March 2011

Jacob Mikanowski


Walled States, Waning Sovereignty by Wendy Brown

Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there’s been a strange increase in wall-building. It’s not just a resurgence in the construction of physical walls, like the Israeli West Bank barrier, the US-Mexico border fence, or similar barriers on the edges of the European Union or the borders of India, Saudi Arabia, and a host of other countries; it’s also an upsurge in the desire for enclosure, as if nations could wrap themselves safely behind walls, like blankets.

Wendy Brown begins Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, her lucid, critically astute, and ultimately frustrating study of the contemporary revival of wall-building, by pointing out that these new walls never accomplish what they ostensibly set out to do. They can’t stop trans-border migration or smuggling, and they don’t prevent crimes; they just disperse their effects. Nor are walls able to do anything meaningful about security: they can’t repel enemy armies, and they’re powerless in the face of more diffuse threats, like suicide bombers and biological weapons.   

Walls don’t work, but they keep getting built -- but as Brown observes, there is a deeper paradox to their popularity. Walls sit on national borders, but the forces they are meant to keep out and control are transnational, dispersed, and decentered. Meanwhile, the very notion of erecting new barriers around states runs counter to today’s dominant ideologies of globalization, all of which imagine a world without boundaries, whether in the name of free markets, global governance, universal democracy, or humanitarian interventionism. In this fantasy landscape of cooperation and interdependence, walls stand out as an anachronism. So if they aren’t useful, and they aren’t fashionable, what are these walls really for, and where does the desire for them come from?

Brown’s solution is elegant, subtly reasoned, and deeply counter-intuitive, like a great Freudian dream-reading. It’s also not entirely persuasive, since it rests on an assumption which is never completely substantiated -- namely, that we are living in an age of “waning sovereignty,” in which power is ebbing away from nation-states and accruing to various trans-national entities (principally global capital and religious violence). Globalization is stripping states of autonomy, making them less and less able to govern and influence the lives of their citizens. Walls are a response to this diminishment. They’re a cover-up, a way of insisting on the stability and dominance of the state even as it fades into irrelevance in the face of global movements of money, labor and influence. They’re “stage set productions of intact nationhood, autonomy and self-sufficiency,” designed to restore citizens’ own sense of balance and mastery. As a sort of visual boast, walls seek to shore up the psychic space of the nation, but like all boasts, they point to an underlying vulnerability.

Brown extends her analysis from polities to subjects, charting the ways walls work as both theater and wish-fulfillment. She also goes on a detour into the theological dimension of sovereignty. Drawing on the work of Carl Schmitt, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean Bodin, she points to enclosure (the act of saying “this is mine” and putting a fence around it) as the founding act connecting sovereign power to the divine. As a result, sovereignty always retains a connection to the divine; it seeks to impress and over-awe. Walls are ways of restoring that awe and of making the state seem over-mastering, immense, and holy. They are “modern-day temples housing the ghost of political sovereignty,” and icons of stability for citizens harassed by the “myriad global forces and flows coursing through nations today.”

Walls may not work at keeping people out, but as Walled States rightfully points out, they are very effective at defining and giving identity to those they fence in. Brown’s theoretical approach -- reading walls as a form of symbolic compensation -- certainly has its advantages, especially in illuminating the buried psychic sources behind the desire for wall-building, the deep fears it assuages and hidden wishes it fulfills. But it also has its drawbacks: for one, it forces her to downplay the differences between different types of walls. Much of Brown’s argument relies on the example of the US border fence, and although she acknowledges that it is different from the Israeli Security Fence (substituting “neocolonialism” for “globalization” in her argument), it can be difficult to see how her analysis would extent to walls around non-liberal regimes, like those surrounding Saudi Arabia, or between North Korea and China. This approach also keeps her from considering the fact that wall-building is not exclusively the domain of states. Take the town of Michalovce in Slovakia, whose Slovak residents built a cement barrier to separate themselves from the town’s majority Roma population. This wall has nothing to do with sovereignty or security, and everything to do with aversion and disgust.

The darker impulses behind wall-building, those that have to do with feelings of repulsion and superiority, and hatreds so deep they make townspeople not even want to see their neighbors, aren’t given much space in Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. Nor is the central assumption of the book -- that sovereignty is in fact waning in West -- ever carefully examined. While financial globalization and religious terrorism certainly create anxieties, it’s much less clear that they actually erode state power. The experience of America in the past decade points to the reverse.

The strangest thing about Brown’s book is that it seems much less relevant or timely now then when it came out, just a few months ago. Last year, a sense of powerlessness in the face of global forces -- terrorism, extremism, and especially, the financial crisis -- felt like the defining feature of our political life. Now, after the victory of revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and in the midst of the Libyan revolt, it no longer does. All of a sudden, sovereignty isn’t a discursive structure threatened with collapse; it’s violently real. Popular sovereignty, which Brown at one point refers to as “something of an abstraction with a tenuous bearing on political reality” is real too -- it’s in the streets. For the moment, it feels like walls can’t keep anything in or hold anything out.

Walled States, Waning Sovereignty by Wendy Brown
Zone Books
ISBN: 1935408089
168 Pages