Harsha Walia probes how boundaries oppress us in Undoing Border Imperialism
Undoing Border Imperialism
By Harsha Walia. AK Press and the Institute for Anarchist Studies, 321 pp, softcover
In her new book, Undoing Border Imperialism, Vancouver writer and activist Harsha Walia delivers an unflinching critique of the effects of capitalism. She shows how it destroys subsistence cultures, concentrates wealth, displaces people off traditional land, and propels migration to urban areas.
Whereas capital freely crosses borders, she points out, the same isn’t true of its human victims. Hence the title of the book, which is a detailed and often polemical tract linking the struggles of indigenous peoples to the criminalization of immigrants.
“Just as the British Raj partitioned my parent’s homeland, Indigenous communities across Turtle Island have been separated as a result of the colonially imposed Canadian and U.S. borders,” Walia writes.
And when people reach borders, they’re often subject to severe restrictions on their movements. Walia knows of what she speaks, having grown up as the daughter of a migrant worker who was stationed in several countries.
She points out that borders appear not just between countries, but also in gated communities, at military checkpoints, in secure corporate boardrooms, and in gendered bathrooms, reinforcing “apartheid relations” on a psychological level.
Walia, a founder of the Vancouver chapter of the immigrant-justice group No One Is Illegal, has spent the last decade fighting on behalf of undocumented migrants, some of whom faced deportation.
She explores how to decolonize social movements so activists can practise what she calls “a politics of revolutionary love”. It’s the antithesis of atomized individualism so celebrated in right-wing media.
She claims to have witnessed this revolutionary love especially within “communities of color, and even more so queer women of color, transfolks of color, and/or people of color with disabilities”.
“Those who experience an avalanche of oppression, and cannot rely on the state or market for relief or redemption, know how much we need and depend on one another in order to survive,” she writes.
The book includes personal stories from several writers who've gone through the immigration process.
Among them is Vancouver playwright, actor, and author Carmen Aguirre, who tells a tale about a girl keeps her family's political activism secret. She doesn't mention that the family keeps photos of Che Geuvara and Fidel Castro on their walls at home.
Mexican refugee Karla Lottini describes her family's successful struggle to remain in Canada with the help of No One Is Illegal.
These and other stories add a great deal of humanity.
At times, Undoing Border Imperialism comes across as a self-help book, full of tips for building social movements.
One of the classic texts in this genre is community organizer Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, which was published in 1971. It featured such gems as “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it”; “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon”; and “A good tactic is one your people enjoy.”
Walia’s book isn’t nearly as accessible. At its worst, Undoing Border Imperialism drifts into central-committee agitprop, as reflected in these two sentences: “Rigidity within antioppression analysis can also lead to those with privilege abrogating their own responsibility to challenge oppression by circumscribing their roles to the safe task of perfecting antioppression language as an end to itself—one that will purge their guilt. This performance of guilt is a kind of self-absorption that centers on, and hence upholds and reproduces oppression.”
On other occasions, Walia offers provocative insights into how Eurocentric western feminists sometimes serve imperialists by constructing communities of colour as “innately barbaric and reactionary toward women, children, and queers”. There’s also a thoughtful analysis of “ableism”, in which people with disabilities are held back by high expectations imposed by western society.
While at times the book is difficult to read, it presents a world-view rarely expressed in the mainstream media.