REVIEW | Undoing Border Imperialism

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We never thought they’d deport him.

It seemed that, as a journalist in Pakistan, the Old Man had pissed off a general or two with his manner of political commentary. He soon found his name on a hit list, and fled to the USA.

After September 11th it was no longer safe to have dark skin in America, so he had made Montreal his home. We’d talk politics, and good literature, and he taught us how to read the newspaper like a journalist. The Iraq war was on and we’d watch CNN, analyzing and refuting it. Our conversations had all the depth and intensity of university seminars – and then some.

I was working as a presser in a garment factory, making just enough. A friend, just out of the army, was working in a paper-processing plant. The Old Man supplemented the cheap government cheque they give refugee claimants with back-breaking farm labour in the summer and flyer delivery in the winter. All of us desperate for a taste of life, for the callings we were meant for, none of us with the right combination of good fortune and connections. But we took pride in our smallest victories, and toasted each other whenever someone had a decent break.

At one point, when I was completely broke, the Old Man took me out to the onion farm that Saturday and showed me the technique of harvesting onions for cash. I earned enough for groceries, and we cooked a meal on the stove in his one-room apartment. On Monday, I went back to the factory and he went back to the fields.

The Old Man never told us he was living on borrowed time. He had interviewed world-renowned politicians, and had his articles about Pakistan’s dangerous politics cited by the UN High Commission on Refugees, but as a journalist under threat of death, Canada wouldn’t see him as a qualified refugee.

Border imperialism isn’t abstract to those of us who’ve felt its wounds. In Harsha Walia’s well-crafted book Undoing Border Imperialism, published this month, multi-authored anecdotes and poems imbue the text with a quality that breaks my heart. They lend vitality to theoretical constructions and arguments.

(The edition of Undoing Border Imperialism provided The Mainlander was not the final version, so any discrepancies between my points and the text are my sole responsibility.)

Walia posits border imperialism as an “alternative analytical framework” that “depicts the processes by which the violences and precarities of displacement and migration are structurally created as well as maintained.” “Practices of arrest without charge, expulsion, indefinite detention, torture, and killings,” Walia writes, “have become the unexceptional norm in militarized border zones.”

Her conceptualization intersects productively with revolutionary Tamil journalist Dharmeratnam P. Sivaram’s theory of the “counter-insurgency nation-state,” a model of state-building primarily referencing the Global South. Sivaram – intellectual force behind the influential TamilNet website, assassinated in 2005 – outlined counter-insurgency tactics such as “arrest, detention, torture, all indiscriminate, and interrogation to destroy the basis of civil society…You want people to lose track of the idea that they have rights of any kind. You reduce them to the point where staying alive becomes a top priority…People lose their psychological moorings and so become unable to make any kind of a politically cohesive statement.”

Border imperialism and counter-insurgency are twin tactics of state terror in the era of late-stage capitalism, developed to produce politically inactive populations and thus preserve state power.

In the most notorious recent case of Canadian border imperialism, the charge of potential “terrorism” justified incarcerating or deporting many of the approximately 500 Tamil migrants who landed on B.C.’s coastline in 2009 and 2010. Writing on Palestine, James Baldwin once famously stated that “a terrorist is called that only because he does not have the power of the State behind him – indeed, he has no State, which is why he is a terrorist.  The State, at bottom, and when the chips are down, rules by means of a terror made legal.”

“The universalization and proliferation of the Western state as the defining political institution, as well as citizenship as the defining political community,” writes Walia, “is a consequence of Western imperialism.” Sivaram affirmed to biographer Mark Whitaker in 2007’s Learning Politics from Sivaram that counter-insurgency doctrine embodies “developments in the technologies of violence that make the modern state possible.”

Anti-“terror” discourse tangibly links counter-insurgency with border imperialism – lending legality to ongoing state violence and criminalizing those without a state. “Border controls are most severely deployed by those Western regimes that create mass displacement, and are most severely deployed against those whose very recourse to migration results from the ravages of capital and military occupations,” Walia states.

It is easy to view migrants as eternal victims, displaced and harassed from one locale to the next, and in simple need of solidarity against the excesses of a brutal world. However, their struggles contain the  potential for far more. Especially at the centres of established global power, the exercise of basic migrant rights is incompatible with the normal functioning of the nation-state. Inherent to their structural position, migrants – who undertake dangerous voyages, make their voices heard via hunger strikes and internment-camp demonstrations, and build alliances with oppressed members of their host societies – are political agents, in whose being germinates the dissolution of the nation-state system.

Border imperialism, then, is not merely a practice that defines who belongs to the nation and who doesn’t. It is an instrument of control restricting the political expression of migrants. In combating that control and giving political voice to migrants, organizations like No One Is Illegal (NOII) are effective instrument of “undoing border imperialism.”

Walia contends that “the state is not eroding under transnational capitalist globalization. The state, along with its forms of governance including through border imperialism, is evolving to continue to meet the needs of capitalist expansion through more flexible means of governance and accumulation.” She demonstrates how the settler state criminalizes migration itself. The blatant connection between border policing and the prison-industrial complex, for instance, forms an axis of domination along which the ruling nation is defined. The carceral and structural violence of border imperialism is thus a primary agent in racialization; the state narrates itself as a victim of “illegal,” “terrorist,” “job-stealing” migrants in order to justify its violence.

