Citizenship as Capital: The Distinction of Migrant Labor

By Bauder, Harald | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, July-September 2008 | Go to article overview

Citizenship as Capital: The Distinction of Migrant Labor


Bauder, Harald, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


As subordinate workers, migrants and foreigners are an essential labor force for industrialized economies. The author extends Pierre Bourdieu's ideas of capital to suggest that citizenship constitutes a key mechanism of distinction between migrant and nonmigrant workers. From this perspective, citizenship is a strategically produced form of capital, which manifests itself in formal (legal and institutional) as well as informal (practiced and cultural) aspects. Both aspects of citizenship can render migrant labor more vulnerable than nonmigrant labor and often channel migrants into the secondary labor market or the informal economy. The author presents examples from Germany and Canada to illustrate how legal and cultural processes associated with citizenship facilitate economic subordination and exploitation of migrant labor. The value of conceptualizing citizenship as a form of capital lies in integrating processes of inclusion and exclusion into a framework of distinction and in locating the strategic nature of citizenship with the motivation of reproduction. Based on the situation of migrants in the labor market, the author proposes that the logic of distinction and reproduction is an important underlying force in the construction and transformation of the concept of citizenship. KEYWORDS: citizenship, migration, labor, capital, distinction

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What was the case for the ancient and medieval plebs, for the third estate, for workers, for women, and what is not ended, is every bit as much the case today for foreigners--more precisely, for the quite particular foreigners who, even as they are "from elsewhere," are also completely "from here." Immigrants, today's proletarians.

--Etienne Balibar

Industrialized economies have become structurally dependent on the availability and continual supply of migrants labor. (1) In this article. I draw on Pierre Bourdieu's ideas of capital to argue that citizenship functions as a key mechanism of distinction that renders migrants vulnerable and exploitable, and therefore particularly valuable to the economies of the global North. Citizenship as a culturally produced category manifests itself in formal (legal and institutional) as well as informal (practiced and cultural) forms. I suggest that both aspects of citizenship function as a form of capital and a mechanism of distinction.

This view of citizenship corresponds to the treatment of citizenship as strategic concept not only in association with constructions of identity and belonging, struggles over recognition, and the politics of participation and contribution, (2) but also in relation to regulating access to scarce resources and institutionalizing difference. (3) In this article, I develop a perspective of citizenship that integrates processes of inclusion and exclusion under the logic of distinction and reproduction.

As a form of capital, citizenship serves as a strategy of accumulation (4) that is deliberately deployed and can be exchanged into other forms of capital. But rather than constituting an overarching cultural logic of capitalism, citizenship, as I develop it here, follows the wider logic of distinction. For Bourdieu, capital is about the reproduction of social order. In this context, social reproduction cannot be neatly separated into contexts of home, work, and politics. (5) The coexistence of interchangeable economic, social, and cultural forms of capital reflects the interlocking nature of processes of production, social practices, and cultural identities in the perpetuation of inequality and the reproduction of capitalist society. (6)

Labor markets are important sites for the reproduction of social order: They operate at the intersection of economic, political, social, and cultural processes, and they are politically, socially and culturally regulated. (7) International migrants serve as an illustrative example of the significance of non-market-driven processes of labor-market regulation through citizenship. …

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