The mass of literature focusing on borders emphasizes the interaction(s) between groups of people, defined by race, language, and culture (the foundations of the nation), across nation-state borders. Borderlands are also often defined in these terms, as spaces that exist before, beyond, or between the presence of nations and states. Even for those interested in the subjective and interpersonal dynamics of difference and identity, the nation-state framework effectively sets the terms of the discussion. This privileging of the nation-state border is central to popular narratives of globalization, for example, the view that the world appears to be shrinking as people, things, and ideas circulate more rapidly and more freely. Free trade agreements spanning entire continents are lauded for easing the flow of capital and commodities across national borders. Middle class consumerism puts us in daily contact with the crystallized labor of millions of people toiling in factories, workshops and maquiladoras in other countries: China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Mexico, etc.
Bordered spaces, from this view, are national territories. The social organization of humans is still fundamentally territorial: nations, states, municipalities, and the nation-state remains the basic political fact of the modern era. But from popular culture to political theory the nation-state looms larger than political territories at other scales, such as the township, the county, or state. Where nation-state boundaries are hard and concrete, the borders of other territorial and spatial domains are less so; people are usually more or less free to move within national borders, but not across them. This contributes to the relative invisibility of borders other than those of the nation-state.
Despite the global narrative, and its national referent, most people spend their time negotiating geographies characterized by borders and boundaries of a smaller, more intimate, and at times, more abstract scale than the spatial limits of nation-states. Shaped by the tension of the nation-individual binary, citizenship and subjectivity are rooted not only in national territories, but also in private property. Even if we don’t cross national borders every day, we are constantly moving along and across the borders of private property. This scale of bordering space, the level of the individual privately-held property, is probably far more important to peoples’ daily lives, yet it often escapes scrutiny. Property boundaries also must be crossed for social and economic transactions to occur, and in fact are rarely used to restrict these types of movement. For example, retail businesses require customers, and the brick-and-mortar stores do not usually restrict access except to those of us who don’t offer any possibility for a sale.
The philosophical basis of modern politics, liberalism, imagines the nation-state to be made up of individual citizens, and recognizes private property as the material dimension of modern individual subjectivity. The citizen, as the individual in control of his/her own decision-making, the argument goes, derives his or her responsibility and judgment from his or her position as a property-owner. This was especially clear in earlier moments in the history of liberal democracies when only (white, male) property-owners were allowed to vote. While we know much about the dynamics of national-state borders, we understand far less about the border dynamics of private properties. This poses a series of open questions in need of further scholarship and contemplation: Why is it that nation-states continue to attract our attention but the more fundamental economic (b)ordering of society does not? How do the bordered spaces of property work? How do public national spaces interact with private individual spaces, especially considering the processes of privatization of public goods that have accelerated over the last few decades?
While borders serve as important barriers, there are many social and environmental actors and phenomena that challenge their status as impermeable. This is clearly seen in the case of nation-state borders. Nation-state borders are selectively permeable, allowing the movement of some people, goods, and ideas, while prohibiting others. Environmental actors such as waters, weather systems, fires, plants, and animals flow, burn, and migrate across these borders. This is especially true in the case of the Mexico-US border where the line runs through and divides unique ecosystems including rivers, grasslands, and deserts. But the dynamics of capitalism also make use of, and push across, political borders. Financial and environmental regulatory structures at the level of the nation-state are salient, and differences across these borders generate opportunities for the movement of capital. Capital crosses borders seeking to reduce costs of labor, raw materials, environmental protection or taxation; workers cross seeking higher wages. Borders themselves create economic edge effects, for example, export industries are perched on the Mexican side of the border with the U.S. Paradoxically, economies must transcend nation-state borders in order to take advantage of their effects. In this way, the transnational and the national are mutually constitutive yet sometimes contradictory socioeconomic and spatial orders.
Casey Walsh is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.