Beyond Borders: Nation-States, Migration, and the Struggle for the Global Commons
An Interview with Nandita Sharma
November 8, 2020
In your book Home Rule, you argue that the shift from colonial empires to independent nation-states brought about an important reversal in the status of “natives.” During the imperial era, “natives” were subordinate and dehumanized. But in the postcolonial period, being “native” has become a desirable status.1Nandita Sharma, Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020). Nation-states, you argue, grant “natives” rights, whereas “migrants” are denied them. Can you talk a little bit about this reversal and what brought it about?
The argument I make in this book is that the imperial category of Native has been reworked in the postcolonial period by nationalists across the world—and across the left-right political spectrum—to become the only legitimate basis of power. Many people identifying themselves as Natives have remained seriously repressed by nation-states. However, the basis on which people can make political claims to land (or, more accurately, to territory) and to national sovereignty has shifted as the dominant form of state power has shifted from imperial states to nation-states.
Today, claims to territorial sovereignty are increasingly dependent on claiming that the territory under question is one’s Native (home)land. The problem with such political maneuvers is that ideas of Native sovereignty are historically and politically conjoined with ideas that non-Native others do not belong and do not have legitimate claims to power.
Now, because in the Rich World at least, the category of Native is still largely associated with the initial imperial state category of Native, i.e., those who were colonized, Native (or Indigenous) sovereignty movements are widely understood as necessary and radical. In Home Rule, I show that it is not only the Natives of imperial colonies who deploy the discourse of Native-ness or Indigeneity. Instead, across the world—and across the left-right political spectrum—people claiming Native (or Indigenous) status are engaged in anti-immigrant politics. Such politics, I argue, are bred in the bone of nationalism(s)—“from above” and “from below”—and certainly an integral part of what I call the Postcolonial New World Order of national sovereigns.
I should unpack this argument because it runs counter to the dominant narrative of movements for Native national sovereignty. I think it is important to start by better defining postcolonialism. I reject the popular view of postcolonialism within Indigenous Studies. The dominant argument goes something like this: because “postcolonial” means the end of colonialism, it cannot exist because colonialism has not ended.
So, Indigenous Studies scholars contend that there is no such thing as postcolonialism. Instead, we live under colonial rule. Some of us are colonized Natives and (all) others are (settler) colonists to varying degrees of culpability. As is true of all national liberation struggles, it is argued that no one but the Native people of the colony have a legitimate claim to national territorial sovereignty.
While this argument is largely associated with Native people currently fighting for “their own” national sovereignty, in Home Rule I show that the need to defend Native national sovereignty informs the politics of those people who feel that “their” national sovereignty is under threat by various “invaders.” The most bizarre group of people making such arguments are those in the former imperial metropoles who portray their Native “national homelands” as having been “colonized” by migrants (often people moving there from former imperial colonies)!
But many in the “national liberation states” feel the same.2Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (New York: New Press, 2008). This is currently being violently played out in Myanmar (formerly Burma) against Rohingya people whom the “Native Burmese” portray as colonizing Migrants. In addition, people who feel that those holding the reins of nation-state power are not “truly” Native to the territory engage in such politics. This plays itself out in separatist politics in numerous nation-states across the world.
There is much that is different between these various mobilizations of the discourse of Native-ness. However, there is much that connects them too—and these connections are not merely semantic. What such politics share in common is a view of postcolonialism that regards national sovereignty as the marker of decolonization.
In contrast, I argue that confusing national sovereignty with decolonization is, in fact, a quintessentially postcolonial act. This is because the most prevalent politics in the Postcolonial New World Order is the demand for national sovereignty. Centering anticolonial politics around the obtainment of national sovereignty—as many Indigenous politics do today—is what defines them as postcolonial. In our postcolonial world, the only way to claim “self-determination” is to claim national sovereignty over territory, which is precisely what a wide range of political movements centering Indigeneity do.
Now, it is an axiom of postcolonial power that in order to claim national sovereignty, you have to claim to be a “nation.” The structural link that now exists between nationhood and sovereignty is the consequence of the shift from the imperial form to the national form of state power. When nation-states became the only legitimate form that political formations could take, the race for being recognized as a “nation” intensified. And is intensifying still.
For people categorized as Natives by imperial states, becoming a “nation” was seen as progress and a rightful recognition of their territorial sovereignty. In this, they followed the practices of empires themselves. European imperial states, ironically, first began applying ideas of nationhood to demarcate their metropoles as the only imperial spaces capable of “self-governance” (by the ruling class, of course). The colonized Natives, they insisted, were not. Natives did not belong to “nations,” it was argued, but were members of “tribes,” “clans,” “bands,” and so on.
Instead of rejecting such nonsense and dictating the terms of their own political struggles, many (but not all) colonized people insisted on their own nationhood. Much (but not all) of anticolonial activity centered on having the nation-ness of colonized Natives recognized. In the process, the equation of national sovereignty with decolonization was sealed. Indeed, this equation is a key legacy of colonial rule.
Ironically, in the fight to turn Natives into “nations,” now, in the Postcolonial New World Order, being seen as Native to a particular territory is a key way to claim nationhood. Indeed, Native-ness has long been a key way to claim nationhood and territorial sovereignty. From the start, nationalism(s) advanced the idea that there were specified “people” who “belonged” to a particular place—and that a particular place “belonged” to them.
If you were not part of the “people of the place,” you were considered foreign and, therefore part of the “people out of place.” Nationalism thus cemented the binary between Native and Migrant. The “place” that was being claimed was not “land” (that is, the earth, air, and water that every living being requires) but sovereign territory. Today, we are in a situation where the exemplary National citizen is someone who can lay claim to being a Native of national territory.
Again, while in Canada or the United States, such politics might be seen as progressive, even radical, in Home Rule, I show that an identity of nativeness is claimed around the world, not only by people engaged in anticolonial politics but also by the far right. For example, the fascist British National Party states on its website that “The nationalisms of Europe champion the right of the traditional peoples of Europe to be recognized as the Indigenous inhabitants of their lands, and to be accorded the moral right to the special status and right to self-preservation that all native peoples enjoy.”3British National Party, “Nationalism—A Definition,” March 6, 2013, www.bnp.org.uk/news/national/ nationalism-definition.
Over this past decade alone, across Europe, far right parties have used the discourse of Native-ness (or autochthony) to legitimize their attacks against Migrants (the quintessential “non-Native”). They form the government in Hungary and are a significant part of government in nation-states as diverse as Switzerland, Greece, Finland, Latvia, and Norway. Demonstrating the traveling character of autochthonous discourses, a 2008 election poster for the far right Northern League in Italy, “displayed a drawing of an American Indian in a feathered headdress, accompanied by the warning: ‘They suffered immigration: Now they live in reserves.’”4Aidan Lewis, “Italy’s Northern League Resurgent,” BBC News, April 17, 2008. This was done to equate Migrants, many of them moving from sub-Saharan Africa, as colonizing Italy. A similar set of politics centering autochthony (or Indigeneity) is evident in the so-called national liberation states in Africa and Asia, from Cameroon to Myanmar.
In many of these territories, there is a fierce competition over who is Native to them. This is evident in the former “white settler” colonies like the United States or Canada, as well. Here, two biopolitical groups with highly asymmetrical access to power and wealth, announce their National Nativeness in order to make claims to national sovereignty and territory. One set of claimants to autochthony (Native-ness or Indigeneity) is comprised of those racialized as “white.”
