| Nationalism Borders and the State | MR Online Nationalism, Borders, and the State

Nationalism, borders, and the state

Originally published: Brooklyn Rail on September 2019 Issue (more by Brooklyn Rail)  |
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Last summer, protesters in Oregon set up a makeshift camp outside the Portland office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Similar encampments soon spread across the country, from Chicago to Los Angeles and New York.(1) Horrified by stories of family separation and images of children in detention centers along the southern border, a consequence of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy, activists demanded the agency immediately disband. A few scattered Democratic lawmakers (Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, along with seven House Representatives) took up the call to “abolish ICE” not long thereafter, to be joined by a crop of young progressives (Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ayanna Pressley) elected to Congress in November 2018.

Yet these politicians stop well short of advocating broader freedom of movement. While the “Abolish ICE” slogan is no doubt well-intentioned, it ought to raise a more fundamental question about the very existence of borders and their relation to the state. Despite her outspoken opposition to ICE, for example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has repeatedly emphasized that this does not entail opposition to national security in the abstract. “I do think we have to maintain a secure border,” she told reporters following her primary win, “to make sure people are in fact documented.”(2) One gets the sense Ocasio-Cortez would be more comfortable with some other agency answerable to the Justice Department; it is simply a matter of proper oversight. There is a definite disconnect, then, between left-wing activist types pushing for “open borders” and office-holding democratic socialists.

Recently, an article by Angela Nagle caused quite a stir in leftist circles. Challenging the wisdom of calls for “open borders” among anti-ICE protesters, she proceeded to argue that this demand was out of sync with the historic socialist view. “Karl Marx’s position on immigration would get him banished from [today’s] Left,” wrote Nagle in the pages of American Affairs, a prominent conservative journal.(3) (Part of the uproar doubtless stemmed from the venue, as well as the timing, coming as it did as the “migrant caravan” approached.) The piece occasioned a flurry of responses across the online Left,(4) in which she was variously denounced as a crypto-fascist and even a “Strasserite.” Here it is probably germane to bring up that Nagle by then had been a lightning rod of debate for many months, following the release of her 2017 bestseller Kill All Normies.(5) Some felt that her survey of the internet alt-right was too sympathetic to its subject matter, uncritically accepting right-wing talking points about political correctness. Nagle was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, they argued, a vicious reactionary posing as a leftist. For longtime detractors, her later “left case against open borders” just confirmed what they had been saying all along.Pavlos Roufos’s critical reflection on the backlash against Nagle’s book, which appeared in the Rail before the piece on borders came out, proved especially prescient. Users of the Libcom (“libertarian communist”) website had missed the mark by focusing on her more insensitive remarks, when the real problem was her reformism:

In the absence of collective struggles, the tendency towards cutthroat competition includes locking out competitors from the labor market… This process can take either national forms (anti-migrant) or local ones (misogyny and racism), if not both at once. But placing one’s hopes for overcoming such structural pressures on… a form of welfare redistribution which depends on closed borders and an unshakable belief in (national) economic growth identical with capitalist prosperity seems, if nothing else, naïve beyond recall. [Of course,] identity politics has amply demonstrated that it remains forever trapped within a particularism by definition hostile to producing common ground between struggles. However, the sham universalism the social-democratic Left promotes as an antidote [to this particularism] is still unjustifiably indifferent to its own shortcomings and historical trajectory.(6)

Roufos alone anticipated the conservative turn in Nagle’s thought toward closed borders; none of her other critics came close to making such a prediction. Contrary to those critics, this shift was not due to Nagle being some sort of surreptitious NazBol (National Bolshevism). Quite the opposite: on this particular issue she is a consistent social-democrat. What most fail to notice is that such narrowness is located well within the horizon of “social-democracy in one country.”(7)

Notwithstanding the platform where it was first published, or the interview she subsequently gave on Tucker Carlson Tonight, her reasoning in the piece on borders is indistinguishable from that of Bernie Sanders. The same goes for analogous left-wing figures like Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Sahra Wagenknecht in Germany.(8) Despite their almost identical outlook, these politicians have received little to no scrutiny from leftist media. Likewise Syriza in Greece, which got a pass from the U.S. social-democratic magazine Jacobin after forming a parliamentary bloc with an anti-migrant party in 2015.(9) Generally speaking, very few have asked why socialist reformers would bother to defend border controls. An answer may be sought in their economic nationalist worldview.

