“If I don’t meet you no more in this world
Then I’ll meet you in the next one
And don’t be late
Don’t be late”
—Jimi Hendrix, Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
At the moment of writing this sentence, the Arctic circle is on fire. These fires are burning in multiple countries around the Arctic and as of July, 31st 2019 nearly 8 million acres were on fire in Siberia alone. These areas are experiencing record high temperatures that are almost 40% above their average high for this time of year. As we read in the news, this record heat, never recorded this high in human history in these areas, is also melting the permafrost layers and billions of tons of ice, which is further releasing significant amounts of stored carbon and methane into the atmosphere. It goes without saying that in the 21st century the biggest catastrophe facing the planet is the ever accelerating effect of climate change. To say this is not at all meant to diminish the wide range of important struggles people are fighting around the world, but climate change is something that will affect all of us disastrously, as much as the violent processes of capitalism always have. Already we are seeing the first mass migrations of climate change taking place. In Central America, masses of people are moving north not just to escape violence and oppression, but also to escape the realities of El Nino droughts and crop diseases caused by climate change. In Africa, major water sources are drying up causing lands to become further desertified, and people are looking for a way out, a way to survive. In India, water reservoirs are drying up as well and people are waiting in anxiety for the “day zero” crisis. All around the world, we are now seeing record temperatures and environmental stresses on our water supplies and this two-hit combo is endangering large amounts of our global food sources. People are on the move once again as the security of their survival is under threat.
As much as farmers and herders have always moved from plot to plot, way back to very beginnings of humanity, the logical step to take when survival is threatened is to walk away from dying lands and search for new grounds which remain fertile. The masses of people who are now on the move are doing as humans have done for thousands of centuries—keep moving to sustain life. People are peopling as people do. And what’s the current response to people on the move as people have always moved? It has primarily been attempts to close down borders and hunker down further into the pride of national arrogance and supremacy while acting as if the current rule of the land is the absolute way things have been and shall always be. Absurd, I know. Especially when you consider the fact that a third of the world’s borders are less than 100 years old and that the average age of a border on every continent, except for Europe (remember those enclosure acts and Westphalia?), is less than 150 years old. This is also in the context that it wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century when most of the world’s current borders were established with more definitive enforcements of national sovereignty, considering the post WW2 dividing of the world into ownership plots and the fall of the Soviet curtain just a few decades ago. And, this doesn’t even account for the current permeability and instability of borders in regions all around the world because of ongoing conflicts, or, because of various national instabilities of enforcing current boundaries, such as non-state spaces, para-states, and digital non-state actors.
In her essay, “The Left Case Against Open Borders” Angela Nagle puts forth the notion that the left should give up the cause of open borders as a way to combat global neoliberalism and further posits the need for maintaining pragmatic state-craft to protect the rights of people—a dodgy historical craft nonetheless. Nagle agrees that in the neoliberal capitalist world we now find ourselves in, the primary modus operandi of capital is the process of globalization which seeks, through transnational corporations, to spread the capitalist mode of production worldwide. Capital aims to freely cross borders with ease as a means for further capital accumulation and extraction by finding countries with low taxes, a cheap labor supply, and cheaper costs of production goods. To Nagle, since transnational corporations want to open borders in order to free and ease the flows of capital for the sake of surplus profit extraction, it means that any call for open borders of any kind is forwarding a stance of neoliberal capitalism. She believes that open borders is fundamentally a tool of neoliberalism as if the very idea of open borders was invented by neoliberal capitalists in the 1970-80’s. Fundamentally, Nagle incorrectly conflates open borders as a neoliberal project. She calls for the need of strong national borders as a way to protect the citizens, internally and externally, from certain processes of capitalist exploitation. So, if you just so happen to stand for open borders you are only progressing the interests of transnational capital and playing into the neoliberal game.
We can agree here on the basic points about what neoliberalism fundamentally is and what its aims are, but, what Nagle neglects in her critique of open borders is that the neoliberal global project is also a project of capital to absorb and subsume into its hegemony and material organization what is already present in the world. It is a project of opening up markets by recuperating itself through processes of reification. In this way, everything, including ideas, is up for grabs in reifying what exists in the world as new forms of capital—this most certainly includes the idea and material realities of open borders. If something exists in the world within the system of capitalism, that doesn’t mean that it is explicitly a product of capitalism. But, if the purveyors of capital see that something can be of use and service to the final ends of capital accumulation, then they will without a doubt use it as a way for the accumulation of capital. This is as much the case for open borders as well.
It would do well to ask ourselves: In what way do neoliberals want open borders? Well, they want to open borders for easing business projects, but they also want to open movement for a technical upper class of labor that can move with the flows of capital. For your regular run of the mill neoliberal, they don’t want open borders for everybody. The lower and middle classes aren’t part of their calls for open borders. The point of neoliberal globalized business is not to move labor to sites of production but to move the sites of production to areas of low cost labor. At the same time, if the neoliberal project really was one that wanted open borders, well, they’ve already had 50 years to do it. We can look at the current immigration crisis around the world and understand that there is a battle going on between the elites for direction of the global project of capitalism and domination of economic imperialism. Many of these far-right populist leaders (read: proto-fascists and fascists) take strong-man positions of cracking down on illegal immigration while bashing on the classic neoliberals. In actuality, these populist leaders are themselves the very face of neoliberalism’s monstrous body. Cracking down on border control by being tough on immigration and migrants has been a big part of the neoliberal project. And no, Reagan’s amnesty bill is not a sufficient counter argument to the role of neoliberal border tightening in light of the ever increasing role of border patrol cracking down on immigration since the 1950’s in the US. The neoliberal capitalists that do call for open borders want open borders for the rich, not for everyone.
