Category Archives: Book Reviews

Frantz Fanon: Decolonisation through revolution

Chris Newlove

A review of Peter Hudis, Frantz Fanon: Philosopher of the Barricades (Pluto Press, 2015), £12.99, Lewis R Gordon, What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought (Fordham University Press, 2015), £28.49 and Leo Zeilig, Frantz Fanon: The Militant Philosopher of Third World Revolution (I B Taurus, 2016), £14.99

The last few years have seen a renewed interest among activists and within academia in the life and work of Frantz Fanon. The recent arrival in French of many of his previously unpublished letters, plays and writings will only add to this. Previous waves of interest have interpreted his work in completely divergent ways. Steve Biko, Che Guevara and Bobby Seale and Huey P Newton of the Black Panther Party were all inspired by Fanon in the 1960s and 1970s. The 1990s saw what became known as “Critical Fanonism” within academia in which Fanon’s revolutionary politics were downplayed, making him a thinker of “difference” and an opponent of a “unified theory of oppression”. The titles of two of the recent biographies under review, “Philosopher of the barricades” and “The militant philosopher of third world revolution” are clearly a reaction to this distortion. All three books skilfully mix details of Fanon’s life with his central ideas. This review will focus on Fanon’s major works on racism and decolonisation and his relationship with Marxism rather than the details of his extraordinary life, which can found elsewhere.1

Black Skin, White Masks

Black Skin, White Masks (BSWM), published in 1952, was originally intended as Fanon’s medical dissertation but was rejected by his professors for its unorthodoxy. It is both semi-autobiographical and transdisciplinary, engaging with philosophy, novels, autobiographies, poems, and psychological theory and case studies. The theorists discussed are similarly wide ranging, including Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler and Jacques Lacan. BSWM, like all of Fanon’s work, focuses on the experiences of the oppressed in the context of wider structures of racism and colonialism. The book details black people’s experience of racism both in colonies such as Martinique (one of the so-called “overseas departments” of France) and imperial centres such as France itself.

Lewis Gordon spends a large part of his book discussing this influential work; similarly Peter Hudis gives a detailed overview while Zeilig gives a briefer introduction. Both Hudis and Gordon capture important aspects of this work but, typically of studies of Fanon, they differ in the themes they focus on. Hudis highlights how Fanon saw racism as arising from the profit motive that began to drive colonialism and slavery. Fanon states: “The Negro problem does not resolve itself into the problem of Negroes living among white men but rather of Negroes exploited, enslaved, despised by a colonialist, capitalist society that is only accidentally white”.2 As Gordon notes, BSWM has many descriptions of the “infernal hell” of the individual lived experience of racism.3 However, as Hudis points out, this should not obscure the fact that Fanon saw racism as structural discrimination built into capitalism.4 Both colonies that practise legal discrimination and so-called democracies like France were described as “racist societies” by Fanon. Gordon, putting a Freudian psychoanalytical spin on the term “failing”, shows how BSWM documents different responses to racism and point out the various “failings” of these responses.5

However, I prefer to see these “failings” as “strategic”. In BSWM we get accounts of racism mainly based on autobiographies or Fanon’s experience of “assimilationist” responses to racism. These include black people from France’s colonies learning to speak French well, becoming formally educated, using psychoanalytical techniques and marrying white partners. These strategies of attempting to be accepted into a racist society or even to be accepted as white are shown to fail for two main reasons. One reason is that they do not take into account black people’s experience of racism—this is the case with many of the psychoanalytical theories mentioned. The second reason which unites all the failed strategies of BSWM is that they are individual solutions to a structural problem. Fanon inverts Sartre’s phrase from Anti-Semite and Jew when he says “I am overdetermined from without”.6 In other words, black people cannot avoid being seen as black in a racist society regardless of the “assimilationist” strategies employed. Some people have read Fanon’s descriptions of black people attempting to be “white” through marrying white partners as evidence of opposition to “interracial relationships”. But, as Gordon highlights, only when the basis of the relationship is seen as achieving “whiteness” is the effort seen as a form of failure.7 I would also add the autobiographical detail that Fanon’s partner Marie-Josephe Dublé-Fanon, who transcribed the majority of his works, was a white woman.

One of the most important aspects of BSWM is its discussion of Négritude. Négritude could be described as a proto-black pride movement centred around the poetry of black intellectuals from France’s colonies. Particularly important is Aimé Césaire who, like Fanon, came from Martinique and whom Fanon met.8 BSWM outlines the pride felt by Fanon as he discovered African sculptures or the inversion of stereotypes about black people envisioned as positives for example black people as being closer to nature or able to understand rhythm in a way white people cannot.

