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Thomas Nail is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver. He is the author of Returning to Revolution: Deleuze, Guattari and Zapatismo (Edinburgh University Press, 2012), The Figure of the Migrant (Stanford University Press, 2015), Theory of the Border (Oxford University Press, 2016) and co-editor of Between Deleuze and Foucault (Edinburgh University Press, 2016).




I would like to argue for two correctives to common ideas about how borders work: 1) Borders are static 2) Borders keep people out.


The three theses of this article are the opposite of these assumptions: 1) Borders are in motion, 2) Their main function is not to stop movement but to circulate it; 3) Borders are tools of primitive accumulation. I think these have major implications re-theorizing borders as I have tried to show by doing a history of border from the prehistoric to the present in Theory of the Border.


The Border is in Motion


This is at first glance a highly counter-intuitive thesis. What I am saying is that the problem is not so much that the border is too fixed and impassible, but precisely the opposite! Its because the border is so malleable and fluctuating—continuously moving between the two sides it separates—that it ends up changing the topology of the two sides and thus the figures defined by them. Borders are not static. They are always made and remade according to a host of shifting variables. In this sense, the border should not be analyzed according to motion simply because people and objects move across it, or because it is “permeable.” The border is not simply a static membrane or space through which flows of people move. In contrast to the vast literature on the movement of people and things across borders, there is unfortunately relatively little analysis of the motion of the border itself. Even many so-called theorists of flows, fluidity, and mobility continue to describe the border in primarily extensive and spatial terms: as “borderscapes . . . shaped by global flows of people,” or as “the material form of support for flows” [1], “whose mobility or fluidity is purely “metaphorical.” [2].


            The movement of the border is not a metaphor; the border is literally and actually in motion in several ways. First, the border moves itself. This is especially apparent in the case of geomorphology: the movement of rivers, the shifting sands and tides along coastlines, and so on. The border also moves itself in not so obvious ways, such as the constant state of erosion, decay, and decomposition to which every physical object on earth is subject to. This includes the crumbling of mortar that holds walls together, rains and floods that rot wooden fences, fires that burn down buildings and towers, rust that eats holes through fences and gates, erosion that removes dirt from underneath a building, storms in the Mediterranean, and so on. Every physical border is subject to the movement of constant self-decomposition, which has consequences for migrants who, for example, use these weak spots for crossing. Or authorities may leave these spots weak in order to force migrants into fatal situations as in the case of the infamous “Autoroute Diable”.


            Second, the border is also moved by others. This is especially apparent in the case of territorial conflicts in which two or more social parties negotiate or struggle over land divisions; political and military conflicts over control of people, land, and resources; juridical partitions of legal domains or police municipalities; and economic reforms that directly change trade barriers, tariffs, labor restrictions, and production zones. Borders with large zonelike areas may persist as sites of continual negotiation and movement, like the settlements on the West Bank. The status of the migrant as enemy combatant, settler, fluctuate alongside the fluctuations of the border.   


            But the border is also moved in not so obvious ways, like the continual process of management required to maintain the border. Without regular intervention and reproduction (or even legal or economic deployments), borders decay, are forgotten, taken over by others, weakened, and so on. Borders are neither static nor given, but kinetically and materially reproduced. As Nick Vaughan-Williams writes, “None of these borders is in any sense given but (re)produced through modes of affirmation and contestation and is, above all, lived. In other words borders are not natural, neutral nor static but historically contingent, politically charged, dynamic phenomena that first and foremost involve people and their everyday lives.”[3]. However this same fact also makes possible the arbitrary use of police power, the profiling of migrants, mirco-economies of bribery, and so on. Even in US sanctuary cities anyone can still report suspected migrants to federal immigration enforcement. Anyone can enforce a border, even migrants themselves.


The common mental image many people have of borders as static walls is neither conceptually nor practically accurate. If anything, borders are more like motors or bifurcation points. Just like any other motor, border technologies must be maintained, reproduced, refueled, defended, started up, paid for, repaired, and so on. Even ethnic, religious, or national borders have their technologies: the control over who is allowed in what café, in what church, in what school, and so forth. Furthermore, this is not a new phenomena that applies only or largely to contemporary life; borders have always been mobile and multiple. Management in some form or another has always been part of their existence.


