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A Dark City


An Afro-Russian boy searches for hope and love in the labyrinthine Moscow metro in Hamid Ismailov’s The Underground

THE first word G. learns when he arrives in Russia is chornyi, or black. The next, the most frequent, is obezyana, or monkey.

It was just one word, he assures me. But repeated so many times, it accumulated weight and developed sharp edges. At least he wasn’t alone, he says. There were other guests of the Soviet Union, funded by and living under the protection of the government, students from many countries: Vietnam, Laos, Yemen, Cameroon, Angola, South Africa, Guinea, Mali, Congo, he names a long list. They treated us well, he adds; they were afraid who might be KGB. We were sheltered from the bluntest impact of racism by the Russian people’s wariness of each other, their own internalized fears and distrust. And remember, he continues, as bad as it was, we knew we had a home where everyone was just like us. When someone called me chornyi, I learned the word for white, biely, and shouted it back.

My cousin G. is speaking of his years as a student, when he left Ethiopia to attend first the Moscow Conservatory of Music, and then what used to be called the Leningrad Cultural Institute, where he would study photography and film. He kept a daily journal, he says, pages piling up as one year bled into the next. He wrote every day in Amharic, before stepping outside to slip into his Russian life.

I ask him about the Moscow metro system, because I have heard of its stunning beauty. Because I have read Hamid Ismailov’s elegiac and powerful novel, The Underground, I wonder what it was like to go deep beneath the city of Moscow and travel through a metro system that some have called one of the most complex ever built. I wonder what it was like to be a foreigner and black in the confined spaces of the station and the trains.

G. tells me of the underground, of its vastness and breathtaking architecture. If one did not know the system well, he says, it was easy to get lost in the labyrinth of tunnels. There were days when he wandered unsure beneath the city, so disoriented that he went hours without seeing daylight. I imagine this: G., still struggling with this new country, this new language, this new underground terrain, riding the metro from one stop to the other, one path snaking into the next, sending him in endless, looping circles while he tries, first in Amharic, then in his broken Russian, to make himself understood without inviting hostility and fear, without inviting ridicule and racism.

It starts to make sense that he switched out of the music conservatory to study photography and film: It was one way to feel like he belonged, to communicate with a degree of fluency in at least one kind of language, a visual language. He was afraid to speak English, he tells me, and until his Russian improved, he was reduced to using gestures. An image comes to mind: a black man in the Moscow metro pantomiming and gesticulating, movements growing larger and more exaggerated as one hour blends into the next and he finds himself again at the wrong station.

G. is a gentle man, with a sharp intelligence and soft eyes. He is the chronicler of our family history; he was writing long before I was. I do not want to imagine him lost. I do not want to think of what kinds of responses he might have gotten that kept him in the underground, wandering, for so long. It is better to think of him in Leningrad, carrying his Kiev camera around his neck, focusing his lens, capturing a moment, fully in control.

Things got much worse during the transition, G. continues. He is talking about the days of perestroika, glasnost and Gorbachev, which many associate with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rush of new freedoms. Those days when everything started to loosen, when a society that had once been held in a tight-fisted grip found room to breathe. Pent-up resentments no longer had to be contained, and the fine balance between the calm instilled by a secret police and a fearful public was ruptured. The formalities that had protected African and Asian students suddenly became tenuous. Police protection disappeared. Racial violence escalated at a startling pace, with a shocking intensity.

G. knew he had to leave. By 1991, he was able to get out.

It’s hard to imagine what it might have meant to be black in those days when a whole way of life was unraveling. Difficult to fathom where he could find refuge when nothing seemed to be standing still. I see this: G. in the Moscow metro system, disoriented and lost, descending deeper into a bottomless city as seismic shifts rumbled above. It plays out in my mind like a clip from an old black-and-white film, cinematic and nightmarish, a tense scene unspooling against a roiling political backdrop. It feels unreal and surreal, vivid and also lonely. But when I look again, I see my cousin maneuvering his way out, climbing from darkness to light, breathing the fresh air of the city, then when the turmoil escalates, escaping out of it altogether. Safe.

What could it mean to be Russian and black, with nowhere to go? Hamid Ismailov sets his heartbreaking The Underground in this reality. The narrator, Kirill, nicknamed Mbobo, also sometimes called Pushkin, tells us of his life in a voice speaking from the dead: “I am Moscow’s underground son,” he says, “the result of one too many nights on the town.” He is the offspring of an African athlete and a young Siberian woman, conceived during the 1980 Moscow Olympics and born nine months later. His father returned home; his mother (nicknamed “Moscow”) died when he was eight. With brutal frankness, he tells us that he, too, died four years later, at the age of 12. “That is all there is to my Moscow life. The rest is just decaying, late-blown blooms of memories.”

His dead voice leads us through the novel, each chapter bearing the name of one of Moscow’s metro stations. As we follow Mbobo through the underground system, his story unfolds against one of the most beautiful underground systems in the world. Ismailov’s tale of intense loneliness is linked together by Moscow’s subterranean city. Every significant memory, every pivotal event in Mbobo’s life occurs in the rhythm and rattle of the metro station. And as the story progresses, we begin to understand that the narrative is also about this boy’s search for enduring love. We know he will eventually die, but what matters is whether he will ever experience the deep sense of belonging that he seeks.

Never in my life, my life on the other side, on the surface, had I seen such beauty, such splendor…This world entered my pounding heart in tremors, and I felt that no one would be able to drag me back from this world or this world back out of me…

When the idea to build an underground system in Moscow was first proposed to the city council in 1902, it was met with fierce resistance. Rumors say that its failure was due in part to the Russian Orthodox Church’s strenuous objections to tunnels beneath its churches. They argued that it would be the work of the anti-Christ. It isn’t difficult to guess what might have been the Church’s hesitation. Tunneling beneath sacred ground could disrupt the hallowed resting place of the dead; it might inadvertently lead to the construction of a kingdom of evil, a middle ground where unsettled shadows could wander through the darkness seeking light.

Decades later, when the subject was broached again, there were other, more immediate reasons it should have been impossible for Russia to build a metro system. For starters, no one knew how to build one. The USSR was also experiencing a severe shortage of labor and building materials. Construction machinery was so difficult to get that it could be considered nonexistent. There was no reason to think that the plan would work. It was an irrational dream that bordered on the audacious.

When construction moved forward in 1931, it was slow, uneven, and came at a tremendous human cost. But when it was completed, the Moscow metro system would be one of the most spectacular in the world, each station a stunning architectural and engineering achievement, a testament to an artistic vision that should not have succeeded.

The beauty of these Stalin-era stations lures young Mbobo to the underground. Aboveground, he is the target of racist cruelties, both passive and aggressive; below, he imagines that he can ease into the dark pockets of the subway system and blend in. He stands, impressed, before the mosaics and statues, and lingers in the golden light of intricate lamps. It is magnificent enough for him to believe in the impossible, to believe that in the darkness of the underground he can leave himself and his black body behind. That in the metro, he can simply exist: neither Mbobo nor monkey, neither Pushkin nor fatherless. Just a boy sliding through a space that carries no judgment with it.

It is what he would like to imagine, but Ismailov does not offer easy compromises. He asks difficult questions about belonging and identity: there is racism, still, in the metro, and Mbobo cannot leave any part of himself behind. But there is also freedom, a sense that he can travel beyond his everyday existence; that he can escape into the world of his imagination. It is a young boy’s dream, an idealist’s ambition: to travel fast and far and arrive, always, in a place of beauty and greater safety. And Ismailov’s decision to set this story in a space that crisscrosses Moscow, a place firmly rooted in Russian history and pride, is a radical statement about Mbobo’s claim to his identity. This boy, this black boy born of an African and a Siberian, is very much the son of Moscow. He does not need to be anything other than what he is.

