The nation state with distinct borders is a recent idea, tied up with the development of capitalism. It is workers and the poor who suffer at its edges, writes Phil Marfleet.
Why are borders so important to the modern state? Why do politicians and the media obsess about “border security”? What lies behind the politics of exclusion?
Until the early modern era (17th to 18th centuries) borders between local kingdoms and principalities in Europe were fuzzy and seldom closely controlled. Mobility of goods and people was essential to sustain regional economies — most of the population was tied to the land but many people moved relatively freely as merchants, artisans, itinerant labourers, pedlars, seafarers and pilgrims.
Change was under way however. In “absolutist” states the monarchy used increasingly centralised means of control to impose religious conformity and large numbers of people said to be unbelievers or apostates were expelled. Millions of Jews and Muslims were evicted from Catholic Spain and Portugal; later Calvinists were expelled from France, and religious dissenters and political radicals removed from Britain — most sent to its American and Caribbean colonies. Borders took on new significance as means of including or excluding certain categories of people.
These developments became much more pronounced as industrial capitalism shaped new nation states. Rising capitalist classes were eager to establish rights in private property, to enact systems of law that entrenched their privileges, and to regulate the movement of volatile populations deeply affected by industrialisation and urbanisation.
They sought novel forms of authority based on allegiance to “the nation” — a community of interests defined by language, religion and cultural practice, and by stories about common origins and shared destiny.
The new nations, argues Benedict Anderson, emerged as “imagined communities” in which the mass of people never met or communicated directly but were encouraged to pursue a collective agenda as if they shared underlying interests. Territorial borders enclosed these national collectives, marking their presence as against other, different — and alien — national groups.
Ruling classes of early nation states such as Britain, the Netherlands and France expended much energy attempting to convince populations within such borders that they were British, Dutch or French. They built institutions of the state focused on coercion (the armed forces, the judiciary, the police and prison systems) which intervened in rising class struggles and enforced national conformity by targeting “internal” enemies including members of linguistic or regional groups. In the case of France “non-national” languages and dialects (German, Breton, Catalan, Langue d’Oc/Occitan) were supressed or treated as corrupt patois versions of authentic metropolitan French.
The new rulers focused upon ideas of national belonging — inclusion within and exclusion from the nation. Earlier loyalties, to the local aristocracy, to church or to sect, were less important than allegiance focused on symbols of nation — the flag, the “mother” or “father” of the nation (Britannia, Joan of Arc) — and on stories of national achievement and national superiority.
External borders had territorial significance and a powerful socio-cultural meaning. They were a key means of identifying those with an entitlement to be part of “the nation”; at the same time they were means to differentiate and to exclude.
These arrangements presented their own problems. There was no necessary “fit” between the idea of nation and capitalists’ relentless drive for profit. Members of the capitalist class needed the nation state but were not always in agreement about how to mobilise nationalism or how to implement borders as part of the politics of control.
In Britain this surfaced in various ways, including in debates about free trade and protectionism and in fierce arguments about whether to admit foreigners freely. In the mid-19th century some British politicians backed unrestricted immigration; others asked why subversives such as Karl Marx were permitted to live in London, declaring that migrants were dangerous to the health of the nation.
In 1870 Marx himself observed how national sentiment and the politics of exclusion served capitalist interests. Writing of the hostility generated among English workers towards the Irish, he commented: “[this] antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes”.
It was, he said, “the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation…the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.”
Nationalism and the politics of the border were intimately linked: they served the state but could also inhibit profit-seeking among some sections of the ruling class.
In the mid-19th century the United States government arranged for millions of people to travel from China to work in construction and on the railways. These migrants were integral to the rapid growth of US capitalism. Following the American Civil War there was a rise in nationalist sentiment and in
anti-Chinese racism, and in 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Migration from China came to an end, causing huge problems for employers in key sectors of the economy who eventually turned to Japan and later to Mexico as sources of labour.
These contradictions appeared repeatedly, with some factions of the ruling class — often linked to populist politicians — arguing for tight border control and for campaigns of exclusion. Other capitalists called for free movement, largely because of their insatiable desire for cheap labour.
The First World War brought the world’s dominant nation states into traumatic conflict. Borders were policed with unprecedented vigour and passports and visas required for the first time for travel in Europe and North America.
In the 1920s international migration collapsed to a fraction of the pre-war level and for the next 20 years border controls locked most people into the territories of their designated nation states. At the same time, populist campaigns again targeted “aliens” — in the case of the United States migrants from Mexico were hounded and deported.
The demands of the market eventually ruptured these controls. After the Second World War international migration resumed as employers, including public authorities of the nation state, competed to attract labour from far and wide. Agencies of Western European states drew migrants from Southern Europe and from colonial networks. In the United States, government agencies re-established migration from Central America, notably through the Bracero Program, which brought millions of Mexicans to work in construction, horticulture and the service sector.
As the world economy grew, controls on movement were viewed by most ruling classes as an obstacle to growth. Borders that had been viewed as sacrosanct were bypassed or disregarded. In the United States employers who violated laws on the employment of “illegal” migrants (those who crossed borders without official papers) were “paroled” — their irregular practices were ignored.
