Homi K. Bhabha: Is Frantz Fanon Still Relevant?

Roundup: Talking About History

Homi K. Bhabha, in the Chronicle of Higher Ed (3-14-05):

[Homi K. Bhabha is a professor of English and American literature, and chairman of the program in history and literature, at Harvard University. This essay is adapted from his introduction to a new edition of Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, to be published next month by Grove Press.]

... Is The Wretched of the Earth now only a historical and scholarly artifact? In the era of globalization, is it a relic of nationalistic struggle? Or do Fanon's insights transcend the particulars of his time? Might they help us make sense of today's global political and economic tensions?

It's hard to revel in Fanon's dreams while wrestling with his political ethic of violence. Combine the religiousness in Fanon's language of revolutionary wrath "the last shall be the first," "the almighty body of violence rearing up" -- with his description of the widening circle of national unity as reaching the "boiling point" in a way that "is reminiscent of a religious brotherhood, a church or a mystical doctrine," and we find ourselves both forewarned and wary of the ethnonationalist religious conflicts of our own times.

When we hear Fanon say that "for the people only fellow nationals are ever owed the truth," we furiously object to such a narrow and dangerous definition of "the people" and "the truth." Fanon's view that the building of national consciousness demands cultural homogeneity and the dissolution of differences is deeply troubling. Is he not dangerously outdated?

Fanon's best hopes for the Algerian revolution were taken hostage, and summarily executed, first by bureaucratized military rule that violated his belief "that an army is never a school for war, but a school for civics," and then by the rise of fundamentalist groups like the Islamic Salvation Front. Josie Fanon, his wife, looked out of her window in the El Biar district of Algiers in October 1988 only to find scenes of carnage. In violently quelling a demonstration in the street below, the army had inflamed the passions of Algerian youths, who responded by torching police cars and were felled by a barrage of bullets. Speaking to her friend the Algerian writer Assia Djebar on the telephone, Josie sighed, "Oh, Frantz, the wretched of the earth again."

More broadly, it must seem a stretch to search for lessons for the globalization of our era in the decolonization of Fanon's. Decolonization had the dream of a third world of free, postcolonial nations firmly on its horizon. Globalization gazes at the nation-state through the rearview mirror, as we speed on a fiber-optic freeway toward the strategic denationalization of state sovereignty.

The global aspirations of third-world national thinking belonged to the internationalist traditions of socialism, Marxism, and humanism, whereas the dominant forces of contemporary globalization are free-market ideas embedded in ideologies of technocratic elitism. And while it was the primary purpose of decolonization to repossess territory in order to ensure national polity and global equity, globalization propagates a world of virtual, transnational domains and wired communities.

In what way, then, can Fanon instruct us in our global century? x For one thing, the economic antidotes for inequality and poverty, as prescribed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, for instance, have "the feel of the colonial ruler," in the words of Joseph Stiglitz, the bank's former senior vice president and chief economist. "They help to create," he writes, "a dual economy in which there are pockets of wealth. ... But a dual economy is not a developed economy."

The granting of loans becomes an enforcement of policy that rapidly reproduces dual, unequal economies worldwide. These dual economies sustain silicon valleys and oases of outsourcing -- but such signs of global development are darkened by the colonial shadow. In dual economies, strata of prosperity mask the ubiquitous, underlying, persistent poverty and malnutrition, the caste and racial injustice, the exploitation of women's and children's labor, and the victimization of refugees. For instance, "India Shining," the 2004 electioneering slogan of the "high tech" Hindu-nationalist BJP government, shrugged off the darker, daily reality of the 63 percent of rural households that do not have electricity, and the 10 to 15 hours of blackouts and brownouts that, on any given day, afflict those that do.

Such an instance of global economic duality echoes Fanon's celebrated description of the compartmentalized structure of colonial society. The Wretched of the Earth, well beyond the immediacies of its anticolonial context -- the Algerian war of independence and the African continent anticipates configurations of contemporary globalization.

There is also, in Fanon's writing, an eerily contemporary and ominous sense of the clock ticking. He suggests that the future of the decolonized world is imaginable, or achievable, only in the process of resisting the peremptory and polarizing choices that superpowers impose on their client states. Decolonization can be achieved only by destroying the Manichaeanism of the cold war. His work prompts us to ask what pressures the Manichaeanism of the war on terror imposes on the new client states.

Fanon was wary of the national consciousness of "young" nations. "National consciousness is nothing but a crude, empty, fragile shell," he wrote. "The cracks in it explain how easy it is for young, independent countries to switch back from nation to ethnic group and from state to tribe -- a regression which is so terribly detrimental and prejudicial to the development of the nation and national unity." Fanon foreshadows the ethnonationalist switchbacks of our own times, the charnel houses of ethnic cleansing: Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, Gujarat, Sudan. He anticipates the regressions into religious-fundamentalist tribalism, and the reactionary theses on "the clash of civilizations" that targeted, at first, Islam, and now migrants, refugees, and minorities more generally.

"If nationalism is not explained, enriched, and deepened," he wrote, "if it does not very quickly turn into a social and political consciousness, into humanism, then it leads to a dead end." ...

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