But where do you go to see a likeness of yourself, your Russian self, when there is no one else like you? Mbobo finds some relief in the fact that a statue of Russian writer Maxim Gorky is chiseled from brown stone and “so, the color of his face was similar to mine.” But it is the ever-looming presence of Alexander Pushkin in the Russian imagination that has become a burden for Mbobo. Pushkin is, to him, a “most painful secret: starting from kindergarten, people didn’t nickname me Blackie… not Monkey or Macaque and not even Chocolate, but…Pushkin.” Mbobo contends that Pushkin is not Russian enough, and he rebels against this too-easy comparison to someone who is less Russian than he: “just as he was an Abyssinian by his great-grandfather, Ibrahim Gannibal, so I was a Russian by my grandfather, Colonel Rzhevsky.” When he looks into his own face, he sees his Russian features, he sees his mother’s eyes staring back at him. Her identity, her lineage, declares his own. And when she dies, as we know from the beginning she will, she must, we begin to also sense what her absence means for Mbobo and his future.

I did not so much understand as guess…that we hadn’t lost our way among those three stations, nor among three trees, but among our lives: among body, legal codex, and spirit.

Mbobo’s mother has been coughing for months before anyone realizes that her illness is a result of the “radioactive alien intrusion” from clouds from Chernobyl. And it is as they rest in the alcove of a pillar in the hall of Ploshchad Sverdlova Station, the coolness of the marble soothing Moscow’s lungs, that Mbobo guesses for the first time that one of them is going to die soon.

Here is the chapter that comes soon after that, in Taganskaya Station:

And suddenly Mommy wasn’t there…

And here is Mbobo in Ploshchad Nogina Station:

…and Mommy wasn’t there…

And the following chapter, set in Ploshchad Nogina Interchange, contains the unspeakable as it becomes a ­realization:




Ismailov balances moments of startling clarity with a child’s inability to articulate devastating loss. It is one of the hallmarks of his writing in this novel, this deft handling of a wry, speaking-from-beyond-the-grave voice—a ghost with nothing left to lose—and the visceral, unfathomable emotions of a lost child. Evocative details, coupled with a world-worn irony, lend Ismailov’s prose a razor-sharp perceptiveness that is both weighted and symbolic. As chapter after chapter progresses and incident upon incident piles up in Mbobo’s life, we, too, begin to yearn for a thread of hope. We, too, wander the underground with him, searching for points of illumination that can withstand the glare of daylight.

When Mbobo begins to feel the first tugs of love in the form of a girl named Zulya, the momentum of the novel surges, and it is easy to believe that Mbobo might overcome his own tragic end; that the voice that speaks doesn’t come from a place beneath the earth, where dry bones quiver with the reverberations of another train zooming by, far below. And even when the world Mbobo knows begins to disintegrate in the era of political transitions and ­upheavals—those days of perestroika and glasnost—Ismailov renders a narrative so rich and complex that we give ourselves license to believe that there will be something left after it ends, something worth all the pain.

If redemption is there, Ismailov suggests, then it rests in the literary and the imagination. Midway through the book, Mbobo examines the lives of Alexander Pushkin, with his Abyssinian background, and Leo Tolstoy. Which one is more Russian? No matter who they were, he decides, in the end, “what is left is literature, a heroic attempt to balance an unbalanced life, an unbalanced soul.” I’m reminded of something else G. said. The Russians were readers, and they had a deep and profound connection to literature that he admired. Even his residence in Leningrad, he points out, was across the street from a metro station, Chernaya Rechka, named in honor of the place where Pushkin fought his last duel. The Underground, too, is steeped in Russian, and Soviet, literary tradition. The structure of the novel echoes Yerofeev’s Moscow to the End of the Line, and Ismailov seems almost gleeful with his many sly literary allusions, from Abkahazia’s Fazil Iskander to Nobel laureate Ivan Bunin. “Fathers and sons…” Mbobo says, referencing Turgenev’s novel, Fathers and Sons, “but for me it was Fatherlessness and Orphanhood.”

At the planning stages of the Moscow metro system, many stations were designed to conquer the claustrophobic sense of being underground. Stations were built to give the effect of light streaming from above, to allow subway passengers to believe that the sun could brighten the subterranean city. Ismailov’s novel, despite its tragic tenor, also offers glimmers of respite. It is a testament to the book’s grand vision that through to its wrenching and inevitable end, we are never left to wander long in its stretches of darkness. There are always bursts of light to guide us forward, to allow us to imagine while illuminating all the possibilities that await those who never give up on hope.

After we talk, G. sends me a short note. You have reminded me of those good old days, he jokes. And he tells me of the beauty of the parks and the architecture, of the astounding culture and the museums. Then he adds, I am searching the complicated web of the Moscow metro lines to remember more things.


Anthropocene Realism


If human-made climate change is irrefutable, why are we still fracking? What teaches us to believe there is no alternative to oil?

WILLISTON, North Dakota, the epicenter of the Bakken shale oil boom, has launched a new campaign branding itself “the last great place for opportunity.” This slogan comes at the end of a promotional video that features hard-working entrepreneurs testifying to the limitless opportunities that await you in western North Dakota. The radiating exclamation point punctuates the slogan by exploding over a spare grid, connoting a clean slate ready to be filled with a brighter future. If history leaves its traces in punctuation marks, as Theodore Adorno argues, then the overzealousness of this exclamation point, casting a warm glow over our future prospects, might also signal a menacing threat rather than an auspicious omen. Similarly, the “last” in “last great place for opportunity” seems to indicate that we have entered into an end times of sorts, having crossed over a threshold from which there is no return. But never mind these paranoid readings; for now let’s focus on the video’s upbeat message about possibility in this place of wholesome renewal.

Deploying what has become a standard set of conventions for promotional videos and advertisements—DSLR cinematography with shallow focus, upbeat pop music, flat gestures toward multiculturalism, etc.—the video attempts to counter the boomtown narrative perpetuated about Williston in the national media. In that narrative, Williston is dangerous, full of male oil workers and prostitutes, and enjoying an impermanent prosperity, subject to the same boom and bust cycles that have plagued the region since the first oil-exploration projects in the 1950s. The video counters the boomtown story by positioning Williston as a place of certain and stable economic growth.

What does it feel like to live in the last great place for opportunity? “It’s almost like, whenever you think of the American Dream, that’s what it’s like to be in Williston,” a young woman tells us as the video commences while b-roll of an American flag flaps in the wind. In a world full of missed opportunities, dead ends, and foreclosed dreams, Williston is a place where hard work still translates into stability and security. It is simultaneously a place where the entrepreneurial spirit is allowed to flourish. “Anybody who has any potential who wants to work can make it here” we are told by an elderly woman; “everybody’s here because they want to succeed, they want to change their life…they want to start over” a middle-age man reiterates; “this town has given anybody who wants to try to open up their own business a great opportunity,” an owner of a Culver’s restaurant explains as he laughs with his employee. The words growth, opportunity, exciting, and succeed pop from the mouths of Williston residents as they describe what makes their home great. Williston is a place where everyone is invited to participate in abundance, and this abundance is shared among the town’s residents in an equitable manner. Opportunity is there for the taking, that is, for those enterprising go-getters willing to sweat in the pursuit of a better life.


Central to the video’s vision of the thriving American dream is the growth of the town and the development of housing stock to suit its utopian vision: suburban-style tract homes. In the wake of the subprime market crash and the decimation of the American middle class, these homes offer a nostalgic comfort, a promise to extend the suburban project, imagining Williston as a microcosm for the repetition of the post–World War II boom. The video celebrates the measured symmetry of the landscape currently under construction as an index of the normalized family units that live within them. After sweeping footage of newly minted suburban sprawl, we are told by a housing developer that Williston residents “want to be a family structure, and that’s what the real dream is all about.” The fixation on the development of tracts of single-family homes by Williston’s city planners is fed by the notion that they must establish permanence in a transient city by settling the population and promoting social reproduction. The single-family home becomes a biopolitical measure that serves as the counterpoint to the instability and perceived danger of the man camp. “Williston, the last great place for opportunity!” thus replaces the Williston Economic Department’s previous slogan that celebrated the virility of frack drilling: “Rockin’ the Bakken.”

