Frantz Fanon and the current multiple crises
2011-12-06, Issue 561
After half-a-century, the toll of independence in the African and Arab worlds has not been mitigated; whether on the social, economic or political plane, the failure is total. The gaining of independence has not liberated the people from the misery, injustice or neglect they suffered under colonial domination. The taking of power by national bourgeoisies – of which Fanon had already identified forerunners in ‘The Misadventures of the National Conscience’ in his book, ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, have led a tragic wrong turning in the anti-colonial struggle.
He describes in his book, years in advance the neo-colonial pathology, as the perpetuation of domination by the submission of corrupt and unpopular national governments to the interests of their former colonial masters.
‘The national bourgeoisie that took power at the end of the colonial era is an underdeveloped bourgeoisie. It’s economic power is close to zero and, in any case, is without the standing of the metropolitan bourgeoisie it seeks to replace. In its wilful narcissism the national bourgeoisie has had little difficulty in convincing itself that it can easily replace the metropolitan bourgeoisie. But the independence that put it literally at the foot of the wall will unleash catastrophic reactions at home and oblige it to launch anguished calls in the direction of the former metropolis. It is entirely channelled towards intermediary activities. To be in the loop, in on the joke, that seems to be it’s deepest vocation. The national bourgeoisie has the psychology of a politician, not an industrialist.’
In the same vein, if he did see the final exit of the colonial state, then the key question would be the evolution of the liberated states. The construction of just and prosperous society should take place through the all-encompassing liberation of the men and women from the colonial legacy. Therefore it was essential to identify the colonial state’s deficiencies, so as not to be just a devastating sequel.
The gaining of independence has not achieved the liberation or dis-alienation of oppressed peoples. The societies have remained orphans of the stillborn state, the neo-colonial networks supporting despots who come and go according to their interest and pronouncements. If the neo-colonial structures do not entirely explain the failure of independence then this half-century has been a woeful demonstration of the effectiveness of the colonial time bomb.
The evolution that Fanon anticipated in ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ was to a large extent realised. The struggles for power, the tribalism and regionalism fed by the former colonial powers and led by civilian and military populists, have disfigured independence. The leading cliques and the new bourgeoisies supported by the ex-colonisers have to the advantage of the latter replaced the colonial administrators. A firm grip on resources and the capture of rents by the castes in power – civil or military – have trapped these countries in a situation of continued disintegration. The retreat of the colonial administrative powers has not led to a real change in the nature of the existence led by the vast majority of the population.
In fact the neo-colonial period ends a re-colonisation under new guises of the African continent and the Arab-Islamic arc. Because all authoritarianism is accompanied by catastrophic socio-economic mismanagement the interests of the former colonisers have been preserved and are more present than ever. On the strategic level, defence treaties have allowed for the establishment of air bases across the continent where, in the major airport, customs officials work under foreign supervision; which says a lot about the state of subordination.
In Africa, in Europe, Asia, Middle East and America, Fanon appears more current than ever. He makes sense to everyone who fights for freedom and human rights, because emancipation is always the first objective of a generation reaching political maturity. Many men and women have learnt that the fight for liberty, democracy and human rights is led against local despots and also against the tenets of the ne-ocolonial order which they protect. They are used to pillage resources and then ejected when they are no longer useful. However, colonialism's transfiguration did not stop there. Humanitarian interventions, which have taken on an overtly militaristic tone in the war with Libya, have allowed for the quiet installation of NGOs who usurp the influence of the state and tie populations, especially in rural areas, into structural relations of dependency.
It must be noted that many of these NGOs are shut off to local expertise and depend in fact on funds allocated by their own governments, thus neglecting the opportunity to transfer skills. In this way they extend charity-based forms of dependence. By definition, this renewed domination instils and perpetuates a neo-colonial mindset. Direct economic interference is accompanied by a politico-humanitarian discourse, which barely conceals its hegemonic interests. Undoubtedly, the never-ending and generalised war on terror has given the West an excuse to put foreign troops on the ground, who are charged with watching over multinational interests. The regions most affected by this dynamic are those that are home to strategic natural resources, as yet un- or under-exploited. These include Niger, Guinea and, most recently, Libya.
From civil wars to coups d'etat, independence has seen states fall apart in the pursuit of profit for ‘intermediary’ bureaucracies which are still in the service of former colonisers. More or less quickly, the postcolonial states have transformed themselves into neo-colonial states where recklessness, corruption and the privileging of private interests have become the rule. State bureaucracies are for the most part weighed down by these informal aspects.
Organised around the pillage of resources, the concentration of wealth, and capital flight, economic governance – whatever the supposed model – has settled the African continent and the Arab world into a pit of vertiginous inequality, massive pauperisation and the inherent weakness of the postcolonial state. At the end of the last century, dictators have sat back and watched as the warmongering redeployment of imperialism has taken place in Iraq, Libya and perhaps tomorrow in Syria. All the while, terrorism, which we pretend to fight, is in fact developing in authoritarian and obscurantist states, allied with and protected by the West.
