Fanon and Mariátegui contra Grosfoguel and Coulthard

Although Ramón Grosfoguel et al. certainly take pride in the fact they draw from native resources, and hence do not rely on master thinkers from the Occident, it is unlikely that anyone not steeped in that tradition could even begin to understand their “decolonial” theory. On this point, Walter D. Mignolo brings up the necessity of acts he refers to as “epistemic disobedience”: “Decolonial thinking presupposes de-linking (epistemically and politically) from the web of imperial knowledge.” The concept of de-linking is adapted from Samir Amin’s 1988 book on Eurocentrism. Loren Goldner explains that “de-linking is a fancy name for an idea first developed by Iosif Stalin called ‘socialism in one country’.” Grosfoguel indicates in an article about “The Epistemic Decolonial Turn” that his main points are

  1. that a decolonial epistemic perspective requires a much broader canon of thought than simply the Western canon (including the Left Western canon);
  2. that a truly universal decolonial perspective thus cannot be based on an abstract universal (one particular that raises itself as universal global design), but would have to be the result of the critical dialogue between diverse critical epistemic/ethical/political projects towards a pluriversal as oppose to a universal world;
  3. that decolonization of knowledge would require to take seriously the epistemic perspective/cosmologies/insights of critical thinkers from the Global South thinking from and with subalternized racial/ethnic/sexual spaces and bodies.

Postmodernism and postructuralism as epistemological projects are caught in the Western canon, reproducing within its domains of thought and practice a coloniality of power/knowledge.

He even goes so far as to call for a “decolonization of postcolonial studies,” which is still far too reliant on the authority of Western thinkers. In an article of the same title, Grosfoguel recalls that “as a Latino in the United States, I was dissatisfied with the epistemic consequences of the knowledge produced by [the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group]. They underestimated in their own work ethnic or racial perspectives coming from the region, while at the same time privileging predominantly to Western thinkers, which is related to my second point: they gave epistemic privilege to what they called the ‘four horses of the apocalypse,’ that is, Foucault, Derrida, Gramsci, and Guha… Among the four main thinkers they privilege, three are ‘Eurocentric’ thinkers… Two (i.e., Derrida and Foucault) form part of the poststructuralist/postmodern Western canon. Only one (i.e., Rinajit Guha) is a thinker thinking from the South. By privileging Western thinkers as their central theoretical apparatus, they betrayed their goal to produce subaltern studies.” Mignolo writes in a similar vein that

Coloniality and decoloniality introduces a fracture with both the Eurocentered project of postmodernity and a project of postcoloniality heavily dependent on poststructuralism (i.e., insofar as Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida have been acknowledged as the grounding of the postcolonial canon): Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Homi Bhabha… Decoloniality sets out from other sources. From the decolonial shift already implicit in Nueva corónica and buen gobierno by Waman Puma de Ayala; in the decolonial critique and the activism of Mahatma Gandhi; in the fracture of Marxism in its encounter with colonial legacies in the Andes, articulated by José Carlos Mariátegui; and in the radical political and epistemological shifts enacted by Amilcar Cabral, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Rigoberta Menchú, Gloria Anzaldúa, among others. The decolonial shift, in other words, is a project of de-linking whereas postcolonial theory is a project of scholarly transformation within the academy.

Yet the palpable irony here is — even if Grosfoguel gets rid of the names Derrida, Gramsci, and Foucault while retaining only Guha, or if Mignolo jettisons Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida but holds on to Bhabha — they will still be working within this philosophical idiom, which they just disavowed. Nevertheless, this has nothing to do with the intrinsic “greatness” of European civilization or its unique “genius.” Rather, it has to do with an historic form of universality which happened to develop in Europe and expanded outward from there. Decolonial theorists tend to be dissatisfied with this version of events, though. Marx himself is not spared from the rebuke of “Eurocentrism,” as Mignolo observes: “Class consciousness means a ‘critical consciousness,’ which like the one generated by colonial difference and the colonial wound (e.g., critical border thinking), generates, in the first case, projects of emancipation and, in the second, projects of liberation. However, in Marx and in the Marxist tradition, the idea of ‘class consciousness’ hides the fact that the paradigmatic model of the proletarian is white, male, European…” (“On Subalterns and Other Agencies”).

