A review-essay of
Natasha King, No Borders: The Politics of Immigration Control and Resistance. London: Zed Books, 2016
by Chris Gilligan
Natasha King’s No Borders focuses on the struggle against Western states’ controls on immigration and immigrants, rather than on the controls themselves. As King puts it, the book is:
not really about border controls, but about how people find ways to practice the freedom of movement despite such controls. It’s a book about practices for free movement, against the border. Because border controls are and have always been resisted … the term ‘migration struggles’ encapsulates both organized struggles by migrants and those in solidarity with them, and daily strategies of refusal. [pp. 2–3; emphasis in original]
No Borders makes two important contributions to migration struggles. Firstly, King reflects on her own experience in the No Borders Movement, and attempts to make explicit the theory underpinning No Borders practice. Secondly, she is honest and does not shy away from identifying limitations to the current stage of the struggles and she tries to think about how we advance the struggle. Sadly, however, she avoids the difficult issue of how we can––and to a large extent, even the question of why we should––end immigration controls and create a world without barriers to the free movement of people.
In my experience of working with a range of grassroots pro-migrant organisations, there is a strong bias towards concentrating on activity. There is a lot of activity taking place in the United Kingdom (UK), and other parts of Europe, but this activity is disjointed. There is currently little link-up between, for example, those working on immigrant detention and those working on collecting aid for refugee camps. There is very little connection made between those working on migrant worker struggles and those working on asylum-seeker issues. A lot of the activity that is going on at a local level has little connection with activity in other locales. This fragmented activity is both reflected in, and a product of, the fact that the various groups and campaigns are not talking to each other about how we overcome the barriers to free movement.
When I say that they are not talking to each other, I do not mean that there is no communication between groups and campaigns. There are exchanges of emails that advertise activity. There are also cross-cutting memberships of groups on social media. There is information sharing. And there is theory.
But there is very little discussion of theory. People who are active in the migration struggle have lots of theories. They have, for example, theories about why immigration is good for society, theories about the nature of the capitalist state, theories about human liberation. These theories, however, are largely treated as personal opinions. They are rarely brought into public view and articulated, critiqued and defended. Consequently conflicting ideas about why immigration controls are a problem and why they should be opposed often happily co-exist alongside each other because the emphasis is on activity, not on theory.
This review, by someone who is active in migration struggles, is organized into five main sections. In the first section I provide a brief background to King and her motivation for becoming a No Borders activist. In the second part I focus on the theory which underpins No Borders, and outline some of the key concepts and arguments in the book. In the third part I draw on King’s own work to show how, in practice, her argument does not stand up and I argue that this is because of limitations in the theoretical framework itself, rather than any error in implementation on the part of the No Borders movement. In the fourth part I critically examine the concept of escape that is a recurring theme in No Borders. I argue that it is not possible to escape the conditions that give rise to border controls, a capitalist system in which the nation-state is an integral component, what is needed is to transform the conditions under which humanity currently lives. In the final section I focus on the topic of the relationship between theory and practice. I argue that the prefigurative practices on which No Borders politics is based rupture the relationship between theory and practice through acting ‘as if’ we are already free.
King and migration struggles
King has spent many years working in solidarity with migrants. Initially she worked with a refugee-rights organization in the UK, but she left this organization when she became frustrated with the limitations of their lobbying and support work. As she puts it: ‘we always said that we weren’t a political organization, but a humanitarian one. That statement seems naive to me now. Lobbying didn’t bring anything like the kind of changes I had in mind. It felt like dreaming small’ (p. 6). But she objects to more than just the limited horizons of lobbying and support work. She is also critical of charity as a form of political activity. Charity, she says, ‘signals relationships based on a presumed hierarchy (I give aid to you)’, unlike solidarity work which ‘signals relationships based on a presumed equality (we help each other)’ (p. 52).