Jamie Merchant, writing in this magazine, defines left economic nationalism as “the idea of subordinating financial institutions to the national state by withdrawing or sheltering them from the world market.” This idea is founded on a curious nostalgia for the pre-globalized arrangement of labor versus capital, as if the last four decades of financialization could somehow be undone and the prior balance of social forces restored. Merchant identifies such “fantasies of secession” as a major ideological component of democratic-socialist political strategies over the last few decades. One can see this fantastic logic at work in reformists’ own stated reasons for their stance on immigration.

Ezra Klein inadvertently hit upon the issue during his conversation with Sanders for Vox in the run-up to the 2016 primaries. Klein assumed the Vermont senator would be on board with open borders. “Open borders?” Sanders incredulously shot back. “That’s a [right-wing] Koch brothers proposal, which says there is no United States… You’d be doing away with the concept of a nation-state. If you believe in a nation-state—that there’s some country called the United States, or the UK, or Denmark, or any other—you have an obligation, in my view, to do everything you can to help poor people. Right-wing [businesspeople] here would love an open border policy; that would bring in all kinds of people willing to work for only two or three dollars per hour.”(10)

Making life better for migrant workers would thus come at the expense of “[making] everybody in America poorer,” in Sanders’s view. Corbyn, his counterpart across the pond, evidently concurred with this view. Asked what a “Jobs First Brexit” would look like, in terms of free movement, the Labour leader replied: “What there wouldn’t be is wholesale importation of underpaid workers from Central Europe in order to destroy [working] conditions, particularly in the construction industry.”(11) Hence the campaign slogan to “Build it in Britain,” with its complaints about international capital and cheap foreign labor.(12) It would be too much to equate this with the recycling of the old fascist slogan of “British jobs for British workers” by Gordon Brown, Corbyn’s predecessor, but it is not far off.(13)

Germany has seen a version of this left economic nationalism in Die Linke’s Aufstehen initiative, led by Wagenknecht. Looking to win back voters from Alternative für Deutschland, an openly xenophobic party, she has pushed for a more restrictive border policy. Somewhat like Nagle, Wagenknecht frames her approach as a means to forestall the demonization of migrants and refugees. “On the labor market, competition in the low-wage sector is growing,” she told Bhaskar Sunkara in 2018. “Refugees are used to exert downward pressure on wages, which in turn fuels anti-refugee sentiment.”(14) But her solution to the refugee crisis is to grant concessions to the Right, dismissing open borders and “hospitality culture” [Willkommenskultur] as “unrealistic”—völlig irreal.(15)

Chauvinistic outbursts of this sort can also be heard from progressive quarters in France. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the left-populist firebrand who placed third in the 2017 French presidential election, is on record as opposing mass migration. In the past he has complained of “detached workers stealing the bread from workers already in place” [travailleur détaché qui vole son pain au travailleur qui se trouve sur place].(16) Mélenchon has even stopped playing the Internationale at rallies of his party, La France Insoumise, instead singing the Marseillaise and waving the tricolor flag. Together with Sanders, Corbyn, and Wagenknecht, he represents a larger impulse “to claw back national sovereignty, to curb the excesses of liberalization, and to reclaim the borders of the nation-state.”(17)

Of course, these four are all salaried government officials, and thus cannot be thought of as intellectually serious proponents of social-democracy in one country. Wolfgang Streeck and J.W. Mason are two of the better-known theorists of this idea, so it is fitting at this point to review some of their work, alongside criticisms leveled by Adam Tooze and Merchant.

Streeck, a colleague of Wagenknecht and vocal supporter of Aufstehen, co-authored a manifesto in 2016 that called for “responsible nationalism” (cribbed from Obama aide Larry Summers) as a political counterweight to EU hegemony. Entitled “Europe Needs the Nation” [Europa braucht die Nation], the threefold program was to 1) restore jurisdiction to national member-states, 2) resist the drive to unify, and 3) allow for differential exchange-rates. He had already distinguished in an earlier writing between a rooted Staatsvolk [people of the state] and a rootless Marktvolk [people of the market], reminiscent of Marx’s old distinction between man as citoyen and man as bourgeois. For Streeck, however, the goal is simply to array the political against the economic.

Writing in the U.S. context, but with Europe in mind, Mason has similarly laid out “A Cautious Case for Economic Nationalism.” Partly inspired by Streeck, he argues that sovereign power may be wielded against the force of the market. “As long as democratic politics operates through nation-states,” Mason suggests, “it is likely any left program will require some degree of delinking from the global economy.”(18) It is significant that he uses “delinking,” a strategy originally devised by Maoists for industrializing regimes in the Third World,(19) in advancing a quasi-Keynesian agenda for industrialized governments in the First World. Quoting Keynes’s “brilliant 1933 essay on ‘National Self-Sufficiency’,” Mason proposes that “we can have a try at working out our own salvation.”

