Fanon--The Wretched of the Earth
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Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth
Ok, this is wayyy too too long. But I decided to spend my my spring break summarizing two chapters of Wretched of the Earth! I made it for my students, and hope it can helpful to others too so I don’t feel like an utter hopeless nerd spending my entire vacation in the library…..
Frantz Fanon ~ Wretched of the Earth
First Published in French in 1961; Grove Press Edition translated by Richard Philcox, 2004
Historical significance of text:
Fanon recited this text to his wife as he died from leukemia in 1959 in the midst of the Algerian war, in which Algeria was was fighting for independence from France. Fanon was a psychiatrist psychiatrist in Algeria, and supporter of the FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale), a socialist party fighting for liberation. The last chapter of Wretched of Wretched of the Earth, “Colonial War and Mental Disorders,” describes Fanon’s experiences as a psychiatrist in war-torn Algeria, in which he discusses, in harrowing detail, the psychological impacts of war on his patients, which included civilians, Algerian liberation fighters, and European police officers. This book must be read in the context of the extreme violence of the decolonization struggles in which Fanon participated in Algeria. While rooted in this time and place, the text is also universal in scope, drawing on the different levels of human experience—the social, political, economic, and psychological. A humanist, his ultimate ultimate objective is to “endeavor to invent a man in full, something something which Europe has been incapable of achieving.” achieving.” (p. 236) Cultural theorist Stuart Hall has remarked that Wretched of the Earth is the “bible of decolonization.” Considered to be a canonical book in black liberation and decolonization struggles, it has inspired the Black Panther Party and revolutionary leaders such as Malcolm X
and Che Guevara. In Obama’s autobiography, Dreams autobiography, Dreams From My Father , Obama mentions that he discussed Fanon at night in the dorms with his politically inclined classmates. classmates. A descendant of African slaves, Fanon grew up in Martinique in the Caribbean, and his family belonged to the middle-class by the standards of the island. Five of his parents’ eight children, including Fanon, went to France for for higher education. ThroughoutWretched Throughout Wretched of the Earth, Fanon refers to himself as a “colonized intellectual,” intellectual,” an identity derived from existing in two worlds. While he has the privileges accorded to people with a university education, he identifies with the oppressed as a black person in a colonized world.
Chapter 1, “On Violence” (pages 1-21)
Summary: The premise of this chapter is that the colonial world is divided into two separate halves : on one side there are the European colonizers and on the other are the “wretched of the earth”—the African colonized people. Their relationship with with each other is defined by a logic logic of violence and counterviolence . The military barracks and the police stations make up the dividing line between these two halves, with the police and military officers serving as spokespersons for the “regime of oppression.” (p. 3) The individuals and institutions institutions of the the colonial regime regime structure the power relations that shape the dynamic between the oppressors and the oppressed—a dynamic steeped in violence . divides the world Race plays a determining feature in colonial society. Fanon states that “what divides is first and foremost what species, species, what race one belongs to.” (p. 5) The Marxist analysis that he speaks to on page 5 is the idea that economic systems comprise the “base” of society, which thereby influences the “superstructure” of a society which includes social relations, culture, laws, and the state. By this Marxist analysis, capitalism and economic inequality inequality give shape to racism. Fanon argues that this analysis must be “stretched” in the colonial situation because race also gives form to economic systems due to European control of wealth and resources, a fact that structures the colonial world. In this chapter, Fanon is primarily interested in how the defeat of colonialism can be achieved. (p. 13) He claims that the pursuit of truth can help advance independence because colonialism is predicated on lies (p. 14) [Throughout this text and in his first book, Black book, Black Skin, White Masks, Masks, Fanon describes how black people mistakenly identify with white colonizers—in fact, they see themselves as white]. Most importantly, though, he argues that the defeat of colonialism can only be achieved a chieved through violence . In a “world configured by the the colonizer,” the colonial world is “hostile, oppressive and aggressive,… bulldozing the colonized masses” (p. 16) an d therefore the “emergence of the armed struggle against colonialism” colonialism” is “inevitable.” (p. 17) He discusses for a few pages how religious feuds between Algerians Algerians (which he describes as “fratricidal bloodbaths” p. 17) and
