Economic Citizenship and Resource Nationalism

What is resource nationalism, and why is it important? One of Wikipedia’s shortest entries, “resource nationalism” nonetheless appears in 372 files published by WikiLeaks. Resource nationalism seems to be of especial concern to US diplomats and private interests particularly among corporations specializing in the extraction of minerals and petroleum. States which practice resource nationalism include some that top the list of what the US designated as adversaries and rivals, and a few allies. In recent years key examples of states engaging in resource nationalism include Libya, Russia, Bolivia, and Norway. Many other states also practiced it, before US-backed regime change annulled resource nationalism. Resource nationalism is a fairly straightforward concept: the practice of a state in (re)imposing national control over vital natural resources, which limits or prohibits foreign ownership of such resources, and which may use profits earned from the extraction of such resources to the national benefit.

In other words, resource nationalism is the opposite of neoliberalism. Neoliberal attacks on resource nationalism have taken the form of IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs, pressure by the governments of the US and EU primarily, and direct military intervention (as in Iraq and Libya). In attacking resource nationalism, what is achieved is:

(a) the reduction of state power;
(b) a defeat for nationalism in practice (and allegedly in theory); and,
(c) the elimination of any popular redistribution of natural resource wealth.

Left at that, we might think that the only possible resource nationalism is that which is exercised by states, and not by citizens themselves. I would like to suggest an additional, complementary idea of resource nationalism, which involves direct access by citizens (not necessarily “ownership” as we currently understand it) and some degree of control. Land reform would not be a good way to understand this—not that I am against agrarian reform that benefits agricultural workers and local consumers. This proposal is also not about redistributing wealth. It is about everyone having their own share, on the basis of citizenship.1 The focus on citizenship arises from its “fundamental role…in political-economic divisions” (Kipnis, 2004, p. 258).

Put very simply, what I am proposing is that citizens have equal access to, and control over land generally, and productive natural resources specifically. I do not mean simply a yearly cheque paid out from the profits of a utility or oil company. I mean an actual deed, a title to property, which cannot be sold, but can be transferred to descendants, as long as no one person accumulates significantly more than another. In a country like Canada, with vastly more territory than people to inhabit it, and with huge tracts of “Crown Lands,” such a proposal is by no means unworkable. I am writing primarily with Canada in mind, rather than attempting some universal proposal for all nations on earth. The benefits of material citizenship rights could be economic, environmental, and emotional.

Since the concept of citizenship was elaborated in mid-1700s Europe, it has been understood to mean a form of belonging to a politically demarcated society, with certain rights and duties attached to membership in the society. Typically, citizenship is discussed in terms of nationality and social cohesion. The sovereign, territorial state is also acknowledged as the fundamental context for citizenship to make sense.2

Unlike Kipnis (2004), who joins citizenship with the production of inequality, I see no need to take this as an immutable given, nor as an adequate characterization of all citizenship relations today. Thus what is being presented here is the outline of a plan for citizenship in the production of greater equality. Such a plan, even if rudimentary here, would also lay the foundation for resistance against the neoliberal attack on resource nationalism, that goes deeper than diplomacy or military defence (also necessary to defend resource nationalism). Confronting the attack on resource nationalism, what would be involved is thus:

(a) the expansion of citizens’ power;
(b) a deepening of nationalism, transforming it into a lived, material practice; and,
(c) the maximal allocation of all natural resource wealth.

Today in Canada I would hazard to guess that for a majority the idea of having a relationship with the land is somehow an issue to be mainly reserved for Aboriginals (and a dwindling number of farmers), while everyone else exists in some sort of imaginary stratosphere or a virtual world inspired by the many artificialities of urban living. I want to challenge that. I do not think that “decolonization” is a matter for Aboriginals alone, involving only their reconnecting with the land (in fact, a decolonization that focuses only on one side of the coin is no decolonization at all). A living relationship with the land of Canada should be made to matter for all citizens of Canada. Since most of the available land exists outside of urban settings, then the proposal presented here inevitably entails some degree of rural revitalization.

