There is no such thing as a ‘left’ case for borders

Arguments for borders rely on historically illiterate and morally inexcusable reasoning that has no right to call itself 'leftwing', writes Luke de Noronha

December 3, 2018 · 8 min read
A border fence dividing Tijuana, Mexico from the United States. Photo by Daniel Arauz (Flickr)

Angela Nagle recently whipped up controversy with her piece The Left Case Against Open Borders. She argues that liberal migration regimes are a right wing ploy to secure cheap, mobile, disposable labour – a ruse she says the left has fallen for. We see similar arguments, closer to home, in commentary from people like Paul Mason – analysis which is espoused by a significant proportion of the organised (Corbyn-voting) left. They tell us that we need to get real about immigration; after all, immigrants undercut wages and precipitate cultural tensions. Importantly, the indigenous working classes will turn to the far-right if their legitimate grievances aren’t heard.  

For these leftists, everyone loses out when migration is encouraged – the hyperexploited migrants and the native working classes – everyone but the elite. Perhaps then, we all stand to gain if immigration controls are strengthened, although quite how is rarely spelled out. It is worth pushing this point, and asking what forms of border violence can be justified among these leftists. Where others have criticised Nagle’s historical revisionism, her unfounded claim that migrants depress wages, and her remarkably cordial appearance on Fox News, I am less interested in what motivates Nagle’s shonky and sycophantic public interventions. Instead, I want to push one broad question a little further: what would a ‘leftist’ border regime look like?

As if to anticipate the accusation that they are nativist – which apparently they see as a slur, even though it simply means ‘putting natives first’, which they do – the pro-borders leftists usually explain that immigration controls can and should protect the global poor. To save foreigners from exploitation, we should support their struggles in their homelands.

It is apparent that these are empty, throwaway comments, devoid of any meaning or political commitment. After all, are these proponents seriously prepared to commit to a radical programme of global distribution, a restructuring that would necessarily eat substantially into the disproportionate share of wealth and income currently enjoyed by the Western countries they speak from?

Of course, sympathy for foreigners, providing they stay where they belong, is not as distinct from far-right discourse as the Nagle’s of this world might want to believe. We need only recall Jean-Marie Le Pen’s memorable claim: ‘I love Maghrebins, but their place is in the Maghreb’, or Stuart Hall’s reminder that Enoch Powell ‘adored India…he just thought none of them should be here’.

But even if we take Nagle at her word, and assume she really believes that the global poor are best supported by being encouraged to stay ‘at home’, clearly in the meanwhile, pending world peace and global redistribution, many will continue to move, and so the question remains: what should ‘we’ do with ‘them’?

What forms of coercive state power might be justified against these unruly vagrants – speaking as a leftist, of course? What should our position be on detention centres, deportation flights, and the proliferation of border walls globally?

Within a leftist border regime, who would provide refuge for the millions of people displaced by war? Are refugee camps the size of large cities in regions of great scarcity – in Kenya, Turkey, or Jordan – conscionable? And why should such these countries be expected to shoulder the continued ‘burden’ whilst we happily renege on those duties in the interests of shielding our own, ‘indigenous working class’?

In the British context, what are our obligations to people displaced by wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – of which we have played a crucial part? This is not just about those who claim asylum here, but our obligations to provide safe passage for people unable to escape.

And what should our position be on those migrating from the former colonies – from Nigeria, Ghana, Jamaica, or Pakistan? How do we justify the exclusion of former colonials, those earlier ‘natives’, especially if we recognise that the story of global capitalism is the story of their dispossession? How should we respond when they remind us that they are here because we were there?

Even if we avoid the question of our historical responsibility for colonial global disparities – as exponents of white left analysis invariably do – what about the nightmarish realities of climate change? As leftist anti-capitalists, surely we recognise that ecological crises are not the fault of the global poor, and so how do we help them stay put when the seas rise and the storms hit?

Relatedly, as Europeans what should we do about the mass grave we have made of the Mediterranean? If we want to shift the calculus that makes travel on a crowded boat worth thousands of dollars, then we need to be willing to increase routes for safe travel. Or should we instead double down our enforcement efforts in the great bordering of the seas?

In Britain, surely leftists should be calling for the closure of our detention centres, where thousands of inmates work for just £1 an hour. But what then? Do we help these foreigners regularise, so they can ‘compete’ with natives in the labour market on equal terms, or should we deport them on charter flights (after all, charter flights employ two to three escorts per ‘deportee’ – British jobs for British workers)? These questions might seem like facile references to various acts of border violence, but they are questions I would like answered. What do left advocates of immigration controls think about detention centres, deportation flights, restrictive asylum policies, classist visa regimes, restrictions on family and marriage migration, and biometric technologies of surveillance and documentation?

If advocates of the no borders position (like me) are accused of being unrealistic, blind to the apocalyptic prospect of uncontrolled movement, then please do tell me how your bordered world might take form, and how the walled workers will unite?

Nagle and her kin endorse a radical politics in which the fight for better working conditions concerns only natives. Their ‘leftism’ justifies immobilising people on a global scale, despite the inevitable expansion of violent technologies of state coercion and surveillance on which such a programme relies.

Nagle argues that when we make arguments for open borders, we end up in chorus with free market capitalists – and much of the organised left seems to agree. But a politics of no borders – not open borders – is precisely one which refuses all forms of border violence. This refusal is based on the recognition that there is no way to restrict people’s mobility in a world this unequal except through extreme forms of state coercion. This refusal provides the starting point for our solidarity with migrants, not because we romanticise all forms of migration but because we abhor all forms of bordering.

Nativist ‘leftism’, on the other hand, is so devoid of imagination, so adrift from the struggle for collective liberation, and so profoundly parochial (read racist) in its imagined constituency, that it offers nothing for those concerned with making this floundering world liveable. Nagle and her kind present the worst tendencies within the left: a kind of necropolitics of borders in which the global poor, who are owed more than we can pay, are let die on an unimaginable scale, told to stay where they belong, and subject to the greatest excesses of state power should they dare to move without authorisation.

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