Unmarked Graves: The Bones of Neoliberalism

This text looks at both refugees and unmarked graves as particular symptoms of an emerging fragile future. Through personal and geopolitical lenses, it asks how and why neoliberal globalization seems to be merging with new forms of fascism. It is an excerpt from the wider project Ancestral Clouds Ancestral Claims, which is a forthcoming film and book. 

Fig. 1: Still from Ancestral Clouds Ancestral Claims (2023), 50 min, 4K with sound, Kunsthalle Wien (forthcoming), 50 min, 4K with sound, Kunsthalle Wien (forthcoming)

Fig. 1: Still from Ancestral Clouds Ancestral Claims (2023), 50 min, 4K with sound, Kunsthalle Wien (forthcoming), 50 min, 4K with sound, Kunsthalle Wien (forthcoming)

Borders Unbound

My father is first generation North American. He was born in New York and grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey. He grew up, like many boomers, pledging allegiance to the flag and believing well into his forties that the USA was the greatest place on Earth. This hubris of course crashed later when his wife, my mother—who is not white—was detained at the US border and interrogated for most of the day, ending with a court summons to return and explain herself six months later. She was supposed to not leave the country until the court hearing in Washington. Her “crime,” was that she had given up her green card some years before, since my family had no plans to return to living in the US. This decision to leave was finalized when my grandmother, Helen, my father’s last living relative, passed away. Since then, it has been a slow family process to cut legal and emotional ties with the US—in part to detach, in part to avoid double taxation, in part to start new, or at least once again forget.

The immigration hall official had not encountered a person who had surrendered US citizenship before and, with an expression that he was somehow doing my mum a favor, he flagged it as suspicious and sent her to Secondary (the screening room when you fail the first level of immigration questioning). My mum was then separated from my father after a long flight. He would have been waiting more impatiently than concerned, or that’s what he told himself, with the luggage stacked on a trolley by the rotating baggage belt, empty now for hours. My mother, kept on airside, had to answer two separate interrogations. Returning each time for hours to the secondary screening room—a nerve-racking room, kept bright under flickering neon-lights at all hours of the day. With no windows and an armed guard, time stands just as still as the space is suspended outside of any national territory, in many ways space-time doesn’t quite exist here, or at least it is subjugated entirely to the whim of the immigration officers, their small, unmarked kingdom that smells sharply of cleaning products with signs that warn, might cause cancer. There is a vending machine with Reiss’s peanut-butter cups and stale Mars bars, and two television screens on either side of the room, that sometimes play cartoons blaring loud with Spanish subtitles. A televisual technique that might be more intended to upset the psychology of adults than appease children. Unlike many countries, the US gives a lot of power to the individual immigration officials to make ultimate decisions. For example, there is no set rule of how many days you can spend in the US as a foreigner. Or how many times you can return in a given period, unlike the Schengen 90/180 rule. This ambiguity may be intentional. Not only to give authority to the border force, but also to instill a sense of uncertainty and unease, or even paranoia, in a person who is never quite sure whether they have overstayed their welcome, whether they have broken the invisible rules and will be banned from the US for ten years and perhaps be separated from their children for this time. Gaslights always hang on a threshold, lighting what is outside, but hiding what is inside.

In many ways it is the ambiguity of the cracks and edges, of the in-between and extra-territorial spaces, that are exploited to garner power and wealth, and therefore give form to the nation-state, its authority—these borders (of all denominations) have been expanding well beyond their traditional place on the edge of a territory once defined by mountain ranges and oceans. Now we find them hundreds of miles offshore, in proxy countries (see Nauru for Australia, Morocco for Spain, or Kenya for UK) but also in legal and financial loopholes, in trade agreements, in migrant identities and identity migrations, and all across geo-political maneuvering. At the same time, importantly, the nation-state in all of its capitalized, puffed up, and even mythic substantiation, gives form(lessness) to these in-between spaces—spaces where a certain type of invisible but quite supreme power lives, or rather lives by feeding off the ambiguity. This is a symbiotic (or even a sym-necrotic) relationship, where arguably, neither could survive or thrive without the other. Put in broader terms, even if they have many differences, contemporary forms of nationalism (whether center-right or neo-fascist) and neoliberalism need one another.