Both Gordon and Hudis suggest that Fanon, who was particularly influenced by Sartre, broke from him at this point; they state “Sartre seemed unforgiveable”9 and that Fanon felt “shocked” and “betrayed” by him.10 Sartre wrote a supportive preface to a collection of Négritude poetry, Anthology of the New Negro and Malagasy Poetry in French that has since been known as “Black Orpheus”.11 Fanon accuses Sartre of destroying “black zeal”12 for describing Négritude as “the minor term of a dialectical progression”,13 from the concrete and particular term of racial identity to the abstract and universal term of the proletariat.

However, Fanon’s response is not actually a rejection of Sartre’s central argument, but an expression of dismay that he is right. As Fanon says, “I needed not to know”14 and Sartre “shattered my last illusion”.15 What Fanon does criticise Sartre for is not being Hegelian enough in neglecting the fact that each term of a dialectical progression has to be lived out “absolutely”.16 “Black Orpheus” itself is predominantly positive about Négritude, its criticisms being on a par with Fanon’s in BSWM although taken out of context; Sartre’s phrase “minor term” can confuse the overall tone of the preface. That being said Sartre’s phrasing of the relationship between class and race is a regression compared to Anti-Semite and Jew. In this work Jewish people are supported in living a Jewish identity and Sartre demands that the wider working class fight antisemitism. Hudis interprets Fanon’s anger at Sartre skipping over Négritude to mean that in trying to achieve a world without racism “any effort to reach such a goal by skipping over the particular demands, struggles and subjectivites of specific forces of revolt” would be a dead end.17

BSWM ends with a call to revolutionary action to destroy racism. Fanon challenges the idea that there is anything essential about a person’s “race” stating “there is no Negro mission, there is no white man’s burden”.18 He looks forward to the day when there will be “mutual recognition” among black and white people, the day when the struggles of black people in America result in a “majestic” “monument” of a “white man and a black man hand in hand”.19 He references the Viet-Minh’s statement in their fight against French colonialism that has more recently become famous through the Black Lives Matter movement: “It is not because the Indo-Chinese has discovered a culture of his own that he is in revolt. It is because ‘quite simply’ it was, in more than one way, becoming impossible for him to breathe”.20

Fanon sees the cultural pride of Négritude as a first step in fighting racism; however, he ultimately rejects it for reinforcing stereotypes about black people. He is fighting for a world in which black people are recognised as humans. Fanon says “it is the racist who creates his inferior” just as the antisemite creates the Jew in Sartre’s work.21 Zeilig sees a tension between individual and collective strategies within BSWM; he reads the phrase “I am my own foundation” as a sign of individualistic solutions. The phrase, however, means Fanon does not want to be trapped into being a “black” person with essential characteristics as defined by a racist society. It is clear that Fanon sees collective struggle as the only way to fight racism. What form this collective struggle would take only becomes apparent with Fanon’s critical involvement in anti-colonial struggle within Algeria.


Studies in a Dying Colonialism (originally published in French as Year Five of the Algerian Revolution) is a lesser known work compared to BSWM or The Wretched of the Earth. The work represents Fanon’s experiences as a member of and journalist for the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), who were fighting an armed struggle against French colonialism from 1954 until 1962 when Algeria became independent. The book was dictated in 1959 in just three weeks. Its central theme is how people’s consciousness changes in struggle. People join movements with a variety of contradictory ideas; it is during collective struggle that people become confident and open to new possibilities.

Zeilig highlights the importance of the chapter on the veil: “Algeria Unveiled”. Fanon describes how “servants under threat of being fired, poor women dragged from their homes, prostitutes, were brought to the public square and symbolically unveiled to the cries of ‘Vive l’Algérie française! [Long Live French Algeria!]’”, with the result that “Algerian women who had long since dropped the veil once again donned the haik, thus affirming that it was not true that woman liberated herself at the invitation of France and of General de Gaulle”.22 The veil was used as a sign of resistance to French colonialism. As the military and police eventually realised, women in the FLN hid weapons under their veils. Then they switched to dressing in “European” fashion to avoid suspicion when coming through checkpoints to carry out attacks. The book documents the growing role of Algerian women involved in the struggle and is clearly a rejection of the now familiar rhetoric of imperialist powers attempting to “save” Muslim women espoused at the time.

Fanon’s involvement in the Algerian struggle meant he was well placed to observe aspects of what we now call Islamophobia. In an earlier speech he made in 1956 at the First Congress of Black Writers and Artists Fanon discussed the shift to cultural racism after the Nazi regime discredited biological racism.23 He talks about how racism has to “adapt itself, to change in appearance”,24 about how “cultural style” is attacked, blending “with the already famous appeal to the fight of the ‘cross against the crescent’”.25 Hudis unconvincingly attempts to portray Fanon as a critic of Islamism (which was not a dominant trend in national ­liberation movements at that point), stating he is in no way “uncritical” of the wearing of the veil and he would not have formed a united front with Islamists.26 The fact that the FLNs’ foundational statement in 1954 called for an independent Algeria “consistent with Islamic principles” is left out of Hudis’s account. When in power sections of the FLN encouraged Islamism from the mid-1970s onwards, the rise of which and the regime’s efforts to suppress it would eventually lead to civil war in the 1990s.