Grosfoguel takes this a step further. Unlike many of his decolonial peers, he never had much affection for Marx. Quijano, by contrast, considers himself a Marxist to this day, and Dussel’s readings of Marx are both subtle and wide-ranging. None of this is present in Grosfoguel. “In social science we have concrete manifestations of epistemic Islamophobia in the work of Western-centric patriarchal theorists such as Karl Marx and Max Weber,” he maintains. “Marx believed that secularism was fundamental for revolution to have a chance in Muslim lands. This secularist view of Marx was a typical colonial strategy promoted by Western empires in order to destroy the ways of thinking and living of the colonial subjects and, thus, impede any trace of resistance.” Elsewhere Grosfoguel continues: “Just like the Western thinkers preceding him, Marx participates in an epistemic racism in which there is only one epistemology with access to universality: the Western tradition… Despite being from the left, Marxist thought ended up trapped in the same problems of Eurocentrism and colonialism that had imprisoned Eurocentered thinkers of the right.” Continue reading

Parti des Indigènes de la République: “Zionists to the GULag!”

The left-wing political scientist  Thomas Guénolé  recently (18th March) rowed with the spokesperson of the Parti des Indigènes de la République, Houria Bouteldja on the French television (France 2) program, “Ce soir (ou jamais !)” sur France 2 (Atlantico). He took out a photo of her posing with the slogan, “Zionists to the Gulag” [« Sionistes au goulag »]. A note which then adds: “Peace, but gulag even so” [« Peace, mais goulag quand même »].

Some other choice quotations he pulled from Bouteldja are also worth noting. Regarding rapes that take place in the banlieue: “If a black women is raped by a black man, it’s right that she does not go to the police in order to protect the black community” [« si une femme noire se fait violer par un homme noire, il est légitime qu’elle ne porte pas plainte pour protéger la communauté noire »]. On gays:  “Everybody knows that a poof is not completely a man, since the Arab who loses his potency is no longer a man” [« comme chacun sait, la tarlouze n’est pas tout à fait un homme. l’arabe qui perd sa puissance virile n’est plus un homme »].

Bouteldja’s reply was to state that she couldn’t give a toss what Guénolé thought, and that his basic accusation against her was that she was not white.

Now it is time to return to a critical examination of the ideas of this person and her group.

Houria Bouteldja, or rather “the excellent  Houria Bouteldja” (as Richard Seymour calls her here), is the spokesperson for the Parti des Indigènes de la République [PIR]. She is known to the American left from the reprinting of their statements by the International Socialist Organization,  and a star article with Malik Tahar Chaouch translated as  “The Unity Trap” in the oddly-named journal Jacobin, which claims to be “reason in revolt.”

The PIR, which opposes “race-mixing” and attacks the supposed “philo-Semitism” of the French state, among many other criticisms of “Jews” and  “Zionists” has also received a respectful audience in Britain, including a blog and  billing at meetings of the Islamic Human Right Commission. Verso has published a translation criticizing French secularism by one of the Indigènes’ prominent “white” supporters, the former leftist and self-styled feminist Christine Delphy.

