BORDERS, FRONTIERS, CAPITAL
(Translation - Amedeo Policante)
Sandro Mezzadra works as an Associate Professor of Political Theory at the University of Bologna, where he teaches postcolonial studies and contemporary political theory. He has published widely on the areas of migration, postcolonial theory, contemporary capitalism, Italian operaismo and autonomist Marxism. As an activist, he is currently engaged in the "Mediterranea Saving Humans" project (https://mediterranearescue.org/).
Translator’s note: Since the publication of Diritto di Fuga in 2001, Sandro Mezzadra has been a fundamental critical voice in contemporary global debates surrounding the government of migrations, the transformation of capitalism and the proliferation of borders. Together with Brett Neilson he published Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor (Duke University Press, 2013) and The Politics of Operations. Excavating Contemporary Capitalism (Duke University Press, 2019). In this article - first published in Italian as ‘Confini, Frontiere, Capitale’ in Rivista di Storia delle Idee 4:2, 2015, pp. 20-24. (ISSN. 2281-1532) – Mezzadra provides an introduction to many of the themes that have been central to his critical practice as a scholar and as an activist. The article aims to show the structural contradictions arising from capital’s tendency towards the constitution of the world market. According to Mezzadra, “[t]he global scale at which the valorisation and accumulation of capital increasingly takes place is driving a permanent spatial revolution”, and yet this profound spatial transformation cannot be reduced to the creation of a borderless, smooth world of pure circulation. At the opposite, critical theory must be attentive to the multiple and contingent “ways in which the frontiers of capital are often chrystallized and fixed”, generating heterogenous (but always interconnected) spaces of extraction, production and circulation.
1. “What is an economy and, especially, where is an economy?” (1) One could recuperate the question once posed by Immanuel Wallerstein in order to reflect upon the relationship between capital, borders and frontiers. After all, as Wallerstein stresses, every economy – every “web of more or less strictly interdependent productive processes” – develops within specific “spatio-temporal borders”. As such, the historicity of an economic system, its origin, its growth, its mutations must always be understood according to its specific placement in space, which is circumscribed by a series of structural “limits”. We may, therefore, question “how different borders are interlinked, and how they interact with spatial organizations arising from other social dimensions, i.e. for instance, with politico-legal and cultural borders” (2).
Once the question is posed in this very general fashion, it is necessary to specify which form it takes within the specific terrain of modern capitalism. From this point of view, it is particularly important to reflect upon the relationship between processes of production of space arising from the specific dynamics of the capitalist mode of production and political acts of space-production. Numerous studies have tried to reconstruct the processes that have led to the emergence – particularly in the European context – of the linear border: a geometrical abstraction able to circumscribe and produce the homogeneous space of the modern State-form (3). In the last few years, moreover, a number of important studies have contributed to situating the development of the sovereign State in a much wider colonial and imperial history. What emerges from this literature is the constitutive character, for the history of the modern sovereign state, of a whole series of profoundly heterogenous governmental dispositifs of subjected spaces and populations, which are irreducible to those organized around the institution of the linear border (4).
It is necessary to adopt this global perspective on the modern history of the border to understand its changing relation – articulations, tensions and conflicts – with the profound spatial transformation determined by the emergence of modern capitalism. Capital, obviously, existed also in pre-modern times and at latitudes far away from the European continent. Clearly delimited economic and political spaces - as, for instance, those of the late-medieval city and those of the Anseatic leagues - have played an important role as early cradles of capitalist social relations. And yet, one of the essential characteristics of the capitalist mode of production is that here capital always poses itself on two axes at once: on an “intensive axis” capital constitute a matrix of social relationships that deeply penetrate and reorganize specific, geographically bounded social formations; and yet, on the “extensive axis”, the spatial horizon within which modern capitalism develops is always-already the “world market”.
