“You who are so liberal, so humane, who take the love of culture to the point of affectation, you pretend to forget that you have colonies where massacres are committed in your name.” –Jean-Paul Sartre
You don’t hear the term “colonialism” brought up that much anymore. Its name is relegated to a bygone era before ours, seemingly an anachronism whose implied injustices have long since been resolved in modernity. Reparations, if any, have been arranged for in foreign aid and cascades of likes on social media. The new world is confronted with new problems, new complexities. To discuss colonialism in American society today is akin to adducing the specter of Nazism in a discussion of current German politics.
The Third World, though, does not agree with our hasty dismissals, the whims of our unconscious shame. It turns its nose up at our so-called reparations, and no amount of double-tapping high-resolution images of celeb “ambassadors” looking meek and beautiful in Somalia will change that.
Globalization, with all its attendant dilemmas, is just colonialism under a different name, transmogrified into a corporate machine of exploitation whose exhaust fills the nostrils of humans around the globe. The names and methodologies may have undergone face-swaps, but the victims are the same. Are we to suppose that the countries of Africa are impoverished, famished and culturally stagnated by some economic conundrum, a riddle which the greatest minds are powerless to solve?
Or, rather, do native stomachs continue to shrink from the intentionality of Greed, that famously hidden god of the Western metropolis? At the margins of our unceasing orgy of materialism lie the bodies of the sacrificed, obscured by the intoxicating effects of our own “humanism” and historic progress-making. Being civilized means knowing where not to look. In his positively seismic text The Wretched of The Earth, Frantz Fanon dares you to look away.
In 1960, Algeria gained independence from France after a bloody, six-year struggle that claimed at least a hundred thousand lives. The Algerian triumph became a rallying cry for liberation movements around the world, a symbol for the possibilities of reforging national consciousness in the wake of decolonization. Fanon’s is a prophetic voice rising out of this critical moment not only for Algeria, but for disenfranchised populations everywhere in the globalized era.
“The colonized, underdeveloped man is today a political creature in the most global sense of the term.”
This Algerian freedom fighter, psychiatrist and academic cataloged the pathologies and tensions of this “political creature” in a way no one else had before him, re-contextualizing the collective struggle for independence as an act of personal catharsis and self-realization on the part of the colonized individual. In asserting himself through violence against the colonial rulers, the colonized man sought “not only the demise of colonialism, but also the demise of the colonized.”
The liberation of one’s people is dependent first on the liberation of one’s own identity. Between the lines of political oppression, there is no distinction between the self and the community. The struggle for independence, according to Fanon, thus constitutes a fundamental transformation of the psyche. Violence, in this case, is the only path to enlightenment for the colonized. The ideas of universal morality are no more than a red herring introduced by the colonizers to pacify the colonized, deluding them with the concept that their sub-human struggles happen by the will of God. Morality itself becomes another instrument of oppression.
“The arrival of the colonist signified syncretically the death of indigenous society, cultural lethargy, and petrifaction of the individual. For the colonized, life can only materialize from the rotting cadaver of the colonist.”
If Fanon’s words seem a little strong, it’s because they were crafted to course through the bloodstream of the Third World with urgent, historic momentum. As Sartre says in what must be one of the most scathing prefaces in literature, The Wretched of The Earth is not addressed to European (or American) readers–if we do read it, we are eavesdropping on the mobilization of Africa against its foreign rulers.
In this watershed text, in fact, we can find among other things the seed of Malcolm X’s criticism of Dr. King’s nonviolence movement, a movement which the former denounced as toothless and ineffectual. We can see that Malcolm’s black nationalism is in many ways an American interpolation of Fanon’s dialectic of violent resistance against French colonialism. You can almost hear the Nation of Islam leader at the podium as Fanon declares that “colonialism is not a machine capable of thinking, a body endowed with reason. It is naked violence and only gives in when confronted with greater violence.”
While staunch pacifists might wince at Fanon’s bald entreaty for bloodshed, context is essential in understanding such a radical stance. The Algerian freedom fighter is preaching a restorative violence that represents a means to regaining, ideally, national consciousness, which in turn would theoretically lead to a new unity of the African continent.
