Walled States, Waning Sovereignty

Walled States, Waning Sovereignty Summary

Walled States, Waning Sovereignty is Wendy Brown’s contemporary classic in political theory. It theorizes the widespread desire people have for building walls along national borders, and it uses these walls to theorize larger trends in the contemporary global landscape. Although a short book with only four chapters, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty deftly explores and connects such disparate themes as theology, capitalism, globalization, and nationalism.

In Chapter 1, Brown sets the stage by exploring border walls that have been built in the recent past across the world. She focuses on the Israel/Palestine wall and the United States/Mexico walls, but she claims these are representative of a larger trend happening in many other places, too. She says all the various walls in the world today are “kin,” which means they are not identical but have a common origin, like family members have a common ancestor. What they have in common is a shared condition she calls the waning of sovereignty. That means a new global political order in which nations are not the primary actors. Today, the economy is what really controls the world, and it transcends national boundaries. Nation-states feel they have been left behind and are no longer relevant in the global order, because their borders do not have the power to organize the flow of capital. They build walls as a reaction against this loss of power. Walls are meant to show a sign of strength that compensates for the actual loss of sovereignty.

In Chapter 2, Brown steps back from analysis of actual walls to theorize sovereignty more generally. For Brown, sovereignty has always been connected to the enclosure of land. On the one hand, citizens give legitimacy to a government because they want a system of justice to manage the ownership and inheritance of private property. On the other hand, nations recognize governments according to the land they occupy. Being able to mark off a space on a map as belonging to a country is how we intuitively conceive of sovereign nations. Given the ways in which space is fundamental to the definition of sovereignty, it is no surprise that nations build walls along their borders in order to make their enclosure of land once more visible to the rest of the world—and to themselves. This is how they assert sovereignty when they feel it is under threat.

In Chapter 3, Brown explores the relationship between the people who inhabit a country and the walls being built along the country’s border. She argues that people fantasize that national sovereignty is a double of personal sovereignty. That means people think of their country as a projection of their own body, and so they want to protect the borders of their country in the same way they want to protect their bodies from violation or disease. This is one reason they desire walls, because they desire to feel secure and autonomous, and they want their countries to look the same way.

The final chapter of Walled States explores these psychological relationships between personal and national sovereignty at more length. Here, Brown is particularly interested in the psychoanalytic concept of defense mechanisms, which people unconsciously develop as a way of avoiding unpleasant or negative ideas or realities. Walls are a kind of defense mechanism on multiple levels. First of all, instead of confronting the reality that national sovereignty is waning, walls re-assert the appearance of sovereignty. They thus help people avoid the disturbing thought that nations are weakening. Second, they provide a defense mechanism against facing all the other problems internal to a nation, such a history of injustice or a declining economy. People project these problems outside the nation, scapegoating foreigners or other countries. Building a wall facilitates this process of projection because walls make a visible distinction between an “us” and a “them.” The “us” on this side of the wall can be good and safe, while the “them” on the other side are dangerous and bad.