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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter December 7, 2019

Introduction: Thirty Years of Borders Since Berlin

  • Melissa Tandiwe Myambo EMAIL logo and Pier Paolo Frassinelli
From the journal New Global Studies


November 9, 2019 marked the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the physical and geopolitical barrier that divided Berlin and the East from the West. This event symbolically inaugurated the period of post-Cold War globalization. The birth of the World Wide Web that same year spurred on globalization and led many observers to believe that (national) borders had become passé. The zeitgeist seemed to promise a borderless world in which capitalism and democracy would flourish. However, instead, the last three decades have paradoxically borne witness to the proliferation, rescaling, and reinforcement of territorial and other types of borders – linguistic, religious, ethnic, class, racial, urban, cultural, digital, temporal etc. The contemporary preoccupation with borders and walls is the result of the “deglobalization” that is also, ironically, a global phenomenon – Brexit, Trump’s border wall, Israel’s concrete wall in the West Bank, xenophobia from South Africa to India to “Fortress Europe,” and the growing power of right wing authoritarian leaders in several nations. The resurgence of (ethno)nationalism, racism, white supremacy, isolationism, populism, protectionism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and religious fundamentalism are all dialectical consequences of this global backlash. This is the subject of this special issue.

Preamble: Borders in the Global(izing) City, by Melissa Tandiwe Myambo

The idea for this special issue came about in an unusual fashion on a chilly evening in wintertime Cairo when I bumped up against an unexpected border. Walking into a nightclub, a leather-jacketed bouncer asked me and my friends to stand aside to let other would-be patrons pass through the metal detector. It was not long before a young man with blonde wavy hair and thick-framed glasses who would not be out of place in Brooklyn, New York came rushing up to us.

He was, judging by his sartorial choices, a card-carrying member of that transnational tribe known as hipsters, a subset of the global middle classes. Armed with their smartphones and social media accounts, they symbolize a form of cultural synthesis that cuts across national, ethno-racial, religious, and linguistic borders. Putting his hands together beseechingly, he launched into a rapid stream of perfect English. Although “command of English” (Schielke 2012, 34; see also Bassiouney and Muehlhaeusler 2017, 31–35) is one of the hallmarks of middle-class Egyptian identity, where for an older generation it used to be fluency in French, this was still rather bizarre since Arabic is the dominant language in Egypt. He flooded us with apologies “I’m so, so sorry. I am really very, very sorry but we have a dress code here.”

This comment was even odder. A dress code? Were we not dressed appropriately? No-one in our group was wearing jeans but were we not dressy enough? This millennial gatekeeper who turned out to be the club’s PR manager was himself sporting jeans and sneakers. In response to our confusion, the young man hemmed and hawed, muttered and shook his head apologetically but finally, he came out with it. The problem was the hegab, he said pointing to my friend, a brown-skinned Nubian woman from Upper Egypt. “The hegab?” I repeated, unable to keep the shock out of my voice.

In Egyptian Arabic, the “j” sound is pronounced as a hard “g,” thus hijab is pronounced hegab and in this Muslim-majority country in which over 90% of women wear some version of a veil, was it possible that a nightclub would or could implement such a discriminatory dress code? The metal detectors and the bouncers sitting in the nightclub’s foyer behind a high counter, just like the one immigration officials use, were not here to check one’s documents. This was not a national border between different nation-states. It was instead a cultural border and crossing any border is always a precarious enterprise because “border bureaucrats … do their work with some unpredictability” (Staudt 2018, 236; emphasis in the original). They use a variety of methods that often include extra-officio informal, subjective criteria which exceed or supersede official policy to determine who may traverse and who may not. These border guards were here to assess our clothing and what that clothing signaled – were we “modern” and Westernized or “traditional” and conservatively religious?

Money, or at least the appearance of having money, is the usual passport to enter many an establishment but the passport to enter this club was not just money but also showing one’s hair. Lacking the site-specific type of appropriate cultural capital we were apparently to be barred entry.

As a researcher of globalization and migration, I immediately became aware that this particular border we were up against was produced by the uneven processes of globalization that have transformed “traditional” global cities like New York, Tokyo, London, Melbourne, and Berlin, as well as globalizing cities from Cairo to Johannesburg, Jakarta to Shanghai, São Paolo to Mexico City, Moscow to Mumbai. One of the primary features of global capitalism in the post-1989 era is that “cities – or, more precisely, large-scale urbanized regions – rather than the territorial economies of states are its most fundamental geographical units” (Brenner 1998, 4). These (mega)city regions have been reshaped by globalization into complex, highly-texturized, immensely-variegated urbanscapes of divergent spatio-temporal microspaces, which I call Cultural Time Zones (CTZs). CTZs exist along a continuum from “traditional” to “modern,” “local” to “global,” “non-Western” to “Western” and so on, although none of these terms can adequately bear the weight of the reality they are supposed to invoke (see Myambo 2019a, 2019b). Different types of CTZs have different “cultural times” and thus demand different types of cultural capital (Bourdieu 2010 [1984]) – language(s), modes of dress, educational qualifications, aesthetic sensibilities and the like.

Cultural capital can never be divorced from economic capital. The type of neoliberal globalization that has dominated the last three decades is propagating increased income inequality worldwide and this means that global and globalizing cities have created harder and harder borders between the CTZs frequented by the haves and the have-nots. To successfully cross the border of and subsequently navigate a CTZ, one’s cultural capital must translate into the cultural time(s) of the CTZ.