After leaving the refugee-rights organization, she went on to become a grassroots activist working in solidarity with clandestine migrants. Her experience of activist work has been mainly at two of the hubs of ‘migration struggles’ in Europe––in Calais, France (one of the main crossing points from mainland Europe to the UK) and Athens (one of the main entry points into the European Union (EU) from the Middle East and Asia). The book is an attempt to draw on social theory in order to reflect on the practice of migrant struggles, with the aim of providing insights that can help build the struggle. As King herself puts it, she was driven to write No Borders because she wants ‘to express what’s transformative and subversive about this struggle and in this way strengthen it’ (p. 12).
Her desire to go beyond what already exists––rather than, for example, get a fairer deal for migrants, or have a more equitable redistribution of resources––combined with her involvement as an activist, is what makes No Borders stand out from the rest of the burgeoning literature on migration. King is at her best when she critically reflects on her own experiences and identifies dilemmas that need to be tackled as part of the strengthening of migration struggles. Unfortunately, the theories that she draws on hinder her ability to do so.
No Borders theory
At the heart of King’s book is an understanding of the state which views it more as a set of relations than as a set of institutions. She views state bodies––such as the French Gendarmerie or the Compagnies Republicaines de Securité (French riot police)––as manifestations, or outward expressions, of the underlying relations. These relations, as she sees it, are principally ones of hierarchy and domination. King suggests that human beings are neither inherently ‘bad’, or aggressive or prone to domineering behaviour, and nor are we inherently good, or altruistic or collaborative. We have the capacity for good or evil. She argues that the kind of society that we live in is shaped by how we act toward each other, the kinds of relations we partake in. We have, as King puts it, ‘the capacity for dominating behaviour that leads to the state, and egalitarian behaviour that leads to something else’ (p. 14). King suggests that human liberation from hierarchy and domination comes about through promoting egalitarian behaviour, which can lead to a different, better, kind of society. King constructs her argument through elaborating some key concepts, principally: power/resistance; refusal and dignity; autonomy; equality; and prefigurative practices.
Michael Foucault claimed that wherever there is power there is resistance––that the exercise of power always brings forth a response, and part of this response is always resistance. This conception of power/resistance allows King to argue that the imposition of immigration controls by nation-states will inevitably give rise to some kind of resistance. She builds on this idea through taking from John Holloway the argument that resistance is not simply a negation of state power; it also stands for itself as something positive in its own right. This idea extends Foucault’s concept of power/resistance as relational and mutually constitutive of each other. Holloway introduces the idea that resistance is not entirely dependent on and given by state power; it also stands for itself, independent of state power. As King puts it: ‘resistance is the means of negating the state by creating alternative social relations “outside” of it. It’s both a negative refusal of domination … and a positive assertion of dignity’ (p. 28). This refusal of domination and assertion of dignity, according to King, provides the possibility for creating a better society.
King fleshes out her theoretical framework further by drawing on the ‘autonomy of migration approach’ that has recently emerged in Migration Studies. This approach, as King puts it, ‘takes seriously the agency of people who move … it challenges perceptions that frame people who move either only as victims of circumstances or [as] calculating economic subjects’ (p. 29). King has two targets in mind here. On the one hand, there are charitable humanitarian conceptions of migrants that regard them as helpless victims who need assistance. On the other hand, there is the conception of neoclassical economics, popular among liberal advocates of free movement of labour, which regards migrants as rational actors, but only in the limited sense of making economic cost-benefit calculations. Against the humanitarian view, King stresses that migrants have agency, that they are able to think and act for themselves. King notes that migrants undertake ‘numerous forms of everyday and largely mundane strategies … [e.g.] travelling on false documents or utilizing smuggling routes … in order to keep enacting the[ir] freedom of movement’ (p. 30). In this ‘autonomist’ conception, states attempt to restrict the autonomy of migrants, but migrants resist. They resist by acting as self-determining human actors. They refuse to allow states to dictate how they should live their lives. Against the idea of migrants as rational calculating actors, she argues that migrants, like all human beings, are driven by a desire for self-actualisation.
