Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Universalism in action

by Richard Pithouse, Pambazuka

In his first book, written as a student in Lyon, Frantz Fanon recounts that as a young black man filled with a desire to attain to the source of the world the white world slashed at his joy demanding that he return to his place. He found that in a racist world when he was present, reason was absent and when reason was present, he was absent. He abandoned the futile attempt to accommodate himself to a world that didn't recognise his humanity and committed himself to risk annihilation in the vortex of struggle to end that world in the hope that two or three truths wrought from that struggle would cast some light on the way being forged by others.

His last book, largely dictated in Tunis in a rush against approaching death, was composed on the eve of Algerian Independence and on the tide of a great international movement against racism and imperialism. He had recently met Malcom X and had been invited to work in Cuba by Che Guevara – people thrown up by this movement and as intensely alive as he was. But Patrice Lumumba, to whom Fanon had been close, was already dead as was Fanon's closest comrade in the Algerian movement, Abane Ramdane. Lumumba had been killed by imperialism but Ramdane was killed by the militarists in the Algerian liberation movement.

For a dying man who had lived his life in a creative and militant commitment to the demand that the world recognise the open door of every consciousness this was a moment where dawn seemed coloured by dusk. It was clear that political and military victories against direct colonial occupation carried no guarantee against new forms of defeat.

Fifty years later, after so many disasters, so many long years in the tunnel of structural adjustment policed with despotic rule, we find ourselves amidst a new sequence of rebellion. A spark, lit in Sidi Bouzid and fanned into leaping flame in Tunis, has spiralled out through Cairo, Damascus, Athens, Madrid and New York. The fact that there is a real movement and that history has not been slammed shut cannot be denied. But how far this movement will go towards abolishing the present state of things is altogether more uncertain.

For many of us the great crowds swirling through the tear gas in Tahrir Square may seem entirely distant from our more prosaic realities. But while the scale and commitment of that sort of mobilisation may be very distant, there are always more local and limited forms of rupture in which there are real possibilities for political openings. Whether we engage them or spurn them is a matter of political choice rather than any function of brute systemic objectivity.

Amongst university-trained intellectuals it is often assumed, perhaps in a neo-Platonic way, that an abstract concept or principle is more universal, truer and perhaps also more beautiful than the necessarily messier engagement with situated reality. But this fundamentally misunderstands the production of the universal.

In politics, as in art, the particular is the route to the universal. A political truth emerges from a confrontation with a particular situation. Any denial of the particularity from which a political truth must emerge is, ultimately, a denial of the fullness of the human experience. Any presentation of human being abstracted from context runs a clear risk of illegitimately universalising dominant particularities.

At the same time the presentation of any human experience as singular and contained rather than specific but nonetheless communicable, a fallacy that is endemic to both colonial and postcolonial thought, but less so to anti-colonial thought, consigns that experience to a sealed existence. We should not forget that the truths that Fanon found in the battles in the back streets of Algiers and the mountains in rural Algeria cast their brilliance from Tehran, to Durban and Chicago.

If we accept some version of Alain Badiou’s idea that, along with the constant flux of bodies and languages, the human world is also constituted by truths, murmurs of the indiscernible that, via subjective affiliation, via embodied fidelity, attain sufficient force to alter the way in which the elements of a situation are normally counted, then we must ask where such ideas come from. The temptation to assume that spaces of metropolitan power, or spaces networked through metropolitan power, have privileged access to insight is widespread. This is often racialised and for many university-trained intellectuals it is mediated through academic and civil society networks that are, despite the language of justice, often frankly neocolonial and bereft of any real prospect to unite force and reason against oppression.

In the post-colony it is still often assumed, as Fanon said of Martinique 60 years ago, that the metropole is sacred ground on which one can be sanctified. But while political innovation may certainly be found in New York or London, or in a salon in Johannesburg or Sao Paulo, it is not necessarily to be found there. There’s also the square in Cairo, the backstreets of Port-au-Prince and the shacks in the hills of La Plaz. Badiou is entirely correct to insist that ‘Every world is capable of producing its own truth within itself’. Any assumption that all people do not have the same capacity to think and to be ethical, or that all places do not have the same capacity to be sites for thought and political action, is complicit with domination.

Theoretical insights worked out in particular situations can be used to illuminate, and sometimes with extraordinary power – as with Gramsci's afterlife in India, other situations across space and time. But when these insights are reified and applied in a dogmatic manner they are far more likely to blind us to the novelties, subtleties and possibilities of the new than to offer any illumination.

Forms of leftism that reify past struggles, deify individuals and canonise texts as scriptural authority will always be with us. The spirit of the school master, the didactic patronage of well-wishing (bourgeois and non-bourgeois) doctrinaires and activists wishing to impose the dead hand of a pre-existing schema on living struggles will always be with us.

But a living struggle, a genuine mass struggle, always thinks a time and place. It is always what S'bu Zikode calls a living politics – a home-made politics in the hands of ordinary women and men posing their humanity against oppression. To affirm this is is to affirm the need to think each situation in its particularity, for new generations to think their own politics and for actually existing struggles to be the primary space for this work. Fifty years on, Fanon remains an extraordinary example of an intellectual willing to commit to a living politics waged with and not for the damned of this earth.

Three months after his death Francis Jeanson wrote that: ‘This Martinican, who was turned by his transition through French culture into an Algerian revolutionary, will remain for us a very living example of universalism in action.’ Indeed.