Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Reflection on 'The Wretched of the Earth'

Kyla Hazell

The Wretched of the Earth raises the question of how a revolutionary moment can be sustained in order to bring about true decolonisation. A theme of Fanon’s throughout the three works we have studied is the change that emancipatory action renders in a human soul, but this final book seems to introduce the issue of how to sustain that transformation beyond the moment in which the flag of independence is raised. In this text, Fanon speaks to his concerns about the years which follow liberation. He describes post-colonial societies which remain subject to the former colonial powers’ economic interests (aligned with the interests of the national bourgeoisie), while their people are rapidly depoliticised and see little concrete change (Fanon, 1961: 65). This demobilisation can be seen as a massive part of the failure to continue transformative projects beyond the revolutionary moment because motion and action are fundamental for Fanon. In describing the Manichean world of colonial society, Fanon (1961: 51) explicitly uses the descriptors “motionless” and “static” to denote how a frozen social space is one which stagnates. In contrast, it is always the movement towards ideals and the active struggle that contains creative potential and brings about individual and collective change. This essay will read Wretched as a warning against the stagnation of society after liberation and argue that one of the messages Fanon is attempting to convey is that forward-motion after emancipation needs to take the form of innovative, critical thought to reconstruct the very values of society in an inclusive manner. In order to do this, political education and mobilisation must continue and people must be brought in to the political project of nation building as thinking contributors.

Fanon (1961: 48) discusses how colonialism creates the idea that the West is the home of Universal values, cultures and ideas. The aim is for the oppressed to adopt these values as their ideals and voluntarily submit to their own subordination in accordance with them. This is something which comes to be challenged during the struggle. The people acquire a new self-respect and a sense of ownership which drives them to desire engagement with political decision-making and what Fanon (1961: 95) calls a ‘taste for the concrete’. He believes that this makes it difficult for any opportunists to take advantage of the people after liberation, but experience seems to dictate otherwise due to many post-colonial countries dealing with issues of equal citizenship, vast economic inequality, and representation. If we accept Fanon’s argument that it is the action of struggle which makes people demand concrete democratic control, then one explanation for this would be that the people are demobilised after liberation and so disconnected from the kind of politics that made “the attempt at mystification...practically impossible” (Fanon, 1961: 95). Fanon (1961: 147) says that the “new facts which the native will now come to know exist only in action. They are the essence of the fight which explodes the old colonial truths and reveals unexpected facets, which brings out new meanings and pinpoints the contradictions camouflaged by these facts.” He describes the education people acquire through this active process as being the key to understanding social truths and acquiring true freedom. In its absence, the result will be “nothing save a minimum of readaptation, a few reforms at the top, a flag waving: and down there at the bottom an undivided mass, still living in the middle ages, endlessly marking time.” (Fanon, 1961: 147)

Though the struggle calls the colonial prescriptions in to question, certain values may remain unchallenged after liberation (Fanon, 1961: 49). These provide a justification for the retention of colonial structures which are seen as models of the way things naturally should be. Because these structures are built on inequality, segregation, and exploitation (Fanon, 1965: 94), the majority of people remain without redress while a few elite leaders benefit from the new dispensation of equal political rights (Fanon, 1961: 55). As a strong example of a structure remaining unchanged, Fanon refers to the continuation of an economy in which Africans extract resources for export to European nations without developing local industries able to refine and utilise these resources according to our own designs. Fanon says that the sheer effort of the liberated people cannot be sustained for any significant period at the level required to catch up in a competitive capitalist economy in which they are already without resources, infrastructure, and skills (Fanon, 1961: 98). He argues that what is needed rather is a rethinking of systems: what we export, how we use our resources, where we draw our energy from, and which industries we prioritise, for example (Fanon, 1961: 100).

One of the most interesting lessons that I think the book is trying to convey is that the colonial or post-colonial context is a unique one, with distinctive problems that require tailored solutions. Fanon (1961: 40) speaks about how Marxist analyses will never fit neatly in the colonial context. He argues that we should not be trying to choose between capitalism and socialism as they have been defined by other men in foreign contexts, but rather aiming to establish our own, contextually appropriate values and practices (Fanon, 1961: 99). In the same way that fighting against colonialism within the nation required a violent struggle, so too fighting neo-colonialism requires a violent challenge to the former values and systems which tie us in to a global economic system which is designed to benefit the former colonial powers at the expense of the underdeveloped nations. It seems necessary in stating this to briefly consider what is meant by violence in this context. Fanon is clearly describing physical combat in his chapters on the subject and provides convincing arguments for the necessity of such in achieving liberation. That said, I do not think that the kind of violence required to tumble colonialism would necessarily suit contemporary challenges, for the simple reason that the imposition of neo-colonial force takes place far more insidiously and indirectly than the brute force of direct colonial rule. Much of the control which keeps people under and allows for oppressive structures to remain unchallenged is due to a mind-set which sees such structures as natural or unquestionable. If this is a force which operates at the level of thought, it is perhaps a forceful, challenging, combative and audacious thought which is required by way of violent response from the former colonies.

Part of the problem of thinking about new solutions and producing this challenging thought, though, relates to who is empowered and positioned to engage in such thinking. In South Africa, many of those who attain higher degrees and step in to the role of being society’s “thinkers” (lawyers, journalists, engineers, scientists, and businesspersons, to name a few) are unconcerned with radically challenging the dominant values and ideas because the existing structures serve them (Fanon, 1961: 150). Any nation-building which is driven from above thus risks being shallow in that it benefits only a few. Fanon argues that the true building of a national consciousness would “interpret the manifest will of the people and reveal the eager African peoples” (Fanon, 1961: 247). He continues to say that a national middle class which truly hoped to act in the national interest would have to consider itself obliged to resist simply stepping in to the comfortable roles available to it. The middle class would rather need “to put itself to school with the people: in other words to put at the people's disposal the intellectual and technical capital that it has snatched when going through the colonial universities.” (Fanon, 1961: 152) The thinking which needs to be done cannot be done by the University-educated middle classes alone, but the danger is that we are failing to look further afield. Demobilisation and depoliticisation post-democracy sees the masses sent home to await transformation solutions set by their leaders. This is a fundamental error, because it fails to follow Fanon’s lesson that it is active political engagement which transforms society and generates new, more universal understandings during the struggle. There is a lack of political education post-democracy (Fanon, 1961: 117), with very little focus on how the millions of citizens in rural areas can contribute to and strengthen the democratic process in a substantive sense. Fanon (1961: 117) describes how the transformative project can be counteracted because the people have not been involved in discussions about the nature of the problems the former colony seeks to address and how they relate to global political and economic structures. Sustaining the creative potential generated by the tension of struggle needs to involve a continuous challenging of (struggling against) dominant values when these appear to contradict present problems (the environmental crisis in conversation with capitalism provides many of these). And this critical thinking needs to occur broadly so that those who are not served by the continued structures of colonialism are able to reveal the contradictions and imperfections made plain by their experience.

Fanon concludes The Wretched of the Earth with a series of cases documenting the psychological damage wrought by colonialism. This, in my mind, shows how much further the painful work of transformation and healing will have to go beyond the moment of liberation. The chapter thus closes the book by reminding the reader of the kind of damage that needs to be worked through and drives home the point that simple political freedom will not be enough to address the pain which exists in the post-colony. Following on from his discussion of violence, the transformative potential of struggle, the need for new ideas, and the importance of a true national consciousness, these last cases leave the reader with the distinct impression that much remains to be done.


Frantz Fanon, 1961, The Wretched of the Earth Grove Press: New York.