Reflections on Borders and Crossings

On Borders Border Crossings




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.




Border Security, Immigration, Sovereignty, Refugees, Cosmopolitanism