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In the wake of England’s riots, Nigel C. Gibson draws on Frantz Fanon: ‘How to be human in a dehumanized society? This question haunted Fanon and it haunts our age.’

‘Every time a man has contributed to the victory of the spirit, every time a man says no to an attempt to subjugate his fellows, I have felt solidarity with his act … Yes to life. Yes to love. Yes to generosity … No to the contempt … No to degradation… No to exploitation … No to the butchery of what is most human … freedom.’

‘See to it you remain a human being. To be a human being is the main thing, above all else … to be human means joyfully throwing yourself on the scales of destiny when need be, but all the while rejoicing in every sunny day and every beautiful cloud… Oh, I don’t know of any recipe that can be written down on how to be human.’

A new edition of Rosa Luxemburg’s Letters reminded me of the Luxemburg quote above (written from prison at the end of 1916 during the bloody war supported by the social democrats), which I was first introduced to by Raya Dunayevskaya in 1981; it was the year of rebellions across the major cities of England and the hunger strikes in Northern Ireland. It was a period of crisis and Thatcher had won the 1979 election, in part, by using the fear of being “swamped by people of a different culture,” and only won re-election later through a jingoistic war in the Falklands/Malvinas. The background to the 1981 revolts, which had begun in black neighborhoods in the mid-1970s against police harassment and brutality, spread across race lines. By 1981, black and white youth were fighting the police across England’s major cities. And now, thirty years later, it is happening again: the same police harassment, the same economic crisis, and, despite the rhetoric of multiculturalism, the same English racism—all this has never really ended. The old imperial concern about cultural miscegenation or Thatcherite “swamping”—the concern that white children would become infected by this corrosive and deforming element which is insensible to ethics and an enemy of values (Fanon 1968:41)[1]—was expressed by the former LSE Professor and current TV personality broadcaster David Starkey (Commander of the British Empire). On national television (Newsnight August 12, 2011) he got to the root: “The problem is that the whites have become black.”[2]

How to be human in a dehumanized society? This question haunted Fanon and it haunts our age. It was the question Fanon asked in his letter of resignation from Blida Hospital (1967b) concluding that a colonial society, a dehumanized society, needed replacing. But how could a dehumanized people replace it? One of Fanon’s contributions to revolutionary theory, a contribution that remains controversial today, is his belief that the “damned of the earth”—the poor, landless, unemployed, the marginalized and less than human—are not only thinking and rational beings but can organize themselves as forces that can change the world and make it a more human place. In other words, those people who are considered outside of society, the cast-offs and dregs, the worthless and stupid, the lazy and uncivilized, the irrational and ill-tempered, are the very people on which Fanon’s hopes for a “new humanism” are based. Being radical means getting to the root, and staying human means rejecting the pseudo-humanism of this world, a world where they massacre the human on every street corner (Fanon 2005:235). Fanon’s challenge to intellectuals to “sanction revolt” (see 1968:207; 2005:146) is no more apparent than in the recent riots in London. The riotous and destructive youth seem to prove the truth that they are nothing more than an “unconscious and irretrievable instrument of blind force … insensible to ethics” (Fanon 1968:41), representing at best nothing or nothing but the impossibility of progressive politics. Yet just as much as Fanon’s language describes one discourse, he reminds us that “challenging the colonial world is not a rational confrontation of points of view,” and we might ask: how does Fanon speak to our period?

If Rosa Luxemburg, perhaps the most empathetic of her generation of revolutionary socialists to the sufferings of the colonized against imperialism, insisted until her dying day that national liberation struggles were reactionary, Fanon argued from within the struggles of national liberation that the workers’ movements in Europe had fallen asleep. Perhaps they will wake up, but, he added, we cannot wait. What connects Luxemburg and Fanon is not only their acute sensitivity to human suffering and alienation but also their attempts to theorize and conceptualize new movements and to understand that such theorizations were connected to the construction of a new society. Luxemburg argued that “spontaneity plays such a predominant part [in the 1905 revolution"> not because the Russian proletariat are ‘uneducated’ but because revolutions do not allow anyone to play the schoolmaster with them” (Luxemburg 2004:198). For the first time, argues Dunayevskaya (1981:18), “Luxemburg was impressed with what she disliked most—the lumpen proletariat. The revolution irradiated the genius of all people.”

