Borders and socialism

Borders as the social practice of filtering

In order to consider what should socialists do about borders, it is useful to talk about practices of bordering. Although the term ‘border’ suggests a fixing of categorical difference between inside and outside, borders are, politically speaking, constructed, reproduced, changed, and contested.

This is not to say that borders do not possess very material properties and effects. Borders are principally about coercive exclusion. The properties of coercion innate within borders mean that  border politics is not about persuasion, legitimacy, participation, or accountability; bordering is about law, policing, and physical barriers. We can see in border practices more hard power than soft.

It is, therefore, easy to see why the discussion of borders remains largely a discussion about the state. But, although bordering is fundamentally about the power of states to exclude, it is also about allowing passage. Every border is both a barrier and a point of entry. Bordering is filtering. The question is how the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion are enacted within bordering practices.

The cardinal features of differential bordering in global capitalism are:

(1) the racialised exclusion and cantonment of migrants;

(2) the maintenance of nationally-bordered labour forces that compete against each other to attract global capital;

(3) an expanding elite transnational realm for the wealthy and powerful;

(4) the downward adjustment of tax and regulatory regimes for FDI;

(5) the expansion of a complex system of tax havens.

In broad brush, then, borders lower as wealth increases.

For those on the Left, the response to these patterns has been to make a case for an intensified bordering of capital and a flattening in the bordering of people. Although this orientation is broadly right and ideologically attractive, I want to suggest that it does not fully capture the challenges of the politics of borders for two interconnected reasons.

Firstly, the bordering of capital needs to be understood contextually within a world of radically unequal states and this has repercussions for how we understand relations between states and capital. Secondly, for socialism to flourish it requires an embedding in democratic processes. The first reason can be discussed as the bordering of capital; the second as socialist bordering. I will take each point in turn.


Bordering capital

The bordering of capital is commonplace and intrinsic to modern sovereignty. Governments can make the entry of global capital into a territory conditional; they can impose fiscal and legislative regimes that penalise financial capital’s speculative activities; or they can exclude or expel companies. In relation to trade, states commonly maintain tariff barriers; and customs agencies can ban the entry of some commodities and set standards for others. Some acts of bordering capital can be found in all states, even weak ones.

Thus, bordering capital remains a core practice of statehood. Some brief examples to illustrate. Thailand bans agribusinesses from investing in GM crop cultivation – as do almost all countries in Africa. Since the late 1990s, Brazil, China, and South Korea have innovated capital control regimes using legislation and central bank power. Post-colonial governments have used development boards to set performance conditions on the entry of FDI. And governments sometime annul investment contracts with TNCs, subsequently either nationalising or re-tendering.

The tenacity and scope of these kinds of measures relates crucially to the politics and history of the countries involved. Thailand’s politics is conditioned by the Asian financial crisis in 1997. In some Southeast Asian and South American countries in the 2000s, a new politics of ‘sovereignty’ in relation to food and minerals has bordered international capital. In Zambia and Rwanda, investment contracts have been annulled ostensibly because of a failure to fulfil developmental commitments.

This is not an argument that capital is being disciplined or regulated by a new nationalist border politics. It remains the case that capital, and especially finance, exercises downwards pressure on bordering, evades regulation, and subverts government authority.

But, the state’s bordering practices are still the most politically robust way to discipline capital. States have a far greater capacity than any other agency or institution to exercise power over capital. Governments can – and sometimes do – legally expropriate private businesses and reorganise them according to their own legal and political principles.

Recognising this does not necessarily move us towards a normative nationalism. On the contrary, the sensibility on the Left that assumes that the bordering international capital is intrinsically a good thing is problematic for two reasons.

(1) One is the fact that hostility towards transnational capital is not necessarily socialist. A hostility to international capital can be articulated in populist and xenophobic terms. Furthermore, the social bases of nationalist bordering might derive from business rather than labour, especially in post-colonial states. Anti-imperialist ideologies of bordering against international capital can support the enrichment of politically-connected business and the disciplining workers and farmers in the name of some patriotic duty. Examples of this perspective can be found in South American and African nationalisms of the 1960s and 70s.

(2) Secondly, and relatedly, an openness to transnational capital is not all bad. It is important to recall that the mobility of capital has also been a conduit for the transfer of productive activities and technologies from core to peripheral countries. This can be pivotal for countries with mass poverty if their governments are determined to generate growth and productivity increases.

There is a need to think differentially about the practices of bordering international capital in which consideration is given to the degree to which a national economy is accumulating, investing, and growing. Capital scarcity remains a major challenge for countries with mass poverty and low productivity economies, and countries that have achieved capitalist development have usually done so through the art of capturing large amounts of international investment at some point.

In sum, bordering capital raises major strategic and political questions that are defined by three distinct considerations: disciplining international capital to attenuate its economic harms within national borders; articulating the politics of sovereignty through non-xenophobic norms; and maintaining societies open to the mobility of technology and knowledge. If the question is what should socialists do about the bordering of capital, the answer has to be contextual, nuanced, and historical, alert to the radical inequalities between nation-states and the combined and uneven generation of wealth and poverty under global capitalism.


Socialist bordering

This brings us to our second consideration which is the bordering of democratic socialism. Whilst it might be possible to make an argument that global capitalism can only be superseded by global socialism, we remain for the foreseeable future in a world in which the best examples of social justice and of democratic politics have been enacted within states. The desire to pursue a project of democratic socialist transformation requires a government, a shared territory, and a population that is both a subject and object of political agency. This being so, certain bordering practices seem vital to a socialist project.

In fact the strongest efforts to construct less bordered politics aspire towards a transnational liberal governance, championed by elites. Transnational liberal governance is ensconced in IFIs, intergovernmental organisations, thinktanks, and cloistered elite meetings and summitry.  It is within this milieu that heads of state, IFI staff, bankers, CEOs, and famous economists generate global governance. This elite uses an ersatz language of democracy composed through terms such as empowerment, transparency, and capabilities. Within each of the components of this global architecture resides a desire to escape democratic politics not by destroying states but by locking them into universal protocols of market functionality.

A politics of nationally-bounded democratic socialism provides the conditions of possibility to resist the global governance of capital and the state system it produces. It advocates for popular movements to remove the national space from the anti-democratic and globalised rule of capital and to nurture new ways of working, living and socialising.

Any nationally-based democratic socialist politics is also in effect an international politics. Socialism in one or some countries implies the possibility of socialism in others. Socialist bordering involves a politics of social justice in which a popularly accountable state has  legitimate authority to transform the political economy towards socialism’s promise. Inasmuch as this aspiration is realised, it invigorates discourses for other democratic socialist projects.

So, if the question is what should socialists think about borders, we need to return to the understanding of bordering as the differential practice of inclusion and exclusion and consider these differentiations both in relation to class and with a strong wariness of essentialist narratives of indigeneity. This framing necessarily generates complex and situational understandings of bordering.

Nevertheless, drawing back from all of the concrete complexity, it is important to recognise that in a world so universally dominated by capital, it is extremely difficult to imagine any kind of socialism that is not in its emergence a bordering project that offers a broader promise of a rolling back of capitalism. Consider the aphorism that globalisation is what states make of it. In the present day, globalisation is made by powerful capitalist states. The more ambitious borderless globalisation that socialists would wish to support must be made by a different kind of state altogether.


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