Building divisions

Political scientist Wendy Brown explains why the world is seeing a boom in wall building

By J. Gabriel Boylan
October 31, 2010

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Neighbors can be a pain. Their trash cans keep straying farther onto your property each week, their kids seem to think your yard is their outfield, and is that their cat lurking in your garden again? Git!

Sensible homeowners know the solution: put up a fence. Keep what’s yours in and what’s theirs out. Nation states have increasingly taken notice of this strategy. In the last 20 years, several dozen wall-building projects have commenced around the globe, from high-profile projects like the US-Mexico wall and Israel’s ever-evolving, near-schizophrenic wall into and along the West Bank to less well-known projects like Morocco’s berm against the Western Sahara, Padua’s Via Anelli Wall (separating white middle-class neighborhoods from the so-called African ghetto), Brunei’s wall against immigrants and smugglers from Limbang, or the double-wall being built on the China-North Korea border, China building to stem the flow of refugees and North Korea seemingly to appear important.

The impulse of those in power to build walls around them is as old as the very idea of sovereignty, yet the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, even the wall that used to be where Wall Street is today served mainly as symbolic dividing lines, a reminder to would-be interlopers (Mongols, barbarians, Lenape Indians, and English Colonials) that there was such a thing as power, and that the powerful meant to maintain the division between us and them, in and out, here and there.

And yet all these barriers built since the fall of the 20th century’s most famed wall, that in Berlin, haven’t done a very good job of keeping anyone in, out, here, there, or anywhere. The projects are incredibly costly, extremely popular, and rarely effective in any intended way. Rather, they seem usually to draw attention to particular divisions, to make communities that span borders more conscious of the intervention of their sovereigns, while the would-be interlopers of today (smugglers, the poor, the religious, terrorists) are often no more than inconvenienced.

In “Walled States, Waning Sovereignty,” Wendy Brown, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, traces this spate of wall building, and argues that the recent explosion in wall building during an era of ever-increasing global connectedness signals an underlying anxiety inherent in the modern state. When culture, ideology, and religion are the dominant perceived threats to nationhood, a kind of hysteria introduces a state of more or less constant emergency. The best technology nations seem to be able to find is also the oldest.

Brown spoke with Ideas from her California office.

IDEAS: In the book you contend that most of today’s big wall projects don’t work. How do you mean that?

BROWN: What’s distinctive about the walls that have been built in the last few decades — really since the fall of the Berlin Wall, although some of them started before that — is that they are mainly designed to impede transnational actors or nonstate forces — movements of people, weapons, drugs, or other contraband — rather than to deter invading armies or keep people inside. So then the question is: Are they really doing that deterrence? Are they really blocking what they set out to block? For the most part, the answer is no. Sometimes they’re rerouting it, sometimes they’re increasing the expense or the difficulty of crossing the borders that they aim to fortify. But if they’re trying to stop illegal immigration — for example, in the US-Mexico case — they’re just not doing it. Most every border expert will acknowledge that. So then, the question is, the people designing and implementing and funding them know they’re not working — why are they being built?

IDEAS: Another interesting detail is how many of these walls are officially noted as “temporary” structures.

BROWN: The Israeli wall that cuts in and out of the Palestinian territories — if that wall were declared to be a permanent wall, it would have to justify itself on some other grounds than national security. In other words, if it were being built on a permanent basis, it would clearly be a wall that is designating territory, and setting up two states....But it’s not doing that. It’s being built as a temporary, political, military strategy.

IDEAS: Temporary walls came to define much of our post-9/11 world of “security,” like large concrete planters at airports and such, and have the similar feel of ineffectuality. But is the tie-in to terrorism since then a cause of support?

BROWN: Part of what I’m arguing in the book is that the walls have two symbolic functions, quite apart from whatever they might or might not do functionally. One of them is to resurrect an image of intact state sovereignty, at a time when globalization is really wreaking havoc with state sovereignty — when everything from capital to people to grids to religions flow across state borders without much sovereign control over those things. But that’s only one half of it. The other half is that they reassure people of protection, containment, security; that they’re harbored somehow.

IDEAS: So with this idea of waning sovereignty, what does the future look like?

BROWN: South Africa is actually a very, very striking place to look at this problem. What South African scholars have made clear is that in the post-apartheid decades, where the society has, among other things, descended into more and more chaos, the level of crime and the kind of ruthless economic exploitation that works outside of the law — one of the things that has accompanied that is what these scholars call the privatization of security. So white neighborhoods are all gated communities now, and rich people all have their own private security: fences, gates, walls, and forces. Everybody’s got their own private police force. You see smaller versions of that in the EuroAtlantic world, but it’s certainly growing. Having your own security system is increasingly standard for upper-middle-class households, and having your own security compound is absolutely standard for rich people.

IDEAS: What are some of the strangest walls you’ve encountered in your research?

BROWN: A group of Israeli settler women protested the route of the wall because it cut off access of their housemaids, who are Palestinian, to their houses — the wall was doing just what it was supposed to do, but these Orthodox settler women were very upset because it essentially cut off the cheap labor that Palestinians were providing them.

Then you’ve got China and Korea both walling each other out. Maybe there were a couple of smugglers that were at issue, but really what there is is a kind of mutual fear performance going on back and forth, what we used to call an international relations “signaling,” where both sides are saying something to the other through some kind of signal, only in this case it’s through walling.

IDEAS: Who actually builds these walls?

BROWN: Some of these walls are built by the very so-called illegals that they are being designed to keep out. There are many instances of that in the US case. One of the leading builders of the wall, the American Fence Company, was cited three times over a 10-year period for having hundreds and hundreds of undocumented workers on its payroll.

IDEAS: And what do you see for the future of walling?

BROWN: There is no question that walling around the world has generated the desire for more walling — everybody really wants a wall now. Saudi Arabia is a really good example; the fantasy of walling the entire nation is a very alive one. The Middle East is just a scene of proliferating walls. Again one has to try to figure out what the reasons would be, apart from the official reasons that are put forth. Officially, Saudi Arabia is walling out immigrants and potential terrorists. Of course, others are walling out potential terrorists that they imagine coming from Saudi Arabia.

J. Gabriel Boylan is an assistant editor of Harper’s Magazine.