The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 — exactly 200 years after the walls of the Bastille fell to French revolutionaries in Paris. And just as the French were led to believe that the enlightenment ideals of equality and liberty would be achieved via a capitalist economic system, members of the former Soviet bloc were led to believe that the turn to capitalism would usher in equality and democracy. And yet, nearly three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the hegemony of global capitalism has led to a generalized state of insecurity.
In 2014 alone, nearly 60 million people — more than ever recorded — were displaced by war, according to a 2015 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In 2015 this number, which excludes the millions displaced by economic deprivation and ecological devastation worldwide, increased to 65 million. The response to this unprecedented level of insecurity? Rather than addressing human insecurity at its root causes, wealthy people and wealthy states alike are protecting themselves from the harms they have created as they have for thousands of years: by building walls.
As a constitutive aspect of political life, walls and politics are practically indistinct. Not only did the concept of politics as such emerge from the organization of social life in cities (the Greek polis), but from the development of the earliest city-states until well into modernity, these cities were nearly invariably surrounded by walls. Indeed, the very word city stems from citadel — a structure that is nothing without its walls. As such, it is hardly surprising that, even as politics has expanded to involve the organization of social life on a planetary scale, walls continue to play a central role in politics today.
Delimiting and regulating space and movement, walls are key to controlling and administering territory, comprising an elementary tool in the general administration of security. In contrast to neoliberalism’s ideology of freedom and openness, walls — as well as their virtual analogs — not only obstruct movement and intensify state control, but in enclosing rich and poor alike they also abet privatization and precarity the world over. In contrast to neoliberalism’s ideology of freedom and openness, walls — enclosing rich and poor alike — abet privatization and precarity the world over.
Sealing off the practically self-sufficient gated communities, or “off-worlds”, described by Mike Davis in his book Planet of Slums, walls enclose affluent as well as impoverished spaces in cities across the globe. In Buenos Aires and Lagos, among others, walled highways cut through sprawling slums to connect walled “off-worlds” to city centers. Behind such walls, in the work camp of Sonapur beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai, for instance, captive workforces labor in conditions described by many as twenty-first century slavery. In present-day Baghdad and other war-ravaged cities, walls transform urban spaces into innumerable security zones. And yet walls are hardly restricted to enclosing gated communities, plots of land, prisons and other sites within countries. As political theorist Wendy Brown put it in Desiring Walls, Waning Sovereignty, a “frenzy of nation-state wall-building is occurring” at national borders between countries as well.
Indeed, as generalized insecurity stemming from the conjoined phenomena of neoliberal privatization, militarism and ecocide has advanced internationally, so have the walls designed to contain the consequences. From Israel’s notorious West Bank wall, euphemistically described as a “security fence,” to Morocco, Botswana and South Africa, on to where Asia blends into Oceania along the Thai border with Malaysia, border walls are becoming ubiquitous. In Europe, Norway recently constructed a wall along its border with Russia. And Hungary, Greece, Turkey and other states have built or are building fences along their borders to prevent refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other lands from entering their territory — flows of people that their own policies, and those of their allies, did much to create.
Further east, in the Eurasian heartland, Uzbekistan has been walled off from Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. And as Pakistan has been walled off from both Iran and India, the second most populous country on the planet, India, has built walls separating its neighbors in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Covering over 2,100 miles of the 2,541-mile border between India and Bangladesh, this lethal barrier is only growing deadlier as more and more people are prevented from fleeing ecological catastrophes in the low-lying, flood-prone region.
But border walls are hardly confined to Africa and Eurasia. Less than a year after the Berlin Wall crumbled, and long before belligerent calls for renewed wall building were issued by Donald Trump and other nationalist demagogues, construction began on the so-called “San Diego fence.” Intensified after the passage of the 2006 Secure Fence Act, by 2009 the wall extended over 500 miles along the US-Mexico border. Functioning like other walls of the neoliberal world order, it allows goods to flow freely between nations while blocking the flow of people — illustrating the anti-labor bias in the ideology of economic globalization, which excludes labor from the dogma of free trade.
Supporting the advance of globalization, as wealth has polarized and the natural environment has grown warmer, more polluted and less hospitable, border walls have multiplied across the board. As the geographer Reece Jones has documented, in the less than three decades since the conclusion of the Cold War, the number of border walls has jumped over fourfold — from 15 in 1989 to close to 70 today. And as sea walls impotently attempt to hold back rising oceans, heated by the relentless drive for profit, and as more and more prison walls, border walls and fences are built to contain national and international “superfluous populations” seeking work or fleeing the slums and wars created by our biophagous political-economic system, the world’s generalized state of insecurity is only likely to further worsen.
