Urban Citizenship before the French Revolution
The urban citizenship
discussed in this Forum is not at all new in the Western world; it has a
history of at least a thousand years, and when we include Ancient Athens, even
much more. This history is relevant because it suggests the scope, as well as
the limitations of such alternatives. One such limitation also applies to the
modern world: local citizenship was primarily an urban institution (compare
Lenard’s and Hase’s contributions). Another was the potential for exclusionary
policies, which affected migrants in general, religious minorities, and Jews in
However, the institutions
and practices of local citizenship in medieval and early modern Europe also
gave broad groups in society an active say in how their societies operated.
They therefore offer an ideal environment to explore various dimensions of
urban citizenship, which I have recently surveyed in Citizens without
Nations (Prak, 2018). In this book, I argue that local citizenship was
disowned by the French revolutionaries of the late 18th century for
quite obvious reasons: they wanted to discredit the regime of their
predecessors and build a strong central state. For that purpose, what they
branded as ‘feudal’ institutions had to make way (see also Rosanvallon 2004).
However, when we look at both the formal and the practical performance of urban
citizenship, as it emerges from countless local histories of medieval and early
modern European towns and cities, its record does not look so bleak.
In the order of fifty per
cent of pre-modern households had formal citizens status, but even those who
were mere inhabitants had access to a range of rights and services. In many
European towns, citizens had either the right to vote in local elections or
they were consulted, be it in open meetings (very common in Spain: Herzog,
2003) or through their representatives in so-called broad councils. Citizens
also regularly used petitions and oral means to communicate their wishes to the
authorities. Next to these political channels, guilds and civic militias proved
to be vehicles for citizen agency. Local welfare systems were sustained in most
places with large voluntary contributions.
Much of this local network
of civic institutions was demolished on the continent in the wake of the French
Revolution and Napoleon’s occupation of Europe. For the first century after
1789, however, the national citizenship model that replaced this urban
citizenship was much less ‘democratic’ than its predecessor. Local civic
institutions had been abolished, very little was created in their places; the
‘democratic’ elections of the 19th century were restricted to a
small class of wealthy men. National citizenship thus cannot be the natural
end-point of the historical development of citizenship in Europe, but is a
stage in that process. The book ends with the recommendation to seriously
consider a revival of urban citizenship in Europe, within the sort of
three-tiered model proposed by Rainer Bauböck – not as a substitute for
national (or European) citizenship, but as a complementary element, to tie in
the local level of governance.
The Established and the Newcomers
I welcome the contributions
of this Forum that look in a similar direction. However, we may be too easy on
ourselves if we keep seeing this as primarily a question of ‘rights’. It seems
to me that this overlooks a dimension that I did not discuss in these terms in
my book, but that strikes me as fundamental for many opponents of migration and
expanding the rights of migrants, which is an important aspect of local
citizenship. Ultimately, I think, this is not even only an issue for migration
but has implications for the entire conception of (local) citizenship. For want
of a better term, I call it the ‘sunk costs of citizenship’ (see also Isin and
Lefebvre, 2005). I would claim this is especially relevant for local
citizenship where such costs are most directly visible.
‘Sunk costs’ are defined by
economists as the expenses that have to be made before any production starts
and that cannot be recovered directly by a future strategy. These include the
buildings and equipment, but also the technical knowledge that has been
accumulated beforehand. Although technically sunk costs are a write-off, in
practice people tend to be strongly attached to these investments and take
decisions guided by the hope to recover as much as possible of the expenditure (see
Kahneman 2011, ch. 27, about the ‘endowment effect’). In the case of social
funds, this is very strongly the case because stakeholders have claims on a
limited amount of money. Expanding the number of claimants is likely to reduce
each claimant’s share in the proceeds. Let me give an historical example.
In 1650 the city of
Amsterdam increased its citizenship dues from 40 to 50 guilders. Until 1624
these dues had been set at a mere eight guilders (Prak, 1995). The new level,
therefore, represented a significant increase, but also a significant absolute
amount of money, if we take into account that an average daily wage would have
been in the order of one guilder at the time. Surely, Amsterdam wanted to stem
the flow of migrants into what had become the world’s economic capital. This is
how the move was long interpreted, but that interpretation is undercut by the
fact that other policies suggest that Amsterdam was in fact keen to welcome the
immigrants it needed to get all the work done for its booming economy
(Kuijpers, 2005: ch. 3 and Conclusion). The town governors used the extra
revenue to support several welfare institutions, including the Civic Orphanage
(Burgerweeshuis). This orphanage received children whose deceased
parents had possessed formal citizenship status and had passed this status on
to their children. The children who came to the Civic Orphanage were fed very
well and received an education and skills training that prepared them for a
middle-class future. This was in marked contrast with the other Amsterdam
orphanage, where the food was poor and monotonous, and the education minimal.