King’s use of the concept of equality draws on the work of Jacques Rancière. She argues against the idea of legal equality (e.g. we are all equal in the eyes of the law) on the grounds that this equality relies on the state as its guarantor and is not automatically granted to non-citizens. She also rules out the idea of equality in the sense of ‘the equal distribution of resources in society’, ‘because of its association with Marxism’ (pp. 38-39). (King appears to share the widespread but erroneous belief that Karl Marx advocated redistribution as a means to an egalitarian society or equal distribution as its goal.) Instead of these conceptions of ‘equality as a resource’ that states can distribute, or withhold, she talks about equality ‘as a presupposition between people of each other’s inherent parity that’s qualified by nothing so much as us all being human’ (p. 39). Equality in this sense is qualitative, not something that can be quantified. It means recognising that our humanity is a quality that we share in common. It means valuing the human dignity that is inherent in every individual. It means relating to others in ways that enable their desire for self-actualisation to be nurtured. It means, as King puts it, ‘starting from a position that values each individual’s uniqueness and creativity, and that treats each individual as important in their own right. In practical terms this means organizing in a way that gives voice and space to everybody’ (p. 38).
The concept of prefigurative practices (or prefigurative politics) brings together the different positive elements––dignity, autonomy, equality, solidarity, self-actualisation––to form an approach to creating a better society. This concept is drawn from the work of anarchist theorists Uri Gordon and David Graeber. Prefigurative politics has been very influential amongst left-wing activists since 2011, when they were popularised through the Occupy protests that swept the world toward the end of that year. There are two key elements to the anarchist conception of prefigurative politics. The first is the idea that activity in the present anticipates, or prefigures, the way that people would act in a better, future, society. King articulates this when she describes No Borders activity as being about ‘building the kinds of relationships … that you would want to see in the world … it’s a practice that’s not about advocating change in theory [i.e. in the abstract], or making plans for it sometime in the future, but living it right now’ (p. 38). The second element involves a much stronger claim, which is that we create the better society of the future through acting in this way. In this sense, egalitarian behaviours are not viewed simply as anticipating a future society. They are understood to be the route through which to create the future society.
King rejects violent revolution as a route to a better society, on the grounds that the use of violent methods only recreates relations of domination. She advocates non-violent resistance, consensus decision-making, recognising diversity and giving space for every individual to be able to express themselves and participate. Rejecting revolution, however, does not mean that she advocates reform of the current system. Instead she advocates refusal, which she says ‘doesn’t express a desire to change those political structures that make up our existing dominant social reality so much as a desire to turn one’s back on them and create a different reality’ (pp. 26-27; emphasis in the original). King advocates alternative ways of living in the here and now––such as communes based on reciprocal relations––as a means to escape from the state (pp. 32-35). Migrant struggles, she suggests, are a form of refusal, insofar as they involve attempts to escape from the state and create alternative ways of being, a different reality from the one mandated by states.
The idea that the means used to create a new society will determine the shape of that new society is also evident in her use of the concept of rhizomes, which she draws from the work of the poststructuralist philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Rhizomes are networked structures, rather than hierarchical ones. King approvingly cites a description of rhizomes given by an anonymous Green anarchist. Unlike centralised systems, rhizomes are networked and consequently ‘are much less subject to destruction. Rhizomes can grow again along another line if broken at some point … if weeded out in one place, they will definitely show up somewhere else. Rhizomes are endless, as are desire and the imagination’ (p. 170). King suggests that migration struggles operate through ‘a multitude of micro-refusals that are connected to each other rhizomatically and in their connections render the state more and more redundant’ (p. 151). The model of social change is one of growing and connecting up multiple egalitarian behaviours that crowd out and eventually displace the hierarchical and dominating behaviours that create and sustain the state.
