Walled States, Waning Sovereignty

Walled States, Waning Sovereignty Irony

Irony of Sovereignty

The title of Brown’s book, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty itself expresses a certain irony. Brown wants to understand a seeming paradox. On the one hand, states seem less powerful today. That’s because there are global forces that don’t respect state boundaries, most notably a transnational economy. But states also put on a big display of power by building spectacular walls along their borders. On the surface, states look impressive, not weakened. But the irony, according to Brown, is that this spectacle of construction is actually a sign of weakness. They are desperate attempts at appearing strong when states are actually no longer able to control the fate of the world. Throughout the book, Brown tracks this ironic tension between appearance and reality.

Irony of Opening and Closing

From one perspective, the puzzle that opens Walled States, Waning Sovereignty is another irony of the global world today. The puzzle is that at the same time that globalization is supposed to be opening borders, nation-states are trying to close borders. Brown explains:

[E]ven as those across a wide political spectrum—neoliberals, cosmopolitans, humanitarians, and left activists—fantasize a world without borders (whether consequent to global entrepreneurship, global markets, global citizenship, or global governance), nation-states, rich and poor, exhibit a passion for wall building. (20)

What is ironic is that we would expect there to be an end to borders. Instead, there is a “passion” for creating new borders. States operate out of line with what we predict.

Irony of Walls’ Inefficiency

One of the important aspects of Brown’s argument is that walls rarely do what they are supposed to do. National governments usually given an official reason for why they are building a wall, for instance to halt illegal immigration, the trafficking of drugs, or the possibility of terrorism. But walls can’t stop these threats. In fact, as Brown explains, trafficking, for instance, can actually become worse when walls are built:

In short, where demand pulls the supply of labor or contraband and where state expansion and/or occupation is at stake, walls produce borders as permanent zones of conflict and lawlessness, incite sophisticated and dangerous underground industries, expand the size and expense of the problems they would solve, and aggravate hostilities on both sides. (114)

This is the irony that walls end up creating the problem they were supposed to prevent. For Brown, this is evidence that the official reasons governments build walls are not the real reasons they build walls. Rather, it has to do with something more invisible: the fantasies people have about national sovereignty and their desire to keep symbols of that sovereignty alive. Because we are dealing with fantasy and symbolism, the actual physical effects of the wall are less important.