Therefore the distinction between natural and artificial borders posed by early border theorists cannot be maintained. This is the case not because borders today are radically different than they used to be, but because throughout history “natural” borders as borders were always delimited, disputed, and maintained by “artificial” human societies. A river only functions as a border if there is some social impact of it being such (i.e., a tax, a bridge, a socially disputed or accepted division). Additionally, so-called artificial borders always function by cutting or dividing some “natural” flow of the earth or people (who are themselves “natural” beings). A dramatic example of this is the US government’s attempt to change the naturally “insecure” topology of the border outside San Diego by moving two million cubic yards of earth (enough dirt to fill the Empire State Building) from a nearby mountain top, only to have it erode within months destroying the new roads and the whole ecology.  

            Just as these borders move and shift so do the migrant positions they mark out. For example, as the Russian military expands its borders over night, one may go to sleep in Georgia and wake up an arrested migrant in Russia. Or one may go to sleep on a flight from Europe to the US and wake up as a suspected terrorist upon arrival under one of Trump’s travel bans.


















The Camino del Diablo (or Devil’s Highway)  is a tract of desert traveled by ancient Tohono O’odham people to and from what is modern-day Mexico and the United States. Today the route traces a path that has become deadly for migrants. Humane Borders has documented a1,755 deaths along the Arizona-Mexico border between 1999 and 2009.




Thesis 2

The Border is a Process of Circulation


Borders are not well understood only in terms of inclusion and exclusion, but rather by circulation. In part this follows from the mobility of the border. Since the border is always in between and in motion, it is a continually changing process. Borders are never done “including,” someone or something. This is the case not only because empirically borders are at the outskirts of society and within it and regularly change their selection process of inclusion, as we said before, but also because exclusion is not synonymous with stasis. The exclusion is always mobilized or circulated.   


            In practice, borders, both internal and external, have never succeeded in keeping everyone in or out. Given the constant failure of borders in this regard, the binary and abstract categories of inclusion and exclusion have almost no explanatory power. The failure of borders to fully include or exclude is not just the contemporary waning sovereignty of postnational states; borders have always leaked. The so-called greatest examples of historical wall power – i.e. Hadrian’s Wall and the Great Wall of China - were not meant to keep people out absolutely. Rather, their most successful and intended function was the social circulation of labor and taxes. This continues today with the U.S.-Mexico border wall. The success rate of illegally crossing is around 90%, according to several studies. Most of the traffic across the border is related to economic regulation. Thus one of the main effects of borders is not keeping out but circulating bodies in a particular pattern: by criminalizing them, killing them, extracting a tax from them, and so on. The US/Mexico border is not a  failure, it just succeeds in other ways: funnel effect vs cage effect.


            But border circulation is not just the ongoing process of dividing; its technologies of division also have a direct effect on what is divided. What is divided must be recirculated, defended, maintained, and even expanded, but at the same time what is divided must also be expelled and pushed away. Division is not simple blockage—it is a redirection. What is circulated does not stop after the division—it comes back again and again. Thus “it is the process of bordering,” as David Newman writes, “rather than the border line per se, that has universal significance in the ordering of society.” [4] The border is the social technique of reproducing the limit points after which that which returns may return again and under certain conditions (worker, criminal, commuter, etc). The border does not logically “decide,” as Agamben says. Rather, it practically redistributes. Undocumented migrants, for example, are, for the most part, not blocked out but rather redistributed as functionally “criminalized” persons into underground economies. Or an economic surplus is extracted from their incarcerated bodies as they pass through the private detention industrial complex ($200 per bed for years). They are released just on the other side so they may go through the process again, creating a whole regime of social circulation [deportation industrial complex].

            However, since the border is not a logical, binary, or sovereign cut, its processes often break down, function partially, multiply, or relocate the division altogether. Instead of dividing into two according to the static logic of sovereign binarism, the border bifurcates by circulation and multiplication. The border adds to the first bifurcation another one, and another, and so on, moving further along. Instead of “the sovereign who decides on the exception,” as Carl Schmitt writes, we should say instead that it is “the border that circulates the division.” 






















The so-called greatest examples of historical wall power – i.e. Hadrian’s Wall and the Great Wall of China - were not meant to keep people out absolutely. Rather, their most successful and intended function was the social circulation of labor and taxes. This continues today with the U.S.-Mexico border wall (photo credits: Wikipedia Commons)..