Of course, my parents did not stay in the US until the court case. They returned after their holiday to England, back to their new home of now over forty years. And my mum spent the next six months trying to call the right person, lost in the Kafkaesque castle of US immigration, until finally she found someone who would simply say, “yes, of course you can surrender your green card, let me log that in your file. No, you don’t have to go to court. And it should not be a problem next time you visit, just fill out the visa-waiver.”

It was probably somewhere over the Atlantic, a reversal of the journey that his parents had made in 1939 and 1940 by boat, that my father lost the last strands of faith in his nation of origin, perhaps, it was there at 30,000 feet in the oxygenated cabin of grey plastic, that through his anger, he fully detached from his homeland, the USA. As first generation, with no deep ties and no more living relatives, and only a handful of old school friends there, this decision to detach was probably not difficult—or in fact, it felt natural, given that before his parents had fled to New York, they had only been in Vienna for two or three generations and before that in Galicia, Poland which is now Ukraine, before that, as Ashkenazi’s we have no record. Moving, migrating, forcibly or willfully, and with it detaching, necessarily or hopefully, was more the norm than staying put. He had already, in his late twenties, changed his beliefs to a framework that championed non-attachment and with it, his birth name.


Fig. 2: Still from Ancestral Clouds Ancestral Claims (2023), 50 min, 4K with sound, Kunsthalle Wien (forthcoming)

Fig. 2: Still from Ancestral Clouds Ancestral Claims (2023), 50 min, 4K with sound, Kunsthalle Wien (forthcoming)

 Samuel Neuman, Grandfather

After Samuel died, my grandmother kept a separate and somewhat sealed “memorial” room in her house dedicated to her late husband—she never remarried. I only ever entered this “memorial” room in my imagination. I’m not sure if the house I visited in New Jersey a few times was the same one my father grew up in, or the same one his father had died in. Often in my imagination it is not really me entering the memorial room, touching the yellow hanging tie, wrinkling my nose from the mothballed smell, or trying on the brown leather shoes that are too big, but rather a teenage version of my father perhaps with his brother behind, slightly afraid. What I do remember of my grandmother’s house, before she was moved to a retirement home in Hollywood, Florida, was a jar full of sweets with shiny wrappers on the glass table and the white fabric sheets that she draped over all the furniture. It did not strike me as strange until many years later, or perhaps until I noticed a similar tendency in my father who keeps the curtains closed in his house in London, a little too often, to protect the carpet from sun-bleaching he would say, to protect it from ghostly imprints darkening under the furniture’s shadows, to protect it from time passing. It gave me a small pleasure to peak under the white sheets when no one was looking, this is pretty much the only memory I have of this suburban house in Teaneck, New Jersey. Under the white sheets, draped as if my grandmother was about to leave, or leave at any moment, or actually had already left, was a beautiful sky-blue fabric, embossed with small squares. I run my fingers over the squares, the fabric feels silky, smooth, and slightly shiny, still new, forever new. The gridded stitching holds it all together, as if tugging on one thread could untie all the furniture that would simply spill its guts out into the street, an entire living situation turned inside out.

In many ways this “memorial” room—or was it a closet? or a drawer? or an ever-more distant room in one’s memory?—seems like an attempt to pause time, to hold things as still as possible in a world filled with change. A grave of sorts, but one that doesn’t change, doesn’t age, doesn’t grow weeds, doesn’t fade under another rotation of the sun’s bright glare. A song put on pause.

This refusal of time, or at least this slowing down of its movement and decaying force, its tug on threads, seems to be an attempt at also fixing in place—of making and marking a very specific space, a material, physical space in the world, even when the one that fits it like a jigsaw piece, has left it physically. How long does a body’s imprint stay in a pillow after they have gone, if untouched?



