“The native laughs in mockery when Western values are mentioned in front of him”
Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) was an influential psychoanalyst and critic of Western imperialism.
His radical anti-racist humanism was informed not only by his own personal experience as a West Indian, but by what he saw while treating soldiers during the Algerian war for independence from France.
He began working with the Algerian liberation movement, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), in 1956 became an editor of its newspaper, El Moudjahid, and in 1960 was appointed ambassador to Ghana by Algeria’s FLN-led provisional government.
Drawing partly on the philosophy of Georg Hegel, Fanon proposed a dialectic which would allow alienated victims of colonialism to respond to racist trauma in a healthy way. (1)
He often stressed the sheer brutal physical force used by the imperial system to impose obedience and servitude on occupied peoples.
In his 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth, for instance, Fanon stated: “Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence”. (2)
In this context, dogmatic non-violence was a compromise which amounted to defeat, a sorry submission to the oppressor’s strategy of transforming would-be rebels into defenders of the status quo – “they are beaten from the start”. (3)
Culture was also used as a weapon to maintain the full-spectrum control of the empire and its social norms.
The colonizers despised “the customs of the colonized people, their traditions, their myths – above all, their myths” (4) because these threatened to empower them against the empire’s domination.
Imperlialists also dehumanised those they dominated, explained Fanon. “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.
“The native knows all this and laughs to himself every time he spots an allusion to the animal world in the other’s words. For he knows that he is not an animal; and it is precisely at the moment he realizes his humanity that he begins to sharpen the weapons with which he will secure its victory”. (5)
He added: “When the native hears a speech about Western culture he pulls out his knife – or at least he makes sure it is within reach.
“The violence with which the supremacy of white values is affirmed and the aggressiveness which has permeated the victory of these values over the ways of life and of thought of the native mean that, in revenge, the native laughs in mockery when Western values are mentioned in front of him”. (6)
These Western “values” amounted to nothing less than the systematic exploitation of dehumanised non-Western peoples in order to feed the greed and growth of the West.
Said Fanon: “This European opulence is literally scandalous, for it has been founded on slavery, it has been nourished with the blood of slaves and it comes directly from the soil and from the subsoil of that under-developed world.
“The well-being and the progress of Europe have been built up with the sweat and the dead bodies of Negroes, Arabs, Indians and the yellow races”. (7)
The autonomy of liberated peoples would have to be rooted in the soil reclaimed from the empire. “For a colonized people, the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity”. (8)
But to shake themselves completely free from Western domination, they would also have to go through a decolonisation of the mind.
This, as Samira Kawash explains in an essay on Fanon, involves a complete rupture with the whole mindset, all the deeply embedded assumptions, of the imperialist system.
She writes: “True decolonization is something much more radical than the reversal of position and the replacement of rulers; decolonization is the uprooting of the system as a whole, the supplanting of the political, existential, and corporeal reality created by colonization”. (9)
She adds that the fear that the Algerian resistance struck into the French colonial psyche was the same fear that a resistance to modernity strikes into those invested in the project of progress: “The ‘terror’ of decolonization is the terror of radical possibility generated from within the scene of colonization”. (10)
Kawash identifies a connection between Fanon’s position and that of Walter Benjamin, with his desire to “blast open the continuum of history”. (11)
Ed Lord, in his 2016 book Modern Madness, identifies a parallel between the Fanonian approach and his own search for “the ‘cracks’ or ‘ruptures’ within modernity” as part of his analysis of the mental distress endured by people living under industrial capitalism. (12)
Video link: Frantz Fanon (9 mins)
Audio link: Frantz Fanon – BBC radio (24 mins)
2. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (London: Penguin, 1991), p. 48.
3. Fanon, p. 49.
4 . Fanon, p. 32.
5 Fanon, pp. 32-33.
6. Fanon, p. 33.
7. Fanon, p. 76.
8. Fanon, p. 34
9. Samira Kawash, ‘Terrorists and Vampires: Fanon’s Spectral Violence of Decolonization’, Frantz Fanon: Critical Perspectives, ed. Alessandrini, A., (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 235-257.
10. Kawash, p. 368.
11. Walter Benjamin, cit. Kawash, p, 240.
12. Ed Lord, Modern Madness: A Wild Schizoanalysis of Mental Distress in the Spaces of Modernity (Sussex: Winter Oak Press, 2016), p. 137.