In France sans-papiers — “undocumented” migrants — were encouraged to enter, even if they violated official controls. During the 1960s more than 80 percent of migrants were technically “illegal” entrants: in 1966 the French Minister of Social Affairs commented that, “clandestine immigration in itself is not without benefit, for if we stuck to a strict interpretation of the rules and international agreements, we would perhaps be short of labour”.
Border regimes are contingent upon changing economic circumstances and the balance of political forces within and among nation states. When the post-war boom came to an end in the early 1970s, governments in many states attempted to reimpose controls. States that had imported millions of workers attempted to turn off the “flow” and to target migrants for removal.
However they faced major problems. In Europe influential employers had become dependent on regular supplies of labour from certain regions and declined to accept restrictions. At the same time, as the US government had discovered in the 1930s, migration “pathways” brought people with their own expectations and aspirations. Migrants evaded the new controls, not least because economic crisis that brought recession in the Global North affected their own regions of origin much more severely.
Modern smuggling networks, which continued to bring migrants from the South, date from this period. They developed with the full knowledge of European states, sometimes with their acquiescence or even encouragement.
Most people arriving in Europe were readily integrated into the labour market and by the 1990s each of the major economies was dependent upon large numbers of undocumented migrants. Across Europe and North America millions of “illegals” were regularised (granted rights of residence and often of citizenship) in response not only to the demands of migrant organisations but also of powerful employer lobbies.
This was recognition that there were two formal channels for migration — one official and one by irregular means. Both served employer interests and were increasingly closely linked.
When some states attempted to restrict “irregular” movements they faced resistance from influential employer groups. In the case of Italy, the employers’ federation insisted that the government must not “choke the flow of workers” from the Balkans, Africa and the Indian sub-continent, as the latter “accept wages considered too low even by [the] unemployed”.
The nation state had long both accommodated and rejected migrants, depending on the contingent demands of local capitalism and on the relative strength of nationalist sentiment. The border was a “moveable feast” — like the saints’ days and celebrations of religious practice, it could be implemented more or less systematically and with varying degrees of visibility.
Over the last decade, however, politics of the border have become increasingly important. Insecure in the face of economic crisis and aspirations for change, states have focused on the border as a means of displacing responsibility away from those with wealth and privilege.
Many states of the Global North have taken on the agendas of the extreme right, fostering a climate of fear and hostility toward migrants. In Italy, where employers clamour for migrant labour, a government campaign to arrest and deport refugees has been accompanied by demands from the neo-fascist Northern League that immigrants be tattooed with identification codes. This blatant reference to Nazi practices of the 1930s demonstrates how official policy fosters a politics earlier dismissed as barbarism.
For some migrants the border is permeable. Irregular entry is tolerated and illegal status can be addressed by amnesties and regularisations. Others, however, are targeted by increasingly aggressive migration regimes: legal measures to track and exclude potential entrants; “hardened” borders with fences, walls and electronic surveillance systems; and militarisation of the border zone.
Today the border is again a site at which governments attempt to display their authority, projecting their role as guardians of an imagined national interest. Unwilling to address growing inequality and insecurity they project the vision of external threat and of their own role as champions of national integrity.
Border zones become battlegrounds in which the state acts against malign, threatening outsiders. Vulnerable migrants are irresistible targets. Most lack resources to challenge an official barrage of propaganda: state offensives against them are largely cost-free to those who blame, detain and deport.
The Communist Manifesto called on workers of all countries to unite. Marx and Engels did not write extensively on the national question or the politics of the border but they were insistent on the need for internationalism as against false notions of national loyalty. This was premised upon struggles against each domestic ruling class and on solidarity across borders. It had nothing in common with the false internationalism of today’s European Union, which invokes citizens of European states to combine in support of the EU’s regime of migration control on land and at sea. Here the EU mobilises national traditions of exclusion, so that a supra-national body mimics the most aggressive practices of the local state.
In the EU’s “Fortress Europe” member states are invoked to harden their borders so that policies of the most exclusionary nation states are generalised across the union. One outcome is to encourage local nationalisms and to increase scepticism about the EU, with serious consequences for business interests that benefit from the mobility of capital and of labour — a contemporary manifestation of historic contradictions associated with the state and the border.
In the 1990s theorists of globalisation began to argue that economic change would soon produce a “borderless” world. Capital would flow freely across national frontiers and the nation state would become a relic of old rivalries and conflicts. This was always a fiction — a vision of the world as some ideologues of capitalism wished it to be and a means to discipline workers prepared to fight to protect jobs and local conditions. Nation states are integral to industrial capitalism — to supervise the process of exploitation and to generate and disseminate ideas about national loyalties. The modern state also requires borders — both territorial frontiers and ideas about inclusion and exclusion of citizens and “others”.
The state in the early modern era worked tirelessly to convince people of their “national” identity. It called for deference to monarchs and parliaments said to embody national traditions, for patriotism and for “love of country”. Ideologues of the nation depended upon such loyalties coupled with hostility towards those beyond the border.
Today a system in crisis invokes the same agendas of inclusion and exclusion. It also manifests the same contradictions, as border controls are relaxed or imposed according to the changing balance of interests among those in power, and to the influence of political currents of the left and the right.
Genuine internationalism challenges the border and all border controls. We welcome those said to be “outsiders”, understanding from history the contradictory and ultimately false idea of separation by nation and national identity. Migrant lives matter — refugees are welcome here.