In an ever more unequal world, borders within global and globalizing cities are becoming less porous and more impermeable because the global upper middle classes increasingly retreat into fortified gated residential communities. They barricade themselves in securitized office parks and pay for privatized services which allow them a lifestyle that is decreasingly available to the less well-off who are forced to rely on public resources, spaces and facilities etiolated by neoliberal policy which promotes the private sector at the expense of the public. The social, cultural and economic divisions between the CTZ of a “local,” male-dominated coffeehouse in a more “shaabi” neighborhood of Cairo (slang for local/popular; see also Bassiouney and Muehlhaeusler 2017, 31) and this nightclub is a distance that can only be calculated in cultural kilometers. Writing just at the beginning of the period of post-Cold War globalization in the early 1990s, anthropologists Akhil Gupta and Jim Ferguson made the following observation:

We need to account sociologically for the fact that the “distance” between the rich in Bombay and the rich in London may be much shorter than that between different classes in “the same” city. Physical location and physical territory, for so long the only grid on which cultural difference could be mapped, need to be replaced by multiple grids (Gupta and Ferguson 1997, 50; emphasis in original).

My answer to that problematic is CTZ theory, but to understand these changing notions of cultural distance, which are not necessarily coterminous with geographical distance and can be quite the opposite, requires also an understanding of borders (see Frassinelli 2019; Mezzadra and Nielsen 2013; Yeh 2012). What constitutes the borders that demarcate and uphold the distance between classes in the same city? What produces the bridges that cross national borders to create transnational social classes like the global middle classes who simultaneously consume “global” cultural phenomena like the wildly popular online video game, Fortnite, or the hit series Game of Thrones, or tune into a Premier League football match on old platforms like the television but also on new streaming apps and related social media accounts?

This nightclub was a perfect example of those cross-border bridges. It exemplified my work on global hipsterification – a tsunami of hipster-conscious gentrification which has resulted in the creation of CTZs like cafes, micro-breweries, pubs, barbershops, and restaurants serving quinoa, kale, rainbow bagels and red velvet cake all around the world (Myambo 2017a, 2018). Fortunately, when my friend graciously removed her hat – the one mistaken for a form of hegab – to show her hair and all that female hair in a gendered Islamic context symbolized, the doors magically opened for us and we were whisked to a table with even more fervent apologies from the manager. However, for me, that was not the end of the story but the beginning because a border provides “an epistemic viewpoint on a whole set of wider dynamics and transformations” (Mezzadra 2019, 3).

Despite the dim lighting and the blaring loud music, I took the manager aside to pose some urgent questions and furiously scribbled down all his answers. A border is by its nature Janus-faced and thus both inclusionary and exclusionary. How had the nightclub management come to establish the policies by which some would be admitted and others excluded? Was the anti-hegab rule an official policy? Why had he addressed us in English?

He was very generous with his time and immediately admitted to me that speaking English was an (unofficial) screening tactic which he used: if someone could not speak a certain “level” of English, s/he will not be admitted. The wielding of English is a potent form of linguistic cultural capital in a globalizing world. Although the manager was born and raised in Egypt and had never travelled abroad, he had, like many middle-class Egyptians, attended an English-medium school but he explained that even that had not really taught him such fluent English. He had instead learned English from hours watching Cartoon Network – and he added, “Cartoon Network today is not what it used to be,” referring to some earlier undefined period – thanks to the media saturation achieved by globalization. He attributed his success in the hospitality business to his ability to “pick up social cues” and his “soft skills” that allow him to decide who could cross the nightclub’s border and be included and who could not, which he termed “door selection.”

The target audience was “not too young,” “above twenty-three,” and the list of people who could not be admitted based on how he evaluated their cultural capital includes very “local” people, poor people, bowabs (who themselves look after and guard buildings and decide who can enter), boys on a mission to drink a lot (“trouble-makers”), and, according to the club’s official policy, ladies in hegab. He justified this discriminatory policy by saying that the establishment welcomed “open-minded people,” and he continued, “it’s a cultural thing,” insisting that the club’s clientele, mostly Egyptians with a handful of foreigners, would not want to consume alcohol next to a hegab wearer because of Islam’s injunction against drinking. I refuted that by telling him that I had been to plenty of salsa-dancing clubs in Cairo where women in hegab danced salsa next to alcohol-consuming patrons. He shrugged and went to his go-to phrase, which he repeated at several junctures during our conversation, “It’s a taste thing.” Thus, he returned us again and again to Bourdieu’s notions of distinction and cultural capital.

I was not satisfied with these answers. As a woman who grew up in southern Africa under apartheid and its infinitely long shadow, I am highly sensitive to policies that breed segregation but at that moment I caught sight of a black worker sweeping the floor. He had locks like mine and because of our similar hairstyle, he acknowledged me. When the kitchen door opened, I saw several dark-skinned South Sudanese men working there. As in so many global cities, “front office” work is reserved for the more privileged while the hard work of cooking, cleaning and maintenance is often relegated to the poorer and often the darker and more marginalized immigrants.

This “global” CTZ in Cairo with its cultural, class-inflected borders; linguistic barriers; smartphone-toting patrons hashtagging and uploading their social media posts throughout the evening; Western hip hop and pop (no local music was played, he said – not even the massively-popular Egyptian hip hop hit, “Ana Mafia” by Mohamed Ramadan); the Western-style bathrooms with expensive toilet paper; several flat screen TVs showing international football games (not the local Zamalek and Al Ahly football teams’ matches which are shown at the more popular shopping centers); the USB ports along the wall so that everyone could keep their essential devices charged; the “beta” video arcade games popular with hipsters nostalgic for “old skool” paraphernalia; the wealthy Egyptian woman wearing a mid-thigh length red dress and holding a cigarette which was not scandalous in this CTZ; and the labor force riven by geopolitical hierarchies was just like any other international scene in a jumbled-up, severely unequal world but also distinctively not. It was in a nutshell a potent example of the contradictions, convergences, paradoxes, pitfalls and potential of globalization and of the myriad borders it simultaneously propagates and erodes.

