Whither Borders?

Kimberly DeFazio


Until recently the leaders of big business couldn't boast enough about the new "borderless" economy—a post-national world of global prosperity in which capital, labor, goods and services circulate freely—and its limitless opportunities for travel, commerce, and communication. So borderless was this new world, these triumphalist narratives suggested, that like all identities the border between rich and poor worldwide was being blurred in a continuum of boundless consumption. As corporate consultant Kenichi Ohmae has argued, "as the 21st century approaches and as what I call the four 'I's'—industry, investment, individuals, and information—flow relatively unimpeded across national borders, the building-block concepts  appropriate to a 19th-century, closed-country model of the world no longer hold" (The End of the Nation State vii). Borderlessness had become a code for the new global freedom.

Yet with the emergence of the so-called war on terror, the borders have "returned" to the borderless economy, and "freedom" is being redefined. It appears that the Bush Administration is concerned with nothing other than securing US borders, tightening controls and channeling billions of dollars of public funds to new and already existing national security, police and intelligence departments. The borders, it seems, had become too "permeable".

Suddenly we are told that the US borders are dangerously insecure, and the preservation of American freedom now lies in the suspension of virtually all democratic rights, including far-reaching new surveillance technologies to police all borders of the US, as a means of distinguishing "safe" immigrants from "dangerous" ones, "us" from "them", the "civilized" from the "barbarians". Immigrants are under attack not only in the US, but throughout Europe (or "Fortress Europe", as it has become known), where a number of far-right politicians have come to prominence on anti-immigrant policies, pulling with them to the right "new social democrats" such as Tony Blair. And in one of the most violent manifestations of bordering, Israel has begun constructing a physical barrier further imprisoning Palestinians behind a 12 mile long security fence, separating "peace-loving" Israelis from, as Israeli government official Effi Eitam put it recently, Palestinian "animals". The borderlessness of the new economy now appears as what it always was:  a deadly farce, with freedom another name for the free market.

For, it is not only the recent corporate scandals that have exposed the great economic crisis now shaking the foundations of society worldwide, but the actual decline of the living and working conditions of the vast majority of the world's people, more and more of whom are forced to live under increasingly desperate situations of poverty, hunger, illness, illiteracy and rampant destruction caused by imperialist wars—while a tiny global ruling elite accumulates ever more wealth and control over world resources.

The borderless world, in short, was never without borders. It was always founded on the border of exploitation;  that is, the relation between the propertyless and the property owners. Those who have only their labor to sell because they do not own the means of production on one side, and on the other those who own the means of production and therefore compel all who do not to work for them, in exchange for wages which represent only a fraction of the value actually produced. The "return" of the border since September 11 represents the exacerbation of the antagonism between labor and capital:  an antagonism which exceeds all national borders. This relation between workers and owners is the fundamental "border" hidden beneath the euphoric rhetoric of borderlessness—a rhetoric that has found expression in the last decade not only in the managerial philosophy of corporate gurus and the third-way policies of US and European state officials, but in the high-theory idiom of postmodern "hybridity" and the more popular discourse of the Internet.

What is at stake in the new emphasis on reinstituting borders (whether through the "crisis" of the INS, the new surveillance technologies, the rolling back of civil rights, the exclusion and incarceration of non-citizens…) has little to do with actually securing the US border or ensuring the security of citizens. Rather, it is aimed at concealing the fundamental class conflict by targeting as "other" any who do not conform to the US corporate agenda. It is primarily aimed at diverting attention from what lies at the core of the global economic crisis—namely that it is a system built on the ever-widening gap between rich and poor worldwide—while scaring working people into accepting the suspension of the rights of some so that capital can better exploit the labor of the entire working class. The return of the border is, in short, a cynical alibi for restructuring the national security state and reorganizing the workforce to make up for the lost profits in the wake of the recession which began well before 9-11.

After all, despite billions of dollars that have gone into stepping-up airport security, a recent report revealed that the new security measures had failed miserably in nation-wide testing. Similarly, while Ashcroft recently heralded a vast new computer system for tracking foreign students as representing a major step forward in protecting American citizens (since, he argued, foreign students represent a serious "national security concern"), even an editorial in the New York Times responded by pointing out that "[t]hirteen of the 19 hijackers entered the country on tourist visas" and that in fact "[f]oreign students account for only 2 percent of foreign visitors". In other words, if it is really non-citizens who are most threatening to American citizens, the new computer system technically covers only a tiny fraction of the so-called "threats" to US security. I leave aside the mounting evidence not only that US officials knew about the September attacks, but that the war on Afghanistan was planned by US officials and the oil interests they serve long before September 11.

Moreover, it has become increasingly clear that the military tribunals and other policies which eradicate democratic rights and which were supposedly established "only" for the specific targeting of non-citizens are being used to target all people in the US, and especially those deemed in any way a threat to US corporate interests. While thousands of Arab and Muslim citizens have been investigated, and many remain incarcerated without any rights in secret detention, a recent article by Daniel Pipes and Jonathan Schanzer in the New York Post goes so far as to demand that "stakeholders" of universities "take back the universities as institutions of civilized discourse". That is, they suggest, get rid of "left-wing extremists" who teach "seemingly harmless theories about 'deconstruction,' 'post-modernism,' 'race, gender and class' while venting against the United States, its government and its allies"—thus criminalizing any who question the policies of the US government.

In other words, as aggressively as the border has returned to dominant discourse, it also appears to be "ambiguous": some non-citizens are not subject to investigation, while some citizens remain in jail because they have been deemed suspicious.