While movements for social change can be viewed retrospectively to harbor longtime political discussions, spontaneous movements often arise quickly and are often dismissed as local, specific, “mindless”, and sometimes as absolutely unfathomable. These rebellions, what John Holloway summarizes as “a scream of horror, a scream of anger, a scream of refusal: NO” (2002:1) against objective dehumanization, are a constant feature of our contemporary world. Yet making sense of them is always made more difficult by the powerful contending forces attempting to break resistance by any means, to use rebellions for their own political ends, or both. Thus, almost as swiftly as a rebellion breaks out it is quickly crushed or compromised, and dismissed as destructive rage as Fanon warns in “The Grandeur and Weaknesses of Spontaneity,” the second chapter of The Wretched of the Earth. Yet just as there is no such thing as pure spontaneity—there is always thinking before and during an event—there is also the quest for self-understanding in the face of psychologists, social workers and political scientists from the right and from the left attempting to give it a meaning. The questions being asked may well be implicit, but the task is to have one’s ears open to “the genius of all people” when it is being drowned out by ideological noise. The task for radicals is to avoid applying pre-formed cookie-cutter theory to new situations and jamming a new event or movement into old categories, but, instead, to begin to open up space for dialogue and reflection on action. On the other hand, it is just “common opportunism”, as Fanon puts it, to abdicate any other responsibility as a revolutionary than to simply herald any action. Once liberated from such undialectical thinking the question remains: how does one perceive a movement’s genius and its reason, especially when it appears, from outside, to have none? This is particularly challenging in the face of those that pathologize rebellions and revolts as illogical and unreasonable, as quite simply mindless acts of violence. Rejecting this standpoint is a first step. The point is that one can’t know beforehand, so one has to be continually open to the world and its breaths, as Césaire puts it, and at the same time always self-critical, always questioning, always connecting.

Fanon understood that everything had to be understood in its concrete situation and he warned us in the first lines of Black Skin White Masks that he doesn’t come with timeless truths. He begins the book by stating, “The explosion will not happen today. It is too soon … or too late.” Too late. Today we are continually told that we have reached the end of history. Yet from Damascus to La Plaz and London the reality is constant and daily revolts. Despite the wish to pull Fanon into our era I am constantly reminded to be careful: it is a different situation. We have to find our own mission, Fanon insists, and yet, isn’t his mission of decolonization and a new humanism still unfulfilled? “What are good intentions,” he wonders, “if their realization is made impossible by the indigence of the heart [and"> the sterility of the mind” (1967b:53)?

Both Fanon and Luxemburg worked tirelessly inside their revolutionary organizations, even as they were marginalized and as the leaderships of these organizations became increasingly pragmatic and unprincipled. Each intimated principles of organization (Luxemburg’s famous criticism of Lenin, “freedom means the freedom to think differently” and Fanon’s withering critique of the nationalist leaders and his insistence that the party has to be decentralized “in the extreme” to avert its centralization of power) though neither developed a theory of revolutionary organization. That being said this essay is not a comparative analysis of Luxemburg and Fanon but a focus on what I consider to be Fanon’s dialectic of spontaneity and organization. On re-reading The Wretched of the Earth I was fascinated by how Fanon writes about the problem of consciousness and organization in a few pages of the chapter “Colonial Wars and Mental Disorders” and how this articulates with his discussion of spontaneity.[3]