Rumors that an English version of Les Blancs, les Juifs, et nous  is in preparation at Verso, with an introduction by Ian Donovan, have been strongly denied. A review of the book in French has already appeared written by the Tiqqun-affiliated author Ivan Segré, «Une indigène au visage pâle: Houria Bouteldja, Les Blancs, les Juifs et nous: Vers une politique de l’amour révolutionnaire». This is not a translation of Segré’s tonic review of Bouteldja but a discussion of some key points. The article begins with a summary of the authoress’ views which will perhaps explain that the prospect of a full account of the text — after all a honest attempt to make intelligible a picture of the world that bears comparison with such landmark thinkers as David Icke — would be hard to accomplish. But we salute comrade Sergé for having waded through this singular oeuvre. This is just to make known to an English speaking audience some of his main points

Continue reading

Toward a materialist approach to the question of race: A response to the Indigènes de la République

The Charnel-House

A few months ago, I wrote up a critique of the “decolonial dead end” arrived at by groups like the Indigènes de la République. Despite being welcomed in some quarters of the Left, wearied by the controversy stirred up after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it was not well received by others. Last month, however, a French comrade alerted me to the publication of a similar, but much more detailed and carefully argued, piece criticizing Bouteldja & co. in Vacarne. I even asked a friend to translate it for the new left communist publication Ritual. But before he could complete it, someone describing himself as “a long-time reader/appreciator of The Charnel-House” contacted me to let me know he’d just finished rendering it into English.

The authors of the original piece — Malika Amaouche, Yasmine Kateb, and Léa Nicolas-Teboul — all belong to the French ultraleft, militant feminists and communists active in different groups. I am grateful they brought up the PIR’s execrable position opposing intermarriage and submitted it to ruthless criticism, offering a Wertkritik-inspired analysis of some antisemitic tropes reproduced by the self-proclaimed Indigènes. Regarding the provenance of “philosemitism,” a concept employed by Bouteldja which the authors critique: the term was invented by antisemites during the nineteenth century, as a reproach to supposed “Jew-lovers.” Not a title that would be claimed by those who were themselves sympathetic to the plight of Jews in Europe and elsewhere.

Translator’s introduction

The following text, a critique of the Parti des Indigènes de la République by three of its former members, originally appeared in the French journal Vacarme. A radical anti-colonial party, Parti des Indigènes came to wide attention among the English-speaking Left for their sharp critiques of secularism and racism on the French Left following the Charlie Hebdo attacks of 2015. While they seem to enjoy great respect in certain sectors of the Left, the translator of this document believes such respect is mistaken; that PIR’s identitarian politics seeks an alliance with the identitarian far right of Le Pen, Dieudonné, and Soral; and that such an approach to politics poses a great threat to the Left.

Secondly, this document provides a much-needed insight into the problem of antisemitism. Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the media hysterically speculated that Europe was on the verge of a pogrom, to be carried out by its numerous Muslim immigrants; Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu took up the hysteria, calling for French Jews to emigrate. The backlash among certain leftists, whom the present translator otherwise respects, was perhaps equally hysterical. Some questioned whether antisemitism was even extant in contemporary Europe; others seemed to blame antisemitic acts on crimes of the Israeli state, rather than the perpetrators. As this document’s analysis shows, antisemitism is not only a threat against Jews, but against any movement of the working class.

Rosa Luxemburg in Martinique

Toward a materialist approach to the racial question: A response to the Indigènes de la République

Malika Amaouche, Yasmine
Kateb, & Léa Nicolas-Teboul
Vacarme (June 25, 2015)

Les Indigènes de la République have helped to shed light on racism within the Left, supported by the racism of French society at large. But are they also prisoners of racism? We propose a systematic analysis of the forces exercised upon the most precarious: a critique of the erasure of race and gender; while escaping the identitarian project of the extreme right; remaining anchored in critique of political economy.

From the dead refugees of the Mediterranean, to the Baltimore riots, to the events of everyday metropolitan life, we are constantly drawn back to the question of race. It seems necessary to propose an analysis of the foundations of racism, which will not be merely a shallow response to current events.

Today, we observe mounting Islamophobia and antisemitism. These two are a pair: in a context where social segregation is becoming stronger, and the logic of all-against-all becomes uncontrollable, we must work to think of these things in conjunction. That means to reject the logic of competition between different racial oppressions; but also to examine Islamophobia and antisemitism together in all their specificity. And in all this, the general context — growing social violence, a hardening of class segmentation, and effects of structural racism (in housing, work, and so on). It is harder and harder for the poor, and for those who are the most precarious (racial minorities and women).