Thesis 3

Borders are tools of primitive accumulation.


Marx develops the concept of primitive accumulation from a passage in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: “The accumulation of stock must, in the nature of things, be previous to the division of labour.” [5] In other words, before humans can be divided into owners and workers, there must have already been an accumulation such that those in power could enforce the division in the first place. The superior peoples of history naturally accumulate power and stock and then wield it to perpetuate the subordination of their inferiors. For Smith, this process is simply a natural phenomenon: powerful people always already have accumulated stock, as if from nowhere. For Marx, however, this quote is perfectly emblematic of the historical obfuscation of political economists regarding the violence and expulsion required for those in power to maintain and expand their stock. Instead of acknowledging this violence, political economy mythologizes and naturalizes it. For Marx the concept of primitive accumulation has a material history. It is the precapitalist condition for capitalist production. In particular, Marx identifies this process with the expulsion of peasants and indigenous peoples from their land through the physical and legal borders of enclosure, colonial dispossession, and anti-vagabond laws in sixteenth-century England. Marx’s thesis is that the condition of the social expansion of capitalism is the prior expulsion of people from their land and from their legal status under customary law. Without the expulsion of these people, there is no expansion of private property and thus no capitalism.


My thesis here is that we should think of borders as mobile tools not just of economic accumulation, but of social accumulation more broadly—what I call “expansion by expulsion.” My idea of expansion by expulsion broadens the idea of primitive accumulation in two ways. First, the process of dispossessing people of their social status (expulsion) in order to further develop or advance a given form of social motion (expansion) is not at all unique to the capitalist regime of social motion. We see the same social process in early human societies whose progressive cultivation of land and animals (territorial expansion) with the material technology of fencing also expelled (territorial dispossession) a part of the human population. This includes hunter-gatherers whose territory was transformed into agricultural land, as well as surplus agriculturalists for whom there was no more arable land left to cultivate at a certain point. Thus social expulsion is the condition of social expansion in two ways: it is an internal condition that allows for the removal of part of the population when certain internal limits have been reached (carrying capacity of a given territory, for example) and it is an external condition that allows for the removal of part of the population outside these limits when the territory is able to expand outward into the lands of other groups (hunter gatherers). In this case territorial expansion was only possible on the condition that part of the population was expelled in the form of migratory nomads, forced into the surrounding mountains and deserts.  We later see the same logic in the ancient world whose dominant political form, the state, would not have been possible without the material technology of the border wall that both fended off as enemies and held captive as slaves a large body of barbarians (through political dispossession) from the mountains of the Middle East and Mediterranean. The social conditions for the expansion of a growing political order, including warfare, colonialism, and massive public works, were precisely the expulsion of a population of barbarians who had to be walled out and walled in by political power.


The second difference between previous theories of primitive accumulation and the more expansive one offered here is that this process of prior expulsion or social deprivation noted by Marx is not only territorial or juridical, and its expansion is not only economic. Expulsion does not simply mean forcing people off their land, although in many cases it may include this. It also means depriving people of their political rights by walling off the city, criminalizing types of persons by the cellular techniques of enclosure and incarceration, or restricting their access to work by identification and checkpoint techniques. Expulsion is the degree to which a political subject is deprived or dispossessed of a certain status in the social order. Accordingly, societies also expand their power in several major ways: through territorial accumulation, political power, juridical order, and economic profit. What is similar between the theory of primitive accumulation and expansion by expulsion is that most major expansions of social kinetic power also require a prior or primitive violence of kinetic social expulsion. The border is the material technology and social regime that directly enacts this expulsion. The concept of primitive accumulation is merely one historical instance of a more general border logic at work in the emergence and reproduction of previous societies.


In short, the material kinetic conditions for the expansion of societies requires the use of borders (fences, walls, cells, checkpoints) to produce a system of marginalized territorial, political, legal, and economic minorities that can be more easily recirculated elsewhere as needed. Just as the vagabond minority is dispossessed by enclosures and transformed into the economic proletariat, so each dominant social system has its own structure of expansion by expulsion.







