In this post, I want to address a series of interrelated and overlapping topics that are a crucial part of the modern world system. On the one hand, the global border regime is one brutal aspect of the general(ized) system of nation-states – that is, of modern states in nations’ clothing (i.e. forms of appearance). As anarchists, communists and others have been saying for more than a century, this inter-nationalist state-based mode of sociopolitical organization is inherently incompatible with and opposed to global radical human emancipation and flourishing. At the same time/on the other hand, the questions of “national liberation”/”self-determination”/”autonomy” and international solidarity, arise alongside/amidst the analysis of and struggle against imperialism and colonialism. These are the topics I want to share my thoughts on, and some relevant readings/resources.
- I will first define the state in its modern capitalist form, imbedded in the project of nationalism; the global border regime is briefly described too.
- The topics of anti-imperialism, anti-nationalism and self-determination are addressed next.
Part 1: The Global System of Oppression
I have long past crossed the line of not only being frustrated with, but angrily opposed to the socio-ideologically hegemonic definitions and narratives on the nature and workings of the global political world. That is, the general worldview that takes states, capitalism, nationalisms, borders and armies – and everything that they do or that is implied in their interactions – for granted and at best a “necessary evil” that we can’t get away from. As I like to say, the key term in “necessary evil” is “evil”, not “necessary”! But opposition to statism (the ideological repertoire of the “natural” inevitability and desirability of the state-form, of states as units of organisation of and domination over human life), nationalism (the fetishisation of the nation into a political principle), capitalism (the dictatorship of the economic/capital accumulation over all human and other life), and borders (a modern construction enforced by and reproducing the above three), is simply out of the question in mainstream society and politics.
Borders, militarism (the chauvinist cult of death and violence) and international structural inequalities/oppression are not ‘unfortunate’ or ‘unintended’/accidental outcomes of modern politics, but the very foundation thereof – of course alongside the rule of capital and cis-het patriarchal domination (etc.).
The fundamentally oppressive and reactionary character of the state has been dissected and theorized extensively throughout the works of anarchists and other radical socialists (including Marx and Engels), as well as some critical social scientists. Without entering into this conceptual/theoretical discussion, here are a few general notes and concepts – as a background for thinking about nation-states, borders and nationalism and self-determination:
- States are modes of political organisation rooted in the institutionalisation of the “principle of authority“, famously defined by Bakunin as the idea “that the masses, always incapable of governing themselves, must submit at all times to the benevolent yoke of a wisdom and a justice, which in one way or another, is imposed from above”
- Institutionalisation can be defined sociologically as “the recognition of the necessarily binding nature and social legitimacy of certain roles, apparatuses or governing bodies, which are supposed to perform indispensable social or political ‘functions’: to lead, to draw up rules, to judge the validity of laws, to impose their respect, etc. Institutions are not only de facto bodies, objective products of power relations. They are legitimised elements of the political order, and their effectiveness depends to a large extent on the belief in their usefulness and, even more so, in their dignity.” [Jacques Lagroye, Sociologie politique, p. 462-463. Translated by me via deepl.com]
- In a simpler sense, in a 1877 speech Malatesta defined the state like this: “the state is the organisation of authority, it is a power, which, whatever its origin, exists outside the people and is therefore necessarily against the people” [emphasis added; cited in Caroline Cahm (1989) Kropotkin and the rise of revolutionary anarchism, 1872-1886, p. 33; thanks to Zoe Baker for mentioning it^^]
- They are based on a mix of coercion against and ideological subordination/pacification of the population, and characterised by what Michel Foucault called governmentality (1) and what James C. Scott called legibility (2) and high-authoritarian modernism (3)
- (1) disciplinary power; “the techniques and strategies by which a society is rendered governable” [Thomas Lemke]
- (2) states attempting to make society “legible” because they can’t deal with its complexity, relying on and creating simplifications that make (3) possible/enforceable
- (3) Defined by Scott in Seeing like a State (p. 88-89):
- ‘High modernism’: “the aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society”, envisioning “a sweeping, rational engineering of all aspects of social life in order to improve the human condition”
- The “unrestrained use of the power of the modern state as an instrument for achieving these designs”
- A “weakened or prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans”
- As was already highlighted and shown by anarchists and other radicals in the 19th century, the modern state is NOT a system/actors opposed to the development and barbarism of the capitalist mode of production, but one of its main enforcers/promoters and to a large extent, its infrastructural-political supporting base.
- According to Elmar Altvater (cited here), the capitalist state provides four essential functions:
- The provision of general infrastructure.
- The capacity to defend militarily a national economic space regulated by the state and to preserve an administrative boundary within which the state is sovereign.
- The provision of a legal system that establishes and enforces the right to possession of private property and which outlaws practises potentially damaging to the accumulation of capital within the national economy.
- The intervention of the state to regulate and/or ameliorate class struggle and the inevitable conflict between capital and labour.
- Samuel Clarke says that “Capitalist enterprises have been consistently benefitted by state appropriations of common land into private property, large-scale investments in overseas trading companies, military support for exploitation of the world, wars waged in the name of securing trade deals or material resources, and the policing of and/or ameliorations given to exploited labourers, slaves, and industrial workers. Capitalism and statism are in historical practise one and the same, no matter what any right libertarian might tell you. For more on this subject, I would recommend Kevin Carson’s The Iron Fist Behind The Invisible Hand.” [I second this recommendation; Carson’s works are great in general!]
- From my own (theoretical) viewpoint, Chris O’Kane’s article “Capital, the State, and Economic Policy” (based on the works of Simon Clarke, which are truly outstanding too) is the best starting point for theorizing the relation between capital and the state. Here is the crux of O’Kane (and Clarke)’s argument: “Thus, the state and the market are neither separate entities, nor is the division of labor transhistorical, nor do humans labor by nature. Rather, all of these phenomena are part of the historically specific organization of capitalist political economy as a contradictory and antagonistic totality. This social form was created by the state-facilitated process of primitive accumulation and the subsequent creation, not only of the class relation but also of the social spheres (the “economy” and state) and the supraindividual social forms (property, money, and law) that mediate and reproduce this relation. Crucially, the process of accumulation and reproduction neither proceeds from how the state and the market relate to each other nor is it merely a question of asserting the general interest through the instrument of the state in opposition to the immoral particular interests of capitalists, statesmen, or neoclassical economists. Rather, these “forms of capitalist domination” and their “functional imperatives are themselves generated by the forms of class struggle” and are “the object of class struggle, as capital and the working class confront them as barriers to their own social reproduction” (Clarke 1988: 15–16). Consequently, the general interest is that of capital in general, which asserts itself through the persistence of property, law, and the market qua the inherently antagonistic, contradictory, and crisis-ridden process of accumulation and reproduction.” (p. 6)
- States were and are not only agents/frameworks of capitalism, but obviously of imperialism and colonialism as well.
- This is why state/statist socialism is completely backwards (if not a contradiction in terms…)
- According to Elmar Altvater (cited here), the capitalist state provides four essential functions:
- According to some representatives of the Kurdish liberation movement: “the state is a political-military union. It is a political force, a kind of hegemony based on military power and oppression. In the historic period in which the world was being overtaken by capitalist forces and in which Capitalist Modernity evolved inside the system of power and state, the capitalist hegemony established and organized itself in different parts of the world in the form of the state. It started in Europe and eventually spread to all other parts of the world. The capitalist forces established state hegemony on the basis of the hegemony of the army. But there was no homogeneous national community in the society that was located within the borders where this state hegemony had just been founded. There is no existing community comprised of only one single tribe, one single people, one single confederation of tribes or one single culture or language. In fact, there are always many different communities, diverse religions and cultures. In such circumstances, the state starts to define itself as a nation despite the fact that it is a military-political system.”
This brings us to the topic of nation-states and nationalism.
Nations & Nationalism
The specifically modern version of the state is essentially characterized by capitalism (the system within which it is constructed and for which it provides a major source of power, authority, ideological domination, infrastructure securing its conditions of reproduction, etc.) and nationalism (as a political project). Cis/hetero-patriarchal domination, racism, colonialism/settlers, militarism, social darwinism (and its modern, neoliberal equivalents/reboots) and so on, are of course part of this system, and all linked with/reciprocally conditioning both capitalism and nationalism.
