Proliferating Limits: Capitalist Dynamics, Oikonomia and Border Technologies

Implicit or not, there persists a view of capitalism in which the border is understood as extraneous to the inherent tendencies of capital. In this, capital and the state are regarded as distinctive logics, the first inclined to overtake limits, the second emphasising limit as such. […]

From my chapter in J. Hutnyk (ed), Beyond Borders.  And the full text below the fold ..

1. Oikonomic Limits

Implicit or not, there persists a view of capitalism in which the border is understood as extraneous to the inherent tendencies of capital. In this, capital and the state are regarded as distinctive logics, the first inclined to overtake limits, the second emphasising limit as such. The continuing existence of the latter, oftentimes regarded as the perseverance of archaic, pre-capitalist forms is barely explained, except by reference to the extent to which they might be deemed to be anomalous or functional, and therefore, in either case, inessential. In brief, the state is viewed as an instrument of protection against, or obstacle to, the abstractions of capital. Oddly enough, this is often a premise that both critics and proponents of capitalism share. On the one hand, there is the assertion that capitalism is inherently progressive; which is to say, that the regular appearances of racism, sexism or any similar recourse to often violently hierarchical distinctions is considered anachronistic, incompatible with the basically egalitarian principles of capital. On the other hand, there is a more or less tacit argument which construes family, race and/or nation as a sanctuary from the abstracting violence of the transactional, the exploitative, or what are considered to be the degrading effects of technology. According to this perspective, the resort to, say, nationalism is an understandable means to restore dignity in the face of alienation.Along these lines, and in some ostensibly radical critiques of capitalism, it often seems sufficient to cite fragments from Marx so as to confirm the assumption that capitalism is intrinsically destructive of the seemingly traditional bonds of nation, family and race. To be sure, in the Grundrisse Marx wrote that “capital drives beyond national barriers and prejudices as much as beyond nature worship, as well as all traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of personal needs, and reproductions of ways of life” (1973: 410). And, Marx and Engels had occasion to invoke the cataclysmic terminus of capitalism in corresponding terms. Most famously, in the Communist Manifesto they wrote: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air … and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind” (1848).

Yet, the theory that capitalism is defined by the surpassing of limits – or what might be referred to in more current terms as deterritorialisation (Deleuze and Guattari, 2002) – is not Marx’s argument but, to mention one of the most emphatic of its advocates, Karl Polanyi’s (2001). Recently, Polanyi’s theory has been revived, perhaps not surprisingly in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007-08. David Bollier (2009) has recapitulated Polanyi’s distinction between markets and – as Bollier puts it – the “sovereign dynamics” of “land and human beings,” in what amounts to a naturalist definition of “the commons.” Joseph Stiglitz,i in his foreword to the recent republication of Polanyi’s Great Transformation, has suggested that Polanyi’s “arguments – and his concerns – are consonant with the issues raised by the rioters and marchers who took to the streets in Seattle and Prague in 1999 and 2000 to oppose the international financial institutions” (2001:vii). Undoubtedly, it might to some seem prudent or reasonable to confuse Polanyi’s theory with that of Marx, not least given the use of similar terms such as “the commons,” and the conflation of anti-capitalism and anti-finance that was apparent in the so-called anti-globalisation protests. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2009) have argued for a distinction between the commons and the common; while Fred Moten and Stefano Harney have – I think more interestingly – insisted on attention to the “undercommons.” Moreover, the depiction of the protests referred to earlier as ‘anti-globalisation’ campaigns was always a matter of open dispute. Yet, the inclination, despite these efforts, remains. And, it has resurfaced in the wake of the most recent financial crisis as the denunciation of speculative excess and in calls for re-regulation (by Stiglitz and others). There is, perhaps, an affective purchase in the limit, in the boundary that one assumes limits capitalism but, as it turns out, restores and expands it at the same time, recuperating the tendency of rebellion into the re-imposition of austerity. The movements against austerity, in Europe and elsewhere, are not only challenged by the resurgence of ultra-nationalism – as with the fascist campaigns against migrants in Greece – but also hampered by a theory of the limit that, as I will argue, is deeply complicit with a politics of austerity in its romanticisation of a naturalist account of the commons, free labour, the state, and obligation (that is, debt).ii

