Transcribed from the 14 January 2017 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:
The wall is everywhere, and even when it seems benign, it always has a political connotation. It’s always somehow connected to property and ownership.
Chuck Mertz: When the Berlin Wall came down, people from around the world flocked to the site of its destruction and partied like it was 1989. Everyone celebrated the demise of a barrier that split friends and families. But walls have been a part of our history for a very long time; we have relied on them for safety and security, as a last line of defense. But what if walls only lead to more insecurity, are more offensive than defensive? Then maybe it’s time we rethink walls.
Here to help us climb the concept of walls: writer, lawyer, and geographer Elliot Sperber posted the ROAR Magazine article “The Concept of the Wall: In contrast to neoliberalism’s ideology of freedom and openness, walls—enclosing rich and poor alike—abet privatization and precarity the world over.” Elliot is an adjunct professor in the international studies department at Marymount Manhattan College.
Thanks for being on This is Hell!, Elliot.
Elliot Sperber: Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
CM: In his first press conference as president-elect this week, Donald J. Trump said that he still supports the wall despite seeming to back off from the massive scale of his campaign promise when he spoke with New York Times reporters shortly after the election.
What do you believe attracts Trump—and Trump supporters—to the concept of the wall?
ES: In many respects the wall is just a crude, obvious symbol of strength, power, and security. That’s probably the appeal. It conjures images of a fortress, or a barricade, and it’s very easy to grasp the idea. That’s probably the main reason he’s attracted to it.
It’s a strange phenomenon, and when you scratch below the surface, you see that walls don’t really create the security that you would think they would. That doesn’t seem to penetrate Trump’s thoughts, though.
CM: But we’re in an era of globalization and free trade and international agreements and coalitions. What explains why walls are going up during globalization, and how much is globalization actually leading to the construction of walls?
ES: That’s a really interesting phenomenon. Since 1989, border walls have been proliferating madly; there were relatively few before 1989. Now, they’re going up all over the place. Saudi Arabia has plans to completely wall itself off from all of its neighbors. Turkey is building a wall separating it from Syria, and now also has plans to build walls separating it from Iran and Armenia as well. Everywhere you look, these walls are going up, and it betrays the idea of the neoliberal project as one of openness. It shows that neoliberalism, at its heart, is actually about conquest and exploitation. The wall really reflects the basic material relations between people that neoliberalism produces.
CM: You write, “In 2014 alone, nearly sixty million people—more than ever recorded—were displaced by war, according to a 2015 report by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In 2016, 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.”
How much do walls enable citizens—or systems—to ignore larger systemic issues within their economy, if not their society?
ES: We’re surrounded by walls all the time. Every time you leave a room in your house, you’re stepping through a wall. But of course there’s this ambiguity to walls: there’s a certain kind of security that fosters peace or well-being, and there’s another more martial dimension to the wall. It’s that latter aspect that is the primary notion of a wall. We see this in the walls that have been going up around the world, and we’ve seen walls going up within countries. The prison industry, for instance, has really ballooned since the Reagan years.
And that’s just one type of wall. At the same time we have walls separating gated communities from other communities, and of course usually the economic relations among these various communities are those of either exploitation or abandonment.
So the wall is everywhere, and even when it seems benign, it always has a political connotation. It’s always somehow connected to property and ownership.
CM: How much does wealth disparity exacerbate wall construction? Is there a link we can see? Where wealth disparity grows, does wall construction as well?
ES: There’s a definite link. I don’t have any figures handy, but we can see it. In China for instance: as the Chinese economy has become more integrated into the world market and there has been a polarization of classes in China, there have also been these building projects—these so-called “off-worlds,” these gated communities, some of which sound really surreal. There’s one called Orange County, and there are some that are designed to look like medieval English villages. But they’re behind walls. There hasn’t been this degree of class stratification in China before, and now it’s accompanied by people literally walling themselves off from one another.
Even what would appear to be a defensive wall still marks the limit of a conquest.
CM: How much have we become a world of walls? That is, how unprecedented is this, and do you expect to see an expansion of walls globally for some time to come?
ES: It does seem as though it’s continuing. Trump seems to be really advancing this discourse of wall-building. Of course, as the world is being developed (you could say) or exploited (another term for the same sort of relation)—as rainforests are cut down, and as other things and parts of the world that might have been considered part of the commons or not even property as such are being surveyed and mapped and exploited—along with that come boundaries and walls of various sorts.
In addition to the concrete, obvious, material wall, there are more abstract kinds of walls, things that function as walls but may not have the appearance of the classic wall. For example the “firewall” that one encounters online, or paywalls, things like that—or even the Facebook “wall.” There are walls in cyberspace, and that’s something that is also proliferating.
We have walls going up as the world is being developed, colonized, and privatized, and this doesn’t seem to be slowing down at all. And in the virtual world, which is also expanding, there is another proliferation of walls.
It does seem as though it’s just going to keep going on. But I don’t think it can continue to happen for much longer, because it reflects a conflict between people that it is heightening at the same time. The building of walls is symptomatic of deeper conflicts that need to be addressed before the world is destroyed by this exploitation. I don’t know how long it can really go on.
