‘Decolonisation is always a violent phenomenon’- On Violence in Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth
Updated: Aug 19
On the 7th June 2020 the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was spray painted, toppled and rolled into Bristol Harbour during public protests against the prevalence of racism in Euro-American institutions. It was a rather tame show of what we might consider ‘violent protest’ but was met by abject opposition from the official mouthpieces of the UK government. Priti Patel, the (current) Home Secretary described the act as one of ‘disorder’ as ‘vandalism’, criminalising the behaviour of the protestors. Patel even went as far as to encourage the police (yes, in this climate) to follow up on the incident and go after the perpetrators. In response to, again, very tame actions of protestors graffitiing the statue of Churchill in Parliament square, District Commissioner Johnson described protests as "hijacked by extremists intent on violence". In light of recent events, it is time that we consider how we can apply Fanon’s theories of violence and struggle to our protest movements here in modern colonial states (US) and colonial metropoles (London, Bristol, Liverpool etc).
Ibrahim Franz Fanon was a World War Two veteran psychiatrist born in the Caribbean island of Martinique. In the lineage of black revolutionary theory, few have the legendary status afforded to Fanon, who often blended his analysis of black consciousness with post-colonial theory and psychology. Wretched of the Earth is quintessential reading. It showcases a multitude of ways that Fanon took colonial structures to the sword with a molecular focus and laser precision. Although Fanon himself warns against the ‘intellectual over stressing’ of details as a distraction from the ultimate goal of defeating colonialism, he is remarkably comprehensive in both his analysis of contemporary colonial struggles and how racial dynamics play out. There are of course legitimate criticisms of Fanon’s wider body of work but the focus here is on the chapter detailing the role of violence in the post-colonial struggle.
There is no doubt that the current wave of protest across the US, UK and other such countries is ‘post-colonial’ by nature. The US is fundamentally a settler state; cities in the UK the colonial metropole. This is why the work of Fanon is an appropriate analytical tool for the moment we find ourselves in. The same racial-power dynamics that played out in the late colonial states of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean are played out fifty-nine years later in the cities of Minneapolis, Charlotte, London, Paris etc. Protestors are demanding for the ‘decolonisation’ of these spaces, for the instruments of colonial states and metropoles to be abolished and thus they are writing themselves into the lineage of post-colonial protest. So far, protests in the UK have been non-violent and, in the US, they have resulted in the destruction of property and institutions of racial oppression. The narrative of coverage has been predictable- people have been branded as ‘thugs’, leadership has threatened the use of state force in the same breath as decrying public violence and television figures have patronisingly evoked Mandela and MLK without the proper context. Legitimate protest is often framed as one that is peaceful, one that engages in dialogue with the state and one that always is forced to compromise.
Here’s the other argument- violence is the only legitimate form of protest. Fanon’s categorisation of the post-colonial struggle connivingly argues that ‘colonialism is not a thinking machine… It is violence in its natural state and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence.’ In order to protest the propagation of colonial narratives we must surely surmount the brutality of the structures. The iconoclasm of Edward Colston, of Winston Churchill and the like are markers of that very brutality. For the sake of catharsis, at the very least, and to overcome the violence of the slave trade, the Bengal Famine, the Iraq bombings we must take down these colonial celebrations with greater force than they exacted on global populations. Too often there is the assumption that the colonial state exists/existed in a state of harmony. Colonial rule does not hang on a shoestring, it is ‘carried on by dint of a great array of bayonets and cannons’. Trump’s comments in the US surrounding the use of federal force and emboldening alt right groups to take action into their own hands strengthens Fanon’s convictions that there must be a decisive struggle to overcome the institutions of racism. The language of political relations in the US colonial state throughout its history has been racialised violence; the systematic murder and land dispossession of native American communities, the horror of African and Caribbean slavery, the era of Jim Crow and segregation, the over-policing of African American communities from the plantation to the police force. The language of British colonialism was not one of benevolent paternalism, it was the language of machine gun fire and colonial shillings shuffling across bar counters. The ‘very nature’ of these colonial structures are violent and thus can only be destroyed with greater violence.
Part of the issue around voicings of protest is that colonial forces have consistently attempted to propagate a ‘settler history’ narrative. District Commissioner Johnson’s piece in the Spectator circa 2002 is the perfect example of such a re telling. In the article Johnson plays down the destructive nature of colonial rule, claiming that the failures of colonial export markets had nothing to do with British intervention, that the evils of slavery were purely an Arab invention eradicated by the colonisers on arrival and ultimately that, ‘the best fate for Africa would be if the old colonial powers, or their citizens, scrambled once again in her direction.’ District Commissioner Johnson’s words could not have more perfectly fit within Fanon’s analysis of colonial histories. ‘The settler makes the history,’ according to Fanon, ‘his life is an epoch, an Odyssey. He is the absolute beginning.’ Forty years before DC Johnson’s article, Fanon was able to predict the sentiment of his piece,
"This land was created by us"; he is the unceasing cause: "If we leave, all is lost, and the country will go back to the Middle Ages." Over against him torpid creatures, wasted by fevers, obsessed by ancestral customs, form an almost inorganic background for the innovating dynamism of colonial mercantilism.
How many times have you heard this line of argument from the defenders of the colonial system? Fanon is sharp in his analysis that the colonial history will always seek to place the position of the coloniser as the alpha and omega of history, the keeper of knowledge and the paradigm of morality/humanity. DC Johnson’s article is so textbook it might as well be a parody. He consistently refers to the backwardness and inhumanity of African populations, describing choristers as ‘Aids-ridden’, Ugandans living in ‘the Stone Age’, the ‘ancient prerogatives’ of African men and such. DC Johnson appears to give a ringing endorsement to a colleague’s statement in the article that, ‘We may treat them like children, but it's not because of us that they behave like the children in Lord of the Flies.’ Fanon accounted for these descriptions of inhumanity as well saying that the settler will always view the colonised as not only the ‘absence of values, but also the negation of values… the terms the settler uses when he mentions natives are zoological terms… stink of the native quarter… breeding swarms… children who seem to belong to nobody, that laziness stretched out in the sun.’ On reading Fanon’s work it is hard not to think of the US president’s comments on ‘shithole countries’ and District Commissioner Johnson’s language around Empire. These settler narratives are what need to be overthrown in public discourse, in the iconography on our streets and in the classroom. Only then can decolonisation truly be achieved.
Although Fanon is keen to stress historical narrative he is adamant that decolonisation is not about ‘reform’, nor is it about ‘entering into competition with the settler’. Decolonisation is, in some way, about justice of the restorative kind. It is akin but not the same as the differences between equality of opportunity and outcome. Decolonisation requires the active redressing of grievances. We can’t be violent in our words but reformist in our attitudes. Whether we will look back and say that the global pandemic facilitated the growth of mass consciousness of the issues of systemic racism is largely irrelevant right now. What matters is that these public debates are unyielding and that they remain in the public sphere until meaningful change is made. In the words of Fanon, ‘[decolonisation] transforms spectators crushed with their inessentiality into privileged actors, with the grandiose glare of history’s floodlights.’ Everyone has a responsibility. Everyone must be an ally if decolonisation is to be achieved in this sensitive moment and if it takes violence then it takes violence. It appears to be the only language colonists understand.