With the [Charlie Hebdo] attacks in January, the left was hit with its own denial of the issue of racism. It made a specialty of denouncing the victimization, and of dismissing racism as a massive structural phenomenon. Institutional feminists’ obsession with the veil functioned as a spotlight on the racism of a Left clinging to an abstract, ahistorical, and highly aggressive universalism.

This was why we were enthusiasts of the great work of exposing the racism of the Republican left — a project in which the Parti des Indigènes de la République has participated since 2004. There are many of us who worked to undermine this “respectable” racism, under which the indigènes were never truly equal.1 If the Left was never explicitly against racialized people, its arguments were dismissive of the great values meant to emancipate them. An entire history of the condescension and paternalism of the French Left remains to be written. Such a history would note the way the discourse of class was used to stratify the hierarchies of the workers’ movement itself.

Nevertheless, it seems to us that PIR is slipping. Riding the gathering wave of identitarianism, it proposes a systematic cultural, almost ethnocentric, reading of social phenomena. This leads to the adoption of dangerous positions on antisemitism, gender, and homosexuality. It essentializes the famous “Indigènes sociaux,” the subaltern it aims to represent. It is as if the racialized working class, who face the most violent racism, are being instrumentalized in a political strategy which basically plays in the arena of the white left and à la mode radical intellectuals.

For us, descendants of Muslim and Jewish Algerians, to lead the critique of the PIR, just as we led the critique of the Left, is a matter of self-defense. We believe we have nothing to win from a political operation which subsumes all questions under those of race. For us, not only the question of race, but also those of political economy, and the social relations of sex, are the order of the day.

Political economy and Islamophobia

Anyone who has taken the RER to Gare du Nord in the morning knows that those who look Arab, black, or Roma, face a constant pressure. “Face control,” police killings, housing in only the most distant banlieues — racial minorities face geographical, social, and symbolic segregation. This integral racism (to take up a phrase of Frantz Fanon), consubstantial with French society, begins with orientation in the fourth grade, or with the search for an internship, or the first job… and extends to all the dimensions of existence. In its multiple appearances, it extends from the streets of rich towns where ethnic men are turned away from nightclubs, to the edges of seas where they are let drown with all the indifference that attends to those who dare cross borders.

In France, Islamophobia — i.e., anti-Muslim racism — is to be understood not merely as a secular opposition to religion, but as a form of racism directed against all who are black or Arab. Its presence is seen in the public space, whether against veiled women, or young people loitering against a wall. The events of January only accentuated this process of stigmatization. From the attacks on mosques to the assaults on veiled women, to the police summons given to eight-year-olds who preferred not to say “Je suis Charlie,” it has become almost impossible for an Arab to speak politically without first prefacing that they are not an Islamist.

But it does not only operate through discriminations or prejudices. Islamophobia returns to a more central issue, the issue of race. This issue functions by assigning a place in the division of labor to certain sections of the population based on their origin or skin color. One need only observe a construction site to note that the heavy labor is performed by blacks, the technical work by Arabs, and that the overseers are white.2 Racism is the regime of material exploitation which has organized the development of European capitalism.

In effect, capitalism promotes market competition not only between capitalists, but between workers as well. This competition takes the form of a process of “naturalization,” which allows a specific devaluation of labor power. Certain sociohistoric traits of the immigrant workforce (for example, qualification, disposition, specialization) are “essentialized”: they are stretched, “typecast.” And this permits employers to bring down cost of labor.

But this process cannot be simply reduced to a “racial premium” of exploitation. It is a total social phenomenon. One may therefore submit that racialization is an essential dynamic under capitalism, which always needs greater labor power, and produces, at the same time, a “surplus” of labor power, always too much.3

Insufficiency of the “colonial” framework

This racism marks, materially and symbolically, the European metropolitan space. Nevertheless, the strict decolonial framework proposed by PIR prevents us from comprehending the actual dynamics of racism, which exist only in conjunction with the development of global capitalism.

