The Centrality of the Margins: Brokering Borders and Borderlands in the age of Trump and Brexit

(This blog introduces a new literature review by Dr Sharri Plonski and Dr Patrick Meehan, which has been produced for the ESRC-funded ‘Borderlands, Brokers and Peacebuilding in Sri Lanka and Nepal: War to Peace Transitions Viewed from the Margins‘. The project is led by Jonathan Goodhand (SOAS). CDS member Oliver Walton is a co-investigator.)

by Dr Sharri Plonski

The subject of borders never seems far from the news these days, with a relentless media focus on Donald Trump’s new America and Theresa May’s ‘Hard Brexit’. Trump’s Mexico Wall epitomises this border neurosis and symbolises a wider trend towards protectionism that seeks to thwart the flow of people (into the country) and of capital, jobs and control over industries (out of the country).

The UK’s Brexit campaign was animated by similar anxieties; nostalgia for a “Great(er) Britain” and a desire to regain control over the flow of people and trade across its borders. Yet, in both cases, one can discern a harking back to a time of ‘empire’, and a period of domination and privileged relations vis-à-vis colonised brown and black people: a time when the sovereignty of Western nation-states was anchored in the imagined distance and separateness of the Oriental East and Global South; frontiers to be conquered, exploited and contained at the edges of space.

The US-Mexico border

The anxiety around walls and borders tells us much about the crises being experienced in post-industrial western democracies in an age of capitalist globalisation and the economic and political ruptures that it has left in its wake. The hardening of some national boundaries seems to be a response to the upheavals of geography, a last-ditch attempt to push back against the relentless flow of international trade and capital, across borders and the feeling of lost control.

But a renewed concern with borders is not a uniquely Western phenomenon, nor simply an outcome of globalisation. The salience of borders and the political importance of state margins is also heightened during moments of political rupture, such as those that characterise current war-to-peace transitions in South Asia.

Our 2 year ESRC-funded research project on borderlands, brokers and peacebuilding in Sri Lanka and Nepal, provides a new perspective on transitions in these two countries by focusing on border regions and the brokers that shape, navigate and negotiate power relations at the edges of states. The project draws attention to the crucial political and economic struggles that are played out at the margins, where the logics of capital clash with the logics of territory, where sovereign nations encounter (and attempt to limit) global flows, and where central authorities are often contested and resisted.

The unruly spatial configurations, hybridities and resiliencies of borderlands and frontiers – actively made and re-made as people, goods and capital navigate international lines, laws and regulatory frameworks – are not exceptions to the disciplinary powers of the state. Instead, they are constitutive of power relations at the centre. At the same time, they are spaces where hegemony wanes, and the rough and raw practices of capitalist accumulation are blatant and violent, as different (global, national and local) actors seek to assert their position and monopolise control, outside the gaze of the ‘centre’. These gaps in authority – or rather, the presence of a plurality of authorities – are particularly pronounced in moments of political and economic ruptures, as different groups and individuals scramble around changing opportunities and threats at the borders of states.

As we explore in the Review of Concepts and Methods that accompanies this post, we are less interested in the smoothness of geography and territorial legibility, as we are the anomalies and contradictions that warn of crises and conflict. At the points of disruption and transgression, we find zones of encounter, spaces of uncertainty, gradients and asymmetries of power. And we find an inflated role for those individuals and groups that act as gatekeepers and brokers to the flow of people and goods, ambivalently and ambiguously translating and contesting the flow of power and control (from the centre to the margins). The certainty of central governance, homogenous spaces and national sovereignties dissolves when our analysis starts at the margins. No matter how high the walls or indiscriminate the policies, there will always be corridors through them, and brokers who protect, constrain and direct their flows.

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