According to a formulation that Marx often repeated, particularly in the Grundrisse, the world market is thus ‘the precondition and the result of capitalist production’. ‘The tendency [Tendenz] to create the world market is directly given in the concept of capital itself. Every limit [Grenze] appears as a barrier [Schranke] to be overcome’ (6). It is an interesting passage for our discussion: the world market is presented here as a tendency, and this tendency is presented as essentially destabilizing, eroding every limit and every “border” (since the German term Grenze indicates both ‘the limit’ and the ‘border’ in a more strictly geopolitical sense). Together with Brett Neilson, I have proposed the concept of ‘frontiers of capital’ in order to describe this expansive and destabilizing tendency characterizing capitalist production (7). On the other hand, we wanted to stress that this tendency can never fully realize itself. At the opposite, the contingent ways in which the ‘frontiers of capital’ are articulated with existing territorial borders tend to generate a variety of capitalist formations. From this point of view, the relationship between capital and State appears to be mediated by the institution of the border, which is always at once a local and global space.
Image 1. Brugae Fladicarum Urbium Ornamenta (1688) [Urban Plan of the City of Brugge in 1688, Jewish National Library, Jerusalm]
Clearly delimited economic and political spaces have played an important role as early cradles of capitalist social relations. And yet, [...] the spatial horizon within which modern capitalism develops is always-already the “world market”.
2. The ‘world market’ appears to operate as an ‘abstract’ principle insofar as it reflects a tendency inherent to the ‘very concept of capital’. Nevertheless, a whole series of powerful variables enters into play as soon as we consider the way in which this tendency operates in historical and political terms. The characteristic spatiality of the capitalist mode of production is characterized by a profound tension between the structural tendency towards the constitution of the world market and the specific geographies emerging from the operations of specific economic actors, the productive cycles characterizing particular commodities, and the contingent circulation of practices of struggle and resistance (often linked to the mobility of labour).
This brief theoretical outline – that would need to be discussed in all of its ambiguities and limitations – may be useful to rethink the way in which contemporary processes of production of space are profoundly shaped by the existing tension between the global dimension characterizing the ‘very concept of capital’ and its local articulation within specific economic zones bounded by specific territorial borders. For instance, the hegemonic transitions analysed by Giovanni Arrighi are always characterised by profound transformations that invest at the same time: a) global processes of valorisation and accumulation of capital; b) the protagonist actors of these processes; c) the political and juridical forms taken by State, colonies and imperial constructions (8). This global history shows the ways in which the frontiers of capital are often chrystallized and fixed, generating ‘bounded’ spaces of extraction, production and/or circulation. The ambiguous results of this ongoing process can be captured by studying the peculiar geographies characterizing foe instance the constitution of Spanish ‘extractive enclaves’ in the Americas, the factories of the East India Company, the Chinese ‘concessions’ after the opium wars etc. At the same time, one could notice how, starting from the sixteenth century, the expansion of the ‘capitalist frontiers’ has striated the seas, carving a complex mosaic of logistical corridors through which commodities flow into a complex network of coastal outposts, estuaries, islands and archipelagos. In other words, the global geographies of slavery, of enforced labour and of the plantation system are prominent examples of the complex spatiality emerging from a capitalist production of space characterized by the constitutive tension between frontiers and borders (9).
Inside these historical geographies – which have been countered from the beginning by formidable counter-histories and counter-geographies of struggle and of resistance – a significative cesura took place during the nineteenth century with the emergence of what could be called the “national and industrial phase” of capitalism. On the one hand, processes of industrialization are increasingly accompanied by the nationalization of the internal markets of European countries. In particular, the formation of a national labour market gives new economic meanings to state borders and constitutes the basis for a series of frictions and tensions that manifest themselves on the terrain of the “regulation” of migrations (and indeed it is only towards the end of the nineteenth century that this becomes a fundamental function of state borders). (10). On the other hand, the emergence of a new interest for the spatial distribution of raw materials and productive activities leads to the formulation of the concept of ‘international division of labour’ (at the theoretical level) and to the intensification of colonial violence and inter-imperialist struggle (at the historical level).