Identifying as the heirs of European colonizers, they base their claims to National Nativeness on the autochthonous principle that they were the first to “productively use” (that is, exploit) both land and labor. As “improvers,” they claim to have been the first to “civilize” (that is, bring into the purview of state power) land and people, thus territorializing both and becoming the first sovereigns. In short, claims of white National Nativeness are based on a discourse of white supremacy, one that since the late 1950s depends on a disavowal of its colonial basis.
The other claimants to National Nativeness in the former white settler colonies are those highly diverse people colonized by European imperial states and defined as the Natives of the colonies. Indigenous National Natives base their claims on the autochthonous principle that they were both the first inhabitants and, more recently, the first national sovereigns of these territories.
Despite the massive dissymmetry between them, the autochthonous discourses deployed by both white National Natives and Indigenous National Natives share a philosophical basis. People in both biopolitical groups stake an exclusive claim as the rightful national sovereigns of the territory in question. In both groups of National Natives, one has to be regarded as Native to the “nation” to be considered a “true” member.
Both groups of National Natives also view the existence of those they categorize as Migrants as a barrier to their obtainment of this goal. Indeed, Migrants are a third group of people within the former white settler colonies. They are neither white National Natives nor Indigenous National Natives. They are neither “civilizers” nor first inhabitants. With no claims to sovereignty over the territory in which they live, Migrants are, in the logics of the Postcolonial New World Order, the “people out of place.”
Again, this is a structural aspect of a world of national sovereigns which, by definition, regulates and restricts territorial borders. However, the discourse of autochthony is not content to leave it there. Not being autochthonous, those seen as Migrants are further derided as “colonizers” because they are not in “their” Native territory. This is evident in the fact that class politics within any National Native group are widely ignored. The primary issue that is the right of autochthons to be sovereign, that is, to rule the place.
Key to understanding what’s novel about postcolonial nationalism, you insist, is the distinction between “natives” and “migrants.” Both of these were originally categories of the imperial state, but they’ve assumed new meanings today. You adopt a relational approach, arguing that the two figures, “native” and “migrant”, are produced in tandem. Why is relational thinking so important to your argument?
A relational analysis is crucial because the identities we understand ourselves through are formulated in relational terms. How we identify ourselves today is organized as a binary of self/other (for example through ideas of “race,” “sex/ gender,” or “nationhood”). We are either “this” or “that.” Indeed, the two halves of the binary are assumed to be polar opposites of one another.
Binary forms of identification are not just simple dichotomies. They are created through enormous violence and institutionalize violently unequal power relationships. Those in the dominant half of the binary of self not only define who they are but, because of their hold on power, also define those in the subordinated half of the binary. Unsurprisingly, the dominant self is given positive attributes while the suppressed other is portrayed as inferior and as dangerous. The violence required to protect “us” and keep “them” down thus takes on the veneer of being a moral duty to “protect and serve society.”
A crucial aspect of binary forms of subjectivity is that the relationship between self and other is disavowed. Denying any relationship between the two is necessary to normalize the separation of people on either side of the binary. This denial maintains the illusion that racialized, gendered, nationalized identities are “natural” and reflect our “true selves,” instead of reflecting deeply unequal power relations imposed through violence.
In contrast, a relational analysis is non- ideological. That is, rather than trying to conceal the social relations that organize our world, it uncovers them. Today, some binaries are better understood than others. The binaries organized between white/Black, man/woman, heterosexual/homosexual, for instance, are now well studied (although our work is far from complete).
In Home Rule, I study the binary that is constructed between Native and Migrant. In so doing, I show that in the political discourses of autochthony, the figure of the Migrant is the other to the sel. The power that the Native-self mobilizes is the power to make claims that can be heard—and politically acted upon—in a world of nation-states. Native-ness is a major way to buttress nationalist claims to sovereignty.
As with all binaries, it is paramount that Natives and non-Natives be seen as wholly separate and distinct “peoples.” The histories and contemporary concerns of Natives and non-Natives must also be seen as contradictory and incommensurate in order to portray Migrants as posing a threat to Natives.
In Home Rule, I historicize the formation of the binary between Natives and Migrants. It is important to start with the fact that both were imperial state categories designed to normalize the colonial project of expropriating and exploiting people’s land and labor. Both were designed to politically subjugate the people captured in them.
Both operated as the other to imperial rulers whose self-identities as European (and, later, as white) were defined against both Natives and Migrants. And, both categories were devised to separate colonized and subjugated people from one another in order to destroy the possibility of their combining to challenge ruling relations. And this they continue to do to this day.
In the European empires, all colonized people were categorized as Natives of particular colonies (for example, Natives of the Americas, Natives of the Thirteen Colonies, Natives of India). Drawing on the work of Mahmood Mamdani, I discuss how in the mid-nineteenth century, colonized Natives within particular colonies were separated from one another by the imperial introduction of two distinct categories: Indigenous-Natives and Migrant-Natives.5Mahmood Mamdani, Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).
What precipitated this bifurcation was the British Empire’s efforts to destroy the power of colonized Natives to successfully rebel. The 1857 Indian Rebellion (also known as the British or Sepoy Mutiny) demonstrated that the Natives were more than willing and able to challenge imperial rule.
Ideas of “place” and, more importantly, “territory” figured large in the separation between the two. Those categorized as Indigenous-Natives were defined as a distinct “people” with a specific territorial place in the world. They became the “people of a place.” Migrant-Natives remained colonized subjects (hence they remained categorized as a type of Native) but were defined as being from “outside” the territory in which they now lived and worked.
They were seen as a distinct “people” but one that was “out of place.” Indigenous-Natives henceforth came to be associated with territory and disassociated with the wealth produced by their labor while Migrant-Natives were associated with their labor and disassociated from the practice of land expropriation. I argue that these new processes of divide and rule (or as Mamdani says, “define and rule”) furthered the territorialization of identity.
Nationalism(s) borrowed from these imperial machinations and made the “people” of the “nation” and “its” territorial “place” as the only legitimate sovereigns. Nation-states also ushered in new citizenship and immigration controls that intensified the subordination—and facilitated the super-exploitation—of those categorized as Migrants (now devoid of any reference to being colonized and therefore not-Native). Today, “place” is seen as something important to people categorized as Native (or Indigenous) while Migrants are imagined as displaced. Thus, Native nationalisms—either “from above” or “from below”—are a very powerful way of making claims that simultaneously support the denial of claims from people left “out of place.”
There’s a certain polemical edge to your book. “Postcolonialism,” you argue, is “a form of ruling that substitutes demands for decolonization with demands for national sovereignty.”6Sharma, Home Rule, 15. Postcolonial politics, in other words, are not identical to decolonial politics. What’s the distinction you’re drawing here?
An astrologer once told me that everything in my chart inclined me to not “go along to get along.” A lot of people have told me that Home Rule is “controversial.” I think this is because it challenges not only the nationalisms of the Right but also of the left. It also challenges the dismissal of postcolonial theory while trying to expand its insights by analyzing postcolonialism as the mode of ruling in which nationalism is thoroughly depoliticized.
