With Fanon, yesterday and today by Nelson Maldonado-Torres
Nelson Maldonado-Torres is president of the Caribbean Philosophical Association
In the context of the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Frantz Fanon, this short essay intends to delineate the relevance of the work of this author, within the context of continuous anti-colonial and anti-racist mobilizations in the Third World and the First. The essay offers a vision distinct from other recent expressions, such as those of Philippe Pierre-Charles and Oliver Besancenot, and tries to establish connections with current social movements, such as the Indigenous of the Republic in France.
Just over fifty years ago, the great Martinican and Algerian thinker and veteran, Frantz Fanon wrote, “The explosion will not happen today. It is too soon … or too late” (1973:7). Fanon wrote these words after having participated with the French resistance in World War II, and before arriving in Algeria and joining the National Liberation Front. His participation in both wars shared something in common: his opposition to racism, imperialism, colonialism, and to the dehumanization of some peoples and subjects by others. Explosions could be found everywhere during these wars, yet even so, the persistence of the problems Fanon confronted thus indicates that the “explosion” that sought to bring them to an end has yet to arrive and it is uncertain if it will.
It is in these same existential and historical conditions, in a sense, in which we still find ourselves today, fifty years after his death. Although it is true that formal colonial relationships are no longer as prevalent or explicit as they once were, we must recognize the existence of a global matrix of power and a universe of symbolic representations firmly rooted in the long-history of modern/colonial relations, including among others, modern racism, slavery and genocide. Very much in line with Fanon, the Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano has referred to this as the “coloniality of power” and Jamaican thinker Sylvia Wynter [has termed it] the new “propter nos,” or civilizational discourse of modernity.
In light of this, the objective today remains to struggle against the formal relations of colonization, while designing strategies of opposition and change with respect to the colonial, racist, and dehumanizing dimensions of nation-states and of a global matrix of power that cannot be denoted simply as capitalist. In his classic work, The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon himself advises us to avoid approaches that reduce the problems of colonialism and racism to solely a matter of class: “In the colonies the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure. The cause is effect: you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich. This is why Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to deal with the colonial problem” (1977:34). Fifty years after his death, there is still a great deal for us to understand and learn from all the dimensions of this Fanonian verdict, above all among circles of the Left.
The problems that Fanon observed and diagnosed in the colonies were never only relevant among them. The coloniality of power, being, knowledge, and gender (see the works of L. Gordon, R. Grosfoguel, M. Lugones, W. Mignolo, A. Quijano, B. de Sousa Santos, C. Walsh, and S. Wynter among others) was forged in the colony, on the slave ship, on the plantation, in the intimate spaces of home, in the state, and in the relationship between empire and colony, and between center and periphery. From there, it expanded in multiple ways such that today it is everywhere and affects us all. At the same time, it is not strange that coloniality takes a particularly vicious form with relation to racialized subjects and those who come from current and former colonies. That is why today, fifty years after Fanon’s death, his thought remains highly relevant, not only with respect to understanding the dynamics of “global coloniality”, but also with respect to existing forms of exclusion and efforts of re-humanization organized by descendants of slaves and colonial subjects, as well as of migrants from the Global South in the metropoles and cities of former empires, amongst other groups of subjects whose very humanity is in question.
If Fanon visited a Europe that had been visited recently by the excesses of coloniality, as manifested in its Hitlerian racist and imperialist hubris, today’s Europe is frequented, now more than ever, by the colonial subjects from the very regions where crucial elements of coloniality were engineered. And it is with respect to these colonial subjects that Europe continues to demonstrate its usual manner of concealing the problems it creates and that others must suffer, and of pathologizing the communities and movements that protest or seek change. Something similar also occurs in the United States with its attack against Spanish-speaking migrants and other communities of color, and it is not rare to find comparable attitudes amongst the elites of the Global South.
Today, even more than yesterday, Fanon is relevant not only in the colonies, but in the metropole as well. And it is there, in the metropole, where it is said there is no racism since there are only “citizens,” while “citizen” means only one specific type of human being, which does not recognize or accept fundamental elements of the humanity of communities and subjects that are perceived as outside the norm. It is there as well, where the denunciation of racism and affirmation of the full humanity of dehumanized subjects leads one to be dismissed as essentialist, that is, to be re-pathologized, or to say they have confused the problem because they use particular technical terms such as “post-colonialism” or others.
Even today, in the metropole as in other places, the Right joins the Left at the moment in which they deny or silence racism, and at the moment they deligitimize social groups who defy modern interpretive norms, be they liberal, conservative, or Marxist, that presume to dictate what constitutes social and political action. It is not strange then, that in light of such affronts, these subjects find support in Fanon, and above all in a Fanon who never privileged method over the people and who was very familiarized with the complex traumas of racism and coloniality.
To put Fanon’s thought into practice entails today not simply celebrating his words and actions, but also participating in the decolonization and de-racialization of the society and state in which one resides and of the world. It is this commitment to the “damned” in the present, more than with some future possible or impossible explosion and much less with the pathologization and re-pathologization of groups who value their cultural identity, that best reflects Fanonian action today. The “damned” also have their own goals, and Fanon’s thought is as useful for self-critique as it is for the formulation of methodologies and strategies to build links across distinct communities of the dammed. From the Caribbean to France, from France to Algeria, from Algeria to the rest of Africa and to the United States, from the United States to Latin America, and from Latin America to Asia, such, and many more, can be the diverse connections and trajectories of decolonial action. Here still Fanon has much to tell us.
Fanon wrote “I belong irreducibly to my time.” With all the significant differences between the world in which Fanon lived and ours, perhaps it is us who must admit that we continue belonging as much to the time as to the living thought of Fanon. Decolonization is an unfinished project.
Frantz Fanon (1973) Black Skin, White Masks
Frantz Fanon (1977) The Wretched of the Earth
Translation from Spanish to English by Mikey Velarde.