The colony is “one vast concentration camp where the only law is that of a knife” (2005:232), writes Fanon in “Colonial Wars and Mental Disorders,” where “anything may be done for a loaf of bread.” Colonialism reduces the human being to animal needs and survival: “Relationships with the material world and with history are simply relations with food … to live means existing … the sole obsession is the need to fill that every shrinking stomach” (308/ 232, translation altered). And yet Fanon insists—and we can see intimations of such new collectivities in revolts against oppression such as Tahrir Square in 2011—that with a struggle for liberation everything changes. Under colonialism allowing the neighbor’s sheep to graze on your grass was an act of murder, he argues, but now a family's willingness to lend a donkey to carry a wounded fighter betrays a totally new social and national attitude. The family becomes less concerned about its previously prized possession and more concerned about the safety of the wounded militant. This radical change in consciousness intimates a new collectivity at the moment when the old is dying, but the new birth can be easily broken. There is something inherently unstable about this change and one can imagine a return to a survivalist and reactive consciousness. It is a fragile starting point and if things do not change the small-minded calculations and jealousies around sheep grazing are likely to return.

Fanon warns us that the internalization of self-hatred produced by colonial society means that the struggle has to be fought at a number of levels. The colonized must struggle to eliminate “all the untruths planted within him by the oppressor”. “Independence,” he concludes, is not a magic ritual but an indispensable condition for men and women to exist in true liberation, in other words to “master all the material resources necessary for a radical transformation of society” (2005:233). By material resources I take him to mean not simply the means of production but also the “genius” of the oppressed.

This notion of mastery, and self-mastery—the mastery of all material resources and the mastery of the radical transformation of society—takes us to the issue of organization. Fanon’s conception of organization “independent of the concrete situations” (1967b:144) is always connected to uprooting all the structures that devalue and destroy what is human. But the specific articulations in The Wretched, for example, seem at times contradictory and have to be both understood dialectically as well as in their concrete determinations. In opposition to the nationalist bourgeoisie, who import their concept of organization from the West—making a fetish of “building the party”—and who are mainly concerned with institutional and “legal” (within colonial law) negotiations for independence, the real revolt against colonialism is carried by those dispossessed and now marginalized people, who by being completely “outside the colonial system” have nothing to lose and who through practice create elemental self-organization. Crushed by colonial expropriation (of land and labor), dehumanized by its ideology and its police, the damned of the earth—the “scum,” the surplus people and “feral rats” (as the media reported the English revolt of 2011), are kept in check by state violence and divide and rule policing manifested in gang wars and “black on black” violence. The English revolt was not a revolt of “precarious workers” but of surplus humanity (perhaps even beyond the pale of Marx’s reserve army of unemployed), the black, brown and white youth outside the wage system, held in place by social security and housing benefits.[4] They are, in short, damned. “I am angry at how the whole system works,” argues a London youth. “This is the way they want it … they give me just enough money so I can eat and watch TV all day” (see Thomas and Somaiya 2011). At certain times the anger erupts and is directed toward what is called “the system”. Seemingly unorganized but often highly focused in their target, the intensity of these revolts is their strength.[5] They win local battles but, Fanon argues, this becomes a strategic weakness. Often built on the basis of resentment and feelings of deprivation, which let it be said are entirely objective, the revolt becomes a release of pent up frustration – a moment of collective catharsis. It is often reactive and without any clear political goals. In other words, Fanon warns, the enemy’s change of tactics, the buying off of one group, a small concession here, a mass clampdown there, can all undermine revolt and underline the importance of the revolt’s own self-reflexivity. Fanon argues that there needs to be a thinking, living organization. It is needed because there is no strategically privileged position. This brilliantly expresses the strength and weakness of spontaneity that we can see today with new technologies such as cell phones and social media playing an important role in the organizing of revolts and in many cases the outwitting of the authorities in urban space (and also just as the CCTV is essential to policing, it is countered by the “the hoodie”, the ski-mask and the veil against the cameras). Likewise, just as the strategy of guerilla war and urban rebellion depends not on holding ground, neither can it become a substitution for politics. For Fanon the weakness of spontaneity is its immediacy, its reactive action, a reaction against brutality that leads to a counter-brutality and also a brutality of thought. And though there is no immediacy without mediation and no spontaneity without prior thought, the weakness of spontaneity is when it fetishizes immediacy. Reduced to Manichean reaction it invariably becomes expressed in a politics of hate when what is needed is a nuanced analysis.

