On Ownership of Territory and ‘Taking Back Control’

A Leave-voting friend who read my post last week emailed me some questions:

“You say we don’t own our national territory, but an awful lot of people feel they want to, and in a democracy that means there is the risk–and now the fact–that power may settle on them…so is it sufficient to be right, when the political will is wrong?  What this means is that progressive politicians may have to do more than protest about views they don’t agree with…I think the left vs right metaphor may be exhausted and no longer helps us to understand politics…see [this guardian article].

Secondly, if migration is a right and A Good Thing, then logically population will flow to the 1st world cities and eventually you will have a few incredibly densely populated conurbations and the rest of the world largely abandoned.  Is that a good outcome?  Many countries – the UK for one – constructed policies to prevent that happening within their states because most people felt it was not.”

These two comments are distinct enough that I’ll respond to them in separate posts. The first one touches on some things I’ve been thinking about for a while.

I half-regret the phrasing I used in that previous post, that ‘we don’t own our national territory’, because it suggests a general hostility to the idea of collective ownership and collective action. It sounds like I’m saying we should just think in terms of globe-trotting individuals and some laws for them to operate under. And that’s not what I think. In a sense I support people collectively owning their national territory, but it all depends on what ‘collective ownership’ is contrasting with, what’s being denied. Is it contrasting with private ownership, or ownership by an invading rival collective? Then I’d support it, even while opposing a collective right to exclude others from moving here.

But the really important contrast, I think, is with simple powerlessness, with bad things happening and everyone hating it but not being able to do anything about it. The Brexit rallying cry was ‘take back control’, and that’s an important and valid aspiration. What dismayed me about ‘Leave’ messaging is that the way it actually spelt out ‘take back control’ was overwhelmingly in terms of taking it back from someone else, whether immigrants or the EU, identified either as having seized control from us, or as needing to be controlled.

But control isn’t zero-sum: control for one party isn’t inversely proportional to control for another. You can give one community of people more control over their lives without anyone else having to lose control, by making them organised enough to identify what they want they want done and organised enough to get it implemented. Conversely, chucking out some designated bad guys, all by itself, often does nothing to increase people’s actual control over things (the difficulties of so many post-colonial states is surely a supportive data-point here).

So I don’t see a principled contradiction between open borders and collective control: establishing collective control (the good kind of ‘owning our national territory’) has really very little to do with being able to coercively block individual travel plans – it’s much more to do with having institutions and people who can regulate macro-scale phenomena in ways that are actually effective and responsive to ordinary people’s interests. It’s largely to do with what we might call (deliberately unfashionably) ‘economic planning’, or (perhaps more fashionably) ‘economic democracy’.

Ok, so all this may be fine and dandy in principle. What about actual politics, here and now? I’m much less confident in what I think about that – partly because reality is more complicated than principle, partly because principles are my professional forte, more than political strategy.

But I do think my friend is right to suggest that “progressive[s]… have to do more than protest about views they don’t agree with.” In particular, suppose I’m right that people’s right to collectively control the conditions of their lives is limited by the rights of individuals. Even so, when I say that, or when the government says that, or when an elite university or the European commission says that, it’s perfectly natural for Leave-supporters to hear it as another attempt to impose outside control over them. I said above that what dismays me about the Brexit campaign is the oppositional, zer0-sum framing: ‘take back control’ interpreted as ‘take control away from these others who have too much of it’. To greet the result with ‘no, you can’t do that‘ risks feeding into exactly that zero-sum framing.

So for purposes of political strategy it’s probably a good idea to be positive first, not just unremittingly negative. Not just identifying ways that Brexit is bad, but offering positive ways to ‘take back control’ against the impersonal drives of our own capitalist social system rather than against other people.

But I’m far from the first to say that, and I don’t at present have a well-developed sense of how to build in that direction (though the article linked above mentions the New Economics Foundation, so check them out).

In a way my choice of a topic for a first post played into the narrative of left-leaning people just denouncing the right and saying ‘you can’t do that‘. But immigration is such a prominent topic that not addressing it, and not starting honestly with my own starting-point, would have felt like tip-toeing around an elephant.

(Next post will address the second half of my friend’s comment, which echoes things I’ve heard from a few different people at different times.)

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One Response to On Ownership of Territory and ‘Taking Back Control’

  1. Pingback: On the Logical Consequences of Free Movement | Majestic Equality

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