Rudolf Rocker argued in his famous Nationalism and Culture that the nation and nationalism are the products of states, rather than the other way around. They are also fundamentally reactionary:
All nationalism is reactionary in its nature, for it strives to enforce on the separate parts of the great human family a definite character according fi to a preconceived idea. In this respect, too, it shows the interrelationship of nationalistic ideology with the creed of every revealed religion. Nationalism creates artificial separations and partitions within that organic unity which finds its expression in the genus Man, while at the same time it strives for a fictitious unity sprung only from a wish-concept; and its advocates would like to tune all members of a definite human group to one note in order to distinguish it from other groups still more obviously.
Rudolf Rocker: Nationalism and Culture.
The nation – or nation-state – is a historically specific “sociopolitical construction” [Alain Bihr] within capitalist modernity. In general terms, it must be defined as an inherently capitalist nation-state rooted in racist-chauvinist nationalism and built through coercion in order to erase/subdue cultural differences and enforce social homogeneity (this latter coercive dimension also happens to be the Frankfurt school definition of authoritarianism, mentioned here).
Following Marxian sociologist Alain Bihr, we can define the nation as a historically specific socio-political construction representing the “fusion” of different classes into a ‘social bloc’ whose structural goal/project is to “defend (…) the interests of a fraction of global capital, by providing the material, institutional and ideological conditions of its development” (Le crépuscule des États-nations, p. 24. Translated by me). This is done through the construction of the state internally and externally, as well as the ‘nationalisation of society’ (concept coined by Étienne Balibar).
Nationalism, on the other hand, is the ideology and political movement which aim to realize this project (of ‘nationalising society’). It is a form of political fetishism, similar and closely related to other such forms, like anti-semitism, racism, and xenophobia. “Fetishism” here refers to the Marxian notion of ideology as what Marx called “a camera obscura“: “For Marx, ideology is a form of practice, experience, discourse, and consciousness that distorts reality by presenting it in false ways” [Christian Fuchs, Nationalism on the Internet. Critical Theory and Ideology in the Age of Social Media and Fake News, p. 21]. Bihr and Fuchs have outlined how nationalism can be defined as the fetishism of the nation:
- “The constitution of a national bloc indeed inevitably implies a fetishistic dimension, which doesn’t mean we can reduce the nation to this dimension only. What does nationalism actually consist of? It is about raising the nation to the rank of a “myth” of modernity, through a process that is simultaneously ideological and political, practical and imaginary, which metamorphoses each of the preceding elements, by conferring to the national identity the double appearance of a reality which is at the same time natural and supernatural (sacred), and to the national feeling (the feeling of belonging to a determined nation) the force of a collective belief, of a true faith.” (Bihr, p. 26)
- “Nationalist fetishism is thus consubstantial with the nation, both in the internal and external conditions of its constitution. It can be explained both by the need to transcend the divisions and contradictions (especially class divisions) (contradictions that undermine national unity as well as the by the real messianism with which nations seem to be able to adorn themselves in the continuous struggles between them. For, here as elsewhere, the illusion has an appearance of reality: within the framework of capitalist relations of production and the geopolitical space to which they give rise, the national formation appears to be the only existing social form ensuring the possibility of collective salvation, both for the individuals and for the classes which compose it, the only or at least the highest possible form of human community, transcending the old natural and historical communities, while recovering some of their attributes. It will embody the mediation between individual singularity or class particularity and a human universality made abstract because it is embodied by the world market and the world system of states.” (Bihr, p. 27-28)
- “Nationalism fetishises the nation in the form of a “we”-identity (a national people) that is distinguished from enemies (outsiders, other nations, immigrants, refugees, etc.) who are presented as intruders, aliens, subhumans, uncivilised, parasites, criminals, terrorists, etc. in order to deflect attention from class contradictions and power inequalities.” (Fuchs, p. 22-23)
- “That nationalism is an “ism” indicates that it is an ideology and political movement. It is an ideological practice and movement that argues that society, the state, the economy, and culture are the exclusive realm of a certain group and that others need to be excluded from it. Nationalism is not morally neutral because no ideology is morally neutral. It is a form of repressive moralism. Nationalism makes demands for control and ownership based on the pride in collective identity as a nation that has been invented and illusionary shared characteristics that are defined biologically, economically, politically, or culturally. Nationalism defines pride in imagined shared characteristics of a large group as ideological justification for political-economic control of a territory and bounded spaces. Nationalism is moral, ideological, and political devotion to the idea of the nation. It includes the willingness to die and kill for the defence of the nation and its human and non-human symbols. Socialist politics in modern society must take place at the level of the nation-state just like it must take place at the local and global level. But politics at the nation-state level is different from politics in the name of nationalism that fights for a society determined by a unity defined by blood or culture and that excludes others living in the same territory from membership of the nation. References to a unity based on blood, traditions, and culture that exclude others always have a certain potential for annihilation and mass murder.” (Fuchs, p. 91-92)
Using critical theories of nationalism (Hobsbawm, Luxemburg…), racism (Du Bois, Roediger…) and authoritarianism (Fromm, Reich, Holzkamp, Adorno…) [cf. full book], Fuchs offers a useful list of the “general features of nationalism” (p. 107-112):
- Political movement and ideology, nation-state and national consciousness: Nationalism is an ideology and political movement that sustains or aims at building a nation-state that unites defined nation-state members (citizens forming a people). Nationalism has two interconnected dimensions, a territorial-political one (the nation-state) and an ideological one (national consciousness). It is both a political relation and collective consciousness. Its territorial aspect contains an actual or claimed bounded natural environment that is the space for the organisation of the nation-state. Nations do not exist prior to nationalism and nation-states.
- Nature and culture: Nationalism claims that there is a foundational unity of the nation that is grounded in nature (blood, kinship, soil, “race”) and/or culture/society (common language, traditions, myths, history, wars, heroes [“great men of history”], symbols, memories, moral practices and moral values, habits, tastes, everyday life and ways of life, art, literature, structure of feeling, emotions, worldviews, ideas, wars, philosophy, religion, education, cuisine, sports, law, experiences, identity, means of communication, etc.). Nationalism fabricates and invents fictive ethnicity (Balibar and Wallerstein 1991, 49, 96–100).
- Domination and hegemony: Nationalism is imposed and constructed from above by political elites and intellectuals, but it is also lived and hegemonically produced and reproduced from below by everyday people in their everyday practices and beliefs. Nationalism as ideology does not necessarily and not automatically work. There is a continuum of reactions to nationalism, ranging from active participation, on the one end, to opposition and resistance, on the other end.
- Ideology and class: Nationalism as ideology legitimates and distracts from the division of society into classes and relations of domination by constructing, inventing, and fabricating a national unity of the people that is said to be stronger than class divisions. Nationalism is a false appearance of unity that is a feature of modern class societies. It is a political fetishism that mystifies the nation as a natural and thing-like entity existing above and transcending actual relations of power and exploitation. Nationalism is not just a phenomenon of the ruling class. Groups and classes threatened by or afraid of social decline are prone to nationalism and to leading, supporting, and joining nationalist movements. Crises and rapid changes of the class structure in light of crises and capitalist transformation increases the chance of the emergence of nationalist movements.
- Enemies of the nation: Nationalism always has an outside. Its collective unity is defined against proclaimed outsiders of and enemies to the nation. The other of the nation and nationalism can be inner enemies and outsiders and/or outer enemies and competitors. Nationalism is ideological violence that tries to naturalise class relations and exploitation and tries to “convince” workers and other subalterns that their exploitation and domination is without alternative and natural, and that social problems have other roots than the class structure. Nationalism is one of the ideologies that tries to construct a feeling of unity between the subaltern classes and the capitalist class in order to distract attention from class differences, the class structure, and power inequalities associated with class societies. Nationalist language is war by other means, intellectual warfare that often aims at denigrating the foreign by the nation’s positive self-presentation or negative othering.
