Reflections on Borders and Crossings

Credit: News Oresund - Oresundstag Malmo C 20120109 0024F, CC BY 2.0,

The train that crosses the Oresund from Copenhagen to Malmö was nearly at its destination. As it pulled into the first stop, the doors stayed closed; gendarmes boarded and proceeded to check documents. For locals, used to a half-hour ride, the commute has more than doubled in duration. For the unfortunates pulled off the train, the ordeal would continue. The checks, new and broadly unpopular in Malmö, respond to the hostile reaction against refugees from Swedes who live far from the area. Both Denmark and Sweden are parties to the Schengen Agreement (1985) which allows for the free movement of their citizens as if they were in a single country. There are no checks on the way to Copenhagen.

At first sight, the border guards who interrupt this Scandinavian commute look out of place. Their presence seems to run counter to a well-established trend toward European integration, closer links between peoples and places, connections fueled by commerce, the digital revolution, the deepening reach of the culture industry, and of course migrations on an apparently unprecedented scale. There is hardly a manufactured good whose components are made in one country. Overall, legal and technical barriers to trade have probably never been lower. Around the world, people “join” Facebook and there is hardly a migrant, at least in the Global North, who does not keep up with distant family and friends via WhatsApp. On the darker side, problems whose scope escapes the capacity of even the most powerful states, such as climate change and global pandemics, continue to grow. There is a sense in which the world system has become truly planetary. From this perspective, humanity has never come closer to realizing the cosmopolitan dreams of Enlightenment thinkers such as Kant or Condorcet.

Yet, borders persist. Crossings are likely to become more difficult.

Much to the surprise of globalization boosters and cosmopolitan theorists, border walls are becoming more common; so are immigration and travel restrictions. In the Global North, especially in the U.S. and the UK, inequalities of wealth and income are growing, so is precarity. Perhaps as a result, these countries now hear bigotry, xenophobia, and racism speak with much louder voices than they have in many years. From Britain to continental Europe to the United States, traditional liberal and social democratic parties have lost their traditional mass base to these voices. Conservative parties have either experienced similar losses or been taken over by nationalists, supremacists, and fundamentalists of various sorts.

Recent electoral contests have shown publics almost evenly split between urban “cosmopolitan" voters and rural and suburban nationalists drawn to movements and parties that fold legitimate grievances against neoliberalism into a discourse where immigrants and other minority groups are existential threats. The UK is poised to leave Europe, the United States sports a president who would unmake the global capitalist empire his own country has built, openly neo-fascist movements have acquired significant positions in government institutions from France to Poland, Turkey, and beyond. Their influence has been predicated on the promise of the closing of borders.

Borders persist as lines on the map. They depict the elements of the global system of states. In the real world, borders are sometimes imperceptible: nature crosses them and cares little about them. But, states can change this. The extant elements of the border wall between the United States and Mexico, for example, change ecosystems by disrupting the migratory patterns of land creatures and limiting their ranges. They do something similar to people. Many a way of life has been disrupted by borders. Take, for example, the Tohono O’odham people. Their ancestors inhabited the Sonora Desert long before the line was drawn in 1857. Since then, the conditions of life the Tohono O’odham face on each side of the border have differed, though they have not been good on either side. The militarization of this border over the last two decades has further disrupted their way of life. Should a wall be built, both their culture and their land will change beyond recognition.

The lines on the map represent the organization of political, economic, and cultural space. While people obviously find ways of crossing them, these lines have an impact on their ability to raise claims, on their access to resources, and even on their minds, for borders shape identities. Borders have served to create nations and to delimit horizons of possibility. In the best of circumstances, where the rule of law exists and inclusive norms prevail, they are the physical manifestation of political membership and can mark a place of refuge, as the Canadian border was for U.S. dissenters in the 1960s. Borders also help to organize markets by establishing the rules of the commercial game and the place where these rules end. They may also consolidate cultures and even protect cultural patrimony.

This was not always the case. Medieval maps did not show lines. The effort to demarcate precisely the reach of sovereign authority began with the European treaties of the 16th Century, at the dawn of the modern system of states. Early on, borders were unguarded. Of course, some peoples, most notably the Jews, were on occasion expelled from one realm or even invited into another. Yet, passports were reserved for diplomats. Most individuals traveled and migrated without them. This, as the experience of the Romani people (“Gypsies”) since their arrival sometime in the Twelfth Century highlights, does not mean that European villagers welcomed outsiders. It simply illustrates that states were not concerned about immigrants. This anxiety arose only once the masses had become politically relevant in the aftermath of the French Revolution, once Rousseau’s ideas about popular sovereignty had gained traction, and once the technical capacity to organize and control border crossings made it possible to do so, toward the end of the 19th Century.

