Wednesday, March 01, 2006

To hell with borders

International borders are a scourge on the modern world. Just like war, what are borders good for? Absolutely nothing. In the unlikely event that I become Prime Minister of the World, I would get rid of all borders and allow people to roam as freely as the wind carries them. Some see this as a recipe for disaster, but fear not brethren, there's a method to the madness. I've thought about this concept for a long time, but I found the idea very well articulated in a Guardian interview yesterday. I'll also paste the text of the interview below for those who can't be bothered to click on the link. Roberto Unger has just reached hero status for me, and I'll be sure to buy his book.

The ideas interview: Roberto Unger

He wants to be president of Brazil, and he believes in the human right to live anywhere. By John Sutherland

Tuesday February 28, 2006
The Guardian

Talking to Roberto Mangabeira Unger for an hour is like waltzing with a very articulate cement mixer. Being slippery in his intellectual formulations is a matter of perverse pride to him. When the London Review of Books rejected an article of his on the grounds that it was somewhat lacking in "conversational" tone, Unger retorted that he was never conversational; even in conversation.

That elusiveness means it is not always easy to grasp his thinking. He prescribes a moral and spiritual revival in socialism, something that will enable it, as a force, to escape its current "dictatorship of no alternatives". Unger is labelled a "preposterous romantic" by his critics. The term is turned around by admirers such as the philosopher Michael Rorty, who writes that Unger "may someday make possible a new national romance".

One of the ways in which this new national romance will be achieved is a radical revision of what is implied by the term "immigration". Unger sees current immigration controls as deeply and offensively paradoxical.

"One of the striking features of the form of globalisation that has now been established," he argues, "is that it is based on the premise that goods and even capital should be free to roam but labour must remain imprisoned within the nation state. The truth is that one has every reason to suppose that the more freedom for movement of all the factors of production including labour that we have, the better things will be."

How, though, would Unger deal with the xenophobia that such a programme as his would engender?

"It's obvious that it will be impossible instantaneously to establish universal freedom of movement for people," he concedes. "But let's begin with the reasons it should be favoured. The first reason is economic. The more freedom to combine resources and people there is, the greater will be our chance to accelerate the logic of economic growth and innovation - the logic that promises to lift the incubus of poverty, infirmity and drudgery that weighs on human existence.

"The second reason," he goes on, in his anything but conversational fashion, "is social. No initiative would have a greater effect in diminishing human poverty than expansion of the freedom to move. It would dwarf all other policies that might be proposed to diminish inequality in the world."

And the third? "The third reason is moral and spiritual." These are not categories often found at the forefront of radical argument. What precisely does Unger mean?

"In a world of democracies, the most deserving basis of national differences is that the different states of the world should represent a form of moral specialisation within humanity. Humanity can develop its powers and possibilities only by developing them in different directions. But if this pluralism is to be compatible with the deepening of human freedom, it must have as one of its premises that a person born into one of these human worlds, but antipathetic to its special character, should be able to escape it. So for all these reasons, one should look to a world in which the freedom of movement is continuously but cautiously expanded."

Caution, it would seem, is the key. Unger is no utopian or blind enthusiast. "Pragmatism" is a recurrent term in his discourse, and his approach to national identity is reflected in his career. He is Brazilian by nationality, was educated in New York, is currently a Harvard professor, and has his sights on the presidency of his native country. He has already served as an adviser to Mexico's president, Vicente Fox. Given that background, his thinking on immigration is not all talk of moral and spiritual freedom, though it remains clear-cut in its radicalism.

As he says, "There are many objections and difficulties to be overcome. There are practical difficulties and there are objections in principle. The practical difficulties have to do with the idea that the expansion of this population movement would endanger the position of labour in the rich countries receiving the flows of people. But all these practical objections and others of the same nature invite the same kind of response - the generic name of that response is 'dosage'. That is, we cannot establish this freedom of movement instantaneously and universally but we can establish it in small cumulative steps."