Once my impromptu “interview” with the obliging manager was over, a Chilean man, in Cairo for a conference and to see an Egyptian friend he had studied with at university in the US, said to me, gesturing at the gyrating dancers, “We are citizens of the world. Not like our parents’ generation. Now we’re so interdependent.” Updating the Spanish expression, mi casa es su casa (my house is your house), he said, laughing, “My country is your country.” I wondered how true these words were in 2019.

There was a time, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when that was the popular, optimistic vision of globalization but it has been thirty years of thickening, calcifying, ossifying borders since Berlin. The 30th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down affords us an excellent opportunity to consider anew the meaning of globalization, borders and walls today.


Thirty Years of Borders since Berlin, by Pier Paolo Frassinelli and Melissa Tandiwe Myambo

November 9, 2019 marked the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the physical and geopolitical barrier that divided Berlin and state socialist regimes from the capitalist West from 1961 to 1989. The felling of the wall immediately sparked a global media extravaganza and attained iconic status (see Sonnevend 2016) as the event that symbolically inaugurated the period of post-Cold War globalization. The collapse of the Soviet Union the following year cemented the promise of a “borderless world” in which capitalism and democracy would ostensibly flourish.

Although 1989 also became synonymous with the massacre at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the birth of the World Wide Web that same year spurred on the process we call globalization – the intensification of global capitalism through increases in global trade; speedier and more extensive global penetration of information and communication technologies; more easily accessible and affordable international travel; mobile finance capital crossing borders within milliseconds; the omnipresence of media and from the 2000s onwards, social media; the rise of the global middle class as a transnational cohort of consumers with converging lifestyles and tastes; more cross-border migration and a great deal more rural to urban migration; increased global exchange of goods and services. Together with the ratification of English as the language of globalization, all of this led many observers to believe that (national) borders had become passé. Bridges and increased connectivity – not borders and walls – were the new, cool kid on the block and would presumably define the future.

However, in the intervening three decades, instead of a borderless, cosmopolitan, post-national, frictionless, connected, mobile, networked, homogenized, deterritorialized world, we are witnessing quite the opposite. Paradoxically, the last thirty years have borne witness to the proliferation, rescaling, reinforcement, militarization and securitization of territorial and other types of borders – linguistic, religious, ethnic, class, racial, cultural, digital, and temporal. The goal of this special issue is to explore and analyze the paradoxes at the heart of globalization, so-called deglobalization and borders today.

In the pages that follow, the concept of the border refers not only to territorial borders but also to a heterogeneity of social and cultural boundaries. These boundaries and the spaces they create are defined by forms of identification that reify them, but also by border struggles that can produce collectivities at variance with identities constituted in the name of nationality, citizenship or other institutionally and state-sanctioned forms of belonging – and that, at the same time, may create their own sociocultural enclaves, cultural time zones and divisions.

Our premise is that in today’s world, borders and borderlands are crucial sites of conflict, struggle and transformation. They are key devices used by the government to regulate human mobility – that is, for the selective inclusion and exclusion of human beings based on their categorization as more or less desirable. They are also daily challenged by migratory movements and migrants’ practices of mobility and claims to rights, space and freedom of movement. To explore these issues, we have tried to assemble research articles, reportage and essays from a variety of scholars and writers working in and across multiple disciplines and geographical regions. It is the nature of such endeavors that we could not cover the whole world but we hope that some of the ideas and theoretical insights will be able to transcend the borders of the subjects and geographical areas covered by our contributors.

Let’s begin with an assessment of the temporal border of 1989. As a marker of the intensification and globalization of neoliberal capitalism, does it help us conceptualize the causes and consequences of today’s resurgence of bordering?

The Promises of 1989: Capitalism, Democracy and the World Wide Web

Just a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama had famously asked whether we had reached the “end of history” – the point at which humankind had found its common ideological heritage: representative democracy, free markets, and consumerist culture (Fukuyama 1989). Promoters of “free trade” trumpeted the benefits of capitalism unimpeded by the Iron Curtain and Cold War communism in a singular globe no longer divided into East and West. Neoliberal ideologies of privatization, deregulation, evisceration of labor unions, individual agency and market primacy, championed by international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, became dominant in most of the world. Sandro Mezzadra recalls:

Borders were set in motion only at the end of the 1980s, at first with the sense of liberation that is always connected with the smashing of a wall. This sense of liberation was somehow prolonged in the following years by new movements across what had been the Iron Curtain, while the establishment of a “European citizenship” by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty was widely interpreted by scholars, activists, and significant sections of European societies as a “post-national” virtuality, a potentiality ultimately doomed to prompt a vanishing or at least a profound democratization of borders (2019, 2; see also McCartney 2019).

The zeitgeist for capitalist triumphalists and US allies who were the de facto “winners” of the Cold War was one of optimism and even of arrogance. In his review of Benjamin Barber’s book, Jihad vs. McWorld: How the Planet Is Both Falling Apart and Coming Together and What This Means for Democracy (1995), Fukuyama wrote:

The author’s argument is marred … by his snobbish distaste for capitalism and American popular culture …. The trenchant line that Barber would like to draw between a good, democratic civil society and a bad, vulgar McWorld is not tenable: the capitalist global economy is intimately related in ways unacknowledged in this book to the success and stability of democracy and civil society … [,] contemporary capitalism … will permit McWorld to bolster rather than undermine civil society, [through] the proliferation of new information technologies that will erode media monopolies (Fukuyama 1995).