The move proposed here is one which we might call the “indigenization” of the citizen. This indigenization is anti-neoliberal because it does not involve bypassing the state, but rather focuses on grounding “the nation” more firmly.

Otherwise, the dispossession of national resources makes effective citizenship a fantasy. The ultimate form of national self-control is lost. The take-over of national resources, added to the erosion of borders, reduces or eliminates the basic, national self-determination that is necessary for democracy to be real. This is why economic citizenship founded on resource nationalism is so vitally important.

Globalization and the Citizenship Question

“Focus on anything but the nation”—this sums up the conventional purview of anthropology (Kipnis, 2004, p. 268). Generally speaking, anthropologists are possibly not the best persons to turn to when it comes to discussion of citizenship—for too long the subject was simply ignored in the discipline. “Anthropology’s relationship with colonialism ensured that it developed as the study of those who could not be (or should not be allowed to become) nations,” Kipnis argues, and then he notes: “in many ways this legacy continues” (2004, p. 258). “Too often,” Kipnis adds, “anthropologists’ writing fails to take citizenship itself seriously as a theoretical object, choosing instead to focus on dynamics of gender, ethnicity, race and culture that surround the issue of citizenship itself” (2004, p. 258). The nearly exclusive focus on “race, class, and gender” neglects the critical role of citizenship in conflicts around inequality and thus we should at least add citizenship as an irreducible, independent principle (Kipnis, 2004, p. 259).

Even when making the case for doing anthropology “at home,” anthropologists tend to take for granted how “home” is constituted through citizenship (Kipnis, 2004, p. 268).3 The focus on citizenship is vital, because we cannot make sense of resource nationalism without it, or any nationalism for that matter.

In addition, many would admit that citizenship has for a long time been a dull topic for many if not most persons in North America. That is not surprising: it has been diligently emptied of any real meaning or practical outcomes by the current rotation of cardboard cut-out neoliberal technocrats posing as prime ministers and presidents, who serve transnational capitalist interests first and foremost, “leaders” who are often of the same benefit to citizens as a paperweight, or an interim regime at best.

However, what seemed to be general indifference and disinterest in citizenship started to change in the 1990s in North America, thanks to the dilemmas and conflicts produced by neoliberal globalization, which attempted to strip nations of their identities as much as their industries, when it was profitable to do so. As others have observed, “a general obsession with belonging…seems to be the flip side of the intensifying processes of globalization” (Ceuppens & Geschiere, 2005, p. 386). We are moving into a situation where one of the world’s most globalized phenomena now turns out to be anti-globalization itself.

As Bryan Turner noted more than a quarter century ago, “the problem of citizenship has re-emerged as an issue which is central, not only to practical political questions concerning access to health-care systems, education institutions and the welfare state, but also to traditional theoretical debates in sociology over the conditions of social integration and social solidarity” (1990, p. 189). His theory of citizenship was valuable in providing the conceptual tools and opportunity to think of different forms of citizenship, including more actives ones, and citizenship from below. “The relationship between citizenship entitlements and the economic structure of capitalist society” was underlined in his theory (Turner, 1990, p. 190). Likewise, the relationship of social inequality to individual freedoms was shown to have been critical in defining citizenship, and Turner drew attention to “the contradiction between the formal political equality of the franchise and the persistence of extensive social and economic inequality, ultimately rooted in the character of the capitalist market place and the existence of private property” (Turner, 1990, p. 191). As a means of containing, or resolving such contradictions, T.H. Marshall proposed an “extension of citizenship” (Turner, 1990, p. 191). Marshall offered a theory of social citizenship, which I extend to the economic, that is, the expansion of the economic franchise, taking citizenship beyond voting rights, in a manner similar to the 19th century working-class struggle for political equality leading to voting rights and access to the parliamentary process. The problem, as Turner remarked, was that “in many respects the development of citizenship in capitalist societies stopped, as it were, at the factory gates” (1990, p. 193).

