Sunday, October 12, 2014

World of Walls

On the show Game of Thrones, state territoriality comes to a spatial end at a gigantic wall, The Northern Wall: a 300-meter-high, eighty-meter-thick rock of solid ice that expands over hundreds of kilometers, from coast to coast and therefore severing the totality of the landmass in two. This gigantic barrier was built in a distant past to stop a dissolving vortex formed by anti-state insurgencies and supernatural entities. The forces that lurk in those frozen lands stretching behind The Northern Wall are powerful, destructive, and expansive. This is why the Wall is jealously patrolled by guards that nervously scan the other side from the top, facing the misty, forested, frozen abyss ahead. They can clearly see and feel in their bodies that “the other side” is an opaque vastness: a terrain swept by freezing weather, the armies of the dead, and humans who despise hierarchies and actively fight the spatial expansion of the state. The Northern Wall, in short, expresses not the power of the Kings who built it but that of the expansive forces that threaten it; it is huge because if it had been smaller it would have been long since destroyed. Throughout Game of Thrones, the characters who kill and die farther south in warmer lands regularly utter, looking nervously toward the north, “Winter is Coming.” This is the name for the powerful forces that threaten to overflow The Wall and wipe out state territoriality in one stroke.
Today our planet has its own Northern Wall: a world archipelago of walls, fences, and technologies made to keep undesirable and feared multitudes at a distance. Our hyper-globalized capitalist world, of course, thrives on speed, movement, and deterritorialization. Billions of objects, bodies, and bits of information are permanently moving at high speed across international borders. This materiality-in-motion is not smooth but creates massive disruptions, confirming that capitalism is propelled by malign velocities, as Ben Noys argues. Because of these planetary velocities, and in contrast to the fictionalized feudal world depicted in Game of Thrones, in our world there is no space that is “on the other side” of the global order.
But in the twenty-first century there is no “beyond” the Great Imperial Wall precisely because the Wall is Empire’s structuring spatial principle. The imperial and class-based nature of the speed that thrives because of that planetary Wall is manifested in the patterns of spatial segregation it creates. Since the Wall operates in all terrains and is scattered all over the surface of the planet, it is also materialized in the ocean in the ships and planes (aided by satellites) patrolling the waters searching for boats of "immigrants." On land, The Great Imperial Wall also demarcates, like on Game of Thrones, the landmass in two, if in a more allegorical sense. In this case, the line separates desirables from undesirables and makes the latter separable in space. The fences built along the US-Mexico border, the walls built by Spain to seal off its outposts in North Africa, and The Israeli Wall of Separation are all one and the same wall, our Northern Wall, facing the abyss of the insurgent spatial forces that may eventually destroy Empire. This is also why the global core of our Great Imperial Wall is Palestine, where the Israeli state has embraced the walls once used against the Jewish people in Europe and misremembers the genocide not as something that should never happen again but as something that should never happen again to the Jews. Ironically, Hitler also swore in the 1930s that the humiliation of defeat should never happen again to the Germans. Walls thrive in the reactive passions of identity politics, and their power to make people disregard the suffering of undesirables, like those labelled "Jews" in the 1930s and 1940s and "Arabs" today.
In 1938, Adolf Hitler declared in an ominous speech that “the total solution of the Jewish question” demanded a “clear” program. And this plan, he screamed, was “Total separation, total segregation!” In one stroke, Hitler identified the core of the fascist disposition toward space: the desire to keep bodies felt as different and dangerous at a physical distance. We know that Hitler’s call for total segregation was part of a genocidal disposition: the desire to spatially contain a population in order to eventually be able to exterminate it more affectively. Shortly thereafter, Hitler’s call for “total segregation” led to the rise of walls and the herding by force of millions of Jewish men, women, and children into ghettos and slave and death camps. There, behind walls, fences, and barbed wire, they were wiped out in a merciless genocide that was fully industrialized.
The creation of a radical spatial separation between desirable and undesirable populations outlived its Nazi manifestations after the world war. For several decades, it was state policy in the southern United States and Apartheid South Africa. There, fences and walls existed but the spatial segregation was basically enforced through terror, and in the US South lynching became a mechanism of racial territorialization. The insurrections against this segregation in the United States and South Africa throughout the 1960s and 1990s ruptured major affective walls and partly democratized public space. The 1989 insurrection against the Berlin Wall marked the climax of modern protests against walls, and was also notable because the multitude thoroughly destroyed this wall. Not even rubble remained, except as souvenirs in people’s homes. 
             But by the early twenty-first century, the Wall of the neoliberal and imperial order has expanded along new lines, appearing in new nodes and forming constellations of gated communities, armies of private guards, checkpoints, high-tech surveillance, and walls and more walls. The hyper-surveilled striation is the spatial norm of the neoliberal order. Teresa Caldeira, George Ciccariello-Maher, and Mike Davis have called attention to the racialized and class-based nature of these spatial segregations in Sao Paolo, Caracas, and Dubai. In the latter, a mecca of global capitalism, South-Asian workers are treated as modern slaves who are not allowed to move. These are not simply “cities of walls,” as Caldeira argues about Sao Paulo, but urban nodes in a world of walls, the same way that this world of walls has rural nodes in, say, the 20 km fence built by Barrick Gold around its massive mining operation in Tanzania (made to prevent undesirables from grabbing valuable minerals from a space that had been commodified and expropriated from the commons). Walls may not have necessarily gone up everywhere, but in many places (like today in the United States) the police are simply enforcing segregation by murdering more unarmed undesirables on the streets, always in “self-defense.” This hardening of the Great Imperial Wall is spurred by the accelerating and destructive expansiveness of neo-liberal capitalism, and is justified in the name of a humanitarian civilization and global security.
