Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do…“Imagine” by John Lennon
On May 1st, 2008, in Kitchener City Hall, Ontario, Canada, I premiered one of my punk DIY documentaries, Escape from Doncatraz – a post-modern, science-fact, b-movie that looked at how Tony Blair’s Britain imprisoned itself on an island of controlled borders, its population made paranoid by a right-wing media while living under the watchful eye of the surveillance state.
The film, supported by a few small grants and a little help from my friends at the time, included archive footage and interviews with wide range of people, from Shami Chakrabarti to Prem Sikka to John Healey MP to the British National Party, examining the rise of the right and the fear of “the other,” with a warning that if Blairism wasn’t tackled — if politicians failed to earn public trust, and if genuine alternatives to neoliberalism’s effects weren’t put forward and delivered on — working class people would only grow angrier, and if the corporate-controlled news media were anything to go by, the targets of such anger wouldn’t be the rich and powerful interests behind the press, but much easier prey. Indeed, planted here were the seeds of a culture to be capitalised on by Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson. Now, as the news seems dominated by Brexit, it may feel almost inappropriate to dismiss the role of borders…or, is it actually even more timely to challenge such a concept?
The day after the premiere screening, I spoke on the phone long-distance with my dad, a retired fork lift truck driver at a glass factory who’d managed to build modest savings that he entrusted to his bank’s investments before settling on the continent. I told him that — buoyed by my research for the film — I’d come to the conclusion that there was likely to be a financial crash later in the year, “likely in the autumn,” I told my dad, “because of a U.S. housing bubble, and like you always told me, when the Americans sneeze, the British catch a cold.” Not helped by the fact I’d always expressed cynicism towards my dad’s shares very likely being in unethical companies, he had trouble taking my latest bold claims seriously, even when I cited Naomi Klein or Noam Chomsky. His own father, who’d survived the 1929 crash and distrusted financial institutions ever since, hoarded so much of his money away from the banks that my father’s family found a few thousand pounds of cash in his home, hidden in his cupboards and even mattresses – and hey, we got our first real trip abroad as a result.
In the autumn of 2008, my dad lost almost all of his life savings in the global financial crisis. Maybe my grandfather wasn’t so stupid after all.
In her writings, political analyst Naomi Klein often points out that most of us on “the left” were totally unprepared for such an event ourselves – we’d done very well shouting about what we opposed, but failed to frequently propose genuine bold alternatives. Without an counter-narrative for the public to grasp on to, the Occupy movement, as incredible as it was, failed to be as effective as it might have been, and the British media simply perpetuated a narrative that claimed the Blairite New Labour government had actually spent too much on public services, and it was that — and not, say, New Labour’s refusal to once again control the financial sector Margaret Thatcher‘s Tories had deregulated — that was the cause of Britain’s supposedly precarious financial situation. The con largely worked. Beyond that, trillions of pounds were transferred from the public purse into the hands of private interests, as banks were bailed out — “the biggest transfer of assets from poor to rich since the Norman Conquest” — and, to add insult to injury, bankers got bonuses for their role in this casino capitalism.
Meanwhile, under the “heir to Blair,” David Cameron, key public services and the welfare state were cut to the bone to pay for what was called by the press a “Credit Crunch,” as though an inevitable natural phenomenon. In a toxic combination, added to this was a media unrelenting in their hysteria about waves of invading aliens entering the country while working people were already faced with using food banks to get by, and this sensationalism was what had influenced the “b-movie” style I’d tried to give Escape from Doncatraz, inspired by the 1950s sci-fi films about “the other” looming over our land to destroy our way of life and take what little we had left. Unfortunately, only a few thousand viewers ever saw my piece-of-shit film, but I liked to think it at least made a few of those people think.
A key theme of the guerrilla documentary was the concept of “freedom” – of movement, of choice, of speech. Freedom from oppression, freedom from poverty, freedom from restriction. As a town decimated by Thatcher’s union-busting agenda, its core industries ripped out of the area, my birthplace of Doncaster, like other towns in South Yorkshire, struggled to sustain a successful and thriving high street due in part to the rise of out-of-town shopping complexes, from Yorkshire Outlet, to Parkgate Retail World, to Meadowhall which I learned through interviews was designed to be a prison if it failed – a dark and cynical, if somewhat smart, strategy, given the fact that unemployment causes poverty — and poverty causes crime, and in turn, some argue, crime causes poverty — and it’s easy to notice the prison-like layout of Meadowhall, already nicknamed “Meadowhell,” due to its claustrophobic, noisy, disorienting, other-worldly environment for shoppers on entirely privately-owned and controlled walkways.
