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ust as Antonio Negri argues that in times of crisis it can be seen that ‘the stronger the resistance, the more ferocious the restoration of power’ by the sovereign, then we have found ourselves in an era of metacrisis for traditional Western powers. Borders are now becoming externally migratory just as states have begun to retreat from international norms of protection. What we have come to expect in this world, despite the appearance of walls and fences, is that the border of the rich world is never at the border. So the question that might be asked is, what if – in the case of both Europe and the United States (US) – the sovereign power is an empire? Ruben Andersson’s No Go World and Todd Miller’s Empire of Borders are just two of the many research projects released last year that manage to ask the same of the preemptive protection of extraterritorial lines expressive of 21st century ‘First Worldism.’ These works deserve to be discussed together for many of their similarities in both approach and conclusion. Both began life as projects around 2012 and 2013, both see the imperialism, (re)colonization and exportation of the surveillance state as the bigger picture of the US and European border regimes, and both are beautifully written accounts detailing personal experiences at locations of conflict. Their dense mixture of anthropological, ethnographic, journalistic and political approaches to analyzing border tactics may at times result in a cocktail of facts and shifting geopolitics, but these books are ultimately held together through the art of well written autobiographical experience. Whereas Miller starts and ends his book alongside the Guatemalan border patrol, Chorti– after venturing through Israel, Africa, the Middle East and the so-called Palestine-Mexico border – Andersson’s adventuring is almost impossible to contain in just one sentence, as it weaves in and out of locations, through maps both real and those mappae mundi full of monsters he was obsessed with as a child.
To a lengthening list of key European dates for the evolving nature of global political borders (1648, 1884, 1916, 1945, 1991) we have undoubtedly added 2001 to the canon, increasingly American in focus since World War II. Borders are now seen as sites of movements to be controlled, they are not just the cartographical lines that have been fought over throughout history (Miller, 2019: 6). They have become sites that enforce inequality and produce illegality. This is made clear again, at the end of his seven-year journey, as Miller sits in the office of a Kenyan Police Commandant. He finds himself reflecting upon Andersson’s earlier work in Illegality Inc, not for the first time, and the now broadly accepted concept of ‘exclusion, from global sea to shining sea’ (2019: 242). This exclusion is made possible, both authors diagnose, by the hydra-head of racism and imperialism: professionally managed today by the clean, anaesthetic lines embedded in visas and passports. This is the business of exclusionary bordering. As Miller is quick to tell us at the turn of the first page, the citizens of the top tier of global white powers have access to approximately 160 countries without the need for a visa (2019: 2). In return, citizens from countries often represented by red (danger) in security maps, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and so on - many that Andersson has travelled through - may only have access to about 30 countries. This is the border imperialism diagnosed most famously by Harsha Walia, which has led to the deadly global apartheid seen at both the Mediterranean (the deadliest peacetime border in the world) and the US-Mexico border. There are many other sites where inequality collides, that should go without saying, but these two regions form the central dividing line of Miller and Andersson’s books.
The Informal Secession of the Rich World
The 21st century drift toward the ‘informal secession’ of gated communities for the rich world is part of keeping the evidence of the violent work of empire at an arm’s length. The border fences and walls, the migrant camps and detention facilities, the armed guards, the beatings and pushbacks; all are tools of a recolonial, empire agenda. This anger and militaristic bordering in Europe and the US are part of the exploitation of modern fears and insecurities. This physical bordering is countered by tunnels, ladders, smuggling, rerouting, containerization (hiding in cars, truck cargo and under vehicles) and the organized jumping of fences en masse. While the EU has employed the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) ever since its 10-member state enlargement in 2004, the US has long relied upon the rhetoric of Latin and Central America as its ‘backyard’. Implicit in this is a sense of colonial ownership. The ENP has been a way for EU to redraw its external borders, and extend its map of control into the Middle East, the Caucasus’ and North Africa. It has been concerned with ‘border confirming’ at home as much as ‘border extending’ through financing abroad, an approach that has relied on the paper walls of third country partnerships that aim to keep people stuck in countries of origin.
For the US, there is a likeminded bureaucratic approach to presecuritising the North American border, through large payments to countries to its south so that they apprehend irregular migration at its origin. At a deeper historic level, analyzing the script of imperial borders, Miller points the reader to the Spanish-American War as the true locus of US external border adventures. Quoting a Washington Post editorial from 1897, we learn of a ‘new consciousness’ among the US Navy, with the ‘taste of Empire’ in its mouth (p. 119). This has become the US default mentality within the Americas, the assumption of a right to transcend traditional border lines for security as much as to interfere with politics in Central America. Yet this has not been enough to ensure North American security, even after spending $7.6 trillion on homeland defense and border security in the decade following 9/11. This enormous ongoing investment is for extraterritorial solutions to problems that have been created by the US: the overthrow of governments and the crippling of economies, entrenching and increasing insecurity. This has resulted in the need to be visually present with an ever-increasing military presence at the Mexico border. Voters are therefore coopted into the ‘almost limitless emotional resource’ that is the Wall, whilst ever since the 1990s its government has been building an unseen ‘offshore detention archipelago’ (Miller, 2019: 112).