One of the most striking things about the Williston video is (despite its attempts to present a diverse face) the sheer abundance of white children that populate its new vision of opportunity. “Thousands of babies are being born each year in the community,” a member of the Williston Economic Development team tells us as a toddler is pushed on a swing. Of these thousands of babies, the only ones we see are white. The promise of renewal in the last great place for opportunity is thus coded not only as the renewal of the middle class but the renewal of white America itself. This is not surprising, given that in the U.S. the promise of freedom and self-determination through homeownership has historically been predicated on racial exclusion and the violent marking of suburban spaces of social reproduction as white. It’s an essential point to draw out, though, because it parallels the tradition of homesteading by white settlers so central to the establishment North Dakota as a frontier space that erased histories of racial injustice, genocide, and the continued brutalization and expropriation of Native land and communities. This history has only been extended by the current boom, the most extreme example being the spike in violence against Native women since it began.

The version of social reproduction inherent to suburban development cannot be separated from the rise of petrocapitalism in the 20th century, according to geographer Matthew Huber. Moreover, in Lifeblood, his recent book on the quotidian politics of oil, he argues that the entrepreneurial subjectivities we associate with neoliberalism are impossible

without the material transformation of everyday life centered upon reproductive geographies of single-family home ownership, automobility, and voracious energy consumption. The dense, versatile fuel of petroleum fuels a particular lived geography—a “structure of feeling”—that allows for an appearance of atomized command over the spaces of mobility, home, and even the body itself.

Huber locates the emergence of neoliberal policies and practices in the suburbanization of the American landscape of the postwar era, claiming that the mobility fueled by petrocapitalism was also central to the capacity of the American subject to understand her life as capital. Moreover, the necessity of purchasing the implements of this “fractioned” subjectivity—namely the car and the single-family home—“also immediately extends the mass of living labor into circuits of credit, debt, and financial markets.” In other words, neither the emergence of entrepreneurial subjectivities nor the related financialization of daily life can be separated from the suburbanization of American life enabled by the abundance of cheap oil.


Just as the politics of racial exclusion are rendered invisible in Williston’s branding campaign, so are the ways that oil itself functions as the unspoken yet ever-present force behind the burgeoning entrepreneurial subjectivities in the video. Participating in these double erasures, the video does more than simply counter the boomtown narrative by repeating tropes of lily-white suburban life. Instead, in the process of branding Williston as the “last great place for opportunity,” the video both participates in and furthers a genre I would like to call anthropocene realism. Drawing on Mark Fisher’s diagnosis of the neoliberal era as the establishment of a dominant genre he calls “capitalist realism,” or the active production of the sense that, in Margret Thatcher’s words, “there is no alternative” to the neoliberal agenda, I suggest that anthropocene realism is a genre that substantiates a similar sense that there is no alternative to the so-called energy revolution currently taking place in the U.S.

In The Boom, Russell Gold, senior energy reporter for the Wall Street Journal, gives an account of the implementation of fracking technologies since 2010, arguing that it has transformed the discursive practices and material politics around oil in the U.S. and globally. In a few short years, the anxiety around peak oil has been erased, and the geopolitics of American oil consumption has been transformed into nominal “energy independence.” As fracking technologies open untapped fossil fuel reserves to extraction, U.S. oil production is expected to reach 11.1 million barrels a day by 2020, surpassing production rates in Saudi Arabia, currently the world’s highest. At its peak in June 2015 the output of oil from the Bakken alone reached 1.2 million barrels a day.

The emergence of anthropocene realism is based on the coincidence of this advancement of fracking technologies with two major historical events. The first is the widespread acceptance of human-driven climate change as irrefutable scientific fact, especially with the publication of the 2007 report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that established incontrovertible evidence of anthropogenic causality in the literature. The Bakken oil boom began in 2008 at a time when ­climate-change denial, the primary tool by which both politicians and the oil industry refuted the legitimacy of claims linking the burning of fossil fuels to global warming, was increasingly untenable. At a moment when climate scientists insist that the only viable way to prevent catastrophic climate change is to leave the world’s oil reserves in the ground, the acceleration of oil extraction requires the same “structure of disavowal” that Fisher finds central to capitalist realism. Following Žižek’s understanding of disavowal as central to ideology in postmodernity, Fisher writes, “So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange.” In the structure of disavowal, belief and action are separated. Yes, yes, we know climate change is a real, terrible thing, but we act as if the extraction of oil is necessary, the only viable solution to secure a sustainable future. As a society, we may have come to accept that climate change is a real and terrifying prospect, but we don’t complain when, for instance, our 401(k)s rebound, thanks in part to the fracking-inspired gold rush in the American fossil-fuel industry.


This leads me to the second major historical event with which the Williston fracking boom coincided, which is, of course, the 2008 financial crisis, or what Duménil and Lévy call “the crisis of neoliberalism” and the widespread collapse in the belief that the unbridled expansion of financial capitalism, deregulation, and union-busting would lead to long-term prosperity. In addition to supplying a stream of indebted laborers to the Bakken who lost their homes and jobs, the financial crisis also allowed the prosperity of the new fracking revolution to stand in stark contrast with the devastation of the rest of the country. This juxtaposition positioned the “energy revolution” as the beacon of hope for a beleaguered population, an alternative—perhaps the only alternative—to precarity and economic devastation. This is the perfect storm that let Williston emerge as the last great place for opportunity. “We’ve moved from a boomtown to a business model. Everyone is coming here to call Williston their home.” These words, from a Williston Economic Development representative, tell the story of an inevitable transition from instability to perpetuity. It is a perfect piece of anthropocene realism: a home for “everyone” built by a vague “business model” predicated on the endless but invisible flow of oil (a model that has, in the case of Williston, become increasingly flimsy since the recent drop in global oil prices).

In Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant describes genre as that which organizes attachments and expectations as experience unfolds. Genre, for Berlant, is a set of pre-established forms that provides a structure to narrate both the present and the future, and she shows that the attachments organized by specific genres can be, and often are, perverse and destructive. Naming anthropocene realism, or the sense that there is no end and no alternative to petrocapitalism, requires more than recognizing our “addiction” to oil, a point that Matt Huber makes very clear. Instead, it requires identifying the ways that our attachments to certain versions of the good life are tied to geographies of racial exclusion and bound up in petrocapitalism.

If the mood of capitalist realism is depression, as Mark Fisher argues, than the mood of anthropocene realism might be read as anxious exuberance. This exuberance presents itself in comforting tropes that, in their “impotent bigness” (to use the words of Jacqueline Rose), feel both worn thin and lacking in confidence. On closer look, the exclamation point looks desperate, as do all the forced smiles and awkward testimonials in the Williston promotional video. It is tempting to dismiss its pathos as the futile efforts of a culture in decline, but that would be too easy. We know there are other, less suicidal visions for the future than those offered by anthropocene realism. But to access them we must first assess the ways our sense of opportunity and our vision for our individual futures are tethered to petrocapitalism, whether we like it or not.


Shades of Sovereignty


Under the U.S.’s racialized, Islamophobic terrorist imaginary, Somali Americans’ travel to Somalia is seen as a criminal act

ZAKARIA Maruf, a Somali-American recruiter for al-Shabaab, is available for adoption. He migrated to Minneapolis as a teenager in 1993, graduated from Edison High School in 2000, and in 2010 he was placed on the FBI wanted list for supporting terrorist activity. A short biography containing this information is provided in the “Gallery of Terrorists” assembled by Adopt a Terrorist for Prayer (ATFP), a non-profit Christian organization based in Colorado. Founded with the mission of providing “a practical tool for…defeat[ing] the spiritual enemy who uses religion to inspire acts of terror,” the website allows users to browse the gallery, click between biographies, and download “Terrorist Adoption Papers,” which include a picture of the chosen adoptee, links to “relevant information” (newspaper articles, criminal records, FBI wanted posters, press releases), and suggested ways to pray.

Bubs, one of 11 users who has adopted Maruf, writes: “Lord, I ask your blessings on this young man. Lead Zakaria Maruf to the people and places where you and your will will be made known to him.” RS, another adoptive parent, echoes Bubs’s prayer for Maruf’s eventual deliverance: “Lord I ask that you will bring him to a place where he sees the need from a loving GOD.”

If Maruf is to find a willing and loving God, he must first be “led” or “brought” to a place of redemption. Zakaria Maruf’s exact whereabouts, however, are currently unknown. Although he left Minneapolis for Somalia in 2008 and is rumored to have died in a suicide bombing in 2009, the FBI has not yet confirmed his death. Potentially dead, Maruf moves unseen. If he is to be led, he must first be found. Bubs and RS pray for his return.