There is another general assumption that Negal makes, and that is a dehistoricized account of what borders are. As we explored in part 1 and 2 of this series we see that historically, borders are not the rigid and absolute boundaries that people believe they are today. For most of human pre-history and history we were already living in a world of open borders for thousands of years. When we look at old maps of state centers of power we can’t assume that the state centers had absolute control all the way out to the regions on the periphery of their controlled territory. There are historical cases to make that for a long while, the further you moved away from the center of power of a state’s territory the less control the state had over the people and less power in enforcing their laws. Remember, people loved to run for the hills when they felt the need for their autonomy, and soldiers didn’t always have a stringent pride for the ideology of national identity to keep enforcing outer-edge territorial control if shit hit the fan and the gold wasn’t bountiful enough.
The current formulations and rigidity of borders is a relatively new phenomenon. As a further example, far as travel documentation is concerned, we see ancient documents signed by kings for particular persons of importance to be granted safe passage, but it wasn’t until 1540 in Britain when travel papers became a more regular necessity, whereas passports as we know them today didn’t come to be until the early 20th century. Nagle takes the concept of borders purely in the contemporary context of how they are believed to function and is under the assumption that borders are just lines in the sand to keep things in place. There is currently much debate and discussion in the field of border studies on how we understand what borders are. A one-dimensional line is neither satisfactory nor sufficient for understanding what exactly a border is. For current border scholars, to have a better understanding of what borders are we must look to the broader contexts of history, culture, language, myth, heritage, politics, legislation, economics, power, control, and concepts. If you want the short version, many contemporary borders scholars no longer believe that thinking of borders in simplified terms of a barrier line is sufficient, and it would do us much better to think of borders in terms of flows and movements.
Towards the end of her essay, Nagel begins to acknowledge the class dynamic of who would benefit from the limitations of a neoliberal “borderless” world. But, she further assumes that if we were to have an open bordered world, the same structures and social relations of production which we currently have under capitalism would still continue to exist because she only sees open borders as a project of capitalism. Now, it is true that if we are to have a borderless world that we must also work to reorganize our social and productive relations away from the limiting flows of capitalist power relations. This doesn’t mean though that we can’t have any other expression of open borders besides a neoliberal capitalist expression of open borders. Yet, Negal is,
always amazed at the arrogance and the strangely imperial mentality of British and American pro–open borders progressives who believe that they are performing an act of enlightened charity when they “welcome” PhDs from eastern Europe or Central America… In the wealthiest nations, open borders advocacy seems to function as a fanatical cult among true believers—a product of big business and free market lobbying is carried along by a larger group of the urban creative, tech, media, and knowledge economy class, who are serving their own objective class interests by keeping their transient lifestyles cheap and their careers intact as they parrot the institutional ideology of their industries. The truth is that mass migration is a tragedy, and upper-middle-class moralizing about it is a farce. Perhaps the ultra-wealthy can afford to live in the borderless world they aggressively advocate for, but most people need—and want—a coherent, sovereign political body to defend their rights as citizens.
Well, most of us aren’t upper-middle-class and we aren’t moralizing on their behalf. Most of us around the world are lower class, middle class at best. We are the salt of the earth who understand the current global climate crisis we are experiencing and we refuse to condemn millions to death by telling them to stay in their dying lands. We are far past the point of stopping climate change completely, irreversible damage has already been done. Our global task now is damage control and reduction. The only way that this is possible, is not by hunkering down into protectionist state rhetoric as Nagel does here. We need to fundamentally reorganize the global structures of production and distribution. This includes allowing the movement of people beyond national boundaries. It includes questioning the necessities of national identity and social relations.
The current structures of national governments are neither prepared nor fit to deal with these problems, especially so long as they continue to hold onto the current economic structures that have caused these problems in the first place. The irony in Nagle proposing the concept of open borders in terms of the current global system is that she is ultimately maintaining the status quo of the current system. Socialism in one country was a failed project of the 20th century that saw the processes of capitalism take root in these socialist countries once again by the turn of the century. Open borders are not the brainchild of big business nor a “politics of big business, masquerading as a virtuous identitarianism.” Open borders are not an “advocacy [which] seems to function as a fanatical cult among true believers.” Open borders are a reality for many people who live outside the western experience which Nagel can’t envision beyond. Open borders are a historical struggle to deny identity with the state as a means to reclaim collective and individual autonomy and to insure survival against the ills of state (and capitalist) coercion.
Nagle speaks of migration as a tragedy caused purely by the processes of international capitalism. Mass migration is not, historically, a tragedy, although great tragedies have lead to mass migrations. The contemporary conditions of mass migration are a looming tragedy so long as we continue to maintain the current economic conditions of violent exploitation while refusing to open up borders in face of the climate crisis. The tragedy now is though, believing that a fundamental human phenomenon, such as migration, is an ill of the world and not a solution. It’s a tragedy in the way that human activities are often tragedies—pride and arrogance when we should have learned our humbling historical lessons. The truth is that migration is a human condition, a condition of survival, from which we as a species have learned and grown by our collective efforts. The tragedy is that despite these lessons and collective efforts so many are still clutching to the perceived comforts of failed ideas such as borders, states, and capitalism. So, still now, we struggle onward to evolve beyond the current state of the status quo.
At the present moment, we stare down the path that leads us towards the edge of the end of the world and no mater what we do now a new world is coming—for good or for ill. We have a world to save and I believe in us. But which world do we save? The old world of capitalist nation-states is dying, death will always be there waiting, but as we move forward we should give our failed old world ideas to death because we won’t need them for whichever new world lies ahead. It’s our choice which kind of world that will be. It’s probably best to stop sitting around with our thumbs up our asses and make a choice quick, because, we really don’t have much time.
I believe in us.