Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor

Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor

by Sandro Mezzadra, Brett Neilson


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Far from creating a borderless world, contemporary globalization has generated a proliferation of borders. In Border as Method, Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson chart this proliferation, investigating its implications for migratory movements, capitalist transformations, and political life. They explore the atmospheric violence that surrounds borderlands and border struggles across various geographical scales, illustrating their theoretical arguments with illuminating case studies drawn from Europe, Asia, the Pacific, the Americas, and elsewhere. Mezzadra and Neilson approach the border not only as a research object but also as an epistemic framework. Their use of the border as method enables new perspectives on the crisis and transformations of the nation-state, as well as powerful reassessments of political concepts such as citizenship and sovereignty.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822355038
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 08/07/2013
Series: a Social Text book Series
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Sandro Mezzadra is Associate Professor of Political Theory at the University of Bologna.

Brett Neilson is Professor of Culture and Society at Western Sydney University.

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Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press
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ISBN: 978-0-8223-5487-1




The World Seen from a Cab

Anyone who has used the taxi system in New York City over the past decade will know the vast diversity that exists within the labor force that drives the city's yellow cabs. Fewer people will know what it takes to organize a strike among these predominantly migrant workers who speak more than eighty different languages. In Taxi! Cabs and Capitalism in New York City (2005), Biju Mathew, himself an organizer of the grassroots New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), documents the history of the many strikes that led to the historic fare rise victory for the city's cab drivers in March 2004. Mathew's book is in many ways a story about borders—not only the linguistic borders that separate these workers but also the urban borders they routinely cross as part of their working lives, the international borders they cross to reach New York City, and the social borders that divide them from their clients and the owners from whom they lease the cabs. Investigating the restructuring of the NYC cab industry and its links to the wider shifts of capitalism in a global era, Taxi! illustrates how these many borders figure in the composition, struggles, and organizational forms of the labor force in this sector.

It is no secret that many NYC cab drivers are highly qualified individuals, whose presence in such a job is often a kind of transit station or waiting room for further labor mobility. Indeed, as has also been noted in a recent study of Indian techno-migrants in Silicon Valley (Ong 2006, 163–65), it is frequently the case that the "illegal" juridical status of these workers produces another border that crisscrosses and multiplies the already existing diversity of this workforce. Moreover, the wounds of history resurface in the composition of the labor force. This is particularly the case with migrant workers coming from South Asia, for whom the memory and actual legacy of the subcontinent's partition is an ongoing experience. It is thus all the more remarkable that, as Mathew recalls, Pakistani and Indian drivers acted side by side during the 1998 New York taxi strike when some 24,000 yellow cab drivers took their cars off the road to protest new safety measures that subjected them to higher fines, mandatory drug testing, higher liability insurance requirements, and a prohibitive means of attaching penalty points to their licenses. Just one week after their home countries tested nuclear weapons in an environment of escalating nationalist tensions, these drivers acted together in two day-long strikes that brought the city to a halt.

Mathew bases his research on a particular image of globalization and neoliberalism as well as a critique of multiculturalism and postcolonialism as a set of state- and market-friendly discourses that protect established class positions. At times this seems to us too rigid. More interesting, in our view, is the way Taxi! can be read as a chronicle of the proliferation of borders in the world today and the multiscalar roles they play in the current reorganization of working lives. Although Mathew's study focuses on a single city, the increasing heterogeneity of global space is evident in the stories he tells about negotiating the metropolis. Issues of territory, jurisdiction, division of labor, governance, sovereignty, and translation all collapse into the urban spaces that these drivers traverse. This is not merely because the city in question is New York, where migrant labor has played a key role in the reshaping of the metropolitan economy and the development of social struggles in the past fifteen years (Ness 2005). As we show in the chapters that follow, the proliferation of borders in other parts of the world (whether on the "external frontiers" of Europe, the sovereign territory of China, or the Australian sphere of influence in the Pacific) displays tendencies common to those discussed by Mathew.

Our interest is in changing border and migration regimes in a world in which national borders are no longer the only or necessarily the most relevant ones for dividing and restricting labor mobilities. The nation-state still provides an important political reference from the point of view of power configurations and their articulation with capital–labor relations. Nevertheless, we are convinced that contemporary power dynamics and struggles cannot be contained by national borders or the international system of states they putatively establish. This is an important point of departure for our work. Though we emphasize the strategic importance of borders in the contemporary world, we do not intend to join the chorus that in recent years and from many different points of view has celebrated the return of the nation-state on the world stage, dismissing the debates on globalization as mere ideological distortion. To the contrary, one of our central theses is that borders, far from serving simply to block or obstruct global flows, have become essential devices for their articulation. In so doing, borders have not just proliferated. They are also undergoing complex transformations that correspond to what Saskia Sassen (2007, 214) has called "the actual and heuristic disaggregation of 'the border.'" The multiple (legal and cultural, social and economic) components of the concept and institution of the border tend to tear apart from the magnetic line corresponding to the geopolitical line of separation between nation-states. To grasp this process, we take a critical distance from the prevalent interest in geopolitical borders in many critical approaches to the border, and we speak not only of a proliferation but also of a heterogenization of borders.