The contention here, then, is that there a much more nuanced and challenging analysis of capitalism in Marx’s writings than that found in Polanyi’s, and, moreover, that the very idea that the complex imbrication of family, nation and race pre-dates the rise of capitalism is both anachronistic and – more significantly for the argument made here – restores the foundations of capitalist futurity in the midst of uncertainty. In the move from the writing of the Manifesto to the volumes published under the heading of Capital, not only is there a significant shift from the theme of alienation to that of surplus labour, but the intervening texts (most notably, the notebooks of the Grundrisse) are preoccupied with elaborating on a capitalist dynamic which consists in the overtaking of limits and, simultaneously, their imposition. Marx refers to this as the “double movement” (1973:730). The theory of alienation, unlike that of surplus labour, implies the loss of something that was previously possessed. It not only assumes a form of subjectivity (contractual, property in self) that would have made little sense prior to the seventeenth century. It is not only, in Marx’s writing, supplanted by the theory of surplus value, in which it is no longer a question of the alienation of a form of an implicitly contractual subjectivity that resides outside the logic of capital and the history of capitalism. As Marx puts it: “labour as a productive force is incorporated in capital” (1973:594). But, more importantly, I would suggest the theory of alienation has a tendency to play out a restorative and compensatory politics in a naturalisation of the contractual, precisely when the question of the distribution of abundance and the imposition of austerity is most uncertain, manifesting less as the consequence of a natural order than of social and political arrangements that, it might be added, could change. In this sense, the history of the wage contract has to be thought alongside that of the social and marital contract. The ground-breaking study by Amy Dru Stanley, on the abolition of slavery in the United States in its connections to both the wage and marriage contracts, sharply illustrates the ways in which the freedoms of the wage contract were premised on the domestic despotism of the marital contract (1998). Elsewhere, I argue that the family wage during Fordism – and, indeed, the infinite contractualism of post-Fordism – can only be understood by way of a critical analysis of the combined arrangement of marital, social and wage contracts that project obligation into an otherwise uncertain future (Mitropoulos, 2011b, 2012). Premised on notions of property in self (which is to say, the pivotal assumption of contract theory as elaborated by Locke (2002) and others), the complex diffusion of contracts – both social and marital in, not least, citizenship and its presumptions about the interlocking lines of race, nation and family – can be made to re-appear as the natural order of indebtedness, of belonging and, of course, of the ownership and transmission of property and properties. In the elaboration of migration policies as the increasingly fine-tuned organisation of a distinction between authorised and criminalised movements – which is to say, in the transformation of movement into the circulation of bodies as labouring subjects – the question of right is posited in simultaneously economic and oikonomic terms. Capitalism requires the legible inscription of property ownership (in other words, genealogy) so as to effect its legitimate transfer and transmission across space and time. The dilemma of capitalist futurity is answered by the interrelated workings of genealogy and contract.