“How did Streeck turn critical theory into a vehicle for the assertion of the primacy of the nation?” Tooze wonders aloud. Contra Streeck, Tooze is skeptical that “a move back to the national level could enable democratic control of the economy” and questions the strategic timing.(20) Unlike Streeck, Mason contends that his position is “adamantly pro-migrant.” Left economic nationalism will only close borders to capital, and not to labor. Jamie Merchant brings up reasons to doubt that one is possible without the other. He takes aim at Sweden and Denmark, those most cherished of examples touted by U.S. social-democrats, writing that,

Scandinavian social democracies… are the vanguard in the mounting nativist defense of national welfare states from freeloading noncitizens—“parasites” of the body politic. Even if it dresses itself in a leftwing garb, emphasizing national citizenship pushes in the direction of welfare chauvinism, jealously protecting public property from undeserving outsiders.(21)

Given the widespread glamorization of the Nordic model among Jacobin columnists, Merchant’s insight cuts straight to the bone. Already in these countries the generous benefits provided by the state are being used as a cudgel against refugees and migrants, who are depicted as leeches on a system built by generations of hardworking Danes or Swedes. “Sweden in the 1970s was the best society we have ever seen,” Sunkara recently stated.(22) But it is misleading to portray seventies Sweden as a self-enclosed “society”: it was a national compromise between capital and labor within the context of global capitalist society, and an unsustainable compromise at that. Mette Frederiksen, the anti-immigrant social democrat who recently won the Danish elections, provides further proof of this fact.(23)

Historic origins of the modern territorial state

To get a better handle on the role played by borders in shaping the modern world, a closer look at their historic origins is in order. Borders are not a natural feature of the world. Neither their present configuration nor the raw fact of their existence can be taken for granted. Just as they arose historically, the byproduct of particular social conditions, so too might they pass away historically, once these conditions are removed. Scholars have often stressed that “not every people has thought it useful or important to establish clear-cut borders,” adding “there are alternative concepts for claiming shares of global space and seeking territorial stability without fixed frontiers.”(24) Furthermore, one might suggest that there is an alternative to “claiming shares of global space” or “seeking territorial stability” altogether.

Perhaps the characteristic procedure of Marxian analysis is to historicize a phenomenon, getting rid of any semblance of naturalism. This renders obvious the timebound quality of the prevailing reality. Karl Schlögel, the renowned German Sovietologist and theoretician of space, follows this path in noting that,

boundaries have their own histories, as does the very drawing of boundaries. There have been forms of political rule that knew no defined borders; they had a center, a court from which rulers issued decrees and to which tribute was due. Borders, by contrast, are a late invention that did not become universally accepted until the era of the territorial nation-state, then of colonialism and imperialism… Schoolroom maps of European powers implant the idea that borders are what contain states in the minds of students educated to be national citizens. Modern citizens carry the image of external boundaries in their heads…, identifying nations with their outline.(25)

Although precapitalist empires sometimes claimed to stretch over vast expanses of land, the real reach of their power was often quite limited. For instance, Moroccan sultans referred to the rural hinterlands away from the coasts colloquially as Bled es-Siba (the lawless “realm of insolence”). Hellenistic city-states included the cultivated field “as a territorium belonging to the town,”(26) and Roman provincial capitals for the most part followed their example to the end of antiquity.(27) Outside the poleis and the urbes there was no centralized authority, and administration of large contiguous territories was difficult to sustain. With the death of Alexander, the Macedonian Empire separated into four competing dynastic spheres, while the Romans eventually split in two.

Easily overextended, the Roman Empire managed to retain its territorial integrity for as long as it did only by controlling key waterways and hugging the Mediterranean coastline. Its sheer endurance, more or less unchanged in shape over the course of many centuries, has led some to surmise that the roots of modern territoriality reside in Rome. Paul de Lapradelle warned against these anachronistic readings in his 1928 book La frontière: étude de droit international, distinguishing between “limitation” (a unilateral decision) and “delimitation” (a multilateral agreement): “Near the limits of the empire were barbarians. Romans held no conception of the modern boundary… The Limes imperii merely indicated a voluntary halting place, not an agreed-upon border.”(28)

Still, the Roman legal code did exert an undeniable influence much later, during the transition out of feudal society. Jurists and political theorists in early modern Europe drew heavily on earlier ideas about dominium and imperium in articulating their own doctrines of bounded sovereignty. Medieval territory was a patchwork of divided loyalties and shifting allegiances. Dominium referred to exclusive ownership, while imperium meant undivided authority, so it is safe to say neither notion carried all that much weight at this time. Kingdoms could be redrawn quite suddenly, by conquest or palace intrigue. “Feudalism can best be visualized in terms of concentric circles of power projection,” explains Benno Teschke.(29) In terms, that is, of “zones,” rather than uniformly administered states.