For refugees, I can begin to understand what others might call “neurosis” or “obsessive-compulsive disorder”—but when a world is already so deeply disordered, stateless both literally and existentially, then small attempts to find order, to hold things dear together in a certain stasis is par for the course. My grandfather, although he died young, maybe eight years older than I currently am, was fortunate enough to die in his home. This is so vastly different from the unmarked graves that both defined the Nazi period and were the fate of all his relatives (like his uncle who ran into an electric fence in a camp to commit suicide), but also so many other authoritarian and before that, colonial political orders that used the disappearance and displacement of people as an infrastructure for accumulating power. Of course, the political orders across time had and have different agendas, even if the architecture of unmarked graves and their use as de-territorialized zones for fear mongering is relatively consistent right through to the present.

As an architecture, the unmarked grave is a type of space that produces refugees, where to stay is to put oneself at risk of being murdered and disappeared, ending up in such a space/non-space—as well as the journey of seeking asylum carries a risk of dying at sea, or equally while trying to cross a desert often never to be found. The unmarked grave does not quite produce the refugee subject in the way other architectures affect its inhabitants or frequenters through the “production of space,” but rather the unmarked grave works invertedly, a kind of anti-architecture that produces the refugee subject by being a space that one does not want to inhabit or rather ex-habit—its possibility haunts the future refugee enough that they must leave and leave immediately. The unmarked grave exists both as a real, albeit unfindable, space and—significantly—within the refugee imaginary.

In my paternal grandparent’s case, they were escaping the Holocaust and rumors at the time of being burned in gas chambers—rumors that of course turned out to be true, but at their inception the gas chambers were entirely clandestine. As an architecture, the chambers constitute a more industrial form of the classic unmarked grave: a ditch outside of town filled with undifferentiated bodies, sometimes lined up to be shot with one bullet—to save bullets. This is an architecture of fear that thrives on its invisibility, paranoia, and symbolism, that is very much by design in regimes that use violence for power, both implicitly and explicitly. That which is invisible tends to be much more uncertain and frightful and therefore powerful, than that which stands in plain sight—in many ways the panopticon is for prisoners what the unmarked grave is for refugees. We might call this “spectral architecture,” or at least the prototypical stage of ghost architecture (especially pertinent to national formations), that of invisible infrastructures that include the unaccounted-for masses of bodies hidden within—architectures designed for fear and control, or expulsion (death in an unknown place or exile—the unmarked grave, a double exile). This use of death in ordering society we know as necropolitics, meanwhile the unmarked grave and its proto-spectral architectures add to this body of analysis, is a certain emergent necro-economy and with it ghost capital or value. A type of infrastructure and method of control that helps classical fascism and early authoritarian governments evolve/hybridize into more contemporary coalition forms of neo-liberal governance, where fear, expulsion and death equal investment, assets and profit—a type of governance and political economy whose fascist, neo-fascist and authoritarian, not to mention colonial roots, are starting to become increasingly apparent, marking a worrying trend for the fragile present and near-future.


Fig. 3: Still from Ancestral Clouds Ancestral Claims (2023), 50 min, 4K with sound, Kunsthalle Wien (forthcoming)

Fig. 3: Still from Ancestral Clouds Ancestral Claims (2023), 50 min, 4K with sound, Kunsthalle Wien (forthcoming)

