By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
A friend and I were walking home after a night of discussions and he told me about a student he had who had tried to convince him of the future borderless world that was just around the corner. Like many college students in the West, she believed there shouldn’t be national borders. Nation-states were an anachronism, as Tony Judt and others have said in the past. The future world would be borderless, and people would find alternative methods of membership in society besides the state-citizen relationship.
A lot of this indulgence of utopian concepts is rooted in concepts of international socialism that are more than a century old. But their pedigree and the fact that they were a dismal failure in the 20th century as millions were genocided and killed despite fantasies of “borderless world”, has not dulled their attraction. John Kerry muddled into this issue at an address on May 6 at Northeastern University. “You’re about to graduate into a complex and borderless world. You heard President Aoun talk in his description about the view from space,” he said. The view from space is, of course, borderless. Taz Loomans wrote about how maps can encourage us to envision the borderless future by simply erasing national borders.
Parag Khanna lectured about how “our world is increasingly connected and political borders matter less and less.” The commentator said “I’ve been traveling since I was born…We spent a lot of time traveling to other countries, and then I made a career out of it.” This sentiment of living beyond borders is expressed by many of the people who support this idea. They live beyond borders, so therefore others could follow suit, no? Some others do follow suit, such as the millions of refugees moving across borders. One story talks about Afghans who make their way to Europe. I met some of them at an abandoned train station on the Serbia-Hungary border. Were they truly transnational and borderless though? Yu can read many comments about how “no one is illegal“, there are no illegal immigrants, just undocumented migrants. Refugees. Asylum seekers.
Elizabeth Schulte writes that “The fact is that borders only matter to the U.S. ruling class insofar as they help bolster its rule…national borders are made by and for the rich and powerful–to enforce or ignore at their will.” She quotes Marx and Engels in 1848 claiming that the need for markets and capital were pushing the “bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.” Schulte projects back on a 19th century argument about capitalism and colonialism, an issue facing the world today; “This is true everywhere in the world where poor or persecuted people flee their native countries in search for better lives.”
There is a strange contradiction here. John Kerry spoke about a borderless world and connected it to globalization and commerce. Jobs would be global. Companies would be global. “You are entering a borderless world” in terms of employment and travel. But Marx and Engels were actually complaining about predatory markets and wealthy westerners traveling the world to exploit them.
So when they talk about a borderless world, what do they mean? When we hear stories about people who grew up internationally and who say they don’t want to be bounded by the nation state, its primarily a story of wealth and privilege. More often than not, it is white privilege. College students in the West have the privilege to be international because they are wealthy. They work in the Peace Corps or for an NGO that “saves Africans”, and they jet off to foreign destinations easily in a borderless world, because they are wealthy. At the bottom end of the borderless world are migrants, who cross borders, as Schulte says, for want of a better life.
Interviewed on France24 about the British referendum to leave the EU, Oxford star-academic Theodore Zeldin said that many people have identities today that put the nation-state after other loyalties. They are more loyal to a fooball (futball, soccer) team than to a state. Perhaps they are more loyal to a brand, or adherents of the Kardashians.
There is no doubt that popular culture and the nature of the European nation state has led to a decline in national identity. There are no wars to be fought, mostly, and nothing to be particularly loyal to. Jokes about Brexit had more to do with food, than nationalism. “We’ll lose French wine if we vote to leave,” was the concept. So in that sense people are more loyal to wine than to state. Israeli writer Etger Keret says he’s not pro-Israel, he’s “ambi-Israel”, because why should one be so loyal to “complex states”, one cannot simply be “pro.” He writes “I love my wife, but I’m not ‘pro-wife,’ especially when she’s unjustly berating me.” You’d think in most cultures in the world, perhaps outside the West, love for the wife and family would be a given, being pro-wife would be normal, but the privilege of not needing to be pro-wife, like pro-[my country], comes with the territory of the wealth and privilege of the modern world.
The privilege to be relatively ambivalent about national borders tends to come from those who are the most privileged by having them. Those who support a borderless world are more likely to live in gated communities, behind walls, behind security, in nice apartments in the city, and belong to clubs, nepotistic networks and organizations that exclude others. For them the world of borders is different, it’s one of wealth and privilege.
Traveling in a globalized world from one five star hotel to another, from one SUV of an NGO to the SUV of another, is the privileged of the borderless. Anyone who has spent time in a country that has many “internationals” or “expats” or NGO workers living off local poverty, has seen a borderless world, inside a powerful iron clique. At the cocktail reception in the fancy hotel or the consulate party, it is borderless. People from all over the EU, Canada and the US, the wealthier, white, privileged world, meet with one another, with a sprinkling of the elites from other continents.
Their world has no national borders, but the borders to it are far higher than national borders. A Mexican migrant, or an Afghan migrant, might be able to make it to the US or Europe, but making it into the wealthy elite’s bordered world is impossible. So when we speak about “borderless” we speak about erecting a different kind of border. There is the border around nepotism. That is the border of privilege and family connections where the Judge hires the cousin of the district attorney, whose wife sits on the board of an NGO that receives state money from the district attorney’s father in law, whose brother runs PR for a major concrete company, whose son has got a new job at a think tank at the university, a university who has a building named after the concrete company, and whose president hires the daughter of the father-in-law as a new associate professor, whose own son has a column at the local paper, which supports the attorney general and the concrete company’s desire for new concessions.
Now let’s take the Afghan migrant and the Mexican immigrant. Borderless world, right? So how do they get accepted into this border? Their best chance is to wash dishes for this elite, to clean the toilets or the gardens. Surely all the children of the nepotistic borderless elite described above like “international socialism.” But how does that apply in real life?
The privilege and wealth of being the bordered borderless, means that the responsibility for guaranteeing the safety of people in a state, which borders are one manifestation of, don’t exist. When Islamic State, which is a truly borderless manifestation, received 50,000 volunteers from all over the world, and conquered parts of two countries, the borderless world advocates, in the privileged bubble, would have no interest in saving the victims of this other borderless tyranny. Do Yazidis get entrance to the borderless utopia? Who saves them from being sold into slavery? Which white privileged people, the college students relaxing and talking “borderless” come to their aid?
Because the first to be sacrificed in the “borderless” world are the weakest, the minorities, those massacred and murdered by aggressive, chauvinist, genociders. At what point do the borderless privileged step in to defend the weak from being massacred? Behind the walls of gated communities and acceptance committees, security guards at the hotel, it’s easy to say “borderless”, because o the privilege the borders they have erected give them.
Borders are not the end all perfect solution to the world. Many national borders have become an ethnocratic cage for minorities, especially in the era of the national state. Whether it is the Malay-first policy or Saddam’s efforts at ethnic cleansing of Kurds, the national state did and continues to do terrible harm to people. But abolishing borders doesn’t help those people. Supporting their rights helps them.
Don’t accept “borderless” world concepts from people who live in a very bordered world and who have gained much from the privilege of it. European colonialism drew many of the faulty national borders in the world, and now the intellectuals say “abolish them”, to people who would like first to have the rights and privileges of Europeans to manage their own destiny and create their own wealthy elites. The jet-set elite of the Gulf countries who may tell you at Oxford that they believe in a “borderless” world, don’t seem to apply that to their own monarchies where the citizens make up 10% of the country, and the masses of poor have little rights. Borderless? You mean, for you. Not for the toilers, for the poor, for those you treat as non-citizens?