Maruf is one of 23 Somali-American men alleged to have left Minnesota to join al-Shabaab, a jihadist militant group fighting the invasion of Ethiopian troops along Somalia’s western border. The first recruits are suspected to have left in 2007; in 2010, the Department of Justice unsealed four separate indictments charging 14 of these men with terrorist violations for providing money, personnel, and services to al-Shabaab. After announcing the arrests and charges, Attorney General Eric Holder suggested that the indictments act not only as tools of retribution, but also as tools of clarification: “The indictments today shed further light on a deadly pipeline that has routed funding and fighters to the al-Shabaab terror organization from cities across the United States.”

The route from American cities to al-Shabaab is well traveled, suggests Holder, but still cast in shadow. By “shedding light,” these indictments begin a process of exposure, revealing the names of those who are presumed to have devolved into terrorism, revealing a new network of national security that counts naturalized citizens as potential threats. The imagined “homegrown” terrorist, and the networks of policing that seek to identify him, operate at a nexus of alienating tropes. The image of the terrorist, the image of the “unworthy” migrant, and the image of the black criminal converge into one, producing an anti-terror politics that is also anti-immigrant and anti-black. Perceived as always on the brink of criminalization, Somali-Americans are figured as roving targets within a racialized terrorist imaginary.

IF the indictments made by the Department of Justice shed light on a pipeline stretching from American cities to al-Shabaab, popular media condense and amplify this field of vision to illuminate key actors: the young Somali-American men who travel, deviantly, home.

In October and November 2011, both the New York Times and Minnesota Public Radio published timelines charting movement through the “Minnesota Pipeline to al-Shabaab.” Both publications divide this migration into four waves of recruitment, carefully schematizing probable causes for radicalization. According to the Times, most men arrived in the territorial U.S. as “young refugees” and left as “young recruits”; their transitions from productive suburbanites to potential terrorists are marked by gradual hardship and increasing militancy, climaxing at the point of return. These narratives double as obituaries: Memorializing men not yet confirmed dead, together they assuage the anxieties of an alienation pulsing within the nation.

Shirwa Ahmed is among the first wave of Somali-American men suspected to have joined al-Shabaab. His biography, assembled by the Times, invokes an ornamental nostalgia, a longing for the texture of small familiarities:

Shirwa Ahmed, 26, had come to America as a young boy, surfacing first in Portland in 1994 and then Minneapolis, where he graduated from Roosevelt High School in 2000. For a time he worked pushing airline passengers in wheel chairs and took classes at several local community colleges. By 2003, he was becoming increasingly religious. He drove a beat-up Toyota, delivering packages for a medical supplies company, one friend recalled, and in his spare time offered food and counsel to drunken Somali boys near the Towers, a collection of apartment buildings in South Minneapolis where many Somalis live. “He wanted to bring them back to the culture,” one friend said. Mr. Ahmed left at the end of 2007 and never returned.

Shirwa Ahmed’s absence is materialized through a series of lists. Ahmed acted as an agent, and the direct objects of his actions are quintessentially American: “airline passengers in wheel chairs,” “a beat up Toyota,” “food and counsel.” His agential world, in other words, is populated by objects both tangible and familiar, small fetishes through which American readers might fashion a nostalgia for the ordinary. The loss lamented, in turn, becomes eerily material, as if Ahmed’s absence can be measured by the packages he accumulated, carried, and delivered.

Parallel to these roving objects is Ahmed’s own movement. His physical and ideological migration is described through a grammar of obfuscation: Ahmed “had come” to America, “surfacing” first in Portland; he “was becoming” increasingly religious. These moments of transition, in turn—moving to a new country after facing political persecution, seeking faith—remain in a state of perpetual continuity. Ahmed’s transformation—he “had come,” “was becoming”—is rendered peripheral, a narrative strain that heralds what readers are meant to consider the greater loss: the gradual demise of American boyhood.

Ahmed is gone, but neither he nor his traumas are mourned. This biography—performing the rites of death—recovers only the bits of him that are tangibly familiar and supposedly shared: growing up in the suburbs, giving back to the community. Ahmed’s final movement home is presumed to be without rhyme or reason, the unfortunate misstep of a Somali-American man tethered to his terroristic roots.

EDGED into the pipeline and memorialized upon their departure, these twenty three men are presented by the media as images of diasporic prosperity. Ahmed Ali Omar, also in the first wave, was an “emergency medical technician who worked for an ambulance service”; Abdisalan Ali “pursued a premed track at the University of Minnesota.” Working with the sick is taken to be a signifier of physical and emotional well-being. These short narratives of healthy integration, however, are countered by subsequent accounts of criminalization.

Pre-adoption, Zakaria Maruf joined a rhythm and blues band that performed at Somali weddings. Some years later, the group, Hot Boyz, transformed into a “violent street gang.” Mahamoud Hasan, in the second wave of recruits, was “one of the few Somali boys from his class to make it to college.” He later became known as Snake and joined a gang; in 2007 he witnessed the shooting of another young Somali man. Acts of aggression committed within the territorial U.S. are made available for public viewing (the Times published Maruf’s criminal record alongside his biography), and are presumed to indicate a movement toward deviance beyond discipline. Criminalization anticipates radicalization: Maruf’s “hot temper” and criminal charges (all non-violent driving offenses), are described by the Times as indicators of a propensity for terrorism.

U.S. law enforcement tracks and neutralizes threats within its jurisdiction, but that which extends beyond is unknown: Maruf left for Somalia in the spring of 2008, but officials “can’t understand half of the anger he had” because they “don’t understand his background…things he went through to make him the person he was. ”Although these young men are refugees and the sons of refugees, the stories of their migrations to the United States go untold. Displacement, in turn, is figured as that which happens after passing back across U.S. borders to a half-forgotten homeland. Returning to an origin causes perverse alienation. Reterritorialization away from the U.S.—a site of supposed refuge—marks an intensification of pathology through a redoubling of displacement. These young men travel home, call back to America and sound, paradoxically, “homesick.” They complain “about the food situation over there”: MPR reports that one man said “he’d do anything to get a fast-food restaurant, like a McDonald’s. Or a Frappuccino.” Another “was caffeine addicted… he just had headaches all the time and he wanted to get a Starbucks.”

Traveling to Somalia is figured as a movement toward madness. The diasporic refuge, bounded by American borders, is the only safe space. But although “home” for refugees and political asylees often signifies trauma, so too is it a site of potent affiliation—a reminder of family and friends, a sense of belonging not altogether lost. When the FBI asked Samiya Ahmed, a Minneapolis resident and friend of Zakaria Maruf, if she was thinking of going back to Somalia, she “hesitated on that question like [she] was afraid, as if it was a crime on answering that question.” Somalia is “a shock to their systems”; it is considered to be the terror itself.

IN SEPTEMBER 2014, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice would be partnering with the White House, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center to launch a series of counter-terrorism “pilot programs” in Boston, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles, slated to begin in early 2015. “Today, few threats are more urgent than the threat posed by violent extremism,” Holder stated in the FBI video-press release. “We have engaged in extensive outreach to communities here in the U.S. We can work with them to identify threats before they emerge, to disrupt homegrown terrorists, and to apprehend would-be violent extremists. But we can—and we must—do even more.”

According to Holder, these pilot programs are meant to rejuvenate systems of security that are not, currently, doing enough. But when the tools of “enforcement” are racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia, “doing even more” sounds like a threat, the intensification of a destructive program already underway.

The agenda of these pilot programs is vague, depending on a tired logic of “community outreach” that law enforcement neglects to describe with any precision. “These programs will bring together community representatives, public safety officials, religious leaders, and United States Attorneys to improve local engagement,” announced Holder. “…We will work closely with community representatives to develop comprehensive local strategies [and] to share information on best practices.”