 Offshore Bones
Much has been said about Chile, the coup, the US involvement, the human rights violations, the indictment of Pinochet, as well as the latter’s status as an authoritarian criminal and good friend of Thatcher and Reagan. What makes this history worth revisiting in this contemporary moment (not to mention its revival in right-wing culture from memes to the Mont Pelerin Society’s recent conference keynote) is that as one of the first prototypes of neoliberal capitalism (with an authoritarian local flavor), Chile might help us understand the near future, the new developments of global capital, its new partnerships with neo-fascisms all with some perspective, now over fifty years from neoliberalism’s practical debut and subsequent hegemonic grip on the global economy—what some have dubbed as today’s “mutant neoliberalism.” Chile might also help us understand the behavior and subjectivities of much of the world as subjected to the force for Thatcher’s end goal of “changing the soul.” It is useful to think of neoliberalism as both a set of policies and economics, and as a mode of subjectivization, that both of course influence the other. This irrational, soul-based and subjective dimension (often described as self-entrepreneurship) arguably differentiates it from the many forms of capitalism that predated neoliberalism. At the same time, more and more links are being uncovered with practices of racial capitalism from the colonial period, which used racism and popular hatred to create cheap pools of migrant or refugee labor today—a legacy of slavery and racecraft, which also transcends classical liberalism’s boundaries around what can and cannot be market determined (love and hate for example, were excepted from capital until the twenty-first century). Under neoliberalism’s rhetorical ideal of the free movement of people, this “freedom” is always tempered by order. This order, or more accurately racism as ordering logic, works both above and below the juridical and visible threshold, making irrationality one of its prime currencies (i.e., racial hatred, with its mix of fetish and repulsion, fear and desire). And therefore, a significant precursor to immaterial economies today that capitalize every aspect of the human soul from love and desire to belief and hate. This relay between the rational and the irrational, material and immaterial, liberation and order, in the genesis of neoliberal capitalism can be read through the unmarked grave both generally, and as found in Chile as a certain prototype that holds these contradictions together.

To this day—as is heart-wrenchingly depicted in Guzman’s Nostalgia for the Light—the relatives of disappeared dissidents and Marxists are searching through the vast Atacama Desert. They are searching for their relative’s bones that were dumped in mass unmarked graves. Many were thrown from Pinochet’s helicopters into the dark Pacific Ocean, while others were moved from their internment camps in old, disused Saltpetre mines, and when murdered, were left in random pits under the clearest sky on the planet. Nostalgia for the Light plays with this contradiction, counterposing the lost bones of Marxists with the ALMA satellite facility which has some of the most powerful satellites for scoping the universe lightyears away, situated at 4000m altitude, exactly because the light is so damn clear. The documentary seems to ask of Chile: how can there at once be such clarity and such obscurity? This relay between what is seen and what is hidden, what is included and what is excluded, what is rational and what is irrational, conscious and unconscious, above and below ground—comprise the key contradictions that are held together in twentieth-century Chile’s nascent neoliberalism. Contradictions that are also continued, exported, or expanded within neoliberal logic more generally, where they don’t seem to be contradictions at all, but present themselves as necessary or optimal conditions for the advancement of the political economy we are currently so deep within. In fact, we can say that the appearance of these contradictions, and a certain insistence on “picking a side” rhetoric within popular politics has made analysis of recent transformations in the dominant political economy quite difficult to grasp.


Helicopter Rides

A particular contradiction that has confused the analysis, is that fascism is a reaction to a crisis of capitalism—and so stands mostly in opposition to capitalism and its latest variant, neoliberalism. Classical fascism of course arose in response to poverty and desperation, and Hitler and Mussolini capitalized on this economic distress to unify people. At the same time, the economics of classical fascism tell a slightly different story—Mussolini’s Italy was the first nation to privatize much of its public sector, while Hitler and the pre-Nazi party was funded by many of the German industrialist families that quite remarkably continue to exist transnationally today—both hid profit for an elite class behind populism. Classical fascism of course prioritizes ethno-national glory and hatred of foreigners as its leading cause, but that does not mean it did not have economic goals or policies that had proto-neoliberal qualities. On the flip side, while Pinochet’s neoliberal Chile was not technically a fascist dictatorship, it did sustain and employ many techniques of governance, militarization, and political ideology that connect it back to classical fascism—for example, unmarked graves and the whole regime of disappearing those deemed other, outside, or opposed to the dictatorship. 

