For a long time, Harsha Walia felt “really deflated.”
It’s a surprising admission from someone whose resumé as an activist and organizer spans decades and includes work with No One Is Illegal and the Women’s Memorial March, leadership of the BC Civil Liberties Association, and most recently as the author of a new book.
But it was the realization that some problems are too large to solve through individual action that spurred Walia’s activism forward. Feeling the wind taken out of your sails, she says, is “actually very mobilizing.”
Instead of focusing on efforts she could take on her own, Walia turned her attention to learning more about the global systems that create injustices and organizing collective movements for change.
“If we continue to play whack-a-mole at the symptoms and not the root causes, or we try to be realistic by not demanding too much, we’re going to still live in the same world,” she said. “We absolutely all have an individual role to play, but it has to be part of a broader fight in a broader struggle. There’s no liberation in isolation.”
That’s the ethos underlying her new book, Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism and the Rise of Racist Nationalism, in which she argues against the use of the terms “migrant and refugee crises” and encourages a focus on the “actual crises of capitalism, conquest and climate change.”
It’s a call to look more deeply at the factors that create the problems the world is facing, and to think more broadly and critically about the ways we try to fix them.
It’s also the reason Walia’s writing shouldn’t just appeal to academics or those interested in migrant justice and immigration policy. It’s relevant for anybody who has wondered if there is a point in recycling while B.C.’s government approves the logging of the province’s last remaining old-growth forests, or whether protests against police brutality will make a difference in a system that has repeatedly failed to hold officers accountable.
In a recent interview with The Tyee, Walia discussed migrant justice, border imperialism, the problems with multiculturalism and the role of radical activism. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Amelia Williams: What prompted you to write this book, and why did you approach the topic the way that you did?
Harsha Walia: I think what brought me to write the book was mainly just having organized in migrant justice movements for almost two decades. What I really wanted to do was break through methodological nationalism and look at the ways in which systems of “bordering regimes” travel — they aren’t as unique as we think they are to the places we live. So that’s what compelled me to write it, and also to think internationally and nationally.
You’ve written a lot about the concept of “border imperialism” as a way to understand a border as a set of processes that create and maintain vulnerability and violence, rather than as a feature of geography. Could you elaborate a bit on this concept?
It was to really counter the idea that the border just exists as a line on the map. It’s not just a geographical space — borders really are bordering regimes. Bordering regimes are systems of social ordering, and I wanted to think about the ways in which bordering practices exist in many places beyond just the line on the map, practices that act as bordering regimes within the nation state, beyond the nation state.
Also, critically thinking about bordering regimes in the context of imperialism, which means that we understand the ways in which borders uphold global apartheid and the systems of imperialism. And to really think critically about global violence and what creates migration.... What are the forces of displacement, and how do borders maintain a system of mass global apartheid that still allows the so-called global north and the so-called global south to even exist?
Your criticisms of liberal multiculturalism, especially reading from the Canadian context, were really salient. You describe it as shallow and state-centric, and about projecting benevolence rather than actually doing anything to take steps towards justice. Could you talk more about this?
When we think of multiculturalism specifically in the Canadian context, it’s this very reductionist idea of celebrating cultures, which of course in itself is not an issue. We should be celebrating cultures. We should be celebrating people coming from different parts of the world.
But what’s problematic about it is that this idea of people being from other parts of the world maintains that system of othering, where we assume that whiteness is somehow a normal part of North America — when in fact, it is a product of settler colonialism. And so that’s one of the ways in which multiculturalism, I think, is deeply problematic, as it continues to cast racialized people, particularly non-Indigenous racialized people, as outsiders, even in a celebratory tone.
The other thing is that it places the issue of social difference onto the plane of culture. It suggests that we are different because we are from different places. Of course we’re different, but the real systemic issues have to do with systemic racism, they have to do with race, not culture. And so it evades a discussion about racism by suggesting that ethnicity and culture are the ways in which we mark difference.