"Marx develops the concept of primitive accumulation from a passage in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. [...] The concept of primitive accumulation is merely one historical instance of a more general border logic at work in the emergence and reproduction of previous societies.". [Photo credits: Wikipedia Commons]




Contemporary Example

Climate change is a weapon of primitive accumulation


Climate change has disproportionately negative effects on poorer countries and people of color and disproportionally positive effects for receiving countries who benefit by a hyper-exploitable and precious “reserve climate labor army.” This asymmetry is the result of a long history of capitalist colonialism and racism, which is continued now through the bordered management of migration. Thus, contemporary global migration cannot be reduced to merely natural climatic causal explanations (Hulme 2011). The figure of the “climate refugee” is never simply fleeing climate change but is doing so under postcolonial conditions of geopolitical violence and racism. The term “climate refugee” itself serves to cover over the real kinopolitical conditions of social circulation at work that make such populations vulnerable to displacement in the first place.


            Climate change is a weapon of primitive accumulation, or what I call “expansion by expulsion,” because it expands Western power by forcibly expelling people from their previous patterns of motion and appropriating them into its own conditions of social reproduction. This expulsion is four fold: migrants lose the right to their land and homes (territorial expulsion), they lose their right to full civic participation (political expulsion), they lose their right to legal status (juridical expulsion), and they lose their right to the means of production or subsistence (economic expulsion). This four-fold expulsion enacted through borders is the necessary condition for the direct appropriation of vulnerable and cheap migrant bodies and for the expansion of social power. Nationalism, xenophobia, and racism also play a structural role in the bordering process of primitive accumulation because they socially devalorize and thus cheapen the labor and lives of migrant workers. If migrants arrived but were not throughly racialized and discriminated, their labor would be too valuable for capitalist investment to bother appropriating them in the first place.


Thus, capitalism wields climate change under a triple condition of  bordered colonialism: 1) The historical origins of recent climate change are in colonialism itself [oil from Africa, industrial production from slavery, and so on]. 2) Colonized populations and indigenous people are disproportionately forced to move due to climate change, and 3) These same populations are racialized as dangerous barbarian boat people upon arrival. But climate change, like primitive accumulation, is not just about the dispossession and appropriation of people and cheap labor. It is also about the direct appropriation of cheap or free land. The two go hand in hand. At the same time that climate change displaces people it also opens up previously occupied lands, waters, and forests to new privatized extractive and/or constructive industries. As the climate changes previously inaccessible areas will be opened up for expanding new markets (supplied with abundant cheap labor), including new security markets for new borders, fences, walls, drones, and all the rest (think of the privatization and gentrification of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina). In other words, climate change may not mean the end up capitalism, but may in fact be its rebirth or second wind through the use of borders.


            If capitalism loves disaster why should we think climate change will necessarily mean the end of capitalism? If anything can be commodified there is no absolute natural limit to capitalism, only relative limits or borders to profit. We are most certainly at the cusp of one of these limits today, which Jason Moore attributes to “the tendency of the ecological surplus to fall”. Everything and everyone that could be easily appropriated (oil, slaves, old growth forests, etc), was gobbled up during colonialism. The people who are left today want more money and more rights. The minerals left are too expensive to extract. This is why capitalists have increasingly retreated to financial speculation. If only there were a way, the capitalist dreams, to somehow cheaply dislodge huge amounts of people from their land, devalorize their labor through borders, and appropriate it. In other words, if climate change did not exist it would be necessary for capitalism to create it. Lucky for it, it does, because it did. Migrants today thus form a “form a disposable industrial reserve army, which belongs to capital just as absolutely as if the latter had bred it at its own cost” (Marx, Capital, vol. 1, ch. 25, sec. 3).






[1] Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (Malden: Blackwell, 1996), 376.


[2] For examples of the metaphorical usage of concepts of mobility and fluidity see: John Urry, Sociology Beyond Societies: Mobilities for the Twenty-First Century (London: Routledge, 2000), 2; and Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Hoboken: Wiley, 2013), 2.



[3] Nick Vaughan-Williams, Border Politics: The Limits of Sovereign Power (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 1.



[4] David Newman, “On Borders and Power: a Theoretical Framework,” Journal of Borderlands Studies. 18.1 (2003): 13-25; 15.



[5] Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776; repr.; Lawrence: Publishing, 2009), book II, introduction, 162.
















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