warehouse warehouse

Close or Claim

by Johannes Siegmund,  translated by Pierre Schwarzer

“The tendency of creating the world-market is readily given in the concept of capital itself. Each border appears as barrier to be overcome.” 1

“The specifically political distinction underlying political actions and motives is the distinction of Friend and Fiend.” 2.


  1. Karl Marx, Grundrisse

  2. Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political

  3. The German term Grenze means border and frontier at the same time. This double meaning of Grenze is used throughout the text and is not easily translatable.

  4. cf. Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson: Border as Method, Or, the Multiplication of Labor, Durham 2013

  5. Amnesty International: Media Brief and Nauru Brief: http://www.webcitation.org/6CRWNaOjW

  6. Giorgio Agamben: Homo sacer, 2012

  7. cf. Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson: Border as Method, Or, the Multiplication of Labor, Durham 2013

  8. cf. Jacques Derrida: Of Hospitality, trans. Rachel Bowlby, Stanford 2000

The party of neoliberal globalisation is over. Were free trade, open borders and multiculturalism just yesterday still celebrated, the party guests are now hangoverishly retreating. Borders are being built, trade agreements revoked, and the formerly extinct dinosaurs of nationalism awake anew. With its tendency to steadily tap into new spheres of life global capitalism is confronted with increasing national walling-off.
The tensions between capitalist removal of limits and political limitations can be read through two different island-experiments in the pacific: the seasteading-project of the company “Blue Frontier” in French Polynesia and the Australian refugee camp on the island of Nauru. Both island-experiments offer a view on the conflict between capitalist “exploitation” and the closures of the nation state, therefore allowing for a breakdown of the concept of the border. 3
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Vision Strategy des Seasteading Institute

To physically bring the libertarian utopia of seasteadings to sea, “Blue Frontier”, an offshoot of “The Seasteading Institute”, plans a prototype in a bay of French Polynesia. This special economic zone loosely bound to a state is to be a preliminary stage to the swimming micro-states. In a second step, the experiences made with the prototype shall transform the high-sea into a science fiction space of unlimited possibility where one need not submit to any states, borders, taxes, rights, and regulations.
The required seed capital is collected from business angels such as Peter Thiel that wish for libertarian freedoms within capitalism. The venture capitalists and start-ups want to create a new world-order on the seasteads. This world order is to accommodate the flexibility of the cosmopolitan winners of globalisation. The libertarian micro-states would consist in individual cells rearranging and coupling themselves according to their necessities. A market of government forms would arise where the inhabitants could dock their cells onto the seastead of their choice. The wealth of the inhabitants would trickle down to the workers that would be hired all over the world to build and maintain the swimming platforms, the gigantic wave breakers, the labs and the luxury establishments of the islands.

Libertarian ideology lies bare so openly in seasteading that it almost disenchants itself on its own. Probably the seasteads would mainly become tax havens for the super-rich, onto which the elite would retreat just as the conflicts fuelled by unjust distribution of wealth, neo-colonialism, and individualisation would escalate on the mainland. Amid the shipwreck of the ongoing crisis, the seasteads want to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and exist autonomously. Keeping alive the myth of autarchy in a globally connected world requires relying on a blindness cultivated over centuries regarding the material substructure of societies. While the cities might float freely, they would still depend on the base of global flows of labour and commodities. Where would the materials of those cities come from? Who would maintain them while the sea gnaws at them? Who would secure the fuel for their reactors? Which structures of exploitation has capital created for them to be built and all the research projects on them? These questions remain unanswered.
The “blue frontier” shows the fragility of the techno-ideology in its transformation into a segregated society. In a capitalist sense, a border is a frontier whose function is to steadily enter new fields and claim uncharted territories. The frontier of capitalism constantly creates new spheres of life through logistics and techno ideology, and colonises them for the private appropriation of their resources. 4