The newest stage of imperialism – globalisation – consists in the opening of less developed countries' markets to the advances of multi-nationals. But the strategy of anchoring African and Arab countries in global markets – delivered as a form of financial first aid – is challenged by the emergence of new actors.
Emerging economies are coming to interrupt the cosy neo-colonial arrangements and we see therefore the order based on fiefdoms has started to tremble as popular support is cut. This can be seen recently in Tunisia and Egypt. (Not to mention quite some time ago in Venezuela, Bolivia...)
In the context of international relations, this forces western powers to reformulate their relationships with countries they had considered to be on the periphery. After the eternal war on terror – which valued highly the support of some of the worst dictators – the idea that part and parcel of these relationships is the right of interference is ever present. The right of interference, sold as the legendary responsibility to protect.
THE DISCOURSE OF THE NEW POLITICS OF THE GUNBOAT
From the paternalist tone of the post-independence years has arisen, with the guidance of neo-conservatives in the west, a so-called ‘truth-speak’ which presents itself as the discourse of uncomplicated right. It does not hesitate to publicly account for its obviously racist foundations. Direct economic interference is accompanied by a humanito-political discourse which is a poor cover up for its hegemonic intentions. The war on terror has been the justification for putting troops on the ground, with the hidden agenda of watching over the interests of multinationals – primarily in regions with unexploited mineral resources.
‘This Europe, which never ceases to talk of 'man', never stops proclaiming that 'man' is all it is worried about, we know today of the suffering of humanity that exists in every country where this European spirit reigns.’ Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth.
It's in the name of this parting gift, accepted as truth, that bit by bit the hierarchy of races has found itself replaced by the so-called ‘war of civilisations’, humanitarian intervention and the propagation of the democratic faith by drones. So begins the tale of the battleground to decide the new propagandists of exclusion and exploitation. Selective memory, the forgetting and the incessant hammering of dominant capitalist values aim to shape opinion, forging a representation of the other, the Muslim, the Arab, the black. The enemy who is genetically incapable of universal values, and thus, an irredeemable barbarian, is de facto excluded from humanity. In this context the Dakar discourse remains an important stage.
For theoreticians of a repackaged, modernised racism, the failure of independence is not due to the poisoned legacy of colonialism, nor the destructive influences of the former metropolis, nor to the endurance of dictators to whom the former colonisers have given the keys of power, but to the incapacity of people frozen in their own ‘archaicness’ to take control of their destiny. ‘Black skin, white masks’ is a fundamental milestone in the anti-racist struggle: a decoding of these mechanisms of segregation and their political insults, analysing the impulses of colonialism and its impact on the dominated. To him, it was articulated in the fight against racism in a universal movement of dis-alienation for the victims of racism and the racists themselves.
Faced with these attacks, far from being paralysed, the people have continued to advance and have not abdicated the struggle for dignity, justice and a better life. Whatever may be the public face of syndicated struggles – whether the freedom of press or self-determination – throughout the continent, the voices of the people are getting stronger: women and men engaged in the political struggle for citizens' emancipation and to reject the neoliberal model. The founding myths of the struggles for independence are not dead. It is from this angle that one must understand the popular revolts in the Arab world. To reduce these movements to an expression of social malaise or hunger-riots is a mystification.
But the lost half-century for development and social progress has been a half-century of settling and political clarification. In effect, the dogmatic prisms have lost their instructive power and the only analytic frameworks which still function are those based firmly on the principle of reality.
Using Fanon's ideas, the conditions of countries previously under colonial domination is an exercise in confronting reality disentangled from ideological blinkers and liberated of all dogma. (In this regard, contrary to those who would rather see him iconified and forgotten, Fanon is more pertinent than ever. He was at once a psychiatrist, an Algerian Mujahideen, pan-African revolutionary, itinerant ambassador and freedom fighter for all – including those who believe themselves to belong to the dominant world.
Let us recall the phrase black skin, white masks: ‘Me, a man of colour, I only want one thing, to never be the instrument of domination. To never see one man in servitude to another. That is to say myself to another. That I might discover and to want man wherever he might be.’
Under Fanon's liberty critique, systems of power are revealed to what they truly are: systems of oppression and pillage at the origin of all economic, social and cultural obstacles. Independence hollowed of its democratic content is vulnerable: the gains of the struggle for liberation are in no way irreversible. Freedom for the peoples who rise up has been confiscated by the powers that be, supported by the former colonisers. Domination has only changed its appearance and liberation is yet to come.
For Fanon, ‘the freedom of the individual does not follow from national liberation. An authentic national liberation only exists to the extent that individual liberation has irreversibly set in motion its own liberation.’ So, with rare exception, the societies freed from the colonial yoke are societies without citizens.
