A tale of two worlds: national borders versus a common planet

By Nandita Sharma.

We live in a world whose political organisation in no way corresponds with the way we live our lives. This is true ecologically. It may be a cliché but it is plainly evident that the Earth’s atmosphere is not divided by national boundaries. Greenhouse gases cause the same degree of global warming no matter where they are produced. It is also true economically. Living beings are tied to one another through a cycle of capitalist production and consumption, one given force by past and present practices of expropriation and exploitation. It is also true socially. We are both attached and reliant to people and other living beings outside of whatever national boundaries we find ourselves in.

Yet, we have a political system of nation-states that divides us from each other on the basis of nationality. We have nation-states that claim land and air and water as their sovereign territory, that claim people, other animals and plants as theirs, that claim to have the exclusive power to determine who enters their national space and under what conditions. The consequences of this system are enormous. Which of the world’s nation-states one is a citizen of matters. The economist Branko Milanovic has argued that, today, almost three-quarters of global inequality is due to one’s national citizenship. As such, nationals in a Rich World nation-state are provided with what he calls a ‘citizenship rent’.

Nicosia, 2019 (Image by Ittmust on flickr)

Now, national citizenship matters because nation-states across this international system limit its obtainment. As Benedict Anderson pointed out in his book, Imagined Communities (1983), the national organisation of society is one in which the political community is always imagined as a limited community. Because no nation encompasses all the world’s people, nor wants to, immigration and citizenship controls become crucial technologies for nation-making (and nation-maintaining) strategies. They are also key technologies for implementing a racist global apartheid, which, like the South African apartheid of the mid-to-late-20th century, is based on citizenship.

The process of nationalising state sovereignty and putting in place an exclusionary regime based on national citizenship began in the Americas in the 19th century. By the 1960s, the national form of state sovereignty had become the dominant form. It is at this point that we can say that a new global order emerged, one that I call the Postcolonial New World Order.

Postcolonialism is not to be confused with decolonisation. Instead, postcolonialism marks the end of the political legitimacy of imperial-state sovereignty and the beginning of the hegemony of national forms of state sovereignty. In a postcolonial system of governance, people across the world are defined as part of separated ‘nations’ and ruled through the combined operations of nation-state sovereignty, international bodies and the global circulation of capital.

After the Second World War, with astonishing speed, the near-global space of imperial-states was mostly nationalised. Between 1945 and 1960 alone, three dozen new nation-states in Asia and Africa were granted either a restricted autonomy or outright independence from empires. In the 1960s, the two most powerful imperial-states entering the Second World War —the British and the French—lost the vast majority of their global empires and nationalised the sovereignty of their imperial metropoles. Like the other nation-states formed before them, each marked their newfound national form of sovereignty with new citizenship and immigration controls.

For those colonised people who did not obtain ‘their own’ national territorial sovereignty, the demand for it continues to define their struggles. For many who identify – and have been identified – as Hawaiians or Mohawks, Armenians or Kurds, Palestinians or Kashmiris, their anti-colonial struggles are often framed as struggles for ‘national liberation’. It is thus clear that in the Postcolonial New World Order being a member of a nation in possession of territorial sovereignty is the thing to be(come). This is not an accident.

In its 1945 founding charter, the UN enshrined the recognition of the right of national self-determination as the bedrock of international law. That is, those people who could successfully claim to being a ‘nation’ were recognised as having the right to national sovereignty. All those people who either did not want to organise themselves as ‘nations’ or could not convincingly do so were regarded as ‘minorities’. Hostility to these ‘minorities’ and to those people who moved from one nationalised territory to another – that is, migrants – was bred in the bone of the UN charter. With its declaration of the rights of nations to self-determination, it would not and could not – account for the rights of all those people who were not the People of the nation – in other words, those who were seen to be ‘people out of place’. The UN Charter thus stood in stark contrast to how many people actually lived, and certainly in stark contrast to the reality of the immediate post- Second World War experience of mass movement of people.

It is important to consider that contrary to the rhetoric of national liberation, or of the bromides of the United Nations, this world of nation-states did not represent a challenge to the social relations of imperialism. Instead, a postcolonial world of nation-states worked to contain the revolutionary and liberatory demands of people to abolish the practices most closely associated with imperialism – expropriation, exploitation and social denigration.

Moreover, the new international system provided the institutional structures – and the legitimised force of coercive state action – for capitalist social relations to expand, which they did to a scale and scope previously unimagined. This expansion occurred through – not against – the nationalisation of states, sovereignty, territory and subjectivities. Claiming to have liberated people, postcolonialism liberated capital instead. This postcolonial reality is poignantly captured by a proverb from the area now known as Turkey: ‘When the axe came into the woods, many of the trees said, “At least the handle is one of us”.’

Yet, support for nationalism and for nation-states remains hegemonic across the Left-Right political spectrum. National sovereignty continues to be seen as the last bastion of resistance against ‘foreign’ incursions. In fact, everywhere on our planet, nationalist politics are hardening. The postcolonial politics of forging – and legislating – separations between ‘citizens’ and ‘migrants’ are both expanding and intensifying in uncanny ways.

This can be seen in the resurgence of the idea of ‘native-ness’. Under the rule of imperial-states, the status of ‘native’ marked the status of colonial subjects. Far from disappearing when colonised ‘natives’ become independent ‘nationals’, it is becoming clear that in nationalist politics today, the idea that there is one group of people who are the ‘true’ members of the ‘nation’ has become increasingly popular. This group is regarded as the ‘national-natives’.

While the already limited criteria of national belonging have developed around the figure of the ‘true’ – that is, ‘native’ – member of the ‘nation’, at the same time, there has been an expansion of the term ‘coloniser’. Borrowing the imperial meaning of ‘natives’ as colonised people, those who are ‘national-natives’ see themselves as having been ‘colonised’ by ‘migrants’.

Such rhetoric is no trifling matter. Instead, it informs some of the most violent acts of our time: the expulsion of ‘Asians’ from Uganda in the 1970s, the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the ongoing persecution, expulsion and killings of Rohingya people in Myanmar. Unmasking and defanging the bogeyman of ‘foreign-ness’ that is ripe in all nationalist and nativist politics is, I believe, a critical aspect of the goal of making a world that reflects the needs, desires and connections between all of life on our shared planet.

Nandita Sharma is Professor in Sociology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. She is an activist scholar interested in human mobility, the state category of ‘migrant labour’, nation-state power, ideologies of racism, sexism and nationalism, processes of identification and self-understanding, and social movements for justice.

In June and July, Nandita will be hosted by MMB as a Bristol Benjamin Meaker Distinguished Visiting Professor. She will be giving a public lecture in Bristol on 29th June entitled ‘Are Immigration Controls Racist? Lessons from History’. Find out more and register here.

Previous MMB blogposts by Nandita include ‘National sovereignty and postcolonial racism‘ and ‘From “social distancing” to planetary solidarity‘.

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