These “outreach” efforts glorify working “closely” and “shar[ing] information,” tactics of surveillance are usually coercive and often non-consensual. State sponsored “partnerships,” couched in neo-liberal ideals of peaceful cohabitation, do more to conceal networks of policing than they do to build resilient communities. Historically, such “partner-making” strains trust: security officials and prosecutors are often the only representatives the government sends to facilitate such “engagement,” creating confusion as to whether Somali-Americans are seen as partners or suspects.

It is difficult to discern what, exactly, is new or experimental about these pilot programs. In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security announced an analogous “outreach” effort; they subsequently sent an envoy to Boston to teach Muslim community groups how to better recognize extremist behavior, as well as how to report such behavior to the police. Similarly, following the wave of al-Shabaab recruitment in 2009, FBI headquarters directed officials in five cites to launch a series of pseudo-ethnographic investigations into Somali-American communities. According to an internal document obtained by the Brennan Center through a Freedom of Information Act request, FBI officials were told to conduct investigative activities under the guise of “community outreach.” A 2008 FBI counterterrorism textbook instructs agents to “quantitively gauge” a Muslim’s proclivity for militancy by asking a series of questions about his or her political and religious beliefs.

According to U.S. Attorney Andy Luger, these new programs are not like the others, for they “have nothing to do with surveillance and investigations.” They are more about winning the trust of Somali-American kids while “play[ing] soccer and other sports.” Intelligence gathering is shifted away from government offices to be played out “on a soccer field, in a swimming pool, in a bowling alley.”

The language of “partnership” and the metaphor it immediately invokes—namely, that everyone is playing on the same team—obscure the surreptitious warning that lurks beneath: soccer fields and swimming pools are the new battlefields; the home front is also a theater of war. Earlier this year, the Brennan Center uncovered a grant proposal by the St. Paul Police Department to the Department of Justice, suggesting that an “outreach” team of officers assemble a list of “radicalized” individuals in the Somali-American community. St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith denies his staff ever submitted such proposal. “There wasn’t a database,” he said. “There isn’t a database.”

LIKE Bubs and RS, Abdirahman Yusuf—director and founder of the Somali Development Center (SDC) in Boston—says a habitual prayer. From his office or from his home, he watches CBS or NBC nightly for local news. Each time the anchor announces a robbery or murder, Abdirahman “secretly” prays, whispering, “I hope the aggressor is white.” Abdirahman prays to evade discrimination: “We’re all targets,” he told me. “Whenever something gets blown up, it immediately affects us in a direct way.”

Despite the many “partnerships” forged between law enforcement and Somali-American communities, the organizing done through the Somali Development Center is continually surveilled. Abdirahman’s office phone is bugged, and his clients—mostly refugees, political asylees, and newly naturalized citizens—are regularly detained for questioning at ports of entry. Some have follow-up interviews at the SDC upon their release: “they tell the agencies—not just the FBI, [also] the joint terrorism task force, state police—that they would like to be at the Somali Development Center and for me to be present as they are asked these questions. Because they don’t want to make any mistakes.”

When a particularly large number of his clients were being interrogated by the FBI, Abdirahman took a few of these cases to his state representative in Congress to intervene. His congressional aide gave him some advice: “Tell your clients to give their children Somali names. That will make life easier. Because when you have a name like Mohammed, they become similar to the million in the database that are being looked at.”

Maintaining a diasporic home whose borders are traversed without interrogation requires passing. Disavowing inheritance—giving up one’s name, itself a kind of origin—is a personal choice congressionally advised and federally rewarded. Abdirahman’s formal complaint is met with casual advice: avoid networks of racism and Islamophobia by becoming unidirectionally diasporic; tether yourself to an origin that can be circumscribed, whose threads of affiliation loop seamlessly from Somalia to the U.S., and never become entangled with Islam.

The “database” mentioned by Abdirahman and denied by Police Chief Tom Smith is really a compound of databases: timelines, biographies, public records and criminal reports compiled by the FBI, the State Department, and DHS, selectively replicated and made public by popular media. The names to watch out for proliferate, but so too are they being refined and redefined—through their fetishes (a worn Toyota, a Big Mac forgone), and also, Abdirahman told me, through their taxonomic roots.

The FBI and security people are learning all about us and things they never knew. They know now that if you are finding a Somali person and you need to know who he is, you need to know his clan, sub-clan, and sub-sub-clan. Some of us tried to hide that but obviously you can’t hide anything. It’s our social security number. In our religion it says that we created these tribes to know each other.

Sources of mutual identification—being from one clan, meeting someone from another, finding a nexus of interconnection—in the hands of the state become determinants of absolute difference. Law enforcement now knows people by their tribe, by their village, but even so, “more” must be done: more envoys sent, more suspects named, more soccer fields swept for their radicalized players. The FBI’s theory, Abdirahman surmises, is that “no matter how well they know you, maybe there’s that one quote they missed.”

IN JUNE OF THIS YEAR, the U.S. State Department released the Executive Summary of the Country Reports on Terrorism. Produced annually, the report provides an overview of terrorist activity across global regions. According to the Report, 2014 marked an increase in both lone offender and violent extremism, a web of terror potentiated by permeable borders. In Niger, porous borders “make it easy for terrorists to transfer large sums of cash”; in Somalia, al-Shabaab members use porosity as a means of “conducting training and terrorist planning.”

The imagined danger of Somali refugees is that they are always becoming agents of terror, transforming as they cross the borders of the American nation-state. Donna Haraway writes that porous bodies are “always holding the potential of hybridizing across fantastical human/alien boundaries…the porous form is contrasted to the impenetrable culture of singularity and individualism typically found in the postwar West.” In the eyes of the state, Somali refugees—by virtue of their migratory positions—are capable of crossing not only the borders that divide a site of trauma from one of refuge, but also those that sequester the sane from the pathological, the natural from the alien.

“Unalienable rights,” the extension of sovereignty from state to individual, are the promise of independence. In order to attain such rights, refugees—technically “alien” by law—depend upon U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security whose primary responsibility is not to provide rights or refuge, but to protect the U.S. from potential terror attacks. The tenet of naturalization is access to an individualism afforded to all Americans, but the organizations meant to provide such access are also the ones who guard it.

Mechanisms of national security protect sovereignty, but so too do they do the work of selective disintegration, determining who is allowed to become “singular” or “individual” by accentuating the porosity of migratory bodies under surveillance. Policing, like networks of recruitment, relies on isolation, indoctrination, and control. Tapping into a phone line and compiling a covert database necessarily demand that borders be permeable when probed by the state apparatus. Abdirahman’s calls are no longer private; Zakaria Maruf belongs to Bubs and RS. Surveillance, in turn, reveals itself not only as a regulatory system that produces a set of subjects, but also as the process by which their subjectivity is rendered null. This is the very function of police and border regimes in a “democratic” state: to determine shades of sovereignty, protecting the unalienable humanity of some by authorizing the dehumanization of others. A “culture of singularity and individualism” is only impenetrable when viewed from the perspective of those it counts as natural subjects. For those whose naturalization is on the brink of being revoked, impenetrability is a myth of privacy long lost

In the Country Reports on Terrorism, the State Department describes porosity as that which breeds villainy. But the organizations it counts as partners—the FBI, White House, and Homeland Security, among others—demand that individuals who are black, Muslim, and Somali accept porosity in the name of American nationalism. “Partnerships”—the invasion of migratory black bodies, their workplaces, their homes—are forged to secure an image of nation and nationality that prides itself on sovereignty. This violence is neither silent nor surreptitious; it is an endemic terror, one that persists because it masquerades as safety for all.

IN FEBRUARY OF NEXT YEAR, nineteen year-old Hamza Ahmed is scheduled to stand trial for conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). On November 4, 2014, Ahmed was detained at John F. Kennedy Airport; FBI agents pulled him off his plane just minutes before it was scheduled to depart for Turkey. He was interrogated along with three other men, all Somali-American, refugees and the sons of refugees. FBI officials suspect the group took a bus from Minnesota to New York, where they were to depart for Europe, and arrive, eventually, in Syria. Ahmed told the FBI that he didn’t know these three other men—that he hadn’t traveled with them on the bus, that he had no ties to them back in Minnesota. On February 4, 2015, Ahmed was arrested for making false statements.

