Bunkers, Buffers, Borders

“Flagged for deportation, I was hurtled into my own little nightmare, an absurdist take on all the immigration tragedies raging across the world.”

This past fall, I started a new job at the University of California, San Diego, just a few miles away from Tijuana, Mexico, which has been my research site for many years. The onerously long wait times to cross the border, however, have kept me from visiting Mexico as often as I’d like, so I have been planning to apply for Global Entry, the US’s main program for preapproved, expedited border crossing.

Global Entry is a pinnacle of mobility I may well aspire to as a US citizen, but only a couple months before moving to San Diego, I was stuck in a very different place. I was living in southern Mexico as an “illegal alien,” having lost my legal status after seven years of residency. I was the victim of a glitch in one of Mexico’s new technological toys designed to beef up its border-management apparatus: a database of entries and exits, ostensibly for statistical purposes only, but regularly trawled for irregularities by the Instituto Nacional de Migración (the National Institute of Migration, Mexico’s immigration control agency). The database converted a mistaken mouse click by an officer, of which I was unaware at the time, into an immutable illegal act on my part: entering the country as a tourist when in fact I was a legal resident, and thus holding two immigration statuses at once. Flagged for deportation, I was hurtled into my own little farcical nightmare, a kind of absurdist take on all the immigration tragedies raging across the world today.

This episode was the personal context within which I read anthropologist Ruben Andersson’s new book, No Go World: How Fear Is Redrawing Our Maps and Infecting Our Politics. Vividly and convincingly, No Go World describes a global shift toward cordoning off more and more zones labeled violent and high-risk, making them inaccessible to outsiders. The book resonated for me: my immigration woes, after all, stemmed from processes of securitization attributable to Mexico’s emerging role as a massive “buffer” (to use Andersson’s term) between the US and Central America.

But while Andersson moves firmly away from our current obsession with borders to place them within a larger picture, my experience in Mexico has me convinced that borders should not be downplayed so quickly. My case speaks to the global spread of border policing; it speaks to the rise of new logics and techniques for picking subjects out, making them vulnerable, and restricting their mobility. These logics and techniques respond less and less to old questions of rights and belonging; instead, they permit or constrain mobility according to more individualized criteria. My movements, for example, were significantly constrained despite the privilege of my US citizenship. Globalized borders are the prime mechanism of this individualization—it was an entry through the border that got me—and this power demands to be added back in to Andersson’s broad-strokes picture of the world today.

For the risk industry, which promises to calculate and stave off danger, fear works as an endless source of profit.

No Go World shows how the “economics of risk” and the “politics of fear” have combined into a destructive and self-perpetuating machine that is remaking the map of the world with startling speed. Social and cultural divides have long been a feature of the globalized world, but those divides have become veritable chasms. The no go zones are truly no go, and they are eating up larger and larger portions of the globe.

Driving this change is what Andersson calls the “risk economy.” It includes military interventions and aid missions, with all the salaries and contracts they entail, as well as the swarm of NGOs that take shape around them: a complex of institutions and actors devoted to mitigating risk and cordoning it off from the sanctum of the world’s powerful, a.k.a. the West.1 Perversely, the risk industry does an excellent job generating its own conditions for growth. Instead of triggering some collective prise de conscience on the part of the West, every intervention gone wrong brews greater fear; every nightmare fiasco flips into an opportunity for a new mission and thus new investments. And as the chasms dividing the world deepen, things can only go more and more wrong.

Andersson’s argument builds on the idea (based in globalization theory) that capitalism has connected the world in a profoundly systemic way, but he rejects any lingering optimism that the word connection might still conjure. The system is built not on intimacy and closeness, he contends, but on just the opposite: distance and disconnection, deliberately and intransigently enforced. The starting point is fear, whipped up by politicians. For the risk industry, which promises to calculate and stave off danger, fear works as an endless source of profit. Worming its way into the subjective divides between groups of people that fear sows, the risk industry makes these divides into a material reality. Perhaps the most personally felt part of No Go World is Andersson’s nostalgia for his youthful adventures in Pakistan and Mali—places that, for Europeans like himself, are literally off limits now.


Borders, Guns, and Freedom

By Harel Shapira

Andersson traveled widely to research this book and spoke with a tremendous variety of people. Instead of focusing, as so many works do, on the societies affected by interventionism, No Go World tells the story of the interveners. The chapters offer glimpses into UN offices and US command centers but take us far beyond as well. Andersson helps us to hear not just from the pundits of empire but also from such figures as a Malian NGO worker, a beleaguered aid worker in Kabul, the financial manager of a UN peacekeeping mission, and even an adventure-seeking journalist in Bamako. However diverse, all these individuals are caught up in the same maelstrom of fear and profit seeking responsible, as Andersson’s title puts it, for “redrawing our maps,” filling them with the unknown, out-of-control blank spaces of the no go zones.