- Modernity: Nationalism is a feature of the modernisation of capitalist and class societies. Modern class society requires nationalism as ideology in order to justify the exploitation of workers, the domination of consumers, and the geographic expansion of capitalist production and markets. Nationalism justifies the nation-state that with the help of a monopoly of the means of violence and the law secures the control of a national labour-market, the rule of the political elite, the ideological dominance of capitalism, and the biological and social reproduction of labour-power and citizens, as well as economic and military expansion in order to enable capital export and capital’s access to international markets for labour-power, resources, and commodity sales. Nationalism and the nation-state enable the control of a national territory that is a power container for the accumulation of money-capital (economic power), political decision power (political power), and ideological influence (cultural power).
- Crisis: Economic and political crises open up periods of uncertainty, in which the future is open and rapid political change can occur. Right-wing authoritarianism and associated nationalism are likely to grow in situations of capitalist crisis, especially if the left is weak, disjointed, and disorganised.
- Forms of nationalism: Nationalism as ideology takes on four forms: biological nationalism, economic nationalism, political nationalism, and cultural nationalism
- Imperialist and anti-colonial nationalism: The difference between imperialist and anti-colonial nationalism is that the first considers the enemy as immigrants and other minorities in developed capitalist countries or as other competing nations or political groups, whereas the second sees the imperial force as the enemy. Imperialist nationalism not only justifies a national society’s class structure, but also its imperialist, colonial, or neo-colonial expansion and wars that tend to be justified by the ideology of the “national interest” and “national security” which claim that the nation needs to be defended against foreign enemies and by the ideology of “national superiority” which claims that the superior nation must “civilise” and thereby “help” the world’s primitive, underdeveloped, and backward regions. The danger of all nationalism is that as a class project, it sustains and ideologically legitimates the power and dominance of a ruling class by eliding class structures. When the rule of one nationalism substitutes another one, it may just mean the shift from one ruling class to another, not the end of class society.
- Racism and nationalism: There is a dialectic of racism and nationalism. Racism is an integral super-nationalism that calls for the preservation of the nation’s biological and/or cultural origin, character, and purity. Racism is an ideological construction of the out-group as an alien biological (classical racism) or cultural (new racism) group that is not part of the illusionary national collective.
- Ideological strategies: Nationalism requires ideological strategies that communicate and practise the feeling of superiority of the nation and its members over the outsiders and enemies. These ideological strategies feature positive self-presentation of the nation and negative other-presentation. Nationalism ideologically promises a better life to members of the nation if the alien group is subdued.
- Communicating nationalism: Nationalism is an ideology that is communicated through events, symbols, practices, and the media system in everyday life and in extraordinary situations (such as national holidays, commemorations, parades, and wars).
- Inclusive and exclusive nationalism: The hatred of the enemy and outsiders implies the exploitative or exclusive/exterminatory character of nationalism. One can distinguish between inclusive nationalism that ideologically degrades outsiders in order to justify their exploitation and exclusive nationalism that ideologically scapegoats and debases outsiders in order to justify and organise their exclusion and/or extermination.
- Militarism and war: Nation-states are often the historical results of wars and political conflict. Nationalism implies the need for militarism, a police state, and law and order policies. Nationalism has a tendency for war and annihilation.
- Psychological aspects of nationalism: Nationalism and (new) racism appeal to authoritarian character structures that have been acquired through socialisation. They are possibilities to act for the subject in order to feel empowered and create meaning in a meaningless, empty, isolated, and insecure world. Individuals may respond positively to nationalism and racism if they see advantages for their individual life-interests. Nationalism is a complex interaction of political economy, ideology, and the human psyche.
- Surplus-generating nationalism: The pleasure derived from nationalism, degrading others, bad-mouthing them, communicating stereotypes, discrimination, oppression, and exploitation can be seen as a psychological “wage” and surplus. This is a surplus of pleasure, enjoyment, and status. Psychological surplus allows compensation for frustration, aggression, and anxiety. Nationalism and other ideologies can also create higher economic wages (higher monetary income/surplus wage), a political wage (a surplus of political influence), and a cultural wage (a surplus of reputation).
- Socialist humanism as the alternative: Nationalism can only be effectively challenged by socialist humanism, the combination of humanism that stresses human unity in diversity, i.e. what humans have in common despite of and through their differences, and socialism that empowers the human self-management of society.
- Struggles against capitalism are struggles against the nation and nationalism: The subaltern have no need for nations and nationalism. They can only become free through solidarity and struggles against capital and capitalism on the local, nation-state, regional, international, and global levels.
- Nationalism and anti-imperialist struggles: In anti-imperialist struggles, there is the danger that anti-imperialist forces advance a nationalist position and as a consequence merely replace the foreign ruling class with a new national ruling class.
Lastly, we must turn to the global border regime, a particularly brutal dimension of the fundamental violence/barbarism of the modern world.
The Global Border Regime
Since the late 90’s at least, the topic of the transnational movement of people – usually referred to as “migrants”, “refugees”, or “asylum seekers” – has been politicized in a particularly aggressive and harmful way, leading to an increasing normalization of far right and authoritarian xenophobia, as well as border/state violence.
Across the world – here we only talked about North America and Europe, who often pretend to be more liberal or humanitarian whereas the opposite is true (not least in the case of Canada or Scandinavia, who pretend to be more ‘humane’ than their southern neighbors), border violence and xenophobia have become to a large extent generalized. In Europe, xenophobia and ‘welfare chauvinism‘ have taken root across the whole political spectrum, from the left to the center-right and, needless to say, even more so in the far right. Moreover, a whole system of border violence and murder has been constructed over the last decades: so-called ‘Fortress Europe‘. The collective Abolish Frontex has described Frontex, a key part of this ‘Fortress’, in the following terms:
Frontex is the European Union’s border agency and is a key actor in enforcing the EU’s border regime. It is responsible for systemic human rights violations through its operations; involvement in deportations; cooperation with third countries, and role in strengthening EU borders.
What started as a small agency in Poland, has become one of the EU’s biggest. Its budget has grown by over 7 560% since 2005, with €5.6 billion being reserved for the agency from 2021-2027. Frontex has been recruiting an army of border guards who can own and use handguns, and aims to have 10,000 guards by 2027.
The agency can now buy its own equipment – such as ships, helicopters and drones – benefitting the arms, security and surveillance companies that have been so influential in shaping the EU’s border and defence policies through lobbying.
– Runs border control operations throughout the Mediterranean Sea and Balkan countries. Border guards and assets deployed by Frontex have reportedly, repeatedly, been directly and indirectly involved in illegal pushbacks, and are complicit in violence against migrants.
– Is a key coordinator and enabler of deportations throughout the EU. While deportations are already an act of violence in themselves, physical violence during Frontex-coordinated deportation flights has also been reported and described as “inhumane”.
– Acts as the EU’s ‘return agency’, coordinating joint deportation flights from EU countries, initiating deportations, assisting with so-called ‘voluntary’ returns and putting pressure on non-EU countries to readmit deported refugees.
– Cooperates with third countries as part of the EU’s efforts to externalise its border control. Frontex actively cooperates with – and/or deploys officers in – more than 20 non-EU countries, including Nigel, Senegal, and throughout the Balkans. Frontex also cooperates with and delivers trainings to the so-called Libyan Coast Guard, responsible for multiple pullbacks into Libya, where migrants are held in “concentration camp-like conditions”.
– Plays an important role in strengthening EU Member States’ border control. Frontex provides (human and material) “support” to Member States wishing to reinforce their border control measures. Frontex also facilitates EU countries’ acquisition of surveillance and border control technology and products by acting as a middleman between Member States and defence and security corporations.
Frontex also holds great power in leveraging the aggressiveness of the EU’s response to people on the move. It does so through its “risk analyses”: “analytical” reports issued by the agency, which determine the level of “risk” the EU is at when it comes to the migration ‘threat’. Frontex uses these reports to recommend the EU acts in accordance to the “risk” level, reinforcing border control, expanding Frontex’s deployments and growing the agency’s resources.
Frontex often depicts migration as a ‘threat’; a narrative that only feeds the rise of nationalism, racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia.
The militarised policies of Fortress Europe have killed over 40,555 people since 1993. Drowned in the Mediterranean; shot at borders; died by suicide at detention centers, tortured and killed after being deported – the EU has blood on its hands.
