On the Rio Grande, Interconnected Struggle – Democratic Socialists of America

Borders are not natural, and the right to them is a legal fiction used to secure narrow interests.


Note the wall segments and devegetation. 

By Zac Echola, DSA National Political Committee

On a well-groomed path in a hackberry wood at the National Butterfly Center near the Rio Grande river, I found a dog house. Inside it was a giant African spurred tortoise that ambled out to the edge of a pen to greet me. The short answer for how Spike the giant tortoise ended up 7,000 miles from the Sahara can be described as a simple, everyday transaction. On one side is a poacher and on the other side is an animal collector with more money than sense. I thought for a moment about the ridiculous circumstances that brought Spike and me to the same spot, so far from home.

I traveled 1,500 miles from Fargo, North Dakota to visit family who spends their winters in McAllen, Texas, to visit with the Rio Grande Valley DSA chapter, and to take in whatever splendor I could find along the river and Gulf of Mexico. I wanted to know more, up close, about the environmental impact of the border wall. I came to learn that the border itself is a liminal space. On a map, borders are hard imaginary lines. In reality, they bisect whole systems.

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights lays out two basic human rights. First, everyone has a right to move within the borders of a state. Second, everyone has the right to leave a country. The right to enter any country doesn’t exist. Borders keep people out.

The rights outlined in Article 13 allowed me to travel to see an African tortoise at a butterfly habitat. Yet, the systems that reify borders prevent people who live a few yards south from doing the same. In contrast to my own free enjoyment of rights, the state prohibits the population south of the Rio Grande from enjoying freedom of movement in some of the following ways:

Every policy reacts to real people and it is not enough to abstractly state a human right. It is important not to confuse policy or law with underlying rights and especially critical not confuse new laws with new rights. Critique each right itself, each linkage to the policies that defend its derivative laws, and the foundations of the right itself. How we enact rights matters as much as stating them. “The right to have rights… should be guaranteed by humanity itself,” Hannah Arendt wrote in critique of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights during the post-WW2 refugee crisis, “It is by no means certain whether this is possible.”

Borders are not natural, and the right to them is a legal fiction used to secure narrow interests.

One of the most appalling border disputes in recent American history happened near the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers in North Dakota in 2016. Popular framing of the NoDAPL grassroots movement usually articulates it as a wholly environmentalist project, but as my chapter’s endorsed candidate for ND legislature, Ruth Buffalo, once told me of her tribe, “we’re environmentalists in order to survive.” Like so many indigenous issues, NoDAPL was fundamentally about upholding land rights and borders created through treaties, in particular the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. It was about global oil producers imposing their will on an allegedly sovereign nation via the state apparatus of a more powerful nation, without democratic process.

From a certain alien perspective, humans look like talking wet dirt. We are mostly carbon and water. From that viewpoint, we are indistinguishable from Earth’s other forms of replicating organisms, whether it meows, swims, or grows into massive forests. What purportedly separates us is that we have recently decided that we are in many ways wholly separate from our biological community. We have intrinsic rights, like borders, and distinct abilities to enact them via the state. Borders apply to people, but never to green jays or kiskadees (though plenty of life suffers our laws).

We find entanglements in the contradictions of these rights we have invented for ourselves. Social movements are not immune to this.

Aided and abetted by borderless capital, borderless climate change cannot necessarily be dealt with effectively through self-determination. A coal mine in Australia affects you and me all the same in the form of an overheating planet. We have no real form of representation in this process.

This is why our project must “see the picture of an endless entanglement of relations,” as Friedrich Engels wrote in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. We find linkages between movements and “the things that move, combine and are connected” everywhere in society.

“Water is life” wasn’t a rhetorical flourish from the encamped people of Sacred Stones and Oceti Sakowin during the NoDAPL protest. The meaning of the phrase is literal. The Missouri River provides life. Habitat sustains life. Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael explained this concept succinctly: “I have amazing news for you. Man is not alone on this planet. He is part of a community, upon which he depends absolutely” (note: author’s emphases).

For instance, green nativism has a history in the United States. It dates back to at least 1968 when Sierra Club published Paul Ehrlich’s best-selling book The Population Bomb. Ehrlich advocated limits on population growth on the now widely-discredited assumption overpopulation would lead to mass starvation and societal upheavals. The Club (disclosure: I am a member), and the broader environmental movement, has long had a conflicted relationship with immigration and the births of human beings. This insidious framework nurtures fascism.

