The Aristocracy of Citizenship: How Different is the Nation State System from Apartheid?

It’s now been a little over 20 years since the end of apartheid. From this distance and looking at South Africa from the United States, it’s a simple matter to understand. White South Africans were racist. They built a racist system. Racism is bad. Now, apartheid is gone. South Africa has a black President. Hurray! There is no more apartheid.

And yet, it wasn’t until I went to South Africa these past two weeks that I even thought to ask WHY white South Africans built the apartheid system. As I found out at breakfast with Roman Cabanac, the co-host of South Africa’s Renegade Report Podcast, the motivation for apartheid turns out to have been largely economic. Poor whites wanted to exclude “Coloreds” and “Africans” from getting the better paying jobs. The backbone of that system was not skin color and the massively problematic concept of race but rather the hated passbook.

The government placed you into groups (or tribes) and your group (or tribe) determined your freedom to move and what economic opportunities you could access. Now, the descendants of those same poor whites find themselves on the wrong side of a different apartheid system: the nation state. South Africans (regardless of skin color) must get special permission to move about, can be detained for not having the right papers and have their work opportunities limited by not being classified in the right group. As part of the orange belt, it’s important to realize that tribes can be defined on virtually any set of criteria (skin color, national origin, religion, favorite musical group and more) and that these definitions have real consequences for the kinds of freedom and economic opportunity that are available to individual humans. We all only get one life. How would you feel if your life was limited by having been put in a group that gave you the wrong passbook? Apartheid, no matter what it is based on, sucks.

It is a tribute to the power of culture to bind and blind that for years Americans have been worried about the racial and gender inequities within their society and remained largely oblivious to the privilege that all Americans share: the privilege of being American. If you are an American, you are all the “whites” in the international apartheid system created by the nation state. Your passbook (or passport) enables you a freedom of movement between countries and an access to economic opportunities unavailable to people in South Africa or Libya or Afghanistan. No one alive today created this apartheid system but people like me (who have both an American and a Dutch passport) benefit from it tremendously. Why? Because of an accident of birth. I was born to people in the right national groups. Actually, I am a poor fit for both groups. I didn’t grow up in America and I speak Dutch at the level of a five year old. My actual Americanness and Dutchness are irrelevant. I have been classified as Dutch and American and therefore I have the right passbooks.

2016 saw the anxiety of “poor whites” trying to erect and strengthen the colour bar of nationalism. Thomas Paine long ago summed up where we are.

The idea that one man (a King) should determine the fate of millions had the superficial appearance of being right because it was custom. It was all the world had really known. The idea that white people should have certain jobs made sense in apartheid South Africa because it was the custom. And now, it makes sense to many that a person by accident of birth should have a passbook that controls their freedom to move and access to economic opportunities. How then is the aristocracy of citizenship any different from apartheid? Is a system for Europeans only based on skin color any less arbitrary from a system for Europeans only based on location of birth or parentage?

In the end, I believe in America’s principles because the basic idea that all men are created equal is not only a sound approximation for the biology; it is the most useful story for humanity as a whole. As a species, we succeed when we create inclusive systems and fail when we create systems that exclude and allow special privileges for a few. Just look at North Korea. Or Enron. Or the Soviet Union. Or the British Monarchy. Individuals isolated from criticism and accountability make bad decisions for the group. The genius of the American Experiment in democracy was to create a system based on principles of inclusivity and accountability. America’s history is a long struggle to live up to those principles. America’s principles are so clear that it becomes hard to avoid the conclusion that we are not living up to them. We fight. We struggle. And we do so most often because we have some narrow, short-term financial incentive for defending the ancien regime.

And therefore, I find that my loyalty to America’s principles means I must advocate against the global apartheid system of which I am a beneficiary. In this day and age does it make any sense to evaluate who should need a visa to move and work on a national level? Would it not make more sense to treat the citizens of the world as individuals? In practice, South Africans long excluded from the labor market based on the color of their skin have turned against people from Zimbabwe in a series of xenophobic attacks based on the name of the country on their passport. Apartheid has very little to do with color. It has to do with excluding people from opportunities for free movement and the ability to access the labor market. Black vs White was a useful narrative to achieve the ultimate goal: justify special privileges for us and the exclusion of them.

The end of apartheid did not solve the problems of South Africans. Jacob Zuma has created his own apartheid that is drawn not along color lines but on crony lines. Zuma built himself a mansion while the people he claims to serve live in poverty. The idea that Zuma and his people are both black and therefore in it together obscures the real truth: Zuma is in it for himself.

Meanwhile, the reason why Zimbabweans must flee to South Africa for economic opportunity is because Robert Mugabe has his own apartheid system. That is the nature of any corrupt system. It excludes people from the market. In the end, creating inclusive systems within and between nation states is a global challenge and one that I am committed to building a community to tackle anywhere and everywhere. That’s one of the jobs of #NISIS.

In practice, the internet is already helping create freedom of labor. People from India to Macedonia to South Africa can access jobs anywhere in the world. It’s just time we acknowledged that the aristocracy of citizenship for which the Brexiteers, Trump and other nationalists are advocating is an apartheid system based on nothing but birth. Everyone deserves good jobs and trying to reserve some for “poor whites” regardless of their actual skin color is a strategy we already know will fail…but that won’t stop people from defending it.

So, let’s speak to your self-interest. If an INDIVIDUAL can safely and reliably be admitted to your country bringing with them tourist revenue, then why would you exclude them? You wouldn’t. So, perhaps, before we even get to labor mobility, let’s start with the less threatening and more obviously beneficial question of dissociating individual tourist mobility from the nation state. Is limiting the freedom of movement of humans based on the color of their passport any more just than limiting the freedom of movement of humans based on the color of their skin?


Right after being born in Saudi Arabia, I was taken to the Callen house. Since then, Bryan and I have travelled the world with our Citibank fathers and somehow ended up in LA together. There we'd run into each other at family gatherings and do something that no one else in LA seemed to be doing: we talked about books. Since Bryan was kind of a big deal, Hunter and Bryan hatched a scheme to use his podcast to get on their favorite authors and professors. Out of that evolved Mixed Mental Arts and this tribe. For me, the marriage of entertainment and education is a return to how things used to be before our culture split story into two separate things. It's exciting to be able to build on the work Katie O'Brien and I did for The Straight-A Conspiracy and expand it out to every area of life. While I play a series of roles in the Mixed Mental Arts community (including Shitty Dutch Uncle and Bryan's #1 fan) my favorite role is as Toto who pulls back the curtain and let's the world see that there are no wizards...only men and women who try and puff themselves up to seem important.

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