The traditional image of borders is still inscribed onto maps in which discrete sovereign territories are separated by lines and marked by different colors. This image has been produced by the modern history of the state, and we must always be aware of its complexities. Just to make an example, migration control has only quite recently become a prominent function of political borders. At the same time, historicizing the development of linear borders means to be aware of the risks of a naturalization of a specific image of the border. Such naturalization does not assist in understanding the most salient transformations we are facing in the contemporary world. Today borders are not merely geographical margins or territorial edges. They are complex social institutions, which are marked by tensions between practices of border reinforcement and border crossing. This definition of what makes up a border, proposed by Pablo Vila (2000) in an attempt to critically take stock of the development of studies on the U.S.–Mexican borderlands since the late 1980s, points to the tensions and conflicts constitutive of any border.

We are convinced that this constituent moment surfaces with particular intensity today, along specific geopolitical borders and the many other boundaries that cross cities, regions, and continents. Borders, on one hand, are becoming finely tuned instruments for managing, calibrating, and governing global passages of people, money, and things. On the other hand, they are spaces in which the transformations of sovereign power and the ambivalent nexus of politics and violence are never far from view. To observe these dual tendencies is not merely to make the banal but necessary point that borders always have two sides, or that they connect as well as divide. Borders also play a key role in producing the times and spaces of global capitalism. Furthermore, they shape the struggles that rise up within and against these times and spaces—struggles that often allude problematically, but in rich and determinate ways, to the abolition of borders themselves. In this regard, borders have become in recent years an important concern of research and political and artistic practice. They are sites in which the turbulence and conflictual intensity of global capitalist dynamics are particularly apparent. As such they provide strategic grounds for the analysis and contestation of actually existing globalization.

What Is a Border?

In an influential essay titled "What Is a Border?," Étienne Balibar writes of the "polysemy" and "heterogeneity" of borders, noting that their "multiplicity, their hypothetical and fictive nature" does "not make them any less real" (2002, 76). Not only are there different kinds of borders that individuals belonging to different social groups experience in different ways, but borders also simultaneously perform "several functions of demarcation and territorialization—between distinct social exchanges or flows, between distinct rights, and so forth" (79). Moreover, borders are always overdetermined, meaning that "no political border is ever the mere boundary between two states" but is always "sanctioned, reduplicated and relativized by other geopolitical divisions" (79). "Without the world-configuring function they perform," Balibar writes, "there would be no borders—or no lasting borders" (79). His argument recalls, in a very different theoretical context, that developed in 1950 by Carl Schmitt in The Nomos of the Earth (2003), a text that maintains that the tracing of borders within modern Europe went hand in hand with political and legal arrangements that were designed to organize an already global space. These arrangements, including different kinds of "global lines" and geographical divisions, provided a blueprint for the colonial partitioning of the world and the regulation of relations between Europe and its outsides. To put it briefly, the articulation between these global lines of colonial and imperialist expansion and the drawing of linear boundaries between European and Western states has constituted for several centuries the dominant motif of the global geography organized by capital and state. Obviously, this history was neither peaceful nor linear.

The history of the twentieth century, which was characterized by the turmoil of decolonization and the globalization of the nation-state and its linear borders in the wake of two world wars, witnessed an explosion of this political geography. Europe was displaced from the center of the map. The U.S. global hegemony, which seemed uncontested at the end of the Cold War, is rapidly giving way, not least through the economic crisis that marks the passage from the first to the second decade of the twenty-first century. On the horizon is a more variegated and unstable landscape of global power, which can no longer be fully described with such concepts as unilateralism and multilateralism (Haass 2008). New continental spaces emerge as sites of uneasy integration, regional interpenetration, and political, cultural, and social mobility. Although this is a long and doubtlessly unfinished process, we can identify several factors at play in its unfolding. Devastating wars, anticolonial upheavals, changing patterns of communication and transport, geopolitical shifts, financial bubbles and busts—all have contributed to redrawing the world picture. Furthermore, under the pressure of class struggles and interrelated contestations of race and gender, the capitalist mode of production continues to undergo momentous and uneven transformations. A crucial aspect of these changes is the realignment of relations between the state and capital—sometimes seen to work in tandem, at other times understood to exist in logical contradiction—but always implicated in shifting regimes of exploitation, dispossession, and domination.