State violence and its accessory, white supremacy, serve as models for horizontal violence among racialized groups. Walia’s explicit engagement with the complexities of settler identity among migrants as they relate to Indigenous land-sovereignty is, therefore, crucial to solidarity-building.

Building meaningful alliances requires a level of political consciousness whose lower threshold we are only beginning to approach in Canada. This is why, I believe, Walia adopts the tone of moral imperative, rather than of observation. “We have to go beyond a politics of optional alliance…we are obligated to educate ourselves and each other about the histories of the illegal settlement and appropriation of Indigenous lands,” she writes. For most outside the activist core, there is no such obligation without incentive. One of the few entitlements Canadian society offers racialized communities is access to Indigenous land (others include the “model minority” syndrome and anti-black racism). Outreach initiated by Indigenous nations, as Walia documents in Australia and Canada toward Tamil migrants, provides a meaningful countermeasure.

Similarly, in the Canadian demographic reality, patriarchal violence by racialized men does not express “traditional” culture. Rather, in the absence of consciousness-raising struggle, it provides a cathartic outlet for traumas of racist disempowerment by emulating Euro-American hetero-patriarchy. NOII-Toronto’s Farrah Miranda, quoted in Undoing Border Imperialism, identifies attacks on women as a tactic of border imperialism: “deportation is violence against women.” Thus, 2013’s successful Sanctuary City status campaign in Toronto, detailed by Walia as a signal victory of NOII, significantly ensures that the Canadian Border Services Agency refrain from entering women’s shelters.

Tamil-Australian social worker N. Malathy, in 2012’s A Fleeting Moment in My Country (a description of life in de facto state of Tamil Eelam), details how Tamil women’s rebel military training and participation in battles increased their self-confidence and equalized interactions with men. Their involvement had the larger social effect of emboldening non-military Tamil women. It was therefore of paramount importance that Tamil women be returned to their “proper” place after 2009’s military defeat by the Sri Lankan state. Ethnically-based rape by the military (particularly of ex-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam women), coerced contraception, and survival sex work are now among Sri Lanka’s tools of colonization on Tamil land.

By protecting such migrant women’s access to shelters, a policy like Toronto’s Sanctuary City status thus aids in providing a safe space from the triple gender violence of colonization in the homeland, control of their bodies by Border Services, and domestic abuse by their partners.

As Walia is at pains to point out, NOII’s day-to-day work is not intrinsically reformist. Revolutionary activity is not abstractly definable by its practices alone, but by situating those practices within their historical and social context. The slow process of creating a culture from which revolutionary struggle can emerge does not contradict the singular act of initiating revolutionary struggle.

Even the most successful radical movements, though, can be gradually force-fit into the structure that they fight. As Walia is keenly aware, NOII’s direct advocacy work can retain a functional value for the state. Street demonstrations, occupying ministers’ offices, and successfully preventing deportation orders delineate a struggle for recognition by the state, but not one for its defeat – at least not yet.

In that sense, I’ve always felt uncomfortable with buzzwords popular among NOII and other groups – words like “dissent,” “resistance” and “prefiguration.” These values – fully and unconditionally necessary to a successful struggle – implicitly assume the existence of the dominant class, state, and society. In the wrong context, I fear, they might prove ideologically useful to the state, by becoming self-perpetuating mantras that preclude reflection on tactics that can defeat it. In making this point, I will not gloss over Walia’s judgement after years of direct experience. “Political organizing requires us to assess changes in conditions and adapt accordingly,” she writes. “Direct support work should be seen less as a definitive model and more as a system of values to guide how we work alongside those facing deportation.”

I’m sympathetic to Walia’s conscious approval of Alain Badiou’s quote: “It’s necessary to invent a politics that is not identical with power.” In our relations with comrades and allies, in prefiguring the societies we want, power-lust is certainly our worst enemy. Yet I can’t yet relinquish the conviction that sovereignty – the defeat, “by any means necessary,” of those who inflict pain on us – is equal to political power.

I’m well aware that the instruments of revolutionary struggle, contrary to Trotsky’s view, play a determining role in what the future society looks like. But if we could freely choose the means by which our liberation would be won, we’d choose an easier method than this struggle.

Opening political space, as NOII does, for migrants, racialized groups, and Indigenous nations to articulate themselves and act politically together, is a prerequisite to placing “revolutionary” activity on the agenda in Canada. In writing Undoing Border Imperialism, Harsha Walia has shown that – from differing directions and for different reasons – a multiplicity of movements on this land and across the globe are developing innovative and novel, yet similar, conclusions about how to organize their struggles. The efforts of these millions of people are inaugurating a new spirit of global upheaval, and the work undertaken by bodies like NOII will be decisive in determining its direction in Canada.

At his deportation hearing, the Old Man delivered a magnificent speech, explaining how he had refused the “golden sparrow” of sellout journalism in exchange for the worn-out shoes that principle and conviction bring. All he asked for was one more night of freedom out of the detention centre, one last night in “his Montreal.” We said our goodbyes on March 14, 2006.

He had asked us not to mobilize support for him – no protests, no campaign. Maybe he was tired of fleeing from government after government. Maybe he felt a sense of futility from having his personal integrity violated by callous bureaucrats, or from being locked up without having committed any crime. Though his fate was far from certain then, I know the Old Man is safe today. Not every deportee’s story can end that way.