Capitalism was also born in early modern Europe. Merchants, bankers, and later industrialists needed the protection of states and the rationalization of property relations through legal systems. State-builders needed financing and revenue. Those able to foster capitalist accumulation grew strong. Thus, capitalism and the system of states came into being in a complex symbiotic relationship. But, capital strains at the borders: it seeks to “create a world in its own image” (Marx and Engels). While the Marxist proposition that workers have no country has remained doubtful, it is clear that capital does not. It is thus that a newly consolidated Spain created a vast mercantile empire in its quest for gold, territory, and, of course, souls for Christ. In the process, it destroyed long established ways of life while also inspiring many emulators.

Interestingly, these colonial projects would also inspire a new cosmopolitanism. In 1537, Fray Francisco de la Vitoria challenged the papal Doctrine of Discovery in the name of Christian cosmopolitanism. First, Vitoria held that the Earth itself was God’s gift to humanity. This meant that each of us had a right to visit and settle upon any part of the planet, a right to hospitality. This right also created the obligation not to harm or disturb earlier inhabitants. Thus, he argued against the imperial project: Christians did not have a right to convert forcefully or to colonize the Amerindians, only a right as individuals to visit peacefully and to trade freely. Unfortunately, in practice, the argument had already been settled. Yet, the claim that cosmopolitan justice would be best served by trade, survived to make its way into the more progressive ideals of the Enlightenment.

Indeed, Enlightenment thinkers such as Kant, Smith, and Condorcet argued against colonialism and slavery, proposing instead a doctrine of free trade. At the time, states without border guards did limit the movement of goods. Early liberal thinkers proposed that peace, justice, and comity would be best served by trade because it gave people a material interest in peace. The idea has persisted into our time: it was the central argument for what grew into the European Union. It is also one of the arguments advanced in support of the current bout of capitalist globalization.

The historical record, however, is much more complex. On more than one occasion, it has taken more than cheap commodities to bring down walls. Local producers, small agriculturalists, workers, and even capitalists often stand to lose from freely moving goods, people, and capital. The very dynamism of self-regulating markets, especially markets in land, labor, and money, is deeply disruptive even in the Global North. Capital reels at borders, but benefits from differential taxation schemes. Much as borders, global capitalism is ambivalent: it has raised millions out of poverty; it has deeply undermined ways of life, and increased economic, ecological, and political insecurity. Borders aim to contain these changes, but they mostly succeed in rechanneling them.

In the end, the commute over the Oresund Bridge may return to normal, or it may not. Both globalization and the borders upon which it is built are historical products which have come to define modern civilization. But no civilization is eternal. The future of this one will likely involve borders and crossings because these are crucial aspects of its political, economic, and cultural organization.



A common theme in your essays was the shift from the border as a line to the border as a zone. What sort of impact do you see this shift having not only on the world at large, but specifically on border communities?

In my view, borderlands have existed for a long time. I am thinking of places where peoples meet, so the category would include not only those located around modern borders, but more generally ports, and posts of extraction and exchange. One thinks, in this respect, of the Athenian Piraeus where peoples from the Mediterranean met. It is not an accident that Plato’s Republic begins with Socrates leaving a festival in the Piraeus, where the unreflected assumptions of Athenians were tested. In the early modern era, European powers secured agreements from host empires to such places as Bombay/Mumbai, Macau, and Hong Kong. They established locales where peoples might mingle under controlled conditions. These borderlands, no less than contemporary ones, were sui generis: they were neither a part of their hinterlands nor of a foreign state—at least not in their cultural lives. More recently, a handful of cities—some call them “global cities”—have emerged a nodes of capitalist globalization: they too are in their host countries but not really of them—the key examples would be London, New York, Singapore, Hong Kong (again), Singapore, Dubai, etc. Such places have long perceived themselves, and been perceived in their own nations, as distinct, if not quite alien. They are sites of diversity and discomfort.