Because the principle of total segregation is the landmark of the imperial present, it has become a recurrent theme in popular culture. The film industry has confronted the oppressive dimensions of spatial segregation but only tangentially, and by projecting it onto a dystopian future. The films The Hunger Games, Elysium, and Snowpiercer depict a future of enforced apartheid; they also present the rise of insurgencies set out to destroy or undermine spatial barriers and the principle of total segregation.
In The Hunger Games, the ruling elite enjoys a life of idle exuberance and dazzling spectacle in the Capitol, while the working classes are forced to live in fenced-off “districts” in the rest of North America. These districts are surrounded by barbed-wired fences and are submitted to different levels of exploitation, suffering, and despair. In an annual spectacle of combat among gladiators, they are all ritually reminded that resistance is futile because in the past a massive revolution was crushed by the state through sheer terror. But this spectacular commemoration ends up backfiring and prompting a widespread revolt. In Elysium, the segregation between social classes is radicalized further because the super rich have simply fled the surface of the planet. They live in luxury in a giant station in the atmosphere, while the rest of humanity lives in despair in a slum world ravaged by global warming. The super rich’s spatial disconnect from the planetary poor is in this case, indeed, total. On a daily basis, the poor can see the station where the elites live, a shinny dot in the sky. The rebellion against this apartheid at last takes place, but is largely individualistic and reformist. Those who reach Elysium from Earth through small vessels do not seek to destroy an oppressive global system but to make its technological gadgets more accessible to the poor.
In Snowpiercer, the principle of total segregation adopts particularly original, gripping, and politically radical dimensions. First, the total separation between the elite and the underclass takes place in the narrow, long materiality of a train moving at high-speed across a devastated, lifeless planet. The planet was frozen by the failed attempt to solve global warming by cooling the atmosphere through the massive dispersal of chemicals in the sky (this is exactly the techno-fix of climate change that neoliberals fantasize about, as Naomi Klein analyzes in This Changes Everything). On this train, the elites live in luxury in the front cars and use their private army to terrorize the multitudes forced to live in crumped slums at the train’s tail. Their mobility is blockaded by tightly policed gates. As a female official tells those in the tail, the train has a hierarchical geometry based on “preordained positions,” according to which, “You, belong to the tail. I belong to the front.” Since the train was built and is run by a corporation, these gates are controlled by a capitalist state, in which the owner of this vehicle is the state.
In these three films, the separation between classes reproduces an affective segregation, through which the elites enjoy a good, pleasant life while being oblivious to the suffering of those they oppress. It is easier to disregard those that you cannot see, or pretend not to notice them. But this disregard is certainly not total, the same way that the segregation is not total, for keeping populations segregated and dominated requires hard work and, more importantly, violence. The political order that rules the train is a terrorist machine ready to murder in order to defend those “preordained positions.” But the physical and affective separation depicted in Snowpiercer stands out because everybody on the train is trapped in a space without outside. Walls have always imprisoned those obsessed by the principle of total segregation. On this train, this imprisonment is not simply affective or allegorical. Out the window, those frozen geographies reveal no signs of life: only the massive rubble of a destroyed world. The train is the prison of the oppressed and oppressors, but also the terrain of revolution.
               In Snowpiercer, revolution is accurately depicted as a geometrical vector: as a bodily force that charges ahead against the troops that manned the multiple gates that kept the train's tail shut off. The Wall that kept the multitude enslaved could only be breached, in short, by bodies forcing their way through it. The movie, tellingly, begins with the image of the future leader of the insurrection making geometrical calculations: counting the seconds it takes the guards to shut the series of gates that lock them up after their inspection. The weakest points of all walls are the gates. Not surprisingly, the most dramatic moment of movies depicting walled cities succumbing to sieges, from The Lord of the Rings to Troy, is that of swarms flowing through a gate that has been breached, making the walls useless. In Snowpiercer, revolution, indeed, starts when, while the guards were being attacked and neutralized, dozens of men and women run carrying with them a long and thick tube and passing it through several gates to prevent them from closing. That was the moment when the political order of the train began crumbling: when segregation was ruptured and the rebellious multitude began their slow, firm march toward the front of the train to capture its mythical engine.
If less openly insurrectional, the vectorial disposition against the principle of total segregation is also the gesture by those people who on a daily basis challenge our Northern Wall, the Great Imperial Wall connecting The United States to Morocco and Palestine. In Morocco, it is common to see dozens of men sitting on top of the fence. Being already on top, they have surmounted the biggest obstacle posed by the materiality of the fence. They are now scanning the terrain, measuring the mobility of the military police in order to decide when to jump. When they do, they create a microscopic breach in The Wall. Countless breaches of the Wall take place all the time all over the world. As Eyal Weizman has forcefully argued in his study of the Israeli Wall of Separation, spatial separation makes for an “impossible politics,” for in the long term it is unsustainable. An iconic image of the imperial present and the futility of its walls is the Mexican family depicted on the run on traffic signposts on roads north of the US-Mexico border. They seem to be fleeing. But their bodies are clearly charging ahead. They have already crossed the border and are creating an assertive vector that, even if only in that place, is dissolving the principle of total segregation and making the fence useless.
The new century has reawakened debates on the left about the nature of future revolutions and about the challenges of imagining a post-capitalist and egalitarian future. These debates should involve how to rethink collective spaces in relation to mobility, equality, and freedom. After all, Hanna Arendt rightly argued that the most fundamental type of freedom is the freedom of movement: the freedom to live in a world free of walls. Maybe the sign that a truly liberating epoch has arrived will be the image of multitudes that --as in Berlin in 1989 but in myriad different places the world over-- rise up against The Wall and reduce it, amid cheers, to rubble.