The recent history of migration policy in Europe, Australia, the United States and elsewhere has been marked by a growing emphasis on solving the ostensibly demographic problem of an ageing population (and all that this implies about racialised understandings of ‘fertility,’ the ‘domestic economy,’ and the migration of cheap care-labour at a time of declining and/or privatised welfare and health provision, and so on), as well as the increasing restriction of migration to the lines of family reunion and filiation in both skilled labour and refugee migration classifications. Writing on the UK government’s White Paper Secure Borders, Safe Haven (Home Office, 2002), released in the wake of riots in Oldham, Bradford, and Burnley, William Walters has argued that it attempted to redefine space, territory and citizenship in “domopolitical” terms – domus being Latin for home. By his reading, this meant that “the government of the state (but, crucially, other political spaces as well) [was defined] as a home,” “a safe, reassuring place, a place of intimacy, togetherness and even unity, trust and familiarity” (2004: 241). What I would add is that this idea of home, nation and/or family as shelter from the corrosive effects of capitalism has a very precise history. Across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the spaces of home and factory were demarcated in such a way that the former was posited as a realm of private, familial affection that, in any event, allowed for the humanisation and reproduction of the male domination of the latter. This runs counter to Foucault’s understanding of oikonomia, that Walters echoes, which suggests that the familial premises of sovereignty and economics waned in significance over a century ago (2008). Yet, during the Fordist period of much of the twentieth century, the definitions and correlations between home, factory and nation was formalised in the accounting of the family wage (cf. Mitropoulos, 2009). Where Walters has astutely described the conflation of home and nation that, I would argue, becomes amplified with every crisis, the longer history of the connections between oikonomia – that is, the law of the household – and economics points to the specific question of the foundationalism that a recourse to the politics of the household affords (cf. Mitropoulos, 2011b). Namely, a politics of the household – become more pronounced with the last three decades of privatisation and financialisation – pivots on the central question of the extraction of surplus labour. This is a process that continues to be shaped by the contours and allocations of the wage contract, but – logically and politically – surplus labour is that which is not recognised in or by the wage contract. It is, in other words, gratuitous labour. And the question, accentuated during times of crisis, is how to expand surplus labour, whether by innovation or by force.

While it is easy to suppose that forms of identification and attachment such as the familial, racial or the national existed prior to the emergence of capitalism, more careful histories would indicate that what we understand by each, and as they appear in their precise combination today, had no clear-cut corollary before the fifteenth century. From a long-term perspective, the familial household, characterised as the residency of a nuclear family that did not include slaves, and situated as the interlocking foundation of inheritance and intimacy, is a recent invention. Nationalism (and the nation-state as the aggregation of ‘a people’ and ‘state’) rose to prominence as a political-cultural form in eighteenth century Europe, and acquired a globally eminent reach across the twentieth. Similarly, biological and (later) cultural concepts of race do not appear prior to the Renaissance and the so-called scientific revolution (with its techniques of classification and typology) and, most notably, in the process of European imperial expansion from the fifteenth century on. If historians generally agree on this timeline, there are very few who touch on what should, given the explicit character of the discourses surrounding border policing, be obvious: namely, that the control of migration proceeds through a complex meshing of notions of race, family and nation. That this is not always evident, even in critical understanding of the border, indicates the chief result of this combination, which is to naturalise the conduct, techniques and affective registers of border controls.

Moreover, the supposition that these are archaic forms of social attachment that stretch back to antiquity is as inaccurate as is the suggestion, made by Polanyi, that there is a fundamental opposition between the transactional dealings of the marketplace and the gift economy he ascertains in apparently pre-capitalist relations.And he does this by situating land and labour outside capital which, in any case, he reduces to ‘the market.’ For Marx, by contrast, the specificity of capital is the extraction of surplus labour. It makes its first appearance, in agrarian capitalism, as if it is a “free gift of Nature to capital” (1991:879). Surplus labour, he insisted in the same terms time and again, is that which is appropriated by the capitalist “free of charge” (1973:365). On the presumption that the role of the capitalist is to lend the worker materials with which to work, he wrote that “after settlement of all items, the worker ends up being the debtor, after not only having made restitution of the capitalist’s advance, but also having added his own labour to it free of charge” (1973:853).This is not only Marx’s bitter sense of irony in evidence, though it is surely that. Nor are the stakes here simply those of discerning some interesting but inconsequential divergences between Marx and Polanyi. The question Polanyi never asks, the question that is both political and economic, is of ways in which abundance is distributed and austerity imposed.

