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Dr Jonathan Barrett

SACL, Victoria University of Wellington

Two meanings of ‘duty’ are relevant to this paper. The first relates to tax payable when goods cross borders. Hito Steyerl has analysed duty free art, and the free ports where the super-wealthy may store artworks, which commonly constitute a currency of liquid capitalism,  without paying normal customs duties. The second meaning of duty is the reciprocal of a right, and is used here in relation to social citizenship, whereby citizens asymmetrically exchange service for benefits. These two ideas meet in the case of New Zealand’s extraordinary grant of citizenship to the ultra-libertarian entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who became a citizen after being present in the country for less than 1% of the mandated period.

Analogous to the commodification of artworks that dislocates them from the social purposes of art, citizenship may also become a financial instrument without substance, an abstraction from usual rights and duties. This observation only applies to the super-wealthy. The enjoyment by the few of the financial benefits of duty free art is contingent on the general public being denied access to important cultural artefacts. Similarly, when borders are closing around the world for needy migrants and ‘illegals’ commonly live the parlous existence that Giorgio Agamben characterised as vita nuda (bare life), negotiable citizenship, without the usual processes and duties, is a privilege claimable only by an elite among the few, and represents a diametric opposite to exclusion and the bare life.

Dr Jonathan Barrett is a Senior Lecturer in Commercial Law and Taxation, School of Accounting and Commercial Law, Victoria University of Wellington. Jonathan holds degrees from English and South African university. His PhD considered the application of human rights to a tax system. His principal research areas are the practical application of human rights and art law.

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