New Books | Decolonising freedom

Philosopher Lewis R Gordon interrogates colonised thought, reimagining liberation and revolution while questioning who defines justice and injustice.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from Freedom, Justice, Decolonization (Routledge, 2021) by Lewis R Gordon. 

Towards the decolonisation of normative life

“Reforms and revolutions are created by the illogical actions of people. Very few logical people ever make reforms and none make revolutions. Rights are what you make and what you take.” —James Boggs, Pages from a Black Radical’s Notebook

There is a problem that surfaces in many struggles for social transformation in the name of justice. The standard position is this: struggles for liberation are fought against injustice. Societies in which such struggles are waged are, in other words, unjust. Fixing them requires eliminating injustice. This injustice is often about those who have versus those who lack. Those who have are often “the few”, though in some cases, they are also a fairly large majority, as is the case of the designated white populations of Europe and North America. Sometimes those who do not have are minorities, as is the case of immigrants, mostly of colour, in much of the so-called developed world. In the so-called underdeveloped countries, those who lack are the overwhelming majority. And in the first quarter of the 21st century, those who have less are the planet’s majority. Advantages, in other words, are clearly on the side of a group of global elites. Justice is not, then, exclusively about numbers. The question, from this point of view, is to make right what was wrong. The effort is to make things just. 

What happens, however, if a struggle is fought, an evil institution has lost, and yet what remains is social misery? Is it correct to say justice was not achieved? 

Many important, historical struggles have been waged in the name of justice. There were the Civil War and the Civil Rights struggle in the United States. There was the outlawing of slavery on the high seas of the British Empire. There were the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution that attempted to make the French supposedly true to their ideals. There were the many independence and transformation struggles across Africa, Asia and Abya Yala in the last half of the 20th century with the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa standing as one of the shining, though currently troubled, examples. There were too many to mention here, and there are others continuing across the globe such as those for Blacks and First Nation peoples not only in the northern countries but also those of the Global South. 

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A problem with many struggles is that victory is often misunderstood as the moment of replacing one group of leaders with another. Frantz Fanon, the famed revolutionary psychiatrist and philosopher, called this “the process of decolonisation”. On replacing one group with another, it was not the achievement of freedom, though it exemplified a form of liberation. It was only the beginning of the true struggle. Fanon also cautioned against trapping normative thought in what he called “Greco-Latin” or Greek and Roman pedestals. By this, he meant closing our minds off from other than now hegemonic Western ways of understanding the normative world. We fight for justice, but what if justice is not enough? 

This depends on the problem at hand. To understand the problem being addressed here, we need to look at the concept of what, as we have seen, Aníbal Quijano and others call “coloniality”. This concept addresses colonialism as a form of power aimed at the domination of all reality. This is something many African diasporic thinkers noticed as far back as the 18th century. We could also see elements of it from Christopher Columbus’s journals and the 15th through early 16th century Spanish priest Bartolomé Las Casas’s critical reflections on the avowed conquest of Abya Yala. As that which aims at the conquest of all reality, colonialism becomes a system whose goal is not only conquest but also the offering of the domination of life and the assertion of itself as ontological and the primacy of ontology. Thus, knowledge is, as nearly all decolonial theorists have argued, implicated here in the form of epistemic colonisation. Fanon observed in Black Skin, White Masks that this quest was radical in scope because it enchained what people think and how they think. We could say the same thing about norms and normative thought – namely, our understanding of what it means to be good, to do things right, to make the world such that it is, upon reflection, the best we could and ought to achieve. 

The logic of norms is not an easy case to address, as is that of knowledge. Many decolonial critics, except perhaps María Lugones, Nelson Maldonado Torres, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Julia Suárez-Krabbe, Ricardo Sanín Restrepo and Catherine Walsh, for example, see the metacritical question of norms in almost exclusively epistemological terms. This means that what and how for these critics become matters of what we think. So, to free our thought means also to free our norms. Maldonado Torres, drawing on Fanon and others in the Black radical tradition, argues for establishing genuinely ethical relationships beyond the ontological (being) and epistemological (knowledge); De Sousa Santos, through his work on pluralistic epistemologies of the social world, law and theology, argues for counter-hegemonic models of human rights; Lugones, Sanín Restrepo, Suárez-Krabbe and Walsh, exploring the same and Indigenous Abya Yala sources, appeal to a revealed nakedness through which colonial norms – which Lugones and Walsh, building on Quijano, call coloniality, Sanín Restrepo calls the encryption of power, and Suárez-Krabbe calls the death project – are revealed in a call beyond Eurocentrism and androcentrism in conceptions of legitimacy and authority of a radical, activist-oriented scope that links human beings with a broad spectrum of reality. 

Some thoughts immediately come to mind. The first is that appeals to establishing genuinely ethical relationships often take the form of “fixing” people, making them into better human beings, in a way that often reeks of moralism. This phenomenon often leads to the search for human purity, with the inevitable effect of purging the world of infelicitous and unsavoury people. Something seems awry or at least lost sight of here. Is the problem that there are bad people in the world? Or is there another consideration – namely, that there are a sufficient number of bad people with the power to enforce their wills over many if not most others? If such power relations were changed, would it still matter that there are bad people in the world? 

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I once argued with an environmental activist who insisted that we could make the world better if we – everyone – acted on her or his moral conscience. In response, I asked her what would bother her more – to be considered immoral or stupid? Without hesitation, she regarded being considered stupid to be worse. If that is so, what hope do we have for those in the financial or business sectors or those seeking professional advancement and recognition when they face situations in which to act morally would be considered stupid by their peers? And even if we concede her point that a world in which everyone did the right thing might be good, we would face the reality that such a world would not have the problems at hand in the first place. For the problem to rise, there has to be some people who do not act from their conscience, which makes the question of why they do not, especially where doing such is marked by perceived intelligence conjoined with moral worth, the central one to consider. That question requires addressing the incentives, which points back to a society that may actually reward unconscionable behaviour.