The unmarked graves function as both a real and symbolic architecture—they make a space where there was no space, and inside of this indeterminacy or irrationality much can happen outside of the laws of the land despite being very much in the ground, soil, and earth of that nation. What the unmarked grave shows us, as an architecture shared by both fascism and neoliberalism, is how these two seemingly separate and opposite political economies intersect, and in fact seem to be growing ever closer in the present moment and near future. The unmarked grave is an irrational architecture which, like the unconscious, is designed to be invisible but still to exert a political and/or economic force—the same can be said of torture. While fascism and neoliberalism call on different irrational forces to drive their popular flourishing, this difference is merely at the level of content, rather than form. For fascism, a mythical blood and soil versus everything outside of this galvanizes its governance, while desire and freedom currently inform neoliberalism in the Western context. Neoliberalism could very easily be predicated on blood and soil and a hatred of others (in fact the extremist side of recent neoliberal theory exactly posits unprecedented stratifications of society—see Curtis Yarvin, as a potential future scenario). Or in fact, it could be predicated on whatever the unconscious drive is, as long as it is intense, profit will ensue—this tenet of affective intensity equals profit, as we know from social media. Under fascism the unmarked grave is a literal technique for expelling those it deems unwelcome, a form that produces refugees who by design, constitute so much of the semi-legal global workforce as the latest phase of racial capitalism—but, importantly, it prototypes a technique that is outside of, or rather below (like the unconscious) the official juridical process at the same time as being above board: state-executed (from Pinochet to his soldiers, the arms of Chilean government).

In neoliberalism the unmarked grave is a prototype for sustaining activity that needs to be outside of regulatory frameworks—it models and haunts the type of offshore and unregulated spaces that have come to contain more wealth than any nation. Offshore economies are believed to hold five times the amount of wealth as the USA, the world’s wealthiest nation. The history of these havens are less anarchic pirate islands and more a consequence of capital flight from decolonizing empires into an offshore system that was created and supported by nation-states (see Ogle who argues that twentieth-century social democratic nations were in fact sustained through the invention of offshore economies). Not only do offshore architectures traffic in wealth, but they more generally traffic in all that is unregulated and hidden from view, but importantly, is still state sanctioned—from “terrorists” detained and tortured by the US and UK military in Guantanamo Bay to workers with diminishing rights and life-quality in free-trade zone factories all over the world. The unmarked grave is the blueprint upon which these spaces and architectures of unregulated exploitation are built, a blueprint that has deep roots in fascist modes of governance, and before that, racist modes of colonization—the ease of their return, therefore, is unsurprising. As we have seen, the unmarked grave as blueprint was deployed par excellence in Chile, where neoliberalism’s nascence was accelerated through a partnership with a military, authoritarian dictatorship and economists who were trained by Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago; economists, who to this day hold power in the Chilean political system, and who to this day deny any knowledge of Pinochet’s human rights violations despite being members of his close political cabinet at the height of the mass disappearances. 

Pinochet more recently has been revived as a meme by the alt-right—clips of Pepe the frog dressed as Pinochet throwing Marxists out of helicopters have been trending for the last few years. His revival as an icon of the alt-right boosts their critique of “cultural Marxism,” and the culture wars more generally (the recent decolonial turn against Marxism could be read as a form of allyship with the new alt-right). This image perhaps best encapsulates the legacy of Pinochet, at least outside of Chile—someone who ruthlessly murdered thousands of dissidents to maintain authoritarian neoliberal rule for almost two decades. What the alt-right and perhaps the world more generally has forgotten is that Pinochet was originally arrested for tax fraud and embezzlement. He allegedly had more than $27 million in offshore bank accounts, and was estimated to have owed the Chilean Government $16.5 million in tax—using offshore vehicles to hide wealth and evade tax are a direct invention of neoliberal economics and financialization in its quest for ever greater freedom and global trade. The financial corruption of a dictator with fascistic tendencies should, however, come as no surprise. The use of offshore banking, shell companies, and all kinds of illegal or unregulated trading to amass such a fortune is only surprising in that it marks the birth of a type of political order that is predominant today—where unmarked graves and offshore banks are two sides of the same coin (think of how much tax Trump paid alongside his racist rhetoric, think of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s status as a transnational millionaire with an extremely harsh immigration policy, or before him David Cameron’s own offshore portfolio). A more accurate meme would show Pinochet the frog in both his fascist and neoliberal hats: throwing Marxists out of a helicopter that was bought through a shell company registered in Panama with funds kept in a British Virgin Islands account that was earned from illegally trading tax-free weapons that are stored in Genevan freeports.

One can only ask, if this was the birthplace of the emergent political and economic global order today, how has it accelerated and mutated in the last fifty years?

