Citizenship as a commodity

March 02,2017

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In Britain’s multitiered visa system, there are now many routes to citizenship. For those prepared to invest $1.24m in companies registered in Britain, there is Tier 1: a fast-tracked visa system and a lubricated route to full citizenship. Once in Britain, they will also have access to “non-domicile” tax status, meaning that while they live in the UK, for taxation purposes they will be considered to live elsewhere - for example in the Cayman Islands.

Increasingly, this exceptional tax regime for migrant capitalists is one that Britain seems to be prizing as a post-Brexit comparative advantage.

The EU committee investigating the Panama Papers and tax havens has described the UK as being “on its way to a prime tax haven”. The strategy is to welcome people with money, let them keep as much of it as possible, and wait for them to invest, usually in government bonds.

This is incredibly short-sighted. Keeping out skilled workers isn’t good for employers. Yet, that is what the laws have achieved. The Migration Observatory, based at the University of Oxford, found that skilled migration from non-EU countries had plummeted by a third after the changes were implemented.

Attracting more oligarchs and tax evaders to the capital does nothing for the economy in the long run. It leads to little productive investment, nor does it answer any particular shortage. Government bonds are never difficult to sell.

All it does is drive up property prices around London, and contribute to the financial bubble. But the golden rule of modern migration politics is that the super-rich are footloose and fancy-free, while the poor have to be rooted to the spot, no matter how desolate.

This is part of a global pattern, wherein national and racial exclusions are intersecting with class distinctions. While immigration laws penalise the poor, the rich have always found a way round closed borders and quotas.

Now, there is a growing class of “economic citizens”, comprised rich investors buying passports. A range of tiny states offer “citizenship-by-investment” so that, for example, a Russian oligarch can have an EU passport from Cyprus for $2.1m. Citizenship is one of the last global frontiers of commodification.

The logic of commodification of citizenship is only in its very early stages, yet already it can override the principle of birthright. Does this tell us something about the shape of 21st-century capitalism? As much as capitalism has internationalised, it has always needed the national state.

But patterns of investment and work in the future will demand more migration. Citizens will become less rooted to the town, county and nation of their birth. Immigrants, far from being an alien minority who can be “kept out”, are all of us. We are all immigrants in the hereafter.

Anti-immigrant sentiment has always had a class content. It has been the poor, or those stereotyped for having the supposed attributes of the poor – criminality, vulgarity, disease, lack of cleanliness - who have been targeted.

And since we are the migrants of the future, it should alarm us that the means by which new, more mobile forms of citizenship are being allocated, are markets and prices. Because that means the world is becoming a playground for the rich from which we, the majority, are banned.

This article has been excerpted from: ‘Citizen as commodity: Free movement for the rich’.



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