Why Borders Really Matter

Frank Furedi

_17. 05. 2021

Frank Furedi

Western society has become estranged from the borders and social boundaries that have for centuries given meaning to human experience. Numerous commentators in the European Union claim that borders have become irrelevant in the age of mass migration and globalisation. Some go so far as to argue for ‘No Borders’. And it is not merely the boundaries that divide nations that is under attack!

The traditional boundaries that separate adults from children or men from women or humans from animals or citizens and non-citizens or the private from the public sphere are often condemned as arbitrary, unnatural and even unjust.
The controversy surrounding mass migration and physical borders runs in parallel and is closely connected to the debates surrounding the symbolic boundaries people need to guide on the issues of everyday life.

Paradoxically the attempt to alter or abolish conventional boundaries coexists with the imperative of constructing new ones. No-Border campaigners call for safe spaces. Opponents of cultural appropriation demand the policing of language and advocates of identity politics are busy building boundaries to keep out would-be encroachers on their identity.

Society’s estrangement from holding the line

Contemporary society – especially its cultural and political elites – finds it difficult from to gain meaning from symbolic borders. The language used in academic literature and social commentary today frequently highlights the arbitrary and fluid character of borders, and implicitly or explicitly questions their moral status and legitimacy. Often influenced by post-modernist theories – particularly the work of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze – borders are represented as an indeterminate and artificial construction. In these writings, the so-called artificiality of the border between East and West, civilised and uncivilised, or Europe and Asia, are given as examples.

The tendency to regard borders – and indeed, other strongly drawn distinctions and boundaries – in a negative light is widespread in contemporary popular culture. Identification with the state of being post-border or beyond border is frequently represented as a positive virtue. This is not confined to Médecins Sans Frontières: engineers, musicians, chemists, veterinarians, executives, librarians, builders, plumbers, MBAs, lawyers, astronomers, creatives, journalists, rabbis, herbalists , acupuncturists and clowns are only some of the occupational organisations who flaunt their status of being without borders.

It is tempting to interpret this enthusiasm for embracing the title of being borderless as an expression of the valuation of genuine risk-taking; a pioneering longing to explore the unknown. Indeed, it would be inspiring if this represented an endorsement of the enlightened Kantian notion of cosmopolitanism and the aspiration to become a ‘citizen of the world’.

Unfortunately, while there are numerous contradictory impulses fuelling the cultural reaction to borders, the dominant driver is an anxiety about taking responsibility for the drawing of symbolic distinctions and clear lines. This reaction to borders runs in parallel with a wider loss of nerve about the making of moral distinctions. This, in turn, is underpinned by a reluctance to make judgments of value.

We can illustrate this problem with the example of child-rearing, where the problem of holding the line has become very stark in recent years. Parents know that children cannot be properly socialised unless they learn to draw lines, respect certain rules, and gradually acquire the habit of self-control. Testing boundaries is part of children’s development. Some aspects of a child’s defiance of parental authority can be a creative expression of their personality; others – such as running out into a busy road – are dangerous.

For a parent, knowing when to hold the line and when to overlook bad behaviour is a difficult problem to negotiate. Matters are complicated by the fact that discipline has become contested: it is often presented as an outdated idea, and even an abusive practice. Parents are nervous about disciplining their children in case they are criticised for their methods by those in authority: and, increasingly, because they fear that holding the line invites their children to reject them. Parents who fear that disciplinary measures could turn their children against them will resort to bribery or simply give in.

The problem of holding the line is connected to society’s reluctance to uphold the symbolic border that divides adults from children. As I argued in my study Paranoid Parenting (2001), western society finds it difficult to answer the question of ‘where do we draw the line between adulthood and childhood’? However, this lack of clarity about where to draw the border between childhood and adulthood does not simply pertain to the sphere of childrearing. It reflects profound confusions about the meaning of adulthood leading to a reluctance to embrace the practices associated with adult authority.

Ignoring the generational divide is perceived as a more enlightened approach to life than to take this boundary line seriously. For some time now, parents, teachers, and other adults have gone out of their way to become young people’s friends, rather than their moral guides and mentors. This changing perception of adulthood – an unconscious process of infantilisation – indicates that the classical generational boundary has lost cultural respect. This unease with generational boundaries has fostered attitudes that regard becoming adult with negative qualities. Consequently the phase of adolescence extends into the late twenties and sometimes even beyond, in order to avoid crossing the border into dark territory of adulthood.

Critics of borders insist that borders are social constructions which are both artificial and arbitrary. It is difficult disagree with this point, since anyone looking at a map of the world will be struck by its arbitrary character. Many of the frontiers of Africa are drawn in straight lines, serving as testimony to the lack of imagination of the colonising power. The boundary between a child and adult is violated numerous times by youngsters who grow up faster than others. Borders between nations are continually tested by politicians, armies, internet providers, businesses, smugglers and of course by migrants. No border is beyond question.