It should be remembered that Fanon is not creating a general theory of revolt or of spontaneity but theorizing revolt specifically within the context of the anti-colonial epoch. And yet, with Fanon one is always drawn to the present and this essay is no different. The implicit question is what is there in Fanon’s ideas that could help understand our present situation? Contemporary post-imperial neoliberal capitalist and authoritarian England exhibits the legacies of Empire. The afterlives of the intimate connections between the ordering of the poor in the metropole and the “natives” of the colony (who in the chain of British civilization are considered the epitome of barbarity) are at the foundation of its post-imperial ordering.[6]

Is it audacious to consider what has been dubbed the London “riots” as a part of an elemental struggle for liberation? The revolt was not a movement and cannot be understood as one thing but a series of riots, sometimes collective and directed against the police but also simply smash and grab exercises and sometimes both. Reflecting the social strata of those involved, there was gang activity, opportunist organized crime and violence directed against the community. Yet despite some of the horrible features repeated ad nauseam by the press and the politicians, there remains the revolt as a reflection and critique of contemporary English society.

The London revolts, from the 1970s and 1980s onward, which always began in response to police violence, became more and more multiracial as the policy of criminalization (namely suspecting all youth of crime) blanketed whole communities. From Belfast to Brixton and from Ealing Broadway to the Hackney marshes the essence of English rule is not only the rubber bullet and water-cannon (demanded by the little Englander imperialists) but the security camera and national ID cards (which is why its normalization is the images of hooded rioters on public TV screens in city centers with traveling vans displaying images of people wanted in connection with the recent riots and looting. In a consumerist double-entendre the slogan reads “shop a looter”). The reality of English justice—as it was meted out in the colonies—is brought home as the discourses of human rights and justice so readily employed for imperial interest quickly falls away. The British Prime Minister, Cameron, (with no disagreement from the Labour opposition) repeats the imperial mantra, proclaiming, just as his predecessors did in Kenya in the 1950s and Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s that “phony human rights” would not get in the way of dealing with the “criminals” (Bonner 2011) and “the enemy within,” as Thatcher put it. And while the focus on the harsh sentences for “looters”[7] indicates the intimate relations between police, politicians and the courts, it also belies the daily reality of criminalization and state violence as normal and acceptable to democratic bourgeois society.

For Fanon, revolts in the colonies are never simply isolated events. Word spreads quickly and unofficially. Indeed, the “maturity” of the age means that an “isolated event” (2005:35) becomes an international episode. The London revolts cannot be considered isolated, and the attempt to turn them into non-sense is an attempt to dehumanize them and silence the realities that they reveal. The Arab Spring began in Tunisia, spread to create a new form of social organization in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and spurred by Eurozone structural adjustment travelled across the Mediterranean recast by the Spanish indignados and the Greek aganaktismenoi (outraged) many of whom saw themselves as antipolitical.[8]

In the context of the same capitalist economic crisis, the London outrages were sparked in a different way and were more akin to the French Banlieues revolts of 2005.[9] In both London and in the Banlieues the police were seen as the enemy and both erupted into street battles with the police, leading to the destruction of property (on the Banlieues revolt see Quadrelli). In the late 1980s the 'problem' of unemployed youth on the street in Los Angeles was addressed in a law titled “Street Terrorism Enforcement Prevention.” The same notion of dealing with “street terrorism” is employed in contemporary England, where unemployed (or informally employed) youth in public spaces are constantly confronted by the psychological and physical threat of para-militarized police presence and constant stop and search harassment. The initial cause—the police murder of Mark Duggin (by a special armed police unit) and the police attack on a young woman demonstrating outside the police station was thus a call for dignity and rights. But once attacked the demonstration morphed into battles which beat back the police in Tottenham, and spreading to Wood Green (both in the borough of Haringey with some of the highest levels of poverty in the country), specifically Wood Green’s “shopping city,” took the form of dispossessing its big electronics and clothing stores and continued into gentrified Hackney in the East and areas of London’s suburban high streets such as Ealing and Croydon in the West and South. As it moved its character changed too, more destructive and more indiscriminate.