Nationalists without “their own” sovereignty tend to discredit postcolonial theory. It is argued that there is no such thing as “postcolonialism,” because, there can be no “post” or “after” to colonialism until their “nations” have achieved territorial sovereignty. They fail to understand that the “post” in postcolonialism refers to the end of the legitimacy of imperial states, not to the end of the practices of colonialism, in particular the practices of expropriation, exploitation, and denigration.
Instead of blithely believing that we are in a moment “after” colonialism, postcolonial analysis has aimed to understand and to politicize the post-WWII expansion of global capitalism and the limitations of the nationalist response by colonized actors. Postcolonial theory’s insistence on connection and cross-border interaction: the connection between Europe and its colonies; the connection between the colonial past and the postcolonial present and future; the interactions between people partitioned into separated state categories (Native and Migrant being two main ones); the connections across ideas of “race” and sex/gender; and, of course, the material and affective connections across national borders erected from the mid-nineteenth century onward are threatening to a nationalist and territorialized imagination.
It can therefore be argued that many Indigenous Studies scholars dismiss postcolonial analysis in order to perpetuate the legitimacy of the struggle for national territorial sovereignty. Indeed, by understanding postcolonialism to be the global hegemony of the national form of state power, I argue that contemporary movements demanding national sovereignty, many of which deploy autochthonous discourses of Native-ness, are quintessentially postcolonial.
Postcolonialism is the period, starting after the end of WWII, when imperial state territories—both imperial colonies and, later, imperial metropoles—nationalized their sovereignty. In Home Rule, I argue that in this Postcolonial New World Order, the demands of anticolonial struggles, far from being met, were contained by nationalism(s) and by the national form of state power.
The containment of anticolonial struggles had many consequences. One of them is that the realization of national sovereignty did not end the practices that defined colonialism: the expropriation of land (and air and water), the exploitation of labor, and the continued negation and denigration of the lives of those represented as “lesser than” the imagined perfection of bourgeois Europeans/white males. Instead, in a world of nation-states, the reach, scope, and power of capitalism grew and affected more and more people’s lives, as did the reach and power of the state.
In this world where national sovereignty was depoliticized—rendered normal and, therefore, uncontestable—we are farther away from realizing decolonization than we were in the age of imperial states. The gulf between “haves” and “have-nots” is greater now than in the late-nineteenth century, the peak of the imperial age. Unsurprisingly, it is one’s nationality that defines which side of that deadly equation one is on.
As Branco Milanović has shown, one’s national citizenship is now the single most consequential factor in predicting how well and for how long one lives.7Branko Milanović, The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality (New York: Basic Books, 2011). Milanović calls this the “citizenship premium” from which those living in Rich World states benefit. Accepting Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism as “the state-sanctioned and/or legal production and exploitation of group- differentiated vulnerabilities to pre-mature death, in distinct yet densely interconnected political geographies” means acknowledging that this “citizenship premium” is also a manifestation of postcolonial racism.8Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Race and Globalization,” in Geographies of Global Change, 2nd ed., P. J. Taylor, R. L. Johnstone, and M. J. Watts, eds. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 261.
At the same time, there is no equality within nation-states. Each and every nation-state in the Rich and Poor Worlds contains deep divisions and hierarchies of life’s worth. Nonetheless, one statistic that ought to lead us to condemn the entire postcolonial system of nation-state sovereignty is that “an American [citizen] having the average income of the bottom U.S. decile [was] better off than 2/3 of [the] world population.”9Branko Milanović, “True World Income Distribution, 1988 and 1993: First Calculation Based on Household Surveys Alone,” Economic Journal 112 (2002): 89 Life in that bottom US decile, in which a highly disproportionate number of negatively racialized people find themselves, including people categorized as either Native or Migrant, is hard and it is life-shortening.
Yet, what does it mean that these distorted and destroyed lives are “better off than 2/3 of the world’s population?” I don’t think it means that poverty in the US is not so bad, because it is life-threatening. But it is to say that we cannot only look at injustices in national(ist) terms. Instead, we must look to the global operation of the forces that foster postcolonial racism inside and across the political system of national sovereignty.
Part of the problem is that the deadly problems associated with the expansion of capital and state power in the national liberation states have been tragically misread as “neocolonialism” (or “neo-imperialism”). This too is part of the legacy of imperialism. Just as movements for national sovereignty defined the problem of colonialism as largely a problem of “foreign rule”—instead of a problem of expropriation and exploitation—the continuation of these practices within nominally independent nation-states have been made the responsibility of “foreigners.”
This makes “foreigners” the problem—and not the facilitation of capitalist practices of expropriation and exploitation by national liberation states. “Foreign” capital, “foreign” states, “foreign” people, both outside of the “nation” and within the nation-state (that is, Migrants), are pinpointed as the reason why “national liberation” did not result in freedom for so many people. The idea was that if only the “nation” could get rid of “foreign control” once and for all, all would be fine.
The concept of “neocolonialism” thus maintained the appeal of nationalism. It offered more nationalism to make up for the structural inability of national sovereignty to deal with the global operation of capitalism. Getting rid of “foreigners,” of course, also escalated violence against all those people (and things) defined as “foreign” to the “nation.”
Now, it is certainly true that a worldwide web of financial dependencies and military occupations shaped the geopolitical imbalance of power in the Postcolonial New World Order. What was misunderstood was that each nation-state was a part of the global regime of power. National liberation states did not offer a fundamentally different relationship to power than did the dominant nation-states.
Both wanted an expansion of industrialized, capitalist social relations (private or state-driven) in the name of “development” and “modernization.” Both wanted to accelerate the process of proletarianization. Both wanted access to global finance. Both wanted global commodity trade and the generation of market demand for “national” products. And so on.
The Postcolonial New World Order is thus not only a particular historical period following the end of WWII, it is the mode of political rule that organizes the global accumulation of capital. It is a form of power that is as much—if not more—dependent on processes of expropriation and exploitation than on imperial rule. However much each nation-state insists on its separation from others, from the start, each has operated within an international and interstatal regime of ruling.
Moreover, the inability of any nation-state to achieve justice and equality lies not only in international institutions and mechanisms of uneven development and exchange but in the everyday work done by nation-states to ensure the lands that they have territorialized and the people that have been made into Nationals are readily available for exploitation by globally operative capital. In short, while national sovereignty certainly ended the rule of imperial states and further opened up imperial markets to capital, further globalizing capitalism in the process, it was—and remains—incapable of ending the social relations most associated with colonial rule.
Today we tend to think of borders as inevitable, a fact on the ground, so to speak. But you point out that they’re simply one feature of the project of nationalizing sovereignty—a project that was really consolidated in the postwar period. We can’t simply assume that what currently exists can be projected backward into eternity. So, what did this political project of nationalizing sovereignty entail? And how can understanding that this isn’t eternal or natural but instead the consequence of a concerted political project help us consolidate a politics of antinationalism today?
Nationalists always imagine “nations” as a sort of Lazarus. They see “nations” as some dormant, prehistorical entity that is later “reborn.” Yet, it is nationalists who create “nations.” This is why it is important to historicize, repoliticize, and, most importantly, reject nationalism. Nationalism has not been given the same level of critical scrutiny by the left. Indeed, some parts of the left have actively supported nationalism in many respects.
