Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Notes on 'The Wretched of the Earth'

Ndapwa Alweendo, 16 September 2013

Reading The Wretched of the Earth was a surprisingly emotional experience. On the one hand, Fanon writes with a prescience that is breath-taking in its accuracy. His chapter on the pitfalls of national consciousness is still extremely relevant to many post-colonial states, which left me which a sense of disappointment. At the same time, the reader is given hope as they are constantly reminded that revolution is not unattainable, even as any oppressive system does its best to suppress it. While the decolonisation movement was not consolidated in many postcolonial states, the very fact of its occurrence is testament to the potential for revolutionary change inherent in an oppressive system.

Fanon’s discussion of culture as a tool of a liberatory movement raises some interesting points for discussion. Often, liberatory struggle takes the form of the re-establishment of a national culture that has been denied and contested as part of the colonial process. Fanon clearly outlines the way in which ‘native’ cultures are homogenised and dismissed by the colonisers, as a way to deny the humanity of the colonised. In Algeria for example, the veil was re-defined by the colonisers as a method of oppressing Algerian women, ignoring the religious, cultural and political significance that the Algerian people ascribed to it (Fanon, 1965: 37). Instead of seeing themselves as contributing to the history of the colonised, the coloniser does the opposite: the colonised subject is simply a living backdrop to the coloniser’s history (Fanon, 1963: 51).

In the face of such dehumanisation, both in terms of one’s history and one’s lived experience, it is entirely logical that the colonial subject cling to a national culture as an affirmation of self. While Fanon is not necessarily a supporter of culture in and of itself, he sees the return to culture as an inevitable step in the decolonisation process. However, he does recognise the problems that often accompany such a return. Attempts to build a national culture may be naïve in that there is more than one culture in any colonial state, and they may be at odds with each other. Even if a national culture that is inclusive is agreed upon, it may have serious problems that are overlooked because distancing the colonised subject from the coloniser takes precedence (Fanon, 1963: 218).

 One has to wonder about the emancipatory potential of a national culture that may be in and of itself oppressive. In a country like Namibia for example, it is difficult to imagine the emergence of a national culture that would not be largely determined by ethnic (and, to a certain extent, racial) identity. Essentially, Fanon appears to view culture as a stepping-stone in the revolutionary process – the oppressed individual needs to see that action, rather than culture, is what gains one membership to the nation.

One of the most striking aspects of the book was the nuanced discussion of the role of violence in a liberatory struggle. While I was aware of the fact that Fanon condoned the use of violence, the reasons for this stance were not entirely clear to me and, as a result, it seemed at times to be a somewhat offhand prescription. While the topic was discussed in Black Skin, White Masks and A Dying Colonialism, I think that this work succeeds in outlining the real difficulties regarding violence.

The necessity and the inevitability of violence are clear when one considers the colonial condition. The colonised subject faced violence from all directions. As noted above, the culture and history of the ‘native’ was heavily suppressed – this denial of humanity constituted violence. The colonial state also used violence directly on the colonial subject, both physically and mentally. This latter form of violence is brilliantly demonstrated in the chapter entitled “Colonial War and Mental Disorders”, which makes clear the link between the often in­­­discriminate violence of the state and the deterioration of the mental health of countless Algerians. In the face of such inescapable violence, I agree with Fanon when he says that a violent response is both inevitable and necessary. While the use of violence by an oppressed people is never desirable, it is certainly a necessary action, and is liberatory because it is an action against an oppressive state/system of control. The intensification of state-sanctioned violence that usually precedes a violent response only serves to further encourage the colonised subject to respond in kind.

What was also interesting was the unifying power that Fanon attributes to violence. Fanon compares the use of violence against the coloniser to a “royal pardon” (1963: 86), capable of buying re-entry into society by those who have ‘strayed’ or are considered outlaws. The sort of ‘undesirables’ to whom this currency is useful include “the pimps, the hooligans, the unemployed, and the petty criminals” (Fanon, 1963: 130). This notion of solidarity through violence has interesting connotations for the way in which we understand morality in society.
Firstly, the idea that violence is unjustifiable under any circumstances, and that all disputes should be settled by peaceful means (i.e. pacifism), is not compatible with the colonial system, which is inherently violent. To expect a people to respond to violence with pacifism seems completely unreasonable, and could even be interpreted as a continued denial of their humanity. Secondly, although I do not condone the exclusion of “the pimps, the hooligans, the unemployed, and the petty criminals” in any society, it is somehow comforting to know that society is capable of accepting the marginalised, even if that acceptance is only temporary and occurs in the most terrible of times. Without reverting to the extreme of cultural relativism, I think it is safe to say that Fanon reveals that morality is by no means a fixed point. His work also reveals that many differences are not as insurmountable as they may seem, as history continues to demonstrate the ability of human beings to put aside their differences in order to achieve a greater goal. Acceptance of this idea could, in an ideal world, help to put an end to the marginalisation that continues to persist globally.

Much as I wanted to avoid ending on a sad note, it was impossible to read Fanon’s work without feeling a sense of despair. It is undeniable that his work read, in many ways, as a call to arms and a call to humanity. For that reason, I believe that his three works should be more widely read and appreciated than they are today. Fanon’s message is profound and uncompromising: oppression is a denial of the humanity that should be universally accepted and protected, and people have to be willing to make any sacrifice to reclaim their humanity.

However, the prescience I alluded to at the start of this paper is deeply disturbing, because his descriptions of the post-colonial state continue to be so relevant. When Fanon wrote this work, I doubt that he predicted that states which gained independence approximately thirty years later (namely Namibia and South Africa) would be so accurately described by his words. He criticised states for attempting to follow in the footsteps of their colonisers, stating that “we today can do everything, so long as we do not imitate Europe, so long as we are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe” (Fanon, 1963: 312). It is obvious though, at least in terms of economics, that many post-colonial states have done just this. South Africa, India and Brazil are all praised for cultivating economies which have been actively modelled on the economies of the so-called ‘developed’ countries. This tribute to the European economic model is, as is noted by Fanon, grotesque as it valorises a system that continues the denial of humanity that was begun by the colonial state.

Perhaps though, the unthinkability of change is what will make change inevitable. After all, both the Haitian Revolution and the ability of colonial states to govern themselves was unthinkable up until the moments they became a reality (and even after that). Perhaps, rather than believing that a movement will fail because of similarities to the past, Fanon’s work can be used to help us avoid some of the pitfalls that trapped those that went before us. In that case, Fanon’s work still has a great degree of relevance in contemporary liberatory struggle.
List of References
Fanon, F., 1965. A Dying Colonialism. New York: Grove Press.

Fanon, F., 1963. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.