If the political map of the world and the global cartography of capitalism were never entirely coincidental, they could once be easily read off one another. In the post–Cold War world, the superposition of these maps has become increasingly illegible. A combination of processes of "denationalization" (Sassen 2006) has invested both the state and capital with varying degrees of intensity and an uneven geometry of progression. In particular, the national denomination of capital has become an increasingly less significant index for the analysis of contemporary capitalism. In this book, we tackle this problem, elaborating the concept of "frontiers of capital" and investigating the relations between their constant expansion since the origin of modern capitalism and territorial boundaries. Although there has always been a constitutive tension between these relations, the development of capitalism as a world system has given shape to successive forms of articulation between the demarcations generated by economic processes and the borders of the state. One of our central points is that contemporary capital, characterized by processes of financialization and the combination of heterogeneous labor and accumulation regimes, negotiates the expansion of its frontiers with much more complex assemblages of power and law, which include but also transcend nation-states. Looking at the expansion of capital's frontiers and considering the proliferation of political and legal boundaries, we are thus confronted with a geographical disruption and a continuous process of rescaling. A deeply heterogeneous global space corresponds to this process, and the border provides a particularly effective angle from which to investigate its making.

Meanwhile, the crisis of cartographical reason (Farinelli 2003), which has been at the center of debate between geographers since the early 1990s, has raised epistemological questions that are of great relevance for the study of the material transformation of borders. The increasing complexity of the relation between capital and state (as well as between their respective spatial representations and productions) is one of the factors at play in this crisis. This has given rise to a certain anxiety surrounding the figure and institution of borders, questioning their capacity to provide stable reference points and metaphors with which to geometrically order and frame the world (Gregory 1994; Krishna 1994; Painter 2008).

Borders today still perform a "world-configuring function," but they are often subject to shifting and unpredictable patterns of mobility and overlapping, appearing and disappearing as well as sometimes crystallizing in the form of threatening walls that break up and reorder political spaces that were once formally unified. They cross the lives of millions of men and women who are on the move, or, remaining sedentary, have borders cross them. In places like the Mediterranean or the deserts between Mexico and the United States, they violently break the passage of many migrants. At the same time, borders superimpose themselves over other kinds of limits and technologies of division. These processes are no less overdetermined than those of the modern world order, but the ways in which they configure the globe has dramatically changed. Rather than organizing a stable map of the world, the processes of proliferation and transformation of borders we analyze in this book aim at managing the creative destruction and constant recombining of spaces and times that lie at the heart of contemporary capitalist globalization. In this book we do not aim to discern the shape of a future world order. Rather, we investigate the present disorder of the world and try to explain why it is highly unrealistic to think of the future in terms of a return to some version of Westphalian order.

We know that the border is not a comfortable place to live. "Hatred, anger and exploitation," wrote Gloria Anzaldúa over twenty years ago in describing the background for the emergence of what she called the "new Mestiza," "are the prominent features of this landscape" (1987, 19). Walls, grating, and barbed wire are the usual images that come to mind when we think about borders, whether that between Mexico and the United States, those in the occupied Palestinian territories, the "fence of death" constructed around the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in north Africa, or the many gated communities that have sprung up all over the world to protect the privileged and shut out the poor. We are prone to see borders as physical walls and metaphorical walls, such as those evoked by the image of Fortress Europe. This seems even more the case after the events of September 11, 2001, when borders became crucial sites of "securitarian" investment within political rhetoric as much as the actual politics of control. We are painfully aware of all of this. Yet we are convinced that the image of the border as a wall, or as a device that serves first and foremost to exclude, as widespread as it has been in recent critical studies, is misleading in the end. Isolating a single function of the border does not allow us to grasp the flexibility of this institution. Nor does it facilitate an understanding of the diffusion of practices and techniques of border control within territorially bound spaces of citizenship and their associated labor markets. We claim that borders are equally devices of inclusion that select and filter people and different forms of circulation in ways no less violent than those deployed in exclusionary measures. Our argument thus takes a critical approach to inclusion, which in most accounts is treated as an unalloyed social good. By showing how borders establish multiple points of control along key lines and geographies of wealth and power, we see inclusion existing in a continuum with exclusion, rather than in opposition to it. In other words, we focus on the hierarchizing and stratifying capacity of borders, examining their articulation to capital and political power whether they coincide with the territorial limits of states or exist within or beyond them. To analyze the pervasive character of the border's operations—let alone the marked violence that accompanies them—we need a more complex and dynamic conceptual language than that which sustains images of walls and exclusion.

Excerpted from BORDER AS METHOD, OR, THE MULTIPLICATION OF LABOR by SANDRO MEZZADRA. Copyright © 2013 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface vii

Acknowledgments xiii

1. The Proliferation of Borders 1

2. Fabrica Mundi 27

3. Frontiers of Capital 61

4. Figures of Labor 95

5. In the Space of Temporal Borders 131

6. The Sovereign Machine of Governmentality 167

7. Zones, Corridors, and Postdevelopmental Geographies 205

8. Producing Subjects 243

9. Translating the Common 277

References 313

Index 349

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