If we are to judge Fukuyama’s confident assessment from the vantage point of 2019, we find that it is wrong in almost every respect. On October 29, 1969, when Professor Leonard Klein sent a message on Arpanet, the precursor of the internet, from UCLA to Stanford, who could have predicted that in fifty years the internet would go from a utopian platform which would ostensibly unify the world into a borderless cyberspace to a tool that sows division and can be used to undermine democracy, rather than promoting it? New information technologies have bred new media monopolies (Facebook, Google) which are more wide-reaching and powerful than any media conglomerate before. Social media siloes divide audiences and users into different information zones ripe for political and corporate manipulation; digital divides separate the rural from the urban and the rich from the poor. In this issue, Bruce Mutsvairo and Massimo Ragnedda’s article, “Does Digital Exclusion Undermine Social Media’s Democratizing Capacity?,” reminds us that digital media and the space known as the World Wide Web connect but also disconnect people. The flip side of digital connectivity is digital exclusion and digital colonialism. The question to be asked, then, is whether digital technologies today are the space for an emancipatory and participatory democratic politics, where citizens access a new public sphere, or rather reproduce infrastructural, economic and power inequalities.

Fukuyama was wrong about the internet and equally erroneous was his assessment of the relationship between global capitalism and democracy.

The State of Globalization and Democracy from the Vantage Point of 2019

The nationalism of the great masters serves the great masters. The nationalism of the poor also serves the great masters. Nationalism is no better because it exists in the poor; it just becomes absolutely senseless.

Bertolt Brecht, Me-ti: Book of Interventions in the Flow of Things

Although globalization is a complex, multiscalar, uneven process, it has often been reductively treated as a force that makes the world “flat” or into a “global village.” However, the recent manifestations of a networked neoliberal globalization have been reterritorialization, protectionism, tariffs and a reinvigoration of borders and walls. Increased barriers are the hallmarks of our current reality and both neoliberal capitalism and liberal democracy are in crisis. Although Wall Street and other stock market indexes continue to set new records, the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis that reverberated around the world continue to be felt in “main street” economies and by ordinary people worldwide.

In lieu of talking about globalization, we are increasingly analyzing various forms of “deglobalization” and the rise of “anti-globalization nationalism” (Myambo 2011). In both the global North and the global South, this backlash to globalization is a phenomenon with spectacular political, economic, social and policy consequences: Brexit; Trump’s border wall on the US-Mexico border and his protectionist tariffs aimed at China; the reinforcement of the concrete wall that the state of Israel has built along and inside the West Bank; the growing power of right-wing authoritarian leaders in several nations; and the upsurge of (ethno)nationalism, xenophobia, racism, white supremacy, isolationism, populism, protectionism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and religious fundamentalism. Ethnic particularism combined with nationalism have run a faultline through twentieth-century politics around the world and continue to do so (see Moynihan 1993), which results in the irony that deglobalization is inherently a global phenomenon.

As much as columnists and commentators like to pronounce globalization dead, however, that is just hyperbole. Deglobalization is dialectically related to globalization, which as one headline in Bloomberg put it “isn’t dying, it’s just evolving”: if the shipping container revolutionized global trade in the past, today, data and the digital economy continue to foster increasing connectivity (see Donnan and Leatherby 2019). Panitch and Gindin note that global capitalism is suffering “neither deglobalization nor decline” (2018, 7). Instead, what we call deglobalization is a reaction to the deep inequalities engendered by global capitalism’s propensity to sow uneven development – the simultaneous and dialectical production of both great wealth and great poverty. Income inequality is not the only factor behind the diverse movements, ideologies, and policies we can loosely group under the term deglobalization, but it is one of the major drivers of nationalism and of the loss of faith in democratic institutions.

Vijay Prashad highlights some of the key data points from a recent report produced by the banking corporation, Credit Suisse, in their “annual report on global wealth … [which] … calculates that the top 1% of the world’s population alone owns 45% of total global wealth, while the richest 10% owns 82% of total global wealth; the bottom half of the wealth holders – 50% of humanity – accounts for less than 1% of total global wealth” (2019). Is it any surprise that in 2019, there have been protests in dozens and dozens of countries: Albania, Algeria, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Ecuador, Egypt, France, Guinea, Haiti, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Montenegro, Peru, Spain, Serbia, Russia, South Africa, Sudan, the UK, Ukraine, Venezeula, and Zimbabwe.

In Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization (2016), the economist Branko Milanovic analyzes a 25-year dataset beginning in 1988. On the last page of the book, he ends with a final question: “Will Inequality Disappear as Globalization Continues?” His answer is one line and definitive: “No. The gains from globalization will not be evenly distributed” (239). There is no doubt that intra-national income inequality breeds political instability. Lebanon’s recent protests began because the government proposed a 20-cent daily tax on WhatsApp calls and even once the government had retracted the proposal, the Prime Minister Saad Hariri was forced to resign. Of course, it is not only income inequality that is causing so much dissension and unrest on the world stage. Other factors like anger at crony capitalism, political repression and lack of self-determination also animate protests like Hong Kong’s titanic months-long battle against Beijing’s encroachment on their relatively more democratic freedoms.

