Walled States, Waning Sovereignty

Walled States, Waning Sovereignty Themes

Waning of Sovereignty

“Waning sovereignty” is half of the title of Wendy Brown’s book, and it is the major theme throughout it. Sovereignty refers to the power of nations. When Brown talks about the waning of this sovereignty, she does not mean that any one nation has become less powerful. Rather, she means nations as a whole have stopped being the major players in global affairs. Today, the capitalist market transcends nations, and nations no longer control how things unfold in the world. It is this sense of a loss of importance and even relevance that motivates the building of walls, according to Brown. Walls are an attempt to re-assert the sovereignty of nations at a time what that sovereignty has diminished.

Globalization vs. Nationalism

One of the paradoxes structuring our world today, according to Brown, is that we see simultaneous processes of globalization and nationalism. Globalization is supposed to be opening up borders as capital flows freely across nations, but nationalism closes down borders in order to protect the land and people of a nation from the rest of the world. These two forces are in conflict. The way this plays out with walls, according to Brown, is that globalization has diminished a nation’s sovereignty, and so people build walls in order to re-assert a symbol of national sovereignty. Nationalism comes to stand in opposition to globalism, and walls are one of the most visible sites in which this symbolic conflict is played out.

Rise of Capital

The waning of sovereignty is one side of a coin. The other side is the rise of capital. In this context, capital refers to the flow of wealth in a global economy. Today, the economy is the master of the global scene, rather than individual nations or the international order of laws and treaties. Capital respects no national boundary or international law. That is why it contributes to the decline of national sovereignty, because nations can’t control the economy and in fact are more often controlled by it.

International vs. Transnational

The distinction between international and transnational is an important one in Brown’s book. International means between nations. Treaties, for instance, are signed between nations, and international law refers to the laws the regulate affairs among nations. Brown says we used to live in an international world, in which nations were the most important unit of politics and the big affairs of the day were conducted directly between nations. That’s no longer the case today. Instead, nations usually interact with a range of non-national entities, for instance corporations, terrorists, or groups of migrants that belong to no nation. These kinds of interactions are transnational, because they transcend individual nations. The rise of these kinds of relations is part of the waning of sovereignty, because nations are not always the central players any more.

National and Personal Sovereignty

In Brown’s psychoanalytic reading, national and personal sovereignty are mirror images of each other. That means people project their sense of individual autonomy onto the autonomy of the state they live in, and vice versa. People want strong states, because they see the state as themselves, and states want their citizens to have strong bodies, because those bodies are symbols of the national health as well. This connection is purely psychological. It is also the primary connection undergirding the desire for walls today, according to Brown. People want their nations to have strong borders in the same way that they want their individual bodies not to be violated by others. People invest in walls as a visible sign of the security and protection they crave.

Defense Mechanisms

A theme related to the mirroring of national and personal sovereignty is Brown’s recurring discussion of defense mechanisms. On the one hand, walls are supposed to defend literally against perceived outside threats such as terrorism. But they are also psychological defense mechanisms. In psychoanalysis, a defense mechanism helps someone avoid an unpleasant or negative reality or idea. Walls act as psychological defense mechanisms in two ways. First, building walls defends against the reality that sovereignty is waning, because it provides an image of sovereignty apparently strengthening. Second, walls help people avoid facing the possibility that there are dangers within or internal to their country. Instead of facing the injustices within a nation, people can project them outside the wall onto foreigners and the wider world.

The Inefficiency of Walls

A recurring fact throughout Walled States, Waning Sovereignty is that walls actually fail to achieve the official purposes to which they are set. Walls rarely prevent immigration, for instance, and often times they actually intensify illegal smuggling, like drug trafficking, rather than preventing it. To Brown, the inefficiency of walls is further proof that the primary reason people desire walls has nothing to do with reality. Rather, it has to do with fantasy, more specifically the fantasy that people are secure and protected from a dangerous world. This is why people keep wanting walls even after it is proven over and over again that walls are not successful at doing what they are meant to do.