Bordering Colonial Uncertainty

by Angela Mitropoulos

The border is not a fixed, impervious limit; nor is it a continuous line. It is an apparatus that facilitates, regulates, stigmatizes, and criminalizes movements in space and time. Critical scholars of the border have pointed to the border’s porosity for some time (Chang and Aoki 1997; Mitropoulos 2001, 2008). Today, border control authorities echo a similar observation. As the Australian Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Michael Pezzullo (2013), put it more recently: “Borders are no longer these days seen as a barrier; they are more a space where sovereign political units control the flow of people and goods in to and out of their dominion.” It is, he added, “not a wall … which completely seals off nations, states and peoples.” Rather, the “design of these points, systems and processes can add to economic competitiveness and productivity, by fostering rapid movement and border entry or exit.”

What Pezzullo did not mention is that the border also adds economic value by causing delays, detainment, and halts in the movement of certain classes of people—through which it converts those movements into financial value in the operations of a vast detention industry involving government, non-government and corporate agencies (Mitropoulos 2014, 2015a, 2015b). Nor does he mention the history through which borders arrived on this continent, as they did in others, as a means of preserving English property law and colonial rights; not to hermetically seal spaces, but as the means of a presumptively rightful appropriation and so as to ensure ongoing, exclusive exploitation.

Briefly, then, borders do not encapsulate closed systems; instead, they operate as filters. So the questions of import become: How do borders operate as filters? To what end? How has this changed, if it has? Accurately describing borders is only one question, especially if the aim is a critical analysis of the border that informs and is informed by emerging campaigns around it. Thus, a critical theory of the border involves, at the same time, a critical understanding of how borders operate and how we operationalize borders in our theories, research, our assumptions and, not least, in our activism (Mitropoulos 2002, 2004, 2015b).

One of the stakes of border controls entails controlling the borders of the political (Mitropoulos 2006, 9, 2007), which oftentimes negates the political agency of migrants. Understanding how this negation occurs requires understanding the workings of economics and finance, in particular how the treatment of detainees as an asset class is one way that Australia converts racism into the profits and share price of a detention industry.  Understanding this conversion process shows how campaigns around border controls are not part of the restoration of a distinction between citizens and non-citizens. If I may in what follows briefly outline what I mean by proliferating limits and the conversion of movements into value—concepts that come together in an archipelagic theory of border control systems (Mitropoulos 2015a), a theory informed by and, in turn, informing my work in xborder and the NoBorder Networks, and more recently with the Cross Border Operational Matters project, the Sydney Biennale Boycott, and the Divest From Detention platform.

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Divest from Detention campaign’s aims and strategies (image by

When I began writing on borders and became involved in campaigns against deportations and detention, the prevailing description of contemporary circumstances in theoretical accounts and the critical milieu was neoliberalism, a description closely aligned to globalization theory. Put simply, globalization theory holds that global capitalism—involving the increasing volume and speed of trade and people movements—had superseded the geographic limits, identities and borders of nation-states (Appadurai 1996; Harvey 2001; Giddens 2000; Sassen 1996). By most accounts, this occurred in the latter half of the twentieth-century.

For those of us involved in responding to the introduction of the mandatory detention of asylum seekers (in Australia since 1992), such characterizations ignored the fact that while “the movements of money and goods were deregulated over the last decade, the movements of people were [increasingly] restricted” (xborder 2000; Mitropoulos 2001). Contrary to the emphasis placed on deregulation and liberalization in globalization theory, my argument since then has been that “beyond and around the obvious walls of migration control, the architectures and technologies of the border proliferate,” and that this includes “proliferating borders of a more intimate kind,” such as the limits enacted through debt, welfare, and risk management involved in “new rounds of extraction” (Mitropoulos 2008, 2012: 153–166).

