The Wretched of the Earth: Hidden Dimensions in Fanon’s Thought – Part 1, Economic Development

The Wretched of the Earth: Hidden Dimensions in Fanon’s Thought – Part 1, Economic Development

A version of this article was published in Blogcritics in March, 2014

I

Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1963) remains timely if not a prophetic work.  I shan’t focus on Fanon’s writing’s well-renowned traits — his phenomenal grasp of detail, for one, or the depth of his analysis in the raw, aspects, in short, in which he excelled. I’ll draw the reader’s attention instead to what could be a lesser-known side of Fanon: an abstract thinker in disguise.

In this connection, I’d like to draw upon a couple of subthemes from the third chapter of The Wretched, “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness” — unarticulated, only embedded.

In the interest of space, I’ll concern myself here with Fanon’s views on economic development. The other subtheme, concerning the unresolved tension between the universal and the particular aspects of the human condition, will be taken up in the sequel.

II

The first subtheme, or leitmotif, emerges in the course of Fanon’s devastating critique of the postcolonial regimes, in particular, his analysis of the bourgeois class, which, even to this day, constitutes a formidable part of those regimes. In a nutshell, the critique runs as follows:

The bourgeoisie (and Fanon’s use of the term throughout his presentation is inclusive of the intelligentsia), while serving the colonial powers in whatever capacity, have grown too accustomed to their life of privilege.  It couldn’t serve thus as the vanguard of the oppressed while presiding over the critical transition period from the colonial- to postcolonial home rule. 

Insofar as the indigenous folk is concerned, the bulk of the populace, its lot hadn’t changed.  For them, the old slogan, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss!” could have been written in stone.

What of the subtext, however?

It’s pretty much a given in the form of Fanon’s more or less explicit assumption that it’s the bourgeois class, and no other, that, because of its experience, education, whatever, is the most qualified to effect the necessary transition. End of story!

Fanon’s lament is that it failed to measure up to its inherent potential, that it’d sold out for personal gain.  Still, that doesn’t alter his original conviction that only the bourgeoisie can lead the emergent postcolonial nation-states to a life of political and economic independence.

III

How does this subtext play out on the stage of the 21st-century geopolitical theater?

There’s still this nagging policy question concerning the diverse strategies available to non-Western, postcolonial nation-states intent on leveling the playing field in political and economic arenas. The nation-states which have spearheaded the so-called Bolivarian Revolution are a case in point. Consider.

There’s no question that Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador are the most vociferous opponents of Western political and economic interests at their doorsteps.  Inspired by the charismatic leadership of Venezuela’s late Hugo Chávez, the adjacent sister states have promptly followed suit with the likes of Evo Morales and Rafael Correa, each a strong populist leader in his own right. Moreover, the three countries appear to have forged a coalition of sorts, not only to advance their populist agenda but, what’s equally important, to stave off, to the extent possible, Western interests in the region, U.S. interests in particular.

That’s the essence of the Bolivarian Revolution in the making on both the domestic and international fronts. With a little bit of luck, the chances are it may yet spread throughout the continent like wildfire.

IV

However, what do we see as we examine how these admittedly progressive, forward-looking states have gone about securing their economic independence?

Not much new and different, I’m afraid! It would seem as though they’re all hell-bent on following the same old tired formula which, granted, had proven successful in establishing Western political and economic hegemony worldwide, with the Industrial Revolution as the starting point. And you can’t fault them for that.

Still, considering that we’re talking about the most outspoken critics of capitalism, the main impetus, besides, behind colonization (and don’t forget now, mercantilism was a precursor of capitalism!), one would hope for something better or different, in any case, something in a new key.

V

Fanon himself was somewhat ambivalent, if not conflicted, on the subject. Despite his highfalutin rhetoric at the end of the last chapter of The Wretched – “For Europe, for ourselves, and humanity, comrades, we must turn a new leaf, we must work out new concepts, and try to set afoot a new man” was his call to arms! – he was conservative when it came to the subject of economic development.

That’s one of the criticisms that he launches against the postcolonial bourgeoisie: not being imaginative enough to carve out their respective countries’ futures in not following their Western predecessors’ footsteps as the would-be captains of industry. They were too content to rest on their laurels, too complacent, venturing nothing and gaining nothing; personal enrichment was their trademark rather than risk and innovation.  And the result, naturally, was economic stagnation; in short, the perpetuation of the very same dependencies typical of the colonial era, since that was how the postcolonial bourgeoisie had imagined themselves, serving as an intermediary between the colonial powers and the colonized.

Hence, despite their de jure political independence, the postcolonial nation-states, in not charting their economic futures, have remained Western commercial colonies de facto.

VI

There are two aspects to Fanon’s assumption on postcolonial economic development, and we had better distinguish between them. The first concerns the role of the native bourgeoisie in the scheme of things; the second, the very nature and course of economic development.

In the first instance, we’ve seen that Fanon was rather partial when it came to the bourgeois class, imagining it as the end-all-and-be-all or, at any rate, an indispensable catalyst to attaining any economic progress or independence.  Indeed, I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that in Fanon’s view, the postcolonial nation-states had no chance of coming into their own unless the bourgeoisie was in the lead.

No question that Fanon was (unduly) influenced by his impeccable credentials and membership in that elite class. He was an intellectual first and foremost; consequently, it stands to reason that he’d espouse the virtues of the intellect at all costs.

Be that as it may, this remains the weak link in his chain of reasoning, especially since the recent history of several South American nation-states has proven him wrong.  How so?

