#UPWeek: Citizenship in a Time of Wageless Life

Ian Shaw, The University of Glasgow

Marv Waterstone, The University of Arizona 

Eight men own the same wealth as half the world, and one in 10 people survive on less than $2 a day. We live in an era of staggering levels of global inequality. But even a term like inequality scarcely captures our conjuncture. Other concepts, such as Saskia Sassen’s (2014) expulsion might be more appropriate: the forced exodus of humans from the interior of our economic systems. Economic growth, long and falsely promised as a lever to close the gap between the rich and poor during the “golden era” of welfare-state capitalism, is at historic lows in industrialized countries. More and more of us are simply irrelevant, insignificant, or else disposable to capital. What Zygmunt Bauman (2004) calls “wasted humans” are the products of economic “progress,” which devalues, degrades, and destroys all livelihoods incommensurate with capital.

Karl Marx long observed this essential feature of capitalism. From industrializing England onwards, he noted “it is capitalistic accumulation itself that constantly produces, and produces in the direct ratio of its own energy and extent, a relatively redundant population of labourers, i.e. …a surplus population” (Marx 1990: 782). In other words, a permanent feature of capitalism is to produce human life deemed surplus to economic requirement. Redundant. The living dead. In turn, capital’s and political benefactors demonize this wasted life. For political purposes, surplus populations—across the global North and South—are remade as enemies of the people. In the garbage heap of finance capital, automation, and robotization, are hordes of outcast workers. Wageless life befalls the billions. 

Citizenship is no guarantor of economic or political sanctuary. Extreme poverty and deprivation—always expressed globally—are now materialized within the splintering streets of the wealthiest nations on earth. Poverty and decadence sit next to each other. You don’t have to walk far to witness the collateral damage of capital flight and corporate greed. In turn, nation states of all types, with economic decisions largely in the hands of globe roaming corporations, can no longer provide their citizens with adequate levels of economic security. Threats to their legitimacy, under such failure, is a key source of elite anxiety, as the armies of surplus populations multiply. Authoritarianism, ultra-nationalism, and scapegoating have become the solutions to these crises of legitimacy. Donald Trump—and his redcaps—are just the most obvious symptoms of late capitalism. Alienation and systemic discontent are channelled toward the most vulnerable of humans—such as the 70.8 million globally displaced persons. Surplus populations are pitted against each other in a fight only the ruling class will win. 

The most depressing but obvious conclusion is that welfare state capitalism is a blip in capital’s long and brutal war of enclosure. Nations are everywhere reverting to more violent forms of political, social, and economic control. It is extremely unlikely that we can return to a more “socially just” economic system under the reign of capital, which, even at its most extensive, was available to only a few, and for a brief period of capital’s history. We are instead reverting to the desperate conditions of nineteenth-century capitalism: mass dispossession, mass unemployment, mass inequality, and mass corruption. Without the luxury of the poorhouses! Yet even within these miserable conditions many of us still cling to the world we have, rather than the world we want. Our bodies and minds are so colonized by what Mark Fisher terms “capitalist realism” that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism” (Fisher 2009: 1).

We therefore need a citizenship rooted in something other than capitalism and its mosaic of nation states, empires, trading blocs, supranational banks, and racist divisions. We believe in a political project based on a “right to the world.” We are, after all, neighbors who are surviving—some of us barely—on the same planet. The right to the world, we argue in Wageless Life, is a right to autonomous, cooperative control over the means to survive and thrive. A right to the planet’s commons in an age of brutal land acquisitions, mass expulsions, dispossession, ecological violence, and the warehousing of surplus humanity. 


“Perceptive and enlightening, and a ray of light in dark times.”

Noam Chomsky

Our existential autonomy—our very dignity—depends on access, use, and ownership of the world. Hannah Arendt (2013) argued that modern alienation is not simply a psychological condition but a fundamental loss of world. Reversing this world alienation is only possible through the control of space, territory and essential resources. This is something very different from demanding higher wages or redistributed capital from the state. So long as there is inequality of space, and unequal access to the means of survival, society will embody tremendous misery. 

The right to a common world transcends property rights, whether on a microscale, the scale of the city, or the scale of the nation-state, and therefore transcends a narrow definition of citizenship. As Joseph Nevins (2017: 1362) writes, “In this regard, the right to the world entails a redefinition of the very concept of ‘home’ (as in homeland) so as to embrace Earth as the home of all humanity, one premised on human solidarity.” For us, the right to the world is a right to be able to live a dignified, safe, and above all, autonomous existence in concert with others—and that right is always an ongoing struggle for geographic justice. 

So if the question posed to us is “what makes a better citizen?”—we must reply, “citizens of what world?” 


Ian G. R. Shaw is lecturer in human geography at University of Glasgow. He is author of Predator Empire (Minnesota, 2016).

Marv Waterstone is Professor Emeritus in the School of Geography and Development at University of Arizona.


This post is provided in connection with University Press Week, Nov. 3–9, 2019. Several member presses are posting about how to be a better (global) citizen:


Works cited in this piece:

Arendt, Hannah. 2013. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 2004. Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Fisher, Mark. 2009. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester, UK: 0 Books.

Marx, Karl. 1990. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Trans. Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin Books.

Nevins, Joseph. 2017. “The Right to the World,” Antipode 49, no. 5: 1349–67.

Sassen, Saskia. 2014. Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

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