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May 8, 2018

Imagining a world without borders

by JILNA SHAH

“Imagine that Martin Luther King never had a dream. Imagine that instead of thinking outside of the narrow confines of his time and place, he resolved to work only within them. Imagine then that he had risen to the steps of the Lincoln Monument and announced a 5-point plan, one he thought he could both sell to the black community and win a majority for in both houses of Congress, one that would bring Civil Rights legislation just one step closer. But he didn’t. He chose not to engage in the nitty-gritty of the here and now, and instead chose to address not will be or could be but what should be.”

This rousing thought experiment opened Gary Younge’s refreshing and inspiring talk, ‘Imagining a world without borders’, as part of SOAS’ ‘World Turned Upside Down’ lecture series. The lectures aim to challenge dominant perspectives on world issues, and this is certainly what Gary Younge did in offering a fresh and  poignant vision of a world free of borders. Younge is editor-at-large for the Guardian is author of the recent book ‘Another day in the death of America’.

Gary’s talk was unwittingly well-timed – arriving after weeks of unrelenting headlines rooted in border violence: from migrants being denied healthcare, to the ‘Windrush scandal’, to continuing and large-scale deportations, to name but a few manifestations of the government’s hostile environment agenda.

Underlying much media reporting on these stories was a predictable propagation of bigoted binaries, such as ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ migrant, or its close cousin ‘deserving’ vs ‘undeserving’. Gary Younge’s talk, instead of speaking about ‘workable immigration policies’ (he asked people to watch Question Time if this is what they were after), called upon us to broaden our field of vision.

Commenting on the Windrush fiasco, Younge was clear that it wasn’t ‘a glitch in the system, it is the system’. And instead of attempting to remedy these glitches, Gary’s message was to think and act more deeply. To engage our hearts as well as our minds. In his characteristically dynamic style, Younge looked at what it means to be ‘radical’ in the framework of borders:

“If politics is the art of the possible, then radicalism must entail the capacity to imagine new possibilities.”

Working in the migrants’ rights ‘sector’, we run the risk of making pragmatism, gradualism and strategic campaigning our bread and butter. We tend to often focus overwhelmingly on what can be done, as opposed to what should be done. When our capacity to even imagine a world in which the oppression and systematic violence inherent in the very existence of borders regimes is shut down, we need to stop, step back and zoom out.

The lecture reconnected me with my deeper conviction, summed up simply by Dr Martin Luther King, that “no one is free until we are all free.” For me and many others, this freedom is impossible so long as borders exist. And to bring down these borders, first we must break down our own internal borders, those that feed the idea that it is naïve to aspire to a vision that is unlikely to become a reality in the imminent future. Addressing this notion, Younge cautioned that “idealism is the flesh upon which pragmatic parasites feed.”

In advocating for the free movement of people, Younge raised a number of critical and topical issues including:

  • How borders have been lifted for capital, but not for people, where the free movement of capital often results in the displacement of people.
  • Border control arguments that borders are necessary deterrents to ‘terrorism’ are misguided; it is Britain’s neocolonial foreign policy and not borders that should be in the spotlight.
  • A result of the hostile environment is that we now have ‘invisible’ borders that are dividing communities, as our teachers, neighbours, etc, are turned into border guards.
  • There are areas in the world, for example West Africa, where borders are more porous and the movement of people more fluid.

In putting forward a strong case for the free movement of people, Younge’s talk covers many angles, including communicating directly and eloquently on how slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism, racism and xenophobia correlate to the systematic ‘othering’ that underlies the border regime.

In a context where borders appear to be an undisputed fact, Younge’s contribution exposes instead their mythical and arbitrary nature, whilst simultaneously watering seeds of radical change in our hearts and minds.

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To watch the talk that Gary gave at SOAS: https://www.facebook.com/soasunioflondon/videos/1689253081164283/

To learn more about Gary’s work and upcoming events: https://www.garyyounge.com/about