Territory is increasingly presented as the only response to the world’s problems. But if territory is the answer, then what exactly is the question?
Words Ian Klinke
In the 1990s, it was common for us to hear and read about the end of territory. The Berlin Wall had fallen and the remaining pockets of real existing socialism were crumbling fast under the forces of liberal capitalism. As the European Union dissolved its internal borders, the spread of the internet seemed to further de-territorialise our lives. Two decades on, the picture seems to be a rather different one.
From the United Kingdom’s decision to retreat into the nation-state to the construction of border fences and walls in Israel, Hungary, the United States and elsewhere, the control of geographical areas seems to have returned to haunt us. Even cyberspace is now increasingly policed, both by authoritarian and more democratic states alike. Many of those who valorise a territorial world will argue that there is something inherently natural about this return of territory. Indeed, as a way of demarcating power in space, the question of territory may seem as old as mankind — but it is not.
Today, territory is commonly assumed to be a portion of the Earth’s surface, including its subsoil, airspace and adjacent waters, that is controlled by a state. Territory defines the geographical area over which a state has jurisdiction and it allows the state to filter the movement of people and goods into and out of this area. As an attempt to say “this far and no further”, territory may seem inherent to the human condition. But if territory was of natural rather than of cultural origin, we should be able to observe attempts to territorialise politics in all societies throughout history. Divided cities like Belfast, Jerusalem or Nicosia would be the rule rather than the exception. In fact, the logic of territory has its origins only in the 17th century.
“As a way of demarcating power in space, the question of territory may seem as old as mankind — but it is not.”
Rather than an answer to the question of migration, territory was originally a response to the problem of religious warfare. Indeed, it first emerged as a solution to the Thirty Years’ War, a conflict that had wiped out millions of Central Europeans between 1618 and 1648 in the name of both Protestantism and Catholicism. In order to ban such wars in the future, rulers should choose their territory’s denomination without interference from others. Those amongst the population who felt they would prefer to inhabit a territory with a different denomination to their ruler’s could simply leave. From this arose the principles of territorial sovereignty and non-intervention, which remain crucial to the functioning of contemporary world politics.
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States have not always been interested in making exact maps of their territories. Feudal states, city states and empires did not govern through territory. The Romans, for instance, may have used the term ‘territory’, but it referred mainly to the land associated with a city. They did not imagine their world to be made up of territorial states. Instead of being governed by hard external borders, their empire was ruled through fuzzy boundaries. Medieval states were systems of rule that were based on inter-personal relations rather than the idea of territory. It was only in the 17th and 18th centuries that the world witnessed an explosion in cartographic activity. For in order to govern their territories, states also had to survey, calculate, and map their boundaries.
If we want to understand why so many of us have come to think of territory as a basic instinct rather than a political institution, we have to travel to the late 19th century, to a time when European colonialism was at its peak and the age of exploration had come to an end. It was in this political climate that the German zoologist-turned-geographer Friedrich Ratzel would come to write about territory as the target of a biological urge that was inherent in all species and nations. He argued that, much like caterpillars and primroses, nations were organisms that needed living space if they wanted to ensure their survival. A nation’s health could be judged only by its territory. This idea of the need for living space would develop a powerful traction in the early 20th century, as a whole range of political movements and regimes started to fetishise territory and sought to expand their living space by force.
“If we want to understand why so many of us have come to think of territory as a basic instinct rather than a political institution, we have to travel to the late 19th century.”
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 aside, straightforward territorial conquest is comparatively rare in today’s world. And yet, borders and territorial questions still seem to structure the way in which our world works. We encounter this territorial world in border crossings, airports, and, if unlucky, in refugee camps and detention centres. In a biometric age, we even have our citizenship imprinted on our bodies — through our iris and fingerprints. And yet it is important to remember that this world of increasingly fortified borders is in fact rather new. Until WWI, it would have been possible to travel through Europe without a passport.
