A Critique of Borders

This essay argues that an anarchist society ought to be one without borders, as they are incompatible with the goals, values and vision of an ideal world. Anarchism is the ideology and methodology of the good society, and thus ought to hold itself to these high standards. Firstly, I shall argue that borders inhibit human autonomy and flourishing. Secondly, I shall argue that borders instantiate and cultivate nationalism, which is harmful to moral understanding. I shall conclude that anarchist societies, if our goal is a political settlement as close to utopian conditions as possible, must be globally inclusive.

The Central Argument:

The goal of the good society is to maximize human potential in order to invoke human flourishing. The actualisation of human potential is achieved through the autonomy of individuals, and the freedom of association between individuals within society; it is achieved through the cultivation of moral understanding, the cultivation of creativity and intellect, the capacity to live where you wish to live, to do what makes you happy, and to live with the people that make you feel safe and secure, loved and respected, important and worthwhile in virtue of being oneself.

Human flourishing cannot be achieved, however, if individuals are constrained from exercising these capacities. I cannot quench my thirst without water; I cannot nourish my hunger without food; I cannot protect myself from the elements without shelter; I cannot pique my intellectual curiosity in the absence of education. If I am deprived of the opportunity to live where I want, to meet who I want to meet, to go where I want to go, then that constraint is contrary to my desire to fulfil my potential. An unfulfilled human life is as tragic for the individual as it ought to be for the collective.

Borders, in the context of this discussion are those monitored by nation-states, with violence, bureaucracy or otherwise. By virtue of their very existence, and indeed by definition, they constrain individuals and their ability to freely associate with one another. Furthermore, borders produce fictional divisions between geographic land masses in order to disperse socio-political power between groups of elite actors. Borders, therefore, produce the ideological justification for themselves, in the form of nationalism.

It is my contention that nationalism, albeit with certain exceptions, encourages individuals to believe their moral duties do not extend outside the borders of their nation-state. The reason for my clarification is that there are many historical instances of national liberation, wherein a colonized country utilizes their previous national identity that had been quashed by the oppressive force in order to invoke a rebellion against their rule. For example, the national liberation movement of Mozambique (FRELIMO) against the Portuguese.

Returning to nationalism’s intrinsic differentiation of peoples and populations, it is harmful to moral understanding as a result of its divisive nature. As moral understanding is an aspect of the actualisation of human potential, nationalism is contrary to the goal of the good society, and thus, an anarchist one: anarchism and borders are incompatible.


Does this argument mean that an anarchist society must include the whole world?

One may claim this argument necessarily entails that the anarchist project is a global political community. Indeed it may be incredibly difficult for an autonomous anarchist community to sustain itself surrounded by dystopian, statist conditions, but it definitely couldn’t be exclusionary to citizens of those states. Speaking as a true optimism, for example, if the whole world were to become one global anarchist collective with the exception of Australia, it shouldn’t exclude Australians wishing to relocate. Just as individuals from one side of the GAC wouldn’t be restricted in their ability to travel across the land.

Borders don’t advocate nationalism:

Borders are divisions between geographic land masses. Whilst it’s harder to see them if you are an isolated, island nation, for example, they still exist. With borders, government elites tell one another and their respective populations where they believed they have jurisdiction and the legitimate use of coercive force. Borders themselves are controlled in order to monitor the movements of goods, peoples and customs. There are certain positives to some aspects of the border controls, such as quarantine checks, but they could still exist in the absence of national divisions. Nationalism is an ideological commitment and attachment to identifying with one’s nation-state: the psychological espousal of border divisions. Whilst it is true that proximity, cultural homogeneity, language and social practices often instantiate an affection for certain value systems, methods and ways of life, borders produce artificial, arbitrary power structures around them.

Very few nation-states are monolingual (and even then, they are often artificially constructed), no nation-states exist with cultural homogeneity (where there exists few differences in culture between regions or classes) and proximity is utterly relative, given that the USA is a single nation-state, but people from the north of Texas to the south of Texas have a greater distance between them than Scottish highlanders and Brightonians. Without borders (and importantly, the concept of borders), there would be no means for nationalism to emerge ideologically. Besides, the heterogeneity of culture is integral to human autonomy.

Nationalism isn’t harmful to moral understanding:

It would not be a grandiose statement on human social psychology to claim that it is easier to empathise with those with whom we identify.  The more we identify with a person, the more we are likely to understand and support that person- this fact is the basis of all love and friendship. Nationalism comes in two forms: the positive patriotism, and the negative chauvinism. Chauvinism is the conviction of moral superiority over others outside of one’s identity classification, the jingoism found in fanatics of national causes. Chauvinism is self-evidently harmful to moral understanding, as it reduces the scope of moral inquiry to individuals immediately associated to an arbitrary domain of identity. Patriotism (advocated by political philosophers from Rousseau to Habermas) often involves embracing the actions and values of a state.

However, patriotism appears to be a form of nationalism with a pre-existent moral rationale, composed of less complex ideological positions. If you are proud of being  British, because of the custom of tolerance, then you aren’t supporting being British qua Britain, you are supporting being British by virtue of moral understanding. Framing moral understanding in the context of being pro-establishment/anti-establishment, or pro-British/anti-British encourages errors of representation, increases the likelihood of reducing one’s moral claims to chauvinism, and furthermore, it still produces an arbitrary divide. Plenty of other nations practice tolerance. Why love the British nation-state for that ahead of others? Why not support your moral values in virtue of themselves, whenever and wherever they are espoused or acted upon, regardless of birthplace?

An ideal world is not a world disassembled with the carving knife of capital, divided by the tenets of nationalism, or any other segregational creed or ideology. The aim of anarchism is an inclusive social structure, a political settlement that benefits all, where freedom to associate remains unrestricted, and our desires aren’t inhibited by passport control, the wire fence, or the concrete wall.

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Jamie Ranger graduated with a BA in Politics and Philosophy from the University of Sheffield, and is currently an Msc student in Political Theory at the London School of Economics. When he isn't encouraging his coursemates to overthrow Capital and the State, he can be found whining about football, the distinct lack of global anarcho-communism and trying to be funny on Twitter at @jamieandhisego.

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