Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Notes on Frantz Fanon

As I was writing the 3rd chapter of my new book which deals with the change in the factors underlying global inequality (from being driven by within-national inequalities to being driven by between-national inequalities, and perhaps in the future, going back to within- inequalities), entitled “From Karl Marx to Frantz Fanon and then back to Marx?”, I decided that I should reread some of Fanon.

A couple of days ago, in Washington, I found my 1973 copy of Croatian-Serbian translation (with a very nice postscript by the Croatian/Yugoslav sociologist Vjekoslav Mikecin) of “Les damn├ęs de la terre” which I read probably in 1974 or 1975. Now I reread basically only my notes, and as in 1975, I skipped the last chapter on the psychological effects of violence (Fanon was a psychiatrist).

What are my impressions, reading now a book published at the height of decolonization and when the income gap between the First and the Third World was at its peak, in 1961? First, I noticed how much the world has changed. Fanon was one of the “prophets” of the Third World. Well, neither the Third, nor the Second, worlds exist anymore. He spoke of colonies in Africa. None exists today. He spoke of Western left-wing Marxist intelligentsia. It is all gone. Even the copy of the book I held in my hands added to this eerie feeling. It was published in Yugoslavia, which no longer exists. It was published in Croato-Serbian, the language which (at least under that name) no longer exists. Did everything he wrote about disappear?

What can we say about Fanon today? I divide my impression under three headings: violence, new man and economics.

Violence. Fanon is perhaps best known for his support of violence used by movements for national liberation.  He never glorified violence like Sorel and many Europeans writers who glorified World War I (or people who today read books like “An American sniper”). But he thought that violence was necessary to fight the colonizers: “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth”, knife for a knife, gun for a gun. Was he right? In some sense yes. There is no doubt, I think, that in Vietnam, Algeria, Angola, Zimbabwe, Burma, Kenya, the colonizers never wanted to give up power. They were the first to use violence and national liberation movements had to do the same. Moreover, the violence used by the weaker side is not the same as the violence used by the stronger side.

But Fanon’s language is not guarded. Although I think that his Chapter 1, “On violence”, is the most interesting part of the book (perhaps the only one that he really finished; the book was published posthumously), he seems at times to view violence as a “cleansing tool”, to believe that there is something valuable in it as such, and not to realize that once it ceases to be used carefully and in very controlled and instrumental doses, it turns against the one who uses it. This was indeed often the history of the newly independent countries; many have descended into infernal cycles of violence: civil wars in Algeria, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Sudan; permanent wars in Congo, numerous coups d’etat.   

New man. In Chapter 2 especially, but throughout the book as well, Fanon insists on Africa rejecting (1) colonizers, (2) capitalism, (3) domestic small bourgeoisie often allied with the colonizers, and (4) a return to a romanticized African past. He believes that the objective of the national struggle should be the creation of a “new man” or a new society. This was a common belief of all revolutionary movements throughout most of the 20th  century. They have not achieved much. “The new man” has remained elusive. Often the quest has led to tyrannies. And indeed Fanon gives us almost no guidance about how this “new man” and new society are to be created, other than identifying  (like Mao before him) in peasantry the truly revolutionary class. But while Marx explains, at least in theory, why the proletariat might produce this “new man”—because the condition for its  own liberation is the liberation of the entire society—Fanon does not explain much at all.

Economics. Fanon does not spend much time on economics (a common feature among Marxisant authors of the 1960s). He obviously rejects capitalism, but rejects also state ownership of the means of production because it would simply lead to state officials taking positions of authority. He is in favor of the nationalization of the tertiary sector (services). Interestingly, he regards control of trade as crucial: perhaps it itself is a reflection of Africa’s backwardness.

Fanon seems, in two comments that he makes on the matter, in favor of democratic ownership of capital, perhaps similar to “self-management” or “market socialism” that existed in Yugoslavia. That sounds good because indeed the internal organization of such enterprises was much more democratic than the organization of similar enterprises under capitalism. But (perhaps unfortunately) history seems to have taught us that people work harder under dictatorship in the workplace, and are content to let democracy exist only in public (but not work) sphere. Thus worker-controlled enterprises tended to waste capital, make bad investment decision, prefer to distribute income in wages, never fire anyone and not require workers to put in much effort. As every Marxist would tell you, if you are economically inefficient, you are “toast.”

So Fanon’s preferred economic formula would have also failed, and indeed it failed, not only in Yugoslavia, but also elsewhere it was tried: in Zambia, Tanzania and Algeria. It could be even argued that countries that kept state ownership like Vietnam and China did better. Fanon perhaps did not know the comment attributed to Bela Kun during the 1919 Hungarian Soviet revolution that “workers will die for the revolution, but will not work for it.”

Fanon is ferocious in his critique of inability of the local Third World bourgeoisies to save, innovate, create any value, and go beyond their role of “cocktail party organizers for the Western bourgeoisie”. He writes: “the national bourgeoisie will take the role of foreman of European companies and will practically convert the county into a brothel”.  These pages in Chapter 3 (“The problems of national consciousness”) are very powerful and could have been written today. The problem however is that, when you start with low income and have little education and knowledge, and  with little or nothing to offer to the rest of the world, you really cannot be more than “a foreman” or a “brothel.” Regardless of what you would like to be.

Et alors? Thus, melancholically,  I have to conclude that Fanon was often wrong on all three  (important) topics. But being wrong is not a good reason for not being read.  Fanon remains, I think, one of the best sources for the period of decolonization. This is a period which is (self-satisfactorily) ignored today, so much so that Obama, US president whose own father fought for independence of Kenya and whose grandfather was jailed and tortured by the British, could in his long and wide-ranging speech on world history in the 20th century avoid to mention any names or countries linked with the struggle for independence except for a few anodyne comments on Nelson Mandela. Thus, no Vietnam, no Algeria, no Zambia, no Ghana, no Indonesia, no Kenya, no Tanzania, no Egypt. No… Well, if you are satisfied with such a truncated history of the past half century, then you should ignore Fanon too.

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