The Two Walls from Fragile Dignity on Vimeo.
Between Two Walls
It seems a bit of an awkward promise to make the public: to build a wall. It’s a rather retro thing if you think about it. There doesn’t seem to be any practicality in it. First of all, there is already a militarized border. If you’ve been near the border, like driving spans of I-10 near El Paso for instance, you will have had to go through a whole team of border checks and screenings. And as activist/performance artist Robert Trudell has documented, you would see the full force of the police state at work. Obama was the great deporter-in-chief after all, deporting more than any president – estimates of three million people over eight years. What could a wall add to this? Because second, as the joke goes, a thirty foot wall just makes a demand for thirty one foot ladders.
The panic over immigration is symptomatic of the panic of globalization. These are words you hear often in the populist right “the new world order,” the “globalists.” Globalization began as a dream to bring the world closer, into a universal global village. It’s the political idea behind the Eurozone as well. Or, at least this was the spin. The architects of these globalizing trade agreements were the bankers and corporatists seeking to increase profits for themselves but without the workers needing pay or benefits suitable to citizens of the economically developed world. Lay off workers, get cheap labor in foreign countries, and then blame health and safety regulations and the unions for wanting fair wages, an ability to retire, and healthcare. Considering this, it’s rather insane that people are more likely to blame low wage workers than the corporate class which this practice benefits. People will go where there are jobs to fill. That’s part of the reality of the global economy, and the captains of industry are more than willing to hire folks for low pay and no benefits that the gringos don’t want to do. And not one is stopping anyone from applying to these jobs (see here). It’s a pretty cozy arrangement actually for big industry, which as convinced the public to blame laborers. It appears that the more effective walls are already there, invisible to the eye; barriers of legality, barriers to equal protection under the law, barriers to fair wages, as well as racial, linguistic and cultural barriers that are far harder to overcome than some stupid wall.
It is a bit ironic that in the 1987, Ronald Reagan gave a now famous address at the Berlin Wall. Reagan, who lead on a premise that America was a force for freedom in the world, and was intent on remaking the world with the power of the market. He and his new Republicans lead the trend of dismantling decades of New Deal structure, and at the same time, rekindling tension with the Soviet Union as an ideological Other. So it was in Berlin, at the Brandenburg Gate where Reagan uttered his famous line, “Mr. Gorbachev, open these gates. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” It was a poignant moment for the “Great Communicator.” Few in America realized at the time just how close the Soviet Union was to collapse from within, its economy some say was spread thin by heavy industry, its population unable to access basic goods, and it’s own changing policies, glasnost and perestroika, weakened their own establishment structure.
On the heels of the Reaganomics consensus we all became Fukuymaists. We believed that global capitalism wedded with liberal democracy was the final Utopian arrangement of society, the “The End of History.” It was, in hindsight, a grandiose claim that political scientist Francis Fukuyama would spend years walking back. Nevertheless, the wave of globalization was set in motion, breaking down walls of national, cultural, linguistic, ethnic, even gender identities.
Following the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain, trade barriers opened, NAFTA, the WTO, the Eurozone, and the opening of Chinese markets to the Global West. At the same time, cyberspace promised a “world wide web.” The talk of the 1990’s centered on a new world order, a global village would rise in a new telecommunications age.
But there was another side to this puported optimism. This trend of globalization was inherently unequal as it inscribed new lines of power and difference. The shifting market was good for some (like the global one percent, and the Indian and Chinese Middle Classes), and not so good for others (such as the American heartland and middle class, and the Global South). It would seem that history is full of ironies, for what was secretly in the globalizing trend was the seeds of its own constriction. The malcontents of globalization would have their day. Seldom do revolutionaries envision the reactionary politics that lay around the corner. (Jacobins never foresaw Napoleonic French nationalism.) The “End of History” it was not, as new reactionaries, dreaming of a vague golden age we’ve lost put sought to put the brakes on the project. Jihadists are one form these reactionaries take, dreaming of restoring the utopia of a caliphate from centuries before, embracing wahhabism, a stricter interpretation of their religion than perhaps ever before. The blowback on globalization finds many expressions, and only seems to grow as reactionaries beget further reactionaries. A sprinkling of jihad, a dash of Dutch nationalism, and so on in a self-verifying feedback loop.