The conservative critique of capitalism is preoccupied not with this, but with taking capitalism to task for setting up crises of its own realisation, as in the expansion of debts that cannot – or will not – be repaid. It is concerned not with the question of moving beyond the interrelated dynamics of expansion and crisis, but of restoring the very foundations of capitalism in the retrieval of the conditions of gratuitous labour. This can be accomplished by way of a technological reorganisation of production that increases the intensity of exploitation, or by the extension of labour time – but it is always naturalised by recourse to the apparently archaic, biological or cultural definitions of obligation, debt and origin. The oikonomic nexus of family, nation and race delivers up the gift of free labour in its most forceful senses through the interrelated boundaries of the wage contract and those of citizenship (that is, the social contract). It does so in the forms of unpaid domestic labour; migrant labour that, by way of visa stipulations or outright criminalisation, is compelled to work for as little as possible; the geographic organisation of cheap and below-subsistence labour; to mention the most notable. The oikonomics of present-day organisations of the economy is also apparent in the increasing expectation that women who work (whether in private or public, paid or not) deliver a labour that has affective purchase – in other words, has value which circulates as an extension of (rather than refusal of or indifference toward) care-giving domestic labour that significantly must appear as if it is not work at all, but freely and naturally given. Along these lines, Leopoldina Fortunati has argued that reproductive labour is “the creation of value” that “appears otherwise” (1995:8, cf Staples, 2007). The argument I make here is that this expectation of a labour freely given has always been the central logic of capitalist re/production. In this, the wage contract has historically indicated the shifting lines of compensatory exclusion, hierarchy and recognition – rather than being remunerative in any symmetrical sense. The wage contract seems to confer right, even as it extracts surplus value, not least from those who are not deemed to be formal parties to the contract but nevertheless crucial to its reproduction (such as the family wage). As industrialisation diminished the circumstances of waged workers, the wage contract served to nevertheless imply a compensatory distinction between those with, on the one hand, the authority to contract and those, on the other hand, who laboured under the condition of slavery or unpaid domestic labour.iii Given all of this, the call to restore limits is the demand for the re-imposition of these boundaries and the austerities they bring about. It is also, importantly, a call for the extension of those limits in the midst of panic enabled by crisis. It might be noted that, in this context, the denunciation of looting is nothing more than the attempt to reimpose the connection between the wage and (rightful, household) consumption. Moreover, just as Margaret Thatcher’s policies were ushered in by talk of balancing the national budget as if it were akin to that of a household, so too the recent remarks about “living within one’s means” by Chinese media, as it rebuked US fiscal policy, highlight once again the conflation of household and nation as re/productive units. The crisis is, from a capitalist perspective, an occasion for innovation or, what is much the same thing, the proliferation of oikonomic limits that go to the question of how to expand surplus labour.

In the “Chapter on Capital” in the Grundrisse, Marx discussed at some length what he took to be the contradictory tendencies of capital to both overtake and posit limits. The tendency to “create the world market,” he wrote, in which every “limit appears as a barrier to be overcome,” at the same time includes “the complementary tendency to create ever more points of exchange.” This “production of a constantly widening sphere of circulation, whether the sphere itself is directly expanded or whether more points within it are created as points of production,” underlined for Marx the crucial inseparability of circulation and production in the actual, historical processes of capitalism. This is what he referred to as the double movement of the limit that is inherent not to production conceived in ahistorical terms, but to a specifically capitalist form of production. Of the English political economist Ricardo, Marx suggested that he did not understand the tension between circulation and production which creates crises of realisation (or, what is the same thing, overproduction), and so imagined there were no crises intrinsic to capitalism; whereas of Sismondi, the Swiss economist, Marx wrote that he perceived these crises as part of the regular processes of capital, and by contrast to Ricardo, “wants to put up barriers” through “custom, law etc.” Capital, Marx argued, respects only those limits which are internal to its dynamic, relevant to its futurity (1973:407-17). Therefore, the expansion of capitalism is at the same time the proliferation of limits, most notably, the limit that consists in defining what is productive, what is labour, what might circulate and how; that which enables the legibility of property ownership (and right) and its transfer. If Polanyi adopts Marx’s phrase “double movement,” it is in order to romanticise the apparently pre-capitalist instance of the particular form of the gift economy – what he overtly calls at one point “householding” (2001:55) – that capitalism presupposes at its core. According to Polanyi, the double movement consists of what he described as a contradiction between the self-regulating market and those forces which seek the protection of peoples, land and cultures. For Marx however, the double movement might offer analytically distinguishable terms but is historically and theoretically indivisible. Inasmuch as he continued to use an interpretive model borrowed from Hegel (which is nevertheless open to dispute), his critique of Hegel increasingly refuted the idealisation of one pole of the dialectic or the extension of its explanatory ability beyond capitalism. The double movement, in brief, is intrinsic to capitalism – just as, it might be added, the formula of land, labour and capital is unique to the apologia of political economy.