The history of colonialism as such is behind us, but it has left traces. The West — that is, the historical center of accumulation now threatened by crisis — perpetuates, through its “War on Terror,” the continuation of structural exploitation on the world scale. Take, for example, the wars over access to natural resources (oil or “strategic” minerals). But equally at play is the intensification of exploitation in all class segments, beginning with the most fragile. This process of immiseration and marginalization ends by engulfing those subjects who are not black, Arab, or the descendants of the colonized. Continue reading

Book Review: Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks

Sunit Singh

Image: Cover to the new Philcox translation of
Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (2008)


Originally published in the Platypus Review.

New York: Grove Press, 2008

It is no coincidence that there is a new English translation of Black Skin, White Masks [Peau Noire, Masques Blancs (1952), hereafter BSWM], since in this first book, Frantz Fanon himself believed that the fight against racism had nowhere found more succor than in the United States. Fanon poetically describes the shorn “curtain of the sky” over the battlefield after the Civil War that first reveals the monumental vision of a white man “hand in hand” with a black man (196). Yet while blacks continue to remain segregated under Jim Crow, the situation for the French man of color haunted by liberal metropolitan racism, is rather different. He remains locked in an existential struggle for recognition, unaware that freedom means “when there are no more slaves, there are no masters” (194). Fanon contends in BSWM that there is no more insidious obstacle than racism to the realization of our species capacities or the completion of the historical dialectic. Of course this claim only makes sense if racism is treated, like in BSWM, as a symptom of capitalism. That is, even The Wretched of the Earth [Les Damnés de la Terre (1961), hereafter W of E], fails to achieve the depth of analysis in BSWM.[1] The Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver was presumably speaking about W of E in the quip that “every brother on a rooftop” in the 1960s was able to recite Fanon. For no one quoting BSWM can miss its incisive rebuke of black militancy as proffering a chimeric freedom or its bold claim about alienation as the exclusive privilege of a certain class of blacks. “Fervor,” the narrator in BSWM poignantly remarks, “is the weapon of choice of the impotent” (9 CLM).[2] The awful truth that no one, except a handful of academic leftists interested in presenting BSWM as an anti-humanist phenomenology,[3] reads this book anymore indicates the depth of the sea change in attitudes about race on the Left. But if the utopian interracial schema of BSWM speaks to us at all, this is a consequence of the peculiarity of the US as a “nation of nations,” where the experience of racism raises the dilemma of freedom with acuteness.

