The Great Wall of Capital

by Mike Davis

When delirious crowds tore down the Berlin Wall in 1989 many hallucinated that a millennium of borderless freedom was at hand. The people themselves had abolished a dark age of electrified death fences, frontiers strewn with antipersonnel mines, and cities guillotined by walls. Globalization was supposed to inaugurate an era of unprecedented physical and virtual-electronic mobility.

Instead neoliberal capitalism has stimulated the greatest wave of wall-building and border fortification in history. The physical reality looks more like the late-Roman or Sung Empires than the Victorian Liberal golden age of Cobden and Gladstone. This Great Wall of Capital, which separates a few dozen rich countries from the Earth’s poor majority, completely dwarfs the old Iron Curtain. This is not just a figurative addition of national borders but, increasingly, a single interlocking system of fortification, surveillance, armed patrol, and incarceration. It girds half the Earth, cordons off at least twelve thousand kilometers of terrestrial borderline, and is comparably more deadly to desperate trespassers. Unlike China’s Great Wall, the new wall is only partially visible from space. Although it includes traditional ramparts (the Mexican border of the United States) and barbed wire fenced minefields (between Greece and Turkey), much of globalized immigration enforcement today takes place at sea or in the air, and borders are now digital as well as geographical.

Take, for example, Fortress Europe, where an integrated data system (upgrading the Strasbourg-based Schengen network) with the sinister acronym of PROSECUR will become the foundation for a common system of border patrol, enforced by the newly authorized European Border Guards Corps. The EU has already spent hundreds of millions of euros beefing up the so-called Electronic Curtain along its expanded eastern borders and fine-tuned the Surveillance System for the Straits that is supposed to keep Africa on its side of Gibraltar. Tony Blair, moreover, recently asked his fellow EU leaders to extend white Europe’s border defenses into the heart of the Third World. He proposed “protection zones” in key conflict areas of Africa and Asia where potential refugees could be quarantined in deadly squalor for years.

Blair’s model, of course, is Australia, where right-wing prime minister John Howard has declared open war on wretched Kurdish, Afghan, and Timorese refugees. After last year’s wave of riots and hunger strikes by immigrants indefinitely detained in desert hellholes like Woomera in south Australia, Howard used the navy to intercept ships in international waters and intern refugees in even more nightmarish camps on Nauru or malarial Manus Island off Papua New Guinea. Blair, according to the Guardian, has similarly scouted the use of the Royal Navy to interdict refugee smugglers in the Mediterranean, and the RAF to deport immigrants back to their homelands.

If border enforcement has now moved offshore, it has also come into everyone’s front yard. Residents in the U.S. Southwest have long endured the long traffic jams at “second border” checkpoints far away from the actual lines. Now stop-and-search operations are becoming common in the interior ofthe EU. As a result, even notional boundaries between border enforcement and domestic policing, or between immigration policy and the War on Terrorism, are rapidly disappearing. “Noborder” activists in Europe have long warned that the Orwellian data systems used to track down non-EU aliens will be turned against local antiglobalization movements as well.

In the U.S., likewise, trade unions and Latino groups regard with fear and loathing Republican proposals to train up to one million local police and sheriffs as immigration enforcers. Indeed,Congress has already authorized pilot programs in Alabama and Florida, while local governments in California, Pennsylvania, and the South yield to pressures from Minutemen and other organized nativists to criminalize day laborers soliciting work in front of hardware stores and even to prohibit landlords from renting to tenants without proof of citizenship.

Meanwhile the Justice Department, the Pentagon,and the Department of Homeland Security are fostering a technological revolution in border surveillance.The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, launched with great fanfare by Attorney General John Ashcroft in June 2002, uses biometrics to identify and track foreign visitors. New digital scanning systems at airports, harbors, and land borders will use the same biometrics to monitor and gather data on foreign individuals. Meanwhile, the San Diego-Tijuana region has become the field laboratory for the federally sponsored Border Research and Technology Center (headquartered in a downtown San Diego skyscraper), which is constantly working to improve the Border Patrol’s high-tech intrusion detection systems—networks of hidden seismic, magnetic, and infrared sensors as well as video surveillance cameras that are now uplinked to satellites to allow remote viewing from a central command post.

The Pentagon, after a long absence, became reinvolved in border enforcement in 1989 with the establishment of Joint Task Force 6 at Fort Bliss,Texas. JTF6 (which officially “synchronizes and integrates Department of Defense resources”) as originally limited to missions against major narcotraficantes smuggling large quantities of cocaine across the southern border. Now, as the cartels supposed have “expanded their operations to include or become intertwined with criminal syndicates engaged in human trafficking,” the task-force mission has been enlarged by Congress to include surveillance and interdiction of illegal immigration. The Pentagon relishes this enlarged role because “there’s no better place in America to get the kind of training that will prepare a unit for deployment to Afghanistan or Iraq.”

Everywhere, as borders are remilitarized, and immigrants and refugees are shunted into more desperate routes, the human toll grows inexorably. According to human rights groups, nearly four thousand immigrants and refugees have died at the gates ofEurope since 1993 — drowned at sea, blown up in minefields, or suffocated in freight containers. Thousands more have perished in the Sahara en route to Morocco or Tunisia. Meanwhile, the American Friends Service Committee, which monitors the carnage along the U.S.-Mexico border, estimates that a similar number have died over the last decade in the furnace-hot deserts of the Southwest. In the context of so much inhumanity, the White House’s recent proposal to offer temporary guest-worker status to undocumented immigrants and others might seem a gesture ofcompassion in contrast to the heartlessness of Europe or the near fascism ofAustralia.

In fact, as immigrant rights groups have pointed out, it is an initiative that combines sublime cynicism with ruthless political calculation. The Bush proposal, which resembles the infamous Bracero program ofthe early 1950s, would legalize a subcaste oflow-wage labor without providing a mechanism for the estimated 5 to 7 million undocumented workers already in the U.S. to achieve permanent residence or citizenship.

Toilers without votes or permanent domicile, of course, is a Republican utopia. The Bush plan would provide Wal-Mart and McDonald’s with a stable, almost infinite supply ofindentured labor.

It would also throw a lifeline to neoliberalism south of the border. The decade-old North American Free Trade Agreement, even former supporters now admit, has proven a cruel hoax—destroying as many jobs as it has created. Indeed the Mexican economy has shed jobs four years in a row. The White House neo-Bracero proposal offers Presi- dent Vicente Fox and his successors a crucial economic safety valve. Finally — and this is the truly sinister serendipity — the offer of temprorary legality would be irresistible bait to draw undocumented workers into the open where the Department of Homeland Security can identify, tag, and monitor them. Far from opening a crack in the Great Wall, it heals a breach, and ensures an even more systematic and intrusive policing of human inequality.