Prefigurative politics paints an appealing approach to transforming society: gaining an egalitarian society, by egalitarian means. When put into practice, however, the theory has failed to help bring about a better society. In principle, this failure could be because of problems with implementation, rather than with the theory, but I argue, in the next part of this review, that the problem is with the theory itself. No matter how much more effort is made at implementation, the better society that King wants to see will not be realised through the means that she advocates. I will also show that King, ultimately, accepts that the approach she advocates cannot bring about an egalitarian society.
The ‘Victor Hugo’ squat and the limits of prefigurative resistance
King uses her experience as an activist in the “Victor Hugo” squat in Calais to provide a case study of migration struggle practice. The squat was established by No Borders activists from the group Calais Migrant Solidarity (CMS) as a ‘shared space for organizing and a sleeping space for vulnerable people [migrants] and people active in CMS’ (p. 110). The squat was operated on prefigurative principles. Although part of the No Borders Network, the squat operated as a relatively autonomous space where decisions were made by the people in the squat, rather than being mandated by a ‘head’ body outside the squat. The process of decision-making in the squat was through principles of collaborative consensus. The squat was, in King’s words, ‘built around a process of sharing … a space of collaboration’ between clandestine migrants attempting to cross the English Channel to the UK, and activists in the No Borders Network (p. 112). This collaboration involved ‘being open to other perspectives and different voices’ (p. 112). This egalitarian practice, however, coexisted uneasily alongside relations of inequality and domination.
In order to maintain the squat as ‘a safer space for women, children, vulnerable people trying to cross and CMS activists’ the CMS activists, by mutual agreement, ‘took on the role of doorkeepers twenty-four hours a day’ (p. 113). This policing of access, however, reproduced hierarchies of control in which ‘largely white Europeans with papers [were] denying access to largely black Africans with so little’ (p. 113). There were also dominating power relations operating within the squat. Some women, those ‘connected to smuggling networks[,] had greater power in the house and gave privileged treatment to some women (those also accessing these smuggling networks), while bullying others (those trying to remain free of them)’ (p. 114).
The experiment in alternative living ultimately failed. The whole experience was very wearing on CMS activists and some of them suffered burn-out. After a few months of operation, this ‘safe space’ was colonised and then crushed by the French state. Firstly the local prefecture turned up and threatened eviction or the regularisation of the experiment by handing over its operation to a charity organization. The members of the squat––migrant and non-migrant––relinquished control, and it was taken over by the charity, which operates with a donor-recipient relationship rather than an egalitarian-collaborative one. Simultaneously the migrant/non-migrant collaboration was broken up by forbidding the CMS activists access to the house. The autonomy of the migrants was further eroded when the women and children were moved, largely against their wishes, to a new location around seven kilometers from Calais.
The failure of the “Victor Hugo” squat is foreshadowed in the theory that King draws on. King appears to assume that the resistance referred to in the second part of the power/resistance concept is necessarily liberatory. The case of “Victor Hugo” shows that it is not necessarily so. People-smuggling networks try to resist the power of states to impose immigration controls. These networks can be informal kinship networks, or they can involve altruistic individuals and groups (like the migrant rescue ships that ply the Mediterranean Sea). However, as King notes, they can also involve ‘large, international, organized crime syndicates that are often backed up by violence’ (p. 35). Resistance to the state does not, in and of itself, lead in the direction of human liberation.
A second problem with the concept of power/resistance is that it does not suggest a means of transcending the power/resistance dynamic. This lack of transcendence is also a problem with prefigurative politics more broadly. King’s argument, that practicing equality in the present will lead to an egalitarian society in the future, collapses the distinction between means and ends. The experience of “Victor Hugo” shows that, rather than egalitarian behaviour displacing dominating behavior, the two can coexist alongside each other. These limitations mean that both the theory and the practice of prefigurative resistance remain in a perpetual state of prefiguration; they are not achieved.
