The myth of the people

March 24, 2013

[first published in Arena no. 67]

Jess Whyte and Nicholas Beuret

In ‘Borders, States, Freedom and Justice’ (Arena Magazine No. 66), Rob Sparrow raises the spectre of 20 million refugees, who could be accommodated in Australia only at ‘the cost of social and economic chaos’. Leaving aside the ludicrousness of depicting ‘no borders’ as a demand upon an Australian nation-state that is perceived as both benevolent and suicidal, and the mischaracterisation involved in transforming an anti-statist political practice into a call for a global state, we must address Sparrow’s warning of the ‘radical transformation of local culture’ that open borders would bring about. We won’t argue that while people should be able to move without state authorisation, we can be reassured that they won’t, or can’t. Our point is the opposite. Increasingly, people are moving without authorisation, as the effacement of borders becomes, not a demand, but a matter of survival. Therefore, the real question to those like Sparrow who endorse immigration control, and the genuine/non genuine distinction as the final arbiter of the right to move, is, “what would you do to keep them out?’

Mandatory detention, deportations and TPVs are aspects of the Australian Government’s answer to this question. It’s easy to portray such responses as unnecessary or ‘inhumane’. It’s more difficult, particularly for those who remain committed to state sovereignty over migration, to recognise the logic of such brutal policing of unauthorised migration. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that those who move without authorisation present a threat to the nation-state by calling into question its ability to constitute and control a population within a given territorial boundary. Australia’s internment camps are what is necessary, in an age of unauthorised migration, for the state to maintain control of this population. As Giorgio Agamben argues:

If refugees … represent such a disquieting element in the order of the modern nation state, this is above all because bad breaking the continuity between man and citizen, nativity and nationality, they put the originary fiction of modern sovereignty into crisis.

By subscribing to the notion of institutionalised cultural difference within a demarcated territorial boundary, Sparrow reasserts precisely this myth. The mythical 20 million then pose a threat not only to the physical borders of this nation, but to the very notion that legitimises it: the ‘people’. Sparrow’s essay would suggest that borders exist to protect pre-existing cultural and political identity. But do the ‘people’ exist before the border is drawn and defended? Can they exist without the control over their constitution that the camp provides? Is the border created to defend the ‘people’, or is the ‘people’ created to defend the border?

The figure of the people is the figure upon which a particular instance of the nation-state–Australia for instance–is grounded. But rather than existing prior to the nation-state and its borders, it is a product of them. The defence of the fiction ‘the people” is as important a part of the policing of the borders of the nation-state as any detention centre or patrol boat. By uncritically utilising the fear of 20 million refugees flooding ‘our’ shores, Sparrow replicates the nation-state’s use of fear of loss of identity to police its boundaries. And through the application of this fear, national identity itself is reproduced and reinforced. Through exclusion we create ourselves.

Instead of fearing the loss of ‘our’ identity, we should ask who is the ‘we’ that will be swamped by immigrants? Is it the ‘we’ that hates ‘the Arabs” and loathes ‘queue-jumping illegal immigrants’ and “dole-bludgers’? If we took the targets of fear and loathing outside of that which is deemed ‘Australian’, who would be left? What would ‘we’ look like? Perhaps ‘we’ would all be either dead ‘frontiers men’, or white middle-class homeowners.

Sparrow seemingly sets out to defend people’s abilities and rights to self-definition and self-determination. But by reasserting the legitimacy of national identity, he destroys what he sets out to save. People’s ability to define their own identities and determine the course of their own political communities’ lives are necessarily sacrificed to an imposed collective identity–nationality–to bring about the birth of the sovereignty of the nation-state. The borders Sparrow defends as safeguarding identity are the devices that rob people of it.

Today the consolidation of this sovereignty must necessarily be brutal if it is to repel those who have been forced to leave states that are often war-tom, poverty-stricken, or in today’s terminology simply ‘failed’. The stakes for the nation-state are high. Sparrow believes we can admit the necessity of immigration controls without buying into the ‘myriad racist myths about refugees’, and rails against ‘racism and national chauvinism dressed up in the language of sovereignty’. On the contrary, racism and national chauvinism have no need for costumes, they are the language of national sovereignty and the only language available today to justify the ‘border controls, border guards, deportations’, ‘brutality and human rights abuses’ which consolidate this sovereignty and which, Sparrow concedes, are necessitated by borders. To call for border controls today is to echo this language, and to rally behind the nation-state as it brutally fights for its own survival.

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