Whose 'no borders'? Achieving border liberalization for the right reasons.

Author:Gill, Nick


Free population movement promises greater human liberties and improved economic performance. Inevitably, however, there are critics. Most vocally, the conservative Right points towards the erosion of Western welfare systems, the large migratory movements that a No Borders policy may precipitate, and the lowering of living standards in rich countries to approximate those in poor countries. This paper argues that, although the claims of the Right are often exaggerated, these objections have served to paste over important differences between advocates of No Borders, producing some unlikely bedfellows in opposition to conservative arguments. In particular, an uncomfortable conflation between liberal and Left-wing ideology has emerged as a result of the specific discursive strategy of Right-wing commentators to obfuscate distinctions between these ideological stances. After outlining the arguments of the Right for context, this paper responds to this conflation by distancing a Left-wing No Borders position from a free-market liberal No Borders position. It does this by using Left-wing arguments to criticize liberal No Borders ideology, and concludes by suggesting some key features of a Left-wing No Borders position.


La liberte de mouvement des populations promet un accroissement des libertes publiques et une amelioration des performances economiques. Inevitablement, des critiques se font entendre. L'un des plus bruyants, la droite conservatrice, craint l'erosion des mecanismes de protection sociale mis en place dans les societes occidentales, les grands mouvements migratoires qu'une politique No Border pourrait precipiter et le rabaissement du niveau de vie dans les pays nantis vers celui des pays pauvres. Bien que les affirmations de la droite soient souvent exagerees, le present article soutient qu'en servant a masquer d'importantes differences entre les partisans No Border, ces objections ont suscite d'etranges oppositions aux arguments conservateurs. Un assemblage particulierement inconfortable entre l'ideologie liberale et gauchiste est apparu a cause de la facon dont les commentateurs de droite brouillent les distinctions entre ces positions ideologiques. Apres une mise en contexte rappelant les arguments de la droite, l'auteur repond a cet enchevetrement en distinguant la position No Border de la gauche de celle du liberalisme economique. L'auteur se sert des arguments de la gauche pour critiquer l'ideologie liberale No Border et suggere, en conclusion, quelques tactiques susceptibles de rehausser la position No Border gauchiste.


This paper examines three positions on the No Borders debate. First, it reviews the arguments of what are called here "Right-wing Conservatives." These commentators are generally suspicious of migration, often on the basis of arguments about resource depletion in terms of jobs, welfare benefits, and space, or alternatively on the basis of "national identity" being undermined. These commentators are, of course, not a homogeneous group and the views I present in what follows are necessarily somewhat general. The second position on No Borders is in disagreement with the first on the basis that the economic gains available through increased migration outweigh the costs and are often underestimated. This school typically draws upon notions of economic efficiency to demonstrate their case: borders are an impediment to the functioning of a free market, so their arguments go, and so we can label this school "liberal." Again, liberal commentators are in reality a diverse group, so a caveat that the characterization of this group is a generalization is necessary.

Notwithstanding this caveat, this school would argue that various parties gain from migration, including migrants themselves, sending countries, and receiving countries. Because the liberal school is often in conversation with the conservative Right, however, the gains to receiving communities are frequently foregrounded, since the conservative Right is most interested in the fortunes of this group. A third position is that of Left-wing commentators. A Leftwing ideology does not immediately produce a position for or against No Borders. Capitalism is served by the immobility of the working class, but could just as well be served by its mobility. There are therefore some Left-wing advocates who would argue against a No Borders position on the basis that borders protect would-be migrants from competition with each other. In the spirit of this special issue, however, I set out to outline the features of a Left-wing No Borders position, in relation to and in distinction from a liberal No Borders position. Again, the complexity of the Left means that this aspiration is bound to generalize, and it is for this reason that I offer no more than what I will call "suggestions" about what that position would look like in the conclusion of the essay.

This project of defining what a Left-wing No Borders position would look like has become necessary because the conservative Right tends to conflate Left-wing and liberal positions, which can cause confusion on the Left. Indeed, it is clear that some elements of the conservative Right set out to achieve such a conflation. Clarifying points of difference between a Left-wing approach and a liberal approach, then, can be seen as an attempt to resist the strategic discursive strategies of the conservative Right that would disempower both the Left and the No Borders lobby by making it unclear how they relate to each other. The project is also attractive from the point of view of its radical potential: the No Borders lobby is anti-capitalist, anti-statist, and anti-nationalist, and the Left could benefit by articulating its support of this movement in a way that is commensurate with its principles: this is the objective of this paper.

The first section will examine the way the conservative Right conflates liberal and Left-wing approaches. The second section addresses the arguments of the conservative Right directly, arguing that the range of reasons given by Right-wing commentators to be suspicious of migration are often exaggerated and ill-thought-through. In a similar vein, the third section goes on to outline some of the advantages--ethical, economic, and political--that might be available through a No Borders position. The fourth section, however, begins with the observation that economic arguments in favour of migration in particular are very different from principled ethical or ideological stances. In particular, this section criticizes the liberal arguments that have been given in favour of more open borders. The way these arguments have been framed countenances an instrumental view of migrants and their labour, which is antithetical to an ethically and ideologically informed Left-wing approach. To be clear, it is therefore the intention of the paper to argue both against the arguments given for tighter borders by Rightwing commentators, and against the largely economic arguments given for looser borders by liberais. The concluding section outlines the characteristics of a third position, a Left-wing No Borders stance, that seeks to avoid the exaggerations and nationalism of the conservative Right but yet also seeks to avoid the market-based instrumentalism of the liberal school. The definition of a Left-wing No Borders position is crucial if the Left is to support No Borders without being conflated with liberal arguments that would exploit, rather than protect, the international working class.

The Conflation of Liberal and Left-Wing Ideology by the Conservative Right

In this section I indicate how the conservative right has sought to conflate liberal and Left-wing positions in its characterization of debates about migration. This sets the scene for subsequent sections in which ! argue against this conflation.

The No Borders campaign is striking fear into the hearts of conservatives. In alarmist tones, Hawkins and Anderson (1) recount the gathering organization and momentum of a political movement that they call the "Open Borders Lobby." (2) In the foreword to their book, Horowitz describes their impact as follows:

America's borders have been under assault for forty years with consequences that are measurable and disturbing. The assault has been led by an Open Borders lobby that is sophisticated and powerful. Many of its components, moreover, have a history of antagonism to American purposes and a record of active support for America's enemies. Its funders are multi-billion dollar entities, who are unaccountable and unscrutinized. (3) From the perspective of British activists at least, the beliefs of Right-wing conservatives in the international organization, influence, and coordination of the Open Borders lobby are both satisfying and risible. On the one hand, it is bracing to think that years of campaigning against false imprisonment, arbitrary and unlawful detention, and inhumane border control practices may be reaping dividends through the formulation of international activism against border control. On the other hand, however, it is abundantly clear that the alarmism of the Right is unwarranted and that the British No Borders movement at least remains dispersed, disaggregated, embryonic, out-numbered, underfunded, and undersupported. The reality, as British radical activists and scholars know only too well, is that the image of No Borders as a coherent and organized international entity that commands billions of dollars in support of its lobbying activities is the stuff of conservative dystopian nightmares, and little more. The splintering, fracturing, and ideological disunity of the radical Left, and the ambiguity of its relationship to the No Borders lobby, rules out such cogency and influence. (4)

Two points emerge from the way in which conservatives discuss the No Borders campaign, however. First, a characteristic of the way in which conservatives...

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