And I’d say the final part of it is that it is just deeply anti-Black and anti-Indigenous in positioning white people as the welcomers, as the host. And again, centring whiteness as the arbiters of who defines who is multicultural. Who gets defined as being different and multicultural is inherently anti-Black and anti-Indigenous, because it erases Indigenous nationhood and maintains anti-Blackness.
It’s also interesting to see how it functions to demarcate some groups of immigrants or refugees as deserving of welcome whereas others are seen as threats.
Yes, absolutely. In the discourse of welcoming, there’s always some who are welcome and some who are marked to be expelled.
In your book, you argue that the development of borders is inextricably linked with capitalism, neo-liberalism and colonialism, which are the same elements that manifest in resource plunder and the violation of Indigenous land rights. Could you speak to those connections and how we’re seeing them play out in the Canadian context?
Nation-state borders, as we know them, are a deeply colonial construct that have torn apart communities. We know that even the U.S.-Canada border is a deeply violent act that has torn apart Indigenous communities whose nations are now cleaved through with this arbitrary state line. And we see this all around the world.
Borders maintain racial capitalism, because one of the central features of borders is that they have very little to do with actual movement. We know mining companies, for example, or fossil fuel companies, can cross borders all the time in order to extract, whether it’s land or labour. And so bordering practices aren’t intended to prevent the flow of capital or aren’t intended to prevent the flow of militaries or occupying forces. They’re intended to be carceral regimes — systems of punishment and exploitation.
In a world that’s increasingly marked by climate crisis and climate displacement, it means that overwhelmingly Black, Brown and Indigenous people are going to be condemned to this new deathscape of submerging islands, drowning coastal communities, droughts and fires. Capital continues to extract and exploit land and labour, and borders continue to ensure that people are immobilized.
When you’re discussing the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, you mention that the fatalities of foreign workers in Canada aren’t really tracked, and it’s up to advocacy groups to track them as best as they can and publicize that information. In your roles as researcher, writer and advocate, how do you overcome the lack of transparency in these institutions?
It’s incredibly difficult, but I think that really is the mechanism by which bureaucracies work. They’re a sort of fortress that you’re supposed to believe you can penetrate, but you can’t. It’s amazing. It really is death by a thousand cuts, where you’re just up against all odds. But it gives you the veneer of access and the façade of democracy.
These kinds of liberal democratic institutions — like welfare, like health care, like child services and the immigration system — are literally institutions that are death machines and are intended to be that way. But we don’t see it, because we don’t see or understand it in the same way as we might overt violence, but that’s what they were perfected to become.
And they’re the outgrowth of institutions like residential schools where, these are genocidal institutions that are couched as civilizing and progressive, but they’re clearly not.
Some of the solutions you argue for include dismantling capitalism and abolishing borders. How would you respond to people who recognize injustices in immigration policy and at the border, but think those types of reforms aren’t realistic?
The question around being realistic that’s put to radical people and movements is a constant one. We’re in the midst of many, many forms of state and capital violence. We’re in the midst of genocidal policing institutions, in the midst of global vaccine apartheid, in the midst of people literally dying all around the world because we created a system where people are expendable and exploitable and, I’m just like — how is that reality?
I guess for me, I refuse the idea of realism because the world that we live in right now is so far beyond dystopian, but we accept it as reality and normal, and we shouldn’t. So I would much prefer to be unrealistic and believe that we can live in a world that is different. I believe we can, we have to, and we can’t accept this.
How can individuals fight for these changes that you offer when the problems are so systemic in nature?
The only thing I think we can do as individuals is really to believe in collective struggle and to sit with the reality that there is nothing we can do alone because the problem is so large.
I think that there is power in realizing that a lot of the injustices of the world are actually connected to each other. That a lot of the injustices are symptoms of a larger problem, and that in order to address almost all of these issues, we need to be addressing the core causes. And if we do that together, we have a fighting chance.