Hugo Grotius’s list of various boundaries is typical of the modern age. Quoting classical figures such as Florentinus, Tacitus, and Varro, the Dutch philosopher of law reckoned there were three main sorts: 1) visible man-made boundaries like fences or walls; 2) unmarked boundaries, mathematically measured and parceled out; and 3) so-called “arcifinious” boundaries like riverbeds or mountain ranges.(30) A great deal of ink was spilt considering what happens when a river alters direction, if one side thus gains what the other loses, etc. Emer de Vattel asserted in a 1758 treatise that territory would accrue to whoever dominated the land left dry.(31) Like Grotius, his chief source of inspiration, he was above all preoccupied with the question of who had jurisdiction.

Ultimately, jurisdiction determines whose laws apply where and to whom. Borders become a way to tell where the sovereignty of a country begins and ends, establishing ready lines of demarcation. Vittorio Adami hence described national frontiers as “lines marking the full extent of the region within which the state can exercise its sovereign right.”(32) Reading Samuel Pufendorf, who came after Grotius but before Vattel, it is already clear how boundaries will come to function with regard to citizenship and outsiders passing through:

Since every state occupies a certain part of the earth where its citizens have settled themselves and their fortunes in safety, and since the security of these fortunes would be endangered if anyone who did not acknowledge the sovereignty of the state were permitted to go about there, it is understood to be the common law of all states that one who has entered the territory of a particular state—especially if he wishes to enjoy its advantages—is deemed to have renounced his natural freedom, thus subjecting himself to that state’s sovereignty, so long as it pleases him to remain there… If, however, he is unwilling to make this acknowledgment, let him be considered an enemy to such a point that he can rightfully be driven out of the state’s borders.(33)

Nation-states began to emerge during the 18th century, encompassing different “peoples” inside territorial boundaries. Eric Hobsbawm explained that the nation-state was “a territory, preferably continuous and unbroken, over all of whose inhabitants it ruled and separated by clearly distinct frontiers or borders from other such territories.”(34) The stress in “nation-state” should be placed on the word after the hyphen, since the repressive apparatus of government is what effectively enforces these limits and regulates everything that goes on in between (with its armies, customs, patrols, police). At this point, it is necessary to ask what constitutes a state. Max Weber’s canonical definition—which holds it to be “a form of human community that successfully lays claim to a monopoly of legitimate physical violence within a particular territory [bestimmten Gebietes]”(35)—is worth revisiting here. He then hammered this home, emphasizing that “this idea of a ‘territory’ is an essential defining quality.”

Commentators have tended to focus on the italicized bit, not the part circumscribing state violence to “a particular territory.” Yet Weber was insistent on this score. One might well see the exclusivity of the state’s claim to dominion over its lands as an extrapolation of the principle of private property, all the way back to the original enclosure of the commons. Jean-Jacques Rousseau quipped in his Second Discourse that “the first man, who after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, this is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.” Rousseau thereby denaturalized the phenomenon of private property.

It is significant, moreover, that the cartographic representation of sovereign states in Europe would go hand in hand with the development of cadastral registries. Elaborate maps showing landholdings and their expected annual yield, cadasters were linked to Physiocratic ideas about agriculture being the basis of societal wealth. Precision in mapping the exact contours of a plot was highly valued; logarithms and advanced trigonometric techniques were utilized to ensure accuracy. Simultaneously, depictions of the European state system started to appear with linear borders, as a color-coded checkerboard, now that terra incognita had disappeared from sight.

Revolutionary attitudes toward borders and immigration

Unfortunately, Marx and Engels did not explicitly address the problem of borders anywhere in their voluminous writings. Looking closely at their œuvre, however, one discovers a host of implicit assumptions, quite at odds with Nagle’s opinion. From their declaration that “the working class has no country” early on in the Manifesto, to the rallying cry at the end of that document (“Workers of the world, unite!”), they affirmed the international scope of proletarian revolution: “National differences and antagonisms are daily vanishing more and more, thanks to the bourgeoisie, freedom of commerce, and the world market, but the supremacy of the proletariat will only lead them to vanish even faster.”