Law enforcement warns that Ahmed’s case reveals a troubling interconnection between terrorism abroad and recruitment efforts at home. Since June 2014, fifteen Somali-American men are suspected to have left Minnesota to join ISIL in Syria, reopening a gauge that was presumed closed. Upon announcing Ahmed’s indictment, U.S. Attorney Luger recalled that “Since 2007, dozens of people from the Twin Cities have traveled or attempted to travel overseas in support of terror. While my office will continue to prosecute those who attempt to provide material support to ISIL or any other terrorist organization, we remain committed to working with dedicated community members to bring this cycle to an end.”

As Hamza Ahmed awaits trial, the F.B.I. continues to investigate just how he and his six acquaintances linked up with ISIL. According to Luger, recruitment was a “peer-to-peer operation.” The Times reports that discussions of the Islamic State “took place during pickup basketball games and visits to the mall.”

When “investigation” and “outreach” happen on the same basketball courts and soccer fields, it’s difficult to imagine that the two don’t intersect. “Winning the trust of Somali-American kids” and quantifying their potential for terrorism cannot happen simultaneously. ISIL is reportedly “taking a page from al-Shabaab’s playbook,” and in order to curb further movement through the pipeline, the FBI is adopting predictive policing tactics reliant on racial profiling. These potential terrorists, after all, are created in the image of the black criminal: according to the Times, “like gang members or corner drug dealers, the recruiting largely relied on friendship networks and the thrill of a dangerous mission.”

The policing of black Americans—and the gang members, drug dealers, and terrorists they are presumed to become—relies upon the assumption that violence originates in a particular race, religion, or nationality. Joining a politics of security with one of transnational black solidarity, we might begin to resist not only the violence wreaked by “terror,” but also by the racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia that have been magnified in its name.


Coal Comfort


Understanding capitalism’s use of fossil fuels to control labor puts us in a better position to fight it

“HOW did we get caught up in this mess?” asks Andreas Malm, a historian at Sweden’s Lund University, getting quickly to the crux of it in the opening pages of his forthcoming Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. The subtitle captures the gist of the problem and his answer, one common-sense enough to any assorted number of observers: this mess—the climate crisis—began with fossil fuels. Malm doesn’t waste time staking out the more specific space of his inquiry. By the end of the brisk eighteen-page intro, a reader has in hand Malm’s starting assumptions, central terms of inquiry, general methodologies, and broad-stroke understanding of timeline and stakes. In sum: we need history if we are to respond to the climate crisis with a clear-eyed sense of obstacles and stakes. We need to be able to account for the most foundational ways in which today’s weather “is [the] product of yesterday’s emissions.” “This tempest is eminently temporal,” he writes; and thus primed, off we go.

Central to this history is the emergence of the fossil economy, “an economy of self-sustaining growth predicated on the growing consumption of fossil fuels.” By now this describes most economies, of course, and global capital is working hard to strong-arm those it doesn’t into the fold; the backdrop of the climate crisis is an economic momentum that will burn increasing amounts of fossil fuels if left to its own devices. Fossil Capital argues that this dependence was born in the particularities with which 19th century Britain switched out water power in favor of coal and steam; not, as other histories would have it, the first moment a human struck two stones together to make fire, nor during any of the many previous historical periods of subsistence-level coal and oil use, nor as a magical simultaneity to the eighteenth-century invention of the steam engine. A materialist, Malm opposes any history that treats the rise of fossil fuels as natural or inevitable. His account is about labor and the contingencies that allowed fossil fuels to emerge as an indispensable tool in capital’s struggles to control it. In one of the book’s most evocative asides, Malm points out that though the English word power describes both energy currents and hierarchical structures between people, there’s no similar drift in French, Spanish, or German, the languages of other centers of capitalist development. “Why” he asks, “did the two poles collapse into one in English?”


THOUGH the steam engine is often treated as a straightforward metonym for the Industrial Revolution, Malm argues that its adoption was far from given. It entered into a British economic landscape already being remade by factories and mechanization. Water-powered cotton mills were driving down the time and cost of textile production, generating unheard-of profits, and owners were investing those profits back into mills, stoking further cycles of mechanization and growth. Malm doesn’t analyze the ways colonialism intersected with British industrialization, but it’s the obvious background to this moment: the cotton boom was being underwritten with the land, bodies, labor, and raw materials stolen through colonialist expansion and the slave trade.

In the years following the 1784 patenting of the steam engine, James Watt and his business partner, Matthew Boulton, targeted the increasingly powerful mill owners, knowing their approval would be crucial to the machine’s success. But they didn’t approve, at least not at first. Most of the engine’s first adopters found it decidedly inferior to water power. Steam engines required frequent repair, sometimes exploded, and had an unreliable lifespan; waterwheel technology was time-tested, and a good iron wheel might last one hundred years. Coal “vomit[ed] forth smoke, polluting earth and air for miles around,” in the words of one engineer; water didn’t. And most importantly, water was free whereas coal was expensive. Watt and Boulton themselves kept waterwheels at their business ventures well into the nineteenth century, epitomizing the general trend. For years, mill owners stayed uninterested in steam.

By 1825, their disinterest began to wane. That year the Combination Laws, which outlawed strikes and unions, were repealed. Workers responded with a fierce series of uprisings, including Lancashire’s in 1826, the Swing Riots of 1830, the South Wales rebellion of 1831, 1831–32’s Reform Crisis, 1832–34’s sustained unionism, and the Chartist push from 1838–42. “The [working] population…is hourly increasing in strength and breadth,” reported journalist William Cooke Taylor. “There are mighty energies slumbering in those masses.” The year 1825 also saw the first in a crippling run of panic-recession cycles (set off in part by overproduction in cotton, aided by easy credit and financial speculation) that lasted into the late ’40s. Beset by increasingly militant worker demands as profits plummeted, British industry spent those two decades perpetually terrified.

Cotton was no exception. Spinners sat in a particular position of strength: In 1825, the job was highly skilled and an excellent chokepoint for disruptive work stoppages. Even weavers, who by and large worked from their homes and were too fragmented a force to really organize, became a headache. Far from the surveillance of a factory, they delivered cloth late and pinched thread to sell on the black market to supplement their bare wages. What ten years before was a nuisance became, in an era of economic depression, an intolerable drain on an owner’s resources.

So those owners turned to mechanical solutions to help control workers and rescue profits, and it was amidst this pushback that steam power took irrevocable hold. Again, though, this round of mechanization needn’t have implied a turn to coal. Since the late 1700s, mill owners had made continual improvements to waterpower technologies (multiple-wheel set-ups, new techniques for building aqueducts and reservoirs, self-regulating sluices); by the 1830s (the years coal first accounted for a majority of Britain’s energy usage), engineers were finding further ways to maximize those technologies through planned communities and resource-sharing arrangements, and government and private backers were funding the experiments at high-profile test sites—including, poetically, James Watts’ hometown.

The choice between steam and water power was made, crucially, as cotton barons also weighed the relative benefits of urban and rural factories. That decision proved less simple than it might seem, too. On one level, rural spaces insulated owners from growing labor unrest; workforces were isolated, and the damage when they rebelled more contained. But those workforces were also less expendable than in cities, where owners had large labor pools to draw from. And the incentives rural mill owners devised to retain workers—nice houses, cows and gardens, schools—meant they had more sunk capital than urban owners. When workers went on strikes that broke machines, shattered windows, or damaged roads, rural operators bore the entire cost. Such costs made water power more and more untenable.

As industry gravitated towards urban set-ups, coal allowed capitalists to remake space to even better suit their needs. They could throw up dense clusters of factories that didn’t need to be located along prime stretches of river. Coal further maintained its edge as swelling unions forced labor law reforms that included a ten-hour workday. Water-powered mills were at the mercy of irregular flows that could stop production for hours. Traditionally workers were forced to make up the time later that night or on another day; this practice became illegal under the new laws, which specified exactly when workdays could start and end. Coal could be counted upon to produce a steady stream of energy, and its intensity was more manipulable, allowing owners to maintain (and raise) production rates within the shortened workday. In this way, Malm argues, coal gave capital an unprecedented ability to remake not only space, but time according to its needs—and in the process became an inextricable part of the way it grows. Power became dual: Power became capital’s ability to leverage fossil fuels to manage unruly workers while constantly seeking out new profit; power became fossil capital.