Neoliberal capitalism in crisis and its economist authoritarianism is Manichean. In reaction to its crude materialism London’s unemployed and criminalized youth, whose communities have been subject to thirty years of “accumulation through dispossession,” simply wanted what neoliberal consumer society told them they should want but couldn’t have. While not denying that there are gangs and robbing on participant retorted that “the politicians say that we loot and rob, they are the original gangsters …”, referring to the parliament expenses scandal that went utterly unpunished. It exposed, concluded Seamus Milne in the liberal The Guardian (Aug 10, 2011), “a society run on greed and looting.” And yet the London revolts signify more than the (im)possibility of shopping but the viability of a society whose central idea is shopping. Many poor people understand the events as a revolt against conditions created by Cameron’s authoritarian economism and as a refusal to accept them.[10]

Like the Paris Banlieues revolt of 2005, the London revolt has been dismissed as reactionary—destructive and criminal. Much of the destruction in London occurred in poor neighborhoods and the descriptions of the French revolt could easily be applied to London: “desperate,” “senseless,” and “criminal” acts by “victims of social exclusion,” “indistinct and indiscriminate, a destructive luddite force that sometimes recalled the disturbing, incoherent and irrational action of the open crowd” (Quadrelli 2-4). The London revolt wasn’t explicitly political in the sense that the Greek or Spanish was in its aims. Rather than impute a politics, and while rage is often considered antithetical to rationality, what was the rationality of the revolt—in Fanon’s sense among those who are thought not to think—against the police and “the system” and “showing the police … [and"> “the rich people we can do what we want”?[11] How to begin to thinking about this with Fanon’s help?


‘The fact is that the body of these people appear to them to be bogged down in fruitless inertia … used to living in the narrow circle of feuds and rivalries.’

There is an arc of spontaneous revolts, beautiful in their creative beginnings, which traverses boundaries and borders and creates new solidarities and imaginations but which under the whip of the forces of order and strategies to buy-off sectors of the revolt becomes fragmented. The fragile new communities become destructured and can very often be destroyed by intrigue and rumor encouraged by agent provocateurs. Fanon argues in “The Grandeur and Weakness of Spontaneity” that the grand schemes of liberation, however indistinct and amorphous, can quickly be compromised, consumed by petty disputes and local hatreds. Quick victories turn into long drawn out struggles. But rather than thinking of new strategies the fight continues, quite literally, with often tragic consequences. It is a Manichean politics, which he calls “radical and totalitarian” (1968:132) a politics which suffocates space for thinking. It is a politics that leads to brutality. This “unmixed and total brutality,” Fanon argues, has to be “immediately combated.” If it is not, it invariably leads to quick defeat (1968:147). But how is it going to be defeated? Fanon seems fairly orthodox in his response (a response still heard today): by “leaders and organizers”. Yet Fanon is talking about those militants who have in fact broken with the old responses and the old politics. He describes a situation where the militants have quite literally been forced underground by the colonial regime, but at the same time, by breaking with elite dominated politics they have discovered the revolutionary action of the masses. The same mass of illiterates and “feral rats” who frighten the colonists, frighten the nationalist leaders.[12] This is not only because both of the contesting elites think that the “mob” is prepared to destroy things. It is also because their situation calls the legitimacy of the system into question in a profound way that poses a solution to the crisis that goes beyond an intra-elite compromise. The unemployed, the landless, the “good for nothing,” argues Fanon, are quick to understand that the politics of “elite negotiation” doesn’t change anything. The pauperized and landless masses, Fanon argues, have in fact never had any interest in this kind of politics. It has little to do with them; yet at the same time they have never stopped thinking about getting rid of colonialism and quite simply understand that its essence and appearance are the same: violence.[13]

