Border Crossings

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by Cindy Milstein

That which is avant-garde has always transgressed theboundaries of what is considered decent. Yet after the"shock of the new" has worn off, what was once widelyperceived as subversive is often viewed by many associally acceptable if not desirable. Anarchism, everbohemian due to its utopian edge--even if anarchistssee their principles as eminently applicable to thevast majority of peoples' lives--continually throwsitself against the next brick wall as soon as theprevious one comes tumbling down. At least to date,then, the praxis of anarchism has voluntarily loiteredat the border regions of society, remainingoutrageous, but seeing with every new frontier a senseof possibility.

Cindy Milstein

For anarchists and other radicals, this can at timesform the backdrop for a productive production. Fromthe 1950s onward, new types of social movementschallenged lines etched by everything from colonialismand racism to patriarchy and heterosexism. Theuncertainty created by such border crossings hasfrequently been generative not just of civil unrestand the casting off of old masters but more expansivearticulations of liberation. For example, by variousmovements pressing against the limits of what it meansto love or be sexual, "sexuality" as a category wasenlarged to include gays and lesbians, then stretchedto embrace bisexuals and later transsexuals, andrecently further pried open by the contestation of"gender" as a binary concept. Even if heterosexism isfar from eradicated, many peoples' lived experiencehas improved; even if still confining, more socialspace has been created for greater self-determinationaround intimate issues such as partnerings,sensuality, and kinship.

Then too, creative borrowings across borders is adefining feature of the contemporary anti-capitalistmovement. The phrase "Our resistance is astransnational as capital" has itself becometransnational--a copyright-free good to be used byall. Indeed, a clever idea at one demonstration or aninnovative organizing strategy whisks around theworld, to be playfully altered in an array of diverselocales and then reinvented elsewhere. There are now arainbow of blocs at protests; home-made shields atdirect actions are crafted out of materials rangingfrom inner tubes to giant shellacked photos of globalyouth; and encuentros have beget consultas have begetgrassroots social forums, if an exact lineage can evenbe traced. In this mutualistic economy of theimagination, we gladly share our ideas for globalizingfreedom without need of trade agreements, withoutasking for bills of sales, national identificationcards, or passports. And so it is that we cobbletogether a movement of movements without borders, allthe while asserting that "another world is underconstruction," as activists did at a recent gatheringbefore the Europe without Capital mobilization inBarcelona.

But whether figurative or literal, borders are placesof displacement, marking out danger and potentialityin equal measure. For many, they signify trauma; abetter life often isn't waiting on the other side. Andmore than ever, border crossings both geographic andcultural, material and emotional, are becomingcompulsory points of no return for millions due toforces beyond their control.

The legacy of the anti-authoritarian Left couldtheoretically offer a framework to boldly approach andcontest the legitimacy of the new, confusing dividesbeing erected on a plethora of fronts. It could helpease the passage for those forced into migration andindicate a sense of home ahead. Anarchists, however,seem more comfortable causing disruptions at the old,familiar checkpoints--those guarding, say, culture orforms of resistance. Not that such disruptions aren'tnecessary, especially dynamic ones; the best ofradical artists retool when their creations becometoothless. Still, the taboos and truisms of what isunderstood as "anarchism" unfortunately stand sentinelat the gates of our own promise to be much morerelevant to many more people, in many more arenas.This would entail the discomfort of trudging throughthose barriers we've so far largely ignored.

Such dis-ease with one's place in the world isn'tnecessarily a matter of choice. The tragedy being writlarge on the global stage has broken down theboundaries between those who are displaced, thedisplacers, and those with a miniscule space of theirown. All perform overlapping, frequently destructiveif not deadly roles, and it is less and less clear whoto applaud and who to boo in the improvisation titled"Globalization." For like the migration oftransnational resistance, the much larger migration ofpeoples and commodities (and people as commodities)across all sorts of uncharted territories has incertain ways unhoused us all.

The current battle over national borders--the effortto maintain an increasingly elusive and illusorynational identity--is one case in point. Here, thedisplaced and the displacers, and those effected byboth, all wrestle to define who has a right to a homein the alleged homeland. Whether fought with rocks orbullets, suicide bombers or ballot boxes, this is lessa turf fight between or within states than it is aboutwho belongs to "my people." It is a struggle over whocounts as "us" versus "them" based on various andvariously contrived criteria of authenticity such asrace, religion, or historical injustices. It is a warwithout winners that alleges, like George W., thatthere are those who do good (us) and those who do evil(them), and no coexistence between such opposites ispossible.

Yet the very act of naming these dualisms--neverneatly contained to begin with--indicates that theyare at risk of dissolving altogether. Thedisplacements, hybridities, and interdependencies thatglobalization is making apparent, if not exacerbating,are eroding what meager ground was left for suchbipolar thinking. That could offer hope fortransnational identities, a qualitative humanism based equally on solidarity and differentiation. But in aworld that affords little security for much ofhumanity, holding fast to one's "people," howeverfraught with contradictions, at least supplies the veneer of home. Such is the foundation, for example,of a nouveau fascism that transgresses the contours ofNazism. Suddenly, it's "rad to be trad" in theNetherlands, where culturally liberatory sexualitybonds with politically racist ideology in arefashioned far Right.

The parameters of today's barbarism must berecognized in order to be fought, and that entailsaddressing its own barrier-breaking logic; how, forone, it feeds on many peoples' genuine concern overthe loss of community and individuality--such that inthe Netherlands at least, the xenophobe can be queer.Countering such an ugly avant-garde before its notionsbecome normative requires that we too straddlepreviously noncontiguous spaces. For instance, in aUnited States permeated by racism, perhaps anarchism'santistatism should openly grapple with the necessityof certain forms of national identity as meaningfulthough not sufficient to people of color in theirstruggle for freedom (or as Ashanti Alston argues inthe spring 2002 Onward, "Beyond nationalism, but notwithout it"). Attempting such thorny trespasses mightjust determine whether we continue to play in therefuse of capitalist society, always at its fringes,or can instead offer a semblance of refuge to thosemade vulnerable at its many points of migrations.

This essay is reprinted, with permission, from"Arsenal: The Magazine of Anarchist Strategy andCulture." Cindy can be reached

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