The EU’s border policies are inherently racist and reinforce colonial and capitalist power structures.Abolish Frontex: What is Frontex?
The brutality and horror of ‘Fortress Europe’ and Frontex have been thoroughly documented and denounced. To pick only one example, Nick Waters, Emmanuel Freudenthal and Logan Williams investigated ‘illegal’ pushbacks in 2020. Abolish Frontex‘s website conveniently provides a large source of studies, articles, reports and other materials on this racist and violent system. See here (scroll to the bottom) for more details on this objectively evil regime, which is closely tied to the European military and security industry. As Andrei Popoviciu wrote for the Guardian:
The militarisation of Europe’s borders has been increasing steadily since 2015, when the influx of migrants reached its peak. A populist turn in politics and fear whipped up around the issue have fuelled the use of new technologies. The EU has invested in fortifying borders, earmarking €34.9bn (£30bn) in funding for border and migration management for the 2021-27 budget, while sidelining the creation of safe passages and fair asylum processes.Andrei Popviciu (2021, March 26) ‘They can see us in the dark’: migrants grapple with hi-tech fortress EU. The Guardian.
Christoph Jones has created The Refugee List project, which provides a daily reminder of the countless deaths caused by European authorities and governments since the 1990s. It’s important to acknowledge and always keep in the mind the human lives that were tortured and murdered by this evil regime. One of the most recent situations occurred along the border between Poland and Belarus, where once again many people died, nay, were killed by this criminal system. Joey Ayoub characterized it best:
What the EU is guilty of doing here is, in effect, a normalisation of the far-right’s desire to inflict violence against the ‘other’. When tear-gassing children becomes normalised, it won’t be long before they’ll start being killed by people who will livestream it on Facebook. We are witnessing a dark chapter in European politics and if this is not immediately stopped it will get darker.
This hostility towards the ‘other’ is best symbolised, not by the far-right, but by what is considered the centre in European politics. In what can be described as the most honest statement by a member of the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, the former leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group, tweeted in April 2019 that “we need to better protect our external borders to keep our internal EU borders open”, implying that the arrival of undesirables is so threatening that it could undo decades of intra-European bridge-building.Joey Ayoub (2020, April 2) Why Fortress Europe and the European Union can’t coexist. Byline Times.
In North America, as if the far right policies of Donald Trump weren’t enough, the brutality of the border regime(s) has been striking under liberal governments such as those of Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau, and Joe Biden – contrary to both their own occasional rhetoric and the right’s paranoia. Harsha Walia wrote about the Democrats’ record in Border and Rule:
While former President Donald Trump’s overtly malicious policies of separating families, caging children, banning Black and brown Muslims, and building the border wall garnered international condemnation, cruel policies of immigration enforcement are a pillar of Democrats’ governance. The rhetoric of “productive” and “legal” immigrants, with the simultaneous demonization of “criminal” and “illegal” immigrants, has been the cornerstone of the party’s immigration platform for three decades. Under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, an entire immigration enforcement apparatus bent on expanding detention and deportation, criminalizing migration through prosecutions, militarizing the border, and imperialist outsourcing of border enforcement was cemented.Harsha Walia: Confronting the Long Arc of U.S. Border Policy. Excerpt from Border and Rule.
In this excerpt published in The Intercept, she describes this recent history in detail. The racist paranoia of the American right (and far right) throughout the ‘Obama era’ stands in stark contrast to the dark reality: despite their obvious differences, the brutality of the U.S. border regime wasn’t less egregious under Obama than his far right successor:
Obama laid the foundation for incarcerating migrant families by detaining them in camps on military bases, which then escalated to forced family separation and hundreds of missing children under Trump. In fact, several of the photographs of children in cages that went viral during Trump’s presidency were actually taken during the Obama years.Harsha Walia: Confronting the Long Arc of U.S. Border Policy. Excerpt from Border and Rule.
Walia concluded, anticipating the new Joe Biden government:
The far right will feed us eco-apartheid drivel about migrant and refugee “swarms” ruining our environment, stealing our jobs, draining our services, infecting our neighborhoods, and tainting our values. This dangerous nationalist and ruling-class ideology will deflect responsibility from the underlying systems producing mass inequality in our warming world by conveniently scapegoating “foreigners.” In response to revanchism, the Biden administration will peddle tired old liberal centrism. We will be offered the shallow politics of humanitarianism, such as “Welcome refugees,” or liberal multiculturalism proclaiming, “We are all from somewhere,” or commodifying platitudes such as “Immigrants build our economy.”
But our movements must refuse Biden’s banal liberal center. Calls to abolish ICE, Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, and all immigration enforcement must replace assimilationist calls for immigration reform that rely on white supremacist and cisheteronormative distinctions between “good” and “undeserving” migrants. Criminality and illegality are both political constructions within which proving one’s innocence or respectability is a frustrating and inherently impossible political stance.Harsha Walia: Confronting the Long Arc of U.S. Border Policy. Excerpt from Border and Rule.
After more than a year passed, the revolting brutality of Biden’s regime is evident, despite some centrists outrageously trying to find something to praise in his record which has been, on the whole, nothing less than appalling and frankly, a continuation of the far right violence of the previous years. (Not to mention the ‘business as usual’ character of it all, as reported by John Washington in The Intercept).
To learn more about the nature and workings of the global border regime, three outstanding authors are worth mentioning and studying: Nandita Sharma, Nicholas De Genova, and Harsha Walia. They go into far more detail than suitable for this post, so I highly recommend reading their contributions -> See the references/links below!
Harsha Walia wrote in 2006:
The border is a historically specific creation, and state monopolization of the legitimate means of movement and migration contributes to the reification of the nation-state and its citizens. While certain government practices act on those deemed worthy, coercive practices of state sovereignty ultimately expel others from the nation… The protection of rights-bearing and deserving (genuine) immigrants and refugees has become contingent on the identification and exclusion of others thought to be security threats, criminals, or system abusers.Harsha Walia (2006) No One is Illegal. Quoted in Robert Graham (ed.) (2013) Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Volume Three: The New Anarchism 1974-2012, p. 404.
More recently, she completed a masterful book titled Border and Rule, from which I have selected a few highlights and important takeaways:
Even though bordering and gentrifying regimes work to hoard wealth, displace people, and police racial segregation, the popular characterization of migrants and refugees as “foreign invaders” turns the border into a purportedly anticolonial architecture. The border, however, is less about a politics of movement per se and is better understood as a key method of imperial state formation, hierarchical social ordering, labor control, and xenophobic nationalism.
Classifications such as “migrant” or “refugee” don’t represent unified social groups so much as they symbolize state-regulated relations of governance and difference.
I have previously theorized “border imperialism” to depict the processes “by which the violences and precarities of displacement and migration are structurally created as well as maintained,” including through imperial subjugation, criminalization of migration, racialized hierarchy of citizenship, and state-mediated exploitation of labor.
Such representations [‘migrant crisis’ vs ‘migrant invasion’] depict migrants and refugees as the cause of an imagined crisis at the border, when, in fact, mass migration is the outcome of the actual crises of capitalism, conquest, and climate change. The border crisis, as I argue in the first part, is more accurately described as crises of displacement and immobility, preventing both the freedom to stay and the freedom to move.
Mainstream narratives of a “global migration crisis” depict migrants as threats without implicating the crises of forced dispossession, deprivation, and displacement. Capitalist dispossession and imperialist subordination manufacture bordered regimes of export processing zones in Bangladesh, land enclosures in Mozambique, and militarized settler occupation in Palestine. Border crises are, therefore, not merely domestic issues to be managed through policy reform. They must, instead, be placed within globalized asymmetries of power—inscribed by race, caste, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and nationality—creating migration and constricting mobility.
there is no objective fact of migrant illegality (…) as Catherine Dauvergne maintains, “Illegal migration is a product of migration law. Without legal prohibition, there is no illegality.” While borders are hierarchically organized and permeable for white expats, a handpicked immigrant diaspora, and the rich investor class, they form a fortress against the millions in the “deportspora,” who are shut out, immobilized, and expelled. The global turn toward deportation and detention as the central means of immigration enforcement is attendant to the rise of neoliberalism. The consolidation of spatial carcerality through prisons and borders correlates with wealth concentration, dismantling of public services, and the simultaneous manufacturing and disciplining of surplus populations (…) Police, prisons, and borders operate through a shared logic of immobilization, containing oppressed communities under racial capitalism. Notably, the word “mob,” a criminalizing vocabulary used to link large groups of poor, racialized people to social disorder, including in inner cities and at the border, derives from the word “mobility.” Even as explicitly racist prohibitions on people of certain races or national origins have been removed from most states’ immigration policies in an era of alleged “color blindness,” mobility continues to be restricted and contained along color, class, and caste lines.
