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Closed borders and democratic theory

This is not democracy.

You may have noticed that the question of immigration is on people’s minds lately (as it has been, almost without interruption, since the mid-nineteenth century;—ugh, the repetitiveness and predictability of history). The whole “border crisis” is absurd: the only crisis is a humanitarian crisis, and it could be solved simply by abolishing ICE, diverting more resources to processing immigrants (“legal” and “undocumented”), reforming the punitive nature of border control, and changing American foreign policies so as to support the democratization and development of countries from which migrants are fleeing (largely as a result of past American foreign policies). None of this will happen, since we live in a dystopia controlled by reactionaries, proto-fascists, and big business. But it’s always worth remembering that, in principle, the solutions to any given social problem are (in nearly all cases) pretty clear. The reason they can’t be enacted is that the powerful, despite what they might say, aren’t interested in solutions. They’re interested in the path of least resistance, and in maintaining their own power.

I thought I’d post something about border policies, not because I have anything new to say on the subject but because I recently came across an interesting article by a political theorist named Arash Abizadeh, “Democratic Theory and Border Coercion: No Right to Unilaterally Control Your Own Borders” (2008). Full disclosure: Abizadeh was a professor of mine at Wesleyan University. Few of us students thought much of him as a professor, but after reading his paper I have to admit he’s at least capable of compelling argumentation—for the morally right conclusion, moreover. I decided to translate his arguments into non-academese for any interested reader, since I think they’re of more than merely academic interest.

My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that the politically fraught question of immigration should be a non-issue. It’s a nice tool for proto-fascists to rile up masses of ignorant people and get them to vote for politicians who are interested only in increasing repression and empowering the wealthy, but that’s all it is. What should happen, ideally, is that borders become ever more porous, in the long run heading toward a regime of open borders (to the extent possible), since freedom of movement should be a fundamental human right and immigration is far from harmful to a domestic economy or society. If there were more global freedom of movement, moreover, it’s possible that states would begin to implement more humane and progressive social policies, since otherwise they might lose some of their population to countries that did have such policies. Instead of the neoliberal race to the bottom, there might be something like a race to the top.

Wage levels would tend to equalize everywhere, which would be good for low-wage countries and bad for high-wage countries—but, at the same time, it would likely be easier to organize a global labor movement, which would be good for the non-rich everywhere. In the very long run, the nation-state system itself should be dismantled to the degree possible, since nation-states are violent, authoritarian, illegitimate entities.

Anyway, let’s get to Abizadeh’s article…

Usually we think of a country as having the right to unilaterally control its own border policy, subject only to democratic input from its citizens, not from foreigners. What foreigners want doesn’t matter because they’re not members of the state. Many commentators reject unilaterally closed borders, or restrictive and punitive border policies, on the grounds of liberalism, which is committed to universal human rights, individualism, freedom of movement, and so on. (Some, such as Frederick Whelan, even argue that “liberalism in its fully realized form would require the reduction if not the abolition of the sovereign powers of states…especially those connected with borders and the citizen-alien distinction”—a position Chomsky and many other anarchists advocate, since liberalism after all is just supposed to mean a regime of individual freedom, which is what anarchism means.) Abizadeh, however, chooses to argue against unilateral border policies on the basis of democratic grounds, not liberal grounds. This is what makes his paper novel and interesting, since, prima facie, it would seem that considerations of democracy are in tension with those of liberalism: democracy supposedly “requires a bounded polity whose members exercise self-determination, including control of their own boundaries.” Liberalism is universal, democracy is particular and bounded. So how can you use democratic theory to argue against unilaterally closed borders?

It’s simple: argue that “the demos [the community, the people] of democratic theory is in principle unbounded, and the regime of boundary control must consequently be justified to foreigners as well as to citizens.” This is Abizadeh’s conclusion. Whether a state recognizes or denies (to foreigners) the legal right to freedom of movement, to the degree that it is democratic it can only arrive at its policy as “the result of democratic processes giving participatory standing to foreigners asserting such a right [to freedom of movement].” What these democratic processes would look like is an open question, but they would involve international or supra-state organizations of some form or other.

Of course, one is free to reject Abizadeh’s arguments, but (if his arguments succeed) to that extent one is an authoritarian, not a democrat.

The core of the argument is very simple. According to democratic theory, a state’s coercive powers (involving coercive acts and coercive threats) have to be democratically justified to all those over whom they are exercised, which is to say the members of the demos must have the opportunity to participate in political decision-making on a free and equal basis. But a country’s regime of border control subjects both members and nonmembers (non-citizens) to state coercion. “Therefore, the justification for a particular regime of border control is owed not just to those whom the boundary marks as members, but to nonmembers as well.”