On the one hand, the concept of an ‘international division of labour’ tends to present the tension between the expansion of the frontiers of capital and the configuration of territorial borders as always-already solved, insofar as it assumes the national scale as the essential scale in which both the organization of economic and political spaces take place (11). On the other hand, critical debates on imperialism at the beginning of the twentieth century clearly highlight the limits of this solution to capitalist crisis (especially in a situation in which forms of colonial control negate the principle of national self-determination). In this context, the anticolonial struggles of the last century have determined a contradictory process of globalisation of the nation-state, which we see today reflected in our maps and atlases. Even in the context of the bipolar opposition between the United States and the Soviet Union, many ‘development projects’ around the world aimed at creating a novel correspondence between existing political borders and the borders of ‘national economies’ (with a specific emphasis, once again, on the borders of ‘national labour markets’). The analysis of the conditions of ‘dependence’, which emerged as a result of this processes and that radically limited the feasibility of these development projects, constitutes a particularly important chapter in the economic debates of the post-War period, particularly in Latin America. Moreover, it has contributed to show the persistent tensions between the continuous expansion of the frontiers of capital and the multiplication of linear political borders between states: a contradictory historical process giving shape to emerging post-colonial political geographies.
Image 2. Engraving of the plan of the Dutch factory at Hooghly-Chinsura by an unknown artist and engraver c.1721 (Image Credits: British Library).
The ‘world market’ appears to operate as an ‘abstract’ principle [...]. Nevertheless, a whole series of powerful variables enters into play as soon as we consider the way in which this tendency operates in historical and political terms.
3. The relative equilibrium between economic spaces and political spaces – which had emerged in the period after the second world war –entered into a profound crisis already from the beginning of the 1970s, under the growing pressure of social struggles and revolutionary processes in many parts of the world. After the abandonment of the gold standard in 1971, a number of processes gradually transformed both the nature of capitalism and its relationship with labour and with the State. ‘Financialization’, ‘deregulation’, ‘flexible production’, ‘structural adjustment’, ‘neoliberalism’ are only some of the keywords that have been introduced to make sense of the global mutation of capitalism, which accelerated since the end of the Soviet Union. One of the consequences of these complex processes, using a concept introduced by Saskia Sassen, has been a tendency towards the ‘denationalization’ of both economic and political space, on the base of a new, violent expansion of the frontiers of capital. (12)
Within the theoretical debates that have accompanied these material transformations, it is possible to delineate different approaches to the essential problem that has here been here described in terms of the constitutive tension between the always-expansive frontiers of capital and the existence of linear territorial borders. One could distinguish, for instance, between those analyses that have focused on the emergence of a new configuration of ‘capitalist sovereignty’ at once imperial and global (13); and those that, since the 1980s, have described the formation of a ‘new international division of labour’, concentrating on the new geography of production, on its cultural implications, or on its impact on the politics of gender (insofar as the feminisation of labour and of migration constitutes an essential aspect of these processes) (14). While the first hypothesis places the emphasis on the profound transformations engendered by continuous processes of financialization, the second perspective tends to focus on ongoing processes of delocalisation of industrial production and their effect on existing relationships between centre and periphery. The concept of spatial fix - first introduced by David Harvey in order to indicate the way in which the spatial relocation of specific economic activities can function as a temporary ‘solution’ for recurrent crises of capital profitability – has played a fundamental role in the formation of this critical perspective, together with concepts such as ‘commodity-chain’ and ‘value-chain’ (15).
Image 3. Mapping the 4000 Special Economic Zones (Image Credits: www.paragkhanna.com).
