Citizenship in a capitalist state

Lea Ypi writes on the death of citizenship as a democratic ideal, and the collapse of civic politics into ethnopolitics.

September 4, 2018
10 min read

Photo by David McKelvey (Flickr)

As civic politics collapses into enthopolitics and citizenship itself is bought and sold, it’s time to re-examine the supposedly emancipatory potential of the category of ‘citizen’.

Citizenship and entitlement

The main problem with current analyses of citizenship and migration, including liberal non-exclusionary ones, is that access to citizenship is mostly seen as an issue of entitlement. Citizenship is something that you either inherit by virtue of being born in a particular country or that you have to earn through some other means, financial or otherwise. This picture is pretty much unchallenged even in the most progressive accounts on migration in political theory, both as a matter of policy and as a matter of practice . But an analysis of citizenship as entitlement undermines an alternative dynamic, process-oriented and activist account of citizenship.It turns citizenship into a static good, closing off our options to turn the category of ‘citizen’ into a force for critical, positive change.

Citizenship in a capitalist state is exclusive and exclusionary

The exclusionary implications of citizenship are best seen when examining the ways in which citizenship is extended to potential new members. One such way is the ability to purchase citizenship (and also accelerate leave to remain) by those who can prove that they have the means and ability to make a ‘productive contribution’ to a host community. Typically this involves anyone from financial investors to people interested in the acquisition of real estate, to those who are willing to shell out a lot of money money to obtain a passport that entitles them to benefits that are otherwise unavailable in their home countries. The second way, where the financial route is not available, are linguistic and competence-based tests. These only apply to long-term residents and are supposed to show that prospective new members who have been residing in a territory deserve to become citizens by way of proving their familiarity with dominant linguistic and social norms of the host community. This ends up acting as a way of filtering out many people who don’t fit a very narrow definition of who ‘contributes to society. Furthermore, the default mode is to exclude people; the burden of proof is upon the individual to prove their worthiness to remain, rather than upon the government to provide a reason for excluding people, or for uprooting people from the lives they have built.

Citizenship depends on property and money qualifications

Another way of accessing citizenship is by testing prospective members for being sufficiently competent in the language of the host community and sufficiently familiar with its basic political norms. These tests have to be paid for (indeed, one of the concessions the UK government made on the wake of the Windrush scandal was to wave the fee for Windrush migrants who wished to apply for citizenship). Making citizenship conditional on purchase is reminiscent of the days in which property qualifications determined who was entitled to vote.

The market controls the state, not the other way round

Instead of being the tool through which to temper the excesses of markets and assert the priority of democratic decision-making, when citizenship is bought and sold it turns into a commodity like all others. Instead of helping to tame capitalist market power, the state completely surrenders in front of it.

Citizenship consolidates the class character of the state

Some argue that, in its ideal form, the state can act as the political platform through which conflicts between social groups are balanced and mediated in a fair way, for example through democratic means; that it is able to act as a body which transcends and attempts to counteracts difference of (for instance) class and race. Thus, citizenship becomes a way of accessing this function of the state. Saying that the state has a class character is equivalent to saying that this ideal function is eroded or compromised. Instead, the state becomes an instrument that serves the interests of powerful elites (both political and financial ones) who can now use access to citizenship to reward members of groups with more money and power and to constrain and punish other vulnerable ones. 

We live in an oligarchy

When citizenship is bought and sold, it becomes a tool of domination and oppression rather than a  a vehicle of political emancipation. When your ability to participate in state democracy is linked to citizenship, and citizenship tied to the power of privileged elites, democracy itself is undermined.An ideal according to which everyone has a share in ruling and being ruled progressively turns into a form of oligarchy. A rich minority controls political power and appropriates the means through which one can access and exercise it.