However borders are not simply artificial social constructions. They are the physical or symbolic expressions of a social need. Not everyone can be expected to like a specific border, but this medium of division and separation expresses needs and aspirations rooted within society.

In defence of borders

Advocates of open borders de-territorialise people’s identity and seek to de-nationalise the status of citizenship. In this way they deprive citizenship of moral content and undermine the capacity of human beings to think of themselves and act as a people. The political philosopher Hannah Arendt has forcefully argued that ‘a citizen by definition’ is a member of a particular community’. She explains that a citizen’s ‘duties must be defined and limited by only those of his fellow, but also by the boundaries of a territory’, and concludes:

‘Philosophy may conceive of the earth as the homeland of mankind and one unwritten law, eternal and valid for all. Politics deals with men, nationals of many countries and heirs to many pasts: its laws are the positively established fences which hedge in protect, and limit the space in which freedom is not a concept, but a living, political reality’.

Political institutions and customs can only gain meaning if they are territorially bounded. ‘A people ought to fight for the laws of the city as if they were its walls’, stated the Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Indeed, for the Greeks, laws, like walls served to protect the polis. That is why the Greeks and later Arendt used the metaphor of the city walls to outline the demarcation of the public realm.

Arendt advanced an imaginative theory according to which the emergence of boundaries were expressed through nomos, the laws of the Greek city-states. She suggested that nomos conveys the idea of demarcation and appropriation. Through the stabilising of boundaries, nomos provided the precondition for a durable public and political realm. Arendt argued that a political community can only thrive if it is territorially limited: ‘legislation creates first of all a space in which it is valid, and this space is the world in which we can move in freedom’. Political freedom, and its exercise are inconceivable without the spatial institutionalisation of public life.

Arendt was by no means the only philosopher to emphasise the significance of territorial demarcation for the flourishing of political life. John Locke, one of the founders of liberal philosophy along with Jean Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant conceptualised the demarcation of space as the foundation of political sovereignty and as the precondition the maintenance of political order.

Given the close connection between the clear demarcation of borders and national sovereignty, it is not surprising that the latter has also become a target of the borderless world view. National sovereignty is often belittled as an outdated prejudice that has become irrelevant in a globalised world. It is also criticised for dividing people and for setting one nation against another. Criticism of national sovereignty sometimes goes hand in hand with the belittling of the status of a citizen. Proponents of boundarylessness condemn national citizenship as far too exclusivist, and criticise it for failing to give equal moral status and concern to people who inhabit a different part of the world.

Arguments against national sovereignty and of the status of citizenship have as their premise the supposed superiority of universal and humanitarian values. However, universalism becomes a caricature of itself when it is transformed into a metaphysical force that stands above prevailing national institutions through which human beings make sense of the world. The attempt to de-territorialise sovereignty and citizenship rights reduces people to their most abstract individual qualities. In consequence, citizens are deprived of the cultural values through which they give their lives meaning. Humanity does not live above or beyond the boundaries and institutions it created through great struggle and effort. That is why Arendt argued that:
‘The establishment of one sovereign world state, far from being the prerequisite for world citizenship, would be the end of all citizenship. It would not be the climax of world politics, but quite literally its end.’

Whatever its advocates’ motives, the project of de-territorialising citizenship and weakening national sovereignty constitutes a direct challenge to democracy and public life. Whatever one thinks of nation states, there can be no democratic public life outside their confines. It is only as citizens interacting with one another, within a geographically bounded entity, that democratic decision-making can work and achieve remarkable results.

In his essay Perpetual Peace (1795), Immanuel Kant, the founder of modern cosmopolitan philosophy, developed the idea of ‘cosmopolitan right’, which required that strangers who entered the territory of foreign state should not be treated with hostility. He called this requirement the ‘natural right of hospitality’. However, Kant’s concept of the right to hospitality did not imply the right to settle, and it certainly did not call into question the legitimacy of territorial borders. He objected to the advocacy of a borderless world and argued that a world state would lead to global tyranny. Rather, Kant supported a federal union of free and independent polities, which he believed ‘to be preferred to an amalgamation of the separate nations under a single power which has overruled the rest and created a universal monarchy’. He took the view that laws that transcend the nation state lacked the moral depth necessary for the exercise of authority, warning that: ‘laws progressively lose their impact as the government increases its range, and a soulless despotism, after crushing the germs of goodness, will finally lapse into anarchy’. His vision of cosmopolitanism is very different to the outlook of anti-border cosmopolitans today

Identification with people born into a common world is the main way that solidarity between people can acquire a dynamic political character. People exercising their citizenship rights have interests that are specific to their circumstances and which provide the foundation of their solidarity. If they were to be dispossessed of those interests, their capacity to act as responsible citizens would be diminished. And without responsible citizens there is no democracy. That’s a lesson that the EU must learn.