Democracy is indisputably facing a crisis and severe polarization almost everywhere. In the United States, the president, Donald Trump, is facing impeachment by the Congress. In the United Kingdom, the “mother of parliaments” has failed to pass a Brexit deal and remove the country from the European Union in over three years of trying. In France, les gilets jaunes (the yellow vests) have been consistently taking to the streets because they are unhappy with the current political and economic dispensation. These are just a few examples but a quick tour around the contemporary world confirms that the “solution” to the current discontent often takes the form of a virulent nationalism that subverts liberal democracies:

With a few significant variations, [Brazilian president Jair] Bolsonaro’s story is similar to Donald Trump’s in the U.S., Viktor Orbán’s in Hungary, Marine Le Pen’s in France, the Five Star Movement’s in Italy and Brexit. Protectionist, anti-immigrant nationalists are tearing down the post-Second World War consensus on the importance of pluralism and the free movement of goods and people. Around the world, liberal democratic values are in retreat (Schertzer 2019).

In a global economy that benefits the richest, xenophobic populism provides a form of convenient scapegoating. Consider the fact that more than 95% of the world population does not migrate across national borders to take up residence in a new country. According to the United Nations Migration Agency’sWorld Migration Report 2018, only 3.3% of the world population are international migrants, yet this relatively small proportion of the world population has been blamed for all sorts of woes allowing politicians to present protectionism and curbing migration as facile solutions to complex problems. The hysteria about migration, whether in Europe or the United States or South Africa, is clearly out of proportion but then again, anti-globalization nationalism is “simplistic, reactive and one-dimensional” (Myambo 2011, 2).

Yet, ironically, at the same time, global elites are waging wars that cost trillions: America’s infinite “war on terror,” for example, which began in earnest with the political-cultural configuration of the temporal border of 9/11. According to a report from the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University, the war on terror has expanded from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Syria to include more than 80 countries, has cost the US an estimated US$6.4 trillion, has directly killed 801,000 people, of whom almost half were civilians, and a further 21 million people have been displaced (Macias 2019).

The globalization of war does not appear to be ending any time soon. For example, Trump’s recent nationalist “America First” withdrawal of troops from the Syrian-Turkish border, which left the US’s Kurdish allies vulnerable and unprotected was quickly complemented by the redeployment of more troops to other areas in the region. Whilst war is one example of a globalized and globalizing process – one forged in violence – other cross-border transnational movements from Pentecostalism to the global climate change strikes spearheaded by the Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, continue to flourish and evolve. But it is at the flashpoints that take place on the borders and in their surrounding borderlands that we can best evaluate the panoply of a changing global cultural economy over the last three decades.

The State of Borders from the Vantage Point of 2019

Today there are more national borders than there have ever been: sea boundaries plus over 300 borders separate 195 recognized states. In Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls (2018), Tim Marshall reckons that “Thousands of miles of walls and fences have gone up around the world in the twenty-first century. At least sixty-five countries, more than a third of the world’s nation states, have built barriers along their borders; half of those erected since the Second World War sprang up between 2000 and now” (2018, 2).

Many recent books chart the rise of harder and more severe borders: Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, Border as Method, Or, the Multiplication of Labor (2013); Michel Foucher, Le retour des frontières [The Return of Borders] (2016); Kathleen Staudt, Border Politics in a Global Era: Comparative Perspectives (2017); Pier Paolo Frassinelli, Borders, Media Crossings and the Politics of Translation: The Gaze from Southern Africa (2019); Greg Grandin, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America (2019); Todd Miller, Empire of Borders: How the US is Exporting Its Border around the World (2019). Borders on land and on sea continue to spark tensions between different nation-states. The maritime borders in the South China Sea across which about a third of the world’s trade takes place are a constant cause of conflict (see Staudt 2018, 117–19), and so are, in the East China Sea, the tiny islands the Chinese call the Diayou and the Japanese call the Senkaku (see Ishiwi 2017). Many nations are trying to expand their territorial influence while other regions are trying to seal themselves off and retract into themselves as in the case of “Fortress Europe” (see Meaney 2019) or of the wall built by Botswana to prevent migration from Zimbabwe.

Even as we rapidly develop and expand infrastructure that connects places and facilitates the circulation of goods and resources, trade and communication – highways, pipelines, ports and tunnels, internet cables and information and communication technologies – national and supranational borders continue to control, regulate, filter and obstruct the movement of people. Borders are sites where human movement is governed and regulated through practices of selective inclusion and exclusion that mark people as either “legal” or “illegal,” and sort them according to categories of person – tourist, businessman, professional, student, refugee, asylum seeker, alien – that provide or deny the right to cross borders and access work permits, residency and citizenship. They increasingly use biometrics and surveillance capitalism to do so. Our contemporary world continues to be divided and ruptured by a multiplicity of rifts, partitions, latitudes, enclaves, differences and social divisions.

The dual movement of capital’s becoming global while at the same time enclosing and demarcating the space of the social has accompanied the whole history of modernity. In The Communist Manifesto (2017 [1848]), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously depicted capital’s inexorable march to a world market and its dismantling of the borders that stand in the way of its global expansion: “The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls …. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i. e. to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image (Marx and Engels 2017 [1848], 56).” For Marx, what we have come to call globalization is built into the concept of capital itself: “The tendency to create the world market is directly given in the concept of capital itself. Every limit appears as a barrier to be overcome” (Marx 1973 [1939], 408).