We can see this in the concluding pages of No Borders, where the reality of her experiences pushes King into dropping the idea of a better society of the future and instead presenting a picture of struggles against the state as a perpetual battle. She argues that No Borders politics is:
a point in an ongoing and constant movement, and a ‘warding off’ of dominating structures or behaviours. It means being mindful that our struggle towards autonomy can always be recuperated by the state … it means being constantly aware that our capacity to develop hierarchies is always there … It means ‘we can never allow ourselves to think that we are “done”’. [p. 153–4; emphasis in original]
Instead of a vision of an egalitarian future, we are presented with a future which is more of the same. The battle cry is not ‘workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains’. Instead, it is more like ‘eternal vigilance against dominating behaviours’ or ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’.
King is dissatisfied with the view that perpetual battle is the limit of what can be achieved. She wants a different society, but she is not sure how to get there. In a very candid paragraph in the concluding chapter to No Borders, she says that the takeover of the “Victor Hugo” squat by the state points to ‘the dilemma of how we navigate existing power relations while also attempting to escape them’, and she confesses that: ‘[t]o be honest I don’t know what the resolution of this dilemma is, or if there even is one’ (p. 132). This passage is not just an acknowledgment of the failure of one particular attempt to escape the state. It is a frank admission by King that she fears that any attempt to escape the state may be doomed to failure.
There is no escape
King’s confession is a brave one. It takes courage and humility to say that a struggle that you have devoted a significant part of your life to may be futile. King is not, as many on the left tend to do, ignoring the difficult dilemmas and forging ahead, hoping that they will sort themselves out. She is taking stock. Genuinely emancipatory theory and practice requires us to test our theory against practice in the real world, and draw lessons from this experience. There is no road map to a future society, because no one can go to the future and bring one back.
That does not mean, however, that we are alone and lost. We are many, but we need to forge a ‘we’ out of the many. We have some sense of where we want to get to, and some sense of how we get there. We are equipped with knowledge gained from experience: we have already identified some of the barriers that stand in our way; we have the benefit of insights gained in the past; and we have developed, and continue to develop, methodologies for analysing our experiences. Sometimes we do get lost, but if we are honest, self-critical and willing to learn, we won’t drift aimlessly.
Theory, however, is more than just knowledge gained from experience or methodologies for analysing our experiences. It transcends experience, or can do so. The failure of the “Victor Hugo” experiment was predictable. Not because the state would inevitably intervene, although that was predictable, but because the logic of No Borders theory does not lead to a genuine challenge to capitalism.
I believe that the better society King desires is achievable, but that the theoretical tools she has started with are leading her in circles. For starters, she poses the dilemmas in a form that cannot be resolved. It is impossible, logically and in practice, to both navigate existing power relations and escape them––if you escape them, you no longer need to navigate them; if you navigate them you are not escaping from them. Or, what amounts to the same thing, you perpetually escape and navigate in an endless loop of escape, and capture, escape and capture (an ongoing and constant movement of warding off domination, as King puts it).
Secondly, thinking in terms of escape, or building alternative worlds, ruptures the world as a totality. It splits the world into two social realities––the reality of a capitalist society, and an alternative reality in which capitalism does not operate. The real world of capitalism, however, doesn’t work like that. Alternative worlds cannot coexist in isolation from the reach of capital for long. Attempts to escape the capitalist system have to contend with the hold of capital over the material reproduction of the daily lives of people all over the globe. As noted elsewhere in With Sober Senses:
The world-wide system of “value production” can’t be changed by opting out of it. A few people can dumpster-dive for food instead of working. But we can’t all do so; if no one worked, where would tomorrow’s leftovers come from? … The system must be uprooted and replaced with a wholly different way of working, not just distributing. And we need a system in which it’s possible to produce for human needs, not for the sake of expanding abstract wealth (“profit”)’.
Instead of escaping from existing power relations, we need to transcend them. We need to tear these power relations out of the soil that nourishes them and establish new grounds for a different kind of society. That means having to confront capitalism as a system, not escaping from it.