The children in this so-called Almoners’ Orphanage (Aalmoezeniersweeshuis)
were sent out to work or deported to the Dutch colonies in the East-Indies at
an early age. Their future was one of proletarian jobs and poverty (McCants,
The Amsterdam Civic
Orphanage, a welfare institution directly connected with local citizenship, was
funded from several sources: citizenship dues, voluntary contributions from Amsterdam
citizens, even wages earned by the orphans. However, the single most important
source was the income generated by the capital assets owned by the institution,
such as government bonds and – especially – real estate. These assets were the
fruit of centuries of slow accumulation from citizens’ gifts and legacies, as
well as careful management. Their total value in 1668 was around half a million
guilders (McCants, 1997: ch. 7). In today’s terms, multiply by 100, therefore
this amounts to 50 million euros. Such huge endowments were very common. The
public welfare scheme in the city of ’s-Hertogenbosch, or Bois-le-Duc, in the
southern part of the Dutch Republic, was entirely funded by an endowment
consisting mostly of farms located in the city’s hinterland (Prak, 1994). In
other places, welfare schemes were heavily dependent on voluntary contributions
from the local population (Prak, 2018: ch. 4).
If we take the idea of
‘social capital’ seriously, we might add still another ‘citizenship investment
fund’ in all the organisations that are usually included under the term ‘civil
society’ (Putnam, 1993: ch. 6). In medieval and early modern Europe, every town
or city had dozens and sometimes hundreds of such organisations, all
essentially operating with volunteer work. Members of the boards of craft
guilds, hospitals, neighbourhoods, and even town councils, might be rewarded
with an annual meal, or free drinks during their meetings, but otherwise
remained unpaid. No wonder we hear that people complained when they were called
up for another such job. These complaints serve as a reminder that social
institutions do not run by themselves; they require investments of time and
often also money. Some clubs therefore demand, next to annual dues, an up-front
payment from new members, who thus buy into the accumulated social and physical
capital of the club. One might consider the 50 guilder citizenship dues in 17th-century
Amsterdam as precisely serving this purpose.
Investments in local civic society
Local communities can be
considered as clubs with a wealth of social and physical capital. The
‘established’ are justified to see their own membership as a long-term
commitment. But what about migrants and other newcomers? A debate has emerged
in recent years about ‘welfare chauvinism’ (e.g. Mewes and Mau 2012). On the
one hand, research on varying attitudes towards migrants among settled citizens
demonstrates that levels of unemployment do not shape such attitudes. In other
words, this is not a competition about scarce resources as such. On the other
hand, opinions towards immigrants, i.e. new member of the ‘club’, are shaped by
the type of distribution – liberal and conservative welfare regimes based on
individual needs produce stronger sentiments against newcomers than a social-democratic,
i.e. solidarity-based, welfare regime (Waal, Koster and Oorschot, 2013:
175-76). This might be interpreted as a sign that in the latter system
established citizens have less reason for anxiety that generosity towards
migrants might decrease their own access to welfare.
My proposal for an economic
approach might be considered as a sophisticated (or crude, depending on one’s
views) defence of exclusionary policies. My aim, however, is to make us think
about these issues in a novel way – a way that is open to policy interventions.
This is especially important when we advocate new forms of citizenship. When
citizenship remains framed as ‘identity’, sometimes through the intermediate
stage of ‘community’, this tends to leave us with very few policy opportunities.
Whether we like it or not, identity and community are usually considered to be
private cultural values and therefore given. As scholars, we can explain them
as ‘constructed’, but that argument fails to persuade the majority of people
outside the academic world. Framing citizenship as a question of ‘rights’
suggests that this is a moral issue. It is, but more is at stake. Reframing the
problem in economic terms, as I propose here, could open up the issue of local
citizenship to a conversation about ownership and access, including the
compensation that the established feel they are entitled to from the new
members of their community.
- Herzog, Tamar (2003), Defining Nations: Immigrants and Citizens in Early Modern Spain and Spanish America (New Haven: Yale University Press).
- Isin, Engin F., and Alexandre Lefebvre (2005), ‘The gift of law: Greek euergetism and Ottoman waqf’, European Journal of Social Theory 8(1): 5-23.
- Kuijpers, Erika (2005), Migrantenstad: Immigratie en sociale verhoudingen in 17e-eeuws Amsterdam (Hilversum: Verloren).
- McCants, Anne E.C. (1997), Civic Charity in a Golden Age: Orphan Care in Early Modern Amsterdam (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press).
- Mewes, Jan, and Steffen Mau (2012), ‘Unraveling working-class welfare chauvinism’, in: Stefan Svallfors, Contested Welfare States: Welfare Attitudes in Europe and Beyond (Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press), 119-57.
- Prak, Maarten (1994), ‘Goede buren en verre vrienden: De ontwikkeling van onderstand bij armoede in Den Bosch sedert de Middeleeuwen’, in: Henk Flap, Marco H.D. van Leeuwen (eds.), Op lange termijn: Verklaringen van trends in de geschiedenis van samenlevingen (Hilversum: Verloren), 147-69.
- — (1995), ‘Cittadini, abitante e forestieri: Una classificazione della popolazione di Amsterdam nella prima età moderna’, Quaderni Storici vol 30, n° 89: 331-57.
- — (2018), Citizens without Nations: Urban Citizenship in Europe and the World, c. 1000-1789 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
- Putnam, Robert D., with Robert Leonardi and Raffaella Y. Nanetti (1993), Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
- Rosanvallon, Pierre (2004), Le modèle politique français: La société civile contre le jacobinisme (Paris: Seuil; transl. The Demands of Liberty: Civil Society in France since the Revolution, Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 2007).
- Waal, Jeroen van der, Willem de Koster, Wim van Oorschot (2013), ‘Three worlds of welfare chauvinism? How welfare regimes affect support for distributing welfare to immigrants in Europe’, Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice 15(2): 164-81.