For Fanon a liberatory politics begins not from discussions between political leaders and bourgeois parliaments but from the bottom up, grounded in the most urgent aspirations of the masses—bread, dignity, and land: “These politics,” Fanon insists “are national, revolutionary, and collective” (my emphasis). And this “new reality, which the colonized are now exposed to, exists by action alone” (my emphasis, 2004 96 see also 1968:147). In other words, what Fanon calls a living organization is a politics of will. It is action that creates a new reality and thus changes consciousness. He carries on in this Marxian vein (but also note that he is no longer talking about the leaders at all but the masses of people in struggle): “By exploding the former colonial reality the struggle uncovers unknown facets, brings to light new meanings and underlines contradictions which were camouflaged by this reality” (1968:147). It is the struggle which uncovers new realities and new contradictions, and it is the movement from practice that challenges theoreticians to help work out new concepts. The assumption that practice will follow on from theory, still common amongst some forms of leftism, functions to mask the emergence of the new and to delegitimate popular political innovation.

Thus the central issue is not in fact building organization—but building the collective, national, revolutionary struggle. He declares abhorrence to what he calls “the fetish of organization” and an elite politics based on an all knowing vanguard: knowledge, he insists, is produced in the struggle, a struggle for a new reality in which one confronts new contradictions. But as he concludes “The Grandeur and Weaknesses of Spontaneity”, “the force of intellect increases and becomes more elaborated as the struggle goes on … the rebellion gives proof to its rational basis and its maturity each time it uses a particular case to advance the people’s awareness” (1968:146). Political education is not a set of text books but a living relationship. It is refined in the school of the people not by school mastering because it is the maturity of the age that manifests an intimate relationship between consciousness (awareness) and the rationality of revolt mediated by the force of intellect. The people’s history of struggles and thinking about struggles—oral and written—becomes an essential element in self-understanding and knowledge of where we are going and why because it is the enlightenment and thinking of the very people that society dubs stupid and mindless that matters most in a popular emancipatory struggle. This is why the “brutality of thought” is the greatest threat to the force of intellect. The very power of Manichean ideas becomes its pitfall: “The people who at the beginning of the struggle had adopted the primitive Manichaeism of the colonist … find out that the iniquitous fact of exploitation can wear a black face or an Arab one …”. Without developing the force of intellect, it is inevitable that while one oppression is being destroyed another is being “automatically” built (1968:144-5). Yet this realization is a continual cycle related to lived experience. It is also a painful retelling and working through new situations and new contradictions. For example, understanding that exploitation can wear a black face does not answer people’s anger and does not automatically change the situation which can go in the direction of xenophobia, ethno-nationalism and racism. Political education is never a directive but as the South African shack dwellers' organization Abahlali baseMjondolo puts it, “a living learning.”

Fanon argues in “The Misadventures of National Consciousness” in The Wretched that it is essential that the organization become decentralized after independence. Its most important role as educator is to encourage the very people who have been discouraged and dehumanized by colonialism to accept that everything depends on the people alone and that they can rely on nobody else. Again, this can’t be instituted—thinking must be encouraged, he argues (which is not the same as bringing consciousness to the masses), but it is the result of engaged thinking with the people “inside the structure of the people” (namely, its self-organization) and the hard labor of engagement and self-engagement, as he writes in “Colonial Wars and Mental Disorders”:

“The important theoretical problem is that it is necessary at all times and in all places to make explicit, to demystify, and to harry the insult to mankind that exists in oneself [my emphasis"> There must be no waiting until the nation has produced new men [and women">; there must be no waiting until men [and women"> are imperceptibly transformed by revolutionary processes in perpetual renewal. It is quite true that these two processes are essential. But it is consciousness that must be helped. If the revolution in practice is meant to be totally liberating and exceptionally productive everything must be accounted for. The revolutionary feels a particularly strong need to totalize events, to handle everything, to settle everything, to assume responsibility for everything” (1968:305/ 2004 229).