Fig. 4: Still from Ancestral Clouds Ancestral Claims (2023), 50 min, 4K with sound, Kunsthalle Wien (forthcoming)

Fig. 4: Still from Ancestral Clouds Ancestral Claims (2023), 50 min, 4K with sound, Kunsthalle Wien (forthcoming)

Alphabet Soup

My father and I are in London, I forget where we are going, maybe to my parent’s house, but I suggested we take the bus. I knew it would be a novel experience for my father, who only started to ride the tube years later once he got his senior card and could ride for free—I suppose before that he took taxis or drove himself. It was a bight, winter day, cold and crisp, but the sun was shining in a way that made the red double-decker buses vibrate against the blue sky—as if the whole vehicle was alive. We waited at the stop and in a moment of rare vulnerability, he told me that when his father died of a heart attack at 46, his mother, well, she never really got over it. My father would have been only 11 at the time, and that meant in 1958 that he became the man of the house with a younger brother, Errol who had red curly hair and freckles, in tow. He started working in a clothing store that year, and began earning money, and with it slowly garnering what he called “freedom,” or what more commonly you might call “power,” his sole focus—a way to cope, a way to fill the hole of grown man-sized shoes left in his home and heart, a way to sublimate the anger, disappointment, loneliness, and growing waywardness.

The heart attack was, he said, caused by cholesterol and smoking. When I was in primary school, I had to make a family tree and hang photographs of my relatives on string attached to two wire coat hangers taped together. There were almost no photos of my grandfather, and to this day I couldn’t really tell you what he looks like, although secretly I like to imagine him a bit like Leonard Cohen. To solve this absence my father drew his father in profile, wearing a trilby hat and a cigarette with a trail of smoke rising to heaven, perched in his mouth. Despite this deep and presumably painful impression, my father smoked, as did I for years, which could either mean we both tempted fate, or perhaps more likely, that neither of us quite believed that Samuel Neuman died only from cholesterol and too much smoking.

It wasn’t until around 2015, in the midst of the so called “refugee crisis,” that my family owned up to an identity I had never heard before—that we were, or my grandparents had been, refugees. This re-identification came up during a family dinner, where my brother’s wife, who is German and from a small town near Leipzig, was relaying her grandmother’s experience of the million refugees that entered Germany. She said, without much reflection, that her grandmother was scared to walk through the town alone. The conservative myths—with their fear of outsiders, especially Middle Easterners—had sunk deep into provincial Germany and the Former East, as well as into the minds and nervous systems of the people. My sister-in-law relayed this fear with a tinge of racism in a way that made my father blurt out, quite impulsively, that we, The Neumans, are refugees too. It silenced the conversation, as strong declarations tend to. Perhaps this family dinner, with its German nationalist undertones, had struck too close to home, or too close to what was once home. Or perhaps all the images of bodies sometimes alive sometimes dead floating, as if the sea itself were a news channel, across the Mediterranean to escape war and other violence, struck a very deep chord. Some of that buried and boxed trauma started to reverberate in my father.

The number 12 bus arrived. We tapped in and climbed the narrow stairs. I could see a slight bemused look on his face as we sat down a few rows from the front, holding on to the yellow handrail. We got comfortable. Soon the bus navigated the tricky roundabout that is Hyde Park Corner, the centrifugal force pushing our bodies from different generations together in a way that public transport does. In a way that trauma also does. He continued to tell me about his mother, Helen, who spoke to him in German with what I would learn later was an Austrian accent, but which my father replied to in English, American English to be precise. Grandma spoke to my brother and me in broken English, but mostly she spoke to us with food, a Kugelhof (a marble cake with a hole in the middle), some poppyseed strudel sent by post, or a vegetable soup when we visited her, that had tiny alphabet pasta shapes floating in oily chicken broth. My dad would always ask if there was chicken stock, since we were all strict vegetarians, and she would say “nein” in response, but everyone knew the truth. Chicken stock is a deep habit. 