pagan spiritual practices offer a temporary escape from the grim reality reality of colonialism (p. 17-20), but ultimately, colonial violence must be addressed through praxis and violence (p. 21). By praxis , he means the generative process between theory and practice, in which practice is informed by theory and thereby informs informs the theory itself. itself. In fact, Fanon states later later that violence is the absolute praxis (p. 45), meaning that as a practice, it results from theorization and reflection on the colonial situation. In theorizing violence throughout the rest of the chapter (which was not assigned), Fanon emphasizes the “atmospheric violence” of colonialism (p. 31) and that colonialism “is naked violence and only gives in when confronted with with greater violence.” (p. 23) In other words, “force is the only solution” solution” in the quest for decolonization (p. 32). This is his key point, point, that violence is necessary for the colonized because b ecause violence imposed by the colonizers is so pervasive. The colonized person “liberates himself in and through violence.” (p. 44) This contradicts his later descriptions of the “circle of hatred” characteristic of the “terror, counterterror, violence, counterviolence” that describes wars for national liberation (p. 47). Despite this acknowledgement, Fanon argues that violence in the pursuit of liberation is ultimately “positive, formative” (p. 50) “totalizing” and “cleansing.” (p. 51 In the introduction, Homi Bhabha asserts that deep down on a personal level, Fanon loathed violence (conveyed in his last chapter describing his experiences in the psychiatric ward), but h e saw it as unavoidable due to the deeply entrenched violence in Algeria at the time. is Question: In a situation such as a war for national liberation against a violent colonizer, is violence necessary? What about the case Libya and the current revolutions in the the Middle East? What about the case of the Black Panthers, in which members carried guns in “self-defense” against police who have historically targeted black communities? Some other key points of this chapter: •
The struggle is fundamentally for land—which provides bread, dignity, and freedom from the violence of the colonial regime (p. 9). European wealth was literally built on the backs of slaves, and fed itself from the resources of the colonized world. “Europe’s well-being and progress were were built with the sweat and corpses of blacks, Arabs, Indians, an d Asians.” (pg. 53) This means that Europe’s wealth depends on the slavery, genocide, and labor of Third World people. Without it, Europe would not have the status and power it has today The central question is a necessary redistribution of wealth (p. 55) True national liberation cannot take place under capitalism, as a privileged few will still hold positions of power and control the majority of wealth. Rather, socialism will will benefit the entire nation (p. 55-56)
Fanon repeats throughout the chapter that decolonization is the process in which the colonized take the place of the colonizer. What are the shortcomings of this goal ? (This is discussed in the next chapter!)
Chapter 3, “The Trials and Tribulations of National Consciousness”
Summary: This chapter deals with Fanon’s recognition that a fter national independence is achieved, the ruling elites of the colonized nation usually perpetuate the systems of inequality characteristic of the colonial regime by replicating and imitate the systems of the colonizer in order to pursue their narrow interests. There are three central questions questions of this chapter: •
What happens after the national bourgeoisie bourgeoisie inherit positions of power after decolonization? The wealthy people of the formerly colonized nation generally seek to advance their own personal interests and do not pursue the collective benefits of the entire nation What is the significance of national consciousness? Fanon’s response to this question has been interpreted in many ways, but many today read him as a strong critic of nationalism. He states in this chapter that nationalism can effectively effectively rally the masses, but alone it is empty, and must quickly be expanded and deepened to a more humanistic social and political consciousness What is the role of political education for real liberation? I find this to be the most compelling part of this chapter; he states that the masses will only demand programs for radical transformation when they deepen their unde rstanding of what it means to be human
On “What happens after the national bourgeoisie inherit positions of power after decolonization?”