As part of the promotion for Escape from Doncatraz, I actually launched a meadowhell.co.uk website parodying Meadowhall while revealing certain hard-hitting facts about the place, and on a trip back from Canada I received a phone call from Meadowhall’s Chief Executive himself, who had clearly traced the website to me. However, before they could pursue further action, Meadowhall suffered severe floods mere hours later, seemingly an act of God that put out the fire of ‘hell itself for the duration of my website (Meadowhall themselves then snagged the meadowhell.co.uk domain as quick as they could, making sure to redirect it to their actual site, meadowhall.co.uk, as you’ll find out if you try to visit my old domain!)
Sure enough, gone was Doncaster Power Station linked to local coal sites, and in its place was now Doncaster Prison (whose nickname “Doncatraz” inspired the film’s title): an entirely privatised penitentiary run by its owners purely for the purpose of profit: more prisoners meant more money for shareholders, and even if the structure was only constructed to contain around a thousand prisoners, it was easy enough to take in a couple of hundred more than that when they had inmates sleeping in toilets. Doncatraz became notorious for such conditions, leading to the highest suicide rate of any prison in England at the time. Again, when you’re getting paid per-head, it’s not cynical to suggest your interest might be in holding more prisoners in whatever way you can (and, yes, hoping for more crime).
But Doncaster wasn’t deemed ideal for just one prison hell-hole! Oh, no. Just up the road from Doncatraz is Lindholme Prison, which at the time of my filming was an “Immigration Removal Centre” tasked with detaining migrants – I filmed demonstrators marching to the compound and throwing notes of support over the walls to migrants being held inside a prison, people whose only crime was trying to travel to another country for a better life.
Further filming saw me spending a year following members of a movement radically titled No Borders, which proved a real eye-opener for me. These activists were some of the most intelligent and inspiring people I’d ever met, I found, as I sat in on meetings in squats and on rooftops and filmed them carrying a coffin through my city of Sheffield with “border controls” daubed over it, marking one hundred years of such restrictions on people’s movement. “The world’s borders were still as good as open only a century ago,” pointed out historian Rutger Bregman in his excellent book Utopia for Realists. “On the eve of World War I, borders existed mostly as lines on paper. Passports were rare and the countries that did issue them (like Russia and the Ottoman Empire) were seen as uncivilised. Besides, the wonder of nineteenth-century technology, the train, was poised to erase borders for good. And then the war broke out. Suddenly, borders were sealed to keep spies out and everybody needed for the war effort in. At a 1920 conference in Paris, the international community came to the first ever agreements on the use of passports.”
Yes, the No Borders group were right: border controls were a relatively recent occurrence, and had arguably long since passed serving any productive purpose. The activists I spoke with claimed that the controls only continued for capitalist control of labour and ethnic groups. They had a point, I thought, but I couldn’t quite get my head around the idea of a modern world without borders. “Surely if the borders weren’t controlled, you’d get an influx of people and our system would break down under the strain?” I queried.
What I did understand — and what I argued at Escape from Doncatraz screenings around the world — was that we had been fed xenophobic lies about immigrants, who were being used as scapegoats in the midst of a Westminster expenses scandal. I put forward the argument of one of my interviewees, the pro-globalisation economist Philippe Legrain, who pointed out that, essentially, immigrants boost our economy through the shitty jobs that they do for us. I was naive, and there were actually much tougher arguments to be tackled, at screenings from Kitchener City Hall to Sheffield’s Showroom, at university showings from Sheffield to Manchester, and even in a Spanish bar where it was screened to some of the film’s interviewees who still criticised people of colour moving to Britain and “refusing to integrate,” and so had me using their own hypocritical segregation as ex-pats in Spain against them, as though this was a bad thing. It was at one of the university screenings where a local council’s diversity officer made the superb point that, actually, segregation is understandable – even natural: we all want to spend time around people with shared heritage, shared experiences, shared values, shared language. The ex-pats did this, just like any group, and why not? (Even when I was living in Canada, I often went to a “British” pub, and enjoyed hanging out with British folks who had shared the same cultural references as I had knowledge of!)
The next argument, then, was a stronger one: if we all enjoy spending time with those we have much in common with, why was anyone at all coming to the UK? Ah, now here’s the crux…
Millions of refugees were leaving a Middle Eastern region Blair had embarked on bombing campaigns of (stoking terrorism in the process), so there’s that. Asylum seekers fleeing such horror, having committed no crime, are actually prohibited by British law from working or often even volunteering until they attain official refugee status, which can take many years – and citizens complained that these folks didn’t contribute! Of course, many economic migrants often come to Britain to do just that: to get a job and earn better money, to enjoy a better life, and yet then it’s claimed “oh, now they’re taking our jobs.”