It could be that neoliberalism was always bound to end in neofascism. Certainly, the blowback of empire is an important vector in this unraveling, (as a recent article by Tom Engelhardt in The Nation makes a compelling case:
What Election 2016 made clear was that the empire of chaos has not remained a phenomenon of the planet’s backlands. It’s with us in the United States, right here, right now. And it’s come home in a fashion that no one has yet truly tried to make sense of. Can’t you feel the deep and spreading sense of disorder that lay at the heart of the bizarre election campaign that roiled this country, brought the most extreme kinds of racism and xenophobia back into the mainstream, and with Donald Trump’s election, may never really end? Using the term of tradecraft that Chalmers Johnson borrowed from the CIA and popularized, think of this as, in some strange fashion, the ultimate in imperial blowback.
The economic ideology does not have its own cultural identity, and as some conservatives have argued, cultural identity must augment national pride. Let us not forget that the first experiments in neoliberalism were conducted in South America in the CIA-backed regimes of the Southern Cone. The U.S. backed fascist governments like Pinochet’s to enforce their free market fundamentalism – as Naomi Klein well documents in her wonderful book, The Shock Doctrine. It seems to me that as this economic age began with an experiment with fascism, it may well be destined to return to restore order if democracy gets in the way of the corporate interest. It’s veneer of civility stripped away as the naked militarized insistence of capitalism asserts its corrupt self.
So it’s in this strange turn of fate, where neoliberalism has turned toward greater isolationism, which the Trump wall represents. If we look at the function of walls, however, we see the internal deceit of our economics for the last several decades, which by any metric has been inherently unequal as the wealthiest one percent’s wealth has skyrocketed as wages for the middle and working classes have remained stagnant, even regressive. Amid this disparity, walls have been popping up in Reagan’s wall-less utopia – characterized by gated communities and green zones. It’s in this new walled society that Trump’s wall belongs, an attempt to make America a gated community in an explicitly classicist and racist ethos. It’s angry, reactionary return of old lines of class and segregation bring back old forms of racial totalitarianism reminiscent of the age of the Know Nothing Party.
The Trump wall can only function symbolically in the interest of nativist and nationalist politics. That said, the wall is a symbolic attack and one that is implicitly racist. Race is one of those ghosts of history that culture just doesn’t seem like it can shake. Something about the echo chambers of cyberspace, rather than opening us to a democratic utopianism, seem to have amplified such pernicious faiths as this. (1) The recent charts by MIT Media Lab researchers on who tweets to whom show an immense concentration of Trump supporters who only talk to each other, fearfully cornering themselves into an ever drifting alternate reality as they echo their pied piper. This is the real map of America today – the cyberspace map.
There are walls being built all the time. The walls that are important are not crude structures being built on the border, they are walls of totalitarianism that we construct precisely to wall each other off.
“The structural principles of society are as barbaric as ever. Perhaps more so…”
I keep thinking about an interesting philosopher named Rick Roderick. He’s notable for these videos he made in the early 1990s for the Teaching Company that you can find ubiquitously online. Roderick is able to communicate complex ideas in a pragmatic, immediate way, articulating the complexities of the postmodern zeitgeist. Roderick, whose expertise was the philosophy of Jurgen Habermas, taught at Duke. His lectures verged o
n the prophetic. His lecture on Philosophy and Postmodern Culture, recorded in 1990 – back before NAFTA, open China, or WTO, or the Eurozone, or the Web – is my favorite that I keep going back to. I view it as a kind of message in the bottle to the future. What he presented then, more than 25 years ago, is even more relevant today. Roderick died in 2002, so he could not comment on our current sociopolitical moment, but I suspect he wouldn’t need to – he could diagnose the structures of society just as well back then and these videos are just as good at diagnosing our current culture as anything produced today.