In fact, the apparent incoherence of who is considered dangerous and who is considered safe has led many liberal commentators to conclude that the policies are simply inconsistent and show that the Bush Administration does not have a "clear" or "consistent" agenda. Or they use these apparent inconsistencies to point to the "stupidity" of Bush's policies. But such arguments miss the point. And in doing so, they alibi the practices his administration is unleashing on people throughout the world.

The very notion of who is considered "other" and who is not, who can legitimately cross the border and who cannot, has never been static but shifts to meet the needs of capital. Its "ambiguity" in other words is an effect of the shifting borders of capital accumulation.

This became quite clear when, shortly after Bush and Ashcroft had declared the necessity of a virtual lockdown of US borders, Bush announced his plans to extend the visas of tens of thousands of Mexican workers, despite the ongoing official rhetoric demanding the swift deportation and possible incarceration of all immigrants who overstay their visas. Bush spokespersons  explained that his proposal was part of a "good will" effort prior to a March meeting with Vicente Fox on US-Mexican economic relations.

Bush's extension of Mexican workers' visas is hardly a contradiction, however. Rather, as Irwin M. Stelzer makes clear in a recent essay in Policy, what underlies Bush's policies is the idea that "somewhere between the extremes of an open-door and a slammed-door policy is one based on the economic self-interest of the receiving country. Such a policy would be designed to admit only, or primarily, those immigrants likely to maximize the wealth of the native population". By this he means that the door should be "open" only for those for whom there are low-paying jobs available—and he even goes so far as to suggest that any public resources should be available only so long as these immigrants find work. But the irony of Stelzer's pragmatic solution is that what he presents as a "new" policy, deftly navigated between two opposing sides, has always been the over-riding principle of all bourgeois immigration policy:  to increase profits while attempting to rally workers behind their "national" capitalists (or in Stelzer's terms, the "national population", as if capitalists and workers in any given national population do not have irreconcilable class interests).

The White House will allow extensions of Mexican workers' visas because US corporations use Mexican workers, many of whom leave desperate conditions in search of better wages, for extremely low-wage and unskilled labor. In a recessionary period like the current one, corporations attempt to cut back on labor costs even further, and will therefore hire the cheapest labor possible, whether immigrant or not, at the same time deploying the rhetoric of the foreign immigrant who will take jobs from Americans. They use immigrant labor to drive a wedge between workers as they compete for fewer jobs and lower wages.

But regardless of the differences in skill and nationality, the labor of all workers is exploited and without the exploitation of their labor there would be no corporate profit, no private accumulation. National borders, in other words, are borders of and for private property. While workers are forced politically to recognize them, capital trespasses regularly with impunity in order to increase the rate of return.

As Marx has argued in his analysis of the "Irish Question" (the colonial relation of England and Ireland), such strategies are precisely those by which the global structure of class relations is maintained and legitimated;  "national" difference (and difference between "immigrant" and "citizen") as he theorized it, was central both to the subordination of Irish workers and British workers alike and to the maintenance of capitalist colonial relations;  workers in England and Ireland therefore shared a  fundamental interest in uniting to fight British imperialism. Writing about 19th century industrial and commercial centers in England, Marx argued that every center  

possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists of his country against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself […] The Irish man pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker at once the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rule in Ireland.

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And that class is fully aware of it. (Ireland and the Irish Question 293-94)

The new emphasis on securing the borders of the imperialist nations is a 21st century manifestation of the "awareness" of corporate leaders of the means of maintaining its power, an awareness that has become particularly acute.

If it were really the "universal" interests of the "host nation" that immigration policies work to serve, and not big business, all members of the nation would see their living and working conditions improve. Instead, in all nations, the conditions of the majority of working people have drastically deteriorated, while corporate profits have skyrocketed. If immigration (and the permeability of borders) were really used to benefit all members of the national population "immigration" would be used to ensure all people had adequate resources to meet all their needs, rather than pit workers against one another to compete for disappearing jobs with dwindling wages and dwindling basic resources such as water and medicine. In spite of capitalist ideologues' best efforts at constructing imaginary borders, it is, increasingly, the class position of workers everywhere—their lack of access to the means of production and, as a result, the increasing lack of access to all other social resources necessary to survive—that is becoming clear: not their "national" insecurity but their material insecurity. The ruling classes, in short, are proving daily their utter incapacity to actually secure the material conditions of citizens, even while they attempt to divert all attention onto matters of national insecurity.

Contrary to the new security doctrines of the Bush Administration, the closing of borders to immigrants will not safeguard "American" jobs or increase "Americans'" prosperity or freedom. On the contrary, such strategies, which justify the terrible plundering of nations and people for the benefit of a transnational ruling class, imperil the lives of working people everywhere. Accepting restrictions on immigrants' rights means accepting that only a select group of people deserve to live a life free from police harassment; that only a select few should have the right to safe working conditions and resources to meet basic needs such as food, healthcare and education. One should resist these efforts to erode the rights of workers and instead, for the benefit of all working people, demand full rights for all immigrants.

It is time to see "borders" for what they are: corporate barriers to a struggle for economic and social justice that must unite all workers, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, gender or sexuality. Only a political movement advancing under the banner of meeting the needs of all workers regardless of their "national" identity can put an end to the divisive borders that capitalism has erected and bring out the true lesson of recent events: that it is neither "immigrants" nor even "terrorists" that represent the most dangerous threat to the lives of working people, but the bosses who steal their labor.

 THE RED CRITIQUE 4  (May/June 2002)