From providing shelter and partitioning interior spaces to bearing loads and damming rivers, walls have long performed a variety of basic security-related functions. Although there is some degree of conceptual overlap, historically the peaceful and protective functions of the wall have been secondary to its martial, coercive ones. This primacy is reflected in language itself. In German, for instance, exterior and interior walls are designated by two different words: mauer refers to the former, whereas wand designates the latter. Between the two, it is the word mauer — with its martial lineage — that is primary. This distinction is expressed in other languages as well, like the Italian muro andparete, the Irish mur and fraig, or the Lithuanian muras and siena. In each of these designations, the exterior wall — related to fortresses and war — functions as the primary designation.
As for the English word, which refers to interior and exterior walls alike, it derives from the Anglian wall, for rampart, a term that evolved from the Latin vallum — the Roman wall, such as Hadrian’s. Aside from the brief existence of the Antonine Wall, Hadrian’s Wall marked the northernmost extent of the Roman imperial presence in Great Britain. Its very function illustrated the political reality that, even if a fortress or boundary wall is said to serve a defensive function, like China’s Great Wall or Israel’s purported “security fence,” insofar as that wall maintains a conquered territory this ostensibly defensive structure may well be regarded as manifesting an intrinsically offensive function as well.
The wall, however, also manifests itself in less obvious ways. As a phenomenon, the wall is hardly restricted to the vertical or even stationary form of the conventional wall. In addition to the brute walls of fortresses and settler cities, less obvious, invisible, conceptual walls partition the planet into so many territories, regulating the movements of people and resources. Manifesting itself in the transient front-line and the phalanx of soldiers, the wall also materializes in the imaginary boundary lines of maps, not to mention in computer programs and in the inverted, negative form of the trench. Penetrating the social imaginary, the wall shape-shifts, taking flight in flying fortresses, weaponized drones and other high-tech permutations.
Like the wall, these technologies do not create stasis or block movement so much as they direct it. And, just as the walls of a maze determine, limit and concentrate movement, whether it is the Neolithic corral or the Anthropogenic Facebook wall or the censorial firewall, in directing energy walls not only harness force, they also create — as well as neutralize — power. Whether it is in the form of the drone, the dam, the traffic sign or the sea wall, the wall’s essence — the structural regulation of space, populations and resources — does not simply mark the limit of a given political-economic entity; it enables such an entity to maintain, control and extend its territory as well.
While the walls of many quintessentially modern cities, such as Paris, seemed to disappear after World War I, in actuality they did not. They mutated. In eighteenth-century Europe, the demands of early-modern economic circulation caused the feudal mode of social regulation by wall to shift to the enlightenment notion of regulation via surveillance. Continuing this trend, the disappearance of city walls after World War I took place not because of the purported openness of modernity, but because superior new technologies — bomb-dropping airplanes foremost among these — rendered the simple defensive wall obsolete. And so walls evolved into the more effective, rarefied ramparts of national regulations, international treaties, modern technologies and new modes of surveillance.
One key example of this new mutation of the wall is the free-trade agreement. Akin to peace treaties, which do not establish peace so much as dictate the terms and conditions for the distribution of resources according to the interests of a dominant party or parties, free-trade agreements regulate the movement of resources and terms of exchange between peoples. Unlike peace treaties, however, free-trade agreements do not conclude wars between states, nor are the dominant parties in free-trade agreements strictly states. Like the tribunals they create to resolve their conflicts, these agreements are supranational as well, advancing the interests of transnational elites. In this respect, free-trade agreements may be likened to peace treaties of sorts in the war between classes, employing the state to dictate relations between the global rich and poor.
Determining the movement and distribution of people and resources, free-trade agreements and other treaties are responsible for the current shape of the political and economic world order. For the past century now, much of this shape has stemmed from the treaties concluding the two World Wars. In addition to post-WWII treaties ensuring the hegemony of the United States and its allies through the creation of institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, the UN and NATO, the order-shifting period of the Great War and its immediate aftermath saw the maps and borders of Europe and its colonies transform radically. Notably, with only a few exceptions along its periphery, the borders of post-WWI Europe are replicated today in the borders of the states comprising the European Union.
Free-trade agreements may be likened to peace treaties of sorts in the war between classes, employing the state to dictate relations between the global rich and poor.
Free-trade agreements may be likened to peace treaties of sorts in the war between classes, employing the state to dictate relations between the global rich and poor.
But much more than simply mutating into less concrete forms after World War I, walls also expanded. Illustrating Jean Baudrillard’s observation in Simulacra and Simulation that today “it is the map that precedes the territory,” France and Britain — represented by Messrs. Sykes and Picot — extended their respective walls into the territories of the former Ottoman Empire, creating boundaries that continue to determine and shape the conflicts of the Middle East today. Stressed by the poverty, war and refugees this order has created, and for decades has recreated, these walls are presently crumbling. The Kurdish struggle for regional autonomy and the battle against the so-called Islamic State, whose political program expressly includes rolling back the Sykes-Picot Agreement, are only two of the most obvious examples of this.