All the characters that populate the pages of No Go World, however humble, play an active role in making the new global map that all of us, like it or not, must inhabit. In classic social-science fashion, however, none of them seems to have any control over it. They are all caught up in the risk industry’s self-generating brand of capitalist accumulation. Once the machine is up and running, no one, Andersson contends, has a real interest in stopping it. Quite the opposite. Everyone, no matter how lacerated, has some kind of interest in keeping it going.

Andersson spends a good deal of time, for example, on military intervention in Africa. There, the shift to outsourcing (read: distance and disconnection) has been stunningly swift and total. At this point, UN peacekeepers almost never come from European member states—it’s too expensive, too risky. Instead, African states throw in the human resources—young men’s lives—while European states throw in the cash; the money that finally filters down to the soldiers is barely enough to keep them in ragtag shape. The winners in this exchange are far above the soldiers, yet insofar as they survive on the pickings, they too depend on the system to get by.

Military and humanitarian interventions, Andersson shows, have morphed into remote-control operations that set loose violent, chaotic chain reactions. The current array of “refugee crises” around the world is a case in point—people are fleeing the long- and short-term effects of intervention (Andersson discusses Somalia in detail). Instead of working to wind these chain reactions down, the Western states that are ultimately responsible merely try to keep the effects at a safe distance. On the ground, aid workers bunker up; on a larger scale, the West ensconces itself behind buffer zones. “Bunkers” and “buffers,” for Andersson, are the twin features marking the map of the globe today.

Andersson’s argument is devastating and crucial, and without a doubt, No Go World shines new light on my circumstances as an “illegal alien” in Mexico. My predicament would not have been possible without the risk industry’s promotion of high-tech solutions to border security that even states like Mexico are buying into—like the database and computer-entry system through which I was flagged for deportation. And Andersson’s focus on how Western nations map the world into high-risk, no go zones highlights the irony of my having been stuck in Michoacán, one of the most dangerous parts of Mexico. Although the US warns travelers not to go there, I had to stay because of the way Mexico has transformed itself into a two-thousand-mile-thick border—in response, largely, to pressure the US exerts as part of its own efforts to keep risk at bay.

During the two years it took me to sue the INM and get my legal status back, I was stuck inside Mexico as itself an enormous three-dimensional border, bristling with aggressive elements aimed above all at Central Americans. I could feel the securitization of the country all around me, in my own newly restricted mobility: many routes I would normally have traveled had immigration checkpoints along them. The US’s exportation of border policing methods is well known; in Mexico’s case, this exportation is also an outsourcing. As a top-ranking Department of Homeland Security official declared in 2012, “The Guatemalan border with Chiapas is now our southern border.”2 Such statements frame the INM as a kind of subcontractor for DHS. From this perspective, my case was but a bit of blowback, in which the US border apparatus turned upon one of its own citizens.

A great deal of borders’ contemporary power lies in their ability to cut through populations differentially.

Mexico is quickly transforming into just the kind of buffer zone Andersson describes—but the disconnection he emphasizes is not the whole story. The country is tightly linked to the US; not just goods but also masses of people go back and forth regularly. A substantial portion of Mexicans have US visas or even US citizenship; in Tijuana, perhaps half the population has papers to enter legally. They may be Mexican citizens, but they have been rated relatively low risk. My own plunge from maximal mobility and recovery of it highlights the importance of the full rainbow of risk ratings in ordering the globe. Mobility, in today’s global capitalist economy, remains a prime value in its own right.

In its emphasis on bunkers and buffers, No Go World is of a piece with the dominant scholarly trend that reacted to the globalization frenzy of the 1990s—borders will simply melt away!—by giving renewed attention to borders’ impressive spread and hardening since. Yet securitized borders do not obstruct passage equally for all. Amid the expansion of border policing, programs to expedite passage have grown apace. They make borders as transparent as possible—but only for the select.

Take Global Entry (which I have not gotten around to applying for). It is advertised as a kind of club for “low-risk travelers,” complete with “membership privileges.”3 Bunkering is in effect here, in the creation of a protected zone of privilege—yet this zone is anchored to a sharply defined group, not a territory. Physical borders are not the only sites for sieving people, but their dual function—letting through as much as blocking—helps put the privilege of being low risk back into the story of how risk and fear are reconfiguring the world.