Fanon argues that the colonized elite (who he also refers to as the national na tional bourgeoisie) are unprepared to rule the independent nation due to their cowardice, disconnection from the masses, and inability to engage in “popular praxis.” (p. 97-98) [Remember, praxis is theoretical reflection linking to practice.] Rather than being being a “crystallization “crystallization of the people’s innermost aspirations,” aspirations,” national consciousness becomes “nothing but a crude, empty, fragile shell” (p. 97) it leads to the colonized merely taking the place of the colonizer without fundamentally changing the colonial structure! Fanon talks about this at great length, arguing that the national bourgeoisie are arrogant and narcissistic, but don’t really have the knowledge and skills to run a country because they have been subservient to the colonizers for so long. Fanon argues that the national bourgeoisie should learn from the people, and should shou ld use the skills and knowledge gained from the colonial universities (in reading, reading, writing, engineering, etc.) to serve serve the decolonized masses. However, the decolonized elite often do not fulfill this responsibility and merely identify with their class position and seek to maintain their position through their ownership of land, and status as a professionals (p. 98-99). The national bourgeoisie mimics and identifies with the Western Western
bourgeoisie. They seek to advance capitalism, make money for themselves, manage Western companies, and cater to Westerners by running holiday resorts for Western tourists (p. 100-101). When the power changes hand after decolonization, the national bourgeoisie just take the jobs previously held by foreigners, resulting in the “nationalization and Africanization of the managerial class.” (p. 103) However, this does not mark a significant significant shift in class relations and power structures, as the poor remain poor. This is because the elites are more concerned with their immediate interests interests than “building the nation on a solid, constructive foundation.” (p. 106) On “What is the significance of national consciousness?”
Fanon argues that after decolonization, nationalism quickly shifts to ultranationalism, chauvinism and racism (p. 103). At its core, colonialism colonialism exploits any sort of difference. Previously, it was between the Europeans an d Africans, but after decolonization, people revert to old tribal and ethnic rivalries rivalries that were exacerbated by colonialism. colonialism. Ethnic groups turn against each other and territorial divisions become even more important than before because people are fighting for the bread crumbs crumbs left over from the colonizers. Also, the colonizers exploit previously existing divisions to prevent national unity and maintain the oppression of the masses. On page 107-108, Fanon describes the divisions divisions between the Arabs and Black people in Africa, who were considered respectively “white “white Africans” and “Black “Black Africans.” Europeans reinforced the notions that Arabs were civilized while Black Africans were wild and savage, which forestalled the defeat of colonialism. [In fact, the Algerian war war was also a civil war between the FLN and an Arab-led party that was supported by the French.] National consciousness alone is meaningless because the national bourgeois merely implement a single-party authoritarian system system seeking to advance their power. Interested in the state state control of capital for their personal gain, they secure legitimacy through “prestige projects” like building fancy things around the state capital (p. 111). Just like before, the army and police are “pillars of the regime,” but now they are corrupt and manipulated by foreign advisors from the colonial country (p. 117). On “What “What is the role of political education for real liberation?”
I find this discussion on political education and consciousness to be the most important passages of this book (see p. 124, 133-144). While the first chapter, “On Violence,” discusses the the necessity of violence for decolonization, these passages argue for the constructive, generative force of education as key liberation after the grim reality of colonial violence has been reckoned with. As a necessary response to colonial violence, violence catalyzes a new consciousness that is complete and humanizing, breaking free from the fragmentation of colonialism. Strategies for political education to build this consciousness include public information campaigns, and meetings amongst the masses that offer a space for people to speak, express themselves, innovate. In such meetings, the “brain “brain multiplies association association of ideas and eyes discover a wider human panorama.” (p. 136) Amidst this new humanism, humanism, people live and work “with one’s brain brain and one’s heart [more] than with with muscles and sweat.” (p. 133) He condemns language only comprehensible to law and economic graduates that both confuse and convey an unspoken desire of the intellectual to “dispossess.” (p. 131)
Fanon concludes the chapter by stating that nationalism was useful to rouse the masses against the oppressor, but it falls apart in the aftermath of indepen dence in the absence of a broader social and political consciousness (p. 142). Nationalism must very quickly quickly be “explained, enriched, and deepened… [then turned] into a social and political po litical consciousness, into humanism” to avoid reaching a dead end. He describes a “collective consciousness,” “enlightened “enlightened and coherent praxis,” and “collective forging of a destiny” that is totalizing and complete, that restores human dignity, and that works towards a n ew, international, liberated human.