|An Israel/Egypt barrier. Photo Credit: Idobi via Wikimedia Commons|
Why, in the wake of enthusiasm for globalization and the burgeoning of a cosmopolitan global identity, is the world seeing a resurgence of wall building on national borders? Wendy Brown takes this question as her challenge in Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. Her primary examples are the US-Mexico border fence and the Israeli Security Fence, in addition to walls and fences in India, Saudi Arabia, and all over the globe. The putative aim of these walls is stopping the flow of persons, labor, drugs, crime, and the general promotion of security, but they consistently fail to sufficiently address these concerns, and only serve to create new problematic dynamics.
Because the walls are futile, Brown suggests that a deeper explanation for the desire for walling is needed. Her answer explores political theory, theology and psychoanalysis. And indeed, in Brown’s telling, it is the futility of the walls themselves that is most revealing. The more national boundaries become diluted by globalizing forces, she argues, the more important it becomes that individuals and states build physical structures to reinforce our artificial divides. But the act of reinforcement reveals it’s own insufficiency; walls can never serve the purpose of sovereignty, and their existence only emphasizes the concept’s frail nature. And while they fail as solutions to any range of problems, walls produce new and different challenges, and often stir up anxieties on both sides. Their purpose, therefore, is merely to satisfy a psychic (if not pathological) urge for both power and protection.
While Brown’s analysis is insightful and revealing, it lacks greater context. She provides compelling accounts of the historical concept of sovereignty and the contemporary phenomenon of walling. But crucially, she skims any serious contemporary theorizing of sovereignty and cosmopolitanism, and only gestures at a historical understanding of walling. So while the theory she presents about the political function and meaning of walls is attractive, and certainly accurate to some extent, many questions remain about its generality and historical specificity.
So why is sovereignty so important in modern politics? Brown argues that the concept has deep theological roots. Sovereignty is a feature of divinity, of an absolute ruler with dominion over time and space. It is this feature of nation-states, that it has rightful claim of jurisdiction over a people and a territory, which legitimates governmental use of force, and distinguishes insiders from outsiders. The outsiders are the un-ruled, unpredictable, barbaric, while the insiders are bound by legitimized law and order. (These distinctions themselves produce contradictions. It is that lack of “ordered society” beyond the boundaries of the state that justify war, destruction, and disregard on the part of sovereign, supposedly the beacon of rightness and security.)
Because sovereignty grounds the legal order just as God grounds the moral order, sovereignty has become evermore important in a secularized age. Indeed, the significance of sovereignty’s absolute status is intensified for a secular society without God. In political theory, Brown says, sovereignty plays the role of the “unmoved mover,” as without it, none of the other tools for political rule can gain any traction. There’s no sense in halfway sovereignty, just as a weakened God is no God at all.
Can this be reconciled with Brown’s chosen title, which contains the eponymous concept of “Waning Sovereignty?” With some semantic flexibility, we can see what she means. Sovereignty isn’t waning, but the illusion of sovereignty is. Sovereignty is a fiction nations tell themselves, the citizens and their governments, for the purpose of their own survival and comfort. The pursuit of strengthening borders, with the use of the newest technology and 24-hour surveillance, just serves to show that the concept of sovereignty is less important in our world than it once was. As Hannah Arendt argued in On Violence, violence is used by those without power, or whose power is diminishing. Power is the capacity for control without the need for violence; sovereignty that needs to prove itself with physical blockades displays its own irrelevance. The fantasy of the concept cannot persist against the challenges of a globalized world and is bound to fade.
And yet this raises a question: Does Brown prove too much with this argument? Sovereignty is a fiction, true, but it’s not clear what we should draw from that fact. Fictions can serve a purpose, and point in useful directions. The attempts to preserve old-fashioned fantasies of sovereignty through the buildings of walls are both futile and wrongheaded, and Brown is convincing on this point. But the concept of sovereignty is a shifting one. Democratic sovereignty poses some peculiar problems, but it solved several problems of the totalitarian sovereignty proposed by Thomas Hobbes. At times, Brown is optimistic for the arrival of a post-sovereignty world. But it’s not obvious this world will be preferable in every way to the world we have now. Nor is it obvious that sovereignty, though certainly strained, is in its death throes. Perhaps the possibility for new forms of sovereignty could prove fruitful, but Brown primarily analyzes the work of historical sovereignty theorists.
