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Citizenship and Neoliberalism

It is often alleged that the dominance of neoliberalism in contemporary society has not only resulted in deregulation, the dismantling of public services and the replacement of progressive taxation with more regressive policies, but also in a gradual process of economization or marketization of all spheres of human activity – including the domain of citizenship. The impact on this domain is considerable, according to Wendy Brown. As neoliberalism forces citizens to increasingly behave as ‘individual firms’ constantly preoccupied with rational self-investment, reality may in fact present the reverse of the freedom that was originally promised by neoliberalism:

Formally freed from legal interference in their choices and decisions, subjects are at every level identified with and integrated into capital’s imperatives and predicaments. Thus, as neoliberal citizenship sets loose the individual to take care of itself, it also discursively binds the individual to the well-being of the whole — demanding its fealty and potential sacrifice to national health or economic growth.

On an individual level, those who cannot easily acquire a second ‘compensatory citizenship’ through traditional channels or ancestry-based long-distance naturalisation may choose the route of citizenship-by-investment, talent-for-citizenship exchanges or they can possibly even acquire honorary citizenship. The wider impact on this trend, however, is more difficult to measure. According to Brown, ‘neoliberalism’s economization of the political, its jettisoning of the very idea of the social, and its displacement of politics by governance diminishes all significant venues for active citizenship’. Indeed, the traditional citizen-state relationship has in many domains been replaced by a client-service provider one.

Another author who has recently analysed the influence of neoliberalism on current citizenship practices is Luca Mavelli. While he feels that much of the scholarly literature analyses the rise CBI programmes as a case where states almost unwittingly leave the grant of citizenship to market forces, he stresses that the state in fact actively intervenes in establishing a neoliberal regime – states are increasingly ‘redesigning the meaning and implication of citizenship and belonging in neoliberal terms’.

Neoliberalism, in Mavelli’s interpretation, ‘applies the logic of the market – and, particularly, the principle of competition – to all spheres of human existence’. This perspective highlights what he feels is an important limit of existing scholarship on the neoliberalization of citizenship:

Such scholarship ignores how neoliberal economization may prompt states to

behave like entrepreneurial subjects trying to maximize not just their economic

growth but their nonmonetary and noneconomic capital value. States may approach prospective or existing citizens as capital that may enhance not just their economy

but their cultural, emotional, and reputational value.

This sometimes leads to surprising outcomes. Mavelli gives the example of the New Zealand authorities denying residency to the autistic child of a Belgian professor working at the University of Auckland for being a burden to the country’s health care system, while shortly thereafter accepting several hundred Syrian refugees, many of them physically or mentally disabled. Mavelli goes so far as to interpret this as a case where New Zealand, in order to reproduce a self-understanding as a ‘global moral leader’ to the wider world, sees these ‘ideal’ refugees as ‘an investment and the embodiment of an emotional capital instrumental to preserving and promoting a national sense of collective pride, self-esteem, and moral righteousness’. In his view, therefore, it shows ‘how citizenship-by-investment programs are only one manifestation of a process of neoliberalization of citizenship that transcends mere commodification and prompts entrepreneurial states to evaluate and include or exclude migrants according to their capital endowments’.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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