It is similarly vital not to forget that the territorial border remains only one way in which power is exerted over populations through space. There are others. Indeed, the prevention of motion by barbed wire in the 20th century was always accompanied by attempts to channel motion in particular directions. Much of this was — and continues to be — done through the built environment. Think of the forces unleashed by the Autobahn, or the invisible hand that lures us into the temples of consumer capitalism on a Sunday. Territory is never the only game in town. It has to coexist with other perhaps more consensual forms of control.
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Territory is also hardly the smoothest form of power. Everyone who has tried to change the behaviour of a child or even a pet by assigning them a territory will know of the resistance that this can provoke. If we look at the responses of European states to the current refugee crisis, the problem soon becomes apparent. Barbed wire, the attempt to control migration by piercing human flesh, is not only imperfect (for the human body will eventually find a way around it), but it is also a powerful symbol of oppression; we only have to think of the iconic barbed wire fences of Auschwitz or Amnesty International’s logo. During the Cold War, the anti-nuclear movement often congregated precisely around NATO’s razor-wired military bases from which a nuclear war was to be waged on the world. So when states put up fences and walls today, this always also exposes the fundamental violence at the heart of the modern state.
Territory can also be an obstacle in other ways. It can limit what can be said and done. It is difficult, for instance, to wage a war without having a territorial state as an enemy. When the United States and its allies first embarked on the war against the shady forces of international terrorism in 2001, they saw themselves forced to find a territorial state that could be targeted by the Anglo-American war machine — Afghanistan.
The relationship between terror and territory is a crucial one in other ways, too. Think of the recent mass killings that have been carried out by young men — and they are nearly all men — in places like Brussels, Paris, Orlando and Berlin. Even before the blood has dried, there will be speculation about the perpetrator’s nationality. If he holds a passport from a predominantly Muslim nation or was born in such a nation, then the act is usually declared a terrorist act, no matter how weak his religiosity or his links to terrorist networks. The man may drink and have girlfriends, but he will be branded a terrorist. His motives will be assumed to be public and thus political.
If, however, he is from Western Europe — like the Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who killed 150 in 2015 by downing his plane in the French Alps — then the motive is usually assumed to be private and we will hear about his psychology rather than his politics. If it is terror, then we can see all kinds of exceptional measures brought into force, from detention without trial to the bombing of Islamic State in Syria, as carried out by France after the Paris attacks. If it is “simply” a mass killing, then nothing much happens at all. One of the key differences is the passport.
“This vision of a world in which your passport defines your politics is of course a dangerous one — but it is also one that will likely provoke opposition.”
As xenophobic and nationalist movements and politicians are increasingly swept into power in the global North, we increasingly hear that territory is the solution to our problems. But if territory is the answer, then what precisely is the question? In the early 21st century, the question is perhaps not so much ‘migration’ or ‘identity’, as it is often claimed, but the failures of Western liberalism with its fantasy of a borderless globe of free trade and commerce. Financial deregulation, privatisation, and globalisation have created a world that radiates a sense of insecurity amongst the majority of the population. Since the global financial crisis of 2008, it has become increasingly clear that prosperity and financial security are no longer attainable for large segments of the population, even in developed economies. If we add to this the threat of climate change, then we can even say that the belief in ‘progress’, a notion that has stood at the heart of ‘The West’ since the Enlightenment, itself has been shattered. Suddenly it makes more sense why the timeless truths of a territorial world seem so appealing to many.
If we accept that the recent rise of the new right in the United States and Europe is not so much a response to the so-called refugee crisis, but, much like the rise of fascism in the 1930s, an answer to this fundamental disillusionment and insecurity, then we can see much more clearly that territory is in fact a trick. It tricks us into believing that there is a way to collapse our planetary complexities back into a world of parcelled-up territories. This is nothing less than the fantasy of creating a world in which there are only people who identify with the territorial state, people who desire and fear the same things. This vision of a world in which your passport defines your politics is of course a dangerous one — but it is also one that will likely provoke opposition.