On borders

Nations, like individuals, tell stories in order to understand what they are, where they come from, and what they want to be. National narratives, like personal ones, are prone to sentimentality, grievance, pride, shame, self-blindness. There is never just one—they compete and constantly change. The most durable narratives are not the ones that stand up best to fact-checking. They’re the ones that address our deepest needs and desires.

George Packer

I was moved to write this post by an article in the Guardian newspaper entitled: “The big idea: do nations really need borders?” As those familiar with Betteridge’s Law might have predicted, the article argues that they do not. If the article had had comments enabled, I would have written this piece as a comment; since the Guardian apparently isn’t interested in my (or your) opinion, I shall have to say my piece here. Feel free, by the way, to go and read the original article first; I’m happy to wait.

Living without borders sounds great. The reality is, it doesn’t work, and the reason it doesn’t work is to do with people’s relationship to the land. People who consciously have such a relationship would never even entertain such a notion, which says a lot about the kind of people who write for the Guardian, and by extension a lot of the people who read it.

(Incidentally, I don’t single out the Guardian because it is the worst offender in this area. Indeed, I read it, and have done for years, because it is one of the few mainstream newspapers in the UK that still occasionally does journalism. I would even recommend it, with the the one caveat that you need to be aware of its biases; but there are no news outlets without bias these days, and at least with the Guardian you know what they are and can correct for them.)

The article starts by considering the predicament of the atoll nation of Tuvalu. As climate change proceeds – and, as the article tacitly admits, it will proceed – the attendant rise in sea-level will result in Tuvalu disappearing from the map, other than as a hazard to shipping. It will not come as a surprise to you, dear reader, that the people of Tuvalu are not very happy about this outcome, and it’s hard not to sympathise with them, in as much as Tuvalu has never done much in the way of coal-mining, oil-drilling or heavy industry.

So given that it sucks to be an inhabitant of Tuvalu, unless you happen to own a boat or be an exceptionally strong swimmer, you would need a heart of stone, and/or a commitment to neo-liberal economics, not to want to give them a helping hand. It is on this basis that, per the article, the Foreign Minister of Tuvalu, one Simon Kofe, is asking the world to recognise the concept of climate mobility.

Now I am not sure that climate mobility means anything more than the tendency of people to want to go and live somewhere less underwater than Tuvalu is soon going to be, and again I think it’s hard to want to deny that to our fellow-creatures. But it’s a stretch to go from that to the general principle that anyone should be able to go and live anywhere at any time, which is what the idea of a world entirely without borders implies.

Given physics, it is obvious that a lot of people are going to want to invoke the principle of climate mobility. Indeed many people have already voted with their feet and/or rubber dinghies, and you can’t blame them. If I could no longer feed my family because of a multi-year drought, you can bet your bottom dollar I’d be taking them elsewhere, by any means necessary.

But calling this “climate mobility” is merely a euphemism. Because refugees have a bad name these days, it is expedient to pretend that this group of refugees is somehow to be distinguished from those other refugees over there, who are bad. And I can understand why you would want to do that. If I were the Foreign Minister of Tuvalu, I might well try it on myself. Again, I am not judging the poor souls who are at the sharp end of all this.

I have had occasion to cross international borders in my time, as you may have done yourself, dear reader. There is no doubt that it is a pain in the rear, especially if your passport is from a nation deficient in “border privilege.” However, there are many things that are a pain in the rear but nevertheless necessary and worthwhile, so let us see why the article thinks that national borders are not amongst these.

It is claimed in the article that national borders were not really a thing before the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. To me this looks like a fairly blatant sleight-of-hand. It is the conventional wisdom that the Treaty of Westphalia is the founding document for the idea of the nation-state. Be that as it may, it is not the founding document for the idea of borders. That idea goes back much, much further.

Many creatures have territories. This is a commonplace of biology. Anyone who has ever heard birdsong is a witness to this. (It may well be that the author of the Guardian piece has never heard birdsong, which might explain a lot.) Our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, also displays territorial behaviour. It shouldn’t come as a great surprise that we do it too.