Despite calls to “build the wall” between Mexico and the US, a great deal of borders’ contemporary power lies not in their capacity to effect territorial separation (the goal that “the wall” would theoretically achieve) as much as in their ability to cut through populations differentially. Within Mexico, categorizations of risk crisscross the population in ways that make bunkering and buffering unsatisfactory as overall metaphors. This crisscrossing points beyond the large-scale production of distance toward risk’s enormous regulatory potentials: beyond the boundaries between the West and the rest toward the microboundaries that risk calculations throw up within national societies.

As risk’s fault lines proliferate, they transform the basic relationship between people and space. Increasingly, citizenship rights are subordinated to risk status. As Andersson shows, colonial-era divisions of race and class reassert themselves with a vengeance in the modality of risk. They seem justified; they seem rational and necessary. As the industry grows, risk is quickly replacing ideologies of belonging and citizenship as the fundamental criterion for determining mobility.

The expedited passage of low-risk populations, the filtering and smoothing of some flows, goes hand in hand with the obstruction of others. Through the balancing of low risk against high, the mutual creation of the two as interdependent categories, and the continuous culling of the one from the other, we can get a sharper picture of just how fear is redrawing our maps. The way risk can become a commodity within a no go zone (“cough up the aid, or we’ll migrate,” to paraphrase Andersson’s interlocutor) is but a corollary of the ultrasmoothed rails that are indeed selectively knitting the world together—thanks only, however, to increasingly surgical methods of sorting risk.


No Peace for Refugees

By Emma Shaw Crane

No Go World is not a traditional ethnographic monograph, but it is not exactly groundbreaking in terms of genre either. Instead, the genre conventions for just this kind of book—research-based, but directed toward a broader audience—bring with them some requirements with which I do not believe Andersson is entirely comfortable. One is the need to propose solutions. Another is the use of the first-person plural.

Over the course of the book, Andersson takes a couple of stabs at solutions—but then backs off them. Up front, he says the world needs “partnerships, not partitions,” links that might stretch across the globe’s newly fortified boundaries. By the book’s end, however, he has treated connectivism quite mercilessly, as thoroughly naive and problematic. Similarly, he suggests that risks and responsibilities could be redistributed more equitably while remaining within a capitalist framework. But after asking, rhetorically, why the powerful should “accept a new arrangement, if the first one serves them so well,” he flatly states that an answer is beyond the scope of the book.

Given all this, the only answers in sight are deeply liberal, both in the sense that they demand a more equal global distribution of rights and responsibilities—a kind of acknowledgment of global citizenship—and in the sense that they rest on the ability of (reading!) publics in the globe’s dominant “core” to exert regulatory pressure. Risk, however, seems to be a prime force moving the world in a postliberal direction, breaking down citizenship as an organizing framework. This tension remains unresolved in No Go World. It goes hand in hand, I believe, with the other genre effect I mentioned: the “we” to whom the book addresses itself.

Andersson actually dedicates an endnote to clarifying this “we.” “I will use first-person plural at times,” he writes, “to refer to Western governments and their electorates. … Yet there is an analytical ambiguity to this ‘we’ that may be usefully exploited in looking for alternative approaches built on proximity and engagement rather than global distance and fear.” That productive ambiguity is not, in the text, very evident. “We” tends to feel Western, less a promise of change than a symptom of disconnection. It’s hard to see how it could not. This “we” rests on the old premise that the public sphere can widen to include other voices—once they conform to Western notions of rational debate. Such a “we” is plagued by what Andersson himself calls “paternalistic echoes from … colonial times.”

The public-facing genre has stuck Andersson with this “we” that he knows we need to move beyond. Writing for Public Books, I use it too. But I would close by asking what other “we”s, tied to what other genres, might provide more robust alternatives to a risk-infected world. These “we”s may not be liberal, and they may not include the global North. But the ironies of the buffer zones, of the publics that take shape not just around but now within borders, may well be a place to start looking for the “we”s that can grow across the boundaries, large and small, of the world’s risk regime.


This article was commissioned by Matthew Engelkeicon

  1. Andersson recognizes more complexity here but sticks with “the West” as a convenient shorthand.
  2. Cited by Steve Taylor, “Our Southern Border Is Now with Guatemala,” Latina Lista, September 20, 2012.
  3. US Customs and Border Protection, “Global Entry,” last modified December 13, 2019.
Featured image: World Map of Daniel Stoopendaal (1730). Geographicus Rare Antique Maps / Wikimedia Commons