Imperialists aspired to one, world-encompassing state, with each person they ruled over formally incorporated into it as a subject of their empire, even as these subjects had deeply disparate rights and status within the empire. On the other hand, and as Benedict Anderson pointed out, nation-states limit their membership.10Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso Books, 1983).
In any idea of “nationhood,” the key question is whether you “belong” to the “nation” that the nation-state purportedly rules for. Ideas of national belonging rely heavily on ideas of “race.” Are you a “historic” member of the entity called the “nation” as demonstrated by having the correct lineage/genealogy? Are “your people” seen as being “of” nationalized territory and/or credited with “building” “national society”?
The limited character of any “nation”—not just anyone can “belong”—is why citizenship and immigration policies mark the nationalization of state sovereignty. Accordingly, historically—and now—immigration controls are a key site where ideas of “race” are produced. The world’s first nation-states were formed in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Starting in the Americas, proto-imperialist projects like the United States of America, or the Empire of Mexico or the Gran Colombia nationalized their sovereignties through the enactment of new restrictions on who could and could not enter into their territories.
Imperial states rarely had such concerns, and when they did, they were largely to keep spies and agitators working for other states out. Although very much concerned with human mobility, imperial states were also largely concerned with bringing as many people as possible into state territories—and preventing their escape. There were no immigration restrictions when European imperial states were engaged in capturing and enslaving millions of people from Africa and moving them to European imperial colonies across the world, especially in the so-called New World.
Immigration restrictions started when slavery ended. As I discuss in Home Rule, immigration restrictions were a way that states could control the mobility of people in order to control and discipline—cheapen and weaken—their labor power. Thus, it comes as little surprise that the earliest immigration regulations targeted people defined as “coolies” (that is, indentured laborers) from British colonies (or territories that the British exerted great influence over) in Asia, mostly in British India and British-controlled China. Radhika Mongia has done terrific work on this subject and I am very much indebted to her arguments.11Radhika Mongia, Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018).
It was states in the New World that were the first to nationalize their sovereignty by enacting immigration restrictions against people from the Asian continent. Peru was the first. In 1853, it imposed immigration restrictions against the entry of certain people from China. In 1875—a full century after its Declaration of Independence—the United States enacted its first immigration restrictions. It banned the entry of “Chinese coolies” as well as women deemed to be prostitutes (a thinly disguised way to keep women from China out). In these two examples, the ways that immigration restrictions worked to delineate the racialized and gendered criteria of national membership are evident. “We,” the People, are not “Chinese” and “our” women are not “prostitutes.”
Now, we cannot talk about the nationalization of state sovereignty without talking about how nation-states also have goals to “rule the world.” The key difference is that when dominant nation-states in the Postcolonial New World Order attempt to impose their hegemony upon others—invade, occupy, and exploit people in territories outside of their own (such practices within national territories are not often imagined in these terms, but that’s an answer to a different question!)—they do not simultaneously incorporate those people into the national political community.
For example, the recent US occupation of Afghanistan or Iraq did not result in people there being incorporated into US citizenship, or those territories becoming part of the United States. Far from it. US power operated through the idea that they were simply there as part of a “nation building” project for Afghanis and Iraqis. This is the peculiar style of postcolonial governmentality.
Indeed, US machinations have long been about nationalizing state sovereignty precisely to engage in extraterritorial practices of expropriation and exploitation. In Home Rule, I discuss how it was US president Roosevelt who insisted that people in imperial colonies be granted “home rule,” that is, national self-determination.
In 1941, Roosevelt succeeded in having British prime minister Churchill sign the first agreement between powerful states that did not disqualify colonized people from self-governance. Article 3 of this Atlantic Charter declared that Britain and the United States would “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of Government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.”
In this charter, the US succeeded not only in getting Churchill’s concession to eschew territorial gains at the conclusion of WWII (in stark contrast to the expansion of the British Empire after WWI) but to also agree to respect “the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned.” Both signing parties knew that fulfilling the terms of the Atlantic Charter would sound the death knell of the British Empire. And, of course, this is precisely what the United States wanted.
It goes without saying that Roosevelt’s anticolonialism was far from a principled one. It was strategic. “National self-determination” was a way for the US to break up imperial monopolies over the wealth of their colonies. US support to nationalize sovereignty was to replace imperial markets with its much vaunted “Open Door” policy, thus ensuring entry for the United States into new markets for natural resources, labor, and consumers.
The United States expected that the new postcolonial order of sovereign nation-states would be an enormous boon for its position in the world—and for the capitalists whose bottom line it championed. Ironically, then, for a state that is now misidentified as the “imperialist” hegemon, US dominance was secured through the establishment of nominally independent national sovereigns.
You argue that the process of narrating the nation identifies “national-natives” as timeless, natural, and racialized members of states. Those excluded from that category are deemed “migrants,” “non-natives,” and racialized others, even if they have resided in the same place for generations, if not centuries. How does this work?
Autochthony is an incredibly flexible idea. It is used to depoliticize and buttress disparate political claims to identity, territory, and sovereignty. As I discuss above, nationalists across the world—and across the left-right political spectrum—claim autochthonous standing. And, they do so in order to contrast themselves against those who are not-autochthonous (allochthons). People are Migrants if it is accepted that they are not-Native. As a result, human mobility is defined in opposition to autochthony.
This is a highly abstract—and racialized—understanding of the time and space of human mobility. Migrants are those people who are the “people out of place.” People who never left the place where they live and work can be made into Migrants simply because they are not members of the group considered the Native “people of a place.”
Conversely, those who claim autochthonous standing in “national territory,” are presumed to be not-Migrants, as if they have never moved. Attesting to the racialized character of autochthony, one remains autochthonous to a particular place even if one has never been there. For these reasons, I argue that autochthonous ideas of mobility and stasis are metaphysical and ungrounded in people’s lives.
The metaphysics of autochthonous claims is rooted in the Postcolonial New World Order. The discourse of autochthony starts from the premise that the world is “naturally” and “rightfully” carved up into separate national territories, each with its own “people.” This, of course, reflects the current, hegemonic political order of nation-states. In fact, I argue in Home Rule that nationalism is at heart a discourse of autochthony.
Across the world of nation-states, recourse to autochthony is available for people to use when disputes arise over land, water, jobs, and more. Capitalism, of course, ensures a competition over the stuff of life, because these things have all been placed in the market, which you need money to access. Autochthony and “nationhood” are two key ways that people can make non-market-based claims. To do so, however, they must turn themselves into a) The People (that is, a “nation”) and b) autochthons, the People of a place (that is, “this land is my people’s because I/we are the Native people of this place”). Inherent in such projects is the related claim that “this is, not your place, because you are not native to it.”
The violence lying in wait within discourses of autochthony is fueled in no small part by the fact that everywhere the discourse of autochthony is deployed, there are competing groups of National-Natives. Everywhere, claims to autochthony are made against another “people” claiming the same. Since anyone not deemed to be Native is made into a Migrant, more and more Migrants are created in the process. Migrants, it must be said, are the legitimized objects of nationalist violence.
The autochthonous fuel that fans nationalist violence against Migrants is intensified by their framing as not only “foreigners,” but also as “colonizers.” In this calculus, Migrant = not-Native = settler/colonizer. In the Postcolonial New World Order, where national self-determination is the main political prize, one imbued with much moral weight, setting up Migrants as “colonizers” replays the narrative of “national liberation,” but this time the “foreign dominators” are Migrants. Not unlike the discourse of neocolonialism, then, the discourse of settler colonialism keeps the idea of “national liberation” alive but, this time, instead of fighting imperialism, we are asked to fight immigration.
