Note: This post was originally published prior to Donald Trump’s Executive Order on immigration and refugees was signed. I have edited parts of the original post that I was unsatisfied with but have not updated it to reflect unfolding political realities. There is now ample evidence to show that the immigration restriction is more than the targeting of citizens of particular countries. Exceptions for “religious minorities,” which Trump has stated means Christians, means that this is, in fact, a “Muslim ban.” There is further evidence to suggest that the human toll of the Executive Order is and will be enormous. It is possible that this post underestimated the degree of suffering that was to come.
What does it mean that Donald Trump’s campaign boasts about a “total and complete shutdown on Muslims entering the United States,” appears to be filtering into immigration restrictions on citizens of countries previously listed as state sponsors of terrorism? On one level, it of course bears out the warnings of leftist journalists like Glenn Greenwald and Daniel Denvir. Trump is merely the trigger-happy inheritor of an absurdly dangerous security state, one that has looped together permanent war abroad with unending and evermore invasive surveillance at home. (The interdependence of these domestic and international programs cannot be overstated. Ask yourself, next time you take off your shoes and pass through security at the airport: which side of the War on Terror are they putting me on?) At the same time, the even further reaching cruelty of Trump’s policies and their assured failure must be marked. Beyond these more immediate concerns, it is also worth asking what Trump’s move towards discrimination based on nationality says about how religious and national categories continue to shift and mutually-contamenate.
Two contradictory answers present themselves, both finding homes in significant strains of academic discourse over the last three decades: First, states could be said to be enduring as the most relevant category of global politics. Once, it was proclaimed that states were breathing their last, soon to be replaced by non-state actors (e.g. terrorist-networks), radically free markets, technological flows, or the total-category, global empire. This argument claps back, pointing out how states are needed to structure every possible alternative global order. Practically, it is far easier to figure out whether someone is a Syrian citizen than whether she’s Muslim. So just ban the Syrian.
Another argument would hold that the age of nation-states was merely an interregnum. In that frame, we’re witnessing an old order shining through. Competitive, religious empires never really died out; they just took a smoke break. This is clearly the story that theorists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria would like to tell. And it has been hard, listening to the latest non-debate about the appropriateness of the appellation “radical Islamic terrorism,” to ignore the fact that Bush and Obama’s promises that “we’re not at war with Islam,” felt hollow.
The political theorist Wendy Brown presents an middle way. With incredible insight and foresight, her book, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, positions nation-states as eroded but still important actors in the emergent geopolitical order. She writes:
States persist as non-sovereign actors, and many characteristics of sovereignty (though not its intact theological form) appear today in two domains of power that are, not coincidentally, the very traditional domains of powers that the Peace of Westphalia emerged to contain within or subordinate to nation-states: political economy and religiously legitimated violence (23).
Building on the work of the German jurist, Carl Schmitt—who, for all his acuity, still deserves condemnation—Brown accounts for how what would seem to be most potent sign of the nation-state’s strength—the wall—actually signals its mere endurance in the face of ascendant forces: religion and economy. Nothing could better illustrate this than the Trump administration: a surprise turn to God in its inaugural address, an Exxon CEO soon to be Secretary of State, a wall, and an immigration ban that targets Muslims in the language of nation-states.
But Brown is wrong that this is the reemergence of “traditional” power. It is not an older order showing through the corroded chrome-plating of nation-states. The age of religious empires is well past us. There is, however, a reinvestment in the archives that empire produced. This is why the Islamic State tries to speak the language of caliphate, even when it can’t quite forget about national borders; just as much as it is why Trump speaks of America “again” and “first,” even as he hitches the country to unprecedented globalized neoliberal capitalism.
What’s prompting this return to older archives? Unprecedented geopolitical change, abusive colonial legacies, mass human movement, and transformations in the earth itself are causing some to believe, wrongly, that an old order can be recaptured. The question becomes, are there older archives that authorize an embrace of change rather than the illusion of a return to stability? That is the subject of my next post.