Theories of globalization and neoliberalism overstated the existence of free markets and ignored the increasing recourse to border controls that occurred during the period often described as one of globalization (Harcourt 2011; Mitropoulos 2017). In Australia, for instance, the Keating government floated the dollar, privatized public assets, and introduced the policy of mandatory detention of boat arrivals in the same year. As such, globalization theorists neglected a salient distinction in law and economics— that which lied between the history of regulatory systems (involving money and things, and which were therefore liable to deregulation) and the techniques of policing, criminalization, stigmatization, and detainment involving people. The latter techniques functioned through the inscription of racial-gendered properties on to new migrants and the preservation of colonial property relations, treating nation-states as if they were familial-racial analogues (or ethno-nations) and economics as oikonomia—that is, household management (Mitropoulos 2012). Proliferating limits is arguably a better description; but it is only one step in the analysis of what borders do.

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Tracing a conceptual topography of ‘the border’ in the context of the Australian detention regime (drawing by Angela Mitropoulos, Wallman and Javed)

An archipelagic theory of border controls emphasizes the adaptive non-uniformity of contemporary border controls, involving government, non-government and corporate entities (Mitropoulos 2015a). What we think of as a detention regime means, in practice, shifting boundaries and switching-points, often located extra-territorially and in many cases extra-legally, the creation and assembling of divergent time zones, durations, spaces and the combination of a variety of measures of risk and estimates of uncertainty. The device that combines these into an operational system is the contract, which is a simultaneously legal, financial and behavioral mechanism for identifying and allocating risk. It can reach all the way down as a behavioral code of conduct applied to detainees or temporary visa-holders, be inscribed as the terms of employment for subcontractors, or make it possible to outsource or shift the risk and liabilities between different agencies (between, say, Australian and Nauru governments, or from one subcontractor to another). The mostly private and increasingly offshored Australian detention system has been evolving since 1992 and has served as something of a global laboratory for immigrant detention. It is not alone in the emphasis it places on risk management. Frontex, the European Union’s Border Agency, states that “[r]isk analysis is the starting point for all Frontex activities.”

The remarkable feature of an archipelagic border system is its integration of speculative uncertainty into evaluations of risk and, indeed, profitability (Mitropoulos 2015a). On the one hand, administrative detention means that people are detained not for what they have done, but for what they might do. It is preemptive, based not on any evidence of past behavior but on expectations of future risk. The intensification of racial panic and calls for stronger borders increases estimates of that risk, and the value of the shareprice of companies involved in the border control industry.

On the other hand, all contracts are similarly future-oriented. They are stipulations not about what exists but about what will happen, enforceable by law and legitimated violence. In this sense, they are performative. The work of queer theorists such as Judith Butler and José Esteban Muñoz on Austin’s theory of performativity, and that of Inda on racial performativity, is important to a discussion of how identities emerge not ‘from nature’ but from actionable statements (Butler 1999; Muñoz 1999; Inda 2000; Austin 1975).

By my view however, performativity is a semantic-logical feature of every contract (Mitropoulos 2012). Contracts bring about organizational systems; contingent contracts do so where there is a post-statistical assumption of categorical uncertainty, as there is in border control. Thus, where Foucault linked statistical techniques with prisons (Foucault 1977), and therefore on bounded knowledge about the past, the contemporary border system is concerned with gleaning a speculative and financial value from uncertainty about an imagined future. Encoded in the most seemingly abstract of techniques there lurks a lucrative fear about the future of ‘the white race’ and its colonial properties. The reconstruction of white, national identity through imaginative depictions of an imminent existential threat and amnesia about the violence of colonial appropriation are bound together in claims of a naturalized, monopolized right to control movements across borders. Unauthorized migration is, then, perceived as akin to trespass and, as with criminal law where prisons are an industry, converted into an asset.

Divestment campaigns—particularly in a context where the negative or repressive application of law is, at the same time, a positive financial gain for corporations and shareholders—are as much about breaking financial links as they are about addressing the filial bonds of whiteness. The aim of divestment is, simply put, to eliminate the value of detaining people, since it is that value which drives the expansion of the detention industry, in Australia and elsewhere.


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