The Precarious Dialectic of Border Regimes: On the Relationship between the Construction of Borders and the Dismantling of Democracy in the Trump Era

This entry is part 11 of 26 in the series Vol 6-2021

Abstract: In her book Walled States: Waning Sovereignty (2010), the American political theorist Wendy Brown shows that today’s massive wall-building projects – whether in the United States, Israel, or Europe – are not primarily protective measures but rather must be understood as the expression of a fundamental crisis of the modern state. In her view, the erection of barricades is a desperate act of resistance of national sovereignty against its unavoidable demise in a globalized world. Therefore, according to Brown, the current border regimes represent but a final stage act that reflects the desire for clearly defined identities and must be deciphered as fear of a world that becomes ever more complex.
In my paper, I agree only in part with Brown’s theory of a ‘ruse of reason’ – that the building of border walls signifies, all appearances to the contrary, the demise of the sovereignty of the nation state. As convincing as her analyses may be, the staging of border regimes, which comprises not just the factual control of borders but also the bellicose political rhetoric surrounding the building of walls, is also a consciously used political instrument to transform democratic conditions, legal institutions, and social policy achievements within nation states. In my paper, I probe into this peculiar dialectic between, on the one hand, building walls at the borders and, on the other, dismantling borders of political discourse, both theoretically and by means of empirical examples.
To underpin my argument, I shall first focus on the United States under Donald Trump to show that the concentration on the building of a border wall between the United States and Mexico is accompanied by a weakening of security services vis-à-vis right-wing terror. After that, I shall demonstrate that Sebastian Kurz’s talk of shutting the Balkan route for migrants and shielding Austria from third-country migration implies a focused attack on the social partnership and the welfare state.

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