Edwin Bendyk – The Demon of the Border

“Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” cried Ronald Reagan in front of the Brandenburg Gate. While he was delivering his speech in West Berlin on 12 June 1987, Berliner Mauer – the Berlin Wall –  was still more than just a border. It stood as a symbol of the Iron Curtain, which divided the world into socio-political-economic camps. It seemed as firm as the concrete of which it was built and as undaunted as the Soviet Union, which guaranteed the existence of the Eastern Bloc and the German Democratic Republic. When 4 June 1989 saw the first elections in Poland that opened up the path to democracy, the Berlin Wall still guarded the border with deadpan seriousness – the GDR guards still followed the order to shoot at those who tried to illegally force their way across the border to the free world. Helpful Wikipedia reports that from amongst around five thousand people who attempted to cross the German-German border at least 140 died, although there may have been more victims. The last name on this gloomy list is Chris Gueffroy, who was killed by GDR border guards on 5 February 1989. In December the same year the wall collapsed, and its fall became a new symbol – of the advent of the end of history, triumph of liberal democracy and a new phase of global integration.

The Berlin wall divided Germany in 1961 in order to put an end to the exodus from the Soviet occupation zone. Until the closing of the border, 3.5 million people left the GDR, which amounted to 20% of the population. They did not find the primacy of communism over capitalism convincing, and therefore they fled to the West while they still could. However, this is a history of which fewer and fewer people have personal memories, and while seen through the prism of James Bond films, it becomes more of a farce than a tragedy. The more so that since 1989 the world has changed significantly. Thirty years after Ronald Reagan’s famous appeal to Mikhail Gorbachev, the United States are ruled by a man who won the elections partly because he promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico.

His intentions are nothing original, since walls are growing around the world, separating India from Bangladesh, Israel from Palestinian territories, Hungary from Serbia, Morocco from Sahara territories. Where they are absent, walls are replaced with seas, yet no barrier is capable of putting an end to human traffic. The slightest crevice of hope suffices for the pressure of the human mass to fill it with a stream of daredevils attempting to make their way to the other side. Many of them die, yet the victims do not stop the pressure. For stopping it is not the point.

Even the rulers of the GDR did not want the border to remain utterly impenetrable. More important was to retain control over the territory and population. One of its aspects was actually a profitable business, a sort of human trafficking, which consisted in rationing permits to leave the Socialist Republic in exchange for a sufficient ransom paid in hard currency. Yet the fall of the Berlin Wall, which – instead of ending the era of walls – inaugurated a period of their zealous construction worldwide, reveals a perverse truth: the Berlin Wall was not a symptom of a communist, but of a capitalist isolation from the world. Capitalism owes its energy to the difference which derives its historic source from the division between the “interior” and “exterior” of the system. The external territory: natural environment, overseas territories under political and economic control, which “demanded” colonisation, was and still is a source of cheap raw materials, cheap labour and offers the possibility to drop the burden of external costs in the form of dirt cheap export of toxic waste. This mechanism is known in economic theory under the elegant neutral name of comparative advantage and was described already at the beginning of the nineteenth century by Robert Torrens, and popularised by David Ricardo. Everyone offers on the market the best of whatever they have, which begins to look less elegant once we get to the practical side of things. Then it turns out that comparative advantage is derived from slave labour and disastrous exploitation of the natural environment, and the existence of borders becomes one of the ways to generate “productive” differences.

In an ideal world, which means a world arranged according to the vision of globalisation preached in the 1990s by one of its most enthusiastic apologists, Thomas L. Friedman, the free market would be in place, while people, goods and services could flow freely without any obstacles. In an ideal world borders would not exist. Yet, it would also mean that there would be no capitalism. For free competition means that the significance of comparative advantage is reduced to nil, profit margin disappears, and the mechanism of accumulation is brought to a halt.

In an ideal world without borders, the level of potentials needs to become equal and reach the average level, which follows from the laws of thermodynamics. Such a situation (of course not in the context of capitalism, but of thermodynamics) was pondered upon by the eminent scholar James Maxwell, who asked: is it possible to reverse the situation? Let us assume that our starting point is the unproductive equilibrium, in which everything has reached the average level. Now, we are setting up a border and ask if it is possible to recreate an arrangement in which one side would be occupied exclusively by particles A with higher energy, whereas the other side – by particles B with lower energy. The result would be two sets, each with a different energy, divided by a border, yet each of them would manifest a lower level of entropy, which means, in a nutshell, that it would be more orderly. Such a process cannot proceed by itself, but we can imagine a demon who taps into the knowledge of each of the particles to segregate them and send them to the appropriate side of the border. However, the problem that remains unsolved is: who pays for the demon’s work?

Let us repeat Maxwell’s thought experiment in the context of social reality. In an ideal world without borders, Syrians mingle with Germans and Poles. Still, the real world is divided by borders that are guarded by numerous demons who pen Syrians in Syria or in refugee camps or check if someone who claims German nationality is really German, or if someone who claims Polish nationality is really Polish and can therefore profit from the privileges offered by German or Polish citizenship. Demons operate via information control. It is on such a basis that they can segregate the movements of particles-bodies, thus keeping the world in a state of lasting imbalance.

What remains is Maxwell’s question about the price that needs to be paid for maintaining such a state. The answer is simple: it is the price of growing information control and rising violence (energy) needed to keep particles-bodies in their place despite the lack of equilibrium. This price is paid by everyone, not only those who need to apply for visas or seek asylum in order to get to a “better” world with a higher potential. In order to recognise them, the demon needs to be in possession of information about everyone else as well, and therefore needs to keep everyone under surveillance. He cannot limit himself merely to controlling the border, but needs to control the entire society in order to pick out unlawful bodies and send them back where they belong.

Since the demon has not yet gained the complete range of information, he commits mistakes, as it is experienced by US citizens who receive a deportation order from their country, and as it has recently been experienced by Shane Ridge in Great Britain. He was informed that he needed to leave the United Kingdom because he was not a citizen although that was where he had been born and raised. The obvious mistake was rectified with an obvious recommendation for the demon: you need to constantly improve the system of collecting information. It is just that total invigilation is followed by a ubiquity of violence. It manifests itself through the militarisation of police activities and the militarisation of the public space of the “First World.”

Thus, we reach the paradoxical finale of the globalisation process, whose culmination was to have come with the fall of the Berlin Wall. In response to the unfulfilled promise of the world without walls and borders, walls are rising at an unprecedented pace, which is accompanied by the growing fervour of emotions of sovereignty. For borders do indeed divide and help maintain differences, but at the same time they stand as an expression of state sovereignty, whose key aspect is control over territory. Is it therefore the end of and a turn away from globalisation?

Quite the opposite – the return of ambitions of sovereignty and escalation of ambitions to control state territories should not veil the fact that the real border that determines the dynamics of the system has been shifted. It is marked today by the division between the physical territory and the hybrid exterritorial social space resulting from the development of the digital communication media. While our bodies crash into border walls that divide countries, our personas constantly move without major obstacles in the hybrid space of the Internet. Not forever. The demon is not idle. And it is only a matter of time when everyone will be given their own private digital border wall that will guard their “comparative advantage,” which is indispensable to maintain the dynamics of capital accumulation.

Yet, the borders that divide territories will not disappear soon, since they are necessary to legitimise political regimes that derive power from selling the illusion of sovereignty on their own territory. The illusion that is necessary to discipline the bodies that are gathered on that territory and are growing ever more superfluous.