He told me, that when his father, Samuel, died, my grandmother never remarried. She couldn’t get over it, couldn’t detach for over forty years until her death. She kept a room in their house in Teaneck dedicated to her late husband, where she kept all his things, dusting them off. She kept their family home suspended in time, just as they perhaps were suspended in place between German and English, Vienna and Teaneck, a veritable alphabet soup of a home. She could never put his things, or her feelings, in a box or bring herself to throw them away—at least not again, not so soon after she had boxed up her Austrian life in 1939. I believe she knew or rather shared, the actual reason for her husband’s heart attack: that a heart explodes when forced to leave what it loves.

The bus jolted to a stop in the middle of the road, near the turn off from Buckingham Palace Road to Victoria. It had broken down. The driver apologized and asked everyone to leave, a new bus was on its way. Suddenly my father’s brief openness was replaced with frustration, he asked me rather flippantly whether this always happens. He hailed a black cab and, jumping in, he said curtly, “let’s go home.”

Fig. 5: Still from Ancestral Clouds Ancestral Claims (2023), 50 min, 4K with sound, Kunsthalle Wien (forthcoming)

Fig. 5: Still from Ancestral Clouds Ancestral Claims (2023), 50 min, 4K with sound, Kunsthalle Wien (forthcoming)

 Helen Neuman, Grandma

My grandma arrived in New York by boat. She arrived a little more than a year before her husband, my grandfather, was processed and cleared, and was finally allowed to take a boat across the Atlantic from England. He did not have any direct relatives or contacts in the US when they left Vienna in 1939—this made it very difficult for him to gain permission to enter. Instead, he went to Sandwich in Kent, England. Here, in the Kitchener Men’s refugee camp, in what is today a primary school, he stayed until his application was processed.

In the 1940s, the US Department of Immigration was housed under the larger Department of Labor. Its director was Francis Perkins, the first woman to occupy a place in high-ranking US politics, had both progressive labor and immigration policies—meanwhile the very placement of immigration within the category of “labor” is telling, and somewhat forgotten today. Most of the rhetoric around refugees is political, both in describing them as “illegal” and as rallying points for political maneuvering. Think of the Trump Muslim ban and Brexit—or more recently Rishi Sunak’s severe but well-received plan to deport refugees to a third (ex-colonial) “safe space.” At the same time, what is a little more colloquial or popular is the idea that refugees will “take our jobs.” This sentiment was a strong rallying cry in the buildup to Brexit, especially amongst the conservative and slightly hysterical red-top tabloids in the UK. This fear, however, was turned on its head during the pandemic—where there were special provisions made for migrants to travel across travel bans to pick fruit and vegetables. With images of empty supermarket shelves, the panic around adequate levels of meat or toilet paper seemed to trump the fear of foreigners—albeit only temporarily. Subsequently laws around deportation were relaxed, especially in relation to workplace raids. In the US, similar policies were expedited into place, where illegal migrants were notably not only tolerated but encouraged to stay in challenging workplaces like meat-packing factories.

In an excellent article on “Refugees and Racial Capitalism,” Elizabeth Dunn and Shae Frydenlund unpack this contradiction and explain how it is quite deliberate. Racial capitalism uses racist language and ideas to create profitable conditions—the representation of refugees as unwelcome, stigmatized, dangerous even virus-like ensures their position as sub-human, or at best not welcome and not included. At the same time their low-cost labor is needed for jobs that native-born residents refuse or cannot do. This doubling or gaslighting sense of being needed but not welcomed, creates the perfect conditions for ever lowering wages and removing rights, for accepting whatever they can get—in just the sense that factories in special economic zones are unregulated spaces, the refugee is an unregulated worker within an otherwise “normal” workplace, and both continue a “race to the bottom” in terms of labor wages and rights, both call on a suspension of regulations (neoliberal policy) to ensure greater profits are made. The refugee labor market spans everything from domestic to agriculture to factory work and functions according to this semi-legal and unregulated plain—like the unmarked grave, this labor market is both located on national soil but exists below certain thresholds of legality and visibility, meaning that in many senses it is also not there. This fogginess is exploited by nationalist political rhetoric that galvanizes the racist sentiments that boost the nation but rarely does it reveal its ulterior and quite contradictory motive of fostering a cheap pool of labor.

