Frontiers: a re-evaluation


For advocates of globalisation, the 'frontier' is often presented as an obstacle to universal freedom. But as the anti-democratic implications of this argument are increasingly evident, what if the solution to managing power is not fewer borders but more? 

Tom Nairn
12 March 2013

“Unity is good but diversity is better. Please, leave us in peace with your superfluous directives.” Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Brussels, the Gentle Monster or, the Disenfranchisement of Europe (2011, p.80)

Frontiers have become awfully unfashionable. The ideology of “globalisation” responds with its sternest frown: historical relics, left-overs from the age of competing nationalisms, they have  had their day and should be ignored, if not put down. Régis Debray is characteristically scathing about all this in his recent polemic Éloge des Frontières (Gallimard, Paris 2010). In the concluding chapter of this 'Praise for Frontiers' he points out that globaloney has as its fatal culmination what one might call 'All-the-Sameism' – to which a proper answer can only be “the right to frontiers”, or (more strongly) the duty of maintaining them, and where necessary creating new ones. Not 'walls' but (as Scots like to say) borders, gateways to and from differing cultures and outlooks.

Without such 'rites de passage', Debray suggests there is now a real risk of reverting to the reign of the old Roman deity 'Terminus', the one that eternally 'presided over boundaries and landmarks' (Oxford English Dictionary). Or as the poet Ovid put it: "Other folk may have limited territories, Rome is simply the world ‘as a whole’” (p.82). Debray reproduces 'Terminus' opposite his title page, Holbein’s image of a stony fellow gazing disapprovingly over some antique landscape. And his answer is that not only can we get past him, away from globality’s new version of 'Rome' – we have a duty to do so. Borders are more than just a good thing, they’re becoming obligatory. They may originally have been a means to an end – that is, to industrialisation 'on our own terms'. However, that phase is now largely over, and has been replaced by 'globalisation'. The latter brings with it a redefinition of borderlands, not their abolition. It could, and Debray suggests it should mean more of them, not less. And after all, don’t we see some parts of the United Kingdom moving in that direction? May it not be that the 2014 referendum will provide an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed, for both the Scots and the English?

The deeper reason at work lies in the deep-laid, multifarious connection between borders and identities. 'Identity' here isn’t self-sufficiency or narcissism, nor does it entail foolish or indiscriminate disparagement of others – in the Scottish case, for the four-fifths majority of 'Great Britain'. No, what it stands for, today more than ever before, is diversity. Differen­tiation is not aesthetic, or merely accidental. Nor is it just turning the house of many colours into variety for its own sake. It can also be construed as action for humanity – i.e. for a universal of tolerable globality that affects everybody, which at this moment is badly in need of new ground rules. This is where finality really counts. It is the overture to different-ness as splendour: the accumulation of human as well as material wealth – the house of many colours enriched, not pared down. “One world” is for good: there’s no going back to pre-1989 and the aftermath of Cold War. Nor should we allow the new day to be haunted by a museum-consciousness – for example, by the persistence of show-case nationalisms like 'Great Britain' that may have outlived their original usefulness.

Arguments about the United Kingdom usually turn upon the advantages of remaining inside the show-case: don’t the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish 'count for more' as part of something established and relatively big, in the UN Security Council and elsewhere? Regrettably but unavoidably, the answer is no. What it implies is sticking with relative decline: dependency on a has-been still clinging to pathetic excuses like the Special Relationship or the Commonwealth, the ancient robes of Winston Churchill’s time and the early Cold War. London’s 21st century moral has become: better the gargoyle we know than the uncertainties of globality, and of a still emerging European Union. 2014’s Scottish vote, by contrast, ought to be about climbing out of the old showcase, albeit at the cost of some broken glass and tidying-up.

Break Up or Break Out? Not that this damage should amount to much. One survey after another has revealed majority English indifference to the prospect, and sometimes positive approval for Scottish independence. What Éloge suggests is that this may be more universally true. As Robert Frost put it in the poem 'Mending Wall', what’s required is “to set the wall between us once again … (because) … Good fences make good neighbours” – a point made often enough in Scotland and Wales. Cultural souls are the issue, not lines on a map. Frontiers create and maintain borderlands, areas of contrast, ambiguity and choice – of fertility, rather than mere hostility. Around a quarter of the EU’s populations are located in such zones, rather than in the self-appointed 'heartlands' that figure in most geopolitical decisions.The Scots (for instance) do know something about this: Walter Scott and Hugh Macdiarmid were borderers, not heartlanders. And the same point is put more generally in Debray’s essay: cultures are like a nuclear fusion-process, not mere accidents of geography or personality. They depend upon conflicts unsustainable without borders, existential encounters and a degree of stressful contrast.

The most critical case here is probably England. All historical analyses of modern nation-state formation (like Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism, or Greenfeld’s Nationalism) indicate English priority in the original wider process. A combination of insularity, resources and competititon turned it into the prime mover. The latter might have been Japan, Indonesia or somewhere in the Americas, but it happened to be this part of the North Atlantic, the Dutch and English fringe-lands. And of course once launched, the effect was permanent. However, the launch-pads themselves were condemned to an odd fate: they couldn’t be just parts of the ongoing process, nationality-structures comme les autres. Instead, an out-going imperialism imposed itself – in different ways upon the Dutch, the Spanish, the Portuguese and the French, as well as (more conclusively) upon the English. The rivalries of early-modern “Europe” were exported as both religious and secular inflictions upon other continents. Then later comers like Italy, Russia, Germany, America and China followed, until global conflicts finally generated the uneven and still sometimes war-like terrain of 'globalisation'.

