In his seminal essay Concerning Violence, Fanon dissects the colonial world, mapping the structures that create and preserve it. He considers the internalisation of these structures by the colonised, how liberation must be conceived of and effected, and what the resulting de-colonised world will look like.
But what does decolonisation look like? How will one know when one system has ended and another taken its place? In this essay, we will explore Fanon’s ideas about the process of decolonisation and what he feels must take place for one to say that it has been truly achieved.
There is perhaps no more famous quote in 20th-century Black political thought than the declaration by Frantz Fanon that ‘decolonisation is always a violent phenomenon’. A half-century of post-colonial conversations later, and Fanon’s statement appears today more like a truism than a controversy – colonisation in its various guises is perhaps the greatest act of violence, planting its rootstock as it does in the psyche of the oppressed. Fanon’s mapping of the colonial mind remains one of the most seminal works in Black political thought. Incorporating a discussion of race and culture into his analyses, he depicts the tearing away of consciousness caused by the internalisation of colonial dichotomies in horrifying detail. In so doing, he conveys a palpable terror in how the dichotomies render down esteem and leave in its place a shell of a man.
In his seminal essay Concerning Violence, Fanon’s dissection of the colonial world exposes its paradoxes, gratuitous opulence, and hidden recesses. He reveals all its audacities wrapped in denials, its recourses to logic that make a strange bedfellow for the irrationalities that underpin it. He paints a picture of the post-colonial world that is horrifying but only to those who see in the violence he depicts a novelty. It is no novelty, of course, to the colonised people or the agents of the state that man the borderlands, the barracks and police stations, or what Fanon designates as the fault lines of the colonial world.
He seems to locate colonisation at the point at which the colonised lose the ability to imagine an alternative to the status quo, effectively when they lose hope. He describes the distilling of men into beasts, beasts that play their colonial parts well, snarling and grabbing aimlessly at the remnants of life thrown at them. The climax is at the point when ‘the niggers beat each other up’ as a means to release the muscular tension under which they perpetually live. The people have gone mad.
When staring at these depraved shells, all broken, all self-hating, all weighted down by colonial dichotomies and their cousins – the paradoxes, hypocrisies and contradictions of the colonial project – it is hard to imagine that Fanon could ever fathom of liberation. However, Fanon more than fathoms it; he wills it. But, he does not advocate a retreat from the brutality of the colonial world as a means of escaping it. In perhaps the greatest paradox of all, he urges the beasts to lean in. He urges the horror makers with gnashing teeth to move forward and horrify all with their complete disregard for the consequences of their actions. He feels this embracing of the principal institutions of the state, that is, violence and terror, are the only means of liberation; they are the hammer and the sickle that will carve the new world; they are the hammer and the sickle that have carved all worlds.
So what then does decolonisation look like? The madmen have broken the backs of their oppressors; a new consciousness fills their shells – what emerges?
In a Fanonian decolonised world, nobody will remember, nobody will want to remember, nobody will be able to remember. Decolonisation was a suicidal mission in which the natives killed themselves – well, they killed one iteration of their consciousness. In the post-colonial world, they do all they can to forget their colonial selves; they erect few, if any, monuments to the colonial massacres and will a national consciousness to life. In their marches and state enterprises, they commemorate the coming together of the tribes, not the seeing away of the former oppressor. In fact, the former oppressor is always invited to the celebrations to prove that nothing actually happened; that is to say, though a lot happened, nothing really affected them.
However, everything has changed. The decolonised world is the antithesis of its predecessor. It is not a compromise in which one party has gained something, and the other party retained something else. It is a complete and uncompromising inversion. It is not the elevation of one group to the humanity already possessed by the other; it is, in fact, the ultimate validation of the finite nature of humanity – we cannot all possess it, and in the decolonised world, the oppressed declare that the humanity of the prevailing space and time is theirs. In hyperbolic terms, Fanon uses this corrupted semantics of the colonial world to characterise decolonisation as the exiting of one ‘species’ and the entering of another, as if humanity is passing from one age of civilisation to another. He brandishes the convulsed pseudo-science of colonialism back at the colonising race – “There”, he seems to declare, “if I am one species, then you must be another”. A mouse and a rat are two species of rodent after all, but they are still rodents all the same.