The border proliferates, then, not only in the innovations of technologies of border policing and similar mechanisms (which I turn to in the following section), but also in the restoration of the very boundary between the wage contract and surplus labour that is organised and reformulated by oikonomics. Capital is surplus labour. Simply put, the argument I want to insist on here is that where a reconfiguration of oikonomics allows for the refoundation and expansion of surplus labour, not least through the naturalisation of its terms and conditions, the technologies of the border are oriented toward transforming lines of flight into points of exchange. Without discrete jurisdictions – without, in other words, the demarcations that enable assorted currencies and their comparison, the creation of differential markets in labour, the boundaries that distribute abundance and impose austerity, and more besides – there would be no capital. The smooth space imagined in laissez faire or neoliberal doctrines has never existed. Neoliberal economist Milton Friedman may well have propounded arguments for a seemingly strict free market, but that neoliberalism’s Structural Adjustment laboratory was Chile under the dictatorship of General Pinochetiv indicates the extent to which violence secures this particular definition of freedom. Friedrich Hayek (1976) may well have fantasised about the de-nationalisation of currencies and the spontaneous organisation of “free markets,” but without legitimated violence there would be no ultimate guarantee of a distinction between legal and counterfeit money, nor for that matter any creation of distinct markets, including the market in labour. As Marx put it in the third volume of Capital: “a money value is only guaranteed so long as money itself is guaranteed” (1991, 649). The transition which presently preoccupies analysts and traders alike, namely a shift to a stable global reserve currency other than that of the US dollar, is overtly tied to the question of global military reach that stabilises trade routes, that organises the geopolitical distribution of unrest and crackdowns, and controls the boundaries of migration and the flows of people construed as commerce. In any case, the rise of so-called globalisation in the post-Cold War period succinctly illustrates the ways in which this globalisation amounted, simultaneously, to the easing of regulations on finance/trade and a turn to increasingly draconian restrictions on the movements of people. The flows of remittances and the differential capacity for mobility is made possible by a tightening of oikonomic debt, obligation and free labour. Migration policy constitutes the very distinction between legitimate and unauthorised movements, creates border policing along with people-smuggling, and installs a distinction between demographic residency and genealogical citizenship precisely because violence transforms the movements of people into the circulation of labour-power.