Colonialism, in other words, has started a chain-reaction of struggle that may never end, but Fanon insists that we not condemn those who fight for their people, their land, their values and culture, but rather those whose iniquity and greedy marauding necessitated such an extreme response in the first place. There is nothing more precious to a people than their dignity, and if it is taken away, then it must be restored at all costs. (This is a part of Fanon’s brilliant discussion of liberation enriching culture towards the end of the book.)
Fanon, however, is nothing if not a realist, and much of The Wretched of The Earth is concerned with detailing the pitfalls of decolonization and independence in nations like Algeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The furious efforts of the people for independence are often co-opted by the corporate duplicity of the colonizer in cooperation with members of the national bourgeoisie–the latter of which is the target of some of Fanon’s most wrathful passages.
“At the core of the national bourgeoisie of the colonial countries a hedonistic mentality prevails–because on a psychological level it identifies with the Western bourgeoisie from which it has slurped every lesson. It mimics the Western bourgeoisie in its negative and decadent aspects without having accomplished the initial phases of exploration and invention that are the assets of this Western bourgeoisie whatever the circumstances.”
In opportunistically morphing into a “caricature” of the colonizer in the wake of decolonization, the national bourgeoisie act as a guarantor for European capital and its “legitimate interests”, in this way perpetuating the dynamics of oppression already plaguing the nation. They wallow in the spoils of ill-gotten lucre and foreign profit while nine-tenths of the people struggle to feed themselves. The subversive voices of the nationalist parties are gradually weeded out until the government resembles a dictatorship.
This heroic quest for national consciousness, then, becomes clouded by the cynical ambition of petty bureaucrats–old tribal feuds and in-fighting resurface as the rural classes squabble over bread-crumbs. A sense of mistrust pervades the country. The ideals of independence take on the false glimmer of a dream, their stirring battle-cry silenced by the national leaders’ betrayal of their own people. The Manichean duality of the colonial society is preserved, even if white faces are nowhere to be seen.
Tell me, what philanthropic charity for “feeding Africa” exists that can counteract the corrosive effects of inherent elitism? How can any initiative be effective that doesn’t acknowledge the neocolonial reality of African nations despoiled for the sake of Western opulence?
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about globalization is our acceptance of the human cost of the goods we buy, all while compartmentalizing history in such a way that our conscience is cleared of guilt. As long as colonialism remains a thing of the past, we are absolved of responsibility. Our Nikes and Galaxies remain untainted. But upon closer inspection, the same relationships of exploitation exist between the Anglo-American axis and the Third World, only in new and more surreptitious forms.
“After a phase of capital accumulation, capitalism has now modified its notion of profitability…A blind domination on the model of slavery is (no longer) economically profitable for the metropolis.”
The brazen colonial flags of the mercantile period have been replaced with the anonymity of neoliberal economics. Even the former chief economist of the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz, has admitted that the dictums issuing from institutions like the International Monetary Fund have “the feel of the colonial ruler”. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, you have a situation in which former president Joseph Kabila publicly defends Israeli billionaire Dan Gelter, a man who has made some 2.7 billion dollars from the Congo’s reserves of diamond, copper and cobalt. Again and again, the land and its people are sold to the highest bidder.
Fanon’s The Wretched of The Earth has been celebrated as perhaps the greatest exposé of colonialism and the psychological trauma it inflicts on its victims. Maybe it’s time, however, that we start regarding it as a living text that speaks directly to the modern miasma of globalization. In Fanon, we find a critique of the praxis of power standing behind the historical forms of Western domination. Globalization, as a means of ethnic exploitation, is clearly on the same continuum as colonialism. Fanon teaches us (with brio) that becoming ensnared in these differing labels interferes with our seeing the single, ongoing thing for what it is.
The ironic truth, of course, is that our Western societies no longer have the luxury to feel sympathetic towards the suffering of the Other. Look around you. Even if you find yourself on the “right” side of globalization, is your economic security anymore safeguarded, your rights and freedoms, indeed, anymore enshrined? The opulence you see is not for you, but in spite of you. Even the privilege you cling to is a false commodity; Western materialism makes no distinction in who it colonizes.
In 2019, the entire world is one big Algeria, and Frantz Fanon’s voice speaks louder and more urgently than ever.
“Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity.”