Home > Law, Security and Violence > Nationalism is racism and borders are apartheid

Nationalism is racism and borders are apartheid

(I have written about nationalism here and here, and borders here. My views on capitalism and other things I mention have changed considerably since writing those posts but many of the basics of my argument are the same today.)

Donald Trump’s recent use of the word “nationalist” to describe himself is not only disturbing because he contrasts the word with “globalist”, an anti-Semitic dogwhistle term. It highlighted how widely accepted the idea of nationalism is compared to racism. But why would either be acceptable? Nationalism is akin to racism in its effects, including body count. It is a way to separate people into hierarchies based on factors we did not choose and cannot affect. And those hierarchies are inevitably exploited by the powerful to commit violence for their own benefit.

At its base, nationalism is believing people are divided into separate nations, and that that is the way things should be. While distinct cultural groups can exist, they are usually heterogeneous, with considerable overlap among groups. Nations, cultures, civilizations and races do not have histories where they were long isolated from others, and any contact with outsiders risked contaminating its perfection. Nations, cultures, civilizations and races have always been influenced by outsiders, through communication, trade, migration, and so on, over centuries and still today. One cannot control the development of these things without erecting barriers held together with violence.

The reason we believe in these things is a few people can gain power by making us believe them. If people can make us believe we need a state to “represent” and “lead” the nation, they can make decisions for themselves and tell us those decisions are on our behalf. Having a population loyal to a nation-state means having people who will kill and die on behalf of the people who claim to represent that nation-state. Since most nationalists cannot see the difference between decisions powerful people make in their own interest and decisions made by a nation, they fall in line. They get told who their enemies are and believe, without question, those people need to die. As such, nationalism has been a condition for war for thousands of years.

Now, in addition to making it easy to legitimize war simply by appealing to “national security”, states have made it hard or impossible for most people to move freely around the world. States are forged in war, and borders represent the territory states have captured in war. They do not represent some primordial demarcation of a cultural group, like people seem to believe (because that is what they are told), as, again, groups are heterogeneous, especially near borders. But we are told we need these borders. We need to keep the wrong people out, you know, those people who want to come here to make better lives for themselves who were simply unlucky enough to have their hometowns bombed or ravaged by environmental change or destroyed by a dictator or some other misfortune. They are the wrong people, for whatever reasons we are told. The same reasons keep showing up as justification for fearing and hating others: they are violent, bring disease and hate our values. They won’t assimilate into our special culture. They’ll change our special culture. They’ll pollute it with their different languages (as if everyone in the same space has to speak the same language), their different ideas (though surely as long as they are peaceful there is nothing to fear), their poor work ethic (as if immigrants were not hard workers), and so on. Everything we are told we value is at stake if we let these people in! We had better stop them!

The nation state has never represented a well defined group of people and now it is even less relevant than ever. States do not have national constituencies; their loyalties are to whoever gives them the most money, wherever those people are in the world. A government that speaks of the nation and assures everyone it is acting to benefit all the people of the nation is more accurately described as populist, appealing to high ideals through rhetoric. Nationalist implies people in power actually care about their people and the abstract and poorly defined concept of a nation, rather than power. Populist or nationalist rhetoric does not change the fact that states work for themselves and their friends, not for the whole nation.

All states create an elite. Elites have never been loyal to nations or cultures. They fly all around the world, visiting their many houses, checking their offshore bank accounts, ignoring laws as they like. A sociologist who interviewed wealth managers for the super rich said in an interview with NPR, “the lives of the richest people in the world are so different from those of the rest of us it’s almost literally unimaginable. National borders are nothing to them. They might as well not exist. Laws are nothing to them. They might as well not exist.” But most people are not so lucky.

borders walls violence

I was shocked to see how shocked my mother was when I told her I (a white guy with Canadian and British passports) could get into foreign countries much more easily than my friends from the Philippines, Egypt and elsewhere in the so-called third world. Mom had been under the impression we all had equal chances of entering foreign countries. She did not realize how much more common it is to get rejected for a visa or citizenship if you are from a place like the Philippines. In some places, I don’t even need to apply for a visa; I just show up at the border, pay a small fee and I’m in. I’m embarrassed to tell this fact to my friends from the “developing world”, who have to wait for months or years and even then might not be allowed to leave their countries of origin. That is because borders and their paraphernalia (passports, visas, border guards, walls, etc.) are a global system of apartheid.

Many of the people who argue for borders are the cynical racists who do not want people of different colors or cultures to “pollute” their societies, but many are not. This latter group is not people who hate outsiders but merely people who swallowed too much propaganda. They say things like “it’s not really a country if it doesn’t protect its borders”, which is neither correct nor relevant, “or “immigrants come here so they can live off welfare”, which is in the case of nearly every immigrant a lie propagated by the far-right. Irrespective of what they say, non-racists who argue for borders do not realize they are playing into the hands of those nativists they claim to disagree with.

What did they ever do to you?

They claim to want to help the poor but just not in the easiest possible way, by letting them move from where they can’t make a decent living to where they can. They believe in diversity, but only if the different people fill out endless forms, pay various fees and pass pointless tests. They believe in freedom, but wherever the law contravenes a basic freedom like moving around they favor the law. They don’t like bullying, but say nothing when migrants get bullied.

Even when people finally make it to the new country, they find it impossible to work in their field for several years. Local lobby groups restrict one’s ability to qualify for jobs that might threaten the paycheck of local doctors, dentists, engineers, architects. You name the highly skilled job, there is a lobby in North America and Europe making it an ordeal for an otherwise qualified migrant to enter the field.

People do not usually want to leave their homelands. Many are forced to do so by necessity. Some have to leave because of war or persecution. Some leave because it is better than being dirt poor. Most of the people who leave get treated like slaves: the worst jobs at minimal wages, jailed or deported at the smallest infraction, not allowed to unionize, bullied by their employers, police and racists, at constant risk of being trafficked, and expected to be thankful for the opportunity. And nobody benefits from this system of exclusion except the small minority profiting off it, such as populist politicians, border guards, private prison operators and human traffickers.

Like other exclusive ideologies, nationalism cannot lead to understanding or peace. It leads to hierarchy, violence, borders and war. We should be aiming for a world of free movement. We should want peaceful relations with others, not competition and suspicion. We should see ourselves as part of a human family, not exclusive families we should use violence to keep together. We should show solidarity with the struggles of free people around the world, not fear them just because we are told to.

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