The inversion is completed by the fact that, while colonisation seemed to imagine that there were agents and protagonists only on one side, decolonisation requires that all involved acknowledge it. It is the principal imposition. It does not hide behind trading companies, private armies, missionaries or puppet chiefs – it touches everything monolithically. There is no nuance. The original people are in charge. Fanon speaks of the ‘minimum demand’ being the upending of everything, as a minimum! There are no innocent bystanders to decolonisation; everyone and everything must exhibit movement. If there is no movement, nothing has happened. In one poignant anecdote, Fanon notes that, when the original people demanded the Africanisation of the institutions, the elite amongst them began to Africanise the oppressors, such was the former’s colonial intoxication. However, it was an insult to the intelligence of the people who, to make sure of no misunderstanding, simplified themselves down to a single statement: ‘the last shall be first’.
The paradox that, in seeking to ‘change the order of the world’, decolonisation disorders the world, is not lost on Fanon. In essence, what he describes as decolonisation are the actions taken after the oppressed realise that they too can use the principal organs of state, that in fact, they must use them. Thus, with the hammer and the sickle clenched as weapons in their palms, they unleash the violence and the terror; they throw their weight into ‘the abolition of one zone, [and] it’s burial in the depths of the Earth’.
The same erasure takes place on the psychological level. This manifests through the complete removal of white consciousness from the minds of the colonised. The invasive consciousness is extracted, and the psyche is distilled down to a single renewed consciousness; Black. Thus, for Fanon, decolonisation is an exercise in reconciliation by simplification, not by amalgamation. Duality can end by either a merger of its constituent parts or by removing one of those parts; Fanon advocates for the latter. This is because, at its inception, colonisation was the ‘meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature’. One can almost hear Fanon screaming through his slicing prose – “why must we deny this – we are different, we were created different, YOU created us different”. The universalism of the humanitarians ignores this fact; two poles whose atoms align the same way can never reconcile. In the same way, though all possess humanity, not all humanity is shared. Too much has taken place.
This is, of course, an idealised view of decolonisation. It is what Fanon wills to happen – a complete tabula rasa – the wiping of the slate clean. The decolonised mind, like the decolonised world, is nothing like what came before it. In examining it, one should be hard-pressed to find any remnants of the immediate past. In many ways, Fanon seems to be advocating a sort of un-remembering as he declares that ‘decolonisation is the veritable creation of new men’.
However, new men are created on both sides. The coloniser must face the prospect of this ‘terrifying future’ in which his place will extinguish; he will cease to exist. This is the root of the madness one sees in the colonisers when they realise this – they are scared. This one uncertainty overwhelms them, and the killings begin – they reinforce the barracks, give the police emergency powers, throw the total weight of the state against the Blacks. This response is not different from the overall colonial agenda; it is a part of it. The colonisers have “responded” many times before, but it was domestic, hidden, unreported. When the responses are too many, are needed in every direction, needed at all levels, the truth comes to the surface, the system begins to break – decolonisation is in progress. Thus, the response of the colonisers proves that there will be no reconciliation of the dichotomies; they will in every movement seek not peace but the preservation of any distinction, any exception, anything, absolutely anything that prevents them from becoming “niggers”.
But, their fatalism is limited. Having never died en masse because of their race in this colonial context, the oppressive class cannot begin to match the suicidal tendencies of the natives, for whom life has been a death for as long as they have lived. To die in body would be merely to visit the permanent abode of the mind where it already is. For the natives, death is met often in the intoxications of rage, beer halls and crippling despondency; the natives have massacred the colonisers a million times in their dreams. For the natives, liberation can occur while sitting in their homes; without a single bullet or a cutlass in hand, they can extract the colonial psyche from their minds. Any actions they then take will be as new men; that is why the coloniser does not recognise them. This does not work the other way. Colonisation starts from the outside and works its way in; it starts with action and ends in the psyche; one cannot simply will colonisation into existence. So in this regard, and for the very first time, working backwards, the “niggers” have the advantage.
But as mentioned, this is an idealised decolonisation; and it has never taken place.
Want to keep exploring?
Frantz Fanon’s brilliant, enthralling critique of the effects of racism on the psyche is a landmark study of the global black experience. Drawing on his own experiences and his work as a psychiatrist to explore how colonialism’s subjects internalise the prejudices of the colonial world, this collection established Fanon as a revolutionary anti-colonialist thinker.
In this seminal collection, Fanon dissects the colonial world and the processes of decolonisation through a number of essays that challenge perceptions and place the colonised psyche at the centre of the conversation.