Frantz Fanon: Philosophy, Praxis and the Occult Zone


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Frantz Fanon: Philosophy, Praxis and the Occult Zone
Paper presented at the History Department Seminar, [at the university currently known as] Rhodes University, 13 August 20151
Richard Pithouse
In 2011 Achille Mbembe asserted that “the human has consistently taken on the form of waste within the peculiar trajectory race and capitalism espoused in South Africa”2. He added that the end of apartheid had shifted rather than undone the lines of exclusion and dispute. Since the massacre of striking workers on the platinum mines in 2012 it has become widely accepted that the state is resorting to repressive measures to enforce these lines and contain the dispute that they occasion. With notable exceptions academic philosophy, and theory more broadly, has offered remarkably little illumination of the widening distance between the promise of national liberation and democracy and the often bitter realities of contemporary South Africa.
A Third Element
Stathis Kouvelakis offers a compelling account of another moment in space and time in which a young intellectual sought rational hope, a material basis for political hope, against the melancholy of political disappointment.3 In 1842 Karl Marx, a young man recently graduated with a PhD in Philosophy, was wrestling with the German failure to
1 This is a considerably revised version of a paper first presented at a workshop on African Thinking: And/At its Limits organised in the Africana Studies & Research Centre at Cornell in June 2015. The workshop was aimed at enabling an examination of the limits of African philosophy. My contribution was an attempt to formulate a response that was also an engagement with conjectural realities in South Africa, including the re-emergence of students as a political force. I would like to express my thanks to Grant Fared for the invitation and the precision of his comments on the first draft, and to all the participants, and in particular Yousuf Al-Balushi, for a rich discussion. The usual disclaimers apply. 2 Achille Mbembe ‘Democracy as Community Life’ Johannesburg Workshop in Theory & Criticism, 2011 http://jwtc.org.za/volume_4/achille_mbembe.htm 3 Stathis Kouvelakis Philosophy & Revolution Verso, London, 2003
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redeem the promise of the French Revolution which had heralded the arrival of modern
nationalism and democracy in Europe. He quickly realised that making the world more
philosophical would require that philosophy be made more worldly, that it take its place
in the actual struggles in the world. He saw that the state and capital both tended
towards a repression of the political and, looking for what he called 'a third element', a
constituent power, he first turned to the press arguing that the “free press is the
ubiquitous vigilant eye of a people's soul . . . the spiritual mirror in which a people can see itself, and self-examination is the first condition of wisdom.”4 Marx hoped that “an association of free human beings who educate one another”5 in an expanding public
sphere could subordinate the state to rational, public discussion in a process of ongoing
democratisation. But when, in the following year, the newspaper that he edited was banned Marx turned towards “suffering human beings who think”6 and to the hope that
“making participation in politics, and therefore real struggles, the starting point of our criticism”7 could provide new grounds for commitment to democracy as a process of democratisation.8
4 Kouvelakis Philosophy & Revolution, p. 262. 5 Kouvelakis Philosophy & Revolution, p. 265. 6 Kouvelakis Philosophy & Revolution, p. 285. 7 Kouvelakis Philosophy & Revolution, p. 287. 8 Here, as in the case elsewhere in his voluminous body of work – although not consistently so, Marx’s own writing fits well with critical Marxism “understood as a theory of social struggle rather than a totalizing theory of capitalist exploitation and domination and the historical necessity to defeat it. It thus emphasizes social conflict and the real ways in which some men and women struggle against capitalism” (Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar Rhythms of the Pachakuti, Duke University Press, Durham NC, 2014, p. xxx.). There is a fundamental difference between Marxism as the collaborative development and articulation of ideas from within struggle and Marxism as an attempt to legislate from what Jacques Ranciére refers to as “the interior of Marxism” (The Philosopher and His Poor, p. 152.). But while critical Marxism enables actually existing forms of life and struggle to be understood, and engaged with, in a manner that is far superior to what Aguilar refers to as ‘orthodox Marxism’, which is the dominant form of Marxism in South Africa, and which often imposes meaning on to people’s lives, strivings and struggles, it continues to place the question of the control and exploitation of labour at the centre of its analysis. This offers an invaluable lens for critique but, on its own, it turns the emancipation of labour from capital into a fetish with the result that other modes of domination are elided, including what Cedric Robinson refers to as the forms of political militancy that arise “from the whole historical experience of Black people and not merely from the social formations of capitalist slavery or the relations of production of colonialism” (Cedric Robinson Black Marxism University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1984, p. 169.).