Borders and the notions of belonging they engender are not simply demarcated by towering walls experienced equally by all; they rely on and reproduce racism within the spaces they establish. A vicious cycle has developed: legal routes to migration—family sponsorship, asylum claims, and permanent residency—are limited, thus increasing irregular border crossings, which in turn become a centerpiece of dog-whistle politics about “illegals” and “too many immigrants” to justify further racist migration controls. Finally, state-centric taxonomies like “unauthorized arrival” and “asylum seeker” are only possible because of a prevailing assumption of the border as a legitimate institution of governance. Even liberals arguing for more humane immigration policies presuppose the border is natural without explaining who it serves or how it functions. Nicholas De Genova probes, “If there were no borders, there would be no migration—only mobility.” Most ironic, the migration crisis is declared a new crisis with Western countries positioned as its victims, even though for four centuries nearly eighty million Europeans became settler-colonists across the Americas and Oceania, while four million indentured laborers from Asia were scattered across the globe and the transatlantic slave trade kidnapped and enslaved fifteen million Africans. Colonialism, genocide, slavery, and indentureship are not only conveniently erased as continuities of violence in current invocations of a migration crisis, but are also the very conditions of possibility for the West’s preciously guarded imperial sovereignty.
Borders are not fixed or static lines; they are productive regimes concurrently generated by and producing social relations of dominance. In addition to migration being a consequence of empire, capitalism, climate catastrophe, and oppressive hierarchies, contemporary migration is itself a mode of global governance, capital accumulation, and gendered racial class formation. Radhika Mongia writes, “The very development of the nation-state occurred, in part, to control mobility along the axis of the nation/race,” which we see in the early organization of passports to regulate movement within the British empire, foreshadowing the modern state. Contrary to common analysis, borders being simultaneously monetized and militarized—open to capital but closed to people—are not contradictory juxtapositions. The free flow of capital requires precarious labor, which is shaped by borders through immobility. International talk of “managed migration” and a concerted shift toward “temporary labor migration” in high-income countries unambiguously proves this requirement. Insourced labor from labor migration programs and outsourced labor in free trade zones represent flip sides of the same coin. This is a bifurcation and segmentation of the global labor force, made precarious through bordering practices.Harsha Walia (2021) Border and Rule. Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism. Haymarket Books.
In his article on Europe’s so-called “migrant/migration crisis”, Nicholas De Genova eloquently writes that
Europe’s borders, like all borders, are the materialisations of socio-political relations that mediate the continuous production of the distinction between the putative “inside” and “outside,” and likewise mediate the diverse mobilities that are orchestrated and regimented through the production of that spatial divide. Thus, with respect to the abundant inequalities of human mobility, the borders of “Europe” are simultaneously entangled with a global (postcolonial) politics of race that redraws the proverbial colour line and refortifies “European”-ness as a racial formation of whiteness, and a comparably global (neoliberal) politics of transnational labour mobility and capitalist labour subordination that produces such spatialised (and racialised) differences, above all, to capitalise upon them.Nicholas De Genova (2016) The “Crisis” of the European Border Regime: Towards a Marxist Theory of Borders.
There’s nothing self-evident about ‘illegal’ migration. When borders become a spectacle of migrant deaths, discourses of migrants’ ‘victimisation’ by ‘smugglers’ distract us from the real causes of migrant illegalisation.Nicholas De Genova (2015, May 20) The border spectacle of migrant ‘victimisation’. openDemocracy.
Another groundbreaking work is Nandita Sharma’s Home Rule, which is summarized in a recent paper titled “Against National Sovereignty: The Postcolonial New World Order and the Containment of Decolonization”. Here’s the core argument, in the authors’ own words:
Across the global system of nation-states and across the Left-Right political spectrum, claims to place and to belonging increasingly rest on claims to autochthony. In this era of postcolonial rule, in which nationalisms have been thoroughly depoliticized and rendered normal, claims to indigeneity help to secure claims to territory and sovereign power over it (and the people on it). As autochthony is made the fundamental basis for legitimate political claims and for access to social and economic resources, violent competition and conflict across the world have created separations between the two key figures of the Postcolonial New World Order: National-Natives and Migrants.
With the consolidation of postcolonial rule over the past seventy odd years, a further solidifying of the autochthonous basis of nationalism has taken place. Sharing a national citizenship is increasingly less important than sharing the “bloodline” of National-Native ancestors. While some people figured as Migrants have become National Citizens, the racialized and territorialized grounds for being Native make it impossible for them to become National-Natives. Consequently, the deployment of autochthonous discourses across the world of nation-states – in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas, the Caribbean, and Oceania – present Migrants (even if they are formally co-citizens) as the barriers to achievement of “national self- determination.” The very existence of people figured as Migrants (again, even if they are, in fact, co-citizens) is seen as usurping the national sovereign power of National-Natives. This is true for those people whose “nations” already have national sovereignty (but see it as under attack by “foreigners”) as well as those people whose “nations” still seek it. Across the world, and across the Left-Right political spectrum, we see Migrants increasingly being re-defined as “interlopers,” “settler colonists,” and even “occupiers,” “invaders,” and “vipers.”
Embedded in all such national discourses that demonize those people deemed to be “out of place,” is the older, imperial discourse of autochthony. Informed by the imperial discursive production of Indigenous-Natives as both natured and emplaced in the colony, nationalisms are grounded in a fantasy of familiarity on the part of those seen to share “origins.” Much old imperialist wine has indeed been repackaged in new national bottles. Indeed, global inequalities in a postcolonial world of nation-states are worse than they were in the Age of Empires. As Jason Hickel (2017) found, “global inequality has tripled since 1960.” One stark indication of the ongoing geopolitical divide between the Rich World nation-states and those in the Poor World, especially between the United States and the rest of the world, is the recent finding that, “an American having the average income of the bottom U.S. decile [was] better-off than 2/3 of [the] world population” (Milanovic, 2002, p. 89).
Another way of putting it is that the material basis for the Postcolonial New World Order of nation-states has not diverged fundamentally from the previous imperial world order. Yet, although disparities across as well as within nation-states have grown as practices of expropriation and exploitation have intensified in the Postcolonial New World Order, nationalist historiographies remain replete with always glorious pasts. And nationalist movements promise ever brighter futures for members of the “nation.” The evident fact that postcolonial nation-states with “their own” territorial sovereignty have failed to bring about either the promised peace and prosperity or the justice and liberty demanded by anticolonial movements, has not dissuaded Native-Nations from trying to obtain the ultimate postcolonial prize: “national self-determination.”
Yet, the poverty of autochthonous nationalisms is perhaps no more evident than when “nations” who possess a national sovereignty of “their own,” continuously represent their suppression of those they define as not-Native (and re-present as Migrants) as usurping their power. Attacks against those people re-presented as Migrants are portrayed as part of the continuing “anti-colonial” struggle of Natives against “foreign rule.” The autochthnous basis of much state violence is in full display in Myanmar’s ongoing persecution of Rohingya people who have been removed from the rolls of this nation-state’s citizens and officially re-categorized as “illegal migrants.”
Recognizing that national sovereignty has not met – cannot meet – the dreams of decolonization is not an argument for a return to empire. It is, instead, a call to reject the postcolonial system of nation-states and build social relationships, social bodies, and practices of social reproduction able to meet liberatory demands. Key to this, I believe is a rejection of the politics of nationalism with their basis in discourses of autochthony. Across their various permutations, all autochthonous discourses rely upon – and all are productive of – essentialist and ahistorical ideas of “nation” and “race.” I thus conclude this essay by arguing that any and all claims to national territorial sovereignty work to further entrench relations of ruling. I further conclude that if we want a decolonized world – as I think we must have – we will need to achieve it against national sovereignty, not through it. Otherwise, we will be left with a nationalist, racist politics of anti-mobility that rests on the separation of Natives and Migrants.Nandita Sharma (2021) Against National Sovereignty: The Postcolonial New World Order and the Containment of Decolonization. Studies in Social Justice. 14(2): 405-407.
