Decolonial Futurity: the eternally relevant questions from Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.
Frantz Fanon’s canonical text The Wretched of the Earth has inspired generations of postcolonial scholars to read the inimical potential of colonial violence as the foundation of the struggles of liberation in postcolonial Africa. There are some fundamental questions it raised in 1961, whose relevance reflect in the realities of many postcolonial nations even today. Should we reconsider some categories we took for granted when we launched our liberation movements, and decolonising initiatives?
What is the burden of a colonial past on the futurity of decolonising nations? In what forms does the postcolonial predicament manifest? What must be the worldview of the decolonizing initiative? What must it undo, and what must it make? The dialectic of past and futurity, in the context of a decolonising and liberating movements calls for specific attention to anchors of power in relations of production and culture. So when post-colonial (mind the hyphen here) nation-states like India became independent, its blindness towards the alliance of cultural and social structures with structures of production led to the social formations whose morbidity we see today. Fanon anticipated many of these messes by evaluating the baggage of a colonial past on the historical imaginations, collective and individual, of the people in some African nations as well as posing the question of the location from which decolonising movements should be mounted. He anticipated how while recognising the poignant iterativeness of violence that colonialism bred, it was also important to formulate a strategy to relocate the anchors of power and production in ways that do not reproduce the unequal capitalist structures of capitalism. Fanon’s position is useful to deploy in reimagining the dialectic of past and futurity that decolonising models should have embraced.
Fanon’s Wretched makes five basic arguments, reiterating the nascent articulation of these ideas from his Black Skin, White Masks.
Firstly, he argues (not in a legitimating way, but in an explanatory way) that violence marks the most crude naked and natural state of colonialism, and it taught the ‘natives’ that it will yield to nothing but violence. Therefore, decolonisation is naturally a violent process. There is a deeper continuity in this assertion, emanating from his Black Skin, White Masks. In Black Skin, he evocatively appeals to be allowed to just ‘be’, to be allowed to ‘express existence’. He outlines how intimately colonialism had impacted people of colour to disbelieve in their humanity. He identified that ‘being human’ or simply ‘being’ was only a privilege for white people.
In fact, the terms the settler uses when he mentions the native are zoological terms. He speaks of the yellow man’s reptilian motions, of the stink of the native quarter, of breeding swarms, of foulness, of spawn, of gesticulations.
Therefore, the aspiration amongst blacks of Antilles was to become whiter in order to just ‘be’. It did not matter how great the history of black people was, disagreeing with his mentor Césaire’s Negritude position. Counterposing the Eurocentric sense of supremacy did not automatically confer humanity on black people like him, according to Fanon. He extends this hypothesis of associating ‘being’ with ‘whiteness’ to associating ‘whiteness’ with colonial violence. Therefore, he explains the violence of liberation struggles in Africa as simply a reflection of how Africans learnt ‘how to be’. Sartre’s mistaken reading of Wretched posited this argument as a legitimation of violence. But Fanon’s position is more nuanced as it explain how a semantic association of ‘being’, and ‘power’ with violence was enabled by colonialism’s gruesome violence on dehumanised black bodies in Africa. His analysis of Algerian criminality as a functional consequence of colonial violence showcased that violence as a powerful language that the colonised had learnt to articulate from the coloniser. But it also showed how colonialism had left the impoverished locals to engage in petty crimes to fend for themselves by turning against one another, producing endemic violence as a consequence.
Fanon was a psychiatrist. The last part of the book features vivid cases from his career as a psychiatrist that demonstrate the psychic pervasiveness of colonial violence, and the stark implications of settler-native power complexes on individual personality traits. Be it in domestic violence, or in ex-convict anxieties, or in the White-policeman’s lack of guilt, these vivid case studies are a morbid representation of how acutely and how intimately colonisation produces subjects.
“The cause is the consequence; 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 do with the colonial problem.” 
Loyal to his Marxist methods, Fanon’s second argument reflects on how race and capitalism are allied to the violent logic of colonialism. Fanon’s notion of ‘violence’ in the first chapter Concerning Violence, is not simply physical and bodily. He systematically outlines the intellectual, social, cultural, economic and political violence that the colonial experience in Africa entailed. At its extractive pinnacle, justified on the grounds of Eurocentric supremacy of race, colonial forces of capitalism in Africa systematized robbery, extraction of resources and complete transformation of economic structures in rural Africa. Decolonisation, therefore, entails securing all three aspects that were robbed off the dehumanised ‘native’ — LAND + BREAD + DIGNITY.
However, he notices a problem. The question of who is it that should lead the decolonising movement plagues Fanon. His third main argument is that the ‘native’ intellectual, who learnt from the ‘mother-country’ should not represent the masses. That they are allies of colonialist bourgeoisie. They will also, in coalition with the local ruling elite, reproduce the colonial structures of oppression. He is fiercely critical of the creation of a class of government servants, doctors etc, who he calls affranchised slaves, and reproaches their tendency to reinforce colonial ideologies masked as ‘liberation movements.
The thrust of this argument is that he believes it is through the rural masses of peasantry in Africa, that a true potential for revolution lies. His critique of colonial capitalism also yields the argument that a truly decolonised futurity must embrace socialism, instead of walking the teleological path of developmentalism established by Europe.
Fanon was writing at the helm of the Cold War. His Marxist leanings, notwithstanding, he pushed for technological development in rural Africa. However, his foresight in the assertion above is clear. He had warned, that decolonising should mean that the ‘first’ are made to go ‘last’, and that the last are made to come ‘first’. The impoverishment of peasantry, of the rural masses, at the expense of bourgeois interests anchored in the postcolonial liberation movements has instated permanent inequalities across the continent.
Perhaps, the deepest question that Fanon raises, is that of national culture. He argues against his mentor Cesaire, on how collective consciousness of people, must not create alternative lines of cultural supremacy. Reiterating Marxist frameworks, he argues for a dialectic between the colonial past and the imagined futurity of the African nations, saying that particular, localised, national cultures will do nations good, rejecting the Negritude, and Black Internationalist positions of his time. While it is important to organise culture, and reclaim it back from the judgmental clutches of colonial ideology, in order to truly decolonise epistemologically. It is also important that a sense of cultural and historical superiority counterposed to White, European supremacy will not do good. In this his humanistic notion of ‘being’ screams the will to ‘be’ and exist only as a ‘human’ to have conferred on him simple ‘humanity’, no more, no less.
What is at the heart of these concerns is the overpowering demand for an overhaul of colonial structures of oppression and expropriation sustained by States, capital, and market. The fundamental question about decolonisation then is, who do we entrust the responsibility to charge the process of decolonising and what set of relations should be exactly envisaged as a part of decolonial futurity?
Something we all must ponder over, especially today when the nation-states have turned far too right, to even hope for an equitable, and peaceful future in near sight. Was the new, free ‘Nation-State’ the right path for decolonising, when precolonial pasts of these ‘nations’ may have been organised in other political formations?
To what extent must we allow the ‘nation’ (also maybe a Eurocentric category) as a modality of rights and politics to encompass the diversity of socio-economic realities and epistemologies amongst African peoples?
Can the nation be a formidable and sustainable reality that divorces itself entirely from its colonial heritage? Is not the nation-state an imposition of Euro-centric modernity as well? Should postcolonial nations have embraced non-national forms of political ontology? Was the hastened decolonial projects, and transfer of power and land across the colonised world not amenable to a political formation that was particular to the historical trajectory of only a few European nations? In this evolution of all postcolonial States into Nation-States, will we remain forever postcolonial, and will never truly become post-colonial (with the hyphen)?