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The philosophical dogma of the day, which is often the dogma of our own time, a dogma that takes on a particular virulence in the context of racism,9 had argued that as a large
mass of people sank into poverty they would become a rabble, a threat to society. But
Marx insisted that “only one thing is characteristic, namely that lack of property and the
estate of direct labour . . . form not so much an estate of civil society as the ground upon which its circles rest and move.”10 Marx, refusing to hold up abstract ideas of an
alternative society to which actually existing struggles should conform, looked to the
real movement of the working class - the male working class of parts of Western Europe
- for principles to orientate future struggle and the material force to be able to realise them.11 True to his turn to a philosophy of immanence he insisted that theory,
philosophy, can become a material force when it is formulated from the perspective of the oppressed and becomes part of their constituent movement.12 But for this to
happen it must be radical in the sense that “To be radical is to grasp things by the root.
9 It should be noted though that the idea of ‘the rabble’ is seldom entirely conceptually distinct from racist thinking. The dispossessed of Europe, especially when taking the urban stage as political actors, have frequently been read in racialized terms by European elites. 10 Kouvelakis, Philosophy & Revolution, p. 312. 11 Later on in his life his vision broadened considerably, extended to the colonised and enslaved and included, most famously an examination of the political potential of the Russian mir, or rural commune (Kevin Anderson Marx at the Margins University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2010).
But we should recall that, as I have noted before, Marx was often acutely hostile to the idea that the ‘lumpenproletariat’ could engage in emancipatory political action (Thought Amidst Waste: Conjunctural Notes on the Democratic Project in South Africa, Paper for the Wits Interdisciplinary Seminar in the Humanities, WISER, University of the Witwatersrand, 28 May 2012 http://wiser.wits.ac.za/system/files/seminar/Pithouse2012_0.pdf). This has become part of the common sense of much, although not all, Marxism. In Ranciére’s scathing critique the referent of Marx’s use of the term lumpen “is not a class but a myth”, a myth that is “inscribed in an already constituted political mythology: bourgeois denunciations of thieves, prostitutes and escaped ‘galley slaves’ as the hidden force behind all worker and republican disturbances” (The Philosopher and His Poor, p. 96.).
In the contemporary moment, where the reduction of the human to waste is increasingly an urban phenomenon, and where from Bolivia to Haiti and Venezuela, as well as, although with lesser intensity, South Africa, the urban poor have emerged as political actors of significant consequence, this places a clear limit on the degree to which standard forms of Marxism, and especially what Aguilar terms ‘orthodox Marxism’, offer an optic adequate to the task of thinking actually existing modes of life and struggle.
12 With regard to a certain figure of the worker this placed Marx at direct odds with the tradition of thought that descends from Plato and in which, in Ranciére’s formulation, “There simply are bodies that cannot accommodate philosophy – bodies marked and stigmatized by the servitude of the work for which they have been made (The Philosopher and His Poor, p. 32.).
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But for man, the root is man himself.”13 For Marx this is not a matter of an enlightened
intellectual bringing theory down to the people – “the educators”, he insisted in the
Theses on Feuerbach written in 1845, “must be educated” in order to attain “the
coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change [that] can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.”14 He would
go on, Raya Dunayevskaya argued, to “meet, theoretically, the workers’ resistance
inside the factory and outside of it . . . Marx, the theoretician, created new categories out of the impulses from the workers.”15
Today the basic elements of the problematic worked through by the young Marx
continue to confront any attempt to think through the failure of national liberation or
liberal democracy to realise their promise. Is it realistic to aim to transcend the impasse
of the present via the pure exercise of reason when both the state and capital tend
towards an anti-political tendency to reduce the sphere of public reason? Or must
reason be meshed with the material force constituted by those that suffer and think so
that the sphere of public reason can be expanded? Of course in South Africa, as in, say,
13 Karl Marx ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’, Marxists’ Internet Archive, 1843 https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm For Marx ‘man’ is not posed as an abstract idea – he is talking about real struggles, often improvised, locally constituted and organised around what he referred to as ‘living interests’ and ‘real wants’ (Cited in Kristin Ross Communal Luxury Verso, London, 2015, p. 86.). 14 Karl Marx ‘Theses On Feuerbach’, Marxists Internet Archive, 1845 https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/ 15 Raya Dunayevskaya Marxism & Freedom Humanity Books, Amherst NY, 2000, p. 91. Kristin Ross, using Henri Lefebvre’s conception of the dialectic between the lived and the conceived, asserts this as a general feature of radical thought: “the thought of a movement is generated only with and after it” (Communal Luxury p. 92.).
