Walled States, Waning Sovereignty

Walled States, Waning Sovereignty Summary and Analysis of Chapter 2

Summary of Chapter 2

In Chapter 2, “Sovereignty and Enclosure,” Wendy Brown goes into more depth theorizing the sovereignty she discussed in Chapter 1. Remember that in that chapter, Brown was primarily interested in a transition from a Westphalian world of nation-state sovereignty to a post-Westphalian world in which states are no longer the primary global unit. Part of this transition has to do with the rise of a global market where goods and money are exchanged without respect to national boundaries. In this Chapter, Brown analyzes this transition more closely. She does so by exploring the concept of “sovereignty” itself.

To begin, Brown looks at the work of the philosopher John Locke, an important thinker of the 17th century. Locke argued that nation states develop their sovereignty through land. People want to own land and be able to inherit it through their families. That means there needs to be a system in place to arbitrate over private property. Such a system requires laws and people to rule over the application of laws. That’s where states come into play. They provide a system of justice in which land can be divided, owned, and transferred. It is through land that individuals and a state enter into a contract that gives power to the state.

One of the 20th century’s most important theorists of sovereignty, Carl Schmitt, essentially agreed with this sense that it is land that is fundamental to how states develop their legitimacy and power. Schmitt was interested in international law, or how a world order emerged in which nations could enter into treaties and agreements with each other. For Schmitt, international law is fundamentally based on the division of the physical earth into different sovereign regions, which we call nations. Think of a map, which divides a continent into different country. Thus, a prerequisite of a global political order is a kind of enclosure, the creation of self-contained divisions of land.

This helps explains the emergence of walls in a period in which nations feel they are losing their power. When nations were first emerging, they erected walls to mark their boundaries. But in modern times, like the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, most walls disappeared. Sometimes you would have a wall like the Berlin Wall during the Cold War, to divide Soviet Germany from Western Germany. But in general, visible signs regarding the borders of nations became less common. It is only more recently that they have become more popular again. This is because sovereignty is seen as being under threat, so just like emerging nations had to border their countries, now weakened nations need to re-border their countries. If a global political order is fundamentally based on the enclosure of land, then walls emerge in order to reinforce this enclosure.

Brown notes a caveat to this primarily geographic understanding of sovereignty. This is that we also think of sovereignty as something that resides in "the people." We usually think of nations not just as landmasses, but as populations, or even a unified "people." So, too, is the sovereignty of a nation supposed to be derived from legitimacy granted to it by the people who live within it. For Brown, many of the problems dealing with sovereignty today are a result of these sometimes conflicting definitions of it. This is also why walls don’t just designate a landmass, but also develop a sense of a national people. It is not just land that people want to protect; it is also a national culture, which people want to protect against “pollution” by outsiders.

Brown also talks about another function of walls in the past. In medieval times, walls of temples were used to section off some space as “sacred.” Just as national boundaries designate that this land belongs to this country and that land belongs to another country, religious walls indicated that some land was worldly and some land was holy. Walls thus serve a theological function in addition to a political one. They make some space seem imbued with a special, extra-worldly power. A sense of awe results from this. Part of the function of modern walls, similarly, is to re-create a sense of awe. This is why walls have to be physical even if the threats they often try to contain are invisible, like viruses or the exchange of money. The physical nature of the wall makes it possible for people to develop a sense of awe and respect for what they contain.

The irony, according to Brown, is that what is sacred today is not what was sacred in the past. Today, the thing that seems to control the human world and transcend politics is not God, but money. It is the flow of money, or capital, that organizes the world today. The economy detaches from politics and seems to be independent of it. It is therefore in the economy that we see a theological component today. In general, people tend to think we are in a post-religious moment because of the rise of secular societies. Brown argues it is not so much that God is dead; rather, God has become capital. It is capital that we are now in awe of and consider almost sacred.

Analysis of Chapter 2

This chapter is the middle of Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, and sometimes it gets lost between the seemingly more productive introduction and conclusion. The chapter is the most purely academic one in the book, discussing a long history of political philosophy from Locke to the present. It is therefore also the core of the book. It is here that Brown develops the key concepts and language for talking about walls and sovereignty.

The people Brown chooses to cite are therefore not random, just like it wasn’t random that Brown started with the United States and Israel in Chapter 1. We can see two main things Brown is trying to accomplish based on the people she cites. First, when Brown talks about classical thinkers like Locke and Rousseau, she is grounding herself in a rich history of political theory. These thinkers, widely read in political philosophy, give legitimacy to the argument she is making. This discussion also enables her to connect new phenomena with older concepts and dynamics. By showing that the walls are a modern development of a longer history of sovereignty, Brown affirms the timelessness of her theory.

Second, when Brown cites contemporary thinkers like Giorgio Agamben, she shows the relevance of her study for thinking deeply about political philosophy today. Agamben is probably the most widely cited political theorist of sovereignty today. In a separate section, we spend more time comparing Brown’s work in this book and Agamben’s work on the “state of exception,” in which a sovereign asserts its sovereignty by suspending the rule of law, usually because of a declared national emergency. For now, it is useful to know that by engaging Agamben, Brown is making a claim for the importance of her own theory. She wants to be in the “big leagues,” so to speak, in political philosophy, and her argument demonstrates she should be.

In doing so, Brown reverses some of the conventional wisdom around sovereignty today. On the one hand, nations today are criticized for sovereign over-reach. The United States after 9/11, for instance, was criticized for its use of torture and extralegal prisons. In this way, a country looks like it is overstepping its power, acting beyond what is legitimate. In contrast, Brown seems to be suggesting that these kinds of pushing of the boundaries are actually coming from governments being weaker. They act out like children do when they feel they don’t have control over a situation. Showing how sovereign overreach is actually a result of sovereign weakening is an innovative reversal of the terms of the argument.

At the same time, Brown’s focus on walls provides a different point of entry into the theoretical discussion. Remember that Brown started in Chapter 1 by simply surveying the physical fact that lots of walls are being built today. In this way, her theory is built from a specific phenomenon. That kind of bottom-up method, starting with case studies and seeing how they represent an underlying situation of waning sovereignty, is different from theorists who would derive their theory simply from reading people like Locke and Rousseau alone. Rather, Brown mixes the philosophical tradition with grounded case studies in order to explain both the cases and the longer history of sovereignty in the world.