Anarchism and the struggle against the borders

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Text of one of the introductory talks at the London Anarchist Bookfair meeting on “Anarchism and the Struggle against the Borders” (29 October). The other introduction focused on connections between the Syrian revolution and diaspora and rebellions against the European border system.

The invitation to this meeting asked three questions. I am going to try to touch on all three questions, and to relate them specifically to a few things that happened in London in the last year or two.

One of the questions was: why is the struggle against the border regime important for anarchists?

If I have to sum up what anarchism means for me, I’d say: fighting against domination and authority in all forms, in every aspect of our lives, from the guns and prisons of the state to the petty dominations everywhere in our streets, workplaces, schools, homes and personal relationships. And, as comrades have said, anarchy is not a state but a tension, not some kind of utopia to reach after the glorious revolution, but a struggle we live every day, and a path we walk on.

So domination takes many forms, but I think it’s true to say that one form of domination that’s very characteristic of the world we live in today, and this city is a prime example, is what we could call systems of control. That is, our lives, our spaces, our movements, our choices, are increasingly monitored, recorded, directed and organised by authorities.

London is a prime example of this. Every inch of space is being developed: commodified, gentrified and socially cleansed. And social cleansing actually means not just moving people out of neighbourhoods, which happens, but also cleansing our neighbourhoods into sterile zones where anything except working and shopping is “antisocial behaviour” to be eliminated, where there is a camera on every corner, a cop in every school, a community warden on every street, and fear and resignation dripping into every heart.

What’s all that got to do with borders? I would say that the border regime is also a prime example of contemporary forms of control, which has grown up in the last hundred years or so with today’s nation-states, and is becoming ever more sophisticated and pervasive. I use the term border regime to mean not just the obvious external frontiers between nation-states, the checkpoints and razorwire fences, but also the control and policing of citizenship and migration status within the territory, at home, school, work, in the streets.

In London, that includes the Immigration Enforcement raids that happen every day. But also, now, the whole scope of internal immigration policing and informing is being widened fast, landlords are fined for renting to “illegals”, or schoolteachers are told to pressure children into filling out immigration details on census forms. And, in London, immigration controls are tightly interwoven with other control systems, part of cleansing the city of undesirable, uncontrollable and unprofitable elements, and instilling us all with the suspicion and hatred of each other that helps authority thrive.

Another question was: how can we go beyond “radical humanitarianism” and act effectively to challenge the border regime? So: how can we think strategically about ways to fight?

I don’t think it’s very helpful, and certainly not in our current situation, to think about this in terms of reaching a world without any domination, or even a world without borders. Instead, I’d start from this point: all of us have experiences of what we might call ruptures, or openings, where life breaks through and we glimpse another way of being. These might be exhilerating moments of freedom that last only a day or a night. Or they might be lines of freedom, such as escape routes or border-crossing routes like those that sometimes opened dramatically across the European frontiers over the last year. Or they might be spaces of freedom, for example a neighbourhood that becomes a no-go-zone for raids. My suggestion is that we think how to help identify and create openings – moments, lines and spaces – where control gives way to self-organised life. And we think about how to help them multiply and spread.

Here’s a concrete example. Last year, at the end of February,there was an anarchic  “squatters bloc” on a march against gentrification, which ended up by occupying part of the Aylesbury Estate in South London. In the two months that occupation lasted it created a small but real space of freedom, a space of self-organised life where some squatters, anarchists, tenant campaigners, angry neighbours, kids, visitors, and other people met each other, defended a space but also went on the attack, and along the way got to know each other a bit and develop some affinities.

Now, it wasn’t a coincidence that on 21 June, a couple of months after the occupation ended, when Immigration Enforcement came for their fifth raid that week on East Street market next to the Aylesbury Estate, something special happened, and well over a hundred people stood up and fought together. That day was a powerful moment of freedom, a break in normality and an important challenge to the border regime in this city.

And last year there were also other powerful moments of raid resistance in Peckham, Shadwell, New Cross, and more places. Apart from being important in themselves, these events have achieved a noticeable retreat in the force of immigration control in this city, so that this year we have seen numerous examples where just a few people, or even one person alone, standing up to a raid has been enough to send raid teams running off empty handed.

So here we have a few examples of both spaces and moments of freedom, however limited and imperfect they always are, opening in this city of control. And also of these how openings have spread and fed new openings, for instance multiplying as they’ve inspired copycat actions, or nurtured connections and affinities that have made new kinds of action possible.

So my suggestion for thinking about how to fight the border regime, and indeed other systems of control, is to think how we can make this stuff happen more and more, and spread the word.

Which brings me to the last question: what as anarchists involved in these struggles can we learn about fighting alongside others with different beliefs, whether migrants or citizens?

There is so much to think about here, and I’ll only touch on one small point. In the actions and openings I’m talking about, most often no anarchists are involved at all. Or where we are, we are just a few amongst others, typically a small minority. But I do believe that often we have some contributions to make, maybe certain ideas and methods.

We are beside other people in struggles, usually say against a raid or a wall or a prison, and in finding or making openings. Why are we there? Some of us may be migrants who are immediately affected by this raid or this wall, but very often we’re not. We go there because we give a shit about people who are, and also because the whole system of domination these walls and raids are part of very much affects us too.

I’d suggest that, if we go into these struggles as anarchists, there are a few traps we need to be very wary of. One is the trap of becoming little politicians, looking to recruit members for an organisation, or followers we can lead or claim to represent. On the other hand, there is the trap of becoming passive supporters with no initiative of our own. If we have something worth saying, say it openly and clearly, and maybe others alongside us will find it useful, maybe not. At the same time, we have lots to learn from others too, particularly when those others have travelled and fought and dared and organised and shown solidarity in the way so many have to going through the borders of Europe.

What I’m talking about may be what some anarchist comrades have discussed and called things like “informal self-organisation”. But after all, isn’t this just how, once we get away from the games of politics, we want all human encounters to be? With a bit of respect and honesty, we meet each other, exchange ideas and get to know each other as we do things together, and maybe we decide we want to do some more things together too.

Now, there are particular challenges to having this kind of direct and equal relationship in border struggles. For example, there are language issues. Just on a technical point, I think it could be very fruitful indeed to get more translation initiatives going. Then there is seeking to communicate across very different backgrounds and experiences. And then there are issues of power and privilege when people with and without papers organise together.

But to end on a positive note, for all these difficulties, I think we should keep this in mind. What really has the power to challenge systems of control is precisely when we manage to come together across these barriers and differences, and make dangerous affinities. To go back to the moments of rebellion in Peckham, Shadwell, East Street, and more, this is precisely what has got the authorities worried. When on the frontlines of the city of control, migrants, market traders, dispossessed youth, squatters, even some anarchists, have come together and spurred each other to fight.

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