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John Lennon and Why Borders Matter - Book Review

Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries (2020) by Frank Furedi, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent.

Book review by David Warden

John Lennon's 1971 song Imagine is sometimes considered to be a humanist anthem on account of its line, 'Imagine... no religion". The whole verse goes like this:

Imagine there's no countries

It isn't hard to do,

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace

The former Beatle also invites us to 'imagine no possessions' and 'A brotherhood of man, Imagine all the people, Sharing all the world...'. I refer to all of this as 'Lennonism' (rather than Leninism) and it seems to inspire a lot of left-leaning thinking today. You could call it a hippy dream of a sharing, peace-loving, and borderless world. The problem is, I've yet to meet anyone on the left who would actually go so far as to disregard the borders and locks of their own home, or the secrecy of their PIN number, to invite an unlimited number of unknown but less fortunate people to claim their right to move in and help themselves to whatever resources happen to be available. And yet, in the name of humanitarianism, humanism and human rights, this is what is sometimes advocated at the level of a country.

Frank Furedi, himself a former Hungarian refugee, refers to it as a 'borderless sensibility' and he notes that Robert Schuman, one of the founding fathers of the European Union project, regarded borders as 'the scars of history'. Similarly, Jean-Claude Juncker, former president of the European Commission, contended that 'Borders are the worst invention ever made by politicians'. No wonder, then, that the backlash against Brexit was so ferocious. It was a blasphemy against the 'borderless sensibility'. And yet, the European project has not abolished borders. It has simply drawn a larger one around itself. Look at the fuss it makes about the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Furedi contends that physical borders create a space within which individuals develop a sense of belonging and community, and cultivate their identity. A humanist group or society does this on a small scale. I was once asked by a Christian why our Dorset Humanists' slogan contained the words 'atheists and agnostics'. I argued that this was an attempt to delineate the identity of our group. To make it completely open to anyone, regardless of belief, would be to destroy its meaning from the outset. Furedi writes that 'boundaries play a crucial role in the constitution of the self, for they provide the framework within which identity can be cultivated'.

The fear is that borders and boundaries are excluding and that they promote xenophobia and even racism. A sensible answer to this charge is to argue for borders which are partially porous rather than watertight. Most people who argue against mass immigration are arguing in favour of limited immigration - not the end of immigration. Limited immigration slows the process down and allows society to adjust.

In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, it became commonplace for some people to disavow their Britishness, a marker of shame for some, and to lament a lost European citizenship and identity. A European identity, of course, also excludes that which is not European. The only way to avoid this logical bind is to disavow all national and transnational identities and make the lofty claim that one is a 'citizen of the world'. This idea appeals to some humanists, but what does it actually mean? Can one be a 'citizen of the world?' Furedi thinks not, especially if it entails the erasure of borders.

"Western society's estrangement from borders is not an enlightened step forward - rather it expresses a self-destructive sensibility... Without borders, a citizen becomes subject to a power that cannot be realistically held to account."

Furedi argues that 'Advocates of open borders deterritorialise people's identity and seek to denationalise the status of citizenship'. In this way they 'deprive citizenship of moral content and undermine the capacity of human beings to think of themselves and act as a people'. The effect of this is not so much to liberate the individual to adopt a universal citizenship as to cast everyone adrift to find meaning and identity as lone individuals. Furedi writes that it 'reduces people to their most abstract individual qualities'. He cites political theorist Hannah Arendt as having argued that 'The establishment of one sovereign world state, far from being the prerequisite for world citizenship, would be the end of all citizenship. It would not be the climax of world politics, but quite literally its end... It is only as citizens interacting with one another, within a geographically bounded entity, that democratic decision-making can work and achieve remarkable results'. In a similar vein, Immanuel Kant argued, in Perpetual Peace (1795), that a world state would lead to global tyranny. Furedi concludes that 'Western society's estrangement from borders is not an enlightened step forward - rather it expresses a self-destructive sensibility... Borders are essential for the maintenance of national sovereignty, which is so far the only foundation that humanity has discovered for the institutionalisation of democratic accountability. Without borders, a citizen becomes a subject - subject to a power that cannot be realistically held to account'.

One of the most influential voices in favour of the 'borderless sensibility', however, was Karl Popper. His 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies contrasted openness to what he perceived as the tribalist mentality of national consciousness. Reacting to the First World War, Popper despised both national and ideological attachments. He regarded nations as closed societies whose borders needed to be transcended by more internationally-minded institutions. To this end, he defended empires and imperialism as more enlightened ways to organise ourselves. Guy Verhofstadt echoed this sentiment when, in a speech to the Liberal Democrats in Bournemouth in 2019, he said that 'The world of tomorrow is a world of empires in which we Europeans, and you British, can only defend your interests, your way of life, by doing it together, in a European framework and in the European Union.’ In response, Furedi repeats his insistence that 'Whatever one thinks of national borders, there can be no democratic public life outside their confines. It is only as citizens interacting with one another, within a clearly geographically bounded entity, that democratic decision-making can work. The demos has always existed in a bounded space.'

As I write, I can anticipate the counter-arguments, that 'the EU is itself a "bounded space" and more democratic than the UK', and that, in any case, 'democracy has failed'. How ironic, though, that the main alternative to nationalism seems to be some form of imperialism. In the nineteenth century, progressive secular humanists like George Jacob Holyoake were on the side of nationalist freedom fighters like Giuseppe Mazzini. Maybe we are condemned to oscillate between these two ways of organising ourselves politically, with neither finally delivering our perpetually hoped-for Utopia. And Lennon's dream of a world without countries, far from being a sharing and peace-loving brotherhood of man might, instead, turn out to be a totalitarian nightmare.

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