Movements Against the Enclosures: Virtual is Preamble

Full textMake-World Paper #1, 2004.

Much is made of the difference between ‘virtual’ and ‘actual’. Other than asserting a distinction between ‘unreal’ and the ‘real’, the uses of such oppositions demonstrates the real workings of a conflict between different approaches to and mappings of space, as both cyberspace and landscape.

netmapThe singular experience of the net consists in making manifest a particular sense and use of space-including the socalled ‘real’ space of the world’s surface-that has no place in officially-sanctioned, or rather petrified, maps and models. Because more than the question of whether the content of various sites or techniques remain trapped in the figurations bequeathed to us by the French Revolution (where ‘man’ exists as human, and has human rights, insofar as ‘he’ is a citizen of a nationstate), the experience of the net is otherwise. Moreover, I want to insist, above all, that what is virtual is preamble, that it exists. The virtual spaces of cyberspace have a distinctive connection to that which is immanent and imminent, material and emergent, or better: the net is really, virtually that which makes apparent, and increasingly convenes, an antagonism to authorised spatial organisation.


At the end of the 20th century, nationalism had flourished to become the planetary system, covering every centimetre of the globe, administered by various inter-nationalisms, including the agencies of the United Nations. As landscape, space is delimited by nation-states. Migration policies (border controls) were largely non-existent prior to the 20th C. The consolidation of nation-states that mostly took place in the 19th and 20th centuries- and the tyranny of citizenship (always founded on and premised on exclusions) that was their corollary-meant that the 20th C was fated to be the century of the ‘refugee problem’, as the UN and many NGOs prefer to apprehend it.

movement in every sense

In the second half of the 20th C, a movement emerged in every sense. Currently estimated at over 50 million people, very often existing and moving clandestinely, this is the largest movement in history. Out of necessity and desire it refuses the cages and enclosures, the pass laws that regulate and control the paths between them, and creates the greatest challenge to the principal role of the nation-state: the ‘right’ of nation- states (whether as one nation or ‘united’ nations) to allocate, regulate and control bodies for the purposes of a capitalist production. It connects to a long line of struggles against the geopolitical inscriptions of capitalist production and imperial economy: the enclosure of the commons in England, the laying down of fence-lines for imperial agriculture, the forcing of indigenous peoples into missions and reserves alongside the passage of ‘anti-nomadic’ laws, to name but a few and only those most familiar to locals. Previous centuries were marked by the journeys of colonial powers across the globe in search of imperial expansion and consolidation. By contrast, the second half of the 20th C was significant for reversing this process. During that time, people from Asia, Africa, and Latin America began moving in significant numbers, relative to pre-ww2 periods, to Canada, the US, the EU countries and Australia. It is as a response to these movements that, by the late 1990s, the US (1996), Australia (1992), and the EU (1997) all passed some of the most vicious border laws imaginable. Like all border laws, these were not meant to stop people from moving. Rather, they tried to recreate the conditions of the global sweatshops (the so-called ‘third world’) in the face of the threat to their precondition: border controls. In this way, the distinction between ‘third’ and ‘first’ worlds is increasingly a division internal to countries. The illegalisation of undocumented workers in places like the US and Australia means that they continue to be a reserve for hyper-exploitation, much the same as if they had remained in, say, Mexico or Vietnam, as documented workers.

In a broad sense, this movement consists of the undocumented, those without papers or sans papier. In other registers it, or parts of it, is composed of ‘refugees’, ‘illegal immigrants’, ‘asylum seekers’, ‘economic refugees’, ‘stateless persons’, ‘non-persons’-but all these words are categorisations from the perspective of the nationstate, many formally sanctioned by the UN, of the degree to which discrimination and exclusion are authorised in particular cases or of the exact point at which one feels authorised to perform the role of border cop.

visibility, media and mediation

Whereas real space was generally visible only by way of official mappings, of legal routes and national territories, the actual paths of this movement of flight and escape became visible in cyberspace, whether as the circulation of struggles of those without papers, or in chatrooms and across emails that connected people on the move and as they moved, with information, friends and contacts, or simply as experimentation with a language that was not premised on national borderlines. On the net, ideas of space did not parallel that of national space. Here, those who are juridical ‘non-persons’ in a world dominated by citizenship found a media for communication.