The objective, at the dawn of independence’s second stage, is to bring back the political content of independence, to one recognisable to the population and without which the shape of independence is just a caricature. Man's liberation is a universal fight based on the defence of private and public freedoms, the primacy of the general interest, the reduction in inequality, accountability of the elected, and the sovereignty of right.
Real liberation is that which pursues processes engaged in by independence struggles, which can only be envisioned in the context of institutions which are genuinely democratic, strong and representative. Democratic freedoms are the only way for these countries to escape the impasse between domination and misery. An equally necessary pre-condition is the modification of the relationship between international forces and their rebalancing in favour of countries in the global south. But this also concerns the former colonial countries, to submit to the yoke of markets.
In the context of international relations, the leaders, without any legitimacy but the strength of their armed forces and external support, command no weight in the international stage. It will be time for the great powers, which consider themselves internally democratic, to end their desire to maintain their hegemony over the less developed world.
The opinionatedness of Fanon, and his determination, shows that there is no inevitability to failure, so long as the drama is known to be the way of life of the people. The solidarity of progress, and the convergence of struggles, the resistance to dictators and neo-colonial and imperial hegemony, are the milestones on the road to redress. Solidarity and internationalism – which for Fanon were inextricably linked – give a continuing human dimension to peoples' struggles.
Fanon, with his skills as a psychiatrist, essayist and militant, has turned the spotlight onto the unity of the colonised world, despite the fact it is highly differentiated and riddled with contradictions. Therefore, for Fanon the Mujahideen, there is no difference between the struggle as carried forward by the people of the Caribbean, Africa or Latin America. On can even continue this Fanon-esque analysis: globalisation, with its expansionary tendency, which had transferred liberalism's modes of organisation onto the global south, is now doing the same to the North.
The political and social divides characteristic of exclusion and exploitation tend to unify the world under the interest of the tiny minorities. The treatment imposed on Greece was a response to a foreign debt racked up with the complicity of the ultra-liberals in the EU and the banks. This case reveals the strategies of dismantling social advances which are now being put to work in the developed world.
Surveillance culture, constructed in the name of anti-terrorism, contributes to the criminalisation of those excluded and disenfranchised by these processes. The media treatment of the recent riots in the UK recalls that seen in France during the revolts in the working class suburbs in 2005. By successive slides, facilitated by the superimposition of social and ethno-cultural categories – the poor, blacks, Arabs, Muslims – Western regimes have re-injected the colonial discourse into domestic politics. By a paradox with a secret history, the indigene is ever present not only in his original form but equally in what Fanon called, ‘the forbidden towns’ where new forms of discrimination are enforced. He noted in the Wretched of the Earth that,
‘The colonised world is cut in two... The zone inhabited by the colonised is not complementary to the zone inhabited by the coloniser. These two zones face each other but not as part of a greater whole... The world is compartmentalised, each occupied by a different species. The originality of the colonial context is that the economic reality, inequality, the enormous difference between ways of life, never manage to mask the human reality.’
It can be seen that, whilst its mode of operation may have changed, oppression and domination of people is perennial. They have even widened to include in these categories the most fragile populations, under the guise of being ‘protected’ by the dominant nations. The form of alienation has changed, but the ideological underpinnings of exploitation invariably remain, and become elements of globalisation which make the planet conform to a uniform pattern. The economic crisis is a crisis of Western capitalism. For the people of Africa and the Arab world, re-colonisation – under the auspices of military humanitarian intervention – no loner invokes ‘the mission to civilise’ but the responsibility to protect, a slippery invention of the self-proclaimed ‘international community’. It keeps its oppressive nature but with an alienating, depersonalised character.
For those who would wish to gloss over the colonial past and the present of injustice and dispossession, the works of Fanon will be left by the wayside and portrayed as nothing but an apology for violence. Its detractors will recruit from neoconservative ‘intellectuals’ who have commenced a witch-hunt against him. Through skewed readings and biased representations, they reproduce their own ignorance of Fanon's works and their racism.
The violence defended by Fanon, as a last resort of those denied, exploited and reduced to slavery, is that of legitimate defence of the oppressed who are subject to a much greater violence: that of domination, dispossession and contempt.
But, as with all manipulations and propaganda, reality is stubborn. Various mechanisms are always at work reshaping relations between former colonies and former colonisers. The rejection of submission and lies, the spirit of resistance which impregnates the work of Fanon, inspires those who struggle for rights across the word. In Palestine, as elsewhere, in the backyards of those who are waking up to oppression, the thoughts in action of Fanon are real, despite changes in the world.
Is our world free of dispossession, alienation and injustice? He calls on us to resist and never surrender.
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* Mireille Fanon Mendès-France is a member of the Administrative Council of the Frantz Fanon Foundation.
* This article was translated from French for Pambazuka News by Portia Roelofs, a masters student of African Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.
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