The border produces the violence that surrounds it

Recommendation: Reece Jones: Violent Borders. Refugees and the Right to Move. Verso 2016

By Lise Olivarius • 2017

Why are states so obsessed with restricting the movements of people, and particularly poor people? This is the urgent question throughout Reece Jones’ Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move (2016). Taking its starting point in the current global migration crises, the book offers an extremely timely, critical study of borders and the violence they produce. The scope is ambitious: the book covers cases from the EU, Australia, the US-Mexican border, India, Bangladesh, and Palestine; it draws lines from the enclosing of the commons in the 17th century, through colonialism and up to the present day; and it incorporates both an environmentalist perspective and a critique of capitalism. All in less than 200 pages, and somehow without losing its breath or its focus.

the book argues that the border produces the economic and jurisdictional differences which we normally understand it to merely represent. And not least, the border produces the violence that surrounds it. The border is the source of, not the response to, violence

With a wide variety of cases from all over the world and, simultaneously, long historical trajectories, Jones convincingly argues that the effort to settle mobile populations has been a never-ending project of every state that has ever existed. The project is never-ending because it so seldom succeeds. Instead, the result is violence. Border violence has always been the epitome of the institution of the state as such. That being said, the degree of border violence has escalated alarmingly in recent times. Violent Borders documents how in the last couple of years, more people than ever before have died in the attempt to cross a border. Why must so many people suffer ghastly deaths at the thresholds of so-called civilized nations?

Violence and walls
The Western world has produced a powerful narrative about border violence being natural and inevitable, wherever less privileged nations rub up against richer, more stable countries. Border violence is the necessary means through which the latter protect their citizens against the former. When the border itself does not ward off unwelcome foreigners, it must be strengthened in order to keep out violence and unrest. Violent Borders disputes this narrative about borders being a natural part of the human world. Instead, the book argues that the border produces the economic and jurisdictional differences which we normally understand it to merely represent. And not least, the border produces the violence that surrounds it. The border is the source of, not the response to, violence.

Direct violence is actually only responsible for an infinitesimal part of the total number of border deaths. Much more fatal is the way closed borders force people to travel highly dangerous routes, or prohibit access to vital resources

The dramatic rise in border violence of recent years has coincided with the introduction of new technologies, erection of walls, and intensified militarization. As late as 1990, only fifteen countries had walls or fences on their borders. By 2016, the number was almost seventy! The militarization of borders as such is not a new thing, but what is new is military violence at borders being used constantly and against civilians – no longer solely against the power of other sovereign states in times of war like in the good old days. Thus the line between civilian and military law, considered so fundamental for our world order, is blurred.

the border control technologies were originally war technologies. The state of exception has indeed become the rule

One of the great strengths of the book is its extended understanding of the central concept of violence. Direct violence is actually only responsible for an infinitesimal part of the total number of border deaths. Much more fatal is the way closed borders force people to travel highly dangerous routes, or prohibit access to vital resources. This is what Jones call structural violence. Other levels of structural border violence are the economic inequality that borders create on a global scale, and the harm border technologies inflict on the environment. While the Indian-Bangladeshi border is where the highest number of people are killed by border guards, far more people die at the gates of Europe, most of them by drowning. In this regard, the border of the EU is the deadliest in the world – with the US-Mexican border in hot pursuit.

Bondage and borders
The historical perspective of the book serves the purpose of denaturalizing things we tend to take for granted. I was surprised to learn that up until World War I, passports were only required in times of war as a way to catch enemy spies. Note again, here, how the border control technologies that are now so ingrained in our everyday lives were originally war technologies. The state of exception has indeed become the rule.

The purpose is and has always been to settle, locate, and discipline the poor, control labour, and limit access to resources

Violent Borders claims that our modern-day systems of citizenship and ID control are only updated versions of slavery, serfdom, and the so-called “poor laws” against vagrancy and vagabondage. The purpose is and has always been to settle, locate, and discipline the poor, control labour, and limit access to resources.

Of course, the century-long conflict between states and movement has undergone some development. The 19th century saw a unique momentum for the freedom of movement, when the poor migrated to the US and other settler-colonial states on a mass scale. Previously, states would control the poor within their territory – e.g. through the institution of serfdom. And soon after, national borders would harden as nation-states became more possessive of newly-won privileges. Today, the right to free movement within a sovereign territory is codified in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the rich are still in strict control of the movements of the poor. Only now, the restrictions are principally maintained between states, rather than within states. Citizenship, passports, and ID control make up the bondage of the present.

