Do We Need Borders?

You might have seen some stories in the news recently about illegal immigrants trying to get into the UK. I recently spent some time in Calais, teaching English and generally hanging out with the wannabe immigrants there. I was staying with about sixty people in a squat originally set up by an activist group called No Borders, whose aim, you won’t be surprised to hear, is the dismantling of all national borders.

One migrant, who grew up in London, but is illegal there and had recently been deported, asked me: “What’s with all this No Borders stuff? Why do you bother? It’s obviously not working.”

It’s a good question, until you see that it’s loaded. You might as well ask why the government bothers with borders, because they’re obviously not working either.

Do we need borders? A barricade in Calais set up to defend against border police.
A barricade in Calais set up to defend against border police.

Borders aren’t working

Borders aren’t working for the hundreds of people killed every year trying to break into Fortress Europe, fleeing civil conflicts frequently armed by UK arms dealers. They’re not working either for the thousands of lives suspended in the limbo of Calais and places like Calais. These are human lives we have branded illegal and forbidden from working, forbidden from rebuilding their shattered dreams and contributing to their new society. Because, like it or not, these people aren’t going anywhere; they’ve got nowhere to go.

The borders are not working, you could also argue, for the people they are supposedly designed to protect. How are British jobs safeguarded by borders, when a transnational, borderless corporation like Amazon can suck our small businesses into the void, while contributing next to nothing to our society? How are British lives safeguarded by borders, when borderless ideologies – religion, politics – can twist minds and precipitate outrageous acts of violence from within?

In this article, I will ask: Do we even need borders?

Do we need borders? The sign leading to the border at the port of Calais.
The sign leading to the border at the port of Calais.

Why do we have national borders?

National borders really took off after the First and Second World Wars. They evolved to deal with a very specific problem: How can we divide nation states? You need borders.

Before the World Wars, there were only a scattering of recognised nation states – France, the United Kingdom, Germany and so forth – the rest of the world was divided among those nation states according to Empire. While the First World War was essentially the violent collapse of the imperial world order, the Second World War was the battle to decide what system would fill the void – nation states – and where the borders would be drawn.

From the end of the Second World War, for reasons of geopolitical organisation, every corner of the earth had to have a sovereign master, demarcated by borders from its neighbour. New nation states appeared overnight, defined only by lines drawn on a map. Where on earth was Palestine, where Israel? Where was India, where Pakistan? They were all invented and the borders often arbitrarily drawn with indelible marker by fallible administrators thousands of miles away.

My point: National borders were not and are not the “natural” way of breaking up territory. They were arbitrary servants to the invented political idea of the nation state. We only need borders because we have nation states.

Do we need borders? Map of border defences between Britain and France
The Channel: The final frontier of the Schengen Zone.

What is a nation state?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a nation state is:

An independent political state formed from a people who share a common national identity (historically, culturally, or ethnically).

I’m sure you can already see the problems we might run into if, by any chance, those unlucky administrators happened to draw borders in inauspicious places (i.e. almost anywhere).

To give you a guide of how ludicrous the idea is that a state-sized territory would have this mythical common national identity: at the time of the French revolution only half the population of France spoke any French at all. Some national identity, eh! France has taken hundreds of years to evolve a national identity. It’s too much to go into detail here about whether it was worth it or not.

My point: Nation states are not the “natural” way of organising ourselves politically and the global creation of nation states after the Second World War has been nothing less than catastrophic. If we didn’t have nation states, we wouldn’t need borders.

Do we need borders? We want freedom
Activists raise a sign: “We Want Freedom”.

What’s the problem with nation states and their fixed borders?

Basically, if arbitrary borders don’t fit perfectly with mythical national groupings, then we’ve got trouble.

Entire populations were uprooted and marched a thousand miles, as between India and Pakistan, as earlier between Greece and Turkey. In other places, the fall out was not nearly so “civilised” as population exchange. Rwanda, Palestine, Israel, Armenia, Turkey, Iran, Iraq – scarcely a single new nation state survived birth without bloodshed.

You could confidently argue that this calamitous squeezing of round pegs into square borders is the original cause of the continuing civil wars in Sudan, in Syria, in Iraq, in Libya. Even the civil conflicts between privileged and non-privileged – in South Africa, in Brazil, in the United States – could be said to be overspill from the decision that each arbitrary parcel of land shall have a sovereign and centralised supreme government, regardless of history, culture and ethnicity.

Do we need borders? "Everything is improbable, nothing is impossible."
“Everything is improbable, nothing is impossible.”

But borders are a good thing!

Borders have been nothing more than an attempt at a solution to a problem of politics. That problem was how best to manage our human affairs in an increasingly connected world – remember that, in a generation, wars went from cavalry charges between aristocrats to atomic weapons dropped by flying machines. That’s a radical shift in the scale of geopolitics and required a radical new way of organising ourselves.

You could argue that borders have been a decent solution to that problem. For many, particularly those in the west, the world has effectively been at peace since the Second World War. A strange thing to say, but I am not completely naïve. Considering how that conflict ended, with the devastation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, things could be much worse than they are.

But my point remains: There is no natural law that commands we live with borders. For most of human history, we didn’t have or need borders.

Do we need borders? "No one is illegal. We are all equal."
“No one is illegal. We are all equal.”

So do we need borders?

In a world where corporations and ideologies are borderless, are national borders, where we can restrict only the movement of people and goods, still the best solution?

I’ll let you make your mind up. Ultimately, whatever your viewpoint, we’re on the same side. This is a race to find a solution to a problem of politics. Perhaps the governments of nation states will find a solution that works for everyone. Or perhaps the solution will come from elsewhere, from groups like No Borders.

But who cares where the solution comes from? The important thing is that we try to find one, because what we have now isn’t working.

Do we need borders? A manhole cover announces the presence of No Borders.
A manhole cover announces the presence of No Borders.

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