But just as orthodox Marxism offers a distorted account of a complex and dynamic body of thought dissident forms of Marxism sometimes elide the problematic aspects of Marx’s legacy. Ranciére argues that after the failure of the uprisings that swept through Western Europe in 1848 Marx retreated from his youthful commitment to think, dialogically, from within struggle, and, with Friedrich Engels, opposed a demand to elect a leadership of the Communist League via the mobilisation of considerable contempt towards the militants that had made this request. He writes that Marx and Engels appointed themselves as ‘representatives of the proletarian party’ and affirmed “the absolute One of science” as the “sole representation of the coming revolution” on the basis that, in Ranciére’s account of the implicit logic of their position: “Only science concentrates the cutting edge of the contradiction, which is forever socially postponed and always politically stolen away” (The Philosopher and His Poor Duke University Press, Chapel Hill, NC, 2004, p. 103). In South Africa aspects of this account are all too familiar, albeit sometimes mediated through race and the NGO form rather than solely via the network aspiring to the status of the party or proto-party.
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Boliva16 or Haiti17, Marx’s youthful ideas need to be expanded – stretched in Frantz Fanon’s famous formulation18 - to take full measure of the enduring salience of the colonial experience and the manner in which contemporary forces of containment also include both imperialism and enduring nodes of white power, or power racialized as closer to white than the population as a whole, within the nation state.
Fracturing Hegemony
In South Africa in 2015 there is a growing sense that neither the promise of national liberation or democracy has been adequately redeemed. The organisational and ideological hegemony of the African National Congress (ANC) is rapidly fracturing. A decade ago the shack settlement and the urban land occupation started to become sites of acute political intensity across the country. In Durban this led to the emergence of sustained popular organisation outside of the ANC by Abahlali baseMjondolo. More recently the ANC aligned National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was largely displaced from the platinum mines, initially via workers’ self-organisation, and later via the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), a union that is independent from the ANC. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), the largest trade union in the country, has split with the ANC. On the electoral terrain the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a populist breakaway from the ANC, have made a bold entry into parliament. In recent months students, beginning at the University of Cape Town (UCT), have, largely although not always acting outside of the organisational reach of the ANC, taken decisive steps to enable direct confrontation with the enduring coloniality of universities. Although there is a significant degree to
16 Raúl Zibechi Dispersing Power AK Press, Oakland, 2010 17 Peter Hallward Damming the Flood, Verso, London, 2007 18 Frantz Fanon The Wretched of the Earth Penguin, London, 1976, p 31. Enrique Dussel, like Fanon linking this point to the question of how domination and exclusion are inscribed in space, makes a similar injunction with regard to Marxism as a form of global analysis: “orthodox Marxism should be recast from the point of view of a geopolitical worldwide spatiality so that it could devise a hermeneutic with appropriate categories” (Philosophy of Liberation WIPF & Stock, Eugene, Oregon, 1985, p.73.).
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which this ferment has a fragmentary and at times contradictory character there is some sense of what Raúl Zibechi describes as a ‘society in movement’.19
Ten years after apartheid Grant Farred wrote of:
the ‘zone of the not-yet political’ where the not-yet counterpartisan operates—the only place from which the current nomos can be critically undone, the only space from which a new nomos of the South African earth can be thought, the only concatenation of historical forces that can produce a new orientation of the political.20
Today the constituent power of the new counterpartisan is still, as Fared noted with regard to the ‘not-yet counterpartisan’, often placed under the sign of the enemy, of white power, domestic or foreign, by the ruling party and the state. But the actor for which Fared was waiting is now, even if not always read as legitimate, indisputably present – and subject to assassination in the shanty towns of Durban, lethal police action against street protests around the country and police massacre on the mines in the North West. The new counterpartisans, and they are multiple and diverse, are not, though, committed to a coherent collective project, let alone to a project with realistic aspirations to attain hegemony.
