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The Wall by John Lanchester

John Lanchester has attributed the tone of his latest novel, The Wall, to a reoccurring dream in which he sits alone at night looking out across the sea. If, like many of his compatriots, Lanchester punctuates his day with BBC news bulletins then it’s likely that his dreams have been colonized by Britain’s long and painful exit from the European Union. In The Wall Britain has walled itself in. Every beach has been buried beneath a concrete barrier to protect the island from surging sea levels and a rising tide of refugees, known as “Others.” Every citizen is conscripted to serve two years as a “defender,” guarding a section perimeter in solitude for 12 hours at a time. Occasionally small planes fly over the wall carrying members of the elite in and out of the country. The border is administered with a rigid one-in-one-out policy: If an other gets over the wall the closest defender is banished to sea; if two others intrude two defenders are banished, and so on.

Much of the narrative focuses on the lives of the defenders as they sit in the cold waiting for time to pass and fantasizing about the future. One way to avoid working on the wall is to procreate, but nobody wants to do it. Britain has become a stagnant and bitter environment where prospective parents don’t expect to be loved by their children, who will serve at least two years guarding the wall.

To many readers in America and Europe, Lanchester’s nightmares will seem like a logical endpoint of the West’s recent relapse into chauvinistic nationalism. Many of his readers have grown up in an age of relative optimism. In 1985 five European nations signed the Schengen agreement, which would eventually allow citizens to drive from Portugal to Estonia without the need for a passport. Four years later, the Berlin Wall fell and the fences that once divided Europe like cracks in a half-shattered window were abandoned and submerged under roadside vegetation. And yet, the unprecedented mobility of the new millennium has led to feelings of powerlessness in economically deprived areas outside the big cities and provoked a paranoid political backlash. Of all the border walls built since the end of the Second World War, half have been erected since the year 2000. In the same time period wages have stagnated while rising property prices have ruled out the prospect of home ownership for millions of people. The gradual erosion of material expectations has slowly undermined the credibility of an internationalist vision. Meanwhile, the cities that benefited from globalization have found themselves surrounded, outnumbered and outvoted by those who have been left behind.

While The Wall does little to explore the social conditions that create the appetite for walls, there is much to learn about their psychological function within an illiberal democracy. Lanchester’s Britain is deeply divided between the young and the old, the defenders and the civilians, and between the servants and their masters. Despite these insurmountable differences, the country behind the wall is remarkably dull.

The social landscape Lanchester paints is eerily similar to the ideas of Carl Schmitt, an authoritarian political theorist who was born in the German Empire in 1888 and died in West Germany in 1985. Schmitt was genuinely an evil genius and one of the first fascists to advocate the malicious manipulation of liberal values, such as the belief in freedom of expression, to undermine liberal societies from within. In The Concept of the Political, published in Germany in 1932, Schmitt describes the ideal political conditions for a stable and prosperous society. While the liberals of the Weimar Republic believed that societal differences could always be resolved by amicable deliberation, Schmitt stressed the necessity of perpetual inequality, ideological conflict, and the supremacy of sovereignty above all else.

By recognizing that humans could never truly consider each other equals, society could, according to Schmitt, stop wasting political and emotional energy fighting against inevitable hierarchies. In The Wall, people strive to hire domestic servants, known simply as “help,” composed of a socially isolated ethnic underclass who don’t communicate in English. Their status is never questioned.

Another political requisite for Schmitt was a clear distinction between friends and enemies. A country unable to distinguish itself in contrast to an enemy was, he believed, destined to devolve into a vapid and nihilistic culture where the individual would have no higher purpose beyond that of material wealth. The enemy’s identity had to be obvious and the threat had to be unquestionable. For Schmitt, war between nations was not just a natural state of affairs — it could even be seen as an end in itself.

The third leg of Schmitt’s intellectual stool is the supremacy of sovereignty and, accordingly, the idea that what the state says goes. In The Wall, the defenders unfortunate enough to be found culpable of breach are sent out into the ocean on a small boat with limited supplies, which is almost always a death sentence. There is no jury, no appeals process, and rarely any objection on the part of the condemned. For Schmitt, the state could only be strong if its actions were regarded as if divine. Opening the rules to interpretation would open the society to differences of opinion and any differences of opinion would undermine the power of the sovereign, and could even blur the line between friend and enemy.

The genius of 21st century demagoguery has been to project sovereignty onto the public and frame it in opposition to an out-of-touch elite. Upon coming to power, the British Prime Minister Theresa May infamously declared that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere — you don’t understand what citizenship means.” For the last two and a half years Britain has been stuck in a nationwide discussion about Brexit, unable to process any evidence beyond the result of the 2016 referendum. The practical arguments in favor of Brexit have been buried beneath the dire economic repercussions of isolationism. Leaving the European Union will not, as promised, free up an extra 350 million GBP a week for the National Health Service, it won’t affect the island’s dependence on migrant labor, and it has already cost the economy thousands of manufacturing jobs. And so any  objections to the country’s new direction are now met with the simple injunction that Westminster must deliver “the will of the people”, as opposed to what is perceived to be the preference of the elite. 

And yet, Lanchester is also looking beyond Brexit, which he believes will inevitably be reversed by future generations. The social function of his wall may be to unite the British people against the outside world, but the wall’s practical function is to save the island from climate change, which looks likely to deliver a rejection of sovereign supremacy on a truly biblical scale. But we rarely imagine the climate in our nightmares. More often we dreams of other people, and what we think they might do.

The Wall by John Lanchester (2019) is published by W. W. Norton & Co. and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

Nicholas Barrett is an Editorial Assistant at The Economist where he interviews non-fiction writers. His work has also appeared in the Financial Times, Five Dials, the New Statesman, the Times Literary...