“Borders – territorial and social dividing lines in the course of time”

 Review of a historical analysis of a timeless phenomenon

by Dr Manfred Strankmann

ISBN 978-3-85371-434-8

The publishing house Promedia issues an excellent non-fiction book to the current European situation by Andrea Komlosy* about borders in a global perspective. The Viennese professor of economic and social history criticises one-sidedly stylising borders either as an ideal or a bogeyman. She signposts the historical development of borders and their volatile utilisation, thereby examining their capability to dominate as well as to protect and extricate. Analysing borders is for Andrea Komlosy not only a topic, but also a method: “Method to recognise inequality, its enforcement and concealment and method in developing and implementing social justice” (p. 10). In this sense, she sums up: “A central task is to replace heteronomy by border with self-determination of the border” (p. 10). With her book “Grenzen” (Borders), Andrea Komlosy has presented a historical analysis of a timeless phenomenon that is well worth reading, which contributes fundamentally to the objective and well-founded reflection and discussion on a highly topical theme.

“Closed border” versus “no border.”

The book “Grenzen” is structured as follows: It begins with a preface and a short introduction to the history of the term, followed by the three main chapters “Chronology of Territoriality”, “Typology of Borders” and “Border Regime and Politics on Border” as well as an outlook.
In the introduction, Andrea Komlosy describes the antagonisms of the current discussion about borders and states that the “proclaimed no borders” (p. 7) has not prevailed. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the ideology of no borders triumphed in Europe. System barriers between capitalism and communism had fallen. Within the EU-Schengen Area the internal borders were abolished. It seemed as if there would soon be no borders at all in the world.
But soon the euphoria about the proclaimed no borders toppled, followed by calls to re-establish borders: With regard to migrants, with regard to foreign company takeovers, with regard to the Islamisation of European society and many other “foreign” influences.
According to Andrea Komlosy, during the period of open borders, there was at the same time a rigid isolation against people from third countries. The borders were not really removed; they were merely moved to the EU’s external border. Conversely, the current revival of borders means in no way an end to the limitless Western interference everywhere in the world, both economically and militarily. The West’s dominant international financial and trade organisations (IMF, World Bank, WTO) impose the free movement of capital and free trade. This would deprive the countries of the global South of the instruments they need to protect their own markets and provide their citizens with jobs and incomes. Any attempts to catch up on development and supra regional integration in these countries are fought against by all available means. As a result of this struggle, more and more victims seek refuge in flight to the rich north. There, locks for migrants would be established to choose the best educated and most obedient, while others would end up on the illegal labour market or forced to return.
However, this development also has repercussions within our societies. Andrea Komlosy writes: “Against this background, the divide is also deepening in the welfare societies of the global north. In all ideological factions a conflict breaks out between two groups: “Closed borders” are demanded by some, “open borders” is chanted by others. […] Behind the different ideologies there are concrete interests: Entrepreneurs welcome the deregulation of the labour market; the new middle class is pleased with the multi culturalisation of gastronomy and the low-cost availability of domestic services; the old workers, who are threatened by competition on the labour market, hope that higher border fences will keep away the unwanted” (p. 7). Whether hostility or friendliness towards foreigners, both factions would have one thing in common: They exploit the border with respect to benefits for the well-being of their own group in society – by fortifying or dismantling.

People need borders and boundaries

Andrea Komlosy opposes the idea of stylising borders one-sidedly as ideals or concept of enemy.
Both are an overestimation of what fences, walls, visas and immigration-, labour market- or asylum quotas can achieve or abolish. Borders, as well as boundlessness, can project hopes that they could never fulfil. Conversely, borders actually provide mechanisms by which states can set an economic and political course and bring about advantages or disadvantages for citizens and workers.
The practical application of borders is much more complex than the wishful thinking of “closed borders” and “no borders” might suggest. Andrea Komlosy highlights to the reader that people need boundaries. For her, boundaries are an instrument in shaping human relationships and they cannot be abolished no more than the need for territorial ties and identification. Borders or boundaries are a basic constant in the coexistence of people and communities. There are political-administrative, military, economic, social, cultural, gender and ideological borders or boundaries, to name only the most important. All these borders are subject of conflicts of interest and political shaping. Everywhere the issue of establishing borders and violating borders is concerned. Without borders nothing can be preserved and nothing can be violated.