Theory and practice
King recognises that, in order for migration struggles to develop into a movement with a sense of itself, we need to develop a closer relationship between theory and practice. In writing No Borders, King has done migration struggles a great service, by making explicit the theory underpinning the activity of the No Borders movement. In doing so she has provided an opportunity for those involved in migration struggles to grasp, reflect on, engage with and critique No Borders theory. Migration struggles would benefit from more people making theory explicit, and engaging in critical debate about how migration struggles can contribute to the broader struggle for human freedom.
‘Critical resistance’, King argues, ‘comes from the feedback loop between theory and practice’ (p. 8). She also argues that ‘[t]heory detached from practice can create irrelevant abstraction. Practice without theory can create directionless action’ (p. 8). I don’t disagree with these statements; the difficulty that I have with them is that they are too general to help elucidate the relationship between theory and practice.
Prefigurative politics involves a relationship between theory and practice. This theory and practice, however, are aimed at escape, which is not a route to human emancipation. Escape involves a refusal to engage with the real world as it actually is. Any theory and practice which is not grounded in the real world is fantasy politics. This point is brought out clearly in Andrew Kliman’s commentary on the description of direct action anarchism provided by David Graeber, a key theorist of prefigurative politics.
Graeber: the reason anarchists like direct action is because it means refusing to recognise the legitimacy of structures of power. Or even the necessity of them. Nothing annoys forces of authority more than trying to bow out of the disciplinary game entirely and saying that we could just do things on our own. Direct action is a matter of acting as if you were already free.
The theory that Graeber articulates here involves the claim that refusal to conform is a challenge to authority. Refusal means not allowing those in power to dictate your thoughts. And refusal means that you are already acting as if you are free. So, by refusing to conform you are actually practicing freedom and prefiguring a world in which humanity is free. Kliman’s response points at the problem with this radical sounding theory.
Kliman: The “as if” in Graeber’s statement that “direct action is a matter of acting as if you were already free” means that you’re pretending. You’re not free, but you make believe that you are. You can’t make history “under self-selected circumstances,” but you make believe that you can. I’m all for “refusing to recognise the legitimacy of structures of power. Or even the necessity of them.” But pretending that you’re already free when you’re not isn’t a refusal to recognize their legitimacy or necessity. It’s a refusal to recognize facts.[v]
Graeber’s conception of prefigurative politics involves thinking about, and acting ‘as if’, the world is how we would like it to be. Doing so breaks the ‘feedback loop’ between theory and practice because it involves not engaging with and learning from the world as it actually is.
Conclusion: migration struggles and the need for theory
Migration struggles are pregnant with possibilities for building a movement that can strive toward human freedom. At present the focus on practice at the expense of theory (or a particular version of the same thing, the ultilitarian uses of theory) is a barrier to developing the emancipatory potential of migration struggles. King has helped to make a step along the path, by making explicit the theory that underpins the activity of the No Borders movement. Doing so allows us to engage with No Borders as theory.
No Borders theory, however, is inadequate. King assumes, rather than demonstrates, that the human capacity for dominating behaviour leads to the state, and that the capacity for egalitarian behaviour leads to something else. The theory that she discerns in the No Borders movement, unlike the movement’s practice, evades the real world. In doing so it ruptures the unity of theory and practice and ends up reconciling itself to resistance and escape, as the best that we can hope for. Migration struggles have the potential to do so much more. The struggle for free movement highlights the contradictory nature of capitalist society (e.g. promising freedom in theory, while denying it in practice) and the brutally anti-human consequences (e.g. the deaths of thousands who drown in the Mediterranean because states in Europe refuse to treat them as fellow human-beings).
Chris Gilligan has been active in various pro-migration campaigns and organisations in the UK. He is the author of Northern Ireland and the Crisis of Anti-racism (Manchester University Press, 2017), which is available for sale in the UK and worldwide.