A Contagious Craze for Walls
Walls are being erected across the world in ever-increasing numbers. Of course, History shows that countries, cities and communities have always sought to shield themselves from the Other. However, the contemporary craze for walls, rooted in the desire to partition people and work and to globalise everything else, brings with it dangers of an unprecedented and potentially explosive nature.
The moment when the Berlin Wall was dismantled is long behind us, together with the prophecies of the “End of History” it inspired. To be sure, the fall of the Soviet empire and the triumph of free market ideology have broken down barriers in the world. China and Vietnam are open; apartheid has been abolished; Europe has introduced free movement of people among its members. However, this trend soon reached its limits. North Korea has remained a hermit kingdom, while Israel, in the absence of reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians, has walled itself off in turn. Above all, the United States and the European Union have – after 9/11 and the electoral rise of political identitarianism – implemented an increasingly restrictive migration policy. Moreover, the planet’s immurement is no longer directed solely at protecting the sovereignty or security of the Nation State. It is also segmenting societies themselves, with a proliferation of gated communities in large urban centres, surrounded by fences and policed by private security companies.
WALLS IN HISTORY
Not everything about this evolution is new. After all, China had its Great Wall, and the Roman Empire tried its hand at building walls, too. The cities of the Middle Ages and the modern era were fortified, and these defensive measures were only belatedly demolished, without, moreover, always eliminating the levies at the gate. Capitalism has securitised the earth, generally resulting in its enclosure, except in countries of “common” pasture. In England, enclosures were systematised in the 18th century. And the bourgeoisie of the 19th were happy to enclose the parks on their properties with fine-looking stone walls.
It may even be the case that today’s immurement is subconsciously reliving the old myth according to which Alexander the Great enclosed the peoples of Gog and Magog – the nations of the Antichrist and the ten tribes of Israel – behind an insurmountable wall somewhere between the Caucasus and the northern Himalaya, so as to prevent them from breaking out into the world. Subsequently, this ancient fable came to be merged with biblical prophecies (Ezek. 38:16 and Rev. 20:7–8). It is utopian to imagine that the majority of humanity will remain on the threshold of the globalisation boutique without breaking down the door and shattering the windows In this vein, the dangerous peoples in Western eyes have been successively the Scythes, the Mongols (supposedly Tartars), the Ottomans (so-called Turks), and the Jews, often intermingled in the popular imagination and united by a common desire to assail the ecclesia, acclaiming the Antichrist. Our age continues to dwell on ancient millenarian fears, of which the “yellow peril” – and today the Muslim peril – are an avatar.
Nonetheless, the current craze for walls entails three unprecedented dangers. It introduces a potentially explosive disconnect between, on the one hand, a fanatical integration of the planet in the spheres of finance, trade, technology, sport, leisure and material or spiritual culture, and, on the other, the increasingly coercive, even militarised, partitioning of the international labour force and the movement of persons. It is utopian to imagine that the majority of humanity will remain on the threshold of the globalisation boutique – a threshold it is forbidden to cross – without breaking down the door and shattering the windows.
Secondly, containment of the barbarians is corrupting from within the city it claims to be protecting. It brings forth exceptional legal regimes at the expense of foreigners, who are equated to enemies. Progressively, these laws are extended to citizens themselves, implementing states of emergency which become States of emergency, and trivialising the abjection of the State, which in turn is institutionalised into States of abjection. In the name of the war on terror and illegal immigration, civil liberties are increasingly under threat in Western countries; the right of asylum and the law of the sea have been trampled over; each year, the European Union’s refoulement policy causes more deaths in the Mediterranean and the Sahara than three decades of civil war in Northern Ireland; the United States separates children from their parents while awaiting the construction of the anti-Latino wall on its Mexican border; Israel has abandoned all restraint in containing the Palestinians or expelling Africans. Yet, this State of abjection has been anointed by universal suffrage and can lay claim to democratic legitimacy. With and behind the walls, “voluntary servitude” flourishes.
Finally, the world’s immurement is breaking apart societies from within. It is privatising public space and the city itself. It is outsourcing the borders of the most powerful states to other dependent states, as is the case with the European Union in the Sahel, tearing their sovereignty apart. It is using biometrics which makes it invisible, and its intangibility is segmenting the city ad infinitum. In today’s Orwellian China, in comparison to which Maoist totalitarianism seems like a leaky sieve, every escalator, every intersection, every square, monitored electronically, is a wall that identifies you as a good or bad citizen and can prevent you from boarding a plane or a train. There is a real danger that the peddlers of fear and biometrics will soon apply this recipe to liberal democracies. Walls of the world, unite!