An Interview With Prof. Arash Abizadeh

This interview is available in full as part of Poet’s Country №4, available here.

Arash Abizadeh, Associate Professor of Political Science at McGill University, Quebec, Canada, published “Democratic Theory and Border Coercion: No Right to Unilaterally Control Your Own Borders” in 2008, arguing that if a polity is to be considered democratic, a justification of border control is owed not only to citizens, but also non-citizens, since boundaries coercively impact both parties. Countering this notion, British political theorist David Miller subsequently wrote that such controls are not coercive to outsiders. This finally prompted a response from Abizadeh, in which he stated that Miller’s claim would exempt “a vast array […] of the state’s laws from the requirement of democratic justification.”

It’s been ten years since the publication of your essay on border control. What kind of experiences and influences led to you producing this scholarship?

When 9/11 happened, I was living in the US doing my PhD. I wasn’t a US citizen. It brought home how the treatment of non-citizens by our liberal democratic states remained the last bastion of unquestioned, unfettered exercise of power that didn’t seem to owe justification to those over whom it was being exercised. This strikingly arbitrary exercise of power reared its head in a number of incidents: once, right before boarding a plane, I realized that foreigners like myself had to register with the US government in a way that we hadn’t before. It reinforced at an emotional level how liberal democrats had attacked arbitrary power and exclusion on the basis of categories like race and gender, but that of citizen-versus-foreigner had largely remained unquestioned in democratic theory. It was 2003 when I returned to Canada to write this piece, but that was very much a way in which my energies were channeled.

Your former tutor David Miller responded that borders can only be coercive if they force you to do something, rather than prevent you from doing something. Can contemporary political philosophy constructively address the autonomy of individuals living beyond recognizable borders? Does this work help refugees, for example?

It has that potential by providing conceptual tools and a political-philosophical language for interrogating assumptions we take for granted in the organization of politics. Critical examination can inform public discourse and could potentially help the plight of migrants in general as we think about how to deal with the mass levels of migration that we’re confronted with now and in the future. I tried to focus attention on something that had not been dealt with in thinking about migration questions. Prior to this piece, those attempting to promote the rights and well-being of migrants were, focused on freedom of movement and protecting people from exercises of political power. I wanted to draw attention to the political processes that determine how power is exercised in the first place: how are issues like migration determined?

Focusing on the democratic dimension rather than simply that of human rights helps political theory to make contact with activists in new and important ways. Often, people who are anti-migrant are motivated by issues that in some aspects are quite genuine; in some instances, they are motivated by the feeling that they lack the power to determine the conditions of their communal living. People who see their communities changing are animated by the same kinds of democratic concerns regarding how people exercise control over the terms of their own collective living. It’s the same issue that arises with the imposition of borders in the interstate sphere. Putting people on the same normative grounds might alter public discourse.

You stated that, empirically, “there is no global demos” — do you imagine it’s possible to develop a state in the world where humans consider themselves part of a global collective?

Given that some of the challenges we confront as humans are planetary in their scope, there are good reasons for the development of global solidarity across state boundaries. It would be desirable for political institutions at a global level to coordinate their legal and political regimes in a more democratic way. But that’s not necessarily to say that it is desirable to have political institutions at the global level that look like what we have at the state level. One worry is that the political institutions we have at the state level could result in global tyranny. We don’t know what things could look like in 200 years. What’s possible is one issue; what’s desirable is another. A departure from the status quo would be greater solidarity across state lines. It makes it difficult for people to have a say over the terms of their collective living conditions under the kind of globalization that is only economic rather than political. If they make a decision in their own states, they might find that their state institutions are powerless in the face of global economic forces to actually make those changes.

This is a case of unification at any cost — but what kind of unification?

Yes, and to what extent? I would not be in favor of global state institutions as we know them now at the state level, but I would be in favor of some kind of global democratic forums that may be cross-cutting; they don’t have to be unitary in any way.

Have people in Canada taken much interest in this kind of work? It’s not the kind of idea that I would have encountered in a British university.

It’s difficult to work out the concrete political implications in the here and now. To ask, “What are the policy implications for Canada or for Britain?” is a very contextual question about what is feasible and sustainable over the long run in any particular political community. The real point is not to recommend particular policies to specific states, but to shift the terms of discourse around which those policies are being made. When you’re calling yourself a democracy that is responsive to the people, what are the implications for border control? This is a live issue with the UK leaving the European Union; there is a question about who is exercising power and who gets to decide what kind of walls they will build.