Editorial: why no borders?

Author:Anderson, Bridget


This editorial article argues for No Borders as a practical political project. We first critically examine borders as ideological, generating and reinforcing inequality. We consider some responses to injustices produced by borders: the call for "human rights" attempts to make immigration controls more "humanitarian" and trade unions" organizing and campaigning with undocumented workers. Recognizing the important contributions of some of these responses, we argue that nevertheless they have often been limited because they do not question sovereignty, the territorializing of people's subjectivities, and nationalism. No Borders politics rejects notions of citizenship and statehood, and clarifies the centrality of borders to capitalism. We argue that No Borders is a necessary part of a global system of common rights and contemporary struggle for the commons. The article concludes by highlighting the main themes of the papers that make up the Special Issue, a number of which explore practical instances of the instantiation of No Borders politics.


Le present article de tete presente le mouvement No Border comme projet politique pratique. Les auteurs examinent d'abord de fafon critique les frontieres en tant qu'ideologie produisant et renforcant l'inegalite. Ils considerent quelques reactions aux injustices produites par les frontieres : appels aux >, tentatives de rendre les contro1es d'immigration plus >, mouvements syndicaux d'organisation et de lutte avec les travailleurs sans-papiers. Reconnaissant l'importante contribution de certaines de ces reactions, ils soutiennent qu'elles sont neanmoins souvent limitees parce qu'elles ne mettent pas en cause la souverainete, la territorialisation des subjectivites individuelles et le nationalisme. Le mouvement No Border rejette les notions de citoyennete et d'Etat et met au grand jour le ro1e central des frontieres au sein du capitalisme. Les auteurs soutiennent que No Border est un didmerit necessaire d'un systeme mondial de droits communs et de lutte contemporaine pour les communes. Ils mettent enfin en evidence les themes principaux des articles qui composent ce numero special, dont plusieurs etudient des cas pratiques de la manifestation des politiques No Border.

Only the battles which aren't even begun are lost at the start.


--Madjiguene Cisse spokesperson for the Sans-Papiers in France

Across the world, national states, in especially in what the Economist likes to call the "rich world", are imposing ever more restrictive immigration policies. Such state efforts are being enacted at precisely the time when migration has become an increasingly important part of people's strategies for gaining access to much-needed life resources. These may be a new livelihood, closeness to significant persons in their lives, or escape from untenable, even murderous, situations, such as persecution and war, as well as the opportunity to experience new people, places, and situations. That the greater freedom of mobility granted to capital and commodities through neo-liberal reform has taken place alongside this lessening of freedom of mobility for people has been analyzed by many as constituting one of the great contradictions of the present era.

In contrast, in this Special Issue on the emergence of a No Borders politics, we show that the simultaneous process of granting more freedom to capital and less to migrants is far from a contradiction and is in fact a crucial underpinning of global capitalism and the equally global system of national states. The growing restriction on the freedom of people to move has not led to fewer people crossing nationalized borders. Exactly the opposite: today more people are doing exactly this than ever before. The United Nations Population Division currently estimates that there are now about 200 million international migrants each year. This represents a doubling of the numbers of people engaged in cross-border migration in 1980. (1)

Though their main accomplishment is not the restraint of people's movements, restrictive immigration policies do have an effect. Increasingly militarized border controls, for instance, have increased the costs paid for migration, be it the monetary cost of securing passage, the extraction of labour, or the cost of one's own life. Not only are there a growing number of nominally temporary camps (refugee camps, detention camps, transit camps, and so on), but more and more dead bodies are being found washed up on the shore, in scorched desert valleys, on frozen mountain passes, or in any number of other dangerous crossing points through which migrants have been funnelled. (2) This has allowed national states to cynically claim that the greatest threat to migrants are those who assist them in their movement, thereby deflecting blame from their own border control practices and setting the stage for further criminalizing "traffickers" and "smugglers."

The greater though less studied effect of restrictive immigration policies has been to restrict the rights and entitlements that migrants can claim once they are within national states. In practice, rather than simply restricting movement, restrictive immigration policies have enabled states to shift the status they accord migrating people. Fewer people are now given a status that comes with rights (e.g., "permanent resident" or "refugee") and more and more are legally subordinated (e.g., through the status of "illegal") or are forced to work in unfree employment relations (including through the status of "temporary foreign worker"). (3) Since 2005 in the US more migrants are given the status of illegal than all of the various legal statuses combined. (4) In Canada, more people enter as temporary foreign workers than as permanent residents. (5) Such a situation calls into question the oft-stated purposes served by the entire array of contemporary migration controls--the totality of which has made many migrants more vulnerable and their lives and livelihoods more precarious.

One important and underexamined response to this historical conjuncture is the emergence of calls for No Borders. These are made on the basis of interrelated ethical, political, social, and economic grounds. Their challenging of nationstates' sovereign right to control people's mobility signals a new sort ofliberatory project, one with new ideas of"society" and one aimed at creating new social actors not identified with nationalist projects (projects that are deeply racialized, gendered, sexualized, and productive of class relations). As a practical, political project develops against borders, its relevance to other political projects grows, often challenging them in profound ways. There is a mounting need, therefore, to open an intellectual and political environment in which arguments for No Borders are further debated. It is with this goal in mind that we have put together this Special Issue on No Borders.

In this introduction we first consider what borders are and how they are constructed and examine some of the critical responses to borders, their possibilities and limitations. We identify some of the key problems with these approaches, in particular the assumption that migration is a problem and that the nation-state framework persists unchallenged. We then describe some of the elements of a No Borders approach and refute the claim that it is utopian. We examine the centrality of migrants to the more general liberatory project that is No Borders and go on to indicate some of the contributions made by the papers in this Special Issue.

Rethinking Borders

What is a border? Any study of national borders needs to start with the recognition that they are thoroughly ideological. While they are presented as filters, sorting people into desirable and non-desirable, skilled and unskilled, genuine and bogus, worker, wife, refugee, etc., national borders are better analyzed as moulds, as attempts to create certain types of subjects and subjectivities. Thus borders are productive and generative. They place people in new types of power relations with others and they impart particular kinds of subjectivities. Borders, then, are the mark of a particular kind of relationship, one based on deep divisions and inequalities between people who are given varying national statuses. It is important to recognize that this has far-reaching implications and is not simply restricted to the event of crossing a territorial border.

If not only territorial, where is a border? Borders are not fixed, even though their work is all about fixing, categorizing, and setting people in new relations of power. As Mae Ngai carefully details, borders are not only territorially drawn: they inevitably are inscribed "inside" as well as "outside" of any given national state. (6) Indeed, Etienne Balibar contends that borders exist not only "at the edge of the territory, marking the point where it ends" but "have been transported into the middle of political space." (7) Borders follow people and surround them as they try to access paid labour, welfare benefits, health, labour protections, education, civil associations, and justice. Those who are given a subordinated status by the state, such as "temporary foreign worker," typically do not have the right to change employer or type of employment, a right that "citizens" of liberal democracies now take for granted. Those who are deemed "illegal" are vulnerable to being reported by employers, landlords, police, the concerned public, and even "friends." Breaking the regulations and laws governing entry, residence, and access to work and services can result in detention and deportation. Michael Walzer's fear of "a thousand petty fortresses" that he predicted would attend a borderless world is already being realized, though the barriers pass largely unnoticed by citizens, who take access across them for granted. (8)

Nevertheless, despite their assumption of free passage...

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