Interview with Angela Mitropoulos

Shift interview Angela Mitropoulos about No-Borders politics. Originally published in September 2010.

At the end of September this year, No Borders activists held a protest camp against European security and immigration policy in Brussels. What kind of bordering practices would you say the location of Brussels represents?

Brussels becomes important as the administrative policy location, in terms of the organisation of technologies but also of forms of knowledge around what borders are and whether they should change, be relocated or shifted. In terms of the No Borders camp, for the last ten years they have become an important way of putting people at the threshold of border technologies and borders as such, resituating ourselves at the threshold of those practices and contesting them at that very physical, proximate level. So, No Borders camps are important for experiencing the real materiality of borders.

The issue of materiality is what we want to get at. In a large city such as Brussels which is also a city of immigrants this is certainly given. On the other hand the rationale of the camp is very much the symbolic aspect that is represented by the institutions of the European Union. So is this not different from going to, say, Calais or Lesbos?

Yes, this is an interesting shift, especially in terms of taking yourself to one of those administrative-political centres. In a sense it’s a way of strengthening and congealing the various streams of No Borders activities around Europe and of looking into FRONTEX and these kinds of practices. Though I guess I’m not the person to talk about the details of political action in Brussels, with my history being more in the context of Australia.

When we do talk about Europe, though, do you think we are letting the nation-state off the hook? Do supranational institutions such as the European Union have sufficient powers, also with respect to immigration policy, that should make them a prime target?

There is an interesting thing that happened over the last ten, fifteen years – globally – which is the notion of the harmonisation of border controls. So you have, for example, Australian immigration officers situated in Indonesia. The border, in effect shifts, and you have different states co-ordinating their border policing. You can’t think of the nation-state without thinking of it as part of an international complex. Historically, both emerged together. And the proliferation of the nation-state as the prime political form has been an international process. So these things kind of mesh. I would say you can’t think about one without thinking about the other – historically and practically.

Then what do you think of the theories, put forward for example by Antonio Negri, that the European Union represents a post-national constellation that should be welcomed by anti-state activists?

I think this is wrong. That’s why I say you have to think of these two together. On the one hand, political emotions are mobilised in increasingly nationalised forms. Nationalism, I think, has been on the ascendency for almost 20 years, for very particular reasons. Anti-immigrant sentiments rise, but that was always hinged upon the international proliferation of the nation as the political form. That’s why I think it’s wrong to think of the supranational structure as separate, or even to welcome it. Border policing is a way of creating differential markets, and of distributing people across those spaces. This requires a level of international cooperation, but this also requires the mobilisation of national sentiment at the same time.

We could say that the No Borders network has always focused more on social and individual autonomy than on the idea of the post-national. You also use the term of autonomy a lot in your writings.

The concept of autonomy kind of emerged in discussions around the Documenta [The Documenta X 1997 in Kassel, Germany, sparked the foundation of the German-wide ‘No One is Illegal (Kein Mensch ist Illegal) network – ed.]. The concept of autonomy was a way of thinking of the act of migration itself as a political act. It supersedes notions of border control but it also supersedes notions of how people think of themselves as nationally situated.

You mentioned the Documenta. This would be a reference point for only very few people involved in No Borders organising today. Could you say a bit more about the beginnings of this in Europe?

Ok, let me think. At the end of the 1990s there was a kind of spin-off session at the Documenta X that started talking about ‘No Borders’ as one word and started thinking about a No Border network. In terms of its composition, it emerges at the same time as political groups that increasingly use the internet as a form of organisation. So you have this geeky aspect to it, which is tied to things like FLOSS or OpenSource, and it starts to think of this informational flow alongside the flow of bodies. So initially the No Borders network is at some kind of juncture between OpenSource politics and migration politics. It was quite an interesting moment of putting these two things together, but also of thinking through the tensions between these two aspects. For example, in internet stuff or digital labour stuff the notion of visibility is significant, but in migration, often, clandestinity is very important. So there was also conversation in the early days about migrants needing clandestinity to move in an undocumented way, and the ways in which people who worked with media could aid that but also at times the way they had to think through the possibility that that might be a problem for migrants. So you had to navigate those two elements – that was interesting in some of the early discussions.

Do you think that since then the responses by authorities has changed in the sense that maybe at that time what we were seeing was a form of control of movement, whereas now movement is being recuperated into forms of management of migration flows?

I think there was always a sense in which the state creates illegalisation. The state illegalises certain kinds of movement and that creates the possibility for people working at cheaper rates, that creates the possibility for all kind of work practices, for example. So there is always a sense in which there is a point in integration, especially for undocumented migrants. But politically there has always been the tension between the NGO politics around managing migration and the No Border position, which states emphatically that we don’t care why people move, that’s up to them and that’s not something we need to concern ourselves with. The No Border position was about making this possible. If people wanted to stay where they were they could stay, if people wanted to move they could move.

This then gets us away from the idea of the migrant or the asylum seeker as a victim?

Yes, totally. Everybody makes decision in whatever conditions they find themselves in. They are not necessarily free agents, but they are not victims either. In a sense they make a decision within a certain context to cross borders and not wait for this crossing to be authorised.

Could we connect this to the idea that No Border activism is not just about helping the ‘other’, but that it is actually about our freedom of movement as well? Or can the No Border philosophy be accused of a radical liberalism, as just a more militant version of NGO work?

One of the really interesting things about No Border politics that I have seen unfold in a really concrete way is that it forces people to not think like a state. It forces people to think through their politics, not only about migration stuff, but a whole series of themes – and then to relinquish that moment of sovereignty that you have, of being a British citizen or an Australian citizen or whatever. This is a very corrosive and practical way of thinking about politics, without thinking like a state.

Would you see this also the difference between a ‘no borders’ and an ‘open borders’ position?

Yes absolutely, because an open borders position still wants to make some decisions about whether people are asylum seekers, or refugees, or economic migrants, while the No Borders position wants to erase the border, both in an epistemological sense and in a political sense. And that makes it quite powerful, I think.

"Angela Mitropoulos is a writer and activists based in Australia. Her writings can be found at http://archive.blogsome.com/."