2. Border Technologies

Arrayed beyond and around the obvious walls of migration control, the architectures and technologies of the border proliferate. These technologies seek to sort, expunge, confine and delay; to sift potential value from non-value; to fix the border inside and round both states and selves; to foreclose the future to versions of an infinitely stuttering present. Just as new instruments of financial debt and the offshore internment facility were exported from their post-colonial laboratories situated beyond Europe and the United States, so ‘civil’, metropolitan spaces have, in turn, been restructured by devices once reserved for those declared to be ‘uncivil’. The partitioning of ‘third’ and ‘first’ worlds, colony and empire, the zoning of regular, waged work and that of precariousness and slavery – these are some of the divisions that have been shaken by the unprecedented movements of people around the world since the late 20th century. Flows shifted course, reversed, the (ex-)colonised moved toward the colonisers. And so, there is the militarisation of policing, the amplification of the prison lockdown as urban crowd control, pre-emptive surveillance and simulated warfare, a diffused fear and suspicion no longer confined to the margins. To be sure, these expanding technologies oftentimes multiply death and suffering in an attempt to re-impose the ways in which misery was previously displaced to others, elsewhere – that is, marginalised. They aim to reinstall the borders, to calibrate the ramparts of wealth and its extraction, sometimes by new means, often as retrofits. Yet, as such, this expansion indicates the failure of the walls to hold firm against a future which is contingent upon movements that cannot be identified before they occur. Superfluidity is surplus motion at the limit of recognition. It prompts the legal limbo of the detention facility, shapes the condition of the stateless, of those who indefinitely dwell in airports and border camps managed by the UN, squatter camps and those who are homeless, those evacuated under the emergency edicts of the naturalised disaster, those who labour under the constant threat of deportation and its growing collection of visa classifications and bonded-labour stipulations. Superfluidity is movement contained and channelled at the same time, excess suspended and made captive for selection. It is the horizon of surplus value and its derivation. And, between those described as ‘floating populations’ (such as the vast numbers of ‘internal migrants’ in China) and those rendered superfluous through calculations of their possible cash redemption and regeneration, there is the internment ship, anchored just off the coastline of citizenship. As with the return of the prison hulk,v so with the recourse to the shifting, just-in-time legal and economic boundaries of exrtraterritoriality. Extraterritoriality is neither wholly legal nor quite illegal. It is the legally established non-space in which anything becomes possible; constituted by law and selectively applicable of its clauses. It is the offshore migrant processing facility trialled by the Australian Government in the Pacific and exported to Libya via the EU, the shadow state and private armies, the practices of rendition and subcontracting of torture, the export processing zone and maquiladora regions, the USA’s Guantanamo Bay positioned on the edge of Cuba, the excision of ‘migration territories’ which retrospectively cancels refugee and migrant laws and conventions after borders have been crossed, the DMZ’s (demilitarised zones) and the growing number of ‘airport liaison officers’ from Europe, Australia and Canada situated around the globe who conduct pre-emptive passport checks. Extraterritoriality is the border made transportable because the significant variable to be contained and harnessed is the movements of bodies.

Where extraterritoriality took shape around migratory movements and discovered a magnifying capacity in 9/11, the technologies of the protest zone and ‘kettling’ have been directed toward movements as these have been more conventionally defined. Their use signals a concurrent faltering and persistence of the very definition of what a movement is. The series of anti-summit and no border protests that began at the close of the 20th century precipitated a series of innovations in crowd control, the cordoning off of cities and regions, making them minutely available to combined police-military operations of surveillance, management, and ongoing research in civil policing/warfare exercises. Distinguishing ‘good’ from ‘bad’ protesters, legitimated protest has increasingly meant dissent at an inconsequential distance and in disciplined corridors. These threshold measures echo and deploy the mechanics of superfluidity and extraterritoriality, as well as recalling the jail and passport check, cattle corral and traffic management. They sieve, steward, and pre-emptively intern, for the length of declared protests. They arrest (social) movements by becoming as moving and fleeting as they are. They are as internalised to the sense of proper political action as they are brought to bear from the outside as police directive. They rise up around areas transformed into gated communities for business executives and government representatives; supplement the offshoring of migrant internment facilities with buffer zones that divide no border movements from migratory movements. Threshold technologies are, above all, about reassembling the border of what will pass for politics as such. What activates and distributes these particular sets of measures is the conventional announcement of a protest action, its punctuated duration and specific location, that part of politics which adheres to the politically customary rather than experimental.

Biometric and surveillance technologies make everyone a suspect of no specific charge. They are the principles of measure and classification applied to skin contours, eye, bone, gait, voice, affect, comportment. They are the border guard’s question of “Halt, who goes there?” – the interrogative which seeks identification as the condition of crossing – multiplied and (post)industrialised. Recognition technologies surmount Orwell’s cherished distinction between public and private spaces, all the way down into the body, internalising the citizen’s yearning for that distinction’s resurrection, as the re-privatisation of dissent and difference. They are supposed to make one long to pass, to belong as a good citizen might. Even so, as the high-tech offspring of phrenology and eugenics, bundled as security doctrine, the most notable features of biometrics and surveillance are the scandals of (sometimes lethal) misrecognition, their cost, and their remarkable failure. Certain identification is recurrently disoriented by movement. Someone grimaces, another turns around, or moves just a little, runs too fast, speaks through the fog of a blocked nose, fidgets nervously, walks on. Racial profiling, for all its aggressive materiality, remains a discretionary and actuarial operation. Movements can only be captured as data or image after they occur. What makes bodies unlike things is where the technologies of recognition falter.