Marx acknowledged that the issue of immigration presented the ruling class with a powerful ideological tool to sow disunity among workers. But his primary concern was with figuring out how the latter might orient themselves to meet this challenge, countering the xenophobic rhetoric of the bourgeois press. In America, for example, Marx encouraged his fellow internationalists to form “a coalition of German and Irish workers (together with those English and American workers who are prepared to accede to it).”(36) Solidarity between proletarians of different nationalities within a single state, and through multiple states, would be needed for a successful revolution.

Other documents by Marx and Engels from the period tend to confirm that this was their perspective. According to an 1868 circular on trade unions, “no lasting success is possible without international combination… since, by its very nature, the workers’ movement cuts across state and national borders.”(37) Engels later reported to Marx’s daughter Laura his pleasure at the accomplishments of the Trades Union Congress in 1894. Nevertheless, he lamented, “there is no progress here without a drawback: take the resolution against the immigration of foreign workers passed at Norwich.” However, Engels ended his letter on an optimistic note, saying “such inconsistencies will have to be put up with for a while yet, [at least] until it attains a sufficient degree of consciousness.”(38)

To reiterate: both saw immigration as a serious test for working-class solidarity, but by no means an insurmountable obstacle. Regardless, nothing was worse than the effort of some socialists “to confine the proletarian movement within the national boundaries [l’enceinte nationale, literally the enclosures] of each country.”(39) It would fall to their successors to spell out at the 1907 Stuttgart Congress the proper Marxist attitude toward immigrant struggles. For example, it called for the immediate “[a]bolition of all restrictions which prevent certain nationalities or races from staying in a country or exclude them from the social, political, and economic rights of the natives.” Moreover, it demanded that there be extensive measures passed to facilitate naturalization.

“Down with the Damocles sword [Damoklesschwert] of deportation!” exclaimed the German socialist Karl Liebknecht in September that same year, explaining the congress’s provisions. “Such is a prerequisite for foreigners to stop being… the preeminent reducers of wages and strikebreakers.”(40) As Rosa Luxemburg commented in a lecture series two years later, the reason for the conflict among socialists over immigration was material:

Nothing is so striking today, nothing has such decisive importance for the whole shape of today’s social and political life, as the yawning contradiction between an economic foundation that grows tighter and firmer every day, binding all nations and countries into a great mass, and the political superstructure of states, which seeks to split nations artificially, by way of border-posts, tariff barriers, and militarism, into so many foreign and hostile divisions.(41)

Her Russian comrade, Leon Trotsky, was emphatic that socialist revolution will involve sweeping away such divisions. “The national state with its borders, passports, monetary system, customs, and army has become a frightful impediment to the economic and cultural development of humanity,” wrote Trotsky. Consequently, “the task of the proletariat is not defense of the national state, but its complete and final liquidation.”(42) Until such a time, communists must do whatever they can to support workers’ freedom of movement. Vladimir Lenin gave what is perhaps the definitive statement on this issue in 1913, urging “class-conscious workers” to side with immigrants.(43)

Revolutionaries have not been the only ones to recognize the tension between national states and international markets. Reactionaries are well aware of the “contradiction” highlighted by Luxemburg in the above passage. Geopolitics as a discipline was intended to assist states in their quest to carve out an autarkic Gemeinwirtschaftsraum, which could then allow them to weather the storms of global finance. Among the foremost geopolitical thinkers was the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, who was deeply disturbed by the way that economic capitalism had undermined political sovereignty in postwar Europe:

Over, under, and beside the borders of what had appeared to be a purely political relationship between states spread a free nonstate sphere permeating everything: a global economy. This economy had its own space within international law, a universal free market transcending boundaries, beyond the foreground of recognized state sovereignty. Despite territorial changes, the economic order sustained by private entrepreneurs and businessmen, “free” in the sense of a free movement of capital and labor—kept all of the safeguards it needed to operate.(44)

Still, as today’s struggles over migration and tariffs show, one should not be too quick to announce the death of the nation-state. Globalization has at times attenuated the institution of bounded sovereignty, but at other times has bolstered it. Autonomists have been overhasty in heralding the obsolescence of this form of political rule. Usually, if pressed, they will admit to its continued purchase in the contemporary globalized world. “It is not that the modern space of the nation-state has… been rendered irrelevant by global processes,” Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson equivocate in Border as Method. “Rather, it has been placed under stress, altered, and forced to coexist with a number of other spatial formations that have transformed and recalibrated it, making the borders that cross or exceed it as crucial as those defining its territorial limits.”(45)

Ellen Meiksins Wood raised this point about the resilience of nation-states in her rejoinder to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, whose arguments inform the works of Mezzadra and Neilson. She explained:

Historically, the state has intervened to uphold the dependence of labor on capital. One of its indispensable roles has been to control the mobility of labor, even as it preserves capital’s freedom of movement. While the movement across national borders has often been severely restricted, controlling labor’s mobility need not mean keeping workers immobile; it may just mean getting them to move wherever they are most needed by capital.

