March 02, 2008

For a Right to Fight

From June 2007 on Michigoss Jon Ganz and Aaron Mondry's U of M schoolyard webjournal. May she rise again!

Jesus too had his table-turning fit in the temple. Perhaps the prophet of the meek realized that violence is often the only way to be heard, or sometimes, to survive. The centuries-long chronology of colonialism proves that power won’t defer to a turned cheek. Frantz Fanon lived his entire life as a black subject of white empire. The French wielded the sword and piled the dead, but also inflicted psychological wounds upon the living. A just world would not confront anyone with the choice to kill or be killed. And yet, predatory power structures persist in compelling large portions of humanity to face precisely this morbid ultimatum. To advocate non-violence as a universal ethical rule is to misunderstand the particular plight, and urgent demands, of those upon whom the cloud of domination continues to rain down.

The core of Fanon's message was thus: free yourselves by any means necessary. A psychologist of the Freudian tradition, Fanon envisioned violent resistance as a cleansing release from the trauma of the colonial experience. In his view, colonized communities had internalized the inferiority imputed upon them by repressive regimes. In turn, individuals had colonized themselves by repressing their most basic desire for freedom. As a boy in French-ruled Martinique, Fanon absorbed daily violence in many forms. His early education taught him a French history about the gallant Gauls and white heroism. He was written out of the story, or rather, re-written by representations of the irrational savage as the embodiment of moral darkness.

The colonized had to navigate a matrix of power in which body and psyche alike were bombarded by collective punishments. The dominant “other” cast a glare that fundamentally re-fashioned black communities while reducing their value to metrics of labor utility. The black man would never be human in a white world unless he challenged and defeated inhumane power structures. Fanon synergizes Marxist class analysis and his own explanation of the psycho-racial dynamics of colonial society, while asserting a prophecy of biblical proportions: “The last shall be first.”

But how would this reversal of fortunes be achieved? What is one to do, when bodies and identities are fixed in submission? Fanon found his answer late in life, after moving to an Algeria steeped in revolution. French colonialists understood only the language of force, for that is all they spoke. Sartre backs Fanon in his preface to Wretched of the Earth: “First comes the violence of the settler. Then and only then does the violent resistance of the colonized return upon the settler as if he were approaching his image in a mirror.” Violent resistance is the great equalizer; those who carry it out reject the farce of colonial hierarchy, and in destroying its infrastructure, expose the mortality of a regime that insists on its eternality. In the violent clash, the “subhuman” destroys the “superhuman” foe, and in so doing, deconstructs the hegemony of a colonial ideology which seeks to assert difference and maintain exclusion.

Though Fanon’s vision of decolonization may glorify violence, he ultimately embraces complexity. The spontaneous eruption of tormented communities must be channeled by a coherent political strategy. The colonized need leaders to vocalize a grassroots vision of the post-colonial future, they need to train themselves as theorists as well as guerillas, and they need to cultivate an artistic and intellectual culture of resistance within their communities. In Fanon’s view, violent resistance merely destroys that which is rotting. Destructive violence is merely the prerequisite for an unleashed constructive impulse among the liberated, who are free to create something better.

The fifties became the sixties, and Fanon was on the ground while Algerian FLN rebels clashed with a dying French regime. In hospitals he saw both French and Algerians pouring in, carved up by the assorted shrapnel of war. For his Algerian patients, it was often the lasting trauma of torture, and for the French it was often remorse which dug the deepest wound. He saw French civilians and soldiers crushed by the realization that, in helping their nation gain another piece of empire, they had lost their own mind. It might seem, in this setting that violence begets violence, creating an endless cycle of madness. But insanity was a pre-existing condition of colonial life, and the cycle was fundamentally colored by a power struggle: colonization, in reality, induces resistance.

And still, those who blindly apply a theory of violence to any and all struggles make the same error as the resolute pacifist. Fanon failed to address the fact that all struggles happen in different moments, and up against different technologies of power. It is foolish to universalize pacifism just because Ghandi used nonviolence to unseat the British in 1947. To automatically cut and paste Fanon’s discourse of violence into any contemporary power struggle is equally reckless. Violence worked for the FLN in 1962, and the French left Algeria when the cost of retaining rule outweighed its benefits. But that doesn’t presuppose, for example, that Palestinian resistance to Israeli colonialism must take violent form, especially if such strategies fail to distinguish Israeli civilians from the Israeli military and the settlers they protect.

Ultimately, Fanon overstates his case and ignores the particularities of geography and moment by professing that decolonization will always be violent. And yet, he deals a devastating blow to “moderates” of the West, the breed of soft-imperialists who today wave the flaming rag of Gandhi while arguing that colonized groups must not ever take up arms. Violence, when carried out from below, upsets their stomach, as well as their fine-tuned, though tuned-out, “rational” sensibilities. Fanon has no time for these self-righteous demands on the methods of the oppressed, nor should we.

Because strategies for imperialism have not simply died off as French and British colonialism gave way to a new global order, Fanon remains entirely relevant. We must not rule out violence for those upon whom the boot domination rests most firmly. The debate over methods is important, but must be grounded in empathy and solidarity with those who are fighting to attain their livelihood and retain stolen dignity.

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