Debt seeks to pre-empt the future, to make of it an impregnable variation of the present, unperturbed by the threat that the future might be otherwise. The securing of this world is accomplished not by military action and walls alone but by instruments of indebtedness that seek to reshape space, time and selves, through proliferating borders of a more intimate kind. The risk that the future might be different from the present is, with debt, transformed into a question of the measurable. Difference becomes reduced to quantitative difference, risk becomes calculable speculation – the present indifferent, or so it is wagered, to the incomparable difference of the future. IMF loans and micro-credit, student loans and mortgages, credit ratings both personal and national induce whole moral economies of success, failure and their demarcations, geographies and self-assessments of value and superfluity. The ostensible normality of ‘first’ world, Fordist regularity was built upon the possibility of seemingly endless debt renewal, leveraged by the gendered, racialised boundaries of ‘third’ world and unpaid labours. Now, tweaked by sub-prime and derivatives tested in Latin America, these geographies of impoverishment and the ‘at risk’, in both metropolitan and postcolonial spaces, have become re-visioned as the prospect of new frontiers, spaces that might be re-conquered for capital’s theoretically boundless expansion. It is debt which splices together an increasingly correctional welfare system with humanitarian warfare to arrive at regeneration and reconstruction projects, new rounds for the extraction of money and labour from the world’s poor. Through debt, everyone can aspire to be a property-owner, at the very least by looking upon one’s self as an asset. Debt unfolds as the imaginary utopia of a citizen-calculator, carrying the border against a qualitatively different future with them across an eternalised present and through smoothed-out spaces. Less idealistically, the increasing personalisation of debt promotes the internalisation of command and self-management, alongside the socialisation of risk and the dissemination of anxiety over exchange and interest rates.

Over the last twenty years, tunnels have been carved out under the two most prominent of the world’s borders. Since the launch of Operation Gatekeeper in the US, around seventy tunnels have been discovered, one a mile long. Underneath Gaza there are hundreds of separate tunnels along the borders with Israel and Egypt, new ones revealed on an almost weekly basis. Where there have been borders, people have found ways to go around, over, through and under them. What is in excess of measure overflows, seeps down through cracks, makes them wider, creates new ones. Here, experiment is key. In border crossing, what is effective outflanks that which is established, and the most effective overall strategy is that which is circumstantially tactical. Neither seeking to claim territory as with the counter-hegemonial nor hinged around visibility and recognition as with citizenship and value, the very act of border crossing occurs as it is able to. Borders 2.0 are to politically subsurface movements what web 2.0 is to the undercommons. The transformations and proliferations of border technologies are attempts to become adequate to this experimentation, to pre-empt it by miming its inclination, to circumscribe and re-route. Seeking to reimpose the present retrospectively and indefinitely, they are the architectural, technological tracings of movements already under-way and often long gone. One can stand in awe of their complexity or be enraged by their enthusiastic attachment to suffering and fear. But simply because what gives rise to them is not often recognisable – often taking place literally underground – does not mean they are where power, or the future, is. The future, then, remains tense. Neither hope nor despair; but experiment.


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iJoseph Stiglitz served as an economic advisor to President Clinton and was Chief Economist at the World Bank (1997–2000).

iiOn the broader question of debt, financialisation and households, cf. Cooper and Mitropoulos (2009) and Mitropoulos (2011a).

iiiOn this, see David Roediger (2007) and Mitropoulos (2009).

ivSee the correspondences between Friedman and Pinochet, available at:

vSee MacAdam (2006).

One thought on “Proliferating Limits: Capitalist Dynamics, Oikonomia and Border Technologies”

  1. I was hoping you’d post this, since I’ve been unable to get the book at my uni library. Thanks. The second part is breathtaking.


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