Canadian Journal of Sociology Online January - February 2000

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John Torpey.
The Invention of the Passport. Surveillance, Citizenship and the State
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xi + 211 pp. $US 22.95 paper (0521634938), $US 59.95 cloth (0521632498).

Hard on the heels of James Scott’s provocative Seeing Like A State, John Torpey continues the effort to identify under what conditions and how state authorities have circumscribed, registered, regimented, and observed people within their jurisdictions. The passport deserves special attention not only because of the bureaucratic control it entails, but also because it implies establishment of citizenship, relatively unambiguous identification of individuals at a national scale, and collaboration among states in both these regards. Inspired by Michel Foucault but more assiduous than Foucault in historical reconstruction, Torpey retraces the creation of passports in western countries as a clue to more general processes by which states “embraced” (his word) their subjects. That vigorous, vital embrace, Torpey shows, sometimes resembled a wrestler’s hold more than a lover’s caress. But it profoundly altered relations between citizens and their governments. Most broadly, Torpey traces a nineteenth century fall, a twentieth century rise, and then, after World War II, another fall in authoritative controls over freedom of movement. He pursues his analysis chronologically:

• a brief review of controls over freedom of movement in eighteenth century Europe

• a substantial discussion of struggles over such controls in revolutionary France from 1789 to 1797

• an essay on liberalization in nineteenth century Germany

• an analysis of new identity controls in the United States, Italy, France, Germany, and elsewhere from the 1880s to World War I

• a quick take on fluctuations from that war to the recent past, notably including creation of the Nansen passport for stateless persons and Nazi imposition of controls over Jews

• an even quicker survey of international passports, internal passports, and identity cards today

Torpey packs a great deal of concrete information into 167 pages of main text. Too much, perhaps: Over great stretches of the book its main stories disappear from view. Amid the detail, Torpey is actually telling three intersecting tales. The first concerns dismantling of the extensive controls that old regime local authorities, landlords, and masters commonly exercised over movements of workers, tenants, merchants, and others. The second centers on the conflict between capitalist employers who sought free movement of landless labor and authorities (both local and national) who felt burdened or threatened by mobile populations. The third shows national authorities elaborating their own systems of certification in uneasy collaboration with authorities of other nations.

Distinction and subsequent integration among the three stories is crucial, for their interplay directly parallels – and, in fact, helped to create – national citizenship. Torpey’s analytic strategy obscures that interplay. Viewing processes chiefly from the center and primarily at a national scale, neglecting the relevant economic and social history, and relying heavily on public debates concerning legal restrictions no doubt simplified his effort. But it also left under-specified the struggles among interests and authorities that drove public debates on passports.

Even when it comes to national political history, Torpey works selectively and unevenly. He explicitly claims (pp. 14-17) to improve on existing accounts of European state formation by getting the history of registration right. Readers who value historical accuracy and who know the French Revolution will therefore find unsettling his multiple errors in presenting that history – for example his confusion of attacks on aristocrats and refractory clergy with the Great Fear (p. 26), his identification of a Gironde faction (whose coherent presence in the Convention many historians deny entirely) as already existing in the fall of 1791 (p. 30), and his equation of gens sans aveu (a general eighteenth century term for vagabonds and ne’er-do-wells) with persons who had failed to acquire residence certificates (e.g. pp. 21, 23, 24, 33).

Torpey speculates that the French national assembly’s abolition of passport requirements toward the end of 1792 reacted to an older identification of unfree labor with chattel goods, the argument being that passports made people into goods (pp. 43). A more careful reading of Richard Cobb would have shown him a very different story: Municipalities all over the Parisian hinterland were using official means to retain goods and restrict shipments to Paris. Resistance of provincial people to supplying Paris with food was then persuading deputies that “free circulation” of persons and goods was essential to the Revolution’s survival, hence that opposition to free circulation was a counter-revolutionary crime. Finally, it is misleading to treat debates concerning certificats de civisme that took place from late 1792 to the Terror’s end in 1794 in their own terms (pp. 45-49). Unwary readers need to know that the country as a whole was then splitting sharply between supporters of the revolution (who controlled issuance of those certificates) and a growing mass of dissidents: not only nobles, clergy, and outright counter-revolutionaries, but also draft evaders, deserters, and disaffected ordinary people.

Fortunately, Torpey lays a surer hand on German and American histories. In fact, those histories subvert his Foucauldian general claims. Throughout the passport’s history, we learn, national authorities’ efforts to classify and control subject populations resulted not from abstract commitments to top-down order but from concrete struggles among competing interests. The splendid detail of John Torpey’s history shows us precisely such competing interests at work.

Charles Tilly
Columbia University
January 2000
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