Border checkpoint in Sarpi, Georgia. Architect J Mayer H. Photo by Beka Pkhakadze

In the early 2000s I spent a few years researching at the now defunct London Consortium. One of my tutors was Paul Hirst, Professor of Social Theory at Birkbeck College, who I also studied under at the Architectural Association where he taught a course on Space and Power.

Some of his unpublished writings were collected and published posthumously under the title Space and Power. In this book, under a chapter called Politics and Territory, Paul Hirst explains why borders are essential for the functioning of democracy:

We do not live in a borderless world. Borders still matter. Borders and national citizenship rules are a primary check upon migration. Migration is not limited just because of xenophobia. The great nineteenth-century flows occurred because of the vast demand for labour in the new neo-Europes, and migrants to countries like the USA or Argentina had to make do, as there were few welfare rights. Unregulated migration now would undermine both citizenship and welfare rights. This would threaten democracy, which depends of the notion of a national community. Thus a degree of exclusion of outsiders is essential to democracy, and democracy is a key basis for the legitimacy of a government’s external actions. The present system of international governance could not survive without populations defined by and governed within national borders.

Paradoxically, it is borders that make extended international governance work.

In the last instance, nationally regulated populations with full political rights are the foundation upon which consent by states to supra-national agreements is based. In the nineteenth century there was little in the way of national governance, few state democracies, and limited public welfare: migration thus mattered less. Even so, mass migration produced a backlash by established populations, leading to immigration quotas in the USA, for example.

Borders and local policies of national security are now central to containing terrorism and organized crime.

Markets are highly vulnerable to such shocks. Territorial states also remain our primary source of accountability and democracy in such a complex system of governance. National representatives to supra-national bodies remain, in theory at least, subject to domestic political pressure. Cosmopolitan forms of strong democratic governance are unlikely to develop for the foreseeable future because we still operate in a world shaped by nationalism. Citizens still identify with the nation-state. States are the largest bodies that can claim any sort of primary legitimacy.

International bodies are the preserves of elites, and the international technocracy needs the check of politicians directly answerable to national politics.

 Accountability of international agencies through national publics is at best indirect and weak, but strong supra-national democracy is just impossible. There is no global ‘demos’. If democracy implies a substantial measure of homogeneity in the demos, then the world is just too unequal economically and too different culturally for the rich to submit to the decisions of the poor, or for one established culture to accept the internationalization of the norms of another. Hence the unwillingness of the G7 states to give a greater say to developing nations in the core institutions of supra-national economic governance. Hence also the widespread resistance by other major cultures to international human rights norms that come in a box marked ‘made in the USA’

Some contemporary commentators, confronted with the impossibility of an international order based upon consent, the rise of systematic anti-Western terrorism and the existence of failed states, argue for a new solution to this disorder: empire. For them, existing patterns of international governance are not enough and national jurisdictions are currently inadequate in scale to respond to these problems, and so their solution is based on extending the scale and power of the territorial state. This seems to be as doomed a project as cosmopolitan democracy. 

Empire and world government are both failed nineteenth-century projects.

Paul Hirst had also something to say about Western intervention and how it relates to the same failed notion of world government:

The West cannot intervene wherever local populations are abused by their rulers. The only option is to contain disorder and for the major powers to respond ad hoc to situations that are beyond toleration. Local rulers should be tolerated, provided they do not systematically export terrorism, practise economic subversion, engage in wholesale massacres that can be prevented, or threaten to attack their neighbours. The existing apparatus of collective security is sufficiently strong to prevent acts of unprovoked aggression and almost all major states, China, India and Russia included, have an interest in the containment of terrorism.. 

The current tendency towards unilateral activism on the part of the USA is not conservative regarding the systems of which it has been hitherto the chief architect. In effect it is more likely to provoke disorder, instability and resistance.

We thus live in a world constituted out of apparently contradictory components: territorial sovereignty and the openness necessary to commercial liberalism; nation-state democracy as the basis of international accountability; the growth of supra-national institutions and the continued viability of nation states; the ongoing military hegemony of the richest and most powerful states; and a new international terrorism that those states find hard to suppress. The territorial state will remain a central component of the new division of labour in governance, even if it no longer has quite the monopoly of governance it had when it appropriated political power from the complex division of labour in governance of the later Middle Ages. Politics is no longer exclusively territorial. On the other hand, it cannot hold together unless it is rooted in the democratic political will of territorial states that practise liberal policies, that are internationally oriented, and that submit to supra-national norms.”

Read More: Space and Power: Politics, War and Architecture



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