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Todd Miller, on US imperialism extending its border-policing worldwide, has particular relevance as the violence turns inevitably inward, finds Richard Allday

Todd Miller, Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the US Border Around the World (Verso 2019), 293pp.

In the light of Trump’s use of paramilitary force against the BLM-inspired civil-rights protests, this book provides a stark warning to those activists who regard the issues of civil rights, ecology, immigration, and political economy as separate issues.

Towards the end of his book, Miller refers to the ‘catastrophic convergence’ of political, economic and ecological crises that are already displacing people in their hundreds of thousands as ‘symptoms of a world that is no longer sustainable … held up by the scaffolding of nation-states and glued together by the iron fist of the armies and militarized security’ (p.235).

His central thesis is that one conscious side-effect of US imperialism has been to extend its border-policing apparatus across the globe. The ‘stop at source’ approach of the US Department for Homeland Security existed before 9/11 but ‘nothing comparable in size, scope and impact’ to the expansion of its programme afterwards (Introduction, p.6). Miller places the origin of this ‘massive paradigm change’ in two sentences of the 2003 publication of the findings of the 9/11 Commission report:

‘9/11 has taught us that terrorism against Americans “over there” should be regarded just as we regard terrorism against Americans “over here.” In this same sense the American homeland is the planet’ (my emphases: ‘What to do? A Global Strategy,’ The 9/11 Commission Report, W.W. Norton, 2004.)

The bulk of the book, between its opening thesis and the concluding chapter, is a series of snapshots of repression in action across the globe, from Trump’s US/Mexican border wall via Colombia, Israel, Senegal, the EU, the Maasai territory in southern Africa, and Guatemala, among others. Always directed at the ‘huddled masses’ attempting to escape poverty and access a better world, and always with the active collusion of the ruling elites, Miller analyses the racist and imperialist ideology underpinning the cloak of ‘border control’.

For anyone who ever bought into the illusion that ‘national interests’ can be protected without damage to the civil society they purport to promote, this book provides a relentless critique. At times reading almost like a travelogue of repression, there are irritating moments when the journalistic style of writing distracts from the analysis, but this may just be a subjective reaction. A more fundamental criticism is that Miller offers an idealistic critique of the world we live in.

How to change the world

It is to his credit that he sees the world ‘in the round’; that he sees and emphasises the common thread that binds the migration of people seeking to escape drought, or repression, or economic destitution, and traces it back to an economic system that prioritises the accumulation of private wealth over any other consideration. He locates this explicitly within capitalist relations of production, and states his belief that there can be no solution to the human problems he details within the framework of capitalism.

He is clearly partisan in his writing, motivated by a concept of human solidarity, and a desire for social justice is evident on every page. In this sense, he is an idealist in the best sense of the word: an individual who is not prepared to compromise his ideals for the sake of personal comfort or advancement.

However, he is also an idealist in the Marxist sense of the word: having spent two-hundred-plus pages in detailing the very material technology used in the weaponisation of surveillance, crowd control, facial recognition, drone technology and the rest, and locating it explicitly in terms of the capitalist system, his closing chapter swings between a position of ‘if only’, and a retreat to the comfort zone of mysticism.

The ‘if only’ approach is summed up in two passages in the final pages: ‘By allowing free movement of people, opening borders would address global wealth inequality,’ which is rather putting the cart before the horse. We will not get to the position of having open borders without first decisively challenging (and defeating) global wealth inequality. Addressing the climate crisis, he quotes approvingly from Reece Jones’ book, Violent Borders:

‘“we must rethink the idea that states have the exclusive right to make environmental decisions in their own territories.” This is the right to the world, a vision based on free mobility and equal access to resources’ (p.262).

Yet, ‘re-thinking’ an idea does nothing to change reality on the ground.

Nevertheless, the bulk of this book, written with passion and righteous anger, serves as a salutary warning that the power of the state serves the interests of those that control the state. It is not impartial; it has no commitment to civil rights; democracy is seen as a threat rather than an ally. In maintaining its ‘national integrity’, the imperialist state first seeks to control its geographical borders physically, then moves its infrastructure into other national states, developing and expanding as it goes; and then returns to the domestic terrain of its own civil society to exercise its now well-honed practice of repression and control.

Perhaps if more people had read Todd Miller’s book, we would not have been caught so unawares and unprepared for the appearance of the Department for Homeland Security’s paramilitary snatch squads in Portland, Oregon. Miller will gain no pleasure from the phrase ‘I did warn you’. But he did.

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Tagged under: United States
Richard Allday

Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.


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