The obvious objection to this argument is that, even if foreigners are subject to coercion, justification is owed only to citizens, since foreigners have no political standing in the state. It seems to me that this objection reveals an unattractive and illiberal comfort with treating any non-citizen in an authoritarian or even brutal way (remember, that’s how the Nazis could “legally” exterminate Jews: they had deprived them of citizenship), but be that as it may, Abizadeh points to a more serious logical flaw: the objection’s presupposition, that the demos is inherently bounded, is incoherent.

It’s an argument that Whelan makes: how can a state democratically determine its own civic (and territorial) boundaries, the boundaries of the demos? Who are the people who will vote on this question of membership? You’d have to somehow determine the membership of the group that is entitled to vote on the question in the first place—but how do you decide this second-order membership question? It would itself need to be voted on. Ultimately you get an infinite regress. As Whelan says, “the boundary problem is one matter of collective decision that cannot be decided democratically… We would need to make a prior decision regarding who are entitled to participate in arriving at a solution… [Democracy] cannot be brought to bear on the logically prior matter of the constitution of the group itself, the existence of which it presupposes.”

As Abizadeh comments, the problem is that “democratic theory requires a democratic principle of legitimation for borders, because borders are one of the most important ways that political power is coercively exercised over human beings. Decisions about who is granted and who is denied membership, and who controls such decisions, are among the most important instances of the exercise of political power”—especially given the incredibly brutal nature of modern border controls (involving police dogs, electric wires, incarceration, deportation, torture, shooting on sight, etc.). By the very act of constituting the state’s civic and territorial borders, you’re disenfranchising large numbers of people—“outsiders”—over whom power is exercised. But this violates democratic theory.

(And if you look at history, you’ll find that no state, including no “democratic” state, has ever been founded democratically. Civic and territorial borders are always created by means of violence, and are policed very violently.)

If you abandon the “bounded demos” thesis, however, the incoherence disappears:

An alternative reading of democratic legitimacy comes into view: the view that political power is legitimate only insofar as its exercise is mutually justified by and to those subject to it, in a manner consistent with their freedom and equality… The democratic principle of legitimacy requires replacing coercive relations with relations of discursive argumentation, and legitimating the remaining instances of coercion by subjecting them to participatory discursive practices of mutual justification on terms consistent with the freedom and equality of all. On this view, democratic theory does provide an answer to the boundary question: the reach of its principle of legitimation extends as far as practices of mutual justification can go, which is to say that the demos is in principle unbounded.

Therefore, a regime of border control can be legitimate only if there are international democratic institutions in which both citizens and foreigners can participate to determine what the border policies will be. (Actually, it seems to me that Abizadeh’s arguments call into question the very existence of borders except insofar as “foreigners” and “citizens” can vote on who will be entitled to be a citizen and where the territorial border will be drawn. But he doesn’t draw this conclusion, for some reason.)

I’d note here that in the absence of such international institutions (in which foreigners can help determine what will be a given country’s border policies, to which they are coercively subjected), the most democratic option would be to adopt a maximally permissive and open border policy, since this reduces the element of coercion. People who oppose this conclusion, or Abizadeh’s arguments, are not “good democrats” standing up for their own country’s right to self-determination (right to determine its own policies); they are authoritarians comfortable with coercing masses of people who have had no role whatsoever in determining the policies to which they’re subjected.

The remainder of the article is concerned with answering objections based on the “self-determination argument for unilateral border control” (the argument I just mentioned, that a country has a right to determine its own policies). Abizadeh’s strategy is to argue that the self-determination argument is incompatible with the most plausible liberal and democratic arguments for the very existence of borders (separate countries) in the first place. So if you accept any of those arguments, you’re logically compelled to reject the self-determination argument.

For example, liberals are, rightly, afraid of “concentrated political power and its potential to breed tyranny.” One way they have tried to thwart this potential is by dividing and dispersing power (as in the “checks and balances” American system of government). Well, the worst tyranny of all would be a global tyranny. So, many liberals see “a plurality of political units [countries] as a crucial bulwark against tyranny,” in that it makes a global tyranny impossible. Okay, so far so good. But how do unilaterally closed borders help counteract the threat of a global tyranny? If tyranny is bad and individuals should have the right to escape it, there should be relatively open borders that hold out the promise of safe haven for refugees fleeing a tyranny. Thus, if you accept this particular liberal argument for the existence of separate countries, you’re bound to reject the argument for closed borders.

Anyway, I think you get the point. The main value of the article is in providing some theoretical points to make against (unilateral) closed-border advocates. These people are not democrats.

But, frankly, that should have been obvious all along. ICE is hardly a “democratic” agency. I also doubt that any academic article, or the arguments it makes, can sway the minds of more than a micro-fraction of conservatives, since very few of these people are susceptible to reason or questions of principle (much less compassion). Nevertheless, more highly evolved people can find food for thought in the occasional scholarly article.


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