But none of this occurs automatically. “No ‘global governance’ could provide the kind of daily regularity or conditions of accumulation that capital needs,” Wood unequivocally maintained. “Today, more than ever before, ours is a world of nation-states.”(46)

In other words, bordered nation-states are a persistent outgrowth of global capitalism: it is only by abolishing the latter that the former will cease to exist. Yet the relative opposition between these two has led some leftists, like Mason, to regard individual sovereign states as a potential lever against the tyranny of the world market. Left economic nationalism, mentioned at the outset of this essay in connection with social-democratic political formations, takes this misguided premise as its fundamental point of departure. Even many self-professed Marxists are reluctant to espouse a world without borders. “Personally, I would hesitate to identify radical democracy with the pursuit of a ‘borderless world’ in the juridico-political sense of the term,” writes the Althusserian Marxist Étienne Balibar.(47) Negrian Marxists remain skeptical as well.(48)

The working class as the revolutionary subject of history has lately fallen into disrepute, even among theoreticians like Mezzadra and Neilson, who prefer the more diffuse category of “the multitude.”(49) For them, border struggles are privileged sites of subjectivation within an irreducibly heterogeneous assemblage of groups.(50) Resolving the current immigration crisis being felt in countries around the world requires a global vision, however, because the standoff between labor and capital knows no bounds. “Capital drives beyond every spatial barrier,” Marx long ago pointed out, national or otherwise.(51) Capitalists invest wherever higher profits seem attainable. The counterpart of capital, wage-labor, is likewise compelled to push past national constraints, as workers seek employment wherever capital offers it. Uneven development is a product of the ongoing dynamic of capitalist growth, leading to chronic imbalances both in terms of capital concentration and labor organization and pushing people across borders in search of a better life. In addition, different parts of the world are more vulnerable to “natural” or manmade disasters than others, owing to infrastructural as well as geographic accidents. General Motors might shut down plants in Canada and the U.S. and open auto factories in Mexico, but its exploitative relationship toward employees is a constant. This is, of course, accepted as ineluctable background by the social-democratic idea of protecting “native” workers against the low-wage competition of foreigners: defense of higher wages for one group of workers here assumes the inevitability of wage-labor as the dominant mode of labor. In any case, policies enacted in any given state, whether tariffs or immigration controls, will inevitably spill over into the territories of its neighbors. This is why there can be no national solution to what is at bottom an international problem.

Proletarians are artificially cordoned off from one another by the nation-state, despite the fact that the ultimate source of their exploitation is the same in all countries. When they relocate, capital is waiting for them at the end of the road, ready to wring surplus out of their labor. If their problems as workers subordinate to capital are to be solved, this must be accomplished without respect for borders and nationalities. In the United States, for instance—as in almost all countries—the truth is that even the national workforce cannot be understood without figuring in undocumented and documented workers from other places. As Viewpoint put this, “sociologically, the American working class is not confined to the citizenry or geographical space of the United States, and so the politics of the unbound proletariat necessarily exceeds these spaces too.”(52) Some of the best treatments of this issue have been supplied by small groups:

In creating a global economy, capitalism has created the framework for a worldwide human association. Yet its total inability to realize this promise is illustrated today by the universal fortification of its frontiers. Calls for “no borders” by well-meaning activist groups are thus entirely utopian, since borders can only be abolished through an international proletarian dictatorship. World revolution alone will dismantle the antihuman prison of the modern nation-state.(53)

Reformist parties and politicians by contrast offer no solution to the migrant crisis, only palliatives, because they still think in terms of the peaceful takeover of preexisting bourgeois states. This is not a moral failing, but a structural facet of their politics. Hemmed in by national boundaries, it is impossible for them to pass legislation with wider efficacy. As politicians, they must operate within the framework of the nation-state, and that of the capitalist social relations that produced it and perpetuate its existence. The realization of “open borders” requires the abolition of those social relations and the national politics integral to them, just as fundamental social change requires defiance of the barriers states set between workers from different parts of the world.