The Population Bomb gave rise to people like Garrett Hardin and John Tanton. Hardin is infamous for The Tragedy of the Commons myth, while Tanton’s influence over Donald Trump’s current immigration policies is undeniable. Their formulation is hamfisted: humans cause global climate change, therefore fewer humans will reduce climate change. Under this theory of change, the global poor must live under austerity so that Westerners may preserve their way of life. Misguided environmentalists inadvertently repeat this rhetoric because preservation is so often at the core of the environmental movement.

What we should preserve and what we should transform are arenas of endless debate. Environmentalists and socialists have long had unresolved discrepancies. Many socialists are often maligned—sometimes fairly, often unfairly—for allegedly wanting to dominate nature. Capitalism seeks to exploit nature to accumulate wealth. Socialism seeks to democratize the means of production of that wealth. Socialism is thus still a Promethean orientation toward the exploitation of nature. Environmentalists, on the other hand, are often reduced to caricatures of showy ringmasters (note: paywalled), primitivist weirdos, or American hippies out-of-touch with the material experiences and global movements of poor people.

Some prominent degrowth advocates point out that the most notable instances of carbon emission reduction happened during the Great Depression, the oil shock of the 1980s, the collapse of the Soviet economies, and the two years following the 2008 global financial crisis. “Only a less ‘busy’ economy can actually achieve lower emissions,” they write in critique of ecomodernism. Because the predominate society only knows one way to exist under capitalism, we face obvious immediate consequences of building a new world in the shell of the old. How we de-grow the economy matters.

Our crises are not production problems, but distribution problems. Even though we produce up to 150% of our caloric needs per person, many experience malnutrition or starve. It is thus no surprise that humans seek refuge and migrate toward resources that are scarce in their geography.

Meanwhile, the capitalists have a plan. Ecocide is an opportunity to keep making money while the rich prepare themselves for doomsday. Leftist responses often range from unimaginative state directives that recreate ecological disaster (“nationalize the fossil fuel industry!”) to the vague optimism of techno-utopia (“Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism!”). If democratic socialists want a just transition before we all die, we ought to reject ecomodernist non-solutions.

Instead, let us re-root ourselves in a Marxian interpretation of nature—specifically our alienation from it. As wealth grows for ever fewer capitalists, so does the proletariat grow in number. The same relationship is true of nature. It gives blessings as well as curses. The more we thoughtlessly exploit, the more damage we do.

Capitalism alienates us from one another, from ourselves, and from the products of our labor. As it expands, it further removes us from our biological community. Unlike our ancestors, very few of us can go outside and find food on the ground; our culture has taught us little to nothing about how to survive in any other system. Food arrives in a mediated form, such as in a McDonald’s wrapper, produced by endless dead labor of global finance, massive corporate farms, huge logistic operations, a power grid based on fossil fuel extraction, and exploitation of poor farm and service workers. All this excess wreaks havoc upon the planet.

Even though our system sustains life through the artifice of globalization, we are still disposed to our physical location. Placement (and displacement) defines individuals. People are inextricable from habitat even when they are extracted or displaced from any given physical place due to war, famine, settler colonization, slavery or even priced out of an apartment in their neighborhood. We describe ourselves based on where we’re from and what we’ve experienced there. Everyone is a product of the systems and environments in which they live, right down to our chemical composition. We are what we eat. Borders do not define us—habitat does.

It is here in the spaces and the power structures adjacent to us that we must find ways to go against the rising tides. Our fights for immigrant rights—from Portland occupying an ICE facility to Austin holding them on trial to comrades in North Texas registering DACA recipients to Rio Grande Valley demanding Dreamer Resource Centers on the very same campuses where ICE recruits—ought to always position ourselves toward this long-view horizon: borders aren’t natural. It starts with running DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen out of a Mexican restaurant and the abolition of ICE but it must conclude with an end to the systems of warmongering and persecution that birthed the refugee crisis. We created this. We can end it.

When our comrades in San Diego bear witness to the refugee caravan, they connect individual suffering to the picture as a whole. When our members in Oklahoma City stand with striking teachers, they stand against Harold Hamm, fracking and international capital. When we oppose the war economy, when we oppose the shock doctrine of crisis capitalism in Puerto Rico, when we demand local divestment from fossil fuels, we lay necessary groundwork for life worth living.

(Photo: Zac Echola.)

Zac Echola is a member of the National Political Committee.