2016 has been a very busy year – especially with everything that’s happened surrounding Brexit and the win of the polarised right in the form of Donald Trump. Right wing and ultra-nationalist movements seem to be gaining a foothold in many parts of the world and the worrying aspect is that it is often at the cost of the very globalisation and free trade that has powered these economies to a level of prosperity that they now seek to internalise.
Whether we like it or not, whether it eventually gets built or not, Trump’s declaration of building a wall with Mexico will serve as the single strongest symbol that underpins this mindset. Humankind has had an enduring fascination with walls. Because we are servants of gravity, barriers that are barely our heights tend to become potent reminders that things exist on the other side that are forbidden to us. The Great Wall of China was conceived and built in order to keep out the barbarian invaders of Central Asia. The fact that it wasn’t actually built at the borders of the kingdom, but along an alignment that used the terrain to add to the impregnability only added to its allure.Walls and often minefields also separate countries that are foes of each other. The infamous barrier between North and South Korea, the heavily militarised strip along the India – Pakistan border and even the historic Berlin Wall are all examples of this propensity for us to retreat behind the fence, to corral our wagons. Or you could take the approach of the Israelis who build walls to both keep terrorists out and to fence off and stifle an entire population.
Fortunately for Great Britain, its path ahead is more one of paperwork and being ready to sacrifice economic muscle for nationalism. It uses the sea around it as its metaphorical wall, although there is some talk already of an actual physical barrier that may need to come up between Northern Ireland and the rest of Eire. The other big beneficiary of being thousands of miles from anywhere is Australia that has used the sea as its bastion of isolationism, pushing the refugees that try to reach its shores into other jurisdictions.
Trump’s wall, like his mindset, somehow assumes that the process of Nationhood is a zero sum process. You keep out the illegal immigrants and that will then mean that you can bring them in as workers, regulated and numbered, but without any chance of ever integrating properly or gaining the laurel wreath of American citizenship. The message is that if you keep the desperate and downtrodden out, there will be more jobs for the American, jobs that somehow will begin to appeal to the local, despite experience that tells you otherwise. Just take a look at the economies of the regulated job markets of the GCC area. Legal labour works to contracts and does not ever dream of becoming part of the host economy. Illegal labour exists on the fringes, ever worried that it’ll be discovered and imprisoned and deported. And the chance that the lowest profile jobs will be done by local citizens is marginal, due to per capita affluence of the countries. It is as much about society, keeping up with the neighbours and their own aspirations, as it is about the affordability of global labour.
Mexico finds itself at the forefront of this new wave of misplaced protectionism. Using common market agreements that have been championed by successive US governments, its location in NAFTA makes the country a good manufacturing base, with low cost labour and tariff free access to the United States. American companies, along with global ones are setting up large plants in the country, with an eye on the US market to underpin global supplies. The latest Tiguan and Audi Q5 are both being made for the world in Mexico as are various products from other American brands. Jobs created in Mexico mean less incentive for people to try to cross over into the US illegally. And it means more profits for American business as they lower their manufacturing costs. But now Trump wants those manufacturing jobs to move back to the US, along with the higher costs since these jobs will now have to draw in the US citizen who is used to a better minimum wage. Guess what happens with people movement across the border?
There are no simple answers in these challenged times, but whether the wall makes sense or otherwise currently depends on which side of the shouting match you find yourself on. Here’s to hoping that we always find ourselves on the correct side of any wall.