Colonialism made us feel backward. It was always Europe that was advanced and enlightened, and it was always the East that was backward and wretched. Rather than honestly say that they had come to plunder, the colonial rulers said that they had come to school the East – it needed to be civilized. Every European colonizer used the phrase – the French called it mission civilisatrice, the Portuguese called it missão civilizadora and the English called it liberalism.
It took an immense effort of political will in the colonies to craft powerful movements against the colonizer. Different cultures of rule and resistance marked the battlefields, with some engaged in armed struggle while others were able to build resistance through non-violent mass action. But what united all these movements was the deep desire for freedom – for a break from the experience of backwardness.
The deep desire for freedom amongst the masses came in a register that appeared narrow. In his brilliant book – The Wretched of the Earth – Frantz Fanon wrote that the people ‘take their stand from the start on the broad and inclusive positions of bread and the land: how can we obtain the land, and bread to eat?’ The masses make a concrete demand for dignity through their call for land and for food – this is their ‘obstinate point of view’, writes Fanon.
Such a concrete form of dignity had to be denied to the masses. Such a demand would spell socialism. Any movement that took that position in the 1950s and 1960s had to be cut down. They were fought from Cape Verde to Malaysia – crushed with the full force of colonial violence. Fifty years ago, the fighters from around the Third World gathered in Cuba to inaugurate the Tricontinental. They wanted to break the wall built around their aspirations. None of their movements – with the exception of Cuba – would remain intact. Between CIA coups and financial terrorism, their dreams began to die. What was allowed was ‘flag independence’ – freedom from direct colonial rule, but what was not allowed was full independence. Backwardness had to remain intact.
Fanon considers the problem of backwardness as it re-emerges after independence. The masses’ victory does not come with the sensation of a new beginning. They have thrown out the colonizers, but they now find that ‘they have been robbed of all these things’ that modernity had promised them – running water, surely, but also freedom of political action. Two or three years after independence, Fanon writes, the people begin to feel that ‘it wasn’t worth while’ to fight the colonizers, and ‘that nothing could really change’. Fanon sees this resentment. It marks his text. ‘The enlightened observer takes note’, writes Fanon, ‘of the existence of a kind of burnt-down house after the fire has been put out, which still threatens to burst into flames again’.
Independence from colonial rule opened a new continent for the darker nations – but it was not enough. It did not give them freedom to craft their own social and economic agenda. Tentacles controlled from the capitals of capitalism suffocated their options. Coups and corruption dampened the enthusiasm to create a new world. It was enough to reduce oneself to a subcontractor for the former – now distantly located – colonizer. Old colonial terms – such as comprador, which the Portuguese used in China – defined the subordinated bourgeoisie of the new nations. Their degeneration was marked by their subservience.
This narrowness was experienced as well in the civil rights movements inside Europe and North America. Civic rights could be delivered, but political power and social justice had to be kept off the table. Little wonder then that the Left in Europe and North America fell prey to the siren of revolutionary terrorism. So little was allowed inside the structure that they falsely thought that the answer lay through armed action. They would also be crushed.
Fanon spots a problem for the racist. During colonial times, the native was called lazy and slow. But with independence, the masses want change to come quickly. Now they are disparaged for being impatience, for wanting to move history too fast. The racist shrugs off the criticism. The racist still has power over the narrative: the story can change when the racist changes the story. The masses want to walk on the stage of history, to refuse the term ‘native’. It is this desire that is most wantonly denied.
What are the masses to do? They dream for a while of a Third World Project, but even that is killed before it can get off the ground. Communism is denied. Religion is an outlet, and it is indeed where many take refuge. But even religion is not sufficient. It has its cruelties, its insistence on narrow social agendas and fatalism. But it is something to grasp in the desert of human possibilities. Religion is, as a very young Marx wrote, the ‘soul of soulless conditions’. ‘Religious suffering is, at one and the same time’, noted Marx, ‘the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering’. When the critique of capitalism from a socialist standpoint is denied them, it is through religion that the masses find their voice against suffering – in this sense, it is an expression of real suffering. But because religion does not offer an alternative to the experience of backwardness, it is also a protest, a scream in the dark, the search for a hallucination of reality. What is Heaven if not the real longing for an alternative?
The colonial gaze descends upon women in burkhas or burkinis or in anything that resembles – as far as the colonizer is concerned – backwardness. Real backwardness – poverty, disease, illiteracy – is set aside. It is the false backwardness – backward religions – that must be condemned. This colonizer sees in the woman a threat to his civilization. He wants to tell her what to do. She cannot make up her own mind. Not long ago the colonial patriarch told white women not to wear bikinis. Now the colonial patriarch tells women to wear bikinis. It is always the colonial patriarch who must decide. He is the only voice of freedom. It is his mission civilisatrice.
Anger in the banlieues, where the natives live inside France, rises because real backwardness is unaddressed, but also because the false backwardness is disrespected. Dignity is more expensive to win than one imagines. Workers go on strike, and their first demand is often – treat us with more dignity. But the boss does not know what this means. The boss thinks that this is a cheap demand and nods, yes. But the boss does not realize that dignity is the hardest of all demands to meet. To meet the demand for dignity requires that the boss change the conditions of real backwardness. This is not possible without the boss being erased from history.
In the slums of Athens (Greece) and in the slums of Ferguson (United States) resentment grows against lives of indignity and suffering. The bosses do not know how to manage the situation. They turn to the gun. It is easier to hire more police than to provide enough jobs to erase human misery. The police stand in for a broken system. They are the dying canaries in the coalmines of capitalism. Repression becomes normal. The masses respond but only here and there. The Movement for Black Lives represents the inherent hopefulness of the United States, while the Spain’s Juventud Sin Futuro, youth with no future, suggests the fatality in the Old World. Such forces are united beneath these differences of temperament by their refusal to accept the terms of the bosses.
Chilean students go out on the streets. A woman, with her face painted white like a mime, carries a sign that reads – No Nos Callarán (We Will Not Be Silenced). This is the mood. It is a refusal to accept the condition of backwardness.
<<>>Vijay Prashad’s latest book is The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (New Delhi: LeftWord Books and Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016). He writes regularly for Frontline, The Hindu, Alternet, and BirGün. He is the Chief Editor of LeftWord Books (leftword.com).