imageKaren Gregory, PhD Lecturer in Sociology at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh looks at the opportunities and risks of digital citizenship models in a political age characterised by instability and dominated by moneyed interest.

It’s been hard to find any bright side to the Brexit vote, but in July this year Twitter shared an article entitled “Citizenship in the Era of Nation-as-a-Service,” which suggested an “interesting countertrend is crystalizing” among the confusion. This countertrend – the article suggests, is the attempt to imagine new forms of digital citizenship and forms that might be more fitting to a mobile, global world.

Given that Brexit directly threatens such mobility for many, certainly including students and young workers, it is understandable that there is a search for new options and any possible new futures.

Making the argument that “younger, more mobile, tech-enabled citizens who have grown up in a period of relative border permeability have tended to see themselves more as global or regional citizens,” the article suggests that Brexit is an opportunity to consider how digital platforms might play a role in offering what the author refers to as “fractional citizenship”—citizenship as a pay-as-you-go subscription service.

One can see how such an argument might appeal in a time of political and economic instability, specifically to those who have the resources to privatize the social costs and risks of uncertainty. Fluidity of personal movement and personal “choice” and autonomy are valuable to the transnational elite, and the ability to move easily across borders has become a requirement of employment for many nonelite professionals, workers, and students.

“Digital platformists seeking to solve deep political problems with pay-as-you-go access seem to have confused “freedom” with “the right to have rights.”

For anyone who can pay, the notion of “Netflix for citizenship” may even sound like “taking back control.” But if such an economic “solution” to political crisis became a stand-in for more robust citizenship protections, those who lacked the financial resources to participate will certainly become further displaced and disenfranchised.

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian has shown in her work The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen (Columbia Global Reports, 2015) that there already exists a lucrative market for citizenship. This market is specifically geared toward an entrepreneurial, investor class of wealthy elites for whom their birthright citizenship has resulted in a “bad passport” (73)—that is, a passport (say, Afghanistan instead of the United Kingdom) that renders global travel (e.g., visa requirements) or access to global markets difficult.

It has also resulted, as Abrahamian documents, with poorer countries such as the Comoros selling citizenship as way to solve their local economic crises. While the drastic inequalities perpetuated by the passport system are condemnable, for-sale citizenship does little to ameliorate the situation. Yet, the logic of this system—that only those who are entrepreneurial, those who cannot only invest but who will be of “value” to a market and should therefore have global access—is what has come to define immigration policy in the West.

“One can see how such an argument might appeal in a time of political and economic instability, specifically to those who have the resources to privatize the social costs and risks of uncertainty.”

Can a digital overlay on this arrangement, such as the production of a new platform, really intervene in this policy? Would it intend to? The on-demand and sharing economy has often been touted as a progressive solution to the current institutional morass, yet its guiding notions of access and flexibility have proven to be incapable of addressing structural inequalities and, in many cases, compounding them.

Additionally, these sharing-economy-pioneering corporate entities have no interest in the provision of “rights,” be they worker rights or consumer rights. If there is one lesson we should learn from the emergence of the digital economy is that access cannot be confused with substantive protections. Platforms that create new market-based opportunities for those who can afford them also threaten to privatize the broader processes of governance, as we are witnessing with Uber.

Citizenship as it is currently configured is problematic not only for those who might seek economic solutions but for the truly displaced. As Abrahamian writes, today “there are more refugees displaced from their homes than have been since World War II” (153). As tech-based entrepreneurial solutions are continually sought for refugees and migrants, we see once again the logic of “value” standing in for any substantive political commitment to human rights.

“As tech-based entrepreneurial solutions are continually sought for refugees and migrants, we see once again the logic of “value” standing in for any substantive political commitment to human rights.”

Furthermore, when we read sentences such as “Many digitally native young in both developed and emerging markets have already been nudged into paying-as-you-go for much of the utilities in their lives,” we must temper that statement with the longer, thirty-to-forty-year history of economic and political dispossession that has been the neoliberal project.

Pay-as-you-go models for citizenship should send writers not only back to political economic history but specifically back to Hannah Arendt’s writing on statelessness. She writes of the stateless, “they are deprived not of the right to freedom, but of the right to action; not of the right to think whatever they please, but of the right to opinion” (1973: 296).

Digital platformists seeking to solve deep political problems with pay-as-you-go access ultimately seem to have confused “freedom” with “the right to have rights.”

Citations

Arendt, H. 1973. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Abrahamian, A.A. 2015.The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen. New York: Columbia Global Reports.

Karen Gregory has published a recent publication called: Digital Sociologies (Policy Press, 2016)

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