First of all, if someone is working, they’re contributing: they’re exchanging their wages for goods they consume, thus taking with one hand and giving back with the other (and if they want to send a little bit back to the loved ones back home instead of, say, buying my dad’s junk shares, so be it!); population increases mean more consumption, and thus more jobs; it balances itself out. And secondly, if someone who has English as a second language is taking your shitty job (so shitty that they’ll work for levels so low by British standards that many citizens here don’t even want such a job), then you’re doing pretty badly yourself. And even if an immigrant is taking their chances and taking a decent job, so what? What’s so strange about that? Who doesn’t consider making drastic moves to improve their life? These people haven’t had it easy themselves: imagine leaving your home, leaving your family, leaving your friends, to go to a completely different country and learn the language, all for a better income? How bad must things be back home?
And that’s the thing: workers in Britain should have solidarity with workers in other countries. If they lose their industry, if they lose their jobs, if they lose their trade union rights, if they lose their social security…guess what? They’re more likely to consider moving abroad to get work elsewhere, and that may well include your place of work, sunshine. Unless you’re all for better countries and better conditions of life and work for others, you’re simply begging people to come to Britain, instead. Bombing the shit out of other countries, undermining their democratic processes, seeing their country get bought up by private interests, inequality increasing social unrest, all exacerbate the issue – instead, actually support these people, help these people, heck, even root for these people, and they’ll have a good life where they are, and they’ll want to stay there.
But hey, even this seems divisive. Solidarity shouldn’t be about keeping everyone on different opposing teams, surely? Lines drawn as borders create an “us versus them” tribalism. Granted, if conditions are better in every country, then fewer people will want to move around, but some (like those British ex-pats!) just have a feeling that the grass is greener elsewhere. They have an itch they want to scratch. They want to move, face fresh challenges. We have to get past the British exceptionalism rooted in colonialism that we can go wherever we like, refuse to learn the language, tie a Union Jack handkerchief on our heads, and hang around with our fellow ex-pats. Borders were certainly no concept to the first Europeans to show up in Australia, or the Americas. Hmm, in fact, the whole border concept seems to favour white supremacists a little bit, eh?
Corporations like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s have the freedom to move in to our country, cross borders, and come and go as they please – why shouldn’t the rest of us? Many of these corporations contribute very little and in fact peddle harmful products and pay almost no taxes; if they were a person we’d all be up in arms trying to get these anti-social thieves put in prison, or detained, or kicked out altogether. “The world is wide open for everything but people,” wrote Rutger Bregman. “Goods, services, and stocks crisscross the globe. Information circulates freely, Wikipedia is available in 300 languages and counting, and the NSA can easily check which games John in Texas is playing on his smartphone.”
Why shouldn’t we all be able to travel around the world, broaden our horizons, experience different climates and cultures and cityscapes and landscapes? We, the people, deserve the freedom of movement. When trains revolutionised travel – despite the Duke of Wellington’s concerns that it would allow “the lower orders” to move about – it was a fantastic opportunity for us to reach places previously thought out of this world. Border controls have come to prevent this, at a time when once again trains surge to the forefront of possibilities, as environmentally-friendly high-speed rail promises to enable us to travel right around the world by land.
The thing is, I’m broke, and I’m lazy. I learned a bit of Spanish when I was living in Spain, and I thought I might need to know French when I went to Canada, but thank goodness for my sake I didn’t, because my pronunciation may be decent but I can only pick up a few sentences before my brain goes on strike. I’m terrible at learning languages well enough to truly get the job done. But I love different cultures, I love different people with different stories. And I also love hearing people speak different languages in an environment where I won’t be expected to – so “foreigners” being in Britain is ideal for me! I get to sip a soy latte in a coffee shop, close my eyes for a second, and imagine I’m overseas…yet if someone comes up and asks me how you get the code for the restroom, I know I won’t be expected to speak in anything other than English! Yes, multiculturalism rocks for stupid white guys like me.
The bottom line is, if you actually had no borders, you’d level the playing field. It would be an act of solidarity. It would be sending a message to multinational corporations that if they can come and go as they please, so can we. And it would mean it would be our ultimate collective responsibility to ensure all the world’s population has their basic human needs met: that they can be housed, clothed, fed, with access to clean water for all people from Flint, Michigan to Madagascar. We have enough resources on the planet for this to be a reality – the real problem is the fact that the 1% responsible for the financial crisis own almost half of all the world’s wealth. That’s capitalism, baby. It’s still here, and it’s determined to keep going in the face of all facts of its utter and complete failure — determined to dump toxic sludge into a river while increasing GDP, determined to privatise public services so a few rich people can get even richer, determined to dump more people on the scrapheap, determined to own more media that spins stories against socialist alternatives, determined to contribute to the climate crisis. Yes, young campaigners know this: stopping climate chaos means abolishing capitalism. (Capitalists at Forbes, for example, are even on the back-foot and failing to defend the way things are, albeit resorting to claiming capitalism has to be changed, or tweaked – yet few can credibly even attempt to defend it any more; it’s the great destroyer of our times.)
