📰 J. Leif, No Citizens: Abolishing Borders Beyond the Nation-State
Full Title: J. Leif, No Citizens: Abolishing Borders Beyond the Nation-State
The very existence of borders is one of the founding injustices of this world.
Borders and citizenship define the “outside” against which statist conceptions of identity are always contrasted.
Anarchists, then, have two easy angles from which to think about borders. Firstly, the freedom we are working toward necessarily includes freedom of mobility. Secondly, national borders — as constitutive elements of the state — are a powerful target for attack, sites where the impossibility of the nation-state is constantly visible, where migrants and others are constantly undermining state power.
When we say we’re against borders, we of course mean that we oppose all of this – that we work against the whole apparatus that divides those inside a line from those outside it.
However, our responses to nation-state borders too often propose urban, local, or regional arrangements that recreate the problem at different scales. In contrast, our opposition to borders must be firmly cosmopolitan in the truest sense of the word: Working in opposition to legalized belonging, and in favor of free association and the right to mobility. Anarchists need a real critique of borders at all scales.
Some greek anarchists recently coined a phrase that’s worth considering from two angles: All Cops Are Borders.
Nevertheless, it’s easy to see that the exile inherent in our vast prison system draws a boundary, legally and geographically isolating a large (and disproportionately black and brown) population from their friends and loved ones. In the end, both deportation and mass incarceration put specific populations on the wrong side of a fence.
It’s at this point that we can point to an idea about borders that many people should be able to understand intuitively: To understand the workings of power across space, we need no more than to look at the direction the barbed wire faces.
While fencing along the southern border of the United States faces outward, for the supposed protection of the citizens residing on the inside and against threats originating outside state territorial boundaries, we should also recognize a border in the razor wire surrounding thousands of prison facilities nationwide.
Abolitionist language commonly refers to inside-outside solidarity between those “inside” prisons and those “on the outside” in the free(er) space created for citizens, but we can also think of prisons as pockets of the “outside” scattered across state territory.
Prisons are not, after all, “in” the society guarded by the state: Rather, they are precisely the places the state uses to exclude those whose existence challenges the order of law and capitalist property. Prison walls serve to keep those “outside the law” outside society.
To speak even more generally, it might be possible to map a cohesive topology of the fence that starkly divides “inside” from “out,” including not only national borders and prisons, but also the less noticeable but no less important architectural features of everyday life, from the gated community (used to isolate an island of wealth from surrounding poverty) to the fence in my own city that surrounds a public housing project, isolating it from the whiter, wealthier neighborhood that surrounds it. In each of these cases, the fence has a clear and visible direction: Keeping “outsiders” out of the world constructed by citizenship.
While the intensities of enforcement differ, it’s useful to think of borders not as bright, clearly defined lines on maps dividing state territories, but rather closer to a set of nested and interlocking fractal spaces that replicates similar logics through space across multiple scales.
In this world, where all cops are borders, and spaces are criss-crossed by a fractal archipelago of visible and invisible fences, it is the responsibility of those of us on both sides of them to tear them all down, brick by brick.
Anti-border work at multiple scales is a core strategic commitment for anarchist organizing.
In statist political theory, citizenship is largely seen as an unalloyed positive: To be a citizen is to inhabit shared identity that brings “us” together, the foundation of the supposed “social contract,” a set of mutual responsibilities, or even something that has been envisioned as close to anarchist concepts of affinity. Unlike affinity, however, the image of citizenship is impossible without an “outside” for citizens to define themselves against: Those who do not share the same state, those who are not covered by or who decide not to abide by the fiction of a “social contract” based on their own exploitation, or those who have not been considered human by those who defined citizenship and its exclusions.
The fact is, it’s not as easy as it should be to think about communities that are not based on a fundamental exclusion.
Regardless of how cosmopolitan our intentions, the logic of our liberatory strategies are often informed by localism, regionalism, and the construction of (exclusive) community. Despite their attraction and momentary usefulness, these concepts tend to replicate the hierarchies of citizenship, in which the identity of those “inside” a community, collective, commune, or organization is defined through the exclusion of those on the outside.
Anarchists have been organizing along the lines of free association based on affinity for centuries. This is a well-worn concept, but it is also one that offers a powerful critique of the impulse to build and defend a stable, inflexible, and centralized organization which is to be defended against “outsiders” who can be assumed to have less stake in the piece of conceptual, cultural, or physical space occupied by a given project.
By focusing not on the valuation of group-members and devaluation of non-members, but rather on a simple question of affinity (or not) to the group’s common aim, the principle of affinity places limits on the ability of an inside-outside hierarchy to form.
Ideally, a focus on specific affinities allows organizing to function across difference, and in fact become stronger through diversity. Nevertheless, our organizing often and regrettably fails to live up to these principles.
Translation, undertaken as work across boundaries, is an invaluable tool in undermining both the logic of the border in its physical and political manifestations.
Translation in the sense we should strive for is the kind of messy communication that happens when we work together, attempting to understand and make ourselves understood, building a new language together in the process.
While we can only work from the positions we occupy – region, neighborhood, identity, or community – it is crucial to avoid turning to reactive, reactionary localism at any scale. When we build local communes, we can’t allow the logic of the border to seep into our organizing, positioning the commune in opposition to outsiders.