Borders of the Mind: The uneasy politics of national frontiers and why it’s not always best to forever be in control


Don Flynn- MRN

Don Flynn- MRN

Two recent books look at what states do to people at their borders and how this often reflects what they do to others on their territory. Take note: Police regimes at national frontiers have a disturbing tendency to become police regimes over everyone…

The sinister injunction that one should be careful of what you wish for, on account of the possibility that it might come true, seems to have particular application to those who would like to see the UK ‘regain control of its borders.’

Just putting it in that way has the ring of heightened tensions, confrontation, and even battle about it and of course, disagreements over borders are often the very things that wars are fought over. Who is to say that a western Europe that rediscovers its borders after seventy years of encouraging their regular and routine transgression won’t once again become a very dangerous place?

Two recently published books set out graphic examples of what happens when national states stoke up the stake they have in the borders business. The continuum that runs from huge inconvenience through to terrible suffering for those who hope to cross these frontiers is just one part of the story. Another, more mundane, consequence is the unproductive expenditure in wire and concrete fences that meander through deserts without any point other than to impede human passage.

Add to this the escalating cost that comes from the staff of border police bureaucracy with the need for evermore gee-whiz biometric and scanning technologies and we get a sense of the size of the investment involved in regaining control of ‘our’ borders, almost all of which is for the singular purpose of stopping people lead the perfectly ordinary lives they choose for themselves.

Matthew Carr begins his account of what borders have come to mean to the political and social life of Europe with a potted history of the rise of borders. Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent makes the important point that national frontiers are better indicators of how power is exercised rather than a statement about physical borders and boundaries. The presence of two Spanish cities, Ceuta and Melilla, on the African continent are good examples of the ways in which borders can depart altogether from geography and become strange and perverse factors in the determination of national interest.

The entity we have come to call Schengenland is another variant on the same theme. This time a group of states decided to pool their claim for territorial sovereignty, with the final say on who crosses their immediate national frontiers being traded for influence over immigration procedures at more distant borders. Carr explores the consequences of this arrangement through a set of reports on what the Schengen borders mean for the people out on the perimeter region – a vast area tthat takes in the Spanish enclaves in Africa, the movement of traffic across the Mediterranean, the River Evros border between Greece and Turkey, as well the French side of the English Channel.

It is a territory in which lives are routinely disrupted by police regimes and criminal enterprises which tug and pull and Carr provides accounts of the prolonged agonies and despair of the people who are trapped in the border regions. But Schengenland produces outcomes that extend beyond misery at its outer edges. He quotes the work of Italian political scientist Sandro Mezzadra for whom border control acquires its real force as much over the lives of those who are admitted into fortress Europe as those who are excluded.

Mezzadra talks of a ‘post-national border’ regime which is based on the ‘continuous undoing and re-composing of borders and boundaries’. Detached from any commonsense notion of what a border might be – coastline, mountain range, river, etc – these ‘deterritorialised’ borders become the sites of ‘battles for justice’ both within and at the edges of the countries which make use of their jurisdiction.

Rich and Poor
Jeremy Harding covers similar ground in his book, Border Vigils: Keeping Migrants Out of the Rich World, though extending his inquiry beyond Europe and its externalised borders to look at the situation on the US-Mexican border. A lot of the material in these pages appeared in slightly different form in the London Review of Books back in the 1990s. As such it is slightly behind Carr’s more recent dispatches which have all the currency of Europe’s migration dilemmas in the years which followed the catastrophic plunge into recession in 2008, but the narrative of the virtuality of modern borders, and the constitution of the migrant, in ‘good’ and ‘bad’ varieties, through the abstractions of states and their bureaucracies is similar.

Harding considers the ways in which the borders between the rich and the poor world, in the mainstream literature of migration studies viewed as economic ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors has been broken down by the globalisation of ideas, communication and cultures. Borders and boundaries have been crossed which also have less relationship to space and place. Because they concern ideas and hopes there is no chance that can be policed through the checking of documents or even fingerprints biometric iris scans. Attempts by the rich world to control the movement of people from the poor are the new triggers for the sense of injustice which for previous generations prompted resistance to slavery and colonialism. Just as those institutions fell, then so might borders in the future.

Yet neither Carr or Harding seem to take the view that national frontiers might succumb at any time soon to the challenge of the ‘No Borders’ movements which have appeared across Europe and the US. There remains one space where the boundaries of nation states still appear to mark out a space which is not jus there for the vindictive purpose of denying rights to the poor.

In the developed countries the doctrine of welfarism has required the constitution of territories of finite extent and controllable populations which are prepared abide by rules upholding free markets and the prerogatives of the middle class property owning democracy. It is true that the deals done between national capitalisms and the state during the past century have delivered enviably high standards of welfare and social security. But this seems to be in jeopardy as capitalism becomes less national and more inclined to build its operation on the foundations of globalisation.

Yet for millions of citizens the borders of the country still coincide with the hope of social security ‘from the cradle to the grave’ which was the promise of the post-war settlement. With this frame still in place it is not surprising that that the movement of migrants across national frontiers can be directly interpreted into threats to the existence of the welfare state itself.

The efforts of Carr and Harding to take the issue of what we do to people at the borders of our countries as the starting point of a consideration of what sort of people we are coming to be to ourselves is the beginning of an important discussion. As the casual cruelty of the regime migrants and refugees are subjected to at our borders segues in to the harshness of the treatment now meted out to the disadvantaged poor who live with us as fellow citizens, the prospect of an even more restrictive regime being imposed at the frontiers of the state cannot be dismissed as something that applies only to ‘them’. Those of us who count as ‘us’ should wake up to the fact that we are being thrown into the middle of the mix as well.


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