‘Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism’ by Harsha Walia reviewed by Matt Kelley

Reviewed by Matt Kelley

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Matt Kelley is a PhD student in Philosophy at Michigan State University. …

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Harsha Walia’s Border and Rule is an extensive account of the contemporary global structures of migration, capital and ethnonationalism. While capitalist and racial power are often conceptualized in isolation, Walia delivers a thoroughly researched argument that they should be thought of as mutually-constituting. Borders and bordering practices are the nexus where capital and race formation meet, and the migrant worker is the figure produced by and forced to navigate bordering regimes. Beginning in the United States but ranging across the globe, Walia’s book makes use of a variety of case studies to found her far-ranging claims. Particularly welcome are her engaging treatments of the racist populist leaders who have swept onto the world stage in the last ten years and her forceful argument that figures like Trump, Orbán and Bolsonaro, far from aberrations in an otherwise peaceful liberal world order, are the logical products of neoliberal austerity and white supremacy posturing as multiculturalism. Striking, unsparing and bold, Walia has written a tour de force chronicling the ongoing processes of primitive accumulation that should be read by anyone seeking to grapple with questions of global political economy.

Walia’s over-arching claim is that the global ‘migration crisis,’ epitomized in the flight of Syrians to Europe, but sensationalized in the media by treacherous Mediterranean voyages, Central American ‘convoys’ and the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, is not an unfortunate yet inevitable development of geopolitics, but a manufactured crisis of dispossession brought about by and perpetuated for the benefit of capital. Walia takes on the misconception that Western, industrial, majority-white nations are hapless victims; this mistaken view pictures ‘migrants and refugees as the cause of an imagined crisis at the border, when, in fact, mass migration is the outcome of the actual crises of capitalism, conquest, and climate change’ (3). Whether characterized by conservative anxiety about a ‘great replacement’ or liberal handwringing about humanitarian aid, migrants are seen as third parties or surprise visitors when, in actuality, transnational corporations headquartered in the US, Canada and Europe are the direct cause of the poverty and displacement inducing many migrants to leave their homes.

Global capital, in need of surplus labor it can no longer generate in the industrial West, forces its way into the Global South by way of structural adjustment and imposition of debt. The intrusion of capital floods local markets with cheap goods, eviscerating local economies and proletarianizing traditional farmers and producers. Dispossessed, the new proletarians can migrate to cities and risk employment in dangerous, exploitative export-oriented factories or attempt to find work in other parts of the world. Through this process, Walia, following Marx, argues that capital has achieved two aims: it has broadened its reach and secured a new source of labor power from which it can extract further surplus. As Walia writes, ‘[m]igrant workers therefore represent the ideal […] workforce; they are commodified and exploitable, flexible, and expendable’ (139).

Thus far, the book’s argument could be said to resemble Marx’s discussion of primitive accumulation in Capital. Walia’s contribution is her analysis of the racial apparatuses that make the precarity and availability of migrant labor possible. Undocumented workers are, of course, vulnerable to apprehension and deportation. But even migrant workers who are able to obtain temporary work visas are not secure, as their documentation is almost always tied to their employer and, as internationals, they do not receive the same legal and labor protections as citizens. Rarely given paths to permanent residency, non-white migrants are held in perpetual limbo. White fear of black and brown immigrants fuels official policy, making legal immigration more and more difficult. Uprooted and without sanctuary, racialized migrants are ‘deportable subjects, who are not actually deported if they remain compliant laborers. Capitalism therefore relies on the social and racial exclusions engendered through borders to subordinate migrant labor’ (85). This vulnerability – and availability for ever cheaper labor – is precisely what capitalist development needs: ‘The free flow of capital requires precarious labor, which is shaped by borders through immobility’ (6).

