Summary of Chapter 4
Chapter 4 is in many ways a deepening of Brown’s analysis in the previous chapter, which was about the relationship between people and their countries, in particular the kinds of imaginary relations that walls make possible between them. In this chapter, “Desiring Walls,” Brown explores what causes the desire people have for walls. What are the feelings and fantasies that walls provide that make them desirable? One of the premises of this chapter is that walls rarely accomplish what they are officially designed to do. For instance, instead of halting immigration, smuggling, or terrorism, many walls actually exacerbate these problems. Thus, the reasons people like walls have to do more with fantasy than reality. What matters is not what walls do, but what they symbolize and how those symbols are consumed by citizens of a country.
One point of reference for Brown is Benedict Anderson’s classic book, Imagined Communities, which explored how people come to imagine themselves as belonging to a larger social group, like a nation. This sense of belonging is imagined because it is not already provided in the same way that, for instance, belonging to a family is provided by birth. Walls help contribute to the formation of imagined communities because they separate an “us” from a “them.” If we are all on this side of the wall, we can imagine ourselves as belonging together. Thus, walls help imagine communities, that is, they bring a national community into being.
This is why walls are fundamentally not just about political, economic, and security needs. They are more basically about culture, language, and race, because they are about creating the identity of a “we.” One reason people desire walls is because they desire belonging to some “we” that provide a sense of community, nourishment, and security. But people don’t want just anyone to join them in the “we.” That is why walls are also sites of xenophobia and racism. As people desire walls and decide who gets to belong to the nation, walls are meant to keep out undesirable others.
Thus, related to the desirable feeling of belonging that walls provide, walls also draw from a fantasy of “the dangerous alien.” This is one of four main fantasies Brown sees at play in the national border walls. In this fantasy, outsiders—the “they” as opposed to the “we”—are not only different, but dangerous, in the same way that a virus isn’t simply different from a human body, but can harm it. The second fantasy related to walls is therefore that walls provide containment. Walls contain the nation from dangerous influences, just as wearing gloves can protect a person from catching germs. In order for this fantasy to make sense, there has to be a third fantasy, which is that walls are impermeable. We believe no germs can breach a glove. Similarly, people believe walls cannot be breached, tunneled under, or otherwise surpassed. So long as they have a wall, their sense of a “we” will be immune from outside influence.
The fourth fantasy related to walls has to do with the people inside the wall. If the idea is that people on the other side of the wall are dangerous, then the idea is also that the people on this side of the wall are innocent, pure, and good. Thus, walls don’t just create a sense of national community. They also make it so that that community seems righteous. After all, only the good need to be protected. Thus, a wall creates a sense that the “we” that people belong to is a kind of chosen people, special and worthy of security.
Brown thinks this view is a psychological defense mechanism. A defense mechanism is a false idea or fantasy that protects people from having to confront facts or ideas that depart from their sense of reality. We have already seen a mechanism that defends against the waning of sovereignty: it is when nations are losing their sovereignty that they try to erect walls to provide the illusion of sovereignty. Thus, building walls is a defense mechanism. Now, Brown talks about walls as a second kind of defense mechanism. People might realize that their country, or the community of “we” to which they belong, is itself violent, or has a drug problem, or unjust. Instead of dealing with this reality, people project all the bad stuff outside the country, and imagine it is on the other side of the wall they are building. In this way, they can avoid confronting problems within their country, so long as they can keep fantasize that everything wrong in the world belongs to “them,” on the other side.
Brown’s understanding of defense mechanism is deeply informed by the work of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, as well as the work of his daughter, Anna Freud. For the Freuds, a defense mechanism is meant to defend against all the bad energy that is attached to negative ideas. There are then two types of defense mechanisms: ones that target the energy and ones that target the idea. The conversion of a negative idea into a positive idea is seen in the desire to build a wall. Here, the negative idea is that the nation is losing sovereignty, and this is converted into the positive idea of building a wall. But a defense mechanism can also convert the energy attached to a bad idea by projecting it onto another bad idea. This is when people move the bad feelings they have about their country onto bad feelings that have about foreigners. People still experience fear, but now they blame it on others instead of on what it is really causing it, which is the waning of sovereignty.
Analysis of Chapter 4
The turn to psychoanalysis in this chapter can seem a bit surprising at first. Brown has been talking about capitalism and national sovereignty. Why talk about psychology, too? In fact, this mixing of psychoanalysis and political economy, or mixing the thinking of people like Freud with the thinking of people like Marx, is fairly common in political theory. That’s because political theorists want to explain not just how governments work, but also how people develop attachments to their government. How do people consent to what their governments do, and what makes it possible for people to dissent?
Much of the original analysis of the relation between nations and subjects was done in the study of “hegemony,” which refers to the dominant ideology of a culture. Many progressive political theorists asked why people consent to unfair governments. If a society is unjust and systematically disadvantages the poor, for instance, then why aren’t the poor always fighting back against the society? The answer that many theorists have provided is that this unjust society still provides the poor with fantasies and ideas that make them submit to the society. They want to belong to the society that provides them a sense of identity and belonging, even if that society objectively seems to treat them poorly.
Brown’s argument provides another twist on this idea. In this case, people aren’t just reassured by their governments that sovereignty is good for them. They also actively participate in the construction of hegemony. They have invested so much in the fantasy that they will be protected by their nation that they seem to double down and commit to strengthening the nation at whatever cost. That’s how important having a sense of national belonging is to them.
It is this sense of belonging that is most important. People want, more than anything else, to think they have a place in the world. Especially in an increasingly transnational and globalizing world where a dizzying array of different peoples and cultures come into frequent contact with each other, people can feel lost and like they don’t belong anywhere. From this feeling of placelessness results a lot of stress and anxiety. Walls powerfully respond to this anxiety by helping people develop a sense of belonging to their nation. A national identity repairs the sense of having lost a place in the world.
Brown gives the final section of this chapter, and therefore of the whole book, over to Sigmund and Anna Freud. It is a peculiar choice even for political theorists, who commonly cite Freud. What this move suggests is that, for Brown, the psychological component of walls is of utmost importance, even more than the economic reality to which they respond. We may not be able to change the conditions of the world we live in. But we can intervene into the ways we respond to this world. Some ways of responding are more dangerous than others. Here, Brown suggests that building walls responds to economic problems with racism and xenophobia. Against this, Brown calls for ways of converting our anxieties into more useful or less harmful fantasies and actions.