The Longue Durée of Borders
While the defenders of sovereign territory delineated by national borders are quick to claim that borders have always exist and will always continue to exist, such claims misrepresent the nuanced circumstances that borders originate from and the serious ramifications of borders’ sustained existence. Our modern conception of borders arose from a set of specific economic and political circumstances during a specific time period in a specific place, and the idea of sovereign control over defined territory spread due to yet another set of specific historical circumstances, yet too often pundits ignore the happenstance of borders’ origins and falsely paint them as both inevitable and universally necessary. Sovereign nation states were able to out compete feudal organization, churches, empires, city-states, and city-state confederations, but this fact alone does not serve as sufficient justification for the continued reliance on borders to order our world. A direct outgrowth of our modern world’s acceptance of borders as a prerequisite for effective governance is the belief that people are unassimilable. Given that many of today’s modern borders are the direct result of the colonial project, true decolonization requires that we understand the roots of modern systems, and that we understand the ramifications of such systems today, so that we may one day be able to escape the inherent inequality written into global power structures. In order to begin to construct such a world, we must fight against ideologies that ahistorically attempt to defend vestigial traits of specific historical circumstances, such as national borders, as necessary for effective governance. Cameroonian political theorist Achille Mbembe explains that “the belief that the world would be safer, if only risks, ambiguity and uncertainty could be controlled and if only identities could be fixed once and for all, is gaining momentum,” and this momentum is due to the widespread political salience of xenophobia. In order to counteract such dangerous ideology, and to escape the inimical effects of antiquated systems of governance, one must first understand that borders arose due to specific historical circumstances, not historical destiny, and thus, the problems that arise from territorial borders can only be transcended by questioning the institution itself.
It is a fact that all peoples occupy space, but conceptions of how that space should be controlled have fluctuated over time. The territorially delineated sovereign space emerged out of a multitude of distinct ideas surrounding control over space. Feudalistic societies allowed for shared control over territory, due to their lack of specific hierarchy. Local feudal rulers swore allegiance to multiple more powerful rulers in order to accumulate more lands that they were given in exchange for their loyalty. Despite this allegiance, those dominant figures did not assert direct control over the lands of their subordinates. Instead, the subordinate rulers administered the lands, and the dominant rulers would call on their subordinates to rally raise an army and fight for them when necessary. This could become complicated, with Hendrik Spruyt explaining that feudalism was “…a highly decentralized system of political organization which is based on personal ties,” and the entities who intermediate rulers swore their allegiance to did not always coexist peacefully. The lack of a specific hierarchy of control is exemplified by instances when two or more leaders, all of whom a feudal ruler had sworn allegiance to fought amongst themselves, that ruler had no specific protocol to follow. In one such instance, an intermediate ruler raised an army and split it, sending a portion to fight on one side of the conflict and going himself with the other portion of his army to fight against his own men. Thus, borders were not always as salient as they are today, given that no single entity had exclusive control over territories.
Other forms of asserting control over space similarly abstained from limiting the extent of their rule to specific territory, such as religious organizations and empires. Religious organizations believed their control to be universal, coexisting with existing rulers by using spiritual means to validate their rule. The church played a part in a two-way relationship with these rulers, wherein it needed the rulers’ armies to protect it, and in return it served as a mean to legitimate those rulers’ battles against non-believers. Still, things such as the investiture conflict, which began in 1075, complicated this relationship, due to the lack of explicit control over areas. The church and German leaders such as Frederick Barbarossa conflicted over who was endowed with the ability to select new bishops. This would eventually erode the ability of church administration to function simultaneously with local administrations. Empires similarly posited themselves as universal. While there were hypothetical central leaders, empires truly took the form of heteronomous constituencies, ruled by different intermediate sovereigns who had little accountability to the central sovereign, due to limited communication and mobility. Confederacies of city states also formed, seeking to mutually protect their independence from external control. Yet these entities, similar to empires, were loosely attached, and their member cities operated largely independent of their other members.
Out of the myriad methods of exerting control, ranging from feudalism and city state confederacies to organized religion and empires, sovereign states emerged as a front runner due to both shifts in the socioeconomic and epistemological atmosphere during the early modern period at the end of the middle ages. The bellicist school of thought points to states’ need for a centralization and concentration of military power as the reason for the rise of territorial delineated divided sovereignty, referencing efficiencies of scale as illustrated by the Prussian military to argue that the territorial sovereign state was able to more adroitly defeat other forms of organization. This line of reasoning further leads to arguments of state formation from a political bargain to gain protection from a more powerful central monarch, yet this relies on a false teleology. The end result of specific historical circumstances cannot be misleadingly characterized as a preordained destiny that was inevitable to occur. Indeed, advancements in military technology did not occur at a uniform rate, and the presence of central monarchs was also not ubiquitous, so it is ahistorical to argue that military prowess alone enabled the territorially bounded sovereign nation state to prevail.