CM: Are dams a kind of wall? We’ve had many guests in the past who talk about these mega projects and what their impacts are, and the people who are the most affected are often the people who have the least political power.
So are dams a kind of wall as well? Does that show the offensive nature of walls?
ES: Definitely. The dam is literally a wall, and the effect that it has on the environment is really drastic. Dams have been shown to be tremendously harmful as sources of methane, because they block water flow and plants die and create tons of methane. So although people think of them as sources of energy that are relatively green, they actually produce a lot of greenhouse gases, and they also just destroy ecosystems.
And they’ve been going up all over the place. The Three Gorges Dam is huge. There’s also a dam going up in Ethiopia called the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is a massive dam that’s going to control the flow of the Nile. Egypt is really worried about this, and it’s really changing the balance of power in Africa toward Ethiopia.
But dams and walls are the same sort of thing: as I mentioned in the piece, the wall doesn’t just create spaces; it directs movements, it channels energy, it controls people and resources, and it generates and concentrates power. And a dam does exactly that, too.
CM: You write, “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.”
You were mentioning how this proliferation of walls can’t continue. So what do you think this proliferation of walls says about the state of global culture? Are we living in an unprecedented era of fear?
ES: I think so. In this society at least, that is one of the reigning narratives. People are afraid of all sorts of things: terrorism, crime. Usually the sources or the causes of actual insecurity are not addressed. Global warming isn’t really discussed that much, and whenever we have some sort of extreme weather event, it’s just treated as a spectacle, and of course the conditions that create this type of volatile weather just continue.
But there seems to be a tremendous amount of anxiety. People are experiencing this economically; there is tremendous economic polarization, income inequality, and poverty. Now, with all of these economic and ecological crises—and now we’re going through a constitutional crisis of sorts, a crisis of legitimacy—all of this generates a great deal of anxiety and fear.
Maybe there’s a distinction between anxiety and fear. Anxiety is something more like a misdirected fear. Zygmunt Bauman referred to it as a “liquid fear” being shifted all the time onto different things. That seems to function well politically, at least, to distract people from real problems.
People might say there has always been fear and anxiety, with things like nuclear weapons over the past fifty or sixty years leading to a different level of anxiety. But now with ecological holocaust looming and all sorts of other more or less objective existential threats, it seems like this fear is unprecedented.
Neoliberalism is not about creating public spaces, it’s about destroying public spaces; it’s about privatizing spaces and turning everything into a commodity. As it pursues that, walls are vital tools.
CM: You argue that walls are not just defensive, that they can be offensive as well.
ES: It depends on how they are being used, whether they are border walls protecting the nation-state. The nation-state is fundamentally offensive, really, because it’s not a neutral institution but something that was developed with the rise of the merchant class, the bourgeoisie, and it’s something that pursues certain class goals. Insofar as that’s its function, it is offensive to the rest of the people that it has an exploitative relationship with, and to the planet that it’s exploiting as well.
In that regard, even what would appear to be a defensive wall still marks the limit, in many respects, of a conquest. So it is simultaneously offensive and defensive.
CM: I want to get back to neoliberalism just for a second. Does neoliberalism both oppose walls and yet create the conditions to impose them? That is, is neoliberalism’s ideology of freedom and openness, as you describe it, undermined by neoliberalism’s reliance on privatization, leading to precarity? Does neoliberalism both hate walls and create the conditions for the same walls it hates?
ES: I think so. Neoliberalism hates a certain type of wall, and it likes another type of wall. Neoliberalism talks about openness, and there is an openness, but it’s an openness of a very limited nature. If there’s a discussion of open borders—free trade, let’s say—this doesn’t apply to labor; it doesn’t apply to people. There is a kind of barrier that allows goods to flow but not people. Neoliberalism only wants a certain type of freedom from walls, only a certain type of openness.
At the same time it wants walls. Neoliberalism is not about creating public spaces, it’s about destroying public spaces; it’s about privatizing spaces and turning everything into a commodity. And as it pursues that, walls (and fences and other types of things that contain space) are vital tools.
One can see this, in a very early form, in the “enclosures” in England in the late Middle Ages, as the economy transitioned toward a capitalist economy. Land had been common. It wasn’t a commodity as we know it today; it wasn’t something that was bought and sold. It was restricted by feudal titles. You couldn’t really sell land, it could just be inherited or conquered. But it was transformed over a few centuries into something that could be bought and sold, and in plotting off these lots, hedges were built to enclose them, to demarcate one piece of “private” property—which had formerly just been open space. Now it was enclosed, one unit that could then be sold. And often people contesting these things would tear down these hedges. The Levellers are named after their practice of leveling these barriers.
Of course today there are much more high-tech and sophisticated ways of creating barriers, and a lot of this is done now with drones and computers and satellites and all sorts of different technologies.
So yes, neoliberalism loves barriers, or walls, and at the same time, wants get rid of certain walls, the barriers that would restrict a certain area from exploitation. They would like to take down those barriers. They want to privatize the national parks. The national parks may not be surrounded by a wall, but they have a barrier, they are circumscribed, and it is completely consistent with neoliberal thought to get rid of those barriers so that this land and its resources can be exploited and sold off—but then to go on to create different types of barriers.