FOSSIL Capital spends 330 of its 400 ­pages documenting Britain’s emergence as a fossil economy, its thesis being that this is the first step in understanding today’s spiraling cycles of growth and emissions. And fair enough: in the 1830s, as coal was becoming irrevocably tied to British capitalist expansion, Britain emitted eighty percent of the world’s carbon. But a lot happened to allow for British hegemony, and a lot has happened since then. Other countries—most notable to the history of climate change, the United States—developed their own fossil economies as coal changed the face of naval warfare and became intertwined with imperialist projects. Later, the physicalities of oil extraction proved better for managing workers and sparked a capitalist war to control global oil supplies that enlisted Western governments and militaries while setting the template for the “development” of other states, and more recently, new fracking techniques unleashed a natural gas boom that has further expanded and complicated global fossil economics. Half of CO2 emissions between 1751–2010 were produced after 1986 in an exponential growth spiral that saw post-2000 emissions triple those from the 1990s; this took place, furthermore, in an era of hyper-mobile capital far beyond the scope of anything nineteenth-century British capitalists might have dreamed. Fossil Capital doesn’t promise a comprehensive history of fossil fuels, nor of the evolution of global capitalism, but it does promise a theory of fossil capital that can be applied beyond the nineteenth-century British context. To that end, Malm spends 35 of his last 70 pages sketching some key dynamics connected to the emergence of China’s fossil economy.

The choice of example is obviously not random. China became the world’s top extractor of fossil fuels and the top carbon emitter in 2004 and 2006 respectively. During those years, some researchers estimate that nearly half China’s emissions were linked to manufactured exports, the majority of which were being traded in the West. Many of the ensuing debates about who should be held responsible for such “emissions embodied in trade” (EETs) have focused on consumption in an approach that, in Malm’s words,

view[s]…the Western consumer as an absolute sovereign who sends CO2 packing to other parts of the world, presumably by standing in front of shelves and picking cheap Chinese commodities rather than expensive domestic ones, the owners of the means of production being passive, neutral, and out of sight.

Malm takes particular issue with the approach when it fails to differentiate between the lifestyles, habits, and array of consumption options afforded rich and working-class consumers. Against this mode of analysis, he attempts to trace the machinations of fossil capital in China.

Globalized fossil capital is first and foremost defined by the ability to move across national borders at will to find what it needs. In industry—the sector is still percentage-wise most responsible for worldwide carbon pollution and, accordingly, Malm’s focus throughout—that means cheap, pliable workforces and reliable access to fossil fuels plus the infrastructure to find, transport, and process them. China joined the WTO and removed most of its remaining barriers to foreign investment in 2001. Around the same time, the Chinese government deregulated coalmines and invested heavily in transmission lines and transportation to the coastal cities where foreign factories liked to set up shop; by 2007, it began importing huge amounts of coal and oil to keep up with demand. It also put down nascent unionism among workers streaming from rural areas into the industrializing cities. Transnational corporations (TNCs) promptly flocked there, sparked competition between Chinese cities to build bigger and better infrastructural incentives, and soon accounted for somewhere between fifty and seventy percent of the export economy helping drive the emissions spike. In short, Malm asserts, China became the world’s biggest carbon emitter just as “globally mobile capital seized upon it as its workshop.”

It’s worth taking a moment to underline the dynamics at work in a scenario like this. Malm breaks the process into three phases: expansion, intensity, and integration. Expansion is any initial investment undertaken to build up energy grids, usually undertaken by state governments under pressure from TNCs that can easily take their capital elsewhere. Intensity refers to the fact that the nations with the most attractive workforces—i.e. poor countries—generally have less efficient energy grids, because their tax base limits what they can buy and build; hence foreign companies that follow cheap labor into poor countries generally increase emissions even if their production rates stay the same. And integration describes emissions related to the construction and operation of the trains, buses, trucks, planes, and cargo ships used to shuttle people and goods back and forth between various homes, factories, logistics hubs, and stores; not to mention the necessary highways, rails, airports, and so on.

These cycles tend to get locked into feedback loops that only deepen capital’s reliance on fossil fuels. And when labor mucks up those cycles, as it still sometimes manages to do, the workarounds generally involve more fossil fuels. When Chinese workers erupted in massive countrywide strikes in 2010, TNCs began looking to move their Chinese operations elsewhere. Many did, feeding emission cycles in these new labor markets. Others found that they’d developed carbon-intensive habits that couldn’t be quickly accommodated by more rudimentary energy grids. Slowed in their departures from China, they turned to robotics and new waves of mechanization, to similar and predictable effect: yet more emissions. Meanwhile, mainstream climate politics can’t find the courage to link carbon to capitalist growth, and hyper-mobile owners of the means of production stay passive, neutral, and out of sight.


“CAPITAL is not being endowed with a will and a mind, a cabal, an almighty conspiracy,” writes Malm. “It is a blind process of self-expansion…More often than not, the products are unintended.” Many experts in mitigation scenarios believe there’s still a window to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, albeit a very, very narrow one, in which a full transition to renewable energy would need to be reached in a matter of decades. The technology is available. The first and biggest obstacles to such a transition are the vested interests of fossil capital. Those interests grow physically and logistically more entrenched every day and are all the more dangerous for being ad-hoc. If it’s most profitable to manage workers across fragmented supply chains full of carbon-intensive redundancies, that’s what fossil capital will keep doing.

In Malm’s words, the timeline of the climate crisis both “compels revolutionaries to be a little pragmatic” and “obliges others to ponder revolutionary measures.” There isn’t time to build a world socialist order before tackling emissions, but there isn’t time to fritter away hoping market solutions will work, either—leaving, realistically, government planning to drag capitalists through a renewable transition. A successful planning agenda would need to be massive and comprehensive in a manner historically unprecedented save for World War II. It would have to (just for instance) maintain or take back public control of energy grids, end fossil fuel subsidies, set new taxes, establish public investment banks, direct research efforts, issue contracts, create jobs programs, build infrastructure that bundles power sources to create more reliable energy flows, sequester global fossil stock, regulate the financial industry, and set sharp emission reduction targets that acknowledge differential historical responsibility for climate change and actually get met. Most governmental bodies haven’t shown anything close to the political will necessary to do any of this; most are still actively abetting fossil capital’s continued expansion.

The ghost haunting this discussion, of course, is resistance. Malm acknowledges that no transition will materialize unless people force the political will for a renewable transition into being, but he leaves the specifics of how that fight should look to other critics. For inspiration, he raises the memory of the Plug Plot Riots, a fierce wave of 1842 work stoppages whose central act of sabotage was pulling out steam engines’ plugs to drain their water and halt production. “What is needed today, if not some global version of the Plug Plot Riots? Go and stop the smoke!” By his own analysis, though, “recent decades of globalization have…caused a structural debilitation of labor.” The 2010 Chinese work stoppages involved thousands of workers, resulted in wage hikes, and cost the companies involved a lot of money; they were effective, for a time. But fossil capital has better workarounds than it used to, and TNCs in China and elsewhere are busily enacting theirs as carbon-wastefully as is necessary to keep extending profits. In such a landscape, labor won’t do it alone. It will need to be joined by people hitting fossil capital on all fronts—through Blockadia-style direct actions; legal invocations of indigenous treaty rights; economic, racial, and gender justice work; divestment advocacy; fights to keep energy grids public; campaign finance reform pushes; fracktivism; etc—while articulating concrete platforms for a transition and pressuring governments to adopt them. The Canadian Leap Manifesto, for one example, lays out a full transition agenda that begins in indigenous communities and in those most devastated by fossil capital’s environmental destruction, and ends, through a program of wealth redistribution and infrastructural investment, with a carbon-free Canada by 2050.

