Newsletter #10: The Fugitive World

Like the chemical fouling of its aquifers, the enriching of its long-buried defense-related minerals, and the “surveillance”—but we should understand all those fingerprint scanners and census-takers as part of a far more bloated, pervading gnosis—of its citizens, the enclosure of peripheries and hinterlands has always been an inalienable right of nations. Once they are sufficiently kitted out with the technological and financial jackhammers of development, states can finally achieve the long-held dream of assimilating high-friction hills, mountains, islands, and waterways into a single smoothly paved regime. This tends to involve the tidy classification of perceived minorities into politically neutered ethnic groups; the orderly naming of streets, towns, and gods; the sedenterizing of nomads and drifters; and the grinding down of all the pre-state pluralistic spurs over which anthropologists like to fawn—cultural practices, languages, and subsistence (as well as all other illegibly private) lifestyles—into the pulplessness of national identity.

All this to erect a political economy so worshipful of growth and the consumption of nature it could be called Bunyanism, in thrall to a global market system that has carried our planet to the maw of hell. It almost seems like the point. Why bother cultivating one’s rights as the legitimate purveyor of violence within an orbit of other likeminded tyrants if not for a smash apocalyptic show?

The spread of majoritarian culture, law, and language from a state’s core to the distant hem of sovereignty’s skirt has long ago homogenized the lives, if not the minds, of most of the potential readers of this sentence. Outside the English-speaking world, there are still pockets of local autonomy: autarchic and fugitive in some cases, parasitic and conciliatory in others, and defeated and mercenary in still other, sadder enclaves. They tend to persist where a state is weak or poor, or else too newly independent to have availed itself of colonial-era genocide-type modernization schemes, such that now, even in the midst of the lucrative process of self-bureaucratization, leaders must gesture meekly—with one eye on UN conventions and the other on extractive industry tenders—toward the rights of the indigenous or tribal, in other words the non-participant, the Other.

So Narendra Modi writes an encomium to Gandhi on the op-ed pages of the New York Times while stripping Assam’s poorest of their citizenship and then employing them in the construction of their own concentration camps—or locking down and brutalizing Kashmir yet again. So the People’s Republic of China cheerfully claims it will extract the virus of backward and Islamic thought from 13 million minority citizens in Xinjiang through a program of torture, forced labor, and the eradication of local languages. World leaders nod along while collecting their bilateral goodies.

I first came across the phrase “internal colonialism” in reference to Thailand, which alone among Southeast Asian countries can boast—and does, endlessly—that it was never formally colonized. Yet the monarchy drew on the lessons of its French- and British-administered neighbors. Thus, in 1976, during popular national uprisings and regional tumult—the Khmer Rouge had taken power in Cambodia, the Burmese military regime was gunning down wildcat strikers and university students—the Thai general Saiyut Koetphon admitted that “avoiding colonization by Europe simply meant that we colonized our own people.” He went on:

This internal colonialism, in which officials appointed from the metropolis rule and drain the countryside like conquered provinces, has led to obvious differences among the Thai.

Differences, indeed. Today, in southern Thailand, zones of historically unfettered complexity bring into contact Malay-speaking Muslims, Chinese or Sino-Thai merchants and businessfolk, Thai Muslims working tin mines and rubber plantations in Phuket, Trang, and Phang-Nga, communities of Sakais—a state-constructed and (condescendingly) -celebrated tribal minority—and Friendship Villages of Communists both reformed and unrepentant. A school is occasionally burned in these regions to protest the forced state education of Muslim children, but there has been no united swell of violence here, only the steady erosion of difference and the extraction of local wealth. The process is repeated across the region’s palm oil plantations and mines, which have all but engulfed the forests and jungles that once cultivated a peaceable variety of cultures.

Internal colonialism is the phenomenon of our age, less obvious and less loudly condemned than the external, globetrotting variety, now slowly becoming defunct because it was expensive and less clever than the varieties of economic imperialism states now have at their disposal. Yes, the U.S. is still bombing pine nut farmers in Afghanistan and fueling the massacre of children in Yemen. But when it comes to the lay of the land and the boots on the ground in much of the world, internal colonialism is how the machinery of development gets oiled. At some point, I realized it was the subject of all my recent writing, the idea that connects the catastrophe of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation with the denaturalization of Vietnamese boat people in Cambodia, and that links the struggle for indigenous liberation in the Caucasus with a dubious dry port on the edge of Kazakhstan. Accelerated by the adoption of paranoid nationalism among downwardly mobile majorities, internal colonialism is the problem of all the world’s stateless—like the Rohingya, who can’t even say their own name in Myanmar and must go by Bangladeshi, while in Bangladesh they are refugees without rights—as well as those who are not even stateless: the Khmer Krom in Vietnam, the Bajau Laut in Malaysia, groups recognized and counted by no one, not even by the UN. These are people who, on paper, simply do not exist.

For more than a year, I’ve been working these ideas toward a book-length project about people living on the margins of the administrative state, in shatter zones and mountain refuges, the objects of the leviathan’s global pursuit. Written classification being a product of the priest and tax-collector classes, there’s no easy way to collectively describe such opt-outers. They are Eric Wolf’s “people without history,” James C. Scott’s “self-governing peoples,” “hill people,” “boat people,” inhabitants of “tribal zones” or of Manuel and Posluns’s “fourth world,” and they are usually invoked by civilization’s standard-bearers as some combination of barbarian, primitive, and savage.

Left to their devices, many of these groups are—not universally, but with abnormal frequency—practitioners of egalitarian, sharing-based political economies and marked by a peaceable ethos and a powerful aversion to hierarchy or physical coercion. Unsurprising, then, that they are verging on extinction: driven into the most barren and undesirable backwaters or else brought to heel and rendered the newest pledge members at the lowest rung of the global market. Most often, they are trammeled between these two worlds, frozen in eternal catch-22 liminality. Meanwhile their natural world is literally on fire, melting, flooding, or drying out.

A year or so later, I’ve sold this book proposal to FSG, house of (my) dreams. The working title is The Fugitive World and it won’t be out for ages but that’s what I’ll be working on going forward, this year, next year, and the following. Watch this space for occasional updates.

New Work

I’ve also published some magazine work recently: two pieces on the mass internment drive in Xinjiang, China’s largest and westernmost region.

In the London Review of Books, I have a personal account of the frightening and secretive efforts to silence activists who are telling the world about China’s crimes against humanity.

In The Believer, I’ve published a 24,000-word oral history of Xinjiang’s mass internment drive, a project I started over a year ago in Kazakhstan interviewing former detainees and family members. (The illustrations--including the one at the top of this newsletter--are by Danica Novgorodoff.) In the introduction, I write:

In 2018, I began to travel to Kazakhstan to interview the family members of Xinjiang’s imprisoned and disappeared. I also interviewed former detainees who described their own experiences. Most had crossed from China into Kazakhstan in the weeks, months, and years before our meeting, either by applying for residency and citizenship or by escaping across the border. The result is an oral history of life in contemporary Xinjiang. To my knowledge, it is the first document of its kind.

Hope you read and share. Going forward, I’m hoping to use this space to work through some of the ideas in the book and I’ll post (very) occasional updates that are hopefully of interest to some of you.