The case for smashing borders

IMAGE: Triumphus pacis Osnabruggensis et
; Tubingen, Brunnius (1649)

J.A. Myerson has an article up over at Jacobin making “The Case for Open Borders.”  As an historical overview, it’s not terrible, even if the way it retains the language of “consecration” for the modern period is a bit tendentious.  Borders and rights are not “consecrated” as divine rights but “legitimated” as civil rights.  There’s some acknowledgement of this fact, at least initially, but the author goes on to undermine this distinction in advocating “universal human rights, consecrated in struggle, enforced by solidarity.”

On a related note — why does “solidarity” always seem to enter in as this kind of quasi-mystical force by which we can simply express our sympathy with various remote causes and thereby consider our political obligations fulfilled? This, far more than any kind of legal procedure defining and establishing borders, strikes me as almost religious.  It’s akin to the sentiment expressed by those of various religious persuasions who’ll reassure you that they’re praying for you, etc.

In any case, on to the historical narrative:

In the pre-modern era, with its feudal property structure and monarchic political system, God was viewed as the consecrating agent, sanctioning tithe extraction, bestowing on regents the divine right to rule, blessing knights’ conquests, and so forth.  The rights regime of the Middle Ages relied on metaphysics and self-evidence the same way belief in God does.

Even Enlightenment thinkers, whose explicit project was to break with this tradition, couldn’t quite do away with that idea.  Thus, the Declaration of Independence holds certain truths to be self-evident, including the endowment of all men by their creator with certain inalienable rights.  To these natural rights, the modern understanding added a new category: civil rights. Insofar as this tendency espoused nationalism, the rights of the citizen were emphasized, but insofar as the new nations were organized along a capitalist mode of production, individual rights superseded even these.

Let’s forget the rather glib attribution of nationalism to the Enlightenment, which cemented the “nation” as a progressive force dissolving feudalism but which owed its own ideological origin to the landmark Peace of Westphalia in the first half of the 17th century.  Myerson proceeds, again rather ahistorically, to detail Marx’s and Luxemburg’s treatment of national forms and their criticisms thereof:

Both of these categories drew criticism from the socialist left.  Karl Marx objected to individualism’s implicit depiction of society as “a framework external to the individuals, as a restriction of their original independence,” since, in the resulting view, “it is not man as citoyen, but man as bourgeois who is considered to be the essential and true man.”

Rosa Luxemburg pointed out that the conceptual framework of nationalism and exaltation of citizenship served to mask crucial divisions beneath national society.  “There exist within each nation,” she wrote, “classes with antagonistic interests and ‘rights,’” such that the ownership and working classes “[never] appear as a consolidated ‘national’ entity.”  Indeed, national leaders, always and everywhere, have invoked those rights which reinforced their power.

Of course, Marx was playing on the unity of the two distinct French terms citoyen (denoting an individual’s political existence) and bourgeois (denoting an individual’s economic existence) in the German word burgher, and their simultaneously unified and divided character under modern, bourgeois civil society: or bürgerliche Gesellschaft, or “civilization.”

A reminder: Map of "Europe: Racial and Linguistic" put out by the London Geographical Institute in The Peoples Atlas (1920

A reminder: Map of “Europe: Racial and Linguistic” put out by the London Geographical Institute in The Peoples Atlas (1920)

Nevertheless, it is extraordinarily naïve to believe that borders and various legal-political “zones” can be simply legislated out of existence through peaceful, beneficent acts of merger or regional reform, as in NAFTA in North America or the EU in Europe.  Whether borne out of a neoliberal demand for “opening up” markets and clearing commercial lanes or the old project of Europa, the attempt to abolish or gradually phase out borders has foundered lately on anti-austerity nationalism in Europe and either tariff-mongering or xenophobic anti-immigration platforms in North America.

Geographic entities can be merged, but this is seldom accomplished without some sort of war, threat of war, or slow annexation. Borders, as with everything else pertaining to nationality, have been assimilated to the state under the modern bourgeois system of the nation-state. Such has been the case at least since Westphalia, and has become only more true since.

Borders were far more fluid and porous in terms of their official legal existence during feudal times, under the vassalage system. Of course, under capitalism, capital flows and commerce constantly undermine borders, even as states scramble to rebuild, reinforce, and recodify them.  Insofar as borders are an expression and constitutive component of the modern state, along with its concomitant concept of “sovereignty,” they would need to be smashed in order to be overcome.

This isn’t empty militancy.  Obviously we’re quite far from occupying a position where such anachronisms as national borders and the nation-state can be “smashed” and relegated to the dustbin of history.  But we’re equally far from occupying a position where we might legislate borders out of existence.  There can be no debate over which is more “practical.”  At this point it is, and can only be, a theoretical and speculative dispute over what would actually be necessary in order to overcome national peculiarity and its formalization in the law.

Very disappointing article, on the whole. How does it start out with Hobsbawm’s writings on the 19th century and end on such a lame note?

2 thoughts on “The case for smashing borders

  1. I don’t know if less regulation or less barriers to access is the solution that leftists should really be looking for. I agree that ICE is barbaric and inhumane, but this argument rests on the assumptions that 1) everyone has equal access to mobility, 2) it is not in the interest of capital to have less regulation of labor movement, among others.

  2. Pingback: Weekend Roundup 03/11/13

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