  1. Emily Birnbaum, “Occupy ICE Protests Emerge Throughout the Country,” The Hill, June 23, 2018.
  2. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “Interview with Steve Inskeep,” NPR, June 27, 2018.
  3. Angela Nagle, “The Left Case Against Open Borders,” American Affairs, Volume II, № 4: Winter 2018. It should be pointed out that American Affairs has also published left-wing authors like Nancy Fraser in the past.
  4. Justin Akers Chacón, “The Case Against ‘The Case Against Open Borders’,” Socialist Worker, November 27, 2018; Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, “There is No Left Case for Nationalism,” The Nation, November 28, 2018; Brianna Rennix & Nathan J. Robinson, “Responding to ‘The Left Case Against Open Borders’,” Current Affairs, November 27, 2018; Joshua Mostafa, “A Left Case Against Borders,” Overland, December 14, 2018; Cyryl Ryzak, “The Left Case For Open Borders,”Solidarity, February 4, 2019. There were dozens of other responses as well.
  5. Kill All Normies is a serviceable intro to the “culture wars” that have been raging in cyberspace since 2010, despite sloppy editing and tendentious argumentation here and there. For a better overview of the “alt-Right,” see Matthew Lyons, Ctrl-Alt-Delete: An Antifascist Report on the Alternative Right (Montreal: Kersplebedeb Publishing, 2017).
  6. Italics added. Pavlos Roufos, “The Aggressiveness of Vulnerability,” Field Notes, Brooklyn Rail, July 1, 2018.
  7. That is, “a defensive ‘social democracy in one country’ that calls upon the native-born male working classes of Europe to take back their individual nations from global capital”: i.e., “a nostalgia for past forms of political and economic organization which have failed before and will continue to fail in the future.” Greg Afinogenov, “Desperation Time: Visions of the Future from the Left,” n+1, April 3, 2017.
  8. Nagle cites Sanders and Corbyn in making her case: “Even solidly leftist politicians, like Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, are accused of ‘nativism’ by critics whenever they defend the legitimacy of borders or restrictions on mobility.” Op. cit.
  9. Witness the Realpolitik at work in the following: “[Syriza’s] decision to enter a coalition government with ANEL, a right-wing anti-austerity party, has been the subject of much debate… The outcome is certainly not ideal. But in assessing whether this decision amounts to an error, we have to take into account the difficulties of the situation and political dynamics within parliament.” Catarina Príncipe, “First Days, First Decisions,” Jacobin, February 2015.
  10. Bernie Sanders, “Interview with Ezra Klein,” Vox, July 28, 2015, 6:14-6:55.
  11. Jeremy Corbyn, “Interview with Andrew Marr,” BBC, July 23, 2017, 1:57-2:10.
  12. “We’ve been told that it’s good, even advanced, for our country to manufacture less and less and to rely instead on cheap labor abroad to produce imports while we focus on the City of London and the financial sector.” Jeremy Corbyn, “Build It in Britain Again,” Labour List, July 24, 2018.
  13. The slogan was controversial because it had been used before by fascists. Deborah Summers, “Gordon Brown’s ‘British Jobs’ Pledge has Caused Controversy Before,” Guardian, January 3, 2009.
  14. Sahra Wagenknecht, “Standing Up to Merkel: An Interview with Bhaskar Sunkara,” Jacobin, October 2018.
  15. Martin Niewendick, „Wagenknecht kritisiert Forderung nach offenen Grenzen“, Welt, October 9, 2018.
  16. Rachid Laïreche, “Immigration: Mélenchon en mots troubles,”Libération, September 8, 2016.
  17. David Adler, “Meet Europe’s Left Nationalists,” The Nation, January 10, 2019.
  18. J.W. Mason, “A Cautious Case for Economic Nationalism,” Dissent, Spring 2017.
  19. Samir Amin, Delinking: Toward a Polycentric World [1986], translated by Michael Wolfers (London: ZED Books, 1990).
  20. “When you say you want to put the nation in charge, and thus throw off the yoke imposed by the invisible power of the cosmopolitan ‘market people,’ who do you expect to rally to your banner?” Adam Tooze, “A General Logic of Crisis,” London Review of Books, 39:1.
  21. Jamie Merchant, “Economic Nationalism is Suicide,” The Nation, February 5, 2019.
  22. Quoted in Eric Levitz, “Okay, What’s Wrong with Liberalism? A Chat with Jonathan Chait and Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara,” New York, March 3, 2019.
  23. Richard Orange, “Mette Frederiksen: the Anti-Immigration Left Leader Set to Win Power in Denmark,” Guardian, May 11, 2019.
  24. Charles Maier, Once Within Borders: Territories of Power, Wealth, and Belonging Since 1500 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 5.
  25. Karl Schlögel, In Space We Read Time: On the History of Civilization and Geopolitics [2008], translated by Gerrit Jackson (New York: Bard Graduate Center, 2016), 109.