The ‘virtualisation’ of the movement against the enclosures is not a function of its unreality, but a result of a history of figuration and the processes by which movements are designated, recognised, given stamps of approval as oppositional-or not. There are those who refuse to acknowledge that it is indeed a movement, or those who can only recognise movements when they are designated as such by the media or the self-appointed officials of mediation. Indeed, for a long time, since the Bolsheviks in 1920 adopted Woodrow Wilson’s inter-nationalist doctrine of the ‘self-determination of nations’-since that is, they became little more than ambassadors for various nationstates (pro-China, pro-Soviet, pro-Cuba, etc.), in turn regarding flight from such states as traitorous- many could only imagine struggle as the struggle for more nationalisms. In short, many would only recognise movements if they appeared in the manner of their opposite: i.e., as enclosure rather than movement, as capture rather than freedom. In doing so, they had a deft hand in the invisibility of this movement, or at best, could only approach it as latter-day missionaries seeking out converts amongst the dislocated, or as another means to prove their indispensability as mediators between the state and the insubordinate.

But aspirations for mediation have some difficulty being sustained on the net, not least because if one were to accept a version of communication and media such as that which operates on indymedia, it is difficult if not impossible to assure the delimited, fixed and mediatory model that claims to representation rely on, and which remain the format of, especially, mainstream news media outlets. The net make any equations between media as communication and mediation as representation, and the integrative expectations of the latter, difficult to sustain. That is not unrelated to the very possibility of the net making manifest a movement that, since it has no leaders or representatives, would otherwise be characterised mindless bodies in search of missionaries and representatives-the ‘non-persons’ of juridical space re-figured as the non-agents of political practice.

Even so, I’m not suggesting that the net is solely responsible for the de-coupling of mediation from media. The end of mediation is an historical moment, some refer to it as neo-liberalism, where the trade-off between integration and concessions was no longer possible, reducing mediation down into a moment of repression and little else. This is why, for instance, the pre-condition of claims to representation are overwhelmed by and indistinguishable from the question of discipline: self-styled representatives of detainees or ‘refugees’, for instance, are asked whether they can ensure their ostensible constituency’s pacification or, if they cannot, they are expected to denounce the actions of detainees or, on occasion, have inaugurated their claims to representation by insisting on the “need to integrate” detainees, as if the problem stems from detainees being too much on the outside of the circuits of representation. In any case, mediation is no longer, if it ever was, capable of granting concessions or relief.

nomadic and netactive

“Chiapas was increasingly subjected to all manner of transnational influences. During the 1980s and early 1990s, it became a crossroads for NGO activists, Catholic liberation-theology priests and Protestant evangelists, Guatemalan migrants and refugees, guerrillas coming and going from Central America, and criminals trafficking in weapons and narcotics. This exposure to transnational forces was stronger and more distinctive in Chiapas than in two other nearby states-Oaxaca and Guerrerothat were often thought to be likely locales for guerrilla insurgencies (and had been in the past). And this helps explain why Chiapas, and not another state, gave rise to an insurgency that became a netwar.” – Rand Corporation http:// MR880.ch16.pdf

The Rand Corporation commentary, cited above, indicates something of the relationship between the experience of movement and netactivism in generating the particular strategies of the Zapatistas in Chiapas. Rather than an echo of Microsoft’s publicity dream of a borderless world without dissension and the exploitation of bodies are made invisible, the net has seen the emergence of a language and subjectivity that is antagonistic to the enclosure of the commons, in both landscape and on the net, where open source meets open borders, undocumented meets techno-nomadic, and the emergence of trading posts and routes that are neither officially- sanctioned nor reducible to exchange and calculation. Here, there is antagonism to the fantasy of a world without bodies (Microsoft), a world where bodies are distributed according to pass laws and confined by borders, and more importantly still, the possibility of a practice that doesn’t assume it is ‘our’ role to grant intellects to mindless bodies.

see also:


online action against deportation

For an indication of proposals to draft conventions for cyberspace that re-assert national boundaries, see “Sea, Space, Cyberspace: Borderless Domains”, V. A. Cebrowski, 1999, US Naval Military College, at


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