universality and of its circumscription with territorial borders. This system has deepened, not lessened social and economic inequality. Second is the strain imposed on citizenship by capital's co-option of the language of rights, specifically the right to be free from regulation and taxation. The battle therefore is between an individualistic economic citizenship and an inclusive social citizenship.

     Cooper remains cautiously optimistic that we have the capacity to work through these questions within the unequal frameworks of citizenship that define our reality today and to work toward more equitable iterations of the fragile concept. After all, we have centuries of historical debate and contestation on which to draw. What remains to be seen is whether or not we possess the collective political will.

Clif Stratton is Clinical Assistant Professor of History at Washington State University and the author of Education for Empire: American Schools, Race, and the Paths of Good Citizenship (California, 2016). He can be reached at


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