And that’s the other thing. A massive amount of the world’s population aren’t going to even be able to be so picky about where the heck they live anyway, because of such climate chaos, a direct result of a few hundred years of rampant capitalism, where profit margins were all that mattered, to the extent of covering up the damaging effects of business-as-usual. These were crimes against humanity, crimes against our very habitat. Yet the corporate suits remain free, while some poor schmuck crossing a border gets slammed into a detention centre. What the heck is going on here? We’re punishing the wrong people! These capitalists are hell-bent on preventing progress, and when the shit hits the fan, they’re planning the logical conclusion to their belief in “survival of the fittest.”
Incredibly, in 2017, media theorist and tech expert Douglas Rushkoff – as part of his many assignments – was hired to speak to a group of investment bankers on an occasion where he expected to be taken to a hall to speak from a stage to a large audience. Instead, he was left to talk to five businessmen at a table, who had bought his time in order to utilise his expertise by having him answer a series of questions: “Which region will be less impacted by the coming climate crisis: New Zealand or Alaska? Is Google really building Ray Kurzweil a home for his brain, and will his consciousness live through the transition, or will it die and be reborn as a whole new one?” And, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?” This took Rushkoff by surprise: “‘The Event,’” he realised, “was their euphemism for the environmental collapse” and other catastrophic outcomes of the current system. “They were preparing for a digital future that had a whole lot less to do with making the world a better place than it did with transcending the human condition altogether and insulating themselves from a very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic, and resource depletion,” he noted. “For them, the future of technology is really about just one thing: escape.” This was evident from their topics of conversation in that room: “They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time.”
But, having abandoned any idea of changing our system these next few years, the super-rich are already enacting some of these extreme ideas, not least with the use of capital to control the people on the front lines of such capitalism-induced chaos and upheaval. Wrote Naomi Klein in her book No Is Not Enough: “Migrant boats headed for Australia’s coastline have been systematically intercepted at sea and their occupants flown to remote detention camps on the islands of Nauru and Manus. Numerous reports have described the conditions in the camps as tantamount to torture. But the government shrugs. After all, they don’t run the camps — private, for-profit contractors do (of course). Conditions are so degraded on Nauru that in one week in 2016, two refugees set themselves on fire in an attempt to awaken the world to their plight. It hasn’t worked.” She continued: “Nauru, incidentally, is one of the Pacific islands vulnerable to sea-level rise. Its residents, after seeing their home turned into a prison for people fleeing war in places such as Somalia and Afghanistan, will quite possibly be forced to become migrants themselves. It’s another glimpse into an already-here future: tomorrow’s climate refugees recruited into service as today’s prison guards.”
Yes, ultimately we’re all in this together. All of us, that is, except the super-rich, who are already concocting plans, and creating barricades and barriers and border controls, to maintain power over the way the world works so that it can continue to favour them. But you and I know that the other 99% of us can’t remain divided, and can tackle the climate crisis if we work together. Divisive global economic models won’t do it for us.
In conclusion, Rutger Bregman offered this example in Utopia for Realists:
Say John from Texas is dying of hunger. He asks me for food, but I refuse. If John dies, is it my fault? Arguably, I merely allowed him to die, which while not exactly benevolent, isn’t exactly murder, either.
Now imagine that John doesn’t ask for food, but goes off to the market, where he’ll find plenty of people willing to exchange their goods for work that he can do in return. This time though, I hire a couple of heavily armed baddies to block his way. John dies of starvation a few days later.
Can I still claim innocence?
The story of John is the story of our ‘everything except labour’ brand of globalisation. Billions of people are forced to sell their labour at a fraction of the price that they would get for it in the ‘Land of Plenty,’ all because of borders. Borders are the single biggest cause of discrimination in all of world history. Inequality gaps between people living in the same country are nothing in comparison to those between separated global citizenries. Today, the richest 8% earn half of all the world’s income, and the richest 1% own more than half of all the wealth. The poorest billion people account for just 1% of all consumption; the richest billion, 72%.
…In the nineteenth century, inequality was still a matter of class; nowadays, it’s a matter of location.