While the super-fluid capitalists want to move the frontier of capitalism onto the high seas, national states rearm those border against the superfluous of global capitalism. The logic of the nation states requires sealing off what is one’s own from what is alien. The extraterritorial refugee camps of Australia on Nauru and Papua New Guinea have reached a tragic celebrity in this regard. Australia’s border regime is one of the toughest in the world. Beyond the Australian territory, Australia is outsourcing its border to one of the most corrupt and criminal countries in the world, Nauru. After the frontier of capitalism had passed through and destroyed Nauru’s environment through the exploitation of its phosphate resources, the island has deteriorated into a real dystopia. This is the place where Australia sends the illegalized migrants that it ‘seized’ on its seas. The little information coming from the strongly shielded camps is frightening: in 2016 the refugee Omid Masoumali immolated himself in protest. Reports of rape and suicide draw the picture of a “human rights catastrophe […]; a toxic mix of uncertainty, unlawful detention and inhumane conditions.” 5
Behind the scam stands a nation state asserting its power via inclusion and exclusion. Australia wants to sovereignly decide who lives on its territory and how these people get there. To deter unwanted migrants, this state creates camps, humanitarian spaces void of any rights, where people are robbed of the possibility of action and reduced to their bare naked lives. Giorgio Agamben warned of this exclusion of the superfluous and predicted that the state of exception of the camps would begin to grow rampant. He saw in these camps democracies moving in the direction of totalitarian systems. 6
The camp on Nauru is an extreme case and Agamben has rightly been criticised for losing sight of the grey zones of the border areas. Yet, in a time in which all over the globe borders are being fortified, in which Europe discusses camps in North African states and in which authoritarian nationalism has become a successful political role model, camps such as Nauru can offer a sight on the potential radicalisation of the borders of nation states. From an economic viewpoint these camps are insane, from a jurisdictional one they are illegal and from an ethical one a catastrophe: they only make sense politically. While nation states increasingly lose power, national quotas are sinking and supranational organisations just as global corporations gain power, nation states reassert themselves of their sovereignty via sealing off their borders.

The extreme examples of both seasteading and the refugee camp on Nauru bring in their radicalness the ambiguity of the German word Grenze into view. The German word Grenze means border and frontier at the same time. The frontier is an instrument for reaching fields to be appropriated. The border is more static. It includes the own and excludes the alien. While in a globalised world the frontier has become mainly an instrument of capitalism, the border is its nation state counterpart. One can view both projects described above as extreme shapes of the two different concepts of border and frontier. The capitalist frontier of seasteading tries to break free from the nation-state and claim new territories in high-sea. The sealed-off border of the nation state, on its side, separates the own from the foreign on the basis of a political logic that initially excludes economic interest. Through this, the logic of breaching of the frontier stands in a tension to the closing function of the border. While capital wants to reach the world market and become borderless, nation states close their borders to define who belongs inside and who does not.
This tension between closing off and claiming was historically merged during Imperialism. The frontier escalated together with the border. Fostered by racism, segregation and categorisations of the subjects, imperial borders arose through the world. This imperialist model of the border has only limited validity in a geostrategic perspective today. It has not disappeared (remember the occupation of Crimea, the conflicts around the islands in South China Seas and the polar regions), but it is no longer a solution that can be used in a large-scale-fashion.
In light of postcolonial globalisation, imperialism has been replaced by a neoliberal model of the border. Global capitalism demands open borders and a tearing away of limitations to multiply its frontier. Nation states reacted with a further differentiation of the border. Borders became a system of manifold, differentiated in- and exclusions, a heterogeneous regime including securing borders abroad and controls, passports and deportations within. Border regimes open for flows of information, resources, goods and finance, as well as for demanded human capital, while more or less ceiling themselves of migrants that were not a promise of profit. 7

Has globalisation itself reached its limits with its semipermeable borders? At the moment a new compromise for borders is sought. Capitalist frontier and political border are newly recombined. The camps and the seasteads can be understood as gestures of power in the negotiation for a new model of the border. Closure and expansion, limitation and delimitation, border and frontier are newly reconfigured. It is not a surprise that Peter Thiel withdrew from the seasteading-project and entered negotiations with the Trump administration: both seasteading and nation state isolation are unrealistic escapisms. Capitalism and the nation state are so closely bound that they would not be capable to act without each other. Without the military safeguarding of trade routes and resources, without government infrastructure and stabilising rescue packages capitalism cannot exist. Likewise, even if they maximise the political legitimacy through nationalism and populism, nation states cannot believe the global market and ignore rating agencies and big corporations. At the moment everything points to a national-liberal compromise through the revival of the frontier and at the same time, the strengthening of nation states. It is an option both easy and deadly. The safeguarding of the borders and security technologies have been further expanded while capital continues to accumulate and intensify inequalities. We are driving towards a gated capitalism after the model of many countries with enormous gaps in wealth distribution.
But is this the only possibility of conceiving the border and therefore something without an alternative? Jacques Derrida has sketched another format of the border. Because the border does not only allow for both exclusion and appropriation. The border is also a place where one can hope for absolute hospitality. 8

Johannes Siegmund does a PhD on migration and flight at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He is part of the journal for political-philosophical interventions engagée and the collective philosophy unbound.