Economic citizenship then is about economic democracy, of integrating the economic with the political. Rooting citizenship in material resources is reflective of a movement that Turner called “citizenship from below,” which he directly linked to “social struggles over resources” (1990, p. 199). Citizenship from below becomes necessary with the retreat of the state from its role as mediator between private property owners and the working class, given that that the state’s own economic autonomy was “constrained by international agreements and institutions” (Turner, 1990, p. 195).

While much has been written on citizenship in terms of laws, national identity, and social relations, there seems to be less concern with the lived reality of citizenship at the individual level, and not just as a relation to “territory,” but as a relation to land or productive resources more generally. This extends the discussion begun in “The Ultimate Proletarian and the Neoliberal Condition”—with the aim of adding to economic notions of citizenship, where citizenship would mean assured and autonomous access to resources purely as a virtue of being a citizen in a given national territory.

Citizen Proletarians

In a recent article Allison Pugh (2015) points out that “employers have backed away from the old reciprocity norms, while affluent men labour ceaselessly to prove their mettle, and less advantaged men languish in despair,” and then she asks: “Is there any way we can respond?”

Ending his encyclopedia entry on citizenship, Leydet wrote:

“If being a citizen in a liberal-democratic political community is to mean something more than the status of legal subject, we must be ready to state what this ‘more’ entails. This stubborn blind-spot of theories of citizenship leads us to some of the most difficult issues pertaining to the very possibility of democracy in the contemporary world”.

That “more,” the “stubborn blind-spot of theories of citizenship,” is as argued here one that can be rooted in resources. Too much of the theorization of citizenship—Turner and Marshall excepted—is purely ideational, rather than practical and concrete. The proposal advanced here may also address Pugh’s question about how we can respond to the decline of reciprocity and the disposability of labour which leaves many in despair.

The citizen relation proposed here is not restricted to the social relations between persons, nor is it reduced to the relations between persons and the state, but is instead one that expands the relationship between persons and natural resources that ought to belong to all citizens in the first place. The motivations are multiple, ranging from an interest in eliminating the dependency and precarious way of life inherent in proletarianization, to developing a more grounded sense of nationhood.

In “The Ultimate Proletarian” I wrote:

“In the urban environment, the many who are raised in apartments, or in houses with only a symbolic yard (if that much), and forced into long years of schooling as training to get ‘a job’—these are people, the vast majority, who generally have no independent access to productive resources. Public goods, formerly kept in the hands of the state, have been transferred to private interests. Natural resources, which by definition belong to the land (or oceans, lakes, and rivers), and which in turn would reasonably be the preserve of the public (all citizens), are instead harvested by a small number of corporate interests, who retain most of the profits for themselves”.

Making citizenship more tangible, means making it less of an abstract notion of rights (often not enforced), where most people I would bet think of citizenship as a passport, a right to vote, and the duty to pay taxes. If so, no wonder so few have been excited by the concept, perhaps until the last couple of decades when it came into play in immigration and globalization debates.

There are different reasons for developing more concrete ideas and practices of citizenship, listed here in no particular order of importance:

  • The possibility of reducing or eliminating mass dependency on a few for jobs, by assuring independent access to productive resources;
  • To provide all citizens, regardless of class, with an assured inheritance, at birth;
  • To make personal, and to put into practice, a relationship between the individual citizen and the land of the nation;
  • To promote use value over exchange value, and to promote ideas of self-reliance.

The idea then would be to counter the alienation of persons from the land which they inhabit, where “the environment” is thought of something as “out there,” and to counter mass proletarianization. The hallowed sanctity of “the job” should also be challenged. My proposal, though not practical for all nations, would be to allocate land to each citizen, enough for that person to potentially retreat and make a living—or to do nothing at all with it, except treasure it as their own and as a type of heirloom that still makes citizenship concrete.