Your territory determines what you get. For the most part, what we are talking about here is food and other necessities. It may be, as the article suggests, that settled agrarian societies tend to be more anal about this sort of thing than nomadic ones, but the difference is one of degree, not kind. Hunter-gatherer societies depend on knowing a specific patch very intimately, and they don’t wander about it at random. On the contrary, they go where they know the food is at a particular time, based on long years of experience. If someone comes along and forces them off that patch, it’s a crisis, because all that knowledge may need to be re-learned, in an environment where mistakes are liable to be fatal. Similarly, nomadic herders go where the grazing is in a given season. If someone else infringes on their grazing rights to some particular area, there will be trouble.

It might come as a great surprise to the author of the Guardian article to know that legal questions of exactly who could do exactly what in exactly what geographical area were the bread and butter of European law-courts for centuries before 1648. And this is necessarily so. If you are a peasant farmer in mediaeval Europe, it is not a small matter whether you can or cannot put your pigs to forage in a particular wood, or take fish from a particular stream. This is the difference between eating and starving. It’s just as much a life-and-death relationship as that between the people of Tuvalu and the level of the Pacific Ocean.

The particular example of a borderless nation which the article wishes to celebrate is that of Sápmi, the region of Scandinavia inhabited by the Sami, whom the article proudly terms “northern Europe’s last remaining indigenous people,” as if they were a museum exhibit. Well, that works okay as long as you are the only people interested in reindeer. If Elon Musk ever invents a car powered by reindeer antlers, I strongly suspect that Sápmi will soon cease to enjoy anything even vaguely resembling independence.

If history tells us anything, it is that indigenous people who have the misfortune to occupy land containing wealth that is coveted by our civilisation are either shunted aside or simply butchered in place. The Spanish conquistadors demonstrated that principle clearly enough when they occupied the gold- and silver-rich lands of central and southern America, but the fact that nowadays we are more interested in lithium has brought similar sorrows to the indigenous peoples of northern Argentina.

But there’s more to this than economics. A nation is not an arbitrary geographical area, even if the colonial powers divvying up Africa tried their best to make it look like that on the map. It is ultimately about the difference between one place and another, between one group of people and another, about the stories they tell, the songs they sing, the way they dress, the things they find funny or beautiful or sexy. It may be fashionable to pretend that these differences do not exist, but the tourist industry is powerful evidence to the contrary. There is, it turns out, an appreciable difference between Cleethorpes and Cancún, and you will find more of the world’s wealthy at one of them than the other.

It seems that you aren’t really supposed to invoke the notion of culture any more, but that is a huge part of what we are talking about. I’m going to look at this in terms of food, partly because I’m mildly obsessed with food but also because it’s something we all have in common. (Well, there may be some tech billionaires who subsist on an intravenous drip of Soylent Green, but those people aren’t really my target readership.)

What do you like to eat? If you are only interested in the kind of food available pretty much everywhere in the world, then I guess you don’t care which country you’re eating it in. (I also suspect you have type 2 diabetes, but hey, I’m not judging you.) But I’d like to think there’s at least one food you love that connects you to where you’re from, whether that food is cheese or fermented fish or grilled crickets or horse-meat – and I guarantee you that there are people somewhere who would rather starve to death than eat that food. And that’s completely fine.

According to my passport, I am a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, wherever the hell that is. I’ve never even been to Northern Ireland. I grew up in England, a place so bereft of cultural identity it doesn’t even have a national costume. But I can tell you that I’ve yet to eat a proper black pudding that was made outside Staffordshire.

If you want to live in a world without borders, you are ultimately asking to live in a world without difference, a world in which everyone consumes the same beige and inoffensive products marketed to them by the same handful of global mega-corporations – except, of course, for the fortunate few who will be holidaying in Cancún and enjoying the authentic local cuisine. Give me passport control any day of the week.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

One thought on “On borders

  1. Very interesting article and I love all the references and links. For me open borders would actually suit the neo-liberalists and rich employers who would love the extra consumption and extremely cheap labour costs constantly driven down by new arrivals – and what bank, whose value is based on house prices, would not love the massive increase in house prices caused by massive demand which outstrips supply.

    I heard recently that one in three sub-saharan Africans would leave if given the choice, and I may well be one of them if I were in that situation, but considering there are 1.1 billion people living there what nation could possibly cope with that number of people – let alone every other poor nation. What Chinese factory worker would want to stay working 60 hours a week when they could earn many times more working elsewhere?

    Borders, it seems, are a necessary evil until inequality around the world is reduced, which it is. No welfare state could ever survive if indeed it needed to serve the whole world, which it would.


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