In the often black and white polarization of political positions into foreigner vs. local, Labour vs. Conservative, complex contradictions in policy are sustained and therefore rendered incomprehensible. In a similar way convoluted financial vehicles are built through elite accounting firms to “shield” wealth from taxes. Unmarked graves, offshore financialization, maquiladoras, entre-pots, flags of convenience, black-op sites are all part of the same neoliberal infrastructures that partners (sym-necrotically towards the production of ghost value) with nation-states and racist nationalistic sentiments—important to add to these sites of deregulation or so-called “liberation,” are refugees themselves. Refugees that have been produced as sites for the extraction of sub-market value wage labor (modern slavery), but also as individualized instances of border regimes, regimes that follow them everywhere. Both of these imposed identities, in their existential soul-shaking and contradictory determinations are deliberately executed as they build on long legacies of racial capitalism, tools from slavery, colonization, fascism and authoritarianism. What neoliberalism adds to this mix, is the possibility of holding these contradictions together, or rather cherry-picking from these different political and economic systems across history in such a way that makes it ever more robust and incomprehensible within binary and rational, or even dialectical modes of historical and socio-political analysis. In short, hidden from plain sight. Part of this problem of analysis, comes back to one of the major transformations of neoliberalism in its epistemic discovery that nothing is outside of marketization—this means even ideas that were once directly antagonistic to the core tenets of neoliberalism can get retooled. The refugee initially stands against the neoliberal tenet of free movement of goods and people, through calling on theories of racial capitalism, this restriction of movement is cultivated at the same time as it is unrestricted and exploited. This is not so much a logic, but an illogic or anti-logic, just as the unmarked grave follows in a similar way—it is not so much an architecture but an anti-architecture that thrives through death by holding territory and extra-territory together, by being both domestic and unlocalized at the same time—a contradiction that refuses to synthesize.



My grandma, after she arrived, worked in a lightbulb factory in New Jersey. The factory was full of Jewish refugees, most of whom had arrived with no money and certainly no access to their frozen or stolen assets back home in Europe. The factory had surprisingly low light for a place that made lightbulbs. My grandma stood in a long line of mostly women assembling the small parts of the bulbs. She wore a blue apron, her red curly hair pinned back. This was hard, tedious work.

One of the things I remember about my grandmother, was her glasses. She wore thick 1970s spectacles that made her eyes seem magnified when examined from a certain angle. I remember because it was slightly scary, the glass lenses were very large as was the style, and it made her look like an alien: bug-eyed. She had pale almost translucent skin, which was strange for someone living in Florida. I remember one visit, where she was recovering from a bout of chickenpox and under one eye, she had a band aid. She was not wearing her glasses, and this was maybe the first time I had seen her without them on, or at least it is the only time I can remember. She looked fragile, presumably weak from the chickenpox, but without her glasses, she looked naked and tired. She also could not see and kept asking me to pass her things that she needed in English but with the heaviest German accent.

In the lightbulb factory there was a daily quota. The lightbulbs had to be assembled piece by piece. My grandmother, who perhaps needed an update on her glasses’ prescription, struggled in the low light. She rarely could meet the daily quota. Her tired fingers could not manage. She missed her husband as months turned to years of separation, the uncertainty of knowing whether they would be together troubled her. She was struggling to learn English and often misunderstood the instructions from the floor manager. She could not explain that she needed new glasses, that she couldn’t see the parts very well, that the lighting was too low. At the same time, she had no choice but to work in this factory, as it was the only possible source of income, the only local place that would hire refugees. To her surprise, the woman next to her, also from Austria, but a small village in the North, helped her. She asked how many bulbs she was missing, and each day gave her the remaining bulbs to make up the daily quota. To say this person rescued my grandmother’s life is perhaps an overstatement—to say that kindness and a certain worker solidarity gave my grandmother support and perhaps more importantly, hope, belief in the goodness of people after so much pain, and that saved her life, would be an understatement.

About the author

Arjuna Neuman

Published on 2023-06-08 12:52