Brexit and the Stateless – Digital citizenship in a era of instability

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.”


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)

Comments (6)

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  1. nick says:

    the thing is, the underclass as we like to be referred to in the patronizing meeja, the underclass will organise itself irrespective of the structures of ‘official’ society – foucault, negri & hardt etc

    the world market has expanded to its current limit- hence no recovery from 2008, the war on islam is a war to extend the world market both materially and financially into areas denied it e.g. islamic women into capitalist production/consumption, as is the desperate need to expand the market in to health and education…so ‘citizenship’ is to be marketized – so what…resist the expansion of the market and capital fails and maybe the planet gets to survive?

    1. nick says:

      reference for world market argument (tho not war on islam, that a mere inference) Arrighi The Long 20th Century 1994/2010

  2. John S Warren says:

    Thank you for the article. I was struck by this statement: “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.”

    We see this in the argument by Brexiteers that there is no objection to immigration, but it should be selective toward those with special skills; the high-level talents rquired by an advanced Western economy. This Brexit argument is either naive or cynical, because it is based on a false premiss.

    Of course there is always a demand for scarce skills (that is axiomatic – they are scarce). Such aspirations detached from context do not, however represent the economic reality in advanced countries. Advance countries require very basic jobs still to be done, perhaps even more than other countries because of the public or consumer expectations of certain standards across many (expanding) areas of modern life.

    In reality there are many, many basic jobs that still require to be done in Western economies (cleaning, labouring, crop harvesting merely as examples) that are in short supply; at least of native citizens who are prepared to do them at the ‘market rate’. In the early stages of the 18th century industrial development of Britain there was a heavy reliance on immigration from Ireland as ‘navigators’ to build the canals and later the railways. Even in the 18th century there was not sufficient supply of local labour prepared to live the life of the ‘navvies’, or do such work at the rate offered. Mutatis mutandis, nothing has essentially changed in the 21st century; save the technology and the smooth, empty rhetoric deployed to make the incoherent appear plausible.

    This is not likely to change in any likely future. In Britain there is a Brexit pretence that all that we require is to do is define the high-level skills we want and draw a line there. In reality, inside or outside Europe we will continue to rely on a system in which ‘seasonal’ and many, many other important but mundane, ‘take-it-for-granted’ yet critical jobs that will not otherwise be done at the ‘market’ rate, are being done by people from outside Britain; and Britain will continue to rely on these jobs being done by new sources of labour whatever the formal rules allow, or that governments claim. When ‘caught out’ or embarrassed by an exposure of some future failure of the system, government will wring its hands about the inadequacy of our controls; and promptly go back to sleep. What we are offered by the logic of this system envisaged by Brexiteers is a formal absurdity, and they must (or should) know it.

    You may be quite sure that informally nothing much will change on the ground, one way or another post-Brexit whatever rules are thrown together by the Brexiteers, and in spite of the rules being built-in-doomed-to-fail (which does not mean that the rules will not lead to objectionable outcomes). Britain and the West has been playing this cynical game of pretence, illusion and the niceties of formal economic irrelevance for centuries. I make one exception to this; the greater the failure of the post-Brexit British economy, the lower the rate of immigration. Brexit means Brexit only because nobody knows (or ever knew, or ever will know) what Brexit means.

    1. Haideng says:

      One of the absurdities of Boris Johnson’s Brexit stance was that it was in direct opposition to his stance as London Mayor that encourage increased immigration to the city for precisely the reasons you outline. To be fair this is a global problem, not just a western one and affects internal migration within states as well ass cross border movement. India, many African countries, South Africa in particular has ‘issues’ with resentment of Kenyans, Mozambiques, Botswanans, Nigerians etc immigration. In China and India, there is essentially a two tier system of citizenship, rural and urban. In China it goes back millenia, where countryside people aren’t legally allowed to reside within the city walls. Now you have millions (the biggest migrant population in the world) constantly on the move with now citizenship rights in the city where they are providing the same type of cheap labour. Basically if they lose their job they lose their right to remain in the city and get turfed out back to the countryside.

      I don’t know what the answer is to migration, is a difficult question and one loaded with moral trapdoors. On the one hand the free movement of people means mobile capital can undercut wages (social dumping) on the other economic migration is essential for prosperity and for stateless people of war a moral and ethical imperative.

      As for digital citizenship, interesting concept but I’m struggling to see it in practice and there are all sorts of issues to do with people smuggling and organised crime? Could be wrong though, don’t know enough about TBH.

      Tricky subject.

  3. Paul Carline says:

    The big ‘bright side’ is that Brexit rocked the boat and shook some of the elites out of their complacency. The EU is a corrupt, centralised, almost wholly undemocratic structure in which all the important agendas were set by the self-serving elites. It was in the process (especially if TTIP, CETA and TISA were adopted and implemented) of becoming the transatlantic arm of the US corporate and military empire. Hence the attempt to pull every European country into NATO – an attempt which came unstuck in Ukraine, thanks to the (continuing) sacrifice of the people of Donbas/Novorossiya and the legitimate secession of Crimea which blocked the aggressive plan to capture Sebastopol and park part of the US fleet in Russia’s backyard.
    If you have read Carroll Quigley (and Churchill) you will know that the EU is an elite experiment – a test case for the global governance model. Brexit certainly has its downsides, with an even nastier piece of work heading a very unpleasant government, but it has brought an immense amount of refreshing (and long overdue) debate into the EU issue – which ought to be about what kind of Europe its people want to live in … and have democratic control over (and not whether we are better off financially in or out!). The DiEM movement is only one of many positive responses which seek a new dispensation for Europe founded on a citizen-approved EU constitution. The EU already has the very first transnational citizens’ initiative instrument, the ECI, but it was designed to fail because the elites never like sharing real power. Millions of Europeans have already used it to push for important changes or to safeguard rights.

  4. Alf Baird says:

    Scotland, reflecting our continuing status as a powerless stateless colony (or ‘sub-state’ at best), has to a large extent been run by a “transnational elite” for some time, as the latest report of National Registers of Scotland shows:

    “ every decade except the 1920s, there was significant net migration of English-born people of working age into Scotland. In 1911 a quarter of men employed in mining, metal manufacturing and engineering in Scotland had been born in England or Wales. So had more than 2,700 men in professional and related activities, over 4,200 men in the commercial sector, more than 1,100 women school teachers and 574 men employed in printing and lithography. This pattern of skilled and professional migration into as well as out of Scotland has continued to the present day. The 1991 Census of Scottish recorded over 22,000 English born ‘corporate managers and administrators’, over 9,600 science and engineering professionals, 11,780 teaching professionals, over 14,900 clerical workers and around 10,000 men employed in iron and steel, electrics and electronics and other engineering employment (Watson 2002: 38-39). If life was that much worse north of the border, why did they come?”

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