At the same time, Marx described the transition to capitalism – what he called “the so-called primitive accumulation of capital” – as the creation of new borders and enclosures. The pre-history of capital, Marx writes, was the separation of workers from their means of subsistence, from land and the commons, thereby creating the “masses” of “free” workers, those who found themselves with “nothing to sell except their own skins,” and were thus ready to be employed and exploited by capital in commodity production. Marx started his account of the “so-called primitive accumulation” by writing about Europe – of England, where he argues that the primitive accumulation happens in its classic form, and of Italy, where capitalist production developed earliest (Marx 1970 [1887], 876). But he also underscored that the global march of capital was premised on the unleashing of violence on a world scale:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalised the rosy dawn of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation (ibid., 739).

Fast forward to 2019 and the dual movement of capital continues unabated. Neoliberal globalization and attendant forms of capitalist expansion, financialization, human exploitation, resource extraction, and environmental devastation, have not delivered a borderless world. Instead, they have produced shifting relations between the state, capital and labor, as well as escalating conflicts over citizenship and identity engendered by the clash between new waves of migration and state and supranational modalities of selective inclusion and exclusion.

Consider the borders that separate the African continent from Europe or the United States from Mexico and Latin America – and with them, the global South from the global North – and the conflicts that have clustered around them. At the heart of these conflicts have been deeply raced public and political discourses that foment and exploit the fears and insecurities of local populations and direct them at vulnerable “others,” migrants who are perceived as not belonging, who are labelled “illegal” and who come to symbolize all sorts of social ills. Together with environmental devastation, which is increasingly a driving force of mass migration, the movement of people and its governance are presented, mediated and exploited politically as one of the biggest threats of our times.

But borders are not only instruments that states and supranational institutions use to govern and manage the differential inclusion and exclusion of “foreign” bodies. They are also sites of struggle, contestation and tension “between access and denial, mobility and immobilization, discipline and punishment, freedom and control” (De Genova, Mezzadra, and Pickles 2015, 57). Borders are challenged, shaped and reshaped by movements of migration that cross, circumvent and resist them: “It is this challenge that makes borders and boundaries social relations, crisscrossed by the multifarious tensions between ‘border reinforcing’ and ‘border crossing’” (Mezzadra 2007). Multiple borders cut across the space of the social.

In Border as Method, Or, the Multiplication of Labor (2013), Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson highlight the “deep heterogeneity of the semantic field of the border,” which today points to “symbolic, linguistic, cultural, and urban boundaries” that “are no longer articulated in fixed ways by the geopolitical border. Rather, they overlap, connect, and disconnect in often unpredictable ways, contributing to shaping new forms of domination and exploitation” (vii). The geopolitical boundaries that delimit sovereign state territories or political and economic unions such as the European one are increasingly crisscrossed by a multiplicity of “other lines of social, cultural, political and economic demarcation” (ibid., ix). In this special issue, Mindy Farabee’s “Codifying Invisible Borders: How Municipal Ordinances Inscribe Market Values on the Landscape in Downtown Los Angeles” brings into relief a specific type of spatial border built by zoning codes in the midst of California’s homelessness crisis. These codes inscribe the space of the social by regulating inclusion and exclusion in the context of increasingly prevalent market-driven approaches to neighborhood revitalization/gentrification.

Africa and (Post)Colonial Borders

I can’t see any changes since we chased them away. … They are crying that foreigners take their jobs. … I thought about it and wondered. Couldn’t this be resolved by discussing it together saying “gents and ladies as fellow workers we have a problem. When you accept low wages it affects us like this. Please let’s unite as black people fighting for better pay.”

Lulana Sithole, a South African resident of the informal settlement of Makause (from the documentary Voetsek! Us? Brothers?, directed by Andy Spitz).

The renewed centrality of borders is frequently inserted into a historical narrative framed on the one hand by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and on the other by the events of 9/11 and the subsequent securitization of international relations. But as we have noted, new bordering regimes, devices and institutions are a feature of neoliberal globalization on a world scale.

In Africa, the modern problematics of the border and bordering hark back to “the Westphalian template of the state that was imposed on Africa by colonial modernity and carried over into the postcolonial African present” (Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2013, 6). The postcolonial period inaugurated by the declaration of Ghana’s independence in 1957 has seen the preservation of the territorial borders instituted by European colonial powers between the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the First World War. Originating from the arbitrary partition of the continent at the Berlin Conference of 1884–85, when European powers divided the continent among themselves in the “scramble” for Africa, modern African states and the territorial borders inherited from colonialism remain in place well into the twenty-first century. Boundary maintenance to avoid territorial disputes and conflicts among newly independent states was the explicit policy of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) established in Addis Ababa in 1963. And even the creation of the African Union, which replaced the OAU in 2001, has not translated into freedom of movement across its countries.

In this special issue, the consolidation and hardening of contemporary African borders is addressed by Patrick Bond’s contribution, “‘Rhodes Must Fall’ (while Rhodes’ Walls Rise),” which examines how the borders of southern Africa were first established in late-nineteenth century Berlin, which made the fortune of arch-imperialist Cecil John Rhodes. These same colonial borders continue to be defended and solidified by the post-apartheid South African government presided over by the African National Congress since 1994. Bond dissects the contradiction between the struggle for decolonization of the student movement, #RhodesMustFall, that brought down the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, and the mix of “post-apartheid neoliberalism” and “subimperial hegemony” that provide the political background to the xenophobic violence that reared its ugly head, once again, in 2019.

In another contribution on southern African borders, “The Fall of the Berlin Wall and Namibian Independence,” Chris Saunders highlights how the Wall’s collapse, and with it the centralized socialist regimes of Eastern Europe, was felt in far-away places, including in Germany’s former colony of Namibia, in South West Africa, where it contributed to shaping the path of the post-independence era. While the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), the main vehicle of the liberation movement, had previously proclaimed the goal of creating a socialist state, post-Berlin it introduced a liberal democratic constitution and neoliberal economic policies that make Namibia as socioeconomically unequal now as it was at independence.

