Toward a Genealogy of Fossil Capitalism: On Mohamed Amer Meziane’s “The States of the Earth”

By Ed SimonApril 26, 2024

Toward a Genealogy of Fossil Capitalism: On Mohamed Amer Meziane’s “The States of the Earth”

The States of the Earth: An Ecological and Racial History of Secularization by Mohamed Amer Meziane

COBALT, A FERROMAGNETIC METAL that has been mined and smelted for nearly two millennia because of its distinctive bluish tinge used in the glazing of ceramics and porcelain, was in the 20th century an integral element in catalyzing desulfurization in the refining of oil and natural gas. Today, it’s crucial in the production of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Less iconic than iron or coal, cobalt has nonetheless been instrumental in the history of extractive economics, and a cultural history of the material would provide an overview of the global transition from craftsman-based manufacturing to heavy industry to our (supposedly) emerging post–fossil fuel future. An astounding 8.3 million tons of cobalt is studded as an alloy into the crust of the earth, with a further 120 million tons beneath the floor of the ocean, for which hungry venture capitalists are already investing in complex deep-sea extraction technologies. There is, obviously, a horrific side to any mining, not just in the environmental toll but in the human costs as well.

Most of the cobalt in the world, nearly 70 percent of annual production, comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where an essential material good that makes your reading of this article possible is mined in conditions of hideous abuse and exploitation. While the experience of scrolling on an iPhone or driving in a Tesla is maximally designed so as to convey a futuristic, technocratic optimism, those commodities were made possible not just by blasting open the earth’s entrails but also by operating in nightmarish working conditions marked by extrajudicial murder, rape, and war, with the Center for Preventative Action reporting in February of this year that, “[a]s the world has become more reliant than ever on cobalt, copper, zinc, and other minerals, local and external groups have become more incentivized to get involved in the Congolese conflict.” For all of this blood and terror that mirror the most brutal aspects of 19th-century colonialism, the etymology of the word “cobalt” is appropriate­—it derives from the name of a German demon known as the “kobold” (a variation of “goblin”) that miners believed haunted the deep, subterranean veins of ore studding the earth, a malevolent creature that nonetheless, as Goethe wrote in Faust, “shall slave” (as shall we all).

The mine demon of Europe’s fevered premodern imagination is only glancingly mentioned in philosopher Mohamed Amer Meziane’s important, if incomplete, new book The States of the Earth: An Ecological and Racial History of Secularization, but the kobold regardless haunts his account, even if ambiguously. According to Meziane, as late as the so-called Age of Reason in the 18th century, European coal miners were hesitant to journey too deep into chthonic realms lest the guardian spirits be angered; by the time British and French colonial interests had gotten engaged, however, these spirits had been seemingly exorcised by the forces of extractive capitalism. Still, as late as 1882, a French governor in Indochina wrote that the local hesitancy to work in mines was related to a belief that, “by digging into the ground, we run the risk of piercing a vein of the Sacred animal, and from this accident terrible misfortunes would result”—though the Gallic bureaucrat assured the local mandarins that no such creatures had ever been found during European operations (the kobold now apparently all but dead). Capitalism then wasn’t what killed God, but the murder of God was a precondition for capitalism, and colonialism, and imperialism.

Meziane sees in such incidents a representative lesson regarding the conflicted historical process known as secularization, writing that, as “industrial and fossil capitalism developed, representations of a subterranean world peopled with a multitude of extra-human forces were discredited and treated as the superstitious beliefs of the lower classes.” The dispelling of such spirits is intrinsic to secularization, to what Max Weber famously called the “disenchantment of the world,” to the process whereby, in Meziane’s formulation, Christendom became post-Christian. In an occasionally ingenious discussion, The States of the Earth provides a theory of the ways in which an amended understanding of secularism was a prerequisite to racialized colonialism and capitalism, resulting in the rise of “fossil states” that have ushered us into the era of apocalyptic climate change—an era usually dubbed the “Anthropocene” but which Meziane feels would be more aptly termed the “Secularocene.” “The sacrifice of heaven has overturned the earth,” he writes, the italics his.

Meziane offers a subtle, though crucial, alteration to the traditional sociological definitions of secularization, arguing that what the word actually means is “nothing other than a belief in the existence of this world as the only real one: the certainty that it is here below, on the earth, that salvation can be realized, through unlimited enjoyment ensured by a continual growth of riches.” This is, needless to say, not the same thing as saying that secularism implies the absence or even the abolition of religion from the political realm. Theories of secularism tend to gravitate toward two extremes—the first associated with figures from the foundation of the discipline such as Weber and Émile Durkheim, who understood the process to entail the elimination of traditional religion, and the second with more recent scholars like John Gray and Charles Taylor, who envision it instead as the sublimation of religious faith. By contrast, Meziane conceives of the process as involving a kind of desacralization or profanation of the transcendent impulse (or, perhaps more accurately, a transfer or translation of sacredness).