What Roderick proposes in this lecture is a chilling prediction that the forces of hostility, resentment and greed- what Freud calls the id – would overcome any pretense of reason in our fragile democracy. Democratic society, he proposes, following up on Frankfurt School Theory, is kind of like a tinder box of the id, susceptible to fear and demagoguery. And the globalizing order, driven by a mass communication society, is a force that puts the fragile dignity of the self under siege, extirpating the rational, self-reflective parts of the self, making the human subject vulnerable to mass media. Once the self, finally defeated in its tiny garrison, has its ramparts overcome by the forces of media – commercials, consumerist injunctions, addictions, propaganda – there is little that remains of the rational autonomous human being. This, Roderick says, is a new postmodern form of totalitarianism. The walls in this totalitarianism are virtual. They cannot be stormed, because we won’t even believe they exist at all. We then live in a society that we will regurgitate the slogans of freedom and a free society, but somehow, deep inside the hurt locker, know that this is not honest. Roderick finishes his lecture:
Don’t forget as you watch television at night that the fires at Belsen (a concentration camp) burn in your tube every night. Don’t forget that the structures of society in their structure are as barbaric as ever, perhaps even more so. Perhaps even more so. I mean, we’re talking at a historical moment when most folks want to nuke somebody and why not!?
Roderick outlines then a kind of hidden totalitarianism. Political historian Sheldon Wolin, in his book Democracy, Inc, outlines his concept of “inverted totalitarianism,” which is a system not directed from the state, but from an amalgam of banking and corporate interests which have hijacked democracy and the media. The creeping normalization of this process has now, in 2017, fully engulfed democracy. The government is now exclusively the servant of the corporate, managerial class – whose interests no one votes for and is precisely anti-democratic, and operates amid a political class that writes the law and is above the law.
And yet what persists, and has even re-surged in this period are these antiquated dusted-off myths of race and gender which are, again kind of insidious stupid myths in the id, giving some credence to the idea that capitalism in a sense requires a population divided among itself through class, race and gender.
Walls Seen and Unseen
There is another wall, both seen and unseen at work. It’s Wall Street, which at once is an actual street, yet a metonym for the system of capitalism itself. Yet the history of Wall Street has both meanings, the visible and invisible, at its core. The actual eight block street in lower Manhattan got its name from the street, in Dutch “Walstraat” that accompanied the northern rampart, “waal” in Dutch, of the old fort of the New Amsterdam. Beginning in the 1640s, almost twenty years after the first settlement by Walloon families of the Dutch West India Company in 1624, the wall was created to keep out the aggrieved natives. W.J. Sidis writes:
The red people from Manhattan Island crossed to the mainland, where a treaty was made with the Dutch, and the place was therefore called the Pipe of Peace, in their language, Hoboken. But soon after that, the Dutch governor, Kieft, sent his men out there one night and massacred the entire population. Few of them escaped, but they spread the story of what had been done, and this did much to antagonize all the remaining tribes against all the white settlers. Shortly after, Nieuw Amsterdam erected a double palisade for defense against its now enraged red neighbors, and this remained for some time the northern limit of the Dutch city. The space between the former walls is now called Wall Street, and its spirit is still that of a bulwark against the people. (3)
Wall Street was soon consecrated as a center point of trade in New Amsterdam, for goods, shares, bonds, and even slaves. The Dutch surrendered the city to a British siege in 1664. Dutch settlers took to British rule and renamed the city New York. The rampart was removed in 1699, but the exchanges continued. New York’s designated point of slave auctions took place on Wall Street, at the corner of Pearl, throughout the 1700s. The city profited through slave sale taxes. Although the physical barrier was gone, the barriers of race and class continued.