In 2010 Pumla Gqola anticipated the possibilities for “politically inflected creative innovation”21 among the young. In 2015 there is no doubt that this moment has also arrived. There is a youthful ferment, in and out of universities, marked by a rapid break among young intellectuals, broadly conceived, not only with the intellectual and organizational authority of the ANC, as well as other sources of authority, including that of the academy, but also with the nature of the post-apartheid deal. As with previous moments of youthful rupture at various points during the twentieth century there is an international dimension to the current ferment. It has often taken on aspects of the
19 Raúl Zibechi Territories in Resistance AK Press, Oakland, 2013 20 Grant Farred ‘The Not-Yet Counterpartisan:A New Politics of Oppositionality’, South Atlantic Quarterly, 103:4, 2004, pp. 604 – 605. 21 Pumla Dineo Gqola What is Slavery to Me? Wits University Press, 2010, p. 211.
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language and some of the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United
States. There are also some connections, at time fruitful, between university students,
and other young middle class intellectuals, with popular struggles in South Africa. These
connections are not, however, generally present in a sustained and serious way. In some cases affirmations of broader solidarity in the abstract22 are accompanied by a striking
lack of concern with the concrete situations and struggles of impoverished people in
South Africa.
A writer as astute as Sisonke Msimang23 has heralded this ferment among young
intellectuals in terms that suggest, to play a little with a line from Aimé Césaire, a bright bird in flight through the stagnant air.24 Others have seen only the evidence of the
morbid symptoms that, in Gramsci’s famous phrase, are characteristic of the
interregnum. This pessimism has extended beyond the sort of leftism, often but not
always white, that sees any discourse that extends beyond a narrowly conceived
concern with class as ultimately reactionary. If there is a poem of the moment it would, by virtue of how often it has been invoked, be Yeat’s Second Coming.25 I have argued elsewhere that the liberal consensus is breaking down from above and from below26
and that in order to make adequate sense of this conjuncture reason must unshackle itself from liberalism.27 This is not solely a matter of moving from the affirmation of
abstract rights to real entitlements, or extending the domain of public disputation and
state or popular power into the domain currently monopolised as a site of private
power via the market. Liberalism, still rooted in the idea that “Despotism is a legitimate
22 Paulo Freire insists that solidarity is only possible when the oppressed are understood “as persons who have been unjustly dealt with” rather than as an “abstract category” - such as a race, class or gender (Paulo Freire Pedagogy of the Oppressed Continuum, New York, 2005, p. 67.). 23 Sisonke Msimang ‘The old is dying and the young ones have just been born’, Africa is a Country, 15 May 2015 http://africasacountry.com/the-old-is-dying-and-the-young-ones-have-just-been-born 24 The original line describes “the stagnant air undisturbed by the bright flight of a bird” (Aimé Césaire Notebook of a Return to My Native Land, Bloodaxe, Tarset, 1995, p. 83.). 25 Richard Pithouse ‘After the End of Our Innocence’, The Con, 29 September 2014, http://www.theconmag.co.za/2014/09/29/after-the-end-of-sas-innocence/ 26 Richard Pithouse ‘South Africa in the Twilight of Liberalism’, Kafila, 19 April 2015 http://kafila.org/2015/04/19/south-africa-in-the-twilight-of-liberalism-richard-pithouse/ 27 Richard Pithouse ‘Reason After Liberalism’ South African Civil Society Information Service, 20 April 2015 http://www.sacsis.org.za/site/article/2352
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mode of government in dealing with barbarians”28, has always been organised around a distinction between the sacred and the profane29, sometimes spatialized and always racialized, in which, in the words of John Locke, equality, far from being a universal principle, applies only to “creatures of the same species and rank”.30 Liberalism cannot be disentangled from racism – that requires an affirmation of equality as a universal and immediate principle.31 And as Peter Hallward notes any affirmation of a genuine universal (as opposed to the false universalism of colonialism and its afterlives – in a word liberalism) is inherently divisive: “there can be no mobilisation of the universal interest that does not immediately threaten particular privileged beneficiaries of the old status quo”.32
Summoning Fanon
Although people like Thomas Sankara and Chris Hani are often invoked the primary figure of the militant among young intellectuals in the contemporary South African moment is clearly Steve Biko. The most significant thinker of the moment is, without a doubt, Frantz Fanon – a militant proponent of a universal humanity and, therefore, like Biko, a particularly divisive figure in the liberal sensibility. Fanon’s books, together with those of Biko and, also, Mbembe, are among the most frequently stolen titles in bookshops.33 His name is appended to all kinds of projects and positions. From the urban land occupation, to the opinion pages of the newspapers, the university and parliament Fanon’s name has, as Mabogo More has noted, attained an extraordinary