Ethnocultural citizenship

The linguistic and civic competence tests for accessing citizenship collapse the progressive, civic understanding of a political community into its ethnocultural counterpart.  If you fail the civic integration test, you are not entitled to be a citizen.It takes racialised notions of a ‘britishness’ solely reserved for white anglo-saxon ethnic groups and makes them a formal part of citizenship. This is reminiscent of the days in which those who only spoke non-approved dialects, those who could not read and write in the national language, were all deprived of a political say and a share in political power. Thus citizenship tests turn a forward-looking, transformative ideal of the political community into a backward-looking conservative one. They are premised on the priority of genetic, linguistic and conventional norms that need to be internalised before one can establish one’s full standing as a member of the political community. 

Structural marginalization

In the past, the struggle for citizenship and the battle for the expansion of the franchise, were part of an active fight for the progressive inclusion of previously marginalized and disenfranchised social groups: the poor, workers, women, those in the colonies. In contrast, current citizenship policies reify these exclusions and entrench the divisions of class, gender and race that lie at their root. Citizenship consolidates the divide between those who are seen as deserving to belong to the political community and second-rate members who are not able to show how they satisfy the criteria deemed essential to qualify.  As the recent Windrush scandal in the UK showed, instead of being a tool through which to protect vulnerable members of the political community, citizenship so understood further entrenches and replicates their marginalization.

Democracy against capitalism

The hope of traditional social-democracy was that democracy would bring the abolition of class-government and that the right to vote would make citizens virtual partners in a cooperative enterprise advancing the good of the political community as a whole. As Edward Bernstein put it in The Preconditions of Socialism, “the parties and the classes supporting them soon learn to recognize the limits of their power and, on each occasion, to undertake only as much as they can reasonably hope to achieve under the circumstances” . But the context of such an optimistic assessment was an inclusionary  ideal of citizenship potentially open to everyone. It was the dawn of an age where barriers of property, literacy and technical expertise were being increasingly removed as a result of political mobilisation to expand the franchise.

The conditions for such an optimistic assessment, if it ever was justified, are no longer in place. The trend is in fact precisely the reverse. If in the golden age of expansive citizenship, democracy promised to heal the political community from the potentially destructive effects of class-conflict, in the age of restrictive citizenship the struggle can no longer be mediated through institutional political means. It can no longer be contained in the standard channels of political participation. Once citizenship becomes again citizenship for a restricted few, a good to be bought, sold and exchanged as a commodity, the all-inclusive ideal of democracy appears no more than an empty promise.

We need to overcome capitalism, not restrict migration

Whilst still paying-lip service to an emancipatory ideal of citizenship, progressive democrats around the world are surprisingly silent on the transformation of citizenship based on these exclusionary tendencies.  Neither social-democratic official policy papers nor Left parties electoral manifestos seem to show any concern with finding measures that could oppose the current trend. The collapse of civic politics into ethnopolitics and the reduction of universal progressive ideals of citizenship into a particularistic, conservative one proceeds largely unhindered. To counter this trend it is essential that progressive movements and parties around the world advocate a U-turn on current citizenship policies. They should campaign for the abolition of practices that reinforce the class-basis of contemporary liberal states, and come up with radically different measures on the integration of migrants. These include (but are not limited to) the abolition of ‘means-tested’ admission practices, the elimination of selective citizenship and scrapping cultural integration tests and the elimination of practices that commodify citizenship.

The problem is capitalism not culture

The traditional pragmatic reliance of the Left on national democracy to mobilise support for its causes has reached an impasse. Citizenship policies and the current restrictions on the integration of migrants are just one of the prisms through which we can observe the transformation of the democratic state into an oligarchic elite apparatus. Aligned with this regression is the degeneration of the universal ideal of citizenship into a tool for the oppression of minorities. The problem is not the simple existence of territorial boundaries, or the presence of borders that are more open or more closed, as some prefer to construct the migration dilemma. The problem is that exclusions both within the state and between states mutually support each other and serve to further entrench  an economic order that remains unchallenged at its core. Timidity on the removal of barriers to access and civic integration is not only unjust vis-a-vis those who are directly excluded and marginalized. The practice of selling citizenship to the rich and restricting its access for those with few material means, education, or civic skills tells us an important story about the relation between capitalism and the allegedly democratic state. In so far as the story remains unchallenged, it is not just bad for migrants, it is bad for everyone.