When we talk about the struggle for the freedom of movement, we often use broad terms to describe something that’s counter to or alternative to capitalism and the state. We say that we struggle against the state or against capitalism when we struggle for the freedom of movement. We can say that border control regimes are still ultimately a regime of the state, because borders still ultimately function to define the outer limits of state power. But then what about the involvement of non-state agencies in that regime (quangos like Frontex, or corporations like Sodexho)? What about the intersection of migration with capitalism and global labour relations, or with racism, or imperialism? What about the extension of state power beyond borders (Australia locating its refugee camps in Papua New Guinea, or the UK locating its border guards in French ports)? What about the influence of trans-state entities like the European Union? All of these things change the border regime and make it more complicated than just an effect of the state or capitalism and under contemporary conditions of globalization. Laying everything at the door of the capitalist state seems naïve. To what extent do terms such as ‘the state’ hold up in describing this complexity?
One solution to this dilemma has been to use more specific terms. Social movements refer to imperialism, neo-colonialism, sovereignty/sovereign power, globalization or hegemony to bring to the fore particular elements of that which brings into being the border regime. At other times that struggle might be connected with broader struggles against patriarchy, racism, fascism, sexism … Scholars have sought to reconceptualize the state within the context of globalization (cf. Balibar and Wallerstein 1991; Hardt and Negri 2000; Held 1995; Sassen 2006). For example, Hardt and Negri’s influential account of empire conceptualizes sovereign power as a universally networked order that melds the state and capitalism together (Hardt and Negri 2000). In relation to the border regime, Dimitris Papadopoulos, Niamh Stephenson and Vassilis Tsianos (2008) offer an alternative reading of the state under globalization as a system where multiple dominating projects and ideologies have proliferated. Post-liberal sovereignty describes the existence of state power through multiple alliances between segments of the state with different actors (including individuals, organizations or corporations). This conceptualization nods both to the on-going persistence of the state and to the expression of other sovereignties, such as the emerging governance of the EU, in matters of border control.
Such concepts are useful in explaining the complexity of the system within which the border regime operates, but can easily make talking about struggles against it overly complicated and in that way excluding/exclusive. And I think this proliferation in terms misses something useful and still crucial about the term ‘the state’. First, for people struggling for the freedom of movement, the state (or the government) still is that ‘thing’ that controls their movement, or that ‘thing’ that they pitch their resistance against. In that struggle, the state still matters, in really tangible ways. It’s the thing that makes / upholds the border, or that denies or grants status. For that reason I agree with those scholars who suggest a need to continue to account for and recognize the persistence of the state (cf. Bigo 2002; Sassen 1998; Krasner 2000). Second, and perhaps rather contrary to this, I think we need to think of the state differently.
Following in the tradition of anarchist scholars of social revolution, I think of the state not so much as a thing – as a constellation of social, cultural, economic and legal institutions and norms – but as a particular kind of relationship between people that can lead to those institutions and norms (cf. Kropotkin 1912; Landauer 1983 ; Ward 2008 ). In this sense, the state is more than a bunch of structures around which a familiar kind of territorialized society is organized. It’s the practice of certain forms of social relation that are based upon relations of hierarchy and domination (cf. Invisible Committee 2009; Landauer 1983 ; Karatzogiani and Robinson 2010). The state is a way of being, rather than a particular organizational or spatial structure that came into being some time around the Middle Ages. We institute the state whenever we create dominating relationships. Thinking of the state in this way is not about making any claim to an essential human spirit; that we’re either inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
A consequence of thinking of the state in this way is that it opens us up to imagining alternative, non-dominating ways of organizing our social reality (Karatzogiani and Robinson 2010; Ward 2008 ). ‘The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships’ (Landauer 2005 : 64, emphasis added). It also makes it possible to imagine ways of organizing that have no relation to the state at all (Clastres 1977). We might ward off or resist the state, but we might also conduct our relationships in egalitarian ways without any reference to a structure of domination.
With these points in mind, then, in No Borders I use the term ‘the state’ as something of a catch-all term to describe both a structure (in all its diverse forms) and all those permutations of domination that influence the border regime and beyond. And when I refer to the border, I’m not only talking about those lines that divide up countries. Borders, labour and sovereignty no longer map neatly onto the space of the nation-state, if they ever did (Andrijasevic 2009; Balibar 2002). As Étienne Balibar has pointed out, borders do not connote a single and unified ‘effect’. They are ‘polysemic’ in that they present themselves differently to different people (Balibar 2002). For some, the border is a fortress, for other it almost doesn’t exist. Thinking of borders as polysemic disturbs the strict binaries of inside and outside, or the idea that borders only define the space around territories (Anderson 2000). Borders are physical and imagined; material and experiential. They aren’t just ‘things’, so much as practices that are reproduced every time we decide who is allowed in and who isn’t (Casas-Cortes et al. 2015; Vaughan-Williams 2009). As Harsha Walia suggests, ‘[i]nterrogating such discursive and embodied borders – their social construction and structures of affect – reveals how we are not just spatially segregated but also hierarchically stratified’ (Walia 2013: 9). No border struggles represent a struggle against borders in all their manifestations. These struggles occur in many places beyond what Nicolas DeGenova calls the border spectacle; ‘the fetishized image of a “crisis” of border “invasion” or “inundation”’ (DeGenova 2011: 104).