Critique of state and capitalism
Another new phenomenon characterizing what Jones calls the global border regime of today is cooperation between states in reinforcing their borders. The so-called “buffer zone” of the EU is an example of this. Violent Borders refutes the oft-heard claim that states have lost power in a globalized world. States still embody the central political power of the world, more fiercely fortified than ever before. Supranational bodies, like the UN, don’t challenge the authority of nation-states; they protect their interests.

the rich are still in strict control of the movements of the poor. Only now, the restrictions are principally maintained between states, rather than within states. Citizenship, passports, and ID control make up the bondage of the present

Dealing with the borders of labour and production, Violent Borders sums up the classic critique of how globalization has allowed multinational corporations to operate in many countries in order to take advantage of the differences between them while workers are contained by borders. The restriction of the movement of workers results in artificially low wages. “Free trade agreements probably make sense – if they are accompanied by the free movement of people”, Jones drily remarks. But today, there are no young settler-colonial states to welcome and absorb migrant labour in large numbers.
The focus on labour conditions allows the book to question who has the right to move in search for a better life, and to problematize the fraught term “economic migration”:

“In the current system, a refugee fleeing political persecution is more legitimate than a migrant fleeing a life in a filthy, crowded, disease-ridden, and dangerous slum where the only option is to work long hours in a sweatshop for very low wages. Focusing only on the limited, state-defined term refugee renders other categories of migrants, who are moving for economic or environmental reasons, as underserving of help or sympathy.”

Violent Borders has an impressive scope, far-reaching geographically and historically as well as thematically, but it effortlessly combines its many elements into a coherent analysis – not least by virtue of its critique of state and capitalism, which runs through the book as a solid backbone. This structural perspective is the book’s greatest forte. It enables Violent Borders to move beyond the mere symptoms of the so-called refugee crisis – to which practically everyone else, politicians as well as theorists, is confining themselves – to actually address the root of the problem.

States still embody the central political power of the world, more fiercely fortified than ever before. Supranational bodies, like the UN, don’t challenge the authority of nation-states; they protect their interests

A new global border regime?
Most of the book is an attempt to diagnose this problem of borders. The conclusion, however, ventures something more: a response to the question of what is to be done? The goal is nothing less than “a world without states, hierarchies, and capitalism”. But in case that doesn’t come true anytime soon, Jones suggests three more achievable, although still quite ambitious, intermediate aims. The first is free movement between states. That may sound like a flimsy phrase, but the book argues soberly, almost realpolitisch, that immigration doesn’t have to be an economic burden: Immigrants “create” as many jobs as they “take”. Besides, stabilizing the world by decreasing its vast economic inequality ought to be in the interests of everyone – and freedom of movement is the most efficient equalizer. The other principles are global rules for working conditions and environmental protection, plus limits on private property. However, here Jones fails to suggest which supranational institutions should enforce these global rules. Generally, the book functions better as a descriptive analysis than as a manual for revolution.

Perhaps it functions best when it cuts razor-sharp lines through history. I am left with a painfully clear impression of how the imperialist powers’ arbitrary divisions of Africa and the Middle East led directly to the conflicts raging in the regions right now. When Islamic State proclaimed its caliphate in 2014, it triumphed in its transgression of the Syrian-Iraqi border drawn by France and England in the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. Even scarier, however, is the arrogant and ahistorical hypocrisy of Western states when they refuse to receive refugees from conflicts that are the direct result of the artificial borders these very same states have imposed.

All in all, I find Violent Borders’ analysis thoroughly convincing. But as I write this, entire nationalities are being banned from the US. And I wonder if we are facing another paradigm shift in the global border regime. Will it no longer be mainly the poor whose movements are restricted? When Donald Trump plans to instate a tariff wall as well as a physical wall on the Mexican border, it seems that the system no longer unequivocally benefits global capital. Are we witnessing a new global border regime dictated not as much by neoliberal capitalism as by islamophobia, racism, right-wing populism, fear of terrorism, and general xenophobia? Perhaps this development has been under way for some time and has just now become blatant enough to notice. In these strange, Trumpist times, it is impossible to say which new forms borders and the fight against them will take.