Such concerns lead to radical questions such as our responsibility for morality and, even more, ethical life, especially where being esteemed as smart instead of moral is more important. It is where the distinction between ethics and morality come to the fore. In the former, our responsibility is for ethics itself – we are responsible, in other words, for responsibility. 

An additional question is this: how radical should the transformation of norms be? What if even ethical relationships are, at ground level, colonised by colonial normative life? Are we willing to take on the decolonisation of normative life? 

Fanon raised this problem in a different way. He noticed how many critics and activists formulated struggles against racism. They saw it in terms of recognition and the formation of ethical relationships between the Self and the Other. Racism, he argued is the project of trying to make other groups of people into things that are not the self (indeed, not even capable of being a self) and not the Other (because an Other is also a self). Such an effort poses problems for ethics and morals. Ethical relationships depend on the Self-Other dialectic. An obligation by definition is toward someone, even if that turns out to be oneself. Even such things as property and material things depend ultimately on a world of social relations through which to answer to one’s treatment of such objects. And in terms of morals – that is, the set of rules and regulations serving as standards of conduct – they, too, require the relation of selves and others. Even the rule-obsessed Immanuel Kant, who ultimately argued for understanding obligation through respect for moral laws themselves, ultimately appealed to a Kingdom of Ends in which there are rational beings all equal by virtue of no one being able to stand as an exception to Moral Law or Absolute Obligation – in other words, the Categorical Imperative. What, however, could people situated or forced outside of that dialectic do with regard to ethics and moral obligation? 

Reflection radicalises the problem. If they attempt to establish an ethical relationship, they must do so by the rules (morals) of a society premised on their exclusion. Thus, if they attempt to enter the ethical sphere of that society, the already included people treat the excluded ones as violating the ethical space by virtue of doing the same to the avowedly moral rules. Fanon’s name for this was controversial. He called it “violence”. 

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Colonised and racially subordinated people commit “violence” simply by appearing. If to appear is to be a participant in the moral space – a space whose legitimacy is built on such people’s exclusion – then the problem becomes a violation of what was presumed “just”. In other words, the system presumed their exclusion was just. Thus, their inclusion in that system would be a form of injustice. History offers many examples of this dynamic. When Fanon said decolonisation is always violent, he was pointing to the presumptive justice of colonial and settler societies. The only just condition they would accept is the maintenance of the status quo or, worse, the annihilation of the Indigenous peoples. Thus, transformation, decolonisation, is for such governors intrinsically unjust. A similar logic applies to a social remedy such as affirmative action. If the dominant group’s advantages are just and systematically linked to the disadvantages of other groups in that society, then the dominant group’s disadvantages are just. To transform that would therefore be unjust. Yes, something is awry here. 

The immediate response is to see this as a relativising of justice. It is about the justice of the dominators versus the justice of the dominated. In Black thought, this could be read as a series of double conscious moments. The first is to see, as we have seen, a system that regards its practices of exclusion as just. Thus, Blacks are excluded because Blacks are presumed infelicitous or, simply, bad. Blacks are excluded because it is supposedly right to exclude them. Blacks are, in other words, “problems”. If Blacks discover the problem of being made into problems, if Blacks learn that there is a society that places everything in favour of whites – white wealth, for example, was produced by a societal commitment to, in the form of governing institutions being harnessed for the purpose of, white supremacy – then they could conclude that Blacks are not the problem; the society is the problem (unjust) and it must be changed. As I have been arguing throughout, this reflective, dialectical stage is potentiated double consciousness.

Legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw adds to this argument an important insight in her intersectional theory of harm. Imagine an automobile collision at a four-way intersection in a world in which harm only occurs to the property. Authorities arriving on the scene would simply examine the damaged vehicles to determine what harm has occurred. Now imagine that in that world, only owners of the property can be harmed, and only white males can own property. It follows that only white males can suffer harm. The investigators need simply to look at the damaged cars and then into them or research their ownership to determine whether a white male was injured (even if there were white women, women of colour and men of colour in any of the vehicles). Add white females to those who are violable, and a similar logic follows. Oddly enough, in the historic world of Euromodern colonialism, often the animal pets of white men and women counted among those who could be harmed, and we are already familiar with Euromodern common law and legal code systems that counted corporations as persons over and against people of colour. In a world where people of colour are included in the category of those who could suffer harm, the intersectional interpretation of the four-way collision offers more possibilities for the examination of harm. Notice in this analysis that Crenshaw does not discount white males who are harmed. The main point is that it includes a broader range of others.

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An error of the old system is the presumed universality of whites and the normative world that supports white supremacy. Particularising whites reveals a larger world of human possibility – one that includes nonwhite peoples. This larger world reaches for universality in its practices, but it understands that it is a relational world since in principle it need not stop at nonwhites. Many (if not most) whites had before presumed they are the world. Thus, they supposedly needed not be in a relationship with anyone beyond other whites. They remained, at the logic of norms, among themselves. Other groups saw themselves, on the other hand, in relation to whites and each other. They, thus, knew they were not “the world”. Learning that whites are also not actually the world means to understand a bigger reality in which knowledge reveals more but never its entirety. This humility calls for a universalising practice that is never the universal.

We now simply have to consider norms through this argument, and we have the following. The norms that accompany white domination are particular. Addressing broader possibilities of norms means an ever-expanding normative world. Let us keep that thought for further analysis.

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