In a manner more similar to Weber’s analysis than Meziane might want to acknowledge, certain aspects of Christian theology mutated so that religious conversion transformed into the “civilizing mission” of colonialism, and the exploitation of the earth became a surrogate means of establishing a type of paradisiacal millennium. Meziane writes that,

[i]n trying to effect a transfer of sacredness from the heavens to the earth, secularization made the latter (and its administration) the only possible site for empires to be legitimated, thus opening an era of predation on nature, of resource extraction and the unlimited exploitation of the subsoil in search of fossil energy.

The States of the Earth makes several innovative arguments, such as an adapted genealogy of Orientalist discourse in which European opposition to Islam was a material precondition for New World genocide and the transatlantic slave trade, but the most notable is clearly the connection it makes between secularization and the development of what Meziane calls “fossil capitalism.”

According to Meziane, secularism is much more than the absence of religion; it is an adaptation of it that allows for the ecologically devastating extraction of precious materials from the earth—an activity that made contemporary industry, technology, and standards of living possible but that is also shunting us into an apocalyptic hell. This is a cultural, philosophical, theological, and ideological shift whereby, even if the kobold is made to leave his sulfury mine (for how can gold be stolen from the goblin if the goblin is still there?), a new type of sacralization emerges, a sense that the transformation of the earth in the name of capital has replaced the previous realm of converting souls for Christ. “This is not empire as clergy of a transcendent God who stays in heaven,” writes Meziane, “but humanity recognizing itself as self-creating and creating its history, contemplating its divinity as it becomes real through an infinite progress.”

Central to Meziane’s point—though this is far from original—is the conclusion that secularism can never be seen as the “absence” of religion; rather, secularism is a particular variation of a type of universalizing Christianity that makes the category of “religion” itself possible. By combining the discourses of racism, colonialism, and fossil capitalism—all, he claims, made possible and defined by secularization—Meziane provides a critical analysis that is both novel and promising, one in which the “indices of the secularization initiated in the nineteenth century can be found in the air we breathe and the food we eat, rather than in the study of attendance rates at churches and other places of worship.” This is, I think, an ultimately convincing claim—that secularism has always been, in some sense, itself a form of religious faith—even if Meziane seeks (unconvincingly) to dissociate himself from other critics who have posited a similar interpretation.

The States of the Earth had the potential to be one of the most crucial philosophical and sociological studies of the relationship between religion and economics since R. H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), or even Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). Unfortunately, however, its treatment of the materialistic, interventionist manifestations of faith in the premodern era (for after all, what was medieval chiliasm other than an attempt to remake the world?) is far too perfunctory, as is its discussion of apocalypticism more generally. Meziane makes much of the political theology of the medieval papacy but devotes insufficient attention to the social effects of the Reformation, a movement he grasps only superficially. The States of the Earth has the feel of the dissertation about it, perhaps inevitably for an academic’s first scholarly book. The jargon is at times dense as a thicket, there are several grueling literature reviews, and a frustrating repetitiveness mars the development of what seems clearly an important—perhaps even transformative—hypothesis.

Even while I remain unconvinced by Meziane’s genealogy of secularism (my sense is that the kobold is still hiding in that mine whether we know it or not), The States of the Earth is nonetheless a significant attempt to connect climate change to secularization, and Meziane’s concept of the Secularocene is one that may well have legs. I find Eugene McCarraher’s claim, in his 2019 book The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity, that “[u]nder capitalism, money occupies the ontological throne from which God has been evicted” a rather more compelling analysis, but Meziane is absolutely correct to read secularization through a political-theological lens, especially as the looming climate collapse is the single most important social, political, economic, moral, and spiritual issue of our epoch.

Buried somewhere within this misshapen book, there is, I suspect, a brief, elegant, and ultimately convincing study. The author (or his translator, Jonathan Adjemian) would benefit from abandoning the pallid rhetoric of academia in favor of the fervent tones of the manifesto. Indications of this shadow-study lurk within the book, such as Meziane’s chilling contention that the “earthly paradise promised by industrialists is increasingly resembling hell, thus indicating that the earth will never bear the burden of heaven.” Such passages, and there are more than a few herein, approach poetry and even prophecy. As the mercury and sea levels rise, as the extractive engines of capitalism drill ever deeper into the earth and release the buried demon of carbon dioxide, those of us who work in and with scholarship would do well to remember the advice of another thinker, writing at the dawn of the Anthropocene, who said that the “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

LARB Contributor

Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine, a staff writer for Lit Hub, and an emeritus staff writer at The Millions. He is a frequent contributor at several different sites including The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, Aeon, Jacobin, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Killing the Buddha, Salon, The Public Domain Review, Atlas Obscura, JSTOR Daily, and Newsweek. He is also the author of several books, including Devil’s Contract: The History of the Faustian Bargain, which will be released in July 2024. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University and an MA in literary and cultural studies from Carnegie Mellon University.


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