Yet is this assumption of responsibility contradictory with the idea that the masses are their own subject? Fanon understands that the psychological effects of oppression are very real and must be addressed and yet at the same time the future is now. Engaging this contradiction warrants “the revolutionary’s” political and psychological self-critique. Consciousness must be helped to think for itself, not told what to think. Rather than substitutionism, to totalize events, to handle everything, to settle everything, to assume responsibility for everything is in fact an ongoing process: “Now consciousness no longer balks at thinking back or marking time if necessary” (1968:305). In other words, it is not always a matter of constant “forward movement” because the revolution is always a cycle (as Marx famously describes the “proletarian revolution” in The Eighteenth Brumaire). Based on this new totality and understanding, consciousness, he adds, “no longer balks at thinking back,” and going back over and rethinking. Rather than fretting about the new, he gives us a military analogy which is also analogous to his critique of spontaneity: “This is the reason why as a combat unit progresses in the field the end of the ambush does not mean cause for respite but the very moment for consciousness to go one step further” (1968:305/ 2005:229)

In other words, the dialectic of consciousness is an ongoing process. There is no respite. There is constant motion but not motion for the sake of motion. There needs to be respite also, a constant responsibility to check action, to think and to theorize. In a sense, Fanon’s thought expresses an optimism of the human will qua thinking subject, namely the thinking of those criminalized and dehumanized by the system.

He concludes “Colonial Wars and Mental Disorders” by arguing that “the criminality of the Algerian, his impulsiveness, the savagery of his murders are not, therefore, the consequence of how his nervous system is organized or specific character traits but the direct result of the colonial situation” (2005:233). The same could be said of the criminality of any revolt against an oppressive and dehumanizing system, including the London youth involved in the “riots” whose disregard for property is now being pathologized as characterologically criminal.

Fanon argued that under a colonial regime, “to live simply means not to die” (2005:232). Faced with the “promise of jail, beatings and executions”, who do you take it out on? Yourself and those closest to you. Rather than damning or dismissing spontaneous actions of “criminality,” Fanon—of course—wants to engage them. A similar engagement is required of the London revolt. For Fanon such engagement had an “immense impact on revolutionary consciousness” (2005:233). The London “riots” indicate how rage can go in many directions and how quickly elemental revolt spreads. But for Fanon the decisive moment occurs when action becomes the basis to open up a critique of the “beliefs inculcated in them by colonialism.” It is these beliefs—the internalization of system’s dehumanizing values—that can stymie action and destroy solidarity. Beyond reaction and rage against the machine, for Fanon the liberation of the mind of the oppressed goes hand in hand with reflecting on their own actions.

Fanon continues, “the colonized must also ensure that all the untruths planted within by the oppressor are eliminated… Total liberation involves every facet of the personality” (2005:233).

Total liberation. That is the seemingly unending task. It is the mission of the present and the vision of the future.