Nationalism, Imperialism and Brexit

That England that was wont to conquer others/Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

William Shakespeare, Richard II

Immediately after the UK voted 52 to 48% to leave the European Union (EU) in June, 2016, Liu Ye, the editor of international affairs at Sanlian Life Week magazine in Beijing published a report under the headline, “Brexit: Are We Facing the Reversal of Globalisation?” In the years since then, he recounts that, “The reputation of British democracy has suffered. If you ask someone on the streets of Beijing what they think of Brexit, they might say: ‘Democracy only leads to confusion.’ I know that’s not true, but it is difficult to change their impression …. This has encouraged the nationalists in China, especially the young generation born after 1989” (Ye 2019).

The disruptive force of nationalism and the power of xenophobic populism is nowhere more apparent than in the UK’s Brexit imbroglio. The “Leave” campaign’s victory was predicated on the notion of “taking back control” of the country’s borders and thus, reducing immigration. But borders have bedeviled Brexit negotiations from the very beginning. The UK’s ability to pass a Brexit deal consistently flounders over the fate of Northern Ireland because of the divisions associated with putting a hard border between it and the Republic of Ireland. The very language of hard and soft Brexit mirrors that of hard and soft borders. The infamous Irish “backstop” sounded the death knell for former British Prime Minister, Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Her successor, Boris Johnson, first said he would never accept and then ended up accepting a customs border down the Irish Sea in the most recent iteration of his own Brexit deal.

As the globalization of deglobalization accelerates, Brexit threatens to create even more borders. Will Northern Ireland possibly end up with a border between it and the rest of the UK or with Ireland? Will Scotland, if given a referendum, vote to become independent from the UK? Could Brexit really shatter the union and split the UK into three or four separately governed countries divided by hard national borders? Will Welsh devolution turn into Welsh secession?

In their contribution to this collection, “1997 and 2016: Referenda, Brexit, and (Re-)Bordering at the European Periphery,” Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins and Rhys Dafydd Jones revisit the 2016 Brexit referendum and the ensuing political saga in light of the 1997 referendum where a majority in Wales voted for devolution from the UK government. Brought together, these two referenda speak to post-Cold War political, spatial, and cultural re-bordering processes that saturate contemporary geopolitics and destabilize assumptions about contemporary globalization as a process of global dismantling of borders.

On the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, it is worth reflecting on how different the rhetoric around the UK and even the proposed European Union was shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The abovementioned political theorist, Benjamin Barber, wrote in a 1992 article that preceded his famous book Jihad vs. McWorld, that globalization had shrunk the world and “diminish[ed] the salience of national borders.” Globalization, he underscored, had “achieved a considerable victory over … [virulent] … nationalism.” Writing over a year before the current version of the EU came into being on November 1, 1993, Barber argued that those who were for a stronger European alliance were the “realists.” He deemed those who “dream nostalgically of a resurgent England or Germany, perhaps even a resurgent Wales or Saxony,” as out-of-touch “utopians.”

But today in the UK of 2019, it is yesteryear’s utopians who talk of a resurgent “global Britain” even while the divisions of Brexit threaten the sanctity of the union. Although many globalization scholars view Brexit as an example of deglobalization, its most vocal advocates, like the Brexit Party’s Nigel Farage who was formerly head of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and Boris Johnson, frame Brexit as an attempt to widen Britain’s global ties. Brexiteers claim that freedom from EU constraints will allow a sovereign “global Britain” to make new and better trade deals with the United States and other countries (Harrois 2018). Farage and his allies advocate a “no-deal” Brexit insisting that the UK will be able to trade more successfully on World Trade Organization rules.

Despite Brexiteer rhetoric though, globalization scholars view Brexit as a self-destructive case of deglobalization powered by a sense of misplaced imperial nostalgia (Gaston and Hilhorst 2018). It will shrink GDP, decrease British influence over world affairs and undermine the stability of the European Union. London will cease to be the financial capital of the world and thus one of the most preeminent global cities because the financial service sector has already begun relocating to Dublin, Amsterdam and Paris. Will this help or hurt London residents desperate for affordable housing? Will leaving the EU help those in Northern England’s former manufacturing towns still devastated by Maggie Thatcher’s drastic neoliberal push to deindustrialize? Globalization produces winners and losers but deglobalization will do the same and it is unclear at this stage how Brexit and its repercussions will unfold.

Xenophobic Populism and Trump’s Wall

… Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus” Emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty

If the tearing down of the Berlin Wall represented in some sense, freedom, the wall between the US and Mexico proposed by Trump, the candidate, and his subsequent administration is a hard ethno-nationalist border that provides a stark dividing line that corresponds to the “meta-border” that divides the global North from the global South. The wall has been called an “immorality” by the Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and attempts to secure funding for it from the US Congress face continual opposition. Although the actual wall is still mostly a talking point, its symbolic resonance exceeds its tangible function.

In this special issue, Jenny Stümer’s “Imperial Whiteness: Fantasy, Colonialism and New Walls” reads contemporary post-Cold War geopolitics through the lens of the walls that in Europe, Israel and the United States safeguard and defend the embodiment of privilege and wealth coded in discourses of “whiteness.” Inherited from the history of modern colonial power structures and imperial fantasies, whiteness is today legible as the signifier of a Western world that sees itself as increasingly vulnerable and beleaguered.