In light of the weakening of these twentieth-century structures and their post-Cold War supplements, the current geopolitics of the neoliberal world order may be interpreted as a shoring up of its straining walls. Designed to enclose the eastern and western extents of Eurasia, the TPP and TTIP trade agreements amount to nothing short of a grand containment effort. Moreover, the ongoing wars in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, not to mention the military buildup along NATO’s expanded eastern border, represent such a buttressing effort as well. It is only one of many ironies that these physical and virtual walls, these facets of neoliberal globalization, have come to be symbolized by a particular, historical wall — a wall that, though long since dismantled, continues to haunt not only lower Manhattan, but the rest of the planet: Wall Street.
An outgrowth of imperialism and the beginning of the conquest of North America, it is a fitting coincidence that Wall Street refers to a historical security or border wall as well as to the essence of the wall — not just in terms of trade deals, stocks, securities and securitization, but in terms of security itself. Whether it involves national security or housing security, economic security or food security, security is always the animating essence of the wall.
A constitutive aspect of the nation-state, and arguably of politics as such, security is a particularly ambiguous concept. Denoting both irenic and martial security, the wall — or the secured territory within it — always already implies an area immediately beyond it that remains unsecured. More than implying insecurity, this polis/xenos complex implies infinite threat — threats and anxieties that lead to police killings on one side of the world as much as they lead to drone strikes on the other.
Hardly distinct from xenophobia, the fear of the stranger threatening to breach the wall, border, frontier or any other demarcation line or sign of order, extends from the very concept of security and of the polis itself — irrespective of whether any actual stranger exists. As such, while today’s nationalist and isolationist right-wingers are at least as concerned with the “undermining” of “national security” by terrorists and “treasonous plots” as they were when Richard Hofstadter wrote The Paranoid Style in American Politics, paranoia as such is both deeper than a stylistic quality and spread out much more broadly throughout the public. Though it manifests itself in conspiracy theories on both the political left and right — in the stories of 9/11 Truthers, Birthers and Birchers — the state of being terrified and terrorized emanates from the very concept and structure of security.
A fixture of political thought since at least 1789 when, along with rights to property, liberty and resistance to oppression, security was enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, as well as in the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution and other documents, the concept of security reflects multiple, competing tendencies. Described by the Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill as a “primary right,” “the first needs of society,” and “the most vital of all interests,” the history of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries amply demonstrate that Mill’s “vital interest” is in actuality a conflict of interests.
The “national security” of one nation-state, for instance, typically conflicts with the “national security” of others. And, rather than rectifying a problem that stems from the concept of sovereignty — namely legitimized, arbitrary violence — this problem is at best superficially addressed by the more general, post-Cold War notions of “collective security” and “global security” overseen by the United Nations; an institution aptly referred to by Jacques Derrida as the “dictatorship of the Security Council.”
Such narrow conceptualizations of security consistently produce situations in which the pursuit of things like “energy security” leads to practices, like fracking, that directly destroy the far more “vital interest” of “water security.” And, just as the “economic security” of property owners systemically exacerbates the “economic insecurity” of working people, the “economic security” of the agro-industrial, energy and military industries, as well as the real estate and finance industries intertwined with them, prevails by design over the general security of the public, which is deemed to be of lesser value, since value in this neoliberal society is defined primarily as monetary worth.
In addition to these conflicts of interest, the contradictions intrinsic to the concept of security are reflected in the word security itself. Derived from the Latin se cura, or “without care,” security can be understood not only as freedom from care, worries or attention — of being carefree — but also as being careless. And it is only one of several ironies that carelessness, failing to pay sufficient attention to or care for one’s surroundings, tends to produce conditions inimical to wellbeing, or safety.
Contrary to the ancient Greek notion of eudaimonia, which involves contemplation, security in this sense amounts to the absence of contemplation or critical thought — a lack of attention and submission to hegemonic norms. This is arguably the opposite of the awareness of the absence of knowledge that distinguished, for instance, the figure of Socrates as wise. Akin to the wonder from which philosophy — according to Aristotle — begins, the astonishment or perplexity of recognizing that one exists within an absolute mystery, in which very little is known at all, obliges one to be the opposite of careless. Compelling one to move with care, it demands a critical attentiveness that, contrary to the ideology of security, does not conjure the threatening, emotionally charged notion of the “alien” or “enemy” so much as it recognizes a more objective figure: the neighbor.
As we hurtle toward ecological collapse, exacerbating the consequences by building ever more walls, perhaps the neighbor and the social relation of neighborhood — which implies mutual support, as opposed to exchange and exploitation — can point us toward a political economy beyond the polis/xenoscomplex, beyond the market, beyond the nation-state, and, finally, beyond the dead-end of security.
Elliot Sperber is a writer, lawyer and geographer. He lives in New York City.