From Trump’s wall to policing culture: understanding borders today

Saturday 2 November, 16:0017:15, Cinema 1Keynote controversies

Globalisation was supposed to diminish the relevance of national borders. Yet from Trump’s ‘big beautiful wall’ along the US-Mexico border to the border between the Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, borders have exhibited a surprising tendency to remain important.

Many interpret this as a simple backlash against the downsides of globalisation: the ‘left behinds’, who have not enjoyed the benefits of frictionless trade and travel, have supposedly turned to nationalist and protectionist measures in a futile attempt to turn back the clock to before the era of global supply chains. However, the surprising persistence of walls and borders is clearly a broader phenomenon.

Across the world, many commentators have noted a trend towards more gated communities and increasingly securitised entrances to flats and businesses. A number of ostensibly public parks and squares are owned or run by private organisations with the authority to eject people on slim pretences. Even Glastonbury, once a festival famous for hippy ideals and lax enforcement of ticketing, is now surrounded by a four-kilometre long, 10-foot-high ‘Fortress Super Fence’. The uneasy contrast between the many ‘no borders/no walls’ signs held by festivalgoers and the huge external fence was not lost on some.

There also seems to be confusion surrounding the status of cultural and political borders and boundaries. On the one hand, the rise of charges of ‘cultural appropriation’ seems to suggest a world where cultural boundaries and interchange are policed ever more strongly, and on the other hand many celebrate at the same time the ‘fluidity’ of gender and sexual boundaries. In addition, especially after the scandal surrounding the publicisation of a row between Boris Johnson and his girlfriend, some have noted a blurring of the boundary between public and private.

What, therefore, can be said about the renewed significance of walls and borders? In part, the renewed significance of national borders perhaps reflects a demand by people to ‘take back control’ and assert power in more clearly defined ways. In a similar fashion, the assertion of cultural boundaries has been be said to be about marginalised communities asserting control of their culture. Alternatively, some note a generalised feeling of insecurity, expressed both by the masses’ demands for stricter enforcement of national borders and also by the elites’ retreat into gated communities.

What, then, are the proper role of borders and walls in public life? How are we to interpret the success of politicians like Donald Trump who promise to pay attention to national borders – are they playing to anti-immigrant sentiment or respond to legitimate anxieties about the restlessness of globalised capitalism? Is it contradictory to lament the return of national borders while seeking to enforce cultural borders? Can we mark boundaries between realms like public and private, and are they worth defending? Are any borders worth defending?