Arguably, the Bolivarian Revolution’s very successes on the economic front have not come about as a result of native bourgeoisie involvement or prompting, but despite it! – in spite, that is, of their best efforts to sabotage the process, to undermine the laudable objective of attaining economic and political independence. The natives, which certainly includes the indigenous folk of the region (aside from the natural-born leaders), have proven to be quick learners, quite adept at picking up the slack Fanon had reserved for the bourgeoisie alone.  If the conditions are right, they’ll always rise to the task. You can bet on it.  Native ability, if the conditions are right, will always triumph.

VII

Let us focus now on the somewhat problematic aspect of Fanon’s two-pronged assumption, his ideas about economic development per se.

We’ve seen that despite his protestations about turning a new leaf, setting afoot a new man, and so on, Fanon was thoroughly committed to the traditional, Western conception of economic development:  What had worked so admirably for the West since the advent of the Industrial Revolution and on,  must do, he figured, for the postcolonial nation-states as well, given that they’re no longer under the yoke of colonial rule and are therefore free to pursue their economic independence and destiny. Naturally, there’d be a great deal of catching up to do, having been under the colonial thumb for some 400 years, a kind of process no different, really, from growing up. 

One thinks here of a child coming of age, of it struggling its way through puberty at first, through adolescence further down, to culminate eventually in full-blown adulthood.  There is nothing mysterious about it; it’s only a matter of ordinary honest-to-goodness human development or maturation.  We all do it as a matter of course, and with reasonable facility, one might add, without giving it a second thought, because it comes naturally.

Well, Fanon & company appear to have found a perfect substitute for the genetic script in the realm of the economic and the social:  The postcolonial nation-states are no different in effect than children, wayward children, or orphans, to be exact. Consequently, there’s no question that what we’re dealing with is a “problem child,” a child that requires constant supervision, reassurance, and guidance. Even so, the assumption goes that barring any major DNA defects, the genetic code will eventually kick in, and the child will be on his or her way.

VIII

Aspects of Fanon’s argument are perplexing. It seems that even the most vociferous critics of capitalism, Fanon included, can do no better than to invoke the same old stale capitalist formula for economic development that capitalism, under its many guises, had helped to propagate.

Again, from the strictly purist, theoretical standpoint, alas, even an aesthetic one, one should hope for at least some articulation of an alternative theory of economic development, alternative to the one provided by the capitalists. Well, it looks as though we’re in for a long wait. 

In all fairness, however, the rock-bottom question is this: Can we arise like a phoenix and build upon the ashes or must we, if we’re keen on inventing a new future, resign ourselves to work with old forms, however corrupt?

IX

Be that as it may, there are also practical considerations which are pressing, pressing enough to trump anything else.  Perhaps the difficulties of the moment, the dire need to catch up and level the playing field, call for drastic measures, drastic enough to employ the same rules of engagement that are so shamelessly used by the enemy.

Perhaps there’s no way to defeat the enemy other than by beating it at its own game. Maybe the very concept of “economic development” is a loaded one, to begin with, utilizing the capitalist notion of economic development as the end-all-and-be-all, which rigs the game. Perhaps the very idea is way overrated, promising more than it can deliver. Maybe it should be scrapped and done away with if we’re ever to see our way beyond this vicious circle.

Whichever way we may respond to these questions, the fact remains that the postcolonial nation-states, indeed, even the most progressive of the postcolonial nation-states, have pursued this and no other course of action.  And yes, I’m also talking about Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, the very nucleus of the much-heralded Bolivarian Revolution.

X

If the Bolivarian Revolution does represent a radical break with capitalism, we’re still to see in what respects it is so. Thus far, it looks as though we’re witnessing but yet another experiment with socialism.

Admittedly, it’s 21st-century socialism, a kind of socialism that is supposed to depart from the 20th-century Soviet model.  And yet, one wonders in what respect were the Soviets in so different a predicament from the one which faces the progressive South American nation-states as they go about trying to carve out their political and economic futures.

But perhaps 21st-century socialism carries a more significant promise than its 20th-century counterpart. For one thing, the logistics have changed. Today, no one any longer entertains any illusion about the West: It’s common knowledge that the West is corrupt to the core, that it’s only about endless conquest and acquisition, that its insatiable greed, its hubris, knows no limits.

Consequently, the West no longer commands the kind of affinity and allegiance when it confronted the budding Soviet Empire some hundred years ago or so, with the idea of bringing it to its knees. The number of its die-hard supporters is dwindling too, and rapidly so. It is becoming less and less fashionable to be siding with the West on ideological grounds, more and more in vogue to oppose it.

What’s the significance of this?

XI

The result could well be that the Venezuela-led coalition may yet garner considerable support from the international community, support far more formidable, in any event, than that experienced by the then-solitary Soviets. It may emerge as a worthy opponent to the overreaching and overextended Empire, an equal or nearly-equal player in the region.  And in that sense, the Bolivarian Revolution may yet prove to be a success, but what of it?

We’re still at the same old game of one power-center opposing another power-center, a capitalist bloc versus a socialist one.  So unless Chávez-inspired 21st-century socialism will prove to be a bird of another feather, history, along with its sordid lesson, is about to repeat itself.

Don’t get me wrong!  I should think that almost anything would be preferable to a colonized mindset, even the orthodox socialist mindset.  However, it remains to be seen whether the South American experiment with decolonization is the real McCoy when it comes to procuring an actual revolutionary change or whether it’s just another version of capitalism dressed up in socialist garb.

I suppose the future will tell.

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