What Does It Mean to Be a Citizen?   /   Fall 2008   /    Articles

Imperiled Citizenship and the Market

Margaret R. Somers

Citizenship is man’s basic right for it is nothing less than the right to have rights. Remove this priceless possession and there remains a stateless person, disgraced and degraded in the eyes of his countrymen.… His very existence is at the sufferance of the state within whose borders he happens to be…[he] would presumably enjoy, at most, only the limited rights and privileges of aliens, and like the alien he might even be… deprived of the right to assert any rights.22x1 This version of “the right to have rights” is taken from a Supreme Court opinion written by Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1958. In a case called Perez v. Brownell [U.S. Supreme Court, Perez v. Brownell, 356 U.S. 44 (1958)], the Court narrowly upheld an order stripping a man of United States citizenship. Warren wrote an impassioned dissenting opinion, however, which over the next thirty years provided a basis for the Supreme Court to shield native-born citizens from the government’s efforts to “denationalize” them and also to protect naturalized citizens against efforts to denaturalize them.

—Chief Justice Earl Warren

Democratic and socially inclusive citizenship regimes rest on a delicate balance of power among state, market, and citizens in civil society, which is mediated through collective adjudications in the public sphere. Disproportionate market power disrupts this carefully constructed balance, as the risks and costs of managing human frailties under capitalism, once shouldered by government and corporations, get displaced onto individual workers and vulnerable families.

Today, global society is drastically out of balance. With the United States in the vanguard, we are in an era in which market fundamentalism—the drive to subject all of social life and the public sphere to market mechanisms—has become the prevailing ideational regime. The growing moral authority of the market is distorting the meaning of citizenship from non-contractual shared fate to conditional privilege, making rights, social inclusion, and moral worth no longer inherent rights but rather earned privileges that are wholly conditional upon the ability to exchange something of equal value.

Against the movement to organize society exclusively by market principles, the project of sustaining socially inclusive democratic rights requires the counteracting powers of a social state, a robust public sphere to hold it accountable, and a relationally sturdy civil society. In this way, market-driven governance can be prevented from converting civil society and the public sphere into reflections of undue market wealth and political power. Reconstructing the social, historical, and epistemological conditions that support or disable this project makes it possible to theorize more generally about the cluster of rights at the heart of democratic and socially inclusive citizenship regimes. Included among these rights are legal and civil freedoms and equal access to justice, participatory rights in democratic governance, and the social inclusionary rights that allow for the meaningful exercise of all the others. Conceived as individual possessions, however, these rights are ethereal. Like all rights, rather, they are public goods.

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