There are countless examples of this. In Home Rule, I discuss a number of them. For instance, in 1969, the pan-Africanist president of the nation-state of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, reclassified Yoruba people living and working there as “aliens” who were “really” from Nigeria. Portrayed as threats to the “national interest,” they were deported en masse. Conversely, upon its “independence” in 1960, Nigeria expelled those they categorized as “really” Ghanaian. The discourse of autochthony, of course, haunted those forced out. Deported to their supposed “national homelands,” they were referred to as “newcomers” and faced numerous difficulties as a result.
Perhaps the most bizarre, and certainly uncanny competition for autochthonous status takes places in the former British “white settler” colonies. There, two biopolitical groups lay claim to National-Nativeness in order to assert their right to national sovereignty and territory. In a historical twist, one set of claimants to autochthony are those racialized as “white.” Identifying as the heirs of European colonizers, they base their claims to National-Nativeness on the autochthonous principle that they were the first to “productively use” (that is, exploit) both land and labor. As self-described “improvers,” they claim to have been the first to “civilize” (that is, bring into the purview of state power) land and people, becoming the first sovereigns over both.
Claims of white National-Nativeness are based on a discourse of white supremacy, one that now depends on a disavowal of its colonial basis. The other claimants to National-Nativeness in the former white settler colonies are those highly diverse people colonized by European imperial states and defined by them as the Natives of their colonies. Indigenous National-Natives base their claims on the autochthonous principle that they were both the first inhabitants and the first sovereigns of these territories.
The discourses of white National-Natives and Indigenous National-Natives are, undoubtedly, highly asymmetric. The discourse of white National-Nativeness informs the operation of nation-state power and dominates its historio- graphy, where whites are still very much regarded as the center of the national project. The discourse of autochthony deployed by Indigenous National-Natives, on the other hand, has no hold on the dominant structures of any of these nation-states.
Nonetheless, their claims to autochthony carry a great moral and, to some extent, significant legal weight. Despite the massive dissymmetry between them, white and Indigenous discourses of autochthony do have some things in common: people in both biopolitical groups stake an exclusive claim as the rightful national sovereigns of the territory in question.
Both sets of autochthons also view the existence of Migrants in “their” national territory as a barrier to their attainment of this goal. Indeed, this third group of people—neither white nor Indigenous National-Natives; neither “civilizers” nor first inhabitants—is wholly unable to claim sovereignty over the territory in which they live. Instead, they are a People of some other nation and “its own” sovereign state. They are, in the logics of the Postcolonial New World Order, the “people out of place.”
Another narrative strategy you describe is the naturalization of borders: you argue that “they were normalized as a regular and necessary part of statecraft.”12Sharma, Home Rule, 104. When did immigration controls become established as the chief technology of nation-states, and what kind of legitimation processes were necessary? I imagine that initially border populations (among others) were quite resistant to the idea of states suddenly monopolizing the power of movement.
Yes, you’re right! States have never been wholly successful at thwarting people’s freedom of movement. This is reflected today in the large number of people moving without states’ permission.
As I alluded to earlier, all states engage in efforts to stop people’s freedom to move. How they do it depends on the form that nation-state power takes. Imperial states limited people’s mobility out of their territories (for example, the Great Wall of China was largely about keeping people subject to the empire in, not about keeping people out). Nation-states, in contrast, define themselves by restricting and regulating people moving into state territories.
As I also discussed briefly above, it was in the mid- to late-nineteenth century when states began to nationalize their sovereignty and this process began in the Americas. However, we must look to the abolition of slavery for the start of the shift from what Radhika Mongia calls the imperial state’s “logic of facilitation” with regards to the movement of people to what she terms “the nation-state’s logic of constraint.”13Mongia, Indian Migration and Empire. As Mongia’s historical research shows, it was in 1835, the year that slave labor relations began to end in the British Empire, that constraints on the movement of its subjects across its territories were first imposed.
Those first affected were workers from the British colony of India recruited through the new “coolie” labour system to work on sugar plantations on the British colony of Mauritius. Without the enormous power that slavery gave to them, investors sought new ways to contain both the liberatory demands of soon-to-be freed enslaved people while also cheapening and weakening the power of the new, nominally “free” workforce. Immigration controls did the trick.
Knowing full well that millions of people in the British colony of India had been left without land or money and needed access to the capitalist wage to survive, it was mandated that all “coolie” laborers needed to show a contract of indenture to newly minted emigration officers at ports of departure in British India as well as to new immigration officers in British Mauritius before they would be allowed to land.
A similar process took place in the United States. Slavery there was abolished in 1865 and the first US immigration law was passed a decade later in 1875. The process was very different than in the British Empire, but again “coolie” laborers figured large. In the US, however, the 1875 Page Act effectively barred the entry of “Chinese coolies” and “prostitutes” under the guise of trying to prevent a new form of slavery.
A similar relationship between the end of slavery and the nationalization of state sovereignty, marked by restrictions on immigration, are evident in other places, notably Brazil, where approximately 40 percent of all enslaved people transported during the Atlantic slave trade were shipped. Brazil abolished slavery in 1888 and passed its first racist immigration controls in 1890, nationalizing its sovereignty in the process. Shamelessly, Brazil prohibited the entry of people moving from Africa and Asia.
From the start, then, immigration controls were a tool by which states signaled which racialized groups “belonged” to the “nation” and which did not. They were also part of how new nationalized states shaped the labor market in favor of employers. Of course, those categorized as citizens benefited in relation to the price of their own labor power, especially those who were also racialized as full-fledged members of the “nation.” Everywhere in the world, one’s immigration status is a major factor in determining one’s wages. This once again shows that nationality is a significant determinant of inequality in our world of nation-states.
Once border control became an accepted feature of national states, did this resistance subside? This must have given immigration controls a certain freedom in which to develop. How have immigration controls changed since they were first introduced? Where do you see them going?
At the start of the twentieth century, most of the space of the world was still ruled by imperial states and they generally did not apply immigration restrictions to most people on the move. The mobility controls put into place by the British Empire against “coolie” workers that I spoke about above applied only to people recruited through the “coolie” labor system. Similarly, it was not until 1921 when the US passed an immigration act that, for the first time, imposed broad limits to immigration by extending restrictions to people moving from Europe. The period during the two world wars, and in the short decades between them, is when we saw a proliferation of immigration restrictions.
However, it is the advent of the Postcolonial New World Order and the transformation of territories from imperial colonies to nationally “liberated” states when immigration controls intensified. While not often discussed, in quick succession each newly “independent” state enacted citizenship and immigration laws. They did so for a similar set of reasons as earlier states had done: immigration controls helped to define the “nation” the state purported to rule for, as well as enacting restrictions for the movement of non-Nationals into national territory and restrictions to the rights attached to one’s nationality. There were some exceptions—mainly those states at war (international and civil)—but, by and large, national sovereignty was marked by border controls.
By the 1960s, even the metropoles of the two main empires entering WWII—the British and the French—nationalized their sovereignties. This was marked by the enactment of immigration controls, unashamedly directed mostly at limiting the freedom of movement of their former colonial subjects.