Trump came to power on a wave of working-class economic discontent, pro-business elite support from some quarters and a wave of xenophobic populism which was ostensibly directed against “illegal” migrants. Robert Schertzer illuminates these points:

As part of a research project, a colleague and I read all of Trump’s tweets – more than 5,000 in total – during the 2016 election campaign. In almost half of them, he presents himself as the protector of “true Americans” against Mexican migrants, Muslims and political elites. In comparison, he tweeted about policy issues such as health care, taxes and the Supreme Court fewer than 100 times each. This strategy was central to his success: 57% of white Americans voted for him (2019).

Although Trump’s apologists often claim that he is only concerned with unauthorized migrants breaching the nation’s sovereign borders, since taking power the Trump administration has consistently attempted to prevent both “legal” and “illegal” immigration, proposed legislation that would make it harder to obtain legal permanent residency (green cards), put in place a “Muslim ban” and worked to drastically cut the number of refugees and asylum-seekers who can enter the country. Most of the xenophobic rhetoric has been directed at migrants from Mexico and Central America, and under Trump’s aegis, the Department of Homeland Security has tried to use a diabolical “family separation” policy of taking children from their parents to “deter” these migrants from coming to the border.

This type of rabid xenophobia has not been restricted to the US, however, and in this special issue, Rihan Yeh shows how it infects Mexican politics and public discourse as well. Yeh’s article, “De-border Yourself/Desfronterízate” revisits the contestations and conflicts surrounding the US-Mexico border from the perspective of the Mexican border-city of Tijuana, where the anti-immigrant sentiments that have recently surfaced mirror those found in the United States and are also directed against Central Americans.

As the US gears up for the next presidential election in 2020, the rhetoric of deglobalization (nationalists versus “globalists”), explicit and implicit racism, blatant and disguised xenophobia and the politics of blood and (un)belonging will undoubtedly be the ground on which the campaign is fought.

South Asia’s Hard Borders and Transnational Diasporas

Because we were one

In all those years

Before we knew that butterflies

Were free to share our separate skies

That they could cross with graceful ease

To alight on stationary trees

On either side of this strange line

That separates yours from mine…

This border that cuts like a knife

Through the waters of our life

Bashabi Fraser, This Border

More than 70 years after Partition, the wounds of the horrendous physical and psychic violence of 1947, when the subcontinent divided itself into different countries, are still visible today. Those wounds cannot become scars because of the ongoing struggle between Pakistan and India, both nuclear powers, over control of Kashmir; and because of the constant tension between India and Bangladesh over the Indo-Bangladesh border, the Bengal borderlands and the Northeast where many Indian citizens are being made stateless as the Indian government claims they are actually Bangladeshis. Post-Partition independent India has not forgotten China’s incursion across its borders in the 1960s and terrorist attacks and insurgency groups have made it a highly-securitized and heavily-surveilled state ever on the alert for “antinational” activities. The result of this is a nation-state with hard borders: “Like other countries in the post-Berlin Wall (1989) world, India built fences (walls) with the grand aim of sealing the entire border” (Staudt 2018, 84).

However, at the same time, post-Cold War globalization has transformed India’s borders, both real and imagined, physical and virtual (Mallapragada 2014). The internet revolution combined with the Indian government’s 1991 decision to liberalize the economy transformed many of the country’s cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad or regions like Gurugram into information and technology hubs which have put India at the heart of the “borderless” world of cyberspace, business process outsourcing and the global economy’s technological frontier. But pre- and post-Partition India’s physical borders are also complicated by the existence of older and newer diasporas. The largest number of people of Indian descent outside the Indian subcontinent are to be found on South Africa’s eastern coast in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, and especially concentrated in the city of Durban. That is an “old” diaspora stemming from the nineteenth century. Today, India itself has a diaspora of some 27 million people in over 150 countries.

The Indian government took a conscious decision to engage with its diaspora, especially its “First World” diaspora, in the late 1980s in order to power its technology-fueled development plans. Hence, the last three decades have marked a new era in India’s history as a migrant-sending country. India is now receiving migrants, some of whom are its own diaspora, many of them middle-class professionals who are going “home” as “return” or even “heritage” migrants (Myambo 2017b, 2019c).

In this special issue, Ananya Kumar-Banerjee unpacks the Indian government’s categories of Overseas Citizen of India (OCI – formerly Person of Indian Origin) status, which allows for a nebulous group of “Non-Resident Indians” to return but also facilitates foreign direct investment and remittances. However, while the OCI status allows for a certain form of transnational citizenship that expands India’s borders exponentially, we must ask whether the OCI status also augments the hard borders of the nation-state of post-Partition India. What of those people of Indian descent whose forebears come from parts of Punjab, Bengal or other geographical regions that are now part of Pakistan and Bangladesh?

Kumar-Banerjee notes that India’s denial of dual citizenship engenders ambivalent national loyalty. Her starting point is that citizenship, as a legal status, is invested by the tension between the push towards the weakening of national and regional identities and the reactive investment in one’s ethnic heritage. In India, this plays itself out through the return of Hindu nationalism. Focusing on the role of the Indian diaspora and contemporary efforts to develop the OCI status, she rereads citizenship in a transnational and diasporic context as bringing into being an expanded notion of Indian identity that reinforces both the Indian nation-state and the capitalist regime in which it is embedded.


We would have liked to close out this introduction with some words of wisdom on the possible direction of globalization and the evolution of borders between now and the 40th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 2029, but between aggressive climate change which will instigate new waves of migration, general political instability and unpredictability, and the high chance of another global recession in the coming years, we are unable to do so.

Who the hell knows what will happen next?


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Published Online: 2019-12-07
Published in Print: 2019-11-18

© 2019 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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