More modern is the effort to rationalize borders, an effort represented by lines on the map, walls, passports, and border guards. The goal, as I believe both my interlocutors propose, is to delimit the range of state power and, more importantly, of the laws and moral principles of the state. Often, as in the case of Copenhagen-Malmö or El Paso-Ciudad Juarez, the lines run across the borderlands and aim to rationalize them, though success is often incomplete. Nor are such borderlands all the same: that running between the Gulf of Mexico and San Diego Bay is perhaps the longest stretch where the Global North and the Global South are directly in contact. The line creates and perpetuates very different realities. These are always in contention and unable to ignore each other. This matters for an answer to your question. The border guards who check papers on the train are not looking for Europeans or even Americans: they are looking for peoples from the Global South. The growing movement to build walls has many sources, including well-founded insecurities, but it is ultimately driven by frankly racist attitudes drafted in the service of authoritarian political and social elites.

Borderlands have always been the object of distrust and discomfort, if not fear. This was as true of the Athenians as it is of the “real Americans.” Xenophobia, fear of the stranger, is a common human emotion. Under conditions of uncertainty and fear, bigotry prospers and populations demand protection. Yet, borderlands are also centers of creativity, economic engines, and demographic cauldrons. As borders are militarized and fortified, people in the borderlands will be the first to suffer, but they will also be drivers of resistance even if, in the end, the outcome will depend on much larger forces. This is as true of European borderlands as of North American ones.

Do you think the closing and tightening of borders has an effect on national identities? What sort of long-term impact might this have?

On the face of it, it seems likely that closing borders and building walls deepens national identities. In a much different context, this might be said of the Great Wall of China. Ostensibly built to keep out the barbarians, it failed miserably as the Mongol, Manchu, and later Western invasions show. It did, however, succeed brilliantly at keeping in the Chinese. It would seem modern walls might do the same. Yet, there are tensions.

In the modern context, I think, the relationship between borders and national identities is best thought of as dialectical. National political identities are largely the creation of social and political elites working through states and literatures to combine elements which once might have been thought of as “strangers.” These identities, in turn, seem to call for ever clearer delimitations, yet cannot exist without an “other,” ideally an enemy. Looking at the situation in the Global North today, the demand for tightening of borders seems to originate with significant portions of the population, elements which feel threatened by a variety of forces and institutional changes beyond their control. In effect, at a time when the market-oriented policies associated with neoliberalism undermine social solidarity and fuel insecurity, while almost incomprehensible terrorist attacks fuel fear, certain forms of nationalism would seem to fill in a void. (I will say more about this in my response to your third question). States have responded with very visible security measures ranging from legal restrictions to empowered border and immigration authorities to walls. Interestingly, these measures add to our sense of vulnerability thereby facilitating a discourse of hunkering down against an existential threat. This threat is always external, even when it lives within “our” borders: the case of African Americans and the areas where they live is a very good example of this.

This is very dangerous to cosmopolitan values, human rights, and democracy: fear brings on greater tolerance for authoritarianism. Authoritarian political thinkers such as Carl Schmitt, a leading legal theorist of the Nazi regime, knew it. This is why, in his critique of liberalism and the very idea of human rights, he postulated that the central political distinction was that between friend and enemy, a distinction which only the sovereign was empowered to make. The discourse of the closing of borders is very much one about keeping out an existential threat, an enemy. By defining the terms in this manner, a sense of urgency is hypostatized and reasoned debate becomes, at best a luxury, at worst treason to the people of the state or the real “nation.” This is especially true when the “nation” may be conceived in integral or ethnic terms. In this case, a politics of identity inspired by real or perceived status losses may become a politics of national/racial revindication.

In short, then, the closing of borders is related to an enhanced defensive nationalism which, in turn, calls for further closings and, potentially, for the closing of political deliberation. 

For a brief moment in time, it seemed (particularly in Europe) that there was movement toward a more cosmopolitan ideal of borders.  Do you see a return to this in the future? What would it take for that shift to occur?

More than closing, I think we are witnessing movement and countermovement. Tendencies toward openness are facing off against those toward closing and protection, movement toward parochialism confronts cosmopolitanism. In fact, recent electoral outcomes in the Global North have shown population after population nearly evenly divided more or less along these lines.

To address this question, I think it is crucial that we focus on capitalism because it is at the core of the European project which after all began as a market for heavy industrial products. For this, I will borrow from the terminology of Karl Polanyi (The Great Transformation, 1944) who proposed that the modern era might be characterized by movement toward treating land, labor, and money as commodities in markets and countermovement toward protection from the vast insecurities associated with such markets. Polanyi held that, absent the type of protections associated with social and economic rights such as rent controls, universal healthcare and income protection, as well as capital controls, democratic republics were vulnerable to fascism or Communism. Polanyi’s observation, widely accepted toward the end of WWII (and reprised by a number of other authors), is helpful to our understanding of current trends.