As the US pays others to do its preemptive borderwork, the EU continues to do likewise with countries in the Sahel and wider sub-Saharan Africa. Niger, as one example, was given €1 billion for the years 2017-2020, for its geographic importance as the central desert migrant route to Libya. After asking and receiving this amount, Niger also secured a further €400 million from France (ostensibly to target terrorist in the region). In this way, the EU is paying African states to act like border forces, through ‘keeping people sedentary’ as much as through ‘dampening extremism’ (Andersson, 2019: 180). While the funds are welcomed, the hypocrisy behind this exchange should never be ignored. Consider: in neighboring Burkina Faso, almost 800,000 migrants have been forced interstate by extremism during 2019 alone. Many of these same people may have originally fled Mali in 2012 because of terrorist violence, a country with which the EU signed a €1.8 billion agreement in 2016 to address ‘root causes’ of migration. In this, all irregular migrants not granted asylum or refuge from Mali would be returned to a country of violence, because (in official words) ‘the return rates remain very modest.’ Where do they go now in 2020, those newly returned and those trapped in a transit cycle? They keep crossing borders where safe, it appears, until they reach one that the EU has managed to militarily secure. This is acceptable, so long as they do not reach the Mediterranean Sea, with the aim of crossing over into Europe.
Tyranny by Distance
Through the use of drones and local peacekeeping forces, the UN and NATO are able to prioritise the protection of its own, especially in that ‘laboratory of peacekeeping,’ Africa (Andersson, 2019: 25). This Vietnam Syndrome, Michael Hastings writes, taught the US not so much to avoid another Vietnam war, but to ‘seal off the horror’ (Andersson, 2019” 229). We are now left with the ‘intimacy’ of drones not the television screen, and the fetishization of technology as proof that borders have become about civilization over barbarity: the sleek missile over the serrated knife. This asymmetrical warfare is a necessary part of profitability of the military-border complex. In Africa, this is seen in the everyday by the construction of high walls and the military bunkerization of Western interveners in red-mapped conflict zones. In Mali, Andersson finds himself embedded with the UN mission which is accommodated in the relative safety of the five-star Hotel l’Amitié, while the red zones lay hundreds of kilometres away. It was here in the desert that terrorists and borders were being contained by African troops on a fraction of the wages of their European comrades. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the US-Israeli security complex continued indulging in conference after expo after corporate engagement, complete with giveaway balloons and popcorn and flashy technological displays. Miller uncomfortably covers an unseemly amount of such highly priced get-togethers in his years travelling the globe, on a mission to uncover how the US empire is ‘selling a security state’ (2019: 57-74). He refers to this vision as a US-Middle East border, which is not just a techno-military sell for the profiteers based in Tel Aviv and Arizona complex but also one of an ‘electric atmosphere’ - what Andersson describes as the tyranny of distance. Far flung colonies in the 19th century have now become controlled through tyranny by distance for those states who have invested in 21st century predator empires.
The standard response of late to this manufacturing of siege mentality has been most obviously seen in the (re)fencing of states at the European periphery as much as the electoral pornography of the Trump Wall (which he personally signed with his sharpie in the 2020 election trail), the creation of new city walls, hosting migrant camp sites at Hotspots, and the reorganisation of the Mediterranean into a zone of ritualised exception. Many believe this new militarisation and pre-defensive border security has been a product of the post 9/11 Department of Homeland Security regime. In a way, yes. It is a significant part of the official transition from Cold War history to a new crusade against the Muslim world: since 2001, the narrative has become one of counterinsurgency. Andersson sees the global war on terror as a shift in which ‘external interveners have come to reinforce geographical difference at a time of supposed global connectivity’ (2019, p. 58). The forever war on Islamic terrorism may seem to mirror the colonial map in its sites of engagement, but it is also worth remembering that these red zones of danger do not indicate control in the same way as they did before the 20th century. At the ground level – far from where interveners physically exist – it is local forces who still exert control.
In all of this, the First World must retain its patina of mission civilisatrice. Even when outsourcing the role of border guard, the EU and the US do not want to be directly responsible for violent interdiction unless to confront the enemy that it is bunkering its citizens against. To try and have both, it retains the rhetoric of human rights defender (this is why the Trump administration has removed the previous accountability to name those it has indirectly killed by drones), while paying for its external borders to fulfill the role of the sovereign. This is achieved through the promotion of an aesthetic that advertises “pragmatics of uncertainty.” These aesthetics of anxiety – witness for one, code red - are electorally profitable when they are exploited, even as they mean very little beyond advertising fear. This is the same as what Andersson found in his research into the maps of fear exploited by European politicians. The no go zones daubed in bright red on maps of conflict are a politically charged visual stimulus to remind citizens of the need to put up walls and barbed wire fences at the border. Since the ‘migrant crisis’ of 2015, new border fences now been constructed in 10 of the 27 EU member states. As of 2018 this amounted to over 1,000 kilometres of a newly fortressed Iron Curtain, more than six times the length of the Berlin Wall. These barriers on the border slow down crossings, they reroute crossings, but they do not stop them. The blowback of this is that by being a constant symbol of the looming presence of the Other, they merely reinforce the anxieties that the public may have when constantly goaded with an invasion rhetoric by politicians.