  26. Karl Marx. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy[1857], translated by Martin Nicolaus (New York: Penguin Books, 1973), 474.
  27. Moses Finley, Economy and Society in Ancient Greece (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Co., 1981), 5.
  28. Paul de Lapradelle [1928], cit. Samuel Whittemore Boggs, International Boundaries: A Study of Boundary Functions and Problems (New York: Columbia University Press, 1940), 7.
  29. Benno Teschke, The Myth of 1648: Class, Geopolitics, and the Making of Modern International Relations (New York: Verso Books, 2003), 66-67.
  30. Hugo Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace [1625], translated by Richard Tuck (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005), 474-476.
  31. Emer de Vattel, The Law of Nations [1758], translated by Thomas Nugent (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008) 244. See also Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, 477.
  32. Vittorio Adami. National Frontiers in Relation to International Law[1912], translated by Tankred Tunstall-Behrens (Oxford University Press. New York, NY: 1927), p. 3.
  33. Samuel Pufendorf, On the Law of Nature and of Nations [1672], translated by Michael J. Seidler (Oxford University Press, New York, NY: 1994) p. 216.
  34. Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Program, Myth, Reality (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990/1992), 80.
  35. Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation” [1919], translated by Rodney Livingstone, The Vocation Lectures (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2004), 33.
  36. Karl Marx, “Letter to to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt” [April 9, 1870], translated by Peter and Betty Ross, Collected Works, Vol. 43 (New York: International Publishers, 2010), 474-476.
  37. Wilhelm Eichhoff (written with the assistance of Marx), “The International Working Men’s Association: Its Establishment, Organization, Political and Social Activity, and Growth” [1868], translated by Vic Schneierson, Collected Works, Vol. 21 (New York: International Publishers, 1985), 344.
  38. Friedrich Engels, “Letter to Laura Lafargue” [early September 1894], translated by Peter and Betty Ross, Collected Works, Vol. 50 (New York: International Publishers, 2004), 347.
  39. Karl Marx, “Letter to Octave van Suetendael” [June 21, 1872], translated by Rodney Livingstone, Collected Works, Vol. 44 (New York: International Publishers, 1989), 402.
  40. Karl Liebknecht, “Speech at the SPD Congress in Essen” [September 1907], translated by Daniel Gaido, Historical Materialism, February 20, 2017.
  41. Rosa Luxemburg. Introduction to Political Economy [1909], translated by David Fernbach, Complete Works, Vol. 1 (New York: Verso Books, 2014), 121.
  42. Leon Trotsky. War and the Fourth International [June 10, 1934], translated by Sara Weber, Writings, 1933-1934 (Pathfinder Press, New York, NY: 1972), p. 304.
  43. Vladimir Lenin, “Capitalism and Workers’ Immigration” [October 29, 1913, translated by George Hanna and Robert Daglish, Collected Works, Vol. 19 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1963), 457. One of the more unfortunate legacies of the October Revolution, despite the ideas of its leaders, is that, owing to its encirclement, the new Soviet state was built over the ruins of the old tsarist autocracy and the short-lived constitutional order of Russia.
  44. Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum [1950], translated by Gary L. Ulme (New York: Telos Press, 2003), 197.
  45. Sandro Mezzadra & Brett Neilson, Border as Method, or the Multiplication of Labor (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 63.
  46. Ellen Meiksins Wood, Empire of Capital (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2003/2005.) Pgs. 19-20.
  47. Étienne Balibar, “What is a Border?” [1993], in Politics and the Other Scene, translated by Chris Turner (New York: Verso Books, 2002), 85.
  48. “Readers will not find recipes for a future borderless world in the following pages.” Mezzadra & Neilson, Border as Method, 13.
  49. Ibid., 252-253.
  50. “The proliferation of borders in the contemporary world means the political organization of labor must be carried out in an irreducibly multiple sense. No longer is it a matter of overcoming national divisions through international solidarity or appeals to the human condition.” Ibid., 95.
  51. Marx, Grundrisse, 524. See also Marx’s earlier remark: “Capital drives beyond national barriers [Grenzen] and prejudices as much as beyond nature worship.” Ibid., 410.
  52. Editors, “From What Shore Does Socialism Arrive? The Borders Crossing Us,” Viewpoint, November 7, 2018.
  53. DV, “The Bunkerization of World Capitalism,” International Communist Current, September 22, 2015.
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