Difficulties and Possibilities

Obviously the logistics of implementing this would be complicated—not impossible. We would have to make productive land available to those who intend to work it, and leave pretty or perhaps less productive parcels for those who merely intend to visit occasionally. One would not know what individuals will want, at birth—so for a while the allocation will be on paper only. We would also need a system that allows individuals to change their minds during the course of their lives. The land should not be sold, or used as collateral, to prevent some from amassing more than others or losing the land to a bank. Theoretically, one should be able to transfer productive land to one’s children, as long as no one person accumulates more land than another citizen, or less. Perhaps some land could be pooled and held collectively. Property tax would have to be eliminated—not even now should it exist. The same would apply to inheritance, the so-called death tax.

The idea is that a citizen should be totally free to remove himself or herself from the cash economy, if that is the desire, or if it becomes a necessity. Today, a Canadian cannot simply flee the city and set up a farm on unoccupied land in the middle of the “wilderness”: first, that is likely to be “Crown Land,” and second, even if permitted they would have to pay an annual property tax, which means a cash income is necessary. We are effectively banned in Canada, at present, from going out on our own—even in a country as vast as this. It’s true that most would probably not wish to do so—I am biased by my own preference for the country over the city, and by my own love of the natural setting and its many “wild” inhabitants. But even if most did not wish to move from the city, it would be a useful bargaining chip in negotiating contracts with prospective employers, who would know that they no longer have a stranglehold on labour. Not having a job would mean having the opportunity to work for one’s self. Of course, such a novelty could produce unpredictable results, such as a drop in wages since employers know that few would be entirely reliant on a pay cheque for survival.

Readers in the US, including those who belong to the working-class, might worry that this is a “handout”. The point here, however, is that one cannot hand out what should automatically belong to everyone in the first place. Otherwise, the suspicion toward “handouts,” even by those who may benefit from them, is understandable: some know that nothing is ever really free, and getting something handed to you means you owe something in return. They worry that their independence is thus compromised by the handout. The only things that are ever really free, to an extent, are what nature itself provides. One can indeed have free strawberries, free fish, free water, and free firewood—as long as one does not abuse the natural source such that it ceases to furnish such goods.

This proposal is not for another form of state-controlled welfarism because it recognizes that power and property is to reside in citizen’s hands, while placing a check on unlimited state power over territory. Yet the state would remain a vital component, if anything to oversee and regulate fair distribution and enforce commonly accepted environmental safeguards. The more important goal is to redress the mismatch between citizens, corporations, and the state—where only the latter two come to political struggle already equipped with a firm foundation in economic resources, which they also tend to monopolize.

Elsewhere, as in a number of European nations, the notion of citizenship attaching to the fact of birth on the land, would not be acceptable. It’s not place of birth that counts, but one’s bloodline. That is how I manage to be an Italian citizen, without having been born in Italy. Thus the idea that land must be divided among all those born in the country, would not be culturally or politically acceptable everywhere. Even in the US, one can hear echoes of this critique of citizenship by birthright.

Others might ask: Why does land feature so prominently in this proposal? Is land the most productive resource? Why not shares in a technology company? Why not an assured place at a university? Why not a guaranteed hospital bed, or guaranteed placement in a senior care facility? Why not a house? Those are all good questions, and I am not saying that all of those are not important. My tentative answer, however, is that all of these are examples of products of someone else’s labour—while land is land, it’s there regardless. Again, it’s also true that I am biased by own primordial attraction to the “sons of the soil” motif, and that I maintain a quasi-spiritual attachment to land itself. So others might say: Why land, and not water? To that I would say that it is essentially the same thing as land—not literally obviously—but one should be allowed access to productive ocean resources, if desired.