Shot Through with Sadness
As Miller discusses an empire of borders, and Andersson engages with how Western forms of intervention echo colonial histories, it is worth concluding with a reminder that modern border zones and territorial lines are palimpsests. They are not the end of history. A palimpsest is a manuscript written on the kind of parchment that is able to be erased after use. It is then reused at a later date to allow for the creation of f new script. The uniqueness of this paleographical term can be employed in border studies to highlight the historical presence of borders as a chronologically negotiated artefact. This is because, though erased, the previous texts are never fully eradicated. As such, the parchment reveals layers of history – the ‘forged gravity’ of their evolving cartopolitics – so that even a Trumpian Wall can be seen as part of US-Mexico history, not an election promise as a tabula rasa ‘cyber-physical’ solution (Miller, 2019: 40). Andersson and Miller acknowledge this with the term ‘borderworks.’ Borderworks are anything that change the border or the zone around it. A concertina wire fence at the Spain-Morocco border, flood lights and CCTV at Greece’s Evros River, the Sangette or Calais migrant camps that have now been demolished near the entrance to the French Eurotunnel. For the US, its 21st century border differs from its previous iterations in what the DHS proudly proclaims as its global front yard, if such a phrase can be used. Beyond the white picket fence politics of the border of the rich world, ‘security at home ultimately is related to security abroad.’
Andersson writes longingly at the start of No Go World of how his work is ‘shot through with sadness’ for a world that has disappeared (2019: 7). His ‘dark tale’ has replaced the times he spent first travelling as an innocent 19-year-old Swede, sharing cups of fruit tea with locals in the Pakistan border region of Quetta. Quetta is now known for suicide bombers, he regretful notes, and the art of anthropology has forever been changed as the security situation is exacerbated by geographical and geopathological rifts. This is the anxiety that hangs over both books, ‘haunting late capitalist society’ (2019: 13). For Miller, it is human rights and activist that set him upon his path two decades ago. There was the time spent in La Realidad as a human rights monitor, and the four years living in Oaxaca investigating US policy and its impact on Mexico. He was there when a teacher’s union drove police out, and by nightfall a 16 kilometer line of people had arrived at the town center despite the pummeling of rain. Both men have lived the before and the after, and this gives them the awareness of what has changed and what locals see as worth fighting for in the face of the ongoing ‘hidden fist’ of the new remote bordering regimes (Miller, 2019: 186).
I have not even discussed how Miller sees the US empire negotiating borders in a warming anthropecene, nor the Israeli checkpoint at Qalandiya. The latter appears as the marriage of a border MRI machine and the panopticon, partially funded by US aid dollars that were intended for Palestinian reform projects (Miller, 2019: 73). Nearby, the Sabri-Gharib household is surrounded by a smart wall from all sides after they family refused to vacate land that had been demolished everywhere else. Eventually, though, Miller’s memories of his global investigation return again and again to a chance meeting with Gerardo in the trainyard of Arriaga, Chiapas. Gerardo, a Guatemalan butcher who is sitting on pieces of carboard with other men waiting for the train north, clings to an old photo of his son. Though being deported from Mexico three times in the previous month, he is determined to reach Miami to see his two children. Across the planet, in Mali, Andersson is honored to have handwritten family gris-gris charms revealed to him patiently, even sacredly. Similarly, I have not even covered Andersson’s engagement with the his autobiographical journeys through the sub-Saharan region are replete with these tiny touches, in a part of the world that Robert Kaplan sees such men as ‘loose molecules,’ not humans (Andersson, 2019: 185). It is such bluster and securitized language that has infected the rich world and created the need for armored SUVS that create, in turn, the need for more deadly IEDS, ‘skewing the marketplace of violence’ (2019: 2017). This may now be unavoidable as it has become self-fulfilling. For those in the rich world, their border crossing privilege still manages to overcome the chronic infection of protectionism. Miller and Andersson, throughout the steady drumbeat of their research, both dare to hope that this unequal access is not inevitable. I am inclined to read their hopes of a more reconnected world to be mostly empty utopianism, though well-meaning. I doubt they would disagree all that much, despite being invested in offering solutions to the current imperialism. There is too much profit to be made in the 21st century of expanding empires. The selling of electoral fear is becoming the bare minimum of campaign promises. As such, the value, ultimately, and there is real value, in Empire of Borders and No Go World is in the discovery of the mostly unseen everyday that refuses to be defeated by the military border.
Ruben Andersson (2019) No Go World: How Fear Is Redrawing Our Maps and Infecting Our Politics. California: University of California Press.
Todd Miller (2019) Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the US Border around the World. London, New York: Verso.
Richard Vogt has recently submitted his PhD on the political aesthetics of violent and racial European borders and how they have contributed to the ongoing migrant ‘crisis.’ He is currently a casual academic at the Australian National University, with research interests that also include violence to/of bodies, hypocrisies of power, the political representation of emotion and affect, and media and cultural interruptions of all kinds. He is open to all writing collaborations @richardvogt2019.