Territoriality in historical perspective

The territorial manifestation of borders is called territoriality. Territoriality serves Andrea Komlosy as a generic term, “in which people in general, but above all social groups and political communities connect their ideas of community with a certain territory” (p. 13). In the first main chapter “Chronology of Territoriality” the author elaborates five spatial orders: 1. the territoriality of supra-regionally active tribal societies, city states and empires up to the 13th century, 2. the medieval kaleidoscope of overlapping territoriality from the 13th to the 15th century, 3. the territoriality of the early modern territorial state expanded by imperial or colonial activities from the 16th to the 19th century. 4. the sovereignty order of the nation states from the 18th to the 20th century and 5. the system of statehood denationalised by global governance at the turn of the 20th to the 21st century. The five orders did not simply replace each other in the course of time; rather, the older and newer orders overlapped.
The territoriality of supra-regional tribal societies, city states (Greek Polis, Maya, Aztecs, etc.) and empires (Assyrian, Persian, Roman, etc.) is based on the expansion of rule by military means. It was not a question of territorial unity in the form of a certain area or external borders, but of locations, connections and networks that covered a certain area. Andrea Komlosy characterises the Middle Ages by a kaleidoscope. This “was characterised by dynasties, church and nobility, bourgeois urban culture, merchants and long-distance traders as well as travelling lower classes, which were interconnected by networks (e.g. Hanseatic League) and patchwork-like” (p. 227). In the 16th century, a tendency towards an areawise shaping of the political and social order in the European mother countries and their non-European expansion areas and colonies had begun. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, large parts of the Eastern and non-European world were successively integrated into a world system dominated by Western Europe. The right of the colonised and dependent world regions to implement their own border policies had been restricted or suspended. In the course of the transformation of the old empires into national constitutional states in the 19th century and through gradual decolonisation (19th and 20th centuries), the colonial state order was transformed into an international state order. With the onset of globalisation (transformation of the centralised mode of production into global supply chains with production sites spread across the globe), this order then came into conflict with national sovereignty and their safeguarding under international law. Andrea Komlosy puts it this way: “Although states and international institutions still exist, since the 1980s they have been in a state of flux towards global governance, in which the interests of states and the balance of interests in their democratic institutions take a back seat to a global order in the interests of capital. The Western states are developing from welfare states toward competitive states, committed to restructuring institutions geared to the common good in the interest of capital exploitation and are increasingly taking on authoritarian forms” (p. 228).
The author notes the following simultaneity: “The Western states are moving away from the principle of state sovereignty and its safeguarding under international law at the very moment when the emerging countries of the global South made claims to equal participation in the international order on the basis of the successes of their catching-up economic development. According to Andrea Komlosy, “the demanded democratisation of international relations in the sense of a multipolar world order has so far failed because of the vehemence with which the large Western corporations combine the freedom of unhindered capital and goods trade that they call free trade with the protection of their own markets against the competition of the emerging threshold countries and make this protective free trade a condition for participation in the world economy” (p. 229).

Which borders and boundaries are involved?

In the second main chapter “Typology of borders” Andrea Komlosy brings order to the multitude of borders. Elementary boundaries of human existence are explored as well as political, military, cultural, economic and social boundaries. It is not limited to the spatial manifestation of borders alone. Borders can be visible (recognisable by border signs, buildings, fortifications) or invisible (language, legal, currency, poverty, etc.). The boundaries described by the author as elementary occur in human personality development, in the relationship between man and nature and in social differentiation. According to Andrea Komlosy, developmental psychology shows the stages in which the child begins to see himself as an independent personality and thus sets a first boundary between himself, his neighbour and his environment. To bring this demarcation of the individual into balance with the bond in the community accompanies the human being until the end of his life. Thinking and speaking are further acts of setting boundaries in human development. With reason, which enables man to think, man can distinguish things from each other. “In order to differentiate, to compare, to define, to limit, to confront, to terminate, to assign facts and to classify them into contexts, one needs the ability of analytical separation, thus the setting of boundaries” (p. 93). In order to be able to live in society, man must also learn moral boundaries such as values, moral standards and rules of behaviour.
Andrea Komlosy also considers the relationship between man and nature, which has changed numerous times over the course of evolutionary history, to be one of the elementary limits. The early humans lived for many thousands of years as hunters and gatherers and saw themselves as an integral part of nature. They had not drawn any dividing lines between themselves and their natural environment. Only with agro-cultural technology did men free himself from this unity and opposed culture to nature, which was now defined wilderness. Humans built permanent settlements surrounded by ramparts. According to Andrea Komlosy, the village was defined as the endosphere, the world of its inhabitants, which differed from the outside, the exosphere. The following quote illustrates just how vital this distinction was: “Until the Middle ages it was a worse punishment to be banished to the exosphere than the death penalty” (p. 94).
The separation of man and nature also found its expression in the Christian message on dealing with nature: “Replenish the earth and subdue it” (Genesis I, p. 28). For Andrea Komlosy, the clear hierarchy on which this demarcation is based on, could only be fully implemented through the secularisation associated with the Enlightenment. Through the development of the sciences, the relationship of man to nature was restructured with the help of technology. The boundary between the endosphere and the exosphere was torn down and the “development, colonisation and taming of nature was elevated to the epitome of human progress, which itself would no longer know any limits” (p. 96). With the aim of adapting nature in the service of its utilisation, exploitation and use, boundaries of power were extended. This happened both in their own settlement areas and in areas of colonial conquest, “whose indigenous inhabitants were quickly declared savages because of their symbiotic relationship with nature” (p. 96).
According to Andrea Komlosy, elementary boundaries are also set in in the sphere of society. Horizontal boundaries become visible by doors, thresholds, fences, walls, barriers and signs. Vertical boundaries exist between sexes, age groups, rich and poor, occupational groups, status groups, classes, members of a religion or ethnic groups. The focus here is not on spatial boundaries, but on social belonging. In his everyday life, each person continuously makes class distinctions in which he assigns himself and others in relation to his own or other groups. This classification anchors in practice and experience and is often looked at being so self-evident that it is not perceived as an act of consciously putting boundaries but as natural behaviour. Horizontal and vertical boundaries could also overlap. Thus, “the prosperity gap between poor and rich inhabitants of a city can cause a socio-spatial polarisation, so that the social becomes the spatial boundary” (p. 97). In extreme cases, excessive social differentiation could lead to a concentration of power, conflicts or even wars.

