Silencing the Present
In Silencing the Past Michel-Rolph Trouillot argued that when colonial power asserted that enslaved Africans and their descendants in Haiti had no capacity to envisage freedom, or to develop strategies to win freedom and to carry them out, this was based not on any empirical evidence but “an ontology, an implicit organization of the world and its inhabitants”.
In his first published essay, The North African Syndrome, Frantz Fanon insisted that “an a priori attitude” towards the North African in French medical science meant that the North African “by the very fact of appearing on the scene, enters into a pre-existing framework”. For both Fanon and Trouillot the ontological split central to colonial ideology was, fundamentally, a split between people imagined to be capable of reason and those imagined not to be capable of reason. In his first book, published in the same year as his first essay, Fanon declared, speaking of reason, that in an anti-black context “when I was present, it was not; when it was there, I was no longer”.
In his famous essay on The Prose of Counter-Insurgency Ranajit Guha argues that in the archive of colonial India “insurgency is regarded as external to the peasant’s consciousness and Cause is made to stand in as a phantom surrogate for Reason, the logic of that consciousness”.
In his recent book on Bolivia Raúl Zibechi argues that “self-movement” requires that the oppressed “refuse the place that they have been historically assigned”. But he also notes that when “the subject/object relationship, one of the most pernicious colonial legacies breaks down” there is an “epistemological earthquake” that is often resisted by elites across the political spectrum – including on the left. He insists that when people organise themselves “the road forks: we either accept that the oppressed have their own autonomous political capacities or label their activity ‘spontaneous’, that is politically blind….unconscious and pre-political”.
When access to the political is policed in contemporary South Africa – whether by local political elites, the media, civil society or the middle class left – in such a way that the most oppressed people in the country are denied the right to assert themselves as political actors on a shared stage we are in the presence of attempts to silence the present. This takes many forms – the presentation of popular politics in criminal terms, as a consequence of white conspiracy, or as inauthentic when it expands beyond what is imagined to be the spontaneous and more or less biological expression of anger in the form of the riot, and so on. In each of these cases, and in many others too, it is evident that the way in which people who are poor and black are systematically excluded from the realm of the political in order to enable elites, be they in the state, civil society or the left, to continue to monopolise this space is mediated through an ontological order that has its roots in colonialism.
This is one of many reasons why it is important to take seriously the degree to which the logic of contemporary modes of domination has a colonial character. When full measure is not taken of this reality economistic discourses that present neo-liberalism as the fundamental problem and socialism as the fundamental answer quickly run into serious limitations. One of these limitations is that in the name of a better future to come, a future that is not currently attainable, domination organised on the basis of both class and race, as well as gender, is frequently entrenched in the present.