Violent Borders

Nothing like an unexpected snow day to give me some time to catch up on reading (and grading). This week, I finally finished Reece Jones’s Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move (Verso 2016). Richard Rothaus brought the book to my attention largely in connection to a recent, short paper that we wrote that considered the parallels between the modern European refugee crisis and Bakken oil book. You can read that paper here

Reece’s book argues that national borders are to blame for the current crises of movement in the late modern world. He connects the plight of political and economic refugees through his attention to borders which impede the flow of people away from danger and toward economic opportunities provided by the global movement of capital. In fact, he argues that borders work to preserve low cost labor pools reinforced by uneven laws protecting workers’ rights. In Reecee’s work, borders become tools for an increasingly militarized state to preserve labor markets while, at the same time, permitting the flow of goods and capital. He goes on to note that the disjunction between national economies and global flow of capital works to make it difficult to manage, say, the environmental problems like climate change through institutions, like the United Nations, which rely upon the idea of national sovereignty to function. Here Reece makes a nice observation that border fences themselves are transformative when they impede the movement of animals, the flow of water, and the integrity of local ecosystem. In other words, there is a real (if almost symbolic in comparison to larger, global issues like climate change) impact of borders on the natural world.

The connection between economic and political refugees and the role of the nation in defining the character of modern movement has increasingly informed my thinking about workforce housing in the Bakken. Workforce housing represents the material manifestation of the movement in human capital as it ebbs and flows in a world where a “periphery” may no longer imply a core. In some of my recent works, I’ve toyed a bit ineptly with idea like Andre Gunter Frank’s “development of underdevelopment” (pdf) which argued that the core had a vested interest in preserving the underdeveloped status of the periphery (e.g. see my contribution to this volume). Reece’s work helped me understand that part of the strategy to preserve the underdeveloped status of certain “peripheries” involved the establishment of national border and restrictions on movement of human capital from these places. He is careful, though, and does not suggest that borders alone prevent movement. As the arrival of a new workforce in North Dakota demonstrates, even when people are free to move into a new area to take advantage of economic opportunities, they still consider someplace else to be home. Only time will tell whether the increasing pace of global capital will erode this sense of home as people move more and more frequently to support the contingencies of profit.

This, then, is the broader context for a broader questions that Reece and I have both flirted with a bit. If we assume that history as a discipline – at least in its modern guise – emerged alongside and in the service of the nationstate, can we envision a post-national history? In particular, if our notions of place and time are deeply indebted to national spaces and time, can the discipline as it is now constituted adapt to the speed of capital and a world without borders?

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