Political borders

Andrea Komlosy deals with political borders as central to the understanding of borders. She argues that political borders define communities in terms of the scope of law and order in spatial and personal terms. The nature of communities can range from small to large units of self-determination and self-government with varying degrees of political participation. “Village, city, district, province, state, confederation of states, union are such spatial units as long as they have political self-determination and self-administration and are not simply executive organs of higher political instances” (p. 98).
Boundaries between authorities (e.g. federal government, cantons, states, municipalities) are political boundaries. Whether these were external or internal boundaries depends on which unit of measurement serves as reference value. “The external boundary of a commune is a political boundary that represents an internal boundary from the perspective of the district, canton or state to which the commune belongs” (p. 99).
Political boundaries are also set during the founding, disintegration, secession, re-formation of states and the re-composition into confederations of states or blocs. These political boundaries often interacted with social, economic and cultural boundaries: “Status, prosperity and cultural identity also provide justifications for spatial boundaries: Desire for unity, for remaining, for secession, separation, rejection of sub-regions or unification with other states or regions” (p. 229).
For Andrea Komlosy, the transfer of political powers to supranational EU bodies intervenes in the relationships between internal and external borders. In the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997, in force since 1999), which incorporated the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) into the EU Treaty, the member states transferred more and more decision-making powers to a higher level than their own parliament. For Andrea Komlosy, this transfer of authority is questionable from a democratic political point of view because the legislative level, the Council of the EU has no democratic legitimisation, but is composed of the governments (the executive branches) of the member states. With the Schengen Agreement as part of the Treaty of Amsterdam, the abolition of internal borders became part of the legal framework of the EU. “The dismantling of frontier stations and the abolition of border controls on persons were propagated and celebrated as milestones on the road to borderlessness” (p. 105). Never mentioned was the fact that the state border did not disappear through this, but merely moved to the external border of the EU. In addition, according to Andrea Komlosy, the state borders of the EU member states were transformed into “the outer walls of a fortress Europe, which appear all the more attractive as the crossing of the outer border gave people entry into the supposedly borderless Europe” (p. 105).

Shaping borders through border politics

The third main chapter is devoted to border regimes and the controversies surrounding the design of a border politics. Andrea Komlosy explains that border politics takes place constantly in all areas in which borders are maintained, crossed, abolished or changed in their effect. This applies not only to the spatial aspect of borders, but also to social, economic and cultural boundaries. Border politics manifests itself in certain border regimes, understood as norms, rules and usual practices in the maintenance and management of borders. For Andrea Komlosy, politics and borders influence each other. She writes: “Politics of the border, border as politics means more than the changeability of territory, state sovereignty and the associated types of border. Border as politics refers to border as process, as task, as activity. Acting agents are not only governments of the various levels of statehood, but also all those persons and institutions who use the diverse and manifold overlapping and complementary borders” (p. 230).
According to Andrea Komlosy, governments and citizens have different possibilities for shaping borders. Governments provide the legal preconditions “to regulate and, where possible, control the handling of external state borders and all types of boundaries within the state. The citizens concerned shape the boundaries found by dealing with them: By acceptance, undermining, transgressing, overcoming or also by endeavouring to redesign the boundaries or the rules for dealing with them” (p. 230). However, the citizens’ room for manoeuvre is more limited than that of the government.