It’s also unclear how new the phenomenon of walling up borders and insecure sovereignty is. Brown notes that walling has always been a part of political practices, and that their spectacle has always been a large part of their appeal. But she argues that the particular global context is new. However, Brown offers little defense for this thesis. She takes it as given that globalization, such as it is, offers unique challenges to sovereignty.
This is not obviously so. Many contemporary liberal democratic states have an enduring stability that many ancient civilizations would have envied. Globalization offers many challenges, to be sure, but so do coups, annexation, invasion, and any number of threats to sovereignty that are less common in contemporary industrialized countries than has been the case historically. And some threats to sovereignty, such as globalized power structures, e.g. the United Nations, the European Union, and World Bank, which many do view as threats, fail to produce the dynamics Brown concerns herself with (no one is building walls to Greece.)
And in the case of the Israeli Security Fence, one of Brown’s prime examples (though also, she admits, a “hard case” for her theory,) is more a force of colonization than a reactionary defense of sovereignty. To be charitable, we could read these as one in the same goal, but this would remove any temporal context from Brown’s thesis. The post-war creation of the modern Israeli state is not readily seen as a feature of contemporary globalization.
Additionally, we might wonder: Why does the US build a wall to Mexico, but not to Canada? Brown’s answer must be that Mexico is seen as more of a threat to American sovereignty that Canada. But what are the reasons Mexico is more threatening than Canada? Without delving into detail, the answers would surely contain racial, political and economic motivations. But if something along those lines is correct, it’s not clear what work “sovereignty” is doing in the explanation, and why we think it should generalize globally. Xenophobia and international tensions exist for a myriad of reasons, and in every known global context, and they reflect a lot more than the fragility of the notion of sovereignty. Indeed, it seems that racial and cultural divides would be the reason to worry about waning sovereignty, rather than the other way around.
As mentioned above, these walls mostly fail to accomplish the purported goals. If they’re not merely evaded, they create new problems of their own. Security on borders immediately raises the stakes of crossing, but can induce a microcosm arms race, thus decreasing overall safety.
Most often, walling advocates miss the larger picture. Drugs only cross walled borders because there’s demand for the drugs within the border. Undocumented laborers only migrate because there are potential employers. Those in favor of walls are opposed to the very forces within their own nation who make the walls (in their view) necessary. But this discord threatens to undermine the very sovereignty that the walls are supposed to fortify. If law cannot be maintained within the country, the distinctions between the two sides of the walls become less clear. And with dissident forces within the walled nation contesting the need for the borders, those who favor walls sometimes feel compelled to become vigilantes in defense of the border. But this fully brings to the fore the challenges posed to sovereignty; it cannot possibly be defended by the work of vigilantes, which themselves undermine the state’s authority.
Drawing on psychoanalysis, Brown describes the persistence of the desire for walls despite these tensions as a form of psychological defense mechanism. Defense mechanisms need not be rational, but reflect our desire to cling to an imagined sense of security and protection, even if doing so can undermine the fantasy. Thus she writes, “ The wish for sovereign protection that generates and sustains religion is so powerful and emerges from such a primal psychic experience that it cannot be addressed by an other force or allayed by science or reason… the desire for walls appears as a religiously inflected one.” (132)
The account is attractive, but need we be so psychologized? Is it not safe to assume that many people simply don’t recognize the empirical facts of the futility of walling, and fail to realize the contradictions involved? Those who should know better, as Brown notes, often simply pander to those who believe the walls are necessary.
Walled States, Waning Sovereignty applies a relatively simple paradox fruitfully to intensely fraught and complex nature of contemporary geopolitics. While not fully successful, Brown’s work is illuminating and sharp, and provides us with a number of conceptual tools with which to reflect on the borders of nationhood. Surely a bigger toolbox could find even greater depth to behold.