In making counter arguments, some might say that the allocation of land is too crude and simple, appealing only to the Amish perhaps—or that it sounds like the revival of an antiquated “Come to Canada, free land for all” form of settlement. They might instead suggest more sophisticated forms of access to resources, such as the direct payment to all citizens of a share of profits from companies exploiting natural resources. Such a system already exists in Alaska, for example, in the form of the Alaska Permanent Fund, which in 2014 paid out  $1,884 to each of Alaska’s more than 640,000 residents, rising to more than $2,000 in 2015. A roughly similar idea was implemented in Norway, with the Government Pension Fund, also known as the Oil Fund. I would say these are an excellent start, and that they can be added to a direct allocation of actual physical access to resources.

Make Citizenship Matter

One critic has pointed out that, “a growing number of skeptics question the actual performance and potential of the institution of citizenship as a guarantor of equality and social democracy in a rapidly changing world” (Gutiérrez, 2007, p. 90). Gutiérrez added that, “any self-constituted community of citizens requires a group of non-citizen ‘outsiders’ to give the institution shape and meaning”. This proposal parts way with these points in the following ways:

  • The economic foundations of citizenship would replace the state as the sole guarantor (and it is the role of the state that is actually in question in Gutiérrez’s statement).
  • The citizenship relationship proposed in this essay is not one that exists solely or even primarily between people, but between people and the land.
  • With respect to worries about “othering” others—as long as you continue to speak of yourself or your family, you are “othering” me and everyone else, so some degree of “exclusion” is not just necessary, it is inevitable in any social formation. And before anyone rushes in to label this apparent endorsement of “othering” as reactionary and xenophobic (see footnote 1), be reminded of the fact that it is a basic principle of othering that is at the heart of anti-imperialism, that gives spirit to resistance to foreign invasion, occupation, and plunder, and that insists on autonomy and self-fulfilment that should be everyone’s right. Indeed, without an other, there can be no self, and the self-less person sounds like a social impossibility. We certainly cannot be called to respect others, or to recognize our obligations toward others, if we annihilate the very conceptual possibility of otherness.
  • While citizen implies the existence of non-citizen, there is nothing to say that citizenship as such precludes the admission of new memberships (otherwise we would never have heard of “naturalization”).

Coupled with a form of a guaranteed basic income (which is the subject of great debate), and greater democratic participation, direct and assured access to physical resources such as land would go a long way to make citizenship not just tangible, but meaningful, to a great many precarious workers whose lives are currently subject to the whims of employers and world market trends. The point is to make citizenship economic, equitable, and, for lack of a better word, ecological. The point about making citizenship matter, is about making it material.

In Canada, where citizenship entailed programs to “modernize” or assimilate Aboriginal communities, the proposal here is not about expanding such modernization and severing Aboriginal claims to land, but of expanding the sphere of “indigenization”. I personally advocate resolving all outstanding Aboriginal land claims, immediately and in the favour of Aboriginals—and this would have to happen before we can speak of a nation-wide, citizenship-based allocation of resources, otherwise “economic citizenship” really will become another project of settler colonization.

In addition to mass indigenization, the proposal is also one that as I mentioned above would entail some degree of rural revitalization. Historically, citizenship was a property of certain residents of the city—“the French term citoyen from cité,” was namely “an ensemble of citizens enjoying limited rights within a city context”; even in Britain it was once defined tersely as a “a Freeman of a City,” and those residing beyond city walls were merely “subjects” (Turner, 1990, p. 203). However, the proposal here resituates expanded citizenship rights in the rural sector, to the country as a whole, where control over territory would not be exclusively a property of the state, but a direct right of the citizen. This should provoke some new thinking on citizenship: reconciling the individual with the collective; conceding that not all inequality can be abolished forever (but it can at least be diminished); and, conceiving that a primary direction of economic democratization points more toward a classless society, than a stateless society.

The idea is to also enable people to become reintegrated with the land, de-alienating them from the environment, and establishing foundations for their own independence—if they so choose. In other terms, this notion of resource citizenship could help to reintegrate economics with politics, so that citizenship is not just political liberty by itself, but a liberty that is assured by economic liberty.