Frontiers have been the joints or turning-points in the process, both carrying it forward and imposing modifications. So the inherited variousness of a species has been at once reproduced and qualified in this way. 'Species-being' (the old Hegelian and Marxist term) is – as Debray underlines once more – constantly re-invented via a struggle between common and uncommon modes of reproduction. Globalisation isn’t the end of the struggle: in some ways, it may actually be intensified. On no account should all-the-sameism prevail. On the more extensive, expanding common ground of a democratic globe, the rainbow will be greater, and brighter.

Latecomers or Pioneers? The Scots, the Welsh and the Northern-Irish are contributing to this shift: not contracting out of history but getting their renewed claims in. Sometimes their efforts have been characterised as 'belated'; populations that missed out on the main wave of nation-formation during the 19th and twentieth centuries, and now have to 'catch up'. They are certainly peoples who couldn’t help becoming 'peripheral' in the original disposition of modernity, given England’s four-fifths archipelago majority throughout the industrial revolution and its out-going issue. Priority engendered empire, over-extension and a curious sense of distinction: not 'racial' (or only briefly, and half-heartedly) but surely not like the rest, those who adopted, followed on, and fought for their own way forward. The new ambitions of that struggle gave rise to higher-pressure cohesion and 'identities' expressing it: the necessity for a climate of 'nationalism'.

This environment favoured units of a scale intermediate between ancient, sprawling empires and city-states. However, such conditions did favour societies capable of fostering effective market conditions: and only reasonably big entities could hope to do this, hence the incumbent “nation-states” evolved higher-pressure demands and constraints toward that end. Europe adopted the industrial model pioneered by its western archipelago, and the ideology appropriate was of course nationalism, a force-field able to over-ride older provinces, and inherited or residual cultures. Since society ('civil society') was mobilised, a degree of participation or inclusion was required – or, where necessary, enforced. In many cases external expansion helped this process, both to secure resources and to establish the status and power of the guiding state-forms. Competitive imperialism was one consequence, and endured from the later 18th century until the end of the Cold War after 1989.

In the successor period, industrialisation has given way to 'globalisation', manifest through what the Economist has described as “A Third Industrial Revolution” (April 21st 2012). The world has not been comprehensively industrialised during the first and second phases of the Revolution; however, it has been changed sufficiently to alter many of the older conditions, including those affecting the scale of nationality politics. And of course, 'industrialisation' has been in a sense completed, with the contemporary development of the globe’s largest nation, China. Digital manufacturing “will allow things to be made economically in much smaller numbers … (and) … The wheel is turning away from mass manufacturing and towards more individualised production. And that in turn could bring some of the jobs back to rich countries that long ago lost them to the emerging world" (Special Report, p.4). Will it not also foster what one might call 'lower pressure' societal cohesion: a force-field less driven by survival demands, and life-or-death choices? Everyone recognises that nationality politics are here for good: 'identities' as an indispensable component of adaptation and development. But few now perceive them as questions of basic existence. What counts is the non-basic, more conscious and advanced common ground which (still) 'metaphorical kinship' alone makes possible. In attempting to establish it now, may the one-time 'periphery' not be seeking a more contemporary nationalism-equivalent, rather than just catching up with the old forms?

Amicable Separation? Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are not attempting old-style nation-statehood: they are (and indeed, can’t help being) in search of a new mode of distinctive development. Post-globalisation self-rule, liberated from the contortions of imperialism and warfare, and adapted to circumstances in which the scale of statehood is no longer so important. Nationalism is therefore less 'weak' than in Gellner’s classical diagnosis, and more likely to expand both its numbers and its political appeal. A greater number of ethno-linguistic and cultural groups will move towards separate development, and help to establish a new kind of Internationale.

But amicable separation still requires frontiers, demarcation and formal signals of identification. Globality will have to work out new modes of separateness and distinction: the strengthening of variety by means other than warfare and militarised 'national liberation'. Anti-metropolitanism demands greater ingenuity and effort, and political independence remains a necessary part of this. No apology or modest cough is called for here: Scots need to move 'backwards' (resuming nationhood) in order to move forward, not for the sake of auld lang syne but in order to contribute to a future that will include the re-making of 'Great Britain', as some sort of confederation or association. Reculer pour mieux sauter is the familiar French motto here: sometimes one has to step backwards, in order to achieve a more impressive leap forward – in this case, resuming the older version of nationalism (industrialisation nationhood) in order to build up a more contemporary, forward-looking form of nationality-politics, more consistent with the conditions of globality. The latter should not be seen as 'preserving' the varieties of modernity, but as augmenting them – making ways for the large number of enduring ethno-linguistic and cultural social orders to proliferate, and thus enrich the 'universal', or common ground of humanity. 'Transcen­dence' may be the right word: but this can only flourish as long as there are particular, variegated realities of human kind to look and act 'outwards', to locate and rebuild a 'general interest' itself in continuing alteration. Religions may pretend unchangeability, in some final, god-given sense; secularity suggests that, on the contrary, universality itself must always be 'under construction', and only partially handed down by inheritance and traditions.

Getting on with the job, the new task re-defined by globalisation: isn’t this what the 2014 referendum will come to mean? Scotland should be keeping up with the times, not clinging to the life-raft. The four-fifths English majority needs an unchallenged 'Britain' to go on being its vehicle at the European and international level: behave yourselves out there in Wales and Scotland! The alternative would appear to be 'Scotland in Europe': leaving the raft and (after the lessons learned at Holyrood) finally deciding to swim on our own. Isn’t that what the new frontiers should be for?

Tom Nairn is an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. He is well-known for his writings on nationalism. 

This article is part of the series, Re-birth of the nation? Challenging 'global citizens'

A version of this article first appeared in Perspectives, issue 33, Summer 2012

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