Example refugee politics: from the welcome phase to migration management

On 31 August, 2015, Angela Merkel announced the opening of German borders for refugees with the formula “We can do it” and thus heralded the “welcome phase”. Germany and Austria initiated the suspension of the Schengen and Dublin regulations by abolishing border controls at the EU’s external borders and allowing refugees to transit freely to the country of asylum of their choice. With this practice, which spread like wildfire in the social media, those responsible had triggered a hitherto unprecedented influx of refugees, which questioned the continued existence of public and social security. And the more the situation got out of hand, the greater would be the willingness of the responsible politicians and citizens to implement or accept a new refugee and migration management. In retrospect, according to Andrea Komlosy, the welcome phase in autumn and winter 2015/16 proved to be a test. Thus, not only the authorities and the executive had learned from coping with the transport, accommodation and care of refugee masses, but also the refugee industry, in whose hands the administration was increasingly outsourced. According to Andrea Komlosy, refugees in the crisis regions of the world have long been subjects for digitalised, biometric forms of registration, control and administration. Since 2002, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) has been practising biometric registration for people living in its camps. In concrete terms, for example, in the Jordanian Zaatari refugee camp since 2016, they would have been experimenting with purchasing credits deducted automatically from the refugee by means of an iris scan while purchasing from monopolists designated as authorised camp supermarkets. With every purchase made by a refugee, one per cent goes to the company that supplies the eye scanner and has its headquarters on the tax-saving Cayman Islands. If the test is successful, the technology would be introduced to regular payment transactions.
UNO summits on migration and refugee issues include trade shows offering products such as drones, surveillance technology, camp infrastructure as well as financial solutions. The respective private companies would sponsor the UNHCR and in exchange receive the corresponding mandate. The biggest donor in 2016 was IKEA; in return, IKEA could deliver 30 million tents.
According to Andrea Komlosy, the European states also experienced a test phase with regard to the reactions of the population due to the challenge of the welcome phase. It split into enthusiasts and sceptics. From March 2016, consequences were drawn. Meanwhile, according to Andrea Komlosy, across the political camps, a consent is emerging to optimise the EU’s external border as an insurmountable rampart. This perspective, too, would be in the tradition of Western superiority in securing its wealth gained from its historic dominance of the world economy through colonialism and post-colonial free trade regimes.

Solving border conflicts by balance of interests

At the end of her book, as an outlook, Andrea Komlosy deals with border conflicts and gives recommendations for resolving conflicts. Since each border has at least two sides, it can be designed and implemented differently from either side.
If different groups and interests clash, border conflicts can arise. These can be tackled either confrontatively or in a spirit of compromise. Andrea Komlosys indispensable condition for a solution in the case of conflict is to concede to the other side their position and to acknowledge that they also want to use the border in their sense. Both sides should then seek a balance in interests, with which both sides can live. International law offers certain dealings to the solution of border conflicts between sovereign states, even if they are undermined regularly by wars of aggression and military interventions. However, international law offers no means against undermining and exploiting the economic sovereignty of other states through the intervention of transnationally acting capital. On the contrary, Andrea Komlosy argues that the WTO and international financial organisations ban the non-dominant states (developing countries, threshold countries and others) to implement their own border politics: “They ban it under the guise of free competition and free world trade and enforce that prohibition with the threat that promotion and protection of domestic businesses and economic development would result in exclusion from international trade and capital flows” (p. 232).

Border as a method and conclusive plea

For Andrea Komlosy, dealing with borders and boundaries is not just a topic, but also a method for recognising inequality, its enforcement and concealment, and a method for developing and implementing social justice. She notes that the discourses on global inequality prevalent today in the Western centres, because of their fixation on their own point of view, are not suited to discerning the historical destabilisations and distortions that arise daily from the structures and institutions of the world economy. Although the resulting impoverishment and uprooting of large parts of the world population are perceived as a threat to social peace in Europe, the European or Western responsibility for their situation is, however, ignored. And most of this would lead to wrong conclusions being drawn in the denial of the cause-and-effect relationships, in that more of what causes hunger, misery, flight and departure is ordered as a remedy – namely more international trade in goods (unequal exchange), more credits, more so-called development aid, more so-called partnership agreements, more military aid. Embarking on local needs in the global South is altogether uncommon in the North/West. It is merely about preserving one’s own prosperity behind walls/borders. What happens in the home countries, remains disregarded, even by those who would like to accommodate more, all, or at least most refugees and poverty migrants.
Andrea Komlosy concludes her book with a plea to allow people, social movements, and governments in the global South to use the border in their own interests. However, that would also mean demanding and promoting an end to interferences that make a self-determined use impossible. For Andrea Komlosy, times have dawned when borders are increasingly a subject to renegotiations and it depends on “whoever tackles what border politics for a more socially just world order to arise from the emerging chaos” (p. 234).     •

*    Andrea Komlosy, born in Vienna in 1957, is a professor at the Institute for Economic and Social History at the University of Vienna. She works on topics of global history and their interdependence with regional relations. Most recently from her appeared by Promedia: Work: A global historical perspective.