One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.
This month we ask:
What is the Left case for open borders?
With responses from: Tithi Bhattacharya; Joseph Carens; Harald Bauder; Parvathi Raman; Viewpoint Magazine Editorial Collective; Sandro Mezzadra; Céline Cantat; Justin Akers Chacón; Carol Farbotko; Christine Leuenberger; Paolo Novak; Dalia Abdelhady; Alex Sager; Michael Huemer; Nandita Sharma.
Borders exist in order for capital to
(a) control the global distribution of labour power and
(b) ideologically shore up the nation state for the ‘native’ working class, thereby legitimising and reinforcing that control.
Any support for border control, no matter how minimal or provisional, is a support for this set of political technologies.
If it appears, then, that the case for open borders is an easy one for the Left, this is far from the truth. Historically, the organised Left, in both its social democratic and Stalinist iterations, has had a murky record on border control and support for migrants. And today, as neoliberalism falters ideologically after the crash of 2008, several social democratic regimes across Europe have made anti-migrant rhetoric their distinct political signature.
In Greece, Syriza, who had promised to close migrant detention centres, now oversees such centres where migrants lack basic resources to battle hunger, harsh winters and social isolation. This in addition to the government doing a deal with neighbouring Turkey to stop the flow of migrants into Europe. In France, the leader of the radical Left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has long been opposed to free movement even within the EU. Events in Germany perhaps best distil this political tendency. In September 2018, Sarah Wagenknecht and Oskar Lafontaine, prominent left-wing politicians of Die Linke, with support from sections of the international Left, launched Aufstehen, a movement openly committed to imposing immigration controls in the name of prosperity for German workers.
It is not my purpose here to produce a list of betrayals by various traditions of the Left. Rather, it is to contend that for an anti-capitalist Left, the question of open borders is not one issue amongst many. For instance, one cannot be advocating for universal healthcare for a section of the global working class, marked as ‘citizen’ simply by geographical accident, while denying that same provision to the rest of the class.
Anyone who has crossed international borders knows that leaving home is not an easy or trivial decision. Most people seeking refuge in Europe have been forced to do so because of the numerous violent wars Europe has waged on their homelands. In the United States, it is families from Latin America, ravaged by dictatorships backed by the US, or devastated by economic policies of the IMF and World Bank who are forced to seek out a better life across the border.
If these families are at the borders of countries whose governments have colluded to deprive them of a life of dignity, then the borders should be opened wide, not because the West needs to be compassionate – but because it is the right of these families to demand from western governments what was taken from them.
In the coming years, capitalist ravages upon our planet will force more people to leave their homelands as the very air and soil turn against them. Migrants cannot be welcomed on liberal grounds because they bring fresh labour or creativity to the West. That is capital’s logic predicated upon regimes of work. The Left must hold to all people’s inherent right to free movement because borders only exist to assist capital accumulation. Sometimes just crossing a border is a political act of defiance.
‘Workers of the world, unite’ is not a meaningful political call unless it is filled with practical solidarity between all workers. While capital erects barbed wire fences, miles long border walls and militarises the waters, it is the task of the Left to dismantle – above all the hostile tension between the ‘immigrant’ and the ‘worker’. A migrant caravan is a working class on the move. Active support for free movement is therefore a strategic disruption of capital’s narrative.
Open borders is not a ‘blind spot’ that can be ignored, it is what restores sight to the Left, allowing us to see the mechanisms by which capital hierarchises abjection. READ MORE