To be sure, capital has workarounds for activists as well. In one high-profile example, Malm reports that though Keystone resistance has dragged the pipeline project out well past its planned rollout date, its investors have been quietly constructing a network of pipelines to snake from Alberta to each of the Canadian coasts to ensure tar-sands oil gets to market. It’s easy for resistance to seem pointless, fossil fuels inevitable, the future an unavoidable apocalypse. But that will be for later historians to decide for certain. In another evocative bit of etymology towards the end of Fossil Capital, Malm notes that apokalyptein, the Greek source for the English apocalypse, means to lift a veil. That strikes me as the only real option in the face of climate crisis: to keep resisting while keeping our eyes trained on the fossil capital that’s put us here, making sure it does anything but stay passive, neutral, and out of sight



Settled History


Tourist attractions in contested settlements use local history to project Israeli nationalism into the future

HISTORY makes for good drama. Considering the expansive output of nationalist-driven television and film—from the movies of the Weimar Republic to Zero Dark Thirty—the power of historical re-­creation to evoke emotional attachment to national identity is self-­evident. But historical recreation projects go well beyond simply visual media. Israel, as a relatively new member in the collective of nation-states, is eager to bolster not only its legitimacy but a uniting national historical narrative, and so produces historical dramas both within and outside of traditional entertainment arenas. Though Israel has a range of mass-media hasbara (“public diplomacy”), it also ­harnesses support for its contemporary settler projects through new museums and “immersive” tourist experiences. All of these techniques of historical narrative production aid the internalization of state narratives, both for Israelis and international tourists.

Israel’s recent boom in tourism, both domestic and from abroad, has resulted in the redevelopment of its sites and infrastructure. In the search for new tourist itineraries, places of intense political conflict, such as residential settler colonies, have emerged as “off-the-beaten-path” holiday destinations, offering winery tours, boutique desert excursions, dig-your-own archaeology sites, and outdoor adventures. Alongside these perks, visitors are encouraged to spend time at the local kibbutz (collective farm), meet with religious leaders, and stop by the visitors’ center, which often includes a site-specific museum outlining local history.

Archaeological digs and artifacts have long been used as empirical evidence for a Jewish history in the Land of Israel. In Israel’s natal stage, archaeological relics from the period of Hebrew rule served to support the concept of a return to the land and to offset claims of a growing settler-colonial state. Today, digs, and the infrastructure that accompanies them, act as stakes-in-the-ground in Israel’s continuing expansion and whitewash creeping settler projects with the guise of historical science. However, as settlement activity is contested even in many political Zionist circles, these settlements, with their less well-­established political and territorial claims, need more than just ancient history. So the Hebraic past takes a backseat to more modern, local stories.

A crop of new museums and tourist exhibits in these settlements aim to support the need for, and the future of, a (militarized, expanding) Jewish state. Rather than displaying the local findings of Hebrew archaeology, these regional museums focus on the visitor’s multisensory experience through short historic melodrama and site-specific experiences designed to highlight the settlements’ symbolic histories as they align with the discourses of state history.

Gush Etzion, a settlement bloc sandwiched between Jerusalem and Hebron, is home to a recent history full of nationalist aspirations and colonizing battles. First settled in the 1920s, these plots of land caught the interest of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in 1943 following two decades of small scale settlement. In the following years, four kibbutzim would join in confederacy with the mission of increasing Jewish presence south of Jerusalem, calling themselves Kfar Etzion. (Poststate, the settlement would absorb nearby locales, taking on the name Gush, or bloc.) Attempting to cultivate arid land outside the confines of the city, Etzion’s first residents imagined themselves as Zionism’s pioneers, gatekeepers of the southern frontier of Judaism’s ultimate city. Following the 1947 UN resolution on the partition of Palestine, Jewish military forces and settlers in Kfar Etzion staved off westward advancement of the Jordanian Legion for six months. Considering its strategic geography, the Jewish paramilitary Haganah chose to evacuate only women and children, relying on the settlement’s strategic location to secure a Jewish presence in the region, should the partition hold. Coming under constant attack, military caravan contact with the Kfar was eventually completely severed, forcing the settlers to surrender on May 13, 1948—one day before the creation of the State of Israel.

Following the 1967 war and the subsequent occupation of the West Bank, the children evacuated in 1948—many of whom had lost a parent or been orphaned by the killing of over 300 kibbutzniks when the settlement was captured by the Jordanian Legion—petitioned the Israeli government to support their efforts in returning to the Etzion territory, thus becoming the first settlement east of Jerusalem.

Now, nearly seventy years later, Gush Etzion is attempting to transform that violent history into a tourist attraction. In the midst of a full renovation and rebuilding, Gush Etzion’s visitor center will, on reopening, be what anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj dubs a “museum without images.” Such a museum, El-Haj argues, relies not on the relics of artifacts it hosts, but on forming a visceral connection with visitors through temporal recreations, personal narratives, and opportunities to virtually place one’s self in the ostensible experiences of historical actors.

A visitor’s journey to the JNF-supported museum will be a sojourn through the history of the Gush at battle. One will wander through the center’s three halls, each offering a separate architectural and multimedia method of experiencing the narratives of the fallen settlers. As described on the project’s website, visitors will, in the first hall, hear individual stories of those who lived through the Gush’s final seizure, including personal narrations—listened to through individual headphones, as if the story is retold personally for each individual—of the events leading to Israeli statehood. Tourists will next move through a subterranean trench, reconstructed to simulate those used by Gush Etzion’s defenders against the Jordanian Legion, en route to a theater where a film—based on the letters that those who stayed to defend the settlement wrote to their evacuated families—will provide a sense of drama and emotional immediacy. Guests will next view a short film about the post-’67 returnees—descendants of the Gush’s original residents—from within the (rebuilt) bunker in which the fallen soldiers hid. A final station will illustrate the contemporary achievements of the settlement and offer opportunities for purchasing locally made goods.

Considering their audience’s appetite for historical drama, the museum’s highlight is the JNF-created eulogy to the “heroic” men and women of Gush Etzion’s past: the aforementioned film detailing the letters of those who stayed to fight. A trailer released on the JNF’s project website views much like a Hollywood preview, complete with lofty production techniques and an increasing dramatic appeal and sympathy for the plight of the settlers who “refuse to be refugees again,” with no mention, of course, made to the looming refugee crisis. (While settlements like Gush Etzion encourage further support and settlement, Palestinians continue to be displaced. In addition to refusing Palestinians expelled from the country the right of return, the Israeli government refuses shelter to an ever-growing body of Syrians uprooted by civil war.) 

Bridging generational gaps, the trailer ends with the returnee children—courageously carrying on their parents’ pioneering spirit—asking one another if, as they know the “end of the story” (presumably statehood and a posited return to the Gush; less obviously racial and military supremacy), don’t they “want to know how it started?” The short film’s characters, in their persistence despite environmental and political odds—not to mention their eagerness to return—weave a pioneer, colonialist attitude. The film streamlines a continued sense of frontier guardianship both past and present, and aligns the Gush’s future with Israeli national agenda.

Though the visitor’s center remains unfinished, the work it will do connecting emotional accounts of the ’48 battles with a reenactment of the Jewish pioneer experience is already apparent. Important, too, is the overall structure in which all exhibits will be housed: melding concrete and bunkerlike features with a modernist and sleek glass-panelled entrance hall, the architecture serves to connect Gush Etzion’s pioneer history with its contemporary image as a site of both Israeli innovation and frontier defense. Dedicated to a resident killed in army drills in the occupied Golan Heights in 2009, the center streamlines the past and present by guiding visitors through historical stories and reenactments before providing the chance for guests to purchase luxury products, drink Israeli wines and coffee, and appreciate the settlement as is stands today.

Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian land—and the subsequent resistance against land appropriation and entrenched systems of apartheid—furthers the image of settlements like the Gush as frontline defenders of the state. Encouraged by the pull of “war tourism,” visitors draw excitement from the apparent constant threat of terror, and often see their itinerary as a defiant stand against not only Palestinian resistance but also Israeli voices calling for a withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. 

An understanding of Israel and its position in the greater Jewish world is often posited as incomplete without having visited. Through excursions such as Birthright and organized tours providing travel opportunities to diasporic Jews, projects like Gush Etzion’s museum attempt to animate a nationalist future by an ideological reenactment of the recent past. If Israel’s right to existence has been buttressed by archaeological site visits, an enlivened, “immersive” local history becomes a tool for a continued statecraft that transcends borders.