Instead, the role of factors such as economic interests and ideological frameworks must also be considered. Towns began to declare allegiance to central monarchs in order to avoid the need to pay taxes to multiple middling authorities, thus creating a form of political and economic bargain. As the burgher class rose thanks to growing trade during the early modern period, and as people were increasingly freed from feudal servitude, they found it worthwhile to sacrifice some levels of their freedom in order for a sovereign to ensure that merchants could travel safely through territory to reach towns, thus encouraging greater local trade. Concurrently, a mutual epistemological shift occurred in Europe, wherein the king became the adjudicator and guarantor of legal concerns, creating a single font for the rule of law to flow from. Spruyt contributes a more liberal line of reasoning, forwarding that sovereignly delineated states borders emerged due to their ability to more adroitly outcompete their competitors, and to reduce interaction costs for both other states and merchants by creating a centralized point of authority. This unified central seat of power also encouraged the spread of the territorial sovereign state model of governance, allowing like units to more easily interact with one another. Other structural changes at this time cannot be ignored, for the European crusades enabled access to new trading networks and the invention of the heavy plow enabled greater crop yields. Both of these factors contributed to the shift to a monetary system guaranteed by central sovereigns. This monetary system enabled administrations to expand their size and capabilities without the sovereign sacrificing all of their land, by paying their bureaucrats with money instead of with land as had been the practice under feudalism. Furthermore, centralized state power conferred a sense of legitimacy to governments, avoiding the stumbling blocks that the divided sovereignty of feudalism and city state confederacies encountered, and leading to deliberate mimicry by other organizations hoping to achieve similar perceived legitimacy. The ideological shift occurring during this timeframe is also key. Not only did sovereignty change conceptions of legitimacy, but it also changed ideas of territorial control. As printing presses rose in prevalence, map makers would use colors to denote territory in order to make maps more visually appealing and entice rich patrons to purchase their expensive product. This changed both sovereigns’ and subjects’ ideas of territorial control, and shifted the goals of sovereigns to focus on such territory. Jordan Branch elucidates this ideological shift, using examples from the language used to dictate territorial control in treaties from the time to illustrate the new emphasis placed on territorial control during the early modern period. It is key to recognize that, throughout all of these specific circumstances that led to the rise of the territorially bounded sovereign nation state in Europe, the rest of the world was by no means latent. Instead, Europe was a backwater at the time, with governments taking in upwards of 25 times that of European monarchs, and African forges smithing far higher quality steel than European forges were capable of at the time. Indeed, trading networks moving across the Asian steppes, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean were far more developed than those in Europe at the time. Yet, the advent of the Black Plague impacted these areas more severely due to their deeper trading relationships, and as Europe gained access to new ideas and technologies through greater interaction with the rest of the world during the crusades. Europe was able to recover from the plague more quickly due to its distance from the world’s trading centers at the time and able to utilize the new technologies it had recently gained access to in order to capitalize on its historical window of opportunity, and the colonial project which would serve as the mode of dissemination for the territorially bounded sovereign state system is a direct outgrowth of such specific historical circumstances that created this window of opportunity.
The idea of divided territory, with specific territories designated for specific groups, problematically legitimizes xenophobic beliefs, for it posits that the coexistence of multiple peoples within the same spaces is a threat to security. The belief that populations’ movement and opportunities can be defined to a specific locus underpins the modern state system. When combined with ideas of cultural unassimilability, the divisions between imagine nation states become synonymous with racial divisions. The racist and imperialist belief that the movement of peoples can be restricted in the interest of purported ‘border security’ is an innate component of efforts to prolong inequitable contemporary power structures. As explained by Achille Mbembe:
Because we inherit a history in which the consistent sacrifice of some lives for the betterment of others is the norm, and because these are times of deep-seated anxieties, including anxieties of racialised others taking over the planet; because of all of that, racial violence is increasingly encoded in the language of the border and of security. As a result, contemporary borders are in danger of becoming sites of reinforcement, reproduction and intensification of vulnerability for stigmatised and dishonoured groups, for the most racially marked, the ever more disposable, those that in the era of neoliberal abandonment have been paying the heaviest price for the most expansive period of prison construction in human history.
Understanding this allows us to understand that we cannot achieve true decolonization so long as we maintain the juridical-political boundaries of the nation state. The colonial project’s historical epoch may have ended, but the work to deconstruct persistent colonial power structures requires an understanding of the historical contexts that led to the rise of such structures. The evidence of such persistent colonial oppression is clearly found in legal codes that assert control over specific groups for the supposed protection of other groups. Such legal structures go hand-in-hand with self-congratulatory conceptions of multiculturalism, which purport themselves to be accepting of all while illiberally privileging the rights of one group over the rights of ‘tolerated’ groups who are consistently considered to be outsiders. It is necessary to dismantle the epistemological power structure that consistently reifies the need for borders without substantiating such claims. Achille Mbembe writes that “asserting the boundaries of the nation goes hand in hand in that model with the assertion of the boundaries of race,” and to escape the chains of racial borders, we must first understand the history of national borders so that we can begin to dismantle them.