This is a lightly edited excerpt from the introduction to Fanon Today: Reason and Revolt of the Wretched of the Earth (Daraja Press, 2021), edited by Nigel C Gibson.
Why Fanon, why now?
It is always easier to recognise a new stage of revolt than a new stage of cognition, especially when the movement from practice is first striving to rid itself of what William Blake, in the age of revolutions … had called “mind-forged manacles”. – Lou Turner and John Alan, Frantz Fanon, Soweto & American Black Thought
Why has the Wretched of the Earth become the handbook for the revolution? Quite simply, as Flavio Zenun Almada argues here, “because our conditions have not improved since [Frantz] Fanon’s time and in some cases have worsened”. Resistance, and sometimes mass revolutionary movements, thus continue to emerge.
Sixty years after Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, these revolts and resistance – local and global, often seemingly new and unique in their ways and locales – find a resonance with Fanon, the revolutionary humanist. The fearless and remarkable organising in Sudan (2018), Algeria (2019), Chile (2019), Hong Kong (2014-2020), and the global movements for Black Lives (2020-2021) are just some examples. And yet, despite their massive size, prolonged existence, and occasional success (such as in Algeria and Sudan), the movements sometimes fade, burn out or accept limited promised reforms. They are often also the subject of enormous state-sanctioned violence and mass arrests.
The opening to the last decade’s hope, and then dismay, was the Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia and deepened in Egypt with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. In many ways, the movements echoed what Fanon argues to be the strengths and weaknesses of spontaneity: first, as massive outpourings that outflank the political elites and experience a thrilling sense of power; and then, as the elites change course – allowing elections and abandoning political leaders in some cases – they regain the upper hand. In Egypt, the military played a controlling role: first as so-called neutrals above politics, and then as a counter-revolutionary force, using the moment of popular discontent with the newly elected government to mount a military coup. Struggles did continue but with a tremendous cost in terms of human life, military-police-state violence and mass incarceration. In Tunisia, 10 years after President Ben Ali’s removal, the movements are stilled but not defeated. There have been victories, compromises and also threats of regression alongside the rise of armed Islamist groups. The political system is weakened by corrupt political practices which, alongside structural economic crisis, continue to mean pauperisation for the majority. While Tunisia is considered by some the “lone success story” of the Arab Spring, the Arab Winter and the politics of death reached its apogee in Syria, where reaction to the Syrian revolution by the Bashar al-Assad regime meant the systematic murder, imprisonment and forcible uprooting of millions of people.
In Syria, it was a new generation of revolutionaries who emerged to support the children who had been arrested and tortured after they had painted the slogan “The people want to topple the regime” in Daraa, on Syria’s southern border with Jordan, in 2011. The peaceful revolution that spread across the country was countered by an increasingly violent response from the regime, where the destruction of a living movement for human liberation required necropolitics on an industrial scale. In the context of the “War on Terror”, the Assad regime unleashed a systematic “cleansing” as a politics of divide and rule, dismissing the revolutionaries as terrorists while releasing thousands of radical Islamists from security prisons to encourage the undermining of the revolution from the inside. In Syria today, mass imprisonment and torture are normalised and brutality is taken to its logical conclusion. Indeed, for many years after the Arab Spring, other regimes in North Africa and West Asia used Egypt and Syria as warnings to activists to tone down demands.
In Egypt and Syria we see two types of nationalism: the authoritarian state with the ethnicised nationalism of the Ba’ath Party in Syria alongside Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s military-political regime in Egypt on one hand, and the dynamic cultural praxis of popular nationalism on the other. The former’s focus, from its beginnings – as it was across the region – was rooted in seizing and maintaining state power and was akin to many nation-state building projects criticised by Fanon. It took the form of an authoritarian, one-party, military rule. Both regimes operate through a politics of death, including imprisonment of activists and journalists, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances and sexual violence. In Syria, the politics of death meant targeted chemical attacks and urbicide with carefully calculated uses of technology (like targeting hospitals and bakeries), indiscriminate bombing and chemical attacks. After a decade, Assad has regained control over most of the country, with the aid of Hezbollah fighters and Russian bombers.
What S’bu Zikode calls the politics of blood is seen globally from South Africa to Brazil, and from Palestine to Portugal: a permanent state of emergency, as Walter Benjamin puts it, which “is also a ‘state of emergence’”. The movements discussed in this book are often politics outside of, or at a distance from, the state. Their interest is not in taking over state power, but in encouraging new forms of horizontal and democratic organisation, which, however fleeting and messy, are part of a movement from practice that recognises the importance of thinking, of reaching for the future and of attempting to get rid of “mind-forged manacles” of unfreedom. What we might call the living politics that emerged, mindful of the internal contradictions, compromises and opportunism – often justified by desperate situations – is one focus of this book.
Struggles are stilled and struggles continue, and at the same time, reckonings with Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth haunt us. In the final chapter of the book, Fanon wonders whether “these notes on psychiatry will be found ill-timed and singularly out of place in such a book”. If that was the case then, it is certainly not the case today, where ideas of generational trauma and post-traumatic stress, as well as the social-economic character of mental health, are no longer considered marginal but ongoing. This recognition is a good thing, but how can one read Fanon’s words – that one need only study a “single day under a colonial regime … to appreciate the scope and depth of the wounds inflicted on the colonised” – without thinking of the present reality as a “breeding ground for mental disorders”?