Since then, there has been endless new immigration restrictions and regulations. Today we see ever more stringent criteria for authorized entry; reinforced border controls at the subnational, national, and international levels, including international police cooperation and government intelligence sharing on cross-border movements; the criminalization of unauthorized movements; armed intervention to prevent border crossings; “readmission” and “safe third country” agreements that facilitate faster deportations and larger numbers of them; economic cooperation agreements that are often preceded by the “cleansing” of sites used in the clandestine journeys of people on the move; carrier sanctions on transportation companies; the empowering of carrier and airport personnel to act as border police; and “short stop operations,” in which state employees are sent abroad to screen people setting off for their territories. And, at the end of the day, “people with guns are prepared to enforce the boundaries.”14Joseph H. Carens, “Immigration, Welfare, and Justice,” in Justice in Immigration, Warren F. Schwartz, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 2.
Martina Tazzioli and Nicholas De Genova add to this the “interdiction, capture, seizure, confinement, sequestration, detention, and containment” of Migrants, often at gunpoint, which, they argue, constitutes the kidnapping of people to prevent them from freely moving.15Martina Tazzioli and Nicholas De Genova, “Kidnapping Migrants as a Tactic of Border Enforcement,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (2020), advance online publication, https://doi.org/10.1177/ 0263775820925492. And, very, very troubling is the fact that by criminalizing solidarity between them, nation-states are furthering their efforts to separate Nationals from Migrants. People providing water, transportation, housing, papers, and other necessities are arrested for “trafficking” or “smuggling,” often in the name of “rescuing” Migrants. Hypocritically, at the same time nation-states knowingly enact policies that ensure that more Migrants will die during their efforts to move, including failing to assist people moving by boat.16Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani, “Liquid Traces: Investigating the Deaths of Migrants at the EU’s Maritime Frontier,” Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales 30, no. 3 (2014): 71–107.
Across the world, we also see a hardening of nationalism. Notoriously, starting on April 6, 2018, the Trump administration purposefully separated children from their parents or guardians in order to deter people seeking asylum from coming to the US. As of January 2020, 4,368 children were forcibly taken away by the US government.17Southern Poverty Law Center, “Family Separation Policy Continues Two Years after Trump Administration Claims It Ended,” June 18, 2020, www.splcenter.org/news/2020/06/18/family-separation-policy-continues-two-years-after-trump-administration-claims-it-ended. The basis for Trump’s “family separation” policy was the “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that criminally charged—and subsequently caged—all adult undocumented Migrants crossing the US-Mexico border. Since, by law, children could not be jailed alongside their adult caregivers, they were separately caged in conditions that lawyers with access to these “border facilities” call horrific.
While the Rich World nation-states are increasingly denying rights and entitlements associated with permanent residency or asylum to all but a selected few, this is taking place in the Poor World states as well. It truly is global. For example, in his 2014 election campaign, the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, increasingly referred to Muslims in India as “infiltrators” and pledged to deport them en masse. In November 2019, Modi’s government announced that it would implement a National Register of Citizens.
This would effectively strip Indian nationality from those unable to provide documented proof of their citizenship and reclassify them as “illegal” Migrants in India. In keeping with the Hindu-fascist policies of Modi’s government, supporters and critics alike understand that it is Muslims in India who would bear the brunt of this new burden of proof. In a very dangerous sign, the Modi government is busily erecting detention centers at which these new Migrants would be caged.
Yet, despite this world in global lockdown, each year, more and more people move across national borders. They move for a variety of reasons (war, poverty, family reunification, adventure, and so on) but whatever their reason, the vast majority of people have to secure paid employment in order to survive. In this way, imposing highly subordinated immigration status on people (for example, “undocumented” and “temporary foreign worker”) handily works to cheapen the price of their labor power on the capitalist market and to weaken the political opposition to anti-immigrant politics.
You argue that nationalism reproduces racist structures and ideas. As you put it recently, “nationalism can be said to spatialize and territorialize ideas of ‘race’ that portray human society as made up of inherently different types of people.”18Nandita Sharma, “Dispossessing Citizenship,” in Open Borders: In Defense of Free Movement, Reece Jones, ed. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019), 77. This racism, you argue, is necessarily linked to the dynamics of capitalist competition.19Nandita Sharma, Home Economics: Nationalism and the Making of “Migrant Workers” in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006). How does this play out? I think this would be particularly useful in light of the renewed interest in debates over racial capitalism.
Racism under capitalism continues the long association between class rule and racism. Cedric Robinson, who first introduced the concept of “racial capitalism” to many of us, made this point.20Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of a Black Radical Tradition, 2nd ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000). Rulers imagined themselves— then and now—as different “types” of being from those whose labor they depended on for their wealth (and for their soft hands).
Racism has also long underpinned the political organization of the world. As Robinson put it, the “tendency of European civilization through capitalism was…to differentiate—to exaggerate regional, subcultural, and dialectical differences into ‘racial’ ones.” Of course, sometimes “differences” were invented out of whole cloth.
Either as an ideology or in the ways it has been practiced, racism has not remained the same. In the rapid globalization of capitalism, racism was very much a technology of separation and the consequent destruction of solidarity (as Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker have powerfully demonstrated).21Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000). As European empires grew beyond what later came to be seen as their metropoles, workers across the world were typified as a part of one or another of an exponentially growing number of “races.” Each was said to be distinct and discrete in order to thwart their understanding of themselves as a collective.
The racist idea of “whiteness” was particularly critical to the success of capitalism. As Jonathan Hyslop has shown, whiteness was developed in the shared space of the numerous European empires.22Jonathan Hyslop, “The Imperial Working Class Makes Itself ‘White’: White Labourism in Britain, Australia, and South Africa before the First World War,” Journal of Historical Sociology 12, no. 4 (1999): 398–421. Institutionalized in the law, racialized separations of people, along with the relative mercy shown to those categorized as white by imperial states and the wholesale terror enacted upon not-white people, helped to consolidate the view that all whites, irrespective of class, formed a “community.” Conversely, all the other racialized imperial state categories, such as “Native” of this or another colony, were also seen to form a singular “community” in which their “race” was the most salient feature.
In this way, racism was very much a part of the nationalist imaginary of a cross-class community. Hence the reason why the earliest formations of ideas of “nationhood” borrowed heavily from the playbook on “race,” as evident in the racist immigration policies that marked the nationalization of state sovereignty.
The Postcolonial New World Order, which has both organized the world into one of nation-states and normalized nationalism(s), has intensified—as well as obfuscated—racialized divisions and the consequent competition within the labor market. Hence, capitalist markets for labor, although global in both scope and scale, are usually imagined—and certainly acted upon—as “national” markets. This is done, in large part, through the deployment of citizenship and immigration restrictions which normalize the super-exploitation of those subject to border controls.
I do disagree with Robinson that those creating racist hierarchies were necessarily an invading force (Robinson gives the example of German colonization of “Slavic territories”). Instead, the process of creating racist hierarchies has always been an internal process. This is true not only in terms of the earlier iterations of “race” thinking (evident in aristocratic lineages such as that of the Bourbons), but also in terms of how racist hierarchies were formulated and entrenched within an imperial space that differentially included both colonizers and the colonized.
