03 May, 2006


In comments on Hedgehog's Mayday-related post there's a fair bit of grumbling about why we should take the demands of illegal immigrants seriously. I don't usually make moral arguments here; I tend to assume that I'm talking into my own hat anyway, so there's no real purpose. But in this case I think it's probably best to make such arguments explicit, for myself as well as for everyone else involved.

The crux of this debate was captured by my very own J3 (in, I believe, his inaugural comment on this blervgh), who makes the following, and in my opinion, false, statement:
Ultimately (most) countries make their laws to promote the interests of their citizens.
This apparently harmless sentence turns out to be a pronouncement of bottomless profundity. Because, indeed, how does one determine what constitutes the "interests of their citizens"?

At the very outset we must admit that there can be no coherent, unifying interest of the citizenry. Getting any two individuals to agree on a single thing is usually a lost project. And in a body as large as a country, there's no hope of reaching consensus on what that interest is. At best, we might satisfy a majority of the individuals, or perhaps satisfy the most sagacious, or the most vocal, or the most violent, or the most powerful. But interests, by and large, will collide. So, whose interest is it that we're speaking of?

Consider: from whence doth this notion of a 'country' proceed? While we're being honest with ourselves, we should admit that this is a more or less derelict notion, the product of nineteenth-century nationalism. Ostensibly countries are bound together by some common sense of identity or shared history. Most of the modern borders in the world were drawn by colonialists, though, with little regard for ethnicity. Countries were defined by the edge of a river or a ruled line on a map; no matter that it trisected a certain people into separate states or forced bitter rivals into the same one. Modern nations are either the remnants of old agglomerations of power - principalities and later nationalities - or their haphazard conqests.

And why should we allow a particular transient historical circumstance to ossify into a permanent entity? Human history has always included migration and change - Mongols replacing Huns replacing Goths replacing Celts. Some people may have had the delusion that the little they had seen in the brief span of their lives reflected the world as it always had been, that the immediate reality they perceived, of race, of language, of culture, represented something timeless. The modern perspective on history is considerably expanded from this myopic nineteenth-century vision.

Similarly for shared history, which by no means implies shared interest; for a relevant historical example we can look to the French Revolution.

At best, we might agree that nations serve as organizational conveniences. This particular set of people in this particular place is governed by this particular set of laws - not for any cogent reason that we can lay out. It's simply historical accident. There's no particular reason not to let it persist, so long as it hurts nothing.

Some people, however, have adopted the viewpoint that these arbitrary boundaries DO hurt. These people espouse the philosophy that they should be able to move where they like and do what they like more or less unconstrained by the idiosyncracies of local laws. And to the extent that it's possible they've made considerable effort to break down borders, going where they please and more or less eradicating the notion of independent nation-states governed by their own, separate laws. They wish to leave in its place a borderless world, an internationalized world. I think someone might even have coined a term to describe this...

You can probably tell where I'm going, here. But before you get your dander up and start puffing out your chest and squawking, take the idea seriously. Capitalists have, via globalization, made real efforts to eradicate borders for themselves. And in many ways, they've succeeded.

The relevant example in this instance would be the North American Free Trade Agreement. It was wildly unpopular in the U.S., opposed by the majority of people throughout the effort to pass it, despite the approval of talking heads and politicians. It was finally pushed through, wrapped in a generous helping of pork, even though a majority of Americans felt it was not in their "interests" to do so. However, it was in the interests of a particular subset of Americans, viz., the ruling class. And so we get maquiladoras below the border and American corn dumped into the Mexican market, impoverishment of campesinos and the enervation of the American manufacturing sector. None of this was at all in the "interest" of the millions of people it affected.

So it really behooves us not to continue considering borders to represent the edges of some sacred circle any more. Capital doesn't. The rest of us continue to do so at our peril.

I'm not suggesting that the interests of upper-middle-class people like ourselves are necessarily bound up with those of working-class people. We may, if we choose, continue sucking at the teat of capital, and likely we can grow very fat there, until such time as someone determines it's time we were bled, dressed, broiled with a nice lemon glaze and served for Christmas dinner. But argumentum ad bureaucratiam? That we've been standing in line the longest in this charade? That's not at all compelling.

History, culture, economics, mores, geography - all of these obviously matter, and who gets to partake of this bountiful bouquet is well worth debating. And we should each certainly consider our interests - along whatever axis we think those lie. But the borders themselves mean nothing.


look out, canada. 