* The author would like to thank Paul Carvajal and Richard Pithouse for their critical engagements with this essay.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[1] Fanon 1968 The Wretched of the Earth refers to the Farrington translation and 2005 to the Philcox translation of Fanon’s Les damnés de la terre.
[2] From a quite different perspective Sivanandan argues that “multiculturalism has succeeded at the point of riot: the rioters came from all communities.” He also considers the “riots,” in contrast to the revolt of 1981 not based in the community. Yet the causality is similar. He adds that the youth have nothing to look forward to. But this was exactly the feeling expressed by the Sex Pistols anthem “God Save the Queen.” “We’re the flowers in the dustbin; We’re the poison in your human machine,” we’re the future but also there is no future. At the time no future was taken up by rock against racism against the National Front, which was gaining popularity in the inner cities. Certainly, the 2011 revolt lacks such organized articulation, yet it was not simply organized on a Blackberry as Sivanandan insists.
[3] The concluding chapter of The Wretched. It can be read as an interlocutor to Fanon’s famous chapter on violence and the dehumanizing effects of colonial brutality including torture (see Turner 2011).
[4] Cameron’s threat to cut off housing benefits for those convicted during the “riots” is in fact only the logic of the new cap on benefits which is pushing many people below subsistence. Many people are beginning to be evicted now.
[5] In an interview with Sky news, a participant points out that he targeted a shop where he had submitted a job application but had never been responded to. What is noteworthy is that there was response to the reporter’s moralism; “there is no future for young people … the government only look out for the rich people … We are not doing this for the fun of it but to survive in this world”
[6] As Thomas and Somaiya reported, “a young man in a gray hooded sweatshirt shouted directly into the faces of riot police officers: ‘You know you all racist! You know it.’”
[7] The police are estimating 30, 000 took part in looting and are aiming to imprison them all. The majority of those charged are not the middle class and university students who are the media’s focus
[8] Thousands of people created democracy, meeting everyday in front of the Greek parliament. As Costas Douzinas put it, “Aspiring speakers are given a number and called to the platform if that number is drawn, a reminder that many office-holders in classical Athens were selected by lots. The speakers stick to strict two-minute slots to allow as many as possible to contribute … The views of the unemployed and the university professor are given equal time, discussed with equal vigor and put to the vote for adoption. The outraged have reclaimed the square from commercial activities and transformed it into a real space of public interaction.” Likewise, the Spanish gatherings became full time occupations of the city main or large squares and the people set up assemblies for decision-making as well as organizing cleaning systems, education facilities, and kitchens. Despite police provocations there was in fact little violence.
[9] Slavoj Zizek makes an implicit connection between the London riots and the French revolt of 2005. For him both are “meaningless outbursts.” To make real change, he concludes (sounding like a hardest of the hard Leninist), “one needs a strong body able to reach quick decisions and to implement them with all necessary harshness.”
[10] I am indebted to Paul Carvajal for pointing this out.
[11] See “London riots: showing the rich we can do what we want”.
[12] From the colonial point of view the colonized are always feral. And from the late nineteenth century on, colonial administrators were particularly concerned with the effect on white settlers. David Harvey (2011) rightly points out that the “communards in Paris in 1871 were depicted as wild animals, as hyenas, that deserved to be (and often were) summarily executed in the name of the sanctity of private property, morality, religion, and the family.” He adds that “But the problem is that we live in a society where capitalism itself has become rampantly feral. Feral politicians cheat on their expenses, feral bankers plunder the public purse for all its worth, CEOs, hedge fund operators and private equity geniuses loot the world of wealth, telephone and credit card companies load mysterious charges on everyone’s bills, shopkeepers price gouge, and, at the drop of a hat swindlers and scam artists get to practice three-card monte right up into the highest echelons of the corporate and political world.” Similarly Sivanandan has also using the term feral speaking also speaking of the specificity of neoliberal capitalism with a “feral elite of politicians, press, police and banks running the system.” Looking for deeper causes for the “riots” he writes of a “polarised society” with a “third of the population mired in poverty and deprivation.” While all this is true, is it what capitalism has “become” in the metropoles (and was intimated in the urban revolts of the early 1980s) takes away from what it is and the specificity what it has always been outside “the core.”
[13] In his analysis of the mass revolt in the Paris banlieues of 2005, Emilio Quadrelli gestures toward a similar relationship between grass roots activists who are quite distinct from legal parties and movements, and those social actors who played a leading role in the movement of “banlieuesards” (see p.3). Quadrelli adds that there was “no reciprocal recognition” in the political language of the French conflict. It was instead a colonial discourse more in character of the “world of the Algerian war than conventional social models.” Thus he concludes the need to “return to a Fanonian discourses” (3). I take such a return as axiomatic.


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