Historians' Watch

Borders and Beyond

This is part of our series on ‘Radical History after Brexit’, exploring the challenges facing radical history after Britain’s departure from the European Union.

“…Capital drives beyond national barriers and prejudices…as well as all traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old ways of life…But from the fact that capital posits every such limit as a barrier and hence gets ideally beyond it, it does not by any means follow that it has really overcome it…its production moves in contradictions which are constantly overcome but just as constantly posited.”
—Karl Marx, Grundrisse

Twenty years ago, at the turn of the millennium, ‘anti-globalisation’ was popularly understood as primarily an impulse of the left. The collapse of the Berlin Wall – the post-war world’s most iconic border – in 1989, followed by greater European integration and expansion, and the North American Free Trade Agreement, seemed to open up a new era for transnational capital. The radical activists who assembled at the World Trade Organisation Ministerial Conference in Seattle in November 1999 might have argued that their goals were no less internationalist than the delegates inside, but their insistence ‘that national governments be free to exercise their authority’ was easily brushed aside by those who could predict with confidence that all barriers to trade and movement (for goods and money if not for people) would soon be met with condescension by posterity. Multi-national corporations and US-leadership of global institutions were projected as the future. However much the protesters lamented the erosion of workers’ rights and social protections, that age was over, the rules had changed, and no alternative was possible.

The US-Mexico border at Tijuana. Via Wikicommons.

In 2010, when I began my doctoral work on the history of the Irish border, this world was already fading. Beginning with the attacks of 11 September 2001, the general crisis of the early twenty-first century had shattered the post-Cold War neoliberal optimism. Although the elements of that crisis that were most evident at that time – principally, war and terror and the climate emergency – were transnational if not worldwide questions, linked debates about security, migration, citizenship, and civil liberties had re-foregrounded international borders. Militarised and violent borders increasingly guarded against civilians rather than other states while in the ten years between 2005 and 2015 an estimated 23,000 people lost their lives attempting to enter the European Union. Ominously, the 2008/9 financial crash, had deflated the buoyancy of a decade earlier planting seeds, the fruits of which, would in time include both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump promising to ‘build a wall’ on the USA-Mexico border. But in 2010 that still lay in the future. Already, as Wendy Brown expressed it that year, in the new ‘global imaginary of liberal democracies, two disparate images [had] merged to produce a single figure of danger justifying exclusion and closure: the hungry masses, on the one hand, and cultural religious aggression toward Western values, on the other.’

For a time, the Irish border seemed to be moving both within and yet, outside of these processes. Against the backdrop of the 1990s, Ireland’s decades-old border Troubles looked anomalous – a hangover from a history that had ended, or that should have done. Then, the Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, brought almost thirty years of conflict to a close. On the border, checkpoints and other military infrastructure was removed, cross-border bridges were rebuilt, and roads long sealed by the British army were reopened. Now a century old, the Irish border has repeatedly been both site and subject of the deadly violence of which it was itself a product. But, embarking on a research project, what interested me, more in a sense than those conflicts or the power and the politics of partition, were the interstices, the boundary-crossers, and those who found ways to keep the border open and preserve its permeability in the face of attempts to impose it as a barrier. By that time, for most practical purposes, except for small fluctuations in the price of fuel, the peace process and European integration made it appear to be vanishing into memory. And it seemed to me that the history of this long-contested border might somehow speak to a moment when borders elsewhere were producing fresh frictions. Its sudden return, therefore, to centre-stage was, to coin a phrase, uncanny.

The ‘White Cliffs’ and Britain’s maritime border with the Continent – what Renaud Morieux has called ‘the motif of the Channel as a historical and civilisational frontier, which distinguishes England from Europe’ – featured strongly as symbol in the build-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum, even if the practicalities of the Dover Strait were overlooked. But ‘taking back control’ of borders more-typically now included airport arrivals while in Britain, moreover, borders had been radically dispersed. The ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants policy has pressganged private landlords, employers, university admissions and doctors surgery staff into becoming immigration enforcement personnel, responsible for checking any applicant’s entitlement to rent or work or study or to access healthcare services. In the pre-referendum debate it was this multiplicity of postmodern, micro-borders and controls that were paramount. The land border, in contrast, the ‘line on the map’ and on the ground, Britain’s border on the other island, featured little, if at all, before the votes were cast.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, those whose sights were set on a new global ‘Empire 2.0’ worried little over the detritus of the earlier iteration. But even anti-Brexit historians keen to emphasise Britain’s longstanding connections to EU member states have tended to seem more comfortable discussing the French possessions of the medieval English crown than British rule of all of Ireland into the twentieth century.

The Murray house on the Irish border. From Ireland’s Right to Unity (Dublin, 1949); as featured in the author’s article in History Workshop Journal 86.

After partition in the early 1920s, Dublin governments faced a conundrum. Every step that asserted independence from Britain also hardened the border with the north. It was the Irish Free State’s actions in charting its own fiscal path from 1923, for instance, that first required the construction of customs posts. Following the vote to ‘Leave’ the European Union and the loss of its majority in parliament, the Theresa May administration found itself in a similar vice.

The resulting display of historical ignorance was unedifying, to say the least. Famously, Boris Johnson, as Foreign Secretary, suggested that the boundary between the London boroughs of Camden and Westminster might provide a model for future border management while, current Home Secretary, Priti Patel, implied that a little hunger might go a long way in encouraging the Irish to accept a return to customs checks. For British ‘Remainers’, the Irish border was the rock on which, they hoped, the whole ship of Brexit might be sunk – not lost in the fog of the Channel but stranded somewhere among the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone. It was ‘the Berlin Wall approaching us here’, one resident of the partitioned village of Pettigo told a reporter from the Guardian.

Post-lockdown, it seems as if the world has turned again and the high political drama of a year and two ago feels like a distant recollection. Many of us have, for the first time, found our own movements restricted, confined within the newly bounded spaces of our houses, flats and gardens. We are confronted by a pandemic to which, biologically at least, all humanity stands equally exposed. But, from travel restrictions, rising xenophobia and the increased risks faced by front-line workers as well as, and including, black and minority ethnic groups, to attempts by the privileged to hoard medicine and equipment and the growing danger of a new Cold War, it is very clear that some barriers have been strengthened even while others are dissolved. And, as the viral deluge subsides we will soon, no doubt, see Brexit emerging once again.

Historical thinking about borders emphasises not only the ‘entangled network of connections’, rightly highlighted by Charlotte Lydia Reilly in a previous contribution to this series, which sites of political and cultural encounter necessarily entail. It requires us to think about and beyond national frontiers in ways that unsettle histories bounded by the territory of the state, and it draws our attention also away from the epicentres of power – the limits of which borders both embody and expose – towards those at the margins or on the outside; refugees, migrant workers, and travellers of every kind; national, linguistic, and religious minorities.

As Peter Sahlins wrote of ‘the making of France and Spain,’ at borders, multiple histories, of different scales – from the global and the national to the local and the personal – can come together and ‘be told as one.’ Constantly ‘overcome but just as constantly posited,’ they are also sometimes spaces where the past is never truly dead, but can return to confront us in the present. From their vantage, we might share the perspective of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Angel of History’ of the past as ‘one single catastrophe,’ piling ‘rubble on top of rubble’. But if we still agree, as critic Mark Fisher had it, that the left ‘must oppose Capital’s globalism with its own, authentic, universality’, then they are places too, where cracks constantly appear in the edifice of power as well as of our national histories. If we prise it wide enough, perhaps through one of them a gust of wind might drive us ‘irresistibly into the future’.

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