28 John Stuart Mill Utilitarianism,. On Liberty & Considerations on Representative Government J.M. Dent & Sons, London, 1976, p. 73. 29 Domenico Losurdo Liberalism: A Counter-History Vero, London, 2011 30 John Locke Two Treatises of Government J.M. Dent & Sons, London, 1986, p. 118. 31 For Jacques Ranciére “To pose equality as a goal is to hand it over to the pedagogues pf progress, who widen endlessly the distance that they promise to abolish. Equality is a presupposition, an initial axiom – or it is nothing.” The Philosopher and His Poor p. 223. 32 Peter Hallward Absolutely Postcolonial, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2001, p.xv. 33 Isabel Hofmeyr ‘What discerning book thieves tell us about a country’s reading culture’, The Conversation, 29 June 2015 https://theconversation.com/what-discerning-book-thieves-tell-us-about-acountrys-reading-culture-43799
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presence in South Africa.34 This phenomenon is overwhelmingly, although not exclusively, constituted via intellectual and political practices which take place outside of the formal research and teaching programmes undertaken within the academy.35
Fanon’s name has become so ubiquitous in the public sphere that it is not unusual for both protagonists in a debate, even when neither of them are taking a recognisably Fanonian position, to seek to buttress their positions with references to Fanon. Even the bellicose former head of the police, Bheki Cele, has cited Fanon36 and his name is increasingly joining those of figures like Marx and Lenin in the statements of politicians who wish to speak with a certain kind of political authority.
Fanon’s name is frequently mobilised as if it carried the kind of authority, sometimes theological or prophetic rather than philosophical or political, that can be deployed to end rather than to enrich a debate. It is used to authorise all kinds of positions and power and, in some instances, the ideas attributed to Fanon cannot be sustained by even a cursory reading of his texts, or a basic familiarity with his biography. But there are also many young people reading Biko and Fanon, and learning about their lives as thinkers committed to action, with real seriousness. There have been extraordinary public intellectual contributions from brilliant young people. There is clearly a growing number of, in particular young people, committed to taking Fanon seriously as a thinker.
Like the young Marx, Fanon poses the free flow of ideas against the degeneration of democratic promise and insists that the living human being rather than an abstract ideal, be it philosophical or statistical, be the measure of society. But the South African crisis is not solely a matter of the inability of a set of liberal political arrangements to redeem their democratic promise in so far as the working class continues to be
34 Mabogo More ‘Locating Fanon in Post-Apartheid South Africa’, Journal of Asian & African Studies, 2014, pp. 1 – 15. 35 With notable exceptions, the contribution to this turn towards Fanon from within the academy has often been via self-directed and organised reading and discussion by students. 36 Bheki Cele, ‘Forward’, South African Police Services Annual Report, 2010, http://www.saps.gov.za/about/stratframework/annual_report/2009_2010/1_content_foreword_etc.pdf
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exploited. In the main the often very crude forms of Marxism present in South Africa are not always well equipped to take on board the reality that, as Mbembe notes, “a rising superfluous population is becoming a permanent fixture of the South African social landscape with little possibility of ever being exploited by capital. Only a dwindling number of individuals can now claim to be workers in the traditional sense of the term”.37 Moreover the Marxism that is most often ready-to-hand has frequently not developed an adequate understanding of the salience of race.38 South Africa is a colonial creation that has not fully escaped the iron cage in which it was born. In 2015 it is simultaneously colony and postcolony and we find ourselves, in Gqola’s phrase, “both free and not entirely free of apartheid”.39 This reality is central to the appeal of Fanon, a thinker who, uniquely, theorised the pathologies of both the colony and the postcolony.
Affirmation & Critique
There is an aspect of the current moment that has a certain resonance with Walter Benjamin’s 9th thesis on history. Benjamin, as is well known, offers an image of the angel of history with his face turned to the past. He writes that “Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps pilling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed”. But the storm blowing in from Paradise, the storm of ‘progress’, propels him into the future “while the pile of debris before him grows skywards.”40
In and around the South African academy in 2015 the desire on the part of young intellectuals to anoint and awaken their own dead is evidently motivated by a
37 Mbembe, Democracy as Community Life, 2011 38 For a recent analysis of Marxist thought in South Africa see Steven Friedman Race, Class and Power: Harold Wolpe & the Radical Critique of Apartheid, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, 2015 39 Gqola, What is Slavery to Me?, p. 2 . 40 Walter Benjamin Illuminations, Pimlico, London, 1999, p. 249.
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Frantz Fanon: Philosophy, Praxis and the Occult Zone