Walled States, Waning Sovereignty

Walled States, Waning Sovereignty Summary and Analysis of Chapter 1 (pp. 1-26)

Summary of Chapter 1 (pp. 1-26)

Wendy Brown begins Walled States, Waning Sovereignty with a puzzle. On the one hand, the world seems to becoming more open and interconnected. This is what is meant by globalization, which refers to the ways in which businesses in particular develop international relations, in turn connecting governments and peoples across the world. But on the other hand, nations seem to keep closing down. Brown draws our attentions specifically to a trend of building walls and fences along national borders, such as between the United States and Mexico or between Israel and Palestine. Why do nations simultaneously invest in opening up their markets and closing down their borders?

An obsession with building walls isn’t just seen along national borders, Brown argues. Surveying construction projects across the world, she sees a trend practiced by governments, cities, and private citizens. Think, for instance, about the gated community. The rise of neighborhoods protected by fences and security officers is similar to the rise of walls and custom officials along national borders. This suggests that the trend has something to do not just with governments, but with how people conceive their world and section off spaces within it.

Brown identifies three main tensions or paradoxes in this trend of building walls. The first is the one with which she opened the book: the tension between a world becoming more open and nations becoming more closed. Globalization and wall-building seem to be in conflict with one another, but they are happening at the same time. Second, Brown notes a tension between universalization and exclusion. Universalization refers to the fact that democracy is supposed to include everyone, so that as the world becomes more democratic, it should become more inclusive. But walls again suggest a desire for exclusivity, whether it's keeping foreigners out of a country or the lower class out of a gated community. Third, Brown talks about a tension between the virtual and the physical. On the one hand, our world seems to be getting more virtual. We communicate online and buy things without ever touching physical money, for instance. But walls are a physical structure. They don’t interact with the virtual world of the Internet, for instance, even though we are increasingly living in a digital age.

One of the things that all of these tensions have in common, according to Brown, is what she calls a “post-Westphalian world.” Westphalia refers to a series of treaties in the 1600s that established international peace by drawing national borders. In other words, it divided the world into nation-states like France and Sweden and said sovereignty rests with the nation. This is the premise of such modern institutions as the United Nations, in which members are nations instead of, say, religions or identity categories. In a Westphalian world, the basic political unit is the state.

What makes the walls post-Westphalian is that they are not primarily trying to protect states from other states. None of the walls is trying to prevent invasion from another nation’s army, for instance. Instead, they are trying to protect states from threats such as drugs and terrorism. This reveals that they partake in a global system that is “transnational” instead of “international.” In a Westphalian world, relations are international, which means they are between nations. In today’s world, which has come after the Westphalian world, relations transcend the state. Walls are about protecting states from non-state actors.

If the world has moved beyond a Westphalian organization of nation-states, that also means we live in a period witnessing the “waning of sovereignty.” This is Brown’s phrase for the loss of power nations have to be the center of world affairs. Terrorism is one example, in which the main spectacles of violence today are perpetrated by non-state actors rather than being an instance of warfare between nations. But the main sign of the waning of sovereignty, Brown claims, is in the economy. As multinational companies transcend national boundaries, nation-states no longer control the flows of money and goods. Today, the economy, rather than nations, organizes the world.

In Brown’s analysis, building walls is basically a defense mechanism against this waning of sovereignty. Nations build walls along their borders in a desperate attempt to prove they are still sovereign and self-contained. Walls try to resurrect a Westphalian world in which nations have defined boundaries and control the world instead of being transcended and controlled by the economy. Citizens of nations, too, support these efforts, because they are nostalgic for the sense of security that a Westphalian world provided. They want to live in safe containers protected from the rest of the world. In both cases, however, this is just a compensation for the new reality that nations no longer have the power they used to.

Analysis of Chapter 1 (pp. 1-26)

Wendy Brown is a political theorist, and in this chapter we can see two ways in which she is doing “theory.” First, she is theorizing by observing a pattern. She notices lots of walls being built in lots of places, and she is claiming they are part of a general phenomenon. What theory tries to do is see similarities across different case studies or objects. Thus, Brown is not trying to explain any one thing, but a set of things. She is not, for instance, a historian of the United States who is explaining the history behind this one country’s building of a border wall. Rather, she is trying to see how this country is doing something many other countries are doing, too.

This leads to the second way in which Brown is theorizing. Having discovered a pattern, Brown now wants to explain what underlies it. In this way, she is a theorist in the way that scientists sometimes are. Consider the theory of gravity, which explains how objects behave when they fall. A scientist might observe lots of objects falling, just like Brown observes lots of walls being built. The scientist then tries to figure out constants and universal principles that determine how objects fall. Similarly, Brown is trying to find a common principle at play in each wall. That principle, she claims, is the waning of sovereignty.

It is important to note that, because Brown is dealing with a pattern, this waning of sovereignty is not something that is happening in any one country, but globally. This is not a story about how some countries are getting more powerful while some are getting weaker. Rather, it is about how all countries are getting weaker compared to a force that is not a country at all: the economy. In other words, Brown is talking about a change at the level of the global system, rather than changes of parts within that system. What matters are the ways in which politics and the economy are being reconfigured in order to make nations themselves seem irrelevant.

To single out the economy as the most important way in which governments seem to be losing control of the world shows some of Brown’s political leanings. Writing in the early 2000s, many people would have cited terrorism as the main non-national threat that nations face in the global world. Terrorists, like multinational companies, do not belong to a particular nation. Brown thinks the anxieties related to national security that are invoked by terrorism are real, but that they are also a bit of a red herring. The flows of capital, more than incidents of violence, are where the waning of national sovereignty is really happening.

In future chapters, Brown will suggest than an obsession with terrorism is actually one way that nations concentrate their biggest fears into a single scapegoat. The erosion of national sovereignty through the rise of global capital is hard to see. But the violence perpetrated by terrorists is much more visible, and it therefore provides a more accessible image for processing how nations are weakening today. According to Brown, people like talking about things that are visible, rather than things that are abstract like the flow of capital. This is another reason why the wall is a powerful symbol for people, because it makes visible a fantasy for sovereignty despite all the invisible threats to it.