The historic importance of W of E to the New Left overshadows the brilliant analysis of racism in BSWM.[4] Even the appearance of a new translation on the scene scarcely alters the conditions of this elision. His latest translator, Richard Philcox, in his afterword to the retranslation of W of E, explains the relevance of — or rather, expresses the contemporary confusion about — Fanon thus: “We cannot forget the martyrdom of the Palestinians when we read…‘On Violence’….We cannot forget the lumpenproletariat, the wretched of the earth, who still stream to Europe from Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the countries of the former Eastern bloc, living on the periphery in their shantytowns.” As Philcox laments, “[there are those who] still unreservedly and enthusiastically adopt the thought characteristics of the West.”[5] The Freud-Marx confluence in BSWM sits at odds with this politically naïve anti-imperialism. No doubt this at least partially explains why the new translation elicits a tepid foreword by Kwame Anthony Appiah. More pointedly, Appiah reads three themes as shared across both works — a critique of “the Eurocentrism of psychoanalysis,” a bid to reckon accounts with Negritude, and a concerted effort to develop a “philosophy of decolonization” — as if these formed a triptych. However this is no more than a trompe l’oeil. The concern with “disalienation” in the first book is non-identical with anxieties about “decolonization” in the latter: Whereas BSWM analyzes the wretchedness of racism under capitalism, W of E recoils from the task of pushing through what, in the conclusion to BSWM, is referred to as the “pathology of freedom” by virtue of its close identification with Third Worldism. On the other hand, the foreword seems apposite to this new translation, since the choices that Philcox makes in trying to render into English the peculiarity of the French in BSWM often coincide with the interpretation Appiah advances on the thematic unity of Fanon’s oeuvre. Hence, in its endeavor to restore some of the philosophically inflected categories (particularly in the fifth chapter), the new translation mirrors a wider historical trend privileging a descriptive phenomenology of race over a psychoanalytic interpretation.[6] The manner in which the new edition assumes the onus of parsing the French words nègre or noir (“black/the black man,” “negro,” or “nigger”) tends to blunt the affective charge of “negro” as well as the rhetorical use of “nigger” by preferring to update — although by no means always — these epithets with the more innocuous “black” or “the black man.” Part of the issue is that the French uses a number of words to express the gray scale that distinguishes black skin from white, “the Creoles, the Mullattoes, and Blacks,” (la békaill, le mûlatraille et la négraille), that in English are collapsed into “black/black man” or the more pejorative “negro/nigger.” Nevertheless, the cumulative effect is that the newer version shrouds a claim at the heart of BSWM: Blacks as much as whites share the connotations or stereotypes associated with what is “black,” so that the “nigger” is always someone else, somewhere else.[7] The new, “more accurate” translation painstakingly reconstructs the specificity of the numerous cultural references in the text, its idiosyncratic use of medical jargon, and its loanwords from existentialism. But these virtues are limited by the fact that it lacks the apparatus of a critical edition with which to adjudicate matters of nuance. Despite its infelicities, the older translation by Charles Lam Markmann, first issued in 1967, seems more aware of its intended audience; its age captures quaintly the historical texture of BSWM. The older translation was, in an important sense, more aware of the stakes of BSWM. Continue reading

The significance of art for the #Occupy movement

Here’s the panel organized by Chris Mansour of the Platypus Affiliated Society on “The Significance of Art in the #Occupy Movement,” on which I spoke with Maria Byck and Noah Fischer at the Left Forum.  Karen Archey, Pam’s old friend and roommate from Chicago, was originally supposed to be on the panel as well — and I would have paid good money to see her go at it with Noah (after their much-publicized feud in the media) — but she ended up getting a paying gig in London while the Left Forum was going on.

Some of the audience questions were great, especially on the communicability of art in the service of politics, the ideological function of art (i.e., as performance piece, as agitprop, as a beautiful object), the viability of art in an administered vs. a stateless society, and the problematic formulation of a “return to realism.”  Thanks to everyone who came out, either as audience members or as panelists.

Below is the text of my opening remarks.

Luigi Russolo – “Rivolta” (1911)

Of Guilds and Musea: An Inquiry into the Historical and Political Dimensions of Art in #OWS

Early in the first chapter of his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx observes that

just as [men] seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.  Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95.

It is thus perhaps to be expected that during our present moment of political upheaval, we should look to the struggles of a bygone age for guidance.  What distinguishes this crisis from the other great outpourings of popular unrest witnessed over the last few centuries, however, is the rather jumbled and confused manner in which the past is being reappropriated.  The detritus of dead epochs is dug up for all to see, whereupon it is hastily sifted through in search of anything that might admit of creative reuse.  Recycled revolutionary catchphrases appear hoisted above the scattered throngs of protestors.  Placards demanding “All power to the General Assemblies!” are held up beside banners reading “The Oakland Commune.”  Some signs advise us to “Be realistic — demand the impossible,” while others inform us that “Another world is possible.”  Slogans of more recent coinage can also be seen: “People before profit!” and “We are the 99%!” Sewn together from disparate sources in the history of the Left, #Occupy almost seems to represent a veritable Frankenstein’s monster of the radical imagination.  Here might lie the unconscious motivation behind the highly publicized “zombie march” that took place in those early days of #OWS, even if the marchers understood themselves as portraying the brainless dupes of corporate greed.  At this point, however, the ahistorical residue of postmodern consciousness takes its revenge on history: the past becomes pastiche. Continue reading