An ideological reform is also required along with Unger's reforming dose: "Instead of having the idea that capital should be free to move and labour should be arrested within the nation state we should have the contrary idea that capital and labour acquire the freedom to move together in small steps in such a way, for example, that labour doesn't acquire full political and social rights straight off. It begins with work permits and it proceeds to a position of partial social rights and then only later to full entitlement. And in the sending countries the reverse would happen, a claim to some compensation for the investment in the education of the labour that they're losing."

So much for the practical difficulties. "Then there are," Unger continues, "objections in principle. All these objections of principle come down in the end to a quasi-tribal idea of the nation as a family writ large, based on a biological succession. In the end it boils down to the idea: 'We built this, it's ours. Who are you to come here and take it from us?' The answer to this objection of principle is the assertion of a counter-principle. In a world of democracies, in a world where the great projects that have set humanity on fire are the projects of the emancipation of individuals from entrenched social division and hierarchy; in such a world individuals must never be puppets or prisoners of the societies or cultures into which they have been born."

Nevertheless, Unger accepts the notion of unconstricted flows of population across national borders would be electoral poison for any party that espoused it. "I myself would never propose a programmatic discourse that centres on a single theme such as immigration. In my view, a political vision is not a grab-bag of discrete problems and solutions. It is the visionary anticipation of a direction. It makes no sense at all to favour an expansion of the right of people's movement in isolation. It makes sense to put forward such a proposal only in the context of a project that is focused on a generalisation of opportunities for empowerment, the enhancement of capabilities, unfettered access to the advanced sectors of production and learning, and a heightening of democracy, the creation of a kind of high-energy democracy".

· Roberto Mangabeira Unger's What Should the Left Propose? is published by Verso Books, price £15. A selection of his writing, and commentary on it, is available at


Anonymous said...

Nice idea but tricky to have in reality.

It is fine if it is the individuals responsibility to completely care for themselves independently of the state.

How would people agree to pay taxes when they would contribute to things they may never use?

Would we not see all sick people moving to countries with excellent health services?

Would we see the evolution of countries with narrow bands of skills as people sought to work and abidewith those of similar skill levels?

Would be see wider spread poverty as those who are perceived to have no skills are left to manage together in a single country as others abandom them for brighter prospects elsewhere?

Very very interesting food for thought

Nkem said...

How would people agree to pay taxes when they would contribute to things they may never use?

Private enterprise looking after traditional state preserves. Aready happens all over the world.

Would we not see all sick people moving to countries with excellent health services?

We already do, except that it's only the rich that can afford it. So called "health tourism", even though they tend to go because it's cheaper.

Would we see the evolution of countries with narrow bands of skills as people sought to work and abidewith those of similar skill levels?

Once again, already happens, "brain drain".

All these things already happen, they're only artificially regulated by the recipient state (which tend to be the richer). The movement of people is restricted to those who can afford to move, or those who slip through the net. When in reality it's the less well off that need to move to gain access to resources. The riddance of borders won't create one way migration, one might even find that people find that there's a killing to be made (financially) in the reverse route.

sokari said...

The whole idea of "passports" has changed. They used to be little books we carried around on our travels with pride. Now passports are documents used to prevent entry and encourage departure. If they are not the "right" one for a particular country, they are used as reasons for interrogation, insults, humiliation. Even entering one's own country is no guarantee that you will be free from some kind of humiliation or interrogation. Where have you been, What did you do there, Where did you get the money to go there and do whatever you did. What have you brought for me, you think you are better because you have travelled to XYZ and so it goes on.

I completely agree - we are all people of the world and we have a right to live in peace wherever we choose without having to provide any explanation either to our country of origin or chosen country.

In fact it is only when you travel that you realise people are actually the same the world over. We realise that differences are only superficial - throw them away and you are left with human beings - good or bad but human beings.