The same can be said about the Postcolonial New World Order. If we view postcolonialism as a global system of nation-states, racism today is very much organized through the national mechanism of limiting rights and entitlements—including in the labor market—along the lines of citizenship and immigration status. It is a system of global apartheid.
The point I’m trying to make is that we don’t need to impose a spatial imaginary where those placing themselves at the top of a racist hierarchy are “outsiders.” Instead, the process of racialization—and the practice of racism—is embedded within class relationships themselves. This is especially true of capitalism which in the Postcolonial New World Order of nation-states has become a truly global system.
Nationalism transforms land, water, and air into the territory of a nationally sovereign state and, in the process, claims that there exists a natural link between a specific, always-limited group of people and a certain place. Each nation imagines that it has its own place on earth. Those regarded as members of the “nation” come to see themselves as the “people of a place.”
In this sense, I argue that postcolonial racism is the ground upon which national homelands are built. The historical articulation between ideas of race and nation wherein ideas of national soil are racialized and racist ideas of blood are territorialized results in the formation of neo-racist practices wherein each nation, seen as comprised of different “types” of people, exists within a supposedly horizontal system of separate and sovereign nation-states.23Etienne Balibar, “Is There a ‘Neo-Racism’?” in Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein (New York: Verso Books, 1991), 20.
Yet, however much nationalists proclaim that its members are “equal,” in no “nation”—and certainly in no nation-state—is this true. But the claim of equality remains a powerful and central myth nationalists use. “We are all in it together” is the cross-class, cross-gendered, cross-racialized rationale for nationhood. This myth is perhaps nowhere more powerful than in those “nations” that have yet to realize national territorial sovereignty.
This is where the politics of nationalism always rely on racism and sexism. There has to be some reason that “we,” the members of the “nation,” are not all equal. Nationalists imagine that “we” would be equal and well were it not for outsiders ruining “our” “nation.” This is what makes the nationalist process of culling a constant and continuous process. Racism is central to who gets culled and who remains a member of the “nation.”
Covid-19 presents us with an urgent dilemma: on the one hand, governments invoke nationalist tropes as they lob blame at one another; on the other, this appears to be a uniquely global problem, to which fortified borders are clearly no solution. How has the pandemic confirmed or challenged your argument?
It is entirely fitting that the most oft-used phrase during the global Covid-19 pandemic is “social distancing.” This could be a motto for how states and ruling classes govern through separating us from one another. That the disastrous response to the global pandemic of Covid-19 has been nationalist goes without saying. There are (at least) two ways that nationalism has informed it.
First, nation-states have touted the shutting down of movement into their territories as their first “line of defense” (in keeping with the general militarized jingoism of the pandemic). So too have many who imagine themselves as members of the “nation.” All this shutting down of mobility is highly (and predictably) selective. Nationalist xenophobia doesn’t stop people from demanding that what they need and want from “outside” continues to move—personal protective equipment, medicine, food, clothing, entertainment, and, of course, workers in health care, agriculture, meatpacking, and more.
At the same time, prohibitions against movement are not applied equally to all people. First, citizens are still permitted entry to nation-states even though they may be the ones carrying Covid-19. This response is informed by the nationalist imaginary of how the world should be: everything would be fine if everyone stayed put in “their own” territories. Even with quarantine measures (which are hardly strictly maintained almost anywhere), within the organization of the nation-state, it is largely not possible to keep citizens out.
Yet, within nation-states, we see the tensions and divisions that exist between their sub-regions, islands, towns, and rural hamlets. “Members of the community” insist on shutting out “outsiders” to stay safe, even when these others are co-citizens. So, even in the midst of nationalist responses, we see a further hardening of the fundamental nationalist division between a “people of a place” against the “people out of place.”
At the same time, some select non-citizens are also permitted to enter. This includes not only desperately needed essential workers—thereby revealing that the capitalist labor market is, in fact, a global market—but also those to whom it is not politically possible to deny entry. For example, the UK has implemented mandatory quarantine provisions for all incoming travelers (hardly enforced), except those arriving in the UK from Ireland, who remain among the largest group of travelers to (and workers in) the UK.
This issue, then, is hardly about movement. It is about the nationalist fantasy that Native-Nationals should rule. It does not matter that their rule is subjective, even capricious. The point is that they rule “their” national territory because they are the “people of the place.” They can let us in when they want to and keep us out when they want to. Period.
Nationalist responses are, of course, structural. They are underpinned by international law. A key aspect of “national self- determination” is the internationally recognized right of nation-states to determine their own rules of membership. National sovereigns get to decide who crosses into state territories, whether they have any rights and entitlements once there, and whether they are permitted to stay.
So, in the same way that the dominant nation-state response to 9/11 was to portray terrorism as a sort of Third World import, carried in by negatively racialized “foreigners”—and in the same way that much of the “war on terrorism” was carried out through immigration policy—Covid-19 is portrayed as a “foreign virus,” even, in Trump’s racist and incendiary terms, the “Kung Flu.” That it is impossible to keep the virus out once it is in circulation is never discussed. Moreover, that the bodies carrying this virus in and circulating it are often, if not mostly, co-citizens is not discussed.
Of course, this underscores the fact that citizens are not equals. People racialized as Chinese have been violently targeted as the cause of disease. On March 14 this year, for instance, a nineteen-year-old white man stabbed three “Asian” people, including a two-year-old and six-year-old, in a Sam’s Club store in Texas. The suspect said that he attacked them because he thought they were Chinese and, as such, infecting people. Clearly, the fact that the victims were, like the attacker, US citizens did nothing to change his view of them as a “foreign threat.”
Secondly, the nationalist response to Covid-19 has been a near-constant recitation of the mantra that “we are all in this together.” In addition to the racist violence directed at those racialized as Chinese, this rhetoric belies—and seeks to disavow—the very different lived experiences of citizens. The order given to “shelter in place” has exposed the enormous inequalities between people in any given nation-state. Some people with national citizenship have the ability to safely stay at home with a continued flow of income, plenty of food, and cleaning supplies, secure in the knowledge that they will have access to health care, especially an extended stay in hospital, if needed. Many, and depending which nation-state we’re talking about, most people do not have this.
And, of course, because there is no nation-state without its Migrants, we see that it is those categorized as such who have been disproportionately infected with the virus and are more likely to die from it. For example, agricultural workers in the US, at least half of whom are categorized as “undocumented,” have been designated as “essential” for the first time. While they are truly essential workers, they are still treated as if their lives are disposable. A very high number of them have Covid-19 but are denied protective equipment, health care, safe housing, or any part of the $3 trillion federal assistance package.
The same problem exists around this world of nation-states. In India, after the Hindu fascist prime minister, Narendra Modi, issued a national lockdown on March 24 with only a four-hour notice, day laborers and other workers were thrown on the streets to fend for themselves. Provided with no shelter, food, water, health care, or transportation, they had no option but to walk to their familial homes in villages, often hundreds of miles away.
In fact, according to researchers Thejesh G. N., Kanika Sharma, and Aman, as of May 9, 2020, forty-three people have died from exhaustion since the lockdown and another sixty-nine people have been killed in rail or road accidents while walking to their homes. Tellingly, these Indian citizens have been referred to as “migrant workers,” perhaps to make it easier for some to see them as less worthy of support. This should serve as a reminder to us all that citizens can easily be remade into Migrants when their suffering needs to be normalized.