This is, put shortly, how I have come understand the global regime of nation-states and borders which is a central pillar of capitalist modernity, and of the incredible permanent violence that defines it. Here are some of the sources cited, and contributions to check out to dig deeper. I have used them above and cannot recommend them strongly enough. It’s genuinely great stuff!
- Alain Bihr (2000) Le crépuscule des États-nations. Transnationalisation et crispations nationalistes, Lausanne, Éditions Page deux.
- PDF: “Mise au point sur les concepts de nation et de nationalisme” (a chapter from this book)
- Nandita Sharma’s works:
- (2020) Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- A good summary can be read here.
- Book Discussion with Joseph Nevins
- (2021) Against National Sovereignty: The Postcolonial New World Order and the Containment of Decolonization. Studies in Social Justice. 14(2): 391-409.
- Decolonization without National Sovereignty. A Response to Neil Braganza, Spectre Journal.
- Against all nationalisms (response to Phil Henderson’s review), Briarpatch.
- SPRC’s Luke de Noronha in conversation with Nandita Sharma
- For more, see: her Writings (page)
- (2020) Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Nicholas De Genova’s works:
- (2016). The “Crisis” of the European Border Regime: Towards a Marxist Theory of Borders. International Socialism, (150), 31-54. [PDF version here]
- (2015, May 20) The border spectacle of migrant ‘victimisation’. openDemocracy.
- For more, see his writings here and here.
- Harsha Walia works:
- (2021) Border and Rule. Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism. Haymarket Books.
- Liam Hough (2021) Freedom to Stay, Freedom to Move: An Interview with Harsha Walia, ROAR Mag.
- Lois Beckett (2021, April 7) ‘A system of global apartheid’: author Harsha Walia on why the border crisis is a myth, Guardian.
- Benoît Bohy-Bunel (2018) Par-delà sionisme et antisionisme. Pour une critique globale de l’idéologie nationale-étatique moderne.
- Christian Fuchs (2019) Nationalism on the Internet. Critical Theory and Ideology in the Age of Social Media and Fake News.
- Samuel Clarke (The Commoner):
- @yungneocon (a polymath on twitter)
- Thread on theories of the state
- Other thread on the state
- Thread: “When one reads about the history of empires one learns quickly that most empires—Greek, Roman, Chinese, Japanese, Umayyad, Abbasid, Ottoman, Aztec, Incan, Mongol,& others empires—all forcibly settled nomads & used settler-migrants as policy on their frontiers for conquest/control”
- takeaway/conclusion: “Thus we can see that although the truly global system of capitalism and the nation state only became genuinely universal & hegemonic in very short periods over the last century, its roots extend back millennia.”
- Thread: critique of the leftwing distinction “between ‘good’ nationalism of the oppressed and the ‘bad’ nationalism of the oppressor” –> more on this in Part 2 below!
- Chris O’Kane (2020) Capital, the State, and Economic Policy: Bringing Open Marxist Critical Political Economy Back Into Contemporary Heterodox Economics. Review of Radical Political Economics, p. 1-9.
Part 2: Self-Determination & Anti-Nationalism
Internationalism has often been turned into inter-nationalism, wherein states and governments perceived as oppressed by other (mostly Western) powers are viewed/framed as the actual victims in need of support. This is nothing but a reactionary inversion of the actual meaning of transnational radicalism, which is built not on behalf of and with/between nation-states, but all oppressed people and subaltern classes within, a framework of global and total liberation. This pseudo-anti-imperialism, or campism, is a major obstacle to the revolutionary solidarity and cooperation of all oppressed people in the 21st Century.
But it should be noted that saying that it is an “inversion” refers only to a specific ideal of what internationalism ought to be: neither anti-imperialism (or anti-colonialism) not international cooperation are inherently good, radical or emancipatory. Both have been practised and/or exploited by authoritarians, the far right, and more. This specific (potential) confusion has been instrumentalized for decades by autocratic and oligarchic governments in the non-Western periphery and by global rivals of US and European powers on the world stage, such as the Soviet Union/Russia and China. The widespread pattern among hypocritical (i.e. not critical enough) Leftists and other individuals of conflating any “anti-…” with a meaningful or even radical viewpoint and politics is extremely damaging, because inevitably that means legitimizing – if not converging or collaborating with – authoritarian and reactionary forces.
The issue of “national liberation” or anti-colonial/anti-imperialist “self-determination” has been a topic of discussion and conflict within the radical left since the 19th century. Workers and socialists (and other anti-colonialists, e.g. in European parliaments) talked about British and other colonialisms/imperialisms and major thinkers like Marx and Bakunin were already faced with much of the same questions as the following generations of radicals in the 20th century and until today. For example, according to Kevin B. Anderson, for many socialists and radicals in the 19th century Poland (i.e. its liberation from and struggle against Tsarist Russia) constituted a similarly salient cause as Palestine does for contemporary leftism. Of course marxists (e.g. Lenin, Luxemburg, C.L.R. James, Nkrumah, Rodney), anarchists (e.g. Maximoff, Bonanno) and others (e.g. Fanon, Öcalan) continued and extended this discussion throughout the 20th century.
I won’t review or comment on all of this long term debate; let me instead share some notes/thoughts and principles I have put together based on some of these authors who I’ve found most relevant or useful.
First, Bakunin’s simple distinction between nationalities and nationalism is necessary. In a 1868 speech, he said that we should acknowledge and support the existence of ‘nationalities’ and their ‘right’ to freely develop as long as they arise autonomously from communities. In other words, those communities must be free to choose such an identity (or not!). This is important because cultural identities isn’t something that will (ever) completely disappear from human societies, even if – in the ideal scenario – nation-states, borders and their artificial separations between populations and communities, are eventually abolished. However, as soon as this basic right to communal/local/regional self-identification is turned into a rigid, top down political “principle”, the resulting nationalism cannot be supported because as Bakunin said, every principle is “required to display the characteristic of universality, and nationality being, instead, an exclusive and distinct phenomenon.” Briefly: “Recognition of the absolute entitlement of every nation, large or small, of every people, weak or strong, of every province, every commune, to complete autonomy”, as long as it doesn’t transform into nationalism and “provided that its domestic constitution [note: or whatever system of norms/conventions/policies existing there] is not a threat and a danger to the autonomy and liberty of neighboring countries”. [Daniel Guérin (2005) No gods, no masters: An anthology of anarchism, Complete Unabridged, AK Press, p. 166-169]
Fanon famously emphasized the importance of developing an independent national culture in the context of anti-colonial struggles and then decolonized countries. On the other hand, he warned about the “pitfalls of national consciousness” (i.e when it wasn’t developed in the emancipatory/progressive way he envisioned):
History teaches us clearly that the battle against colonialism does not run straight away along the lines of nationalism. For a very long time the native devotes his energies to ending certain definite abuses: forced labour, corporal punishment, inequality of salaries, limitation of political rights, etc. This fight for democracy against the oppression of mankind will slowly leave the confusion of neo-liberal universalism to emerge, sometimes laboriously, as a claim to nationhood. It so happens that the unpreparedness of the educated classes, the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness, and, let it be said, their cowardice at the decisive moment of the struggle will give rise to tragic mishaps.
National consciousness, instead of being the all-embracing crystallization of the innermost hopes of the whole people, instead of being the immediate and most obvious result of the mobilization of the people, will be in any case only an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been. The faults that we find in it are quite sufficient explanation of the facility with which, when dealing with young and independent nations, the nation is passed over for the race, and the tribe is preferred to the state. These are the cracks in the edifice which show the process of retrogression that is so harmful and prejudicial to national effort and national unity. We shall see that such retrograde steps with all the weaknesses and serious dangers that they entail are the historical result of the incapacity of the national middle class to rationalize popular action, that is to say their incapacity to see into the reasons for that action.Frantz Fanon (1961) Les damnés de la terre/The Wretched of the Earth, Chap. 3: The Pitfalls of National Consciousness.