Otherwise, what stake do citizens have, where a few can amass all the benefits of citizenship while most others experience the reality of citizenship as simply imprisonment within one society, thanks to the facts of one’s birth? And what meaning does “agency” have, if it is only a matter of “will” but without power rooted in resources?


  1. In the current context, it is already clear to me that some will be reading an essay on citizenship and nationalism with an eye on ways of bending it into a caricature of “racism” and “xenophobia” (see Friedman, 1999). It should be pointed out that there is nothing inherent to resource nationalism that precludes openness to non-nationals. Libya under Gaddafi would be one such example, where resource nationalism was reinvigorated roughly at the same time as the nation’s doors were opened to migrants from Africa. At least in principle then, there is nothing about one that prevents the other. In practice, the risk is that the consequences can be grave, as they were in Libya. The degree to which Gaddafi’s welcoming stance, in the absence of a supportive social and cultural environment in the country and with minimal preparation, may have played a lethal role in setting in motion the angry and violent resistance that eventually undid the Libyan state, is open to discussion. In this regard, it’s important to note how often Libyan “rebels” and their representatives complained about “Gaddafi and his Africans,” and how much of the conflict proceeded along racialized lines.
  2. Michael Walzer defined a citizen as “most simply, a member of a political community, entitled to whatever prerogatives and encumbered with whatever responsibilities are attached to membership” (Walzer, 1989, p. 211, quoted in Pohlmann, Yang, & Lee, 2013, p. 2). “How to become a citizen” and what values, rights, and duties attach to citizenship, is still very much open to debate (Pohlmann, Yang, & Lee, 2013).
  3. Kipnis also advances an argument for “global citizenship” in his article, and generally links citizenship to the production of inequality. This will be left here for now, and taken up in a later essay. For now, I would strongly recommend Jonathan Friedman’s “Rhinoceros 2” for some balance.


Ceuppens, Bambi, & Geschiere, Peter. (2005). “Autochthony: Local or Global? New Modes in the Struggle over Citizenship and Belonging in Africa and Europe”. Annual Review of Anthropology, 34, 385-407.

Forte, Maximilian C. (2016a). “The Ultimate Proletarian and the Neoliberal Condition”. Zero Anthropology, June 11.

Forte, Maximilian C. (2016b). “Immigration and Capital”. Zero Anthropology, August 3.

Friedman, Jonathan. (1999). “Rhinoceros2”. Current Anthropology, 40(5), 679–694.

Gutiérrez, David G. (2007). “The Politics of the Interstices: Reflections on Citizenship and Non-Citizenship at the Turn of the Twentieth Century”. Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts, 1(1), 89–120.

Kipnis, Andrew. (2004). “Anthropology and the Theorisation of Citizenship”. The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, 5(3), 257–278.

Leydet, Dominique. (2014). “Citizenship”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Pohlmann, Markus; Yang, Jonghoe; & Lee, Jong-Hee (2013). “Introduction”. In Markus Pohlmann, Jonghoe Yang & Jong-Hee Lee, (Eds.), Citizenship and Migration in the Era of Globalization: The Flow of Migrants and the Perception of Citizenship in Asia and Europe (pp. 1-8). Heidelberg: Springer.

Pugh, Allison J. (2015). “Men at Work”. Aeon, December 4.

Turner, Bryan S. (1990). “Outline of a Theory of Citizenship”. Sociology, 24(2), 189-217.

3 thoughts on “Economic Citizenship and Resource Nationalism

  1. Critique-Metro

    Hello Dr. Forte, I reblogged this post with a brief bio about yourself and the Zero Anthropology project on my own blog. While I think there are issues in this proposal to be expounded on, I think this is an interesting start to a conversation about nationalism and worker’s power. If there are any issues with accreditation please let me know.

  2. Pingback: Haunted by Gaddafi – ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY

  3. Pingback: Haunted by Gaddafi on the fifth anniversary of his overthrow | Fabius Maximus website

Comments are closed