It has become a bit of a cliché in movies, TV shows, games, etc. when in or around some walled off or secure location to suggest, “what if it was not meant to keep us out, but to keep something in”. The Flood in Halo, for some reason, is the first that comes to mind. I recently finished reading Against the Grain by James C. Scott about the earliest history of what we would now call “States”, the beginnings of “civilisation”. When we think of walls and borders, it’s usually in relation to keeping things or people out. But it has the inverse effect too – borders keep us in thrall to the State.
The irony of writing about open borders, a utopian erasure of arbitrary and dangerous lines that contain us in little manageable regions, during a global pandemic where the closure of borders has saved my country – Australia – and others from the brunt of the virus has not escaped me. In fact, one could argue that quarantine and stymying the spread of disease is one legitimate reason to enforce (at least temporarily) borders around the affected region. But for the sake of this piece, let’s pretend anything worthwhile and optimistic will come of humankind’s existence and the idea is worth pondering.
On land, there is a quote used by Simon Winchester in his book, Land:
“The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: ‘Do not listen to this imposter. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!'”Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Reading Against the Grain now, it seems clear that some, perhaps many, did take this stance and act upon it. States did not just spring out of nowhere, and for millennia, more often than not, they “collapsed” fairly quickly. There are countless reasons these early attempts at establishing a ruler, a hierarchy, failed, but they usually led to the same results – the decentralisation of power and, often, the dispersal of the population (sometimes, although it is almost impossible to determine how frequent it was, epidemics even wiped-out entire polities).
In time, advances in statecraft and control of populations have led to their current hegemony as centres of power. As Scott points out, while coercion, including slavery, of peoples’ labour was not an invention or product of the State, there has not been a single State entity that has existed without such exploitation. The term domestication is usually applied to animals or tools (including fire and other natural phenomena), but it can equally be applied to us, as State subjects and as workers.
This is most obvious in the case of slavery, where one is literally owned and, to whatever degree the owner sees fit, penned up. While this type of slavery certainly still exists today, the definition of modern slavery is much broader, not to mention the scourge of wage slavery from a socialist viewpoint. Today we may not (always) have immediate physical barriers and chains, we are still severely restricted and bound to the powers that be.
Historically, the containment of subjects within ancient polities was to exploit their labour. They produced the surplus food, resources and commodities which the ruling elite of the day could tax and exploit for their benefit. Typically this involved grain – without grain of some sort, States did not seem to exist as we know them. This was not a voluntary position, usually involving some form of coercion or force, the imposition of hierarchical structures.
Scott notes that the term “collapse” in relation to early States or Empires was usually only a collapse of the imposed order of the elites, with power usually decentralising into smaller segments and the populations dispersing. Unless it was the result of warfare – the aim of which was more about resources than actually killing rivals – or disease, a “collapse” was usually a liberating event.
A concentrated population is easier to control, and with the notion of the “nation state”, with lines carved – often by global hegemons – to separate people and land, many (at least in the West) view this as just common sense. It’s always been like this, that’s just how the system works. The existence of the system is proof that it is true and justifiable
But it isn’t.
It may have been like this for some time now, but those lines were drawn by men, those systems and institutions designed by them, for their own purposes. Some clear examples of this is the Middle East, or the border between India and Pakistan that Britain whipped up quickly to spark as much tension and violence as possible. The manufactured and arbitrary nature of these borders is also clear in the rejections of them, with the Kurds and Kashmiri respectively attempting to assert some form of autonomy in amongst the chaos.
The case of the Kurds is perhaps the most enlightening for this piece. The region they inhabit crosses a few different borders, and the political ideology behind it, democratic confederalism, appears to be a genuine attempt at an almost anarchist style of organisation and governance. Abdullah Öcalan, the man behind it and a political prisoner in Turkey for his troubles, seems to see no need for borders or the nation State, preferring total freedom of movement and decentralised power in the hands of communities.
While we can (under normal circumstances), say, go to another country as a tourist or even to work, the requirements, conditions, and restrictions (which can vary greatly) are heavily controlled and regulated by the State. Free movement and autonomy, the right to land we all inhabit, as expressed by Öcalan and Rousseau, does not exist. State power requires borders to maintain its rule, its control over their populations and their labour. It should be noted that these same restrictions are not imposed on private capital, for obvious reasons. It’s harder to control that way.
To realise a truly free and open world without borders, then, necessitates the abolition of the State. It is the State that benefits from the existence of borders, and the rights and liberties of the people suffer for it.
Perhaps it is too much to hope this will occur before millions of climate refugees come to our shores.
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