Posted by hibiscus

Thank you for laying out the basics. I may send people here every time I feel like I have to inject the idea of looking at things from outside the framework of nationalist ideology (which is frequent).

To play Devil's advocate--I think that on a philosophical level everything you're saying is true, but what about the after-effects of the construction of the nation? It's an ideology, but then it takes on a life of its own that has real emotional meaning to people.

For example, I don't think you would ever  get as many Mexican and Chicano people onto the streets on this issue as have showed up if there weren't an intersection of race, class, language, and, in some respects, national interests (This Slate article  is good in describing that succinctly). Similarly, I think there can be benevolent uses for nationalism in the States whereas as a strategic maneuver, actively attacking it might lead to more reaction than not.

Which is all to say that one possible strategy to counteract the effects of transnational capital is to mobilize people transnationally, but use "the nation" (and other shared communal feelings around language, race, etc.) as a way of getting there. 

Posted by someone else

i think it's naive to talk about borders that way. capital and chains of production may cross physical boundaries freely (but not legal boundaries), but that doesn't mean that geographically-derived authority is any less attractive to power seekers than money-derived. personally i think cities are a much more useful unit for thinking about where people are and what they're doing, but gangs of metropolitan areas conspiring to share water systems, food supplies, various rocks, etc is a totally predictable event as populations grow, resources supplies tighten, and transport range increases. you want guarantees.

that said i also think people like a good flag. it feels good to have one's community faith-dependence presented prettily on holidays and war machines. 

Posted by hibiscus

Personally i think cities are a much more useful unit for thinking about where people are and what they're doing

You should read some of Jane Jacobs' work between Death and Life of Great American Cities and Dark Age Ahead. She has a lot on refocusing economic analysis on to the city rather than the state. I've only read one book--I think it was Cities and the Wealth of Nations. Also, I welcome other tools for understanding economics outside of a nationalist framework if anyone has suggestions. 

Posted by someone else

Hooray, the broken comment machine is fixed. Thanks, Saurabh.

This is a great post that patiently, analytically lays out some of the ways borders can be harmful. What people forget is that there are different kinds of borders. The borders of the world could be more like those between U.S. states. The Articles of Confederation guaranteed people freedom of travel. While people could travel freely, institutions could not: interstate corporations didn't yet exist. That might be too extreme, but it shows that states can be useful administrative areas with distinct personalities and plenty of useful mascots in the form of state college football teams without going so far as to exacerbate differences between people.

It's easy to forget what the name U.S.A. stands for. After the Revolution, the States could easily have become independent from one another as were the European states of that age. But the founders agreed to put all these units together in a federation. There is no inherent reason why the same couldn't be done among wider geographic areas. Europe today is doing a lot of this "harmonization" in a slow, gradual way. In North America, we have harmonized trade but have yet to harmonize human rights, much less anyone's responsibilities. The closest institution we have in this hemisphere to a conscience demanding responsibilities is the Organization of American States, which at least was able to help maintain constitutional law in Venezuela. Nafta doesn't quite cut it. 

Posted by hedgehog

regional economies would seem to be the future. particularly for managing water and energy, but also for waste, fishing, etc. i think pretty much everybody is looking at the world now and saying, if we want to live better than this, we need to lower these costs, share those costs, toss that, and so on. it's the overhead of bloodsport sovereignty that kills you, now and later. not that nationalism is dead, just that if you can't tell the difference between rooting for a sports team and making smart resource decisions, you're a burden to the world.

NAFTA is heavily distorted by the enormous transport fuel resources of the 3 countries in the deal. i wish i didn't feel like we had to wait for the reaper's arrival to get some realistic behavior. unfortunately for the forseeable future each can afford to eat gargantuan internal freight costs.

also, excellent news for immigration rights activists this morning, from AP:

Investors were upbeat about a substantial drop in employment growth after the Labor Department said U.S. employers added just 138,000 jobs in April, far less than estimates for a 200,000 gain. The unemployment rate held steady at 4.7 percent.

The slowdown in hiring was enough to counter worries over rising wages, which followed an upswing in employers' labor costs reported by the Labor Department Thursday. Average hourly earnings grew 0.5 percent last month, above the consensus target of 0.3 percent.

frozen wages in a hot economy means quality of life issues for migrants are not completely off the table. great news! 

Posted by hibiscus

well it was frozen wages even though it wasn't. so to speak.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?