It’s impossible to talk about security without at the same time invoking that which you’re trying to secure yourself from. The idea of insecurity, or some type of fear, is embedded in the very concept of security. It’s a self-fulfilling, or auto-catalytic, process.
CM: You write, “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 nationalists 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 classic 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.”
Why does more security, or more prioritization of security, seem to lead to more fear? Do you believe that as the post-9/11 security state in the US has grown, so has fear?
ES: Yes. It seems as though fear has grown. Again, I don’t have any statistics handy, but when there are polls, people still express concerns about terrorism that are equivalent to the levels that they expressed shortly after 9/11. Even though there hasn’t been any serious terrorist attack within the United States, the level of fear that people are experiencing is still very high. And if you look at mainstream news, on any given night you’ll see this anxiety being relentlessly stoked. That does seem to have become the regular or normalized mode of perceiving the world.
In terms of security generating fear: it’s impossible to talk about security without at the same time invoking that which you’re trying to secure yourself from. The idea of insecurity, or some type of fear, is really embedded in the very concept of security. It’s a self-fulfilling or auto-catalytic process. Every time you mention security, to justify security, there is an implicit threat that is attached to it. And as much as one’s attention is directed toward security—at least in the martial sense of security—it’s always going to imply something to be feared. It wouldn’t make sense or have any persuasive power if there weren’t some threat lurking around.
But the concept of security is ambiguous—we shouldn’t disregard the idea of security, but I think we should distinguish between an uncritical notion of security or an aggressive, martial idea of security on the one hand and a more Irenic or peaceful idea of security on the other. On the one hand we could talk about “national security,” the belligerent form of security which is afraid of terrorists and all sorts of martial threats—but on the other hand there’s something like “social security,” which would include things like food security, water security, housing security, things that people really need.
And it seems that in a culture such as ours, a market-based culture where the regulating principle is money, whenever there’s a conflict between national security and social security, the thing that’s prioritized is going to be the thing that makes money. And we have a military industrial complex that makes money off of security in the martial sense, in the sense of national security, so whenever there’s a conflict—and there is always a conflict between these things—the security that we actually need loses.
That’s a result of prioritizing exchange value and money over other types of values such as well-being, health, and ideas that are attached to “security” in a more critical sense of the word.
CM: I thought this was really fascinating: you write, “It is one of many ironies that these physical and virtual walls, these facets of neoliberal globalization, have come to be symbolized by a particular historic wall—a wall that, though long since dismantled, continues to haunt not only lower Manhattan, but the rest of the planet: Wall Street.”
This is from a 2010 article at Live Science: “The name of Wall Street originates from an actual wall that was built in the seventeenth century by the Dutch, who were living in what was then called New Amsterdam. The twelve-foot wall was built to protect the Dutch against attacks from pirates and various Native American tribes, and to keep other potential dangers out of the establishment. The area near the wall became known as Wall Street. Because of its prime location running the width of Manhattan between the East River and the Hudson River, the road developed into one of the busiest trading areas in the entire city. Later, in 1699, the wall was dismantled by the British colonial government, but the name of the street stuck.”
I’ve got one last question for you, though, Elliot, and as it is with all our guests, it is the Question from Hell, the question we hate to ask, you might hate to answer, or our audience is going to hate your response.
You write, “As we hurtle towards 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/xenos complex, beyond the market, beyond the nation-state, and, finally, beyond the dead-end of security.”
What do you believe is at the dead-end of security?
ES: The dead-end of security is death itself. The ideology of security is inextricable from war. It’s been constant since at least 9/11, this never-ending war. But one could say that there’s another war that’s going on, too. There’s class war. There’s the exploitation that is fundamental to this political economy. Karl Schmitz, who was a Nazi jurist, defined politics as being rooted in the dichotomy between friend and enemy. And although he was a Nazi, that’s been a very influential definition of the political. There’s more to it than that, but the idea of friend and enemy as people that are mutually opposed is not distinct from the ideology of security and never-ending war in politics and in economics.
The end of security is, if not death, at least the death of the potential that humanity possesses to live in peace and to develop all sorts of capacities—it’s the death of the good life. And in a very real sense, as the policies of the United States and other regimes demonstrate throughout the world, security just leads to war and death. That is the dead end of security.
But we could flip the idea of security, and interrogate it, and discuss the critical dimension of security as something that would lead to real neighborhood. When we think of the idea of neighborhood, we think of a piece of territory, a part of the city, a piece of land. But in many dictionaries the primary definition of neighborhood is a type of social relationship, like brotherhood. If people can get beyond the fears and policies that perpetuate this world of security, then maybe we could get beyond that dead-end of security. Or we’ll just all die at the dead-end together.
CM: Elliot, I really appreciate you being on the show this week. Fantastic work over at ROAR Magazine.
ES: Thank you for having me, it was my pleasure.
Featured image: the border wall around the Spanish enclave in North Africa, Ceuta. And in case you missed it, here is that famous 2014 picture of the fence around another such enclave, Melilla. Don’t know why this sprang to mind…