Entering into a dialogue with these theoretical traditions, Border as Method proposed to read the relationship between territorial borders and the expansion of the frontiers of capital from a different perspective. In short, we are convinced that an essential mobility has invested the various spatial configurations that characterise our present (16). This mobility, nevertheless, does not lead to a growing irrelevance of borders, but rather to their proliferation. The fundamental question for us stems from the contradiction between the free circulation of capital and the many obstacles imposed to the movement of migrants and living labour. Both traditional borders and the new administrative delimitations proliferating in many parts of the world (as, for instance, those that circumscribe so-called ‘special economic zones’) play an essential role in the articulation of global capitalist processes. We maintain, moreover, that these processes are increasingly guided by a financial – rather than industrial – logic. It is important to highlight that finance never operates on the abstract level, rather it always takes place within specific geographical coordinates and through specific frontiers. (17) When we argue that global capitalist processes are increasingly guided by a financial logic, this does not mean that we affirm the autonomy of finance: at the very opposite, we want to stress the role that finance plays in the synchronisation of a whole series of profoundly heterogeneous economic activities. In fact, it is only on the base of this power of synchronisation that contemporary capitalism is increasingly capable to multiply the forms of labour subjected to economic exploitation. (18)
The global scale at which the valorisation and accumulation of capital increasingly takes place is driving a permanent spatial revolution: the formation of regional and continental markets runs in parallel with complex processes of decomposition of traditional national territories, the emergence of new ‘global cities’ and the formation of new ‘logistical spaces’ that assume a growing autonomy also from a juridical and governmental perspective. (19) In the context of these contradictory global processes, the contingent articulation of the moving frontiers of capital with a multiplicity of territorial borders can not take a stable form, but it is rather what is continuously at stake. Powerful structural forces are here at play: traditional relationships of dependence are ambiguously reconfigured by a multiplicity of conflicts and negotiations – often taking the form of open warfare – that directly concern the production of space.
This is why some of the most significative social struggles of the recent past, including those in which migrant subject have been protagonist, have taken place on the battlefield of the social production of space. It is on this base that critical theory - highlighting the multiple tensions that characterize the expansion of the frontiers of capital in the context of historically-existing territorial borders - may contribute to the reinvention of an internationalist politics capable of articulating multiple geographical sites of struggle and resistance.
Image 4. Migrant workers protest on Labor Day at Bosingak, Jongno District, central Seoul (Image Credits: www.koreaherald.com).
1. I.M. Wallerstein, Historical Capitalism: with Capitalist Civilization. London: Verso, 2011, p. 93.
2. I.M. Wallerstein, Historical Capitalism: with Capitalist Civilization, p. 96.
3. C. Galli, Political Spaces and Global War. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.; and P. Cuttitta, Segnali di confine. Il controllo dell’immigrazione nel mondo-frontiera, Milano: Mimesis, 2007.
4. Th. Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1994; L. Benton, A Search for Sovereignty. Law and Geography in European Empires 1400-1900, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010.
5. S. Mezzadra, In the Marxian Workshop: Producing Subjects, Rowman&Littlefield, London: 2018.
6. K. Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, London and New York: Penguin Books, 1993, p. 408.
7. S. Mezzadra e B. Neilson, Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor, Durham: Duke University Press, 2013.
8. G. Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Time, London: Verso, 1994; and G. Arrighi, Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century, London: Verso, 2007.
9. L. Benton, A Search for Sovereignty, cit.
10. S. Mezzadra e B. Neilson, Border as Method, cit., chapters 3 and 5.
11. CJ. Viner, Studies in the Theory of International Trade, Harper and Brothers, New York, 1965.
12. S. Sassen, Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages. Princeton University Press, 2008.
13. A. Negri and M. Hardt, Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.
14. F. Fröbel, J. Heinrichs e O. Kreye, The New International Division of Labor, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1980.
15. D. Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.
16. P. Perulli, Terra mobile. Atlante della società globale, Einaudi, Torino, 2014.
17. M.S. Fischer e G. Downey (eds), Frontiers of Capital. Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy, Duke University Press, Durham, NC – London, 2006 e G.L. Clark e D. Wójcic, The Geography of Finance. Corporate Governance in the Global Marketplace, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007.
18. V. Gago, Financialization of Popular Life and the Extractive Operations of Capital: A Perspective from Argentina, in “South Atlantic Quarterly”, 114(1/2015), pp. 11-28.
19. D. Cowen, The Deadly Life of Logistics. Mapping Violence in Global Trade, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MI – London, 2014.
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