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Kiran Banerjee

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Agnostic theory; Discourse ethics; Habermas; human rights; Inclusion; law; Political membership; Statelessness


This paper addresses how our conceptions of community and citizenship should be transfigured on account of the theoretical and ethical concerns revealed by statelessness. Taking my point of departure from the work of Hannah Arendt, I show how the phenomenon of statelessness reveals tensions in our conceptions of political membership and human rights, while highlighting the dilemmas that any approach to democratic inclusion must address. As Arendt’s work emphasizes, one of the greatest challenges to the cosmopolitan ideal of realizing universal human rights is the way in which realizing rights claims is tied to political membership within a particular community. The crucial loss of a ‘right to have rights’ suffered by the stateless is not one of a ‘natural’ right but rather the loss of a right of belonging to a community within which such rights have meaning in the locus of citizenship. The paper then shifts from a diagnostic to a prescriptive focus, turning to Jurgen Habermas’ notion of discourse ethics grounded in his account of communicative action as a means to theorize the issues raised by statelessness and the idea of a claim to community. While discourse ethics offers a useful framework, I argue that we need a supplementary orientation toward openness, given that statelessness has at its core the problem of inclusion. In addressing this more fundamental question of inclusion, I turn to contemporary theorists of agonistic democracy whose focus on the contestability of terms and the fundamentally unsettled nature of the political provide resources for conceptualizing more open notions of political membership. While noting the limitations of each approach, I conclude by showing how discourse ethics and agnostic theory can be used to imagine communities that eschew the exclusions that create statelessness.