It is well known that the European project, and particularly the EU, was inspired by the cosmopolitan ideas of Immanuel Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers: an enforceable international order would preserve peace and protect the rule of law at every level. This order would help to bring peace and prosperity to capitalist democracies. Less well-known is the fact that the European project was also inspired by the writings of Friedrich von Hayek (e.g., The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, orig. 1939). There, Hayek held that democratic politics, liable as they were to push states toward economic intervention, were a threat to freedom and (market) justice. His solution was to insulate economic policy as much as possible from political forces. International institutions would serve this purpose even better because they were more distant. The European Union, in effect, is so constituted as to foster both Kantian and Hayekian ideals and prescriptions. (The relationship between the ideas of these two thinkers is worthy of exploration, but this would take us beyond the current topic.)

On the one hand, the Council of Europe and the European Union have sought to foster a European identity beyond the nation-state, a limited cosmopolitanism, if you will. Associated with this project have been efforts to secure a common regime of civil and political rights with loose commitments to social rights. More narrowly, the EU has fostered a discourse of common membership and to a significant extent contributed both to narrowing economic and political differences between states as well as enhancing the rights of national minorities within them. Institutionally and juridically, the EU has inclined toward the harmonization of rules and processes which has included the all-too crucial issue of intra-European migration. This, on the one hand, has resulted in a growing “European” population (i.e., workers at all levels moving across borders), much of it self-consciously so, as well as raising the perception that local customs are being undermined.

On the other hand, EU institutions are widely characterized by a large “democratic deficit” that Hayek would appreciate. Only one of its bodies, the European Parliament, is directly responsible to citizens. It is also the body with the least power. At the other extreme, within the Euro zone, there is the European Central Bank which is all but impermeable to popular voices. Further, the common currency rules limit each state’s ability to employ counter-cyclical fiscal policies. In between lay such bodies as the European Council and the European Commission, both made up of state executive elites and overseeing a large “Eurocracy.” Beyond the Parliament, the discourse of technocrats committed to opening trade and capital markets largely prevails. Furthermore, these institutions, no less than most individual states, have also sought to integrate Europe within the larger framework of global neoliberal capitalism. It is thus that “Europe” has fostered not only the free movement of goods, services, and labor, but also the privatization of state activities and the reduction of social protection and consumption. Consequently, especially since the early 2000s, the distinctions between winners and losers have grown ever more evident.

Undoubtedly, the benefits of European Union have been widespread. Yet, these have especially accrued to large European capital and to the financial sector. Meanwhile, much as in other parts of the Global North, older industrial areas and cities have suffered from deindustrialization and structural unemployment. While not as dramatically as in the US, inequality of income and wealth has grown within all European societies. And both the advent of the financial crisis of 2007-2009 and the measures taken in response have served to highlight the contradictions of the European project. By and large, Europe embraced policies of austerity which affected disproportionately the less developed countries of Europe as well as the populations of deindustrialized areas. In many cases, and much as Polanyi might have predicted, these populations sought protection but the established parties which once might have taken up their cause (e.g. Labour, Socialists, and Social Democrats) had by then embraced the neoliberal project. This has made those populations receptive to the appeals of nationalist and often frankly racist and anti-Semitic movements and parties which blame the very real problems of Europe on immigrants, despised minorities, and more recently refugees.

Yet, this is not the whole story. It is important to keep in mind that these developments have also fed the activism of those who would defend human rights and cosmopolitan values: if the crisis eased a path of neo-fascist movements, it also opened the door for Indignados, Uncutters, and other progressive movements. What recent elections in Europe and North America have revealed is deeply divided populations. They also suggest that neoliberalism, with its policies and practices that enhance inequality and insecurity while undermining social solidarity, has lost legitimacy. The question is what direction the countermovement will take. The old is agonizing and the new has yet to be born. We can hope that cosmopolitan ideals and broadly democratic solutions to common problems will prevail, but there are no guarantees.

Michael Forman is Associate Professor of Social and Political Theory and Human Rights at the University of Washington, Tacoma. His research focuses on human rights, globalization, and the transformations of the state. He is the author of several articles on the enlightenment, liberalism, socialism, and critical theory. His first book, Nationalism and the International Labor Movement: The Idea of the Nation in Socialist and Anarchist Theory, received the Michael Harrington Award from the Caucus for a New Political Science (1999).