Talking about migration is complicated, because all the terms we could choose to use are so infused with assumptions about who or what we are speaking about that it’s near-impossible to say anything about it without inferring some kind of power play. After all, inequality in power is often structured through language, to the extent that language both institutionalizes and stereotypes certain labels (Zetter 1988). The language of migration that has filtered into popular debate overwhelmingly reflects negative ideas about people who migrate without permission, often generating abject, oppressed or victimized identities that deprive them of power. ‘Illegal immigrant’ implies threat and criminality (Cholewinski 2007; Huysmans 1995). ‘Asylum seeker’ becomes shorthand for ‘victim’; ‘migrant’ becomes shorthand for ‘scrounger’. ‘Refugee’ excludes those who don’t fit within the strict (and state-defined) bounds of persecution. All these terms are generally ‘negatively gendered, racialised and classed’ (Anderson et al. 2012: 75).
No Borders focuses primarily on what’s known within dominant or state-centric discourse as ‘irregular’ or ‘illegal’ migration. If I was working within a state-centric framework, I would use the term illegal migration unproblematically and define it as the unauthorized entry or on-going presence of a person within a territory that is not their state of origin (Düvell 2006; Jandl et al. 2008; Squire 2011). AnaLouise Keating suggests that ‘[l]anguage’s creative power requires that I think carefully and thoroughly about the possible effects my words might have and the effects I desire’ (Keating 2002: 523). With this in mind, then, part of the task of critical/radical scholarship is to subvert the normal language that exists. Working within what could be described as a freedom of movement framework, I find the language and concept of human illegality unacceptable in the way it implies that someone can be labelled ‘illegal’ simply by their presence or their movement across a border. The term ‘illegal immigrant’ lacks any critical engagement with the constructed nature of such value-laden statuses, or with the fact that people labelled as such contest these terms. It’s one of many examples of how we are limited in speaking of the control regime in a critical way when using such language.
There have been many attempts within critical and activist debates to appropriate and challenge such terms. This task is on-going and imperfect, and most of the alternative words we use don’t break out of a definition in terms of lack, which makes it difficult to overcome a sense of inequality (Nyers 2010). A person is ‘illegalized’, ‘irregular(ized)’, ‘undocumented’ or ‘non-status’. Perhaps ‘refugee’ is an example where there is not a lack inherent to the term. Yet even this term is limited in creating a language that is not emasculated, brutalized, victimized or medicalized (Pupavac 2008). Sometimes the No Border Network opts for the term ‘migrant’, because ‘[c]ategories like refugee, asylum seeker, economic migrant and illegal immigrant are used to divide and control. This is why we use the term “migrant” for all’ (No Borders UK n.d.). In places like Calais, though, terms like ‘migrant’ still don’t feel appropriate because they continue to define us in terms of a status of legitimate presence that sets ‘us’ apart from ‘the migrants’ and that leaves the ‘us’, whoever that is, unexplored/unquestioned.
Yet how do we talk about migration in ways that don’t reproduce the same socio-political processes that create the very inequalities we seek to oppose? My experience of being in places like Calais, feeling this way and talking to others about it, leads me to suggest that where we can, and where it’s appropriate, the best ways we can refer to others is in ways that don’t refer directly to those things that separate us in structural ways, but which refer rather in some specific way to the material reality we find ourselves in. In Calais, for example, ‘people trying to cross’ or ‘people living in the jungle’ feel more useful terms than ‘migrant’; in Athens ‘people without papers’ does the same. Sometimes a specific migration status seems relevant and important to the discussion, and in those cases I have opted to use the most appropriate and dignified term that helps to describe this.
Creating critical language also means thinking about how we term ourselves, which also involves thinking about who ‘we’ are. What groups such as No Borders, Calais Migrant Solidarity and the Network for Support to Migrants and Refugees do – groups that I look at in this book, that struggle for the freedom of movement and are largely populated by Europeans with papers – is generally defined as activism and carried out by people who are defined as activists. I define activism as doing which either intentionally or otherwise potentially transforms or escapes the state (concepts I explore in the next chapter). As such, anyone who does such things is an activist, and everyone who I talk about in this book is an activist.
Yet the way the term activist is usually used is not inclusive like this. It tends to set certain people and certain types of activity apart in a way that exacerbates divisions and hierarchy (Andrew x. 2000; Führer 2014). In places like Calais, the term makes it sound as if it’s only those who self-define as a participant in radical social change that are activists and create such change (yet most people often apply the term to somebody other than themselves. People rarely define themselves as an ‘activist’, the real activist often being someone more dedicated, more radical, more …). As such it writes out all those who come to Calais to cross to the UK, and in their crossing subvert the border in a very practical sense. In one email exchange, someone involved in the struggle for the freedom of movement wrote,
for me the word activist especially in the context of Calais, is not one we as a ‘milieu’, movement whatever should be using, unless it applies to everyone. For me, its manifestation is racially and class charged, because we don’t usually afford the term ‘activist’ to clandestine border crossing by ‘migrants’ or to people who rob [squat] houses; but when no borders affiliated folk enable someone to cross (through support or whatever) or ‘expropriate’ (rob) tools from houses to use in ‘the struggle’ It’s activism. (Email exchange, Anon., July 2016).
Related to that, people involved in the No Border Network put it well when they say that ‘CMS [Calais Migrant Solidarity] activists have said that they have had their assumptions about activism challenged, and have had to re-conceptualise the term activist in recognition of the years many migrants have spent subverting the borders and helping one another in the face of state oppression’ (Croydon Migrant Solidarity n.d.). I use the term activist mindful of these perspectives. I use it in this book largely to refer to people directly involved in certain self-defined communities for resistance, but I hope it is clear that what I mean by activist also includes people trying to cross.
What this means for this book is that I have elected to use a diverse range of terms to go beyond and to question the division between ‘migrant’ and ‘activist’. Where I have used terminology from the discourses of control, I have used quotation marks. Where we have not found our own language, the quotation marks mark my dissent.
This is an extract from the Introduction to Natasha King’s No Borders