The book is divided into four parts. The first, ‘Displacement Crisis, Not Border Crisis,’ chronicles the history of bordering practices in the US in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and provides the critical building blocks of Walia’s argument. This section describes the interlocking logics of white supremacy, border creation and maintenance, and institutional anti-Black racism. The War on Drugs, Walia argues, was and is conducted not only here at home, in the United States, but abroad, as a means for expanding immigration controls across borders and toppling regimes unfriendly to capital. Fallen socialist regimes in Central America cannot defend the land and livelihoods of their citizens, and transnational corporations buy that land, run local farmers out of business and create a new and vulnerable proletarian class. The second part of the book, ‘“Illegals” and “Undesirables”: The Criminalization of Migration,’ examines the four key features of contemporary border policies (exclusion, diffusion, commodified inclusion and discursive control). The border, for Walia, is not merely a dividing line on a map, but a network of reinforcing institutions and legal agreements that can operate hundreds of miles from the line drawn between countries. Borders and border policing both creates the concept of a ‘migrant’ and controls those captured by the label. The section includes the case study of Australia’s ‘Pacific Solution’ to migration, which involves the creation of offshore detention centers. The Australian government sends captured migrants to these centers, and, in so doing, need not treat them as having actually entered Australia. This ‘Gitmo’ strategy exempts migrants from the protections they would have on Australian soil and has been taken up across the globe (especially visible in Britain’s recent attempt to move migrants to Rwanda). The third section of the book, ‘Capitalist Globalization and Insourcing of Migrant Labor,’ details how capital integrates migrant workers into profit-making while maintaining their status as legal and racial outsiders. The section begins with a poignant vignette of Ghanaian farmers who, having been run out of business by transnational agricultural corporations, now work as temporary farm laborers in Italy – which exports a substantial amount of its produce to Ghana. Walia observes: ‘One of the cruelest ironies of capitalist globalization is the proletarianization of displaced peasants into migrant farmworkers’ (131). The section contains two further case studies, one examining the Kafala system of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and another studying Canada’s misleadingly lauded Temporary Foreign Worker Program. The final section of the book, ‘Making Race, Mobilizing Racist Nationalisms,’ exposes the key connections of the rise of the global far right to capitalist bordering practices. Even more insidious than the preservation of the ‘foreign’ status of migrant workers maintained by liberal regimes, far right leaders have experimented with the revocation of citizenship of persons within the borders of their own country. This step renders even greater numbers of people vulnerable to deportation, now to countries that the deportees have never even set foot in. These precarious populations are now further available to capitalist exploitation as expendable surplus. Far right demonization of ‘foreigners’ thus plays directly into the needs of capital.

Key to Walia’s argument is the notion of manufactured vulnerability. Against the view that industrial nations are the victims of the migration crisis and have nothing to do with its genesis, that instability in migrants’ home countries is due to cultural backwardness or entrenched corruption, that the precarious lives of refugees and migrant workers is regrettable but out of our hands, Walia’s book shows that the migrant’s situation is deliberate. ‘The manufactured vulnerability of migrant workers is both generated by and constitutive of racial capitalism; the architecture of labor migration is intended to guarantee capital accumulation and uphold racialized gendered citizenship’ (137). Walia’s denaturalization of global migration is powerful, meticulously argued and damning. The move is central to her effort to reframe our understanding of migration, capital and the operations of racism.

The book hints at means for resistance, but offers little by way of substantial theorization for action. Most sections conclude with examples of workers who have resisted the racializing and exploitative bordering practices oppressing them, and the book concludes with broad injunctions to action. Walia’s most substantive direction comes in her discussion of resisting the far right in the United States: ‘Ensuring labor protections and citizenship status is the most ethical and effective counter to the far right’s anti-migrant racism,’ she writes. ‘Otherwise, attacks on migrant workers […] will continue to work as intended for capitalist interests: channeling irregular migration into precarious labor migration’ (205). This injunction connects the various points of her argument to show how labor rights and paths to permanent citizenship directly challenge the border-capital-race nexus she describes. But such guidance is quite broad, and Walia does not provide more concrete thought on praxis. This is not as a weakness of Walia’s book, but it is something of a gap in a work which, having attended in such detail to material stories and actual institutional practices, seems to set the stage for recommendations on direct action.

The status of citizenship in Walia’s argument is also somewhat ambiguous. As noted in the preceding paragraph, ‘citizenship status’ seems to be a key route for combating the precarity of the migrant’s situation; full citizenship would provide workers with the protection of national labor laws and access to social services and would serve to erode the power of racial citizenship. At other points, however, Walia questions the very idea of citizenship. She writes:

The refrain of “minority groups” in human rights discourse takes the category of citizenship for granted. But the construct of citizenship itself, as an institution of governance reifying how one is minoritized, must be interrogated. State citizenship is less about collective participation in governance of life and more about an authoritarian system of governance over life. State citizenship thus becomes the legal basis of asserting state sovereignty through ‘define and rule’ to hierarchize and manage difference (194).

Such a criticism sees citizenship as a part of the apparatus of bordering rule that manages the global proletarian population by segmenting it; dividing workers by nationality creates the illusion that foreigners can ‘take my job,’ even though the capitalist is the one choosing to lower wages. This critique of citizenship runs in tandem with Walia’s call for a ‘politics of no borders’ (213). Whether citizenship has a place in Walia’s theory, or even if, more broadly, the nation itself withstands her critique, is not made clear in the book. These questions are left unanswered.

Timely and unblinking, Border and Rule takes Marx’s historical analysis in the Grundrisse and Capital and shows the unfolding process of primitive accumulation in the twenty-first century. Walia does not leave Marx’s theory unchanged; she amends and complicates it by demonstrating how the perpetuation of racial hierarchy and ethnonationalism are inextricable from transnational capitalist growth. Such thinking unites two fields of social critique often ignorant of or even hostile to one another. The racialization of the migrant cannot be understood outside the needs of capital, and the ongoing production of the proletariat depends on the perpetuation of global white supremacy. An exemplary combination of theory and analysis of material circumstances, Harsha Walia’s Border and Rule should be a template for any critique that follows.

1 July 2022

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