Tearing Down the Wall
I don’t believe there will ever be a literal complete Trump Wall. As Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly remarked earlier this week, there will be no full scale wall across the Southern border. I guess they realized that there already is a border wall in some places, high tech surveillance in others. Besides, they were facing a ton of lawsuits, one from a native tribe, the Tohono O’odham Nation, and other landowners fighting imminent domain landgrabs. On top of that, the federal government realized that half of the border was the Rio Grande River, and a wall would have given the whole river away. The administration won’t talk about it, but it quietly won’t happen. But there are of course, those more insidious walls in our society.
Which brings us to Wall Street, perhaps the most fortressed wall in history. The name itself coming from the name of the street along the ramparts dividing the Dutch settlers from the natives they were murdering in what was then called New Amsterdam. It seems that the spirit of the original Wall Street is alive and well. And what it requires is that it is at once they’re in plain sight, yet is so powerful that no one – out of a kind of Medusian fear – can seem to look it directly in the face. Instead our society is split in so many directions, a culture war between left and right, class without economics. This is our postmodern totalitarianism, a prison of thought that still manages to manipulate society with these loose insidious totalitarianisms of racism, sexism, and xenophobia. The system requires this war of identity politics distract us from the goings on of the power brokers, who are like fight promoters behind the curtain of the culture war theater.
Our postmodern culture would like to think of itself as ahistorical, as something that is new, a kind of perpetual sanitized present in which we, as Americans, can do anything and solve any problem. This, of course is a mythical/ideological form of consciousness. There is a kind of river Lethe at work, its waters of cultural amnesia luring us into a deep slumber of apathy that is part of the psychology of Late Capitalism. The antidote to this culture is history. History offers us the tools of self-reflection, knowledge and autonomy. It is through history that these hidden walls become revealed for what they are. We have to recognize the subtle forms of cultural oppression in our own time, and recognize the antecedents of these forms – segregation, Jim Crow, apartheids with – and genocide against – Native Americans, the white nationalism that lead to the Texas’s revolutionary war, as well as the totalitarianism of sexism and genderism. We are faced with walls and barriers everywhere, and the hardest ones to reach are the walls that keep the people from being really represented so that they may redress the iniquities of society.
We have, in a sense, all of us, returned to the struggle of the Civil Rights era. But what is at stake now is not just the civic inclusion of previously excluded races and genders, but humanity itself. We live in a time in which the fragile dignity of the autonomous human being is called to make an existential claim of personhood, to resist the assault on the self by ideology and myth. I mean, we are talking now in an age where corporations are considered legal people and money is legal speech, yet these “people” and their speech are more powerful, have more influence and social agency, hence are more socially real than actual living beings. In an age when the keys of the republic have been given to the corporate managerial class, defining personhood has become our existential imperative. It’s so insidious that it hides in plain sight, the ideology of this global system wants us to believe that it is in charge, that civic responsibility is an old bankrupt notion, a dream of the zealots of yesteryear; promising its better way through its negative freedom.
Rick Roderick ended his lecture in 1990 wondering if there will be new forms of resistance against this postmodern totalitarian conspiracy of symbols. There have been. But the system has been lock step, adapting, changing, appropriating, hiding. For every sudden irruption of a phenomena Occupy, there is a Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial. For every Women’s March, there is a bronze girl statue by the Wall Street Bull. One thing is clear – this struggle is the story of the twenty-first century. The restoration of our fragile dignity begins in the wisdom of Socratic criticism, self-reflection, dialectical reason. This not just the starting point of deconstruction, but the foundation of our declaration of personhood.
(1) “The Internet gives millions access to the truth that many didn’t even know existed. Never in the history of man can powerful information travel so fast and so far. I believe that the Internet will begin a chain reaction of racial enlightenment that will shake the world by the speed of its intellectual conquest.” David Duke, epigram in Cyber Racism: White Supremacy Online and the New Attack on Civil Rights by Jessie Daniels.
(2) Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” in The National Interest. Summer 1989.
(3) Sidis, W.J., The Tribes and the States. 1935.