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8 July 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 2:35pm

Pandemics and the politics of space

The virus may ignore national borders, but governments are busy reinforcing them. 

By Jan Zielonka

Responses to Covid-19 have unleashed a new politics of space. We have been ordered to stay at home, national borders have been sealed, flights have been grounded and governments have reclaimed territorial sovereignty. Although these policies aim to prevent the virus from spreading, we have effectively witnessed a new configuration of authority, territory and rights emerging across the globe. This will have profound and lasting implications for our politics.

Our approach to space and the freedom of movement has never been simple. Early settlers and ranchers were fond of walls and fences, while nomads and hunters argued against them. People without “proper” documentation still have their freedom of movement constrained by national laws. Expulsions, evictions and displacements from living spaces are common in both democratic and authoritarian states.

Liberals argue that open borders generate knowledge and profits. Sovereigntists on the right claim that open borders invite migrants who steal jobs and introduce “alien” cultural habits. Sovereigntists on the left see open borders as the cause of inequalities and the source of “casino” capitalism.

A defining question of our time is whether democracy and social policy can survive in polities with open borders and fuzzy (cosmopolitan or European) cultural identities.

Whether borders are open or sealed not only depends on political decisions, but also on technological and administrative capacities. In the Middle Ages it was difficult to police territorial boundaries, and so borders were more like geographical zones rather than clear lines. Today the internet makes it hard for governments to control financial or communicative flows. Borders are always relative, as is the power of the states that administer them.

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Moreover, different borders apply to different functions of the state – we should not assume an overlap between administrative, military, cultural and financial borders.

Most crucially, borders are not just lines on a map; they also represent complex institutions determining the link between territory, authority and rights. They differentiate between insiders and outsiders, between the public and the private, and between rulers and subjects.

The pandemic-induced restrictions to freedom of movement have varied from place to place. Decisions have not always been guided by medical or economic considerations, revealing a certain degree of governmental arbitrariness. For example, the rules on social distancing differ between the UK and Denmark. National borders have also been sealed, even though doctors have argued that sealing borders around small regional or urban centres is far more effective in reducing the spread of Covid-19.

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In the initial stages of the pandemic, restrictions to freedom of movement were accepted by citizens. But public resistance is growing. Markets can hardly function without freedom of movement, even if certain transactions can be conducted virtually.

Measures to restrict our movements have become the new normal. Infected people are quarantined. Tracing devices are being applied. Only certain types of public gatherings are allowed. Travel restrictions persist. Governments are urging their local firms to become less dependent on international supply chains. All this amounts to a new configuration of space, authority and rights across the globe and within states.

The first implication of this new politics of space concerns relations between citizens. Lockdowns and physical distancing orders break our social affinity, bonds and habits. An atomised society is easy prey for autocratic politics. Unless restrictions on our freedom to move and socialise are lifted soon, we may see ever-more passive and self-centred citizens unable to stand up for their collective rights in the long term.

The second implication concerns relations between the state and citizens. Restrictions on citizens’ movement have been utilised by numerous governments for partisan political ends: minorities have been targeted in Hungary and parliaments have been sidelined almost everywhere. We have also seen the rise of a “paternalistic” state, to use the Italian politician Matteo Renzi’s expression, “which peeps into our lives and produces ever more ‘self-declarations’ to justify our whereabouts”.

The third implication concerns relations between states and transnational networks. In recent years, our personal relations, economic transactions and public engagements have been linked to non-territorial organisations, providing exchange of information, advocacy, lobbying and profit-making.

Networks of cities, bankers, environmentalists or media organisations have been key agents of connectivity across national borders. Networks are not only less territorial, but also more spontaneous, decentralised, informal and hybrid than states. This makes them more effective than states in obtaining and exchanging knowledge and applying it to trade, finance, communication and security.

Yet with the outbreak of the pandemic, states have reclaimed sovereignty over their borders and the subsequent lockdowns have frustrated transnational links. States have banned exports of medical equipment even within the EU; they have bailed out national champions such as the German airline Lufthansa; they have adopted national solutions to fighting the virus; they have scorned international organisations; and they have ignored transnational NGOs.

The virus may ignore national borders, but governments are busy reinforcing them. Globalisation and European integration are under threat. Transnational networks are struggling to survive in an environment of ever more walls, national regulations, and fear of “alien” cultures.

For Aristotle, only gods or brutes could be complete beings in isolation; human nature requires a community of persons, of place or territory. The politics of pandemics has deprived us of the latter and we do not know what the exit from the current lockdowns means, or what awaits us on the outside. 

This article appears in the 08 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, State of the nation