Fanon’s perspective is important (among other reasons) because it allows to define a non-eurocentric approach to the question of the “nation” in a (specifically) anti-colonial context – i.e., as opposed to European countries, settlers in North America, Israel, Australia, and others… I think we can interpret this in a rather straightforward way. As both the history of European nationalisms – split very roughly into a first, partly emancipatory phase (mostly in the 19th century), and a regressive phase from the late 19th century onwards – and postcolonial nation-states in the world’s ‘periphery’ show, the “national” moment of some resistance and self-determination struggles definitely contained a certain emancipatory content, precisely insofar as it came from specific oppressed self-identified communities (e.g., in the 19th c., Ireland, Poland, or certain ethno-religious groups in the Austro-Hungarian Empire). On the other hand, to use Bakunin’s phrasing, as soon as the striving for democratic autonomy turned into a “political principle”, i.e. nationalISM as a fixed, homogenous and exclusionary identity, it loses this emancipatory and progressive character. Pan-arabism’s oppression of non-arab(ized) groups and minorities in the Middle East and North Africa has often been pointed out (e.g. Libya’s 1980 Nationality Act excludes non-Arab and non-Muslim people from being naturalized – Sharma, p. 221), and more generally Nandita Sharma’s Home Rule comprehensively explains and documents the failure of postcolonial states to develop a non-chauvinist form of socio-political-cultural identity/consciousness.
Fanon’s call for “national consciousness” as a central aspect of decolonial liberation can seem contrary to and incompatible with the radical anti-nationalism that communists and anarchists (myself included!) advocate, but I don’t think it necessarily or inevitably is. Take a look at the following composite quote from Fanon; it seems to me that this revolutionary humanist perspective is compatible with Bakunin’s call for rejecting nationality as soon as it turns into a “political principle”, i.e. that “the right of nationality can only ever be regarded (…) as a natural consequence of the supreme principle of liberty, ceasing to be a right the moment that it makes a stand against liberty, or even outside of liberty.” [Guérin, p. 166-169]
If nationalism is not made explicit, if it is not enriched and deepened by a very rapid transformation into a consciousness of social and political needs, in other words into humanism, it leads up a blind alley [alt: dead end].
From nationalism we have [would have] passed [alt: switched] to ultra-nationalism, to chauvinism, and finally to racism.
In an under-developed country every effort is made to mobilize men and women as quickly as possible; it must guard against the danger of perpetuating the feudal tradition which holds sacred the superiority of the masculine element over the feminine [alt: of man over woman].These are three individual passages taken from Chapter 3 (already cited).
At the very least it’s interesting how Fanon’s viewpoint contained both a call for a renewed, radically different “national consciousness” away from colonialism and eurocentrism, and a recognition of the “pitfalls” of chauvinist forms that can result (and did exactly that!) from the situations/context he was talking about (decolonization and then independent postcolonial states). Where I will disagree with Fanon, Mamdani and various marxists and others, is the notion that self-determination can come about by/with or through the state, for all the reasons mentioned in Part 1. Here’s Fanon’s conception, in his own words:
In the colonial situation, culture, which is doubly deprived of the support of the nation and of the state, falls away and dies. The condition for its existence is therefore national liberation and the renaissance of the state.Speech by Frantz Fanon at the Congress of Black African Writers, 1959: “Reciprocal Bases of National Culture and the Fight for Freedom” (Emphasis added)
Bakunin’s 1868 speech (see p. 166-169 here), Gregori Maximoff’s Chap. 2 in the second section of his 1927 Program of anarcho-syndicalism, and other anarchists all reject what Maximoff termed “self-determination according to State concepts” (see also the note at the end of this post, on the idea of “Democratic Confederalism” within the Kurdish liberation movement). He described this alternative perspective as follows:
National rights are not a principle in themselves, but a result of the principle of freedom. No nation or nationality, as a natural association of individuals on the basis of common language, can find suitable conditions for its normal development within the confines of a capitalist environment and State organization. Stronger nations conquer the weaker ones and make every effort to dismember them by means of artificial assimilation. For that reason national domination is a constant companion of the State and of capitalism. The criminally mercenary interests of the ruling classes impel them to sow hatred and hostility between nations, two emotions which lie at the root of patriotism, which in turn is so essential to the State and to capitalism.
So-called national interests, which today are always part and parcel of economic and political affairs from the viewpoint of the State, are in fact the interests of the ruling classes. Hence they are contrary to the needs of the people, and lead to hostility between nations and to war. Therefore, in capitalist State society, the national problem is a partial aspect of the general problem — i.e. the problem of freedom, and cannot be solved in the -interests of the working people.
“The right of a nation to self-determination” and to independent sovereign existence, is nothing but the right of the national bourgeoisie to the unlimited exploitation of its proletariat; the actualization of this right in a multi-national country which raises the banner of the social revolution and thus finds itself encircled by capitalism, becomes in fact the right to self-defense of the national bourgeoisie against the revolution, and a weapon of the international bourgeoisie. This was demonstrated convincingly by the Russian experience in the years between 1917 and 1922. The realization of the “right to national self-determination” is thus a realization only of extraneous freedom — that of nationalities — from which the exploited classes gain too little, if anything at all.
This does not mean that the Anarchists are opposed to national freedom. On the contrary, they have always stood for the rights of all oppressed nationalities. Nationality, like die individual, is a natural social and historic fact, and recognition of it is a vital principle. Every nation, however large or small and on whatever cultural level it may be, has the right, just like the individual, to think, feel, desire, speak and act in its own ways. That, in fact, is what national right really means — the right to be oneself; this right is a natural consequence of the principles of liberty and equality.
Nationality itself, however, is not a principle but a fact. To advance it as an ideal for all movements of the exploited classes would be criminal. The Anarchists stand above the narrow and petty national ambitions “for which one’s country is the center of the world, which sees greatness in its capacity to terrify its neighbors.” International freedom and equality, world-wide justice, are higher than all national interests. National rights cease to be a consequence of these higher principles if, and when, they place themselves against liberty and even outside liberty. Every State is an enemy of liberty and equality. Nations which achieve their right to self-determination and which become states, in their turn begin to deny national rights to their own subordinate minorities, to persecute their languages, their desires and their right to be themselves. In this manner, “self-determination’* not only brings the nation concerned none of that internal freedom in which the proletariat is most interested, but also fails to solve the national problem. On the contrary, it becomes a threat to the world, since States must always aim to expand at the expense of their weaker neighbors.
For that reason the Anarchists, in rejecting the State, also reject its ways and means of solving the national problem; a real and full solution will be possible only in conditions of Anarchy, in a Communism emanating from the liberty of the individual and achieved by the free association of individuals in communes, of communes in regions, and regions in nations — – associations founded in liberty and-equality and creating a natural national unity in plurality.
The International Confederation, freely established by the voluntary federation of self-governing parts in a single whole, will solve the national problem completely on the basis of full liberty and equality, without which any solution of the problem would necessarily bear a bourgeois character, and hence become either secretly or openly aggressive. Only the Communal Confederation will determine the world order in international relations, removing all causes for war and oppression. The International Confederation cannot consist of States, since an association of States, like the contemporary League of Nations, is nothing more than an international association of the exploiting classes directed against the international proletariat, and utilizing as weapons the denial of freedom and the constant threat of war.
The organization of the International Confederation must be preceded by the Communalistic Revolution, replacing the State by communes and Trade Unions which, uniting freely from below, are the only organizations capable of establishing a real international unity based on the recognition of the right to self-determination not only for every nation (regardless- of size), but also for all communes and provinces within nations. There will be only two conditions to such self-determination: that their internal structure shall not threaten the freedom and self-determination of their neighbors and that the fact of voluntary association does not permanently bind a member.