Now, nationalist responses to a global pandemic only make sense when the operations of globally operative capital are ignored. The global circulation of capital precipitates the global circulation of deadly pathogens. The penetration of capital into deep forest ecosystems, the creation of industrial “meat farms,” which breed ever new viruses, and the organization of a global supply chain that relies on people’s dispossession is the basis for the emergence of global pandemics.
What is also ignored is the enormous gulf of wealth and wellbeing between Rich and Poor Worlds. Rich World states—and the capital that they support—exploit life in the Poor World and extract an enormous amount of wealth that lands in both state and private coffers. Meanwhile, Poor World heads of nation-states prioritize meeting the demands of capital and, relatedly, staying in power (for example, spending on the military to defend their rule). Consequently, there is wholly inadequate healthcare, nutritious food, clean water, or safe shelter for the vast majority of people there.
In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, we must note the fact that people in the Poor World nation-states have extremely limited access to ICU beds.24ICU Management and Practice, “Challenges in Critical Care in Africa: Perspectives and Solutions,” ICU 12, no. 4 (Winter 2012/2013). For example, in 2020, Bangladesh had only twenty-nine ICU beds for 161 million people. In 2019, Uganda had only 1.3 ICU beds for every one million people. Compare this with 2017 figures for Italy, where there were 125 ICU beds for every million people, the US where there are almost three hundred ICU beds per million, or Germany, where there are almost four hundred per million.
Finally, all the reasons people have to move (fleeing war and/or poverty; seeking new livelihoods, reuniting with loved ones, sheer adventure), have not gone away with Covid-19. In fact, some have been severely exacerbated. It is crucial that people be able to exercise freedom of movement. This can be done safely even in the midst of a global pandemic. It is this that nationalists deny.
Here at Spectre, we share your drive to build solidarity both across and against borders and nations. I’m curious what kind of organizing you see as most likely to bring that about. Are there examples of strategies you find particularly valuable?
It has long been evident that planetary solidarity is a must for all of our survival. This is more true than ever before in what Mike Davis calls our “age of pandemics.” It is important that we not take the “nation” as the scale of our response or “national sovereignty” or as the horizon of our political futures. Not only does no “nation” actually take care of “its own,” the structures of power that oppress and exploit us operate at a worldly scale. As I’ve been saying, they operate through—not against—national sovereigns. If we want a reckoning with those that hoard power and wealth, we too must be worldly.
To begin, we need to come to grips with the fact that people—and all things—move. We always have and we always will, even when states and capital try to stop us. As I discussed above, in order to exploit people, states of all kinds have had to try and limit our mobility. Keeping us in; keeping us out; keeping us bound in chains; keeping us tied to employment contracts, and, now, keeping us tied to capitalist labor markets for our very survival.
As capitalism has expanded during the period of the Postcolonial New World Order, most people on the planet no longer have any meaningful access to their means of subsistence. As I discuss in Home Rule, this is one of the reasons that claims to autochthony are increasingly attractive: it offers a way to claim land (and subsistence) to those with the least market-based ways to secure it. However, it is a way of doing so that is inherently exclusionary. Those unable to make such claims because they are not the “people of a place” cannot claim the same.
But claims do not have to be for one “people” against another. What we need is a political struggle based on the organizing principle that no one can be excluded from economic, political, and social life. The only politics that I know of that accepts this principle is the struggle for the commons. What it means to not be excluded in the commons is that all of us enjoy access to our means of subsistence and that no one has the authority to keep us away from it.
Of course, as all commoners have done, we must develop the “art of not being governed” as James C. Scott entitled his wonderful book.25James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010). Anyone trying to rule over land, water, and air must be prevented from doing so. In this way, the struggle for the commons is not the new “internationalism.” It is not “nation-to-nation” interaction or solidarity. It is a world held in common by commoners. The commons not only has no sovereigns, it also bursts open the citizen/non-citizen divide that organizes political life today.
Supporting freedom of mobility is crucial to our ability to have the stuff of life in common. Mobility is not something that has normally been stressed in studies of past commons—or in political calls for present or future ones. But we do not need to be limited in our imagination of the commons by what has come before us. We have never lived on this planet in such close relationship to one another at the ecological, economic, or social level. The struggle for the commons today, then, has to be a planetary one. Borders only make sense to those wanting to divide and rule.
This might all sound pie-in-the-sky, of course, but I take great inspiration from the knowledge that we are not the first to make these demands (or the first to be belittled for being so de-manding!). The work of those unearthing the struggles of previous agitators and social move-ments has shown us that people have stood with one another against those that expropriated their land and exploited their labor. Their work has also shown us that over and over again the rulers responded by trying to separate people from one another in order to weaken their strug-gles. Our first and foremost task then is to reject that which separates us and come back to-gether to fight for a world without rulers of any sort.
- Nandita Sharma, Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020).
- Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (New York: New Press, 2008).
- British National Party, “Nationalism—A Definition,” March 6, 2013, www.bnp.org.uk/news/national/ nationalism-definition.
- Aidan Lewis, “Italy’s Northern League Resurgent,” BBC News, April 17, 2008.
- Mahmood Mamdani, Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).
- Sharma, Home Rule, 15.
- Branko Milanović, The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality (New York: Basic Books, 2011).
- Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Race and Globalization,” in Geographies of Global Change, 2nd ed., P. J. Taylor, R. L. Johnstone, and M. J. Watts, eds. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 261.
- Branko Milanović, “True World Income Distribution, 1988 and 1993: First Calculation Based on Household Surveys Alone,” Economic Journal 112 (2002): 89.
- Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso Books, 1983).
- Radhika Mongia, Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018).
- Sharma, Home Rule, 104.
- Mongia, Indian Migration and Empire.
- Joseph H. Carens, “Immigration, Welfare, and Justice,” in Justice in Immigration, Warren F. Schwartz, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 2.
- Martina Tazzioli and Nicholas De Genova, “Kidnapping Migrants as a Tactic of Border Enforcement,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (2020), advance online publication, https://doi.org/10.1177/ 0263775820925492.
- Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani, “Liquid Traces: Investigating the Deaths of Migrants at the EU’s Maritime Frontier,” Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales 30, no. 3 (2014): 71–107.
- Southern Poverty Law Center, “Family Separation Policy Continues Two Years after Trump Administration Claims It Ended,” June 18, 2020, www.splcenter.org/news/2020/06/18/family-separation-policy-continues-two-years-after-trump-administration-claims-it-ended.
- Nandita Sharma, “Dispossessing Citizenship,” in Open Borders: In Defense of Free Movement, Reece Jones, ed. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019), 77.
- Nandita Sharma, Home Economics: Nationalism and the Making of “Migrant Workers” in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006).
- Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of a Black Radical Tradition, 2nd ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).
- Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).
- Jonathan Hyslop, “The Imperial Working Class Makes Itself ‘White’: White Labourism in Britain, Australia, and South Africa before the First World War,” Journal of Historical Sociology 12, no. 4 (1999): 398–421.
- Etienne Balibar, “Is There a ‘Neo-Racism’?” in Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein (New York: Verso Books, 1991), 20.
- ICU Management and Practice, “Challenges in Critical Care in Africa: Perspectives and Solutions,” ICU 12, no. 4 (Winter 2012/2013).
- James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).