On the basis of the points outlined above, and in the light of their final goal, the current policy of the Anarchists in the sphere of national problems and international relations is directed toward drawing together the international proletariat, and the working peasantry of all nations, in a common struggle for the abolition of private property (the struggle for communism); in a common struggle lor the destruction of the State (the struggle for anarchy) ; in a common struggle for the destruction of all national prejudices, frontiers and privileges, for equality and self-determination for all nations. (…)
As for the national right to “self-determination”, Anarchists do not deny a nation’s right to separation, since it is part of the principle of freedom which they recognize. They deny only the usefulness to the proletariat, not of self-determination as such, but of self-determination according to State concepts. Acknowledging that a strong patriotism is developing among the enslaved nations and, with it, a distrust of the proletariat in the ruling nationalities (a fact which has a pernicious effect on the struggle of the international proletariat for full and universal liberation), the Anarchists demand the liberation of all colonies and support every struggle for national independence as long as it is an expression of the will of the revolutionary proletariat and the working peasantry of the nation concerned.Gregori Maximoff (1927) Nationalities and International Relations, in Program of Anarcho-Syndicalism. [alternative links: chapter, book]
Therefore, without pretending that there’s a clearly outlined blueprint for the actual process of decolonization and realizing self-determination, I think Maximoff’s standpoint indicates that there’s a series of general fundamental libertarian principles that were formulated sixty years earlier by Bakunin in his 1868 speech. He concluded his 13-point list of principles with the following, which is worth quoting at length I think (I only switched a few things for it to make more sense for today). Daniel Guérin described the political outlook in this speech as a form of “internationalist federalism”:
Unity is the goal towards which mankind strives irresistibly [note: I wish!]. But it turns lethal and destructive of the intelligence, dignity and prosperity of individuals and peoples, every time that it takes shape outside of a context of liberty, be it through violence, or under the authority of some theological, metaphysical, political or even economic notion. The patriotism that strives for unity outside of freedom is an evil patriotism, always noxious to the people’s interests and the real interests of the country which it purports to exalt and serve, a friend, albeit often against its will, to the reaction-enemy of the revolution, which is to say of the emancipation of nations and of men. [We] can recognize but one unity: the unity freely constituted through federation of autonomous parts into the whole, in such a way that the latter, no longer the graveyard where all local prosperities are forcibly interred, becomes instead the confirmation and well-spring of all these autonomies and all these prosperities. [We] will thus vigorously attack any religious, political, economic and social organization that is not utterly imbued with this great principle of freedom: in the absence of which there is no intellect, no justice, no prosperity and no humanity.
A few years earlier, he also said that:
Today no revolution can succeed in any country if it is not at the same time both a political and a social revolution. Every exclusively political revolution – be it in defense of national independence or for internal change, or even for the establishment of a republic – that does not aim at the immediate and real political and economic emancipation of people will be a false revolution. Its objectives will be unattainable and its consequences reactionary.Mikhail Bakunin (1866) National Catechism. In Sam Dolgoff (1972/2002) Bakunin On Anarchism, p. 99.
Conclusion and Further Readings
To sum up, I think I agree with Bakunin, Maximoff, Luxemburg, Bohy-Bunel, Fuchs, Philip Spencer, Nandita Sharma and others, in rejecting all nationalisms as inevitably following an exclusionary and oppressive/authoritarian logic. As Bakunin and Maximoff mentioned, this doesn’t mean rejecting struggles for so-called “national liberation” (but conditions must be added with respect to this ambiguous term) or the existence of nationalities: decolonial resistance and liberation and self-determination on the basis of a freely-adopted (collective/communal) identity are legitimate and important, but nationalism(s) isn’t and should always be rejected.
I’m obviously not saying I have clear answers or solutions beyond this general principle, not to mention it’s not really something that I am legitimate to define myself, i.e. rather a praxis to be constructed and transform the world through movements, radical subjectivties and revolution. What is clear for me, is the total incompatibility of transcendental emancipatory social change with any form of nationalism or chauvinism – as well as statism which it usually goes hand in hand with (although there are exceptions) -, no matter how “progressive”, “anti-imperialist”, or even “socialist” it pretends to be. The point is therfore to try to find and develop non-chauvinistic, non-statist forms of a) revolution and political organisation, and b) in situations of colonial and imperialist oppression/domination, of liberatory self-determination. The fact is that multi-ethnic, multi-cultural – and ultimately cosmopolitan – coexistence is the inevitable reality and horizon of all human societies: nationalism and statism are, and will always be, a fundamental obstacle to the self-determination of all peoples, freedom of movement, and global peace and brotherhood.
Here are a few more readings – in addition to all the things mentioned already – I have come across along the way of writing this article. And I’ll add some more in the future maybe (if I find something noteworthy)!
- Mike Gouldhawke’s blog is essential for radical Indigenous perspectives/politics/etc. (as well as their relations and interactions with both marxism and anarchism). He has written for the mag Briarpatch, among many others…
- Philip Spencer & Howard Wollman (1998) Good and bad nationalisms: A critique of dualism. Journal of Political Ideologies, 3:3, p. 255-274.
Note (29.01.2023) on the supposedly non-statist and non-nationalist approach called “Democratic Confederalism” from the PKK/Öcalan-led part of the Kurdish liberation movement.
I have gradually grown more skeptical about the section of the Kurdish self-determination movement associated with and led by Abdullah Öcalan (and especially his philosophy/political vision, since his imprisonment) and the PKK-PYD, and more specifically about the AANES/Rojava movement/project, which was presented during the 2010’s as a “libertarian socialist” experiment (unlike the PKK which no anarchist would have had any illusions about…). In the initial version of this text, I had directly cited their perspective on the modern nation-state – which sounded theoretically accurate in my view, and if taken at face value indeed it still does – and I considered “democratic confederalism” as a promising potential alternative to the pitfalls of conventional chauvinistic and statist “national liberation” movements. The sources are included below.
But I’ve since learned some troubling things and reconsidered my viewpoint on the so-called Rojava revolution. No need to get into it here, but for the purpose of this article let me mention two aspects. First, while the issue of the prevalence of Kurds-exclusionary Arab-Syrian nationalism within the Syrian revolution has been rightly noted, the supposed multi-ethnic egalitarianism of AANES is unfortunately more of a optimistic and propagandistic myth, and it simply cannot be overlooked how this project completely abandoned the Syrian uprising against Assad, indeed cooperating with and benefitting from the latter’s strategic decision to not brutally attack Northeastern Syria as he did for the rest of the country, destroying countless lives and cities in the process. Secondly, although this is sadly not an exception within this movement (because there’s a substantial pro-PKK wing within the KCK and PYD), I was furious to learn about the stance of Besê Hozat and Cemil Bayik, the co-chairs of the KCK whom I had originally cited (see the two interviews linked below), on this very issue. Cemil Bayik has publicly criticized the AANES leadership for not collaborating with Assad enough (and here I was already disgusted by the capitulation of Rojava to the regime)! As Mehmet Cengiz mentioned last year:
Cemil Bayık criticised the Autonomous Administration and the SDF commander-in-chief for their reliance on the US rather than engaging in sincere political dialogue with the Syrian regime. In an interview in October 2021, Bayık emphasised the PKK’s historic relationship with Syria and Abdullah Öcalan’s personal friendship with the Assad family. He went further by insisting that confrontation or hostility between the PKK and the Assad family was unthinkable and confirming the PKK’s uninterrupted collaboration with the Syrian regime over the years.Mehmet Emin Cengiz (2022, January 10) The PYD-PKK Relationship Under Scrutiny
Pardon me for refusing to accept such a disgusting betrayal of Syrians’ struggle against the Assads’ horrendous regime, which in my view makes all the statements in the interviews I had originally cited, ring very hollow. [Cengiz’s piece is recommended and necessary because even the PYD-PKK-KCK/AANES. movement/network, there isn’t a single homogenous position – indeed there are various factions, wings and conflicts on how to interact with forces like Assad or the United States].
- Two interviews with members of the KCK (the umbrella organisation of the PKK and PYG) in October and February 2021, where they define/theorize the capitalist nation (which they contrast to their goal of a ‘free’, ‘independent’ and non-state Kurdistan, what Öcalan termed the “democratic nation“).
- Abdullah Öcalan’s two pamphlets on non-state-based self-determination: “Democratic Confederalism” and “Democratic Nation“.