In Studies of a Dying Colonialism we see in somewhat exaggerated form the effect struggle can have on everyday life in relation to the family, radio, medicine and the veil. However, as Zeilig points out, we get little sense of the contradictions and difficulties of decolonisation. These themes would be taken up in Fanon’s most famous work The Wretched of the Earth, dictated while he was dying of leukaemia. Zeilig describes its scope as “massive” encompassing “the degeneration of national liberation movements, military coups, national culture and case notes from patients undergoing psychiatric treatment”.27 The overarching themes are the potential pitfalls that national liberation movements can run into. It is based on Fanon’s experience of the FLN and his tours of newly independent nations during his role as ambassador to Africa for the provisional government of Algeria (GPRA). Fanon described himself as a Pan-Africanist, seeking political unity of independent states and movements fighting colonialism. In the chapter “On National Culture” based on his speech to the Second Congress of Black Artists and Writers he outlined the nature of this unity. He was against attempting to make a homogenous black or African identity based on culture: “there is no common destiny to be shared between the national cultures of Senegal and Guinea; but there is a common destiny between the Senegalese and Guinean nations which are both dominated by the same French colonialism”.28 Similarly, he pointed out the different problems Langston Hughes from the United States faced compared to Léopold Senghor from Senegal. He angrily noted the hypocrisy of those like Jacques Rabemananjara, a minister in the Madagascan government, who spoke about African cultural unity but voted against Algerian independence in the UN. Fanon calls for the political unity of those who suffer racism and colonialism, a unity based on struggle rather than a cultural unity based on a mythologised past or present.

This unity, however, does not encompass the capitalists of the colonised country after independence who are described variously as “numerically, intellectually and economically weak”29 or in slightly stronger terms as “flesh-eating animals, jackals and vultures which wallow in the people’s blood”.30 Fanon saw how the capitalist class could not be expected to lead a struggle for independence but also how they would be willing to make compromises with former colonial powers to maintain their profits after independence. He described the situation in which governments are economically dependent on former colonial powers as “neo-colonialism”. In more recent times the term captures well the role of the US in imposing IMF loans on African and Latin American countries in exchange for extortionate trade deals and neoliberal “structural readjustment” in which welfare is privatised. However, the term has also been used to let off the hook “indigenous” capitalists in former colonies who exploit their own people and weaker states—hardly an outcome Fanon would have been likely to support.

Much of the discussion of The Wretched of the Earth focuses on the chapter “Concerning Violence” and Fanon’s advocacy of armed struggle against colonialism. As Zeilig points out, part of this focus can be put down to Sartre’s over-enthusiastic fixation on the question of violence in the preface to the book. In line with his consistent focus on how people change through struggle, Fanon states that “at the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction”.31 He is in no way blind to the negative consequences of violence as is highlighted in the psychological case notes at the end of The Wretched of the Earth. His main mistake on this question is to have believed that a violent struggle against colonialism would make compromise with former colonial powers less likely. As has been shown by Zimbabwe and South Africa this is not the case. Fanon is more accurate when he points to the lack of “ideology” of national liberation movements as a central weakness. The struggles, sometimes fatal, within the FLN tended to be about control or tactical considerations rather than competing worldviews, their statements remaining vague on what an independent Algeria would look like. Was this call for ideology a call for Marxism? It is on the question of Fanon’s relationship with Marxism that Gordon, Zeilig and Hudis diverge the most.


While Gordon sees Fanon as a critic of classical Marxism, Hudis refers to him as a humanist Marxist and Zeilig describes Fanon “engaging” with Marxism. The accounts vary to some extent but most agree that Fanon was around the French Communist Party (PCF) and potentially Trotskyists in Lyon. One of the main influences on him as a psychiatrist was François Tosquelles, who was a member of the POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification) during the Spanish Revolution. Fanon also had discussions with Jean Ayme and Pierre Broué, Trotskyists involved in the International Communist Party, and the anarchist Daniel Guérin. Fanon was said to have read the proceedings of the first four congresses of the Third International.32 As Hudis points out, Fanon’s work contains frequent references to Marx, particularly The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

Hudis also notes that the other major influence on Fanon’s work is Sartre who was developing his brand of Marxism at the time. Gordon attempts to put distance between Fanon and Sartre with the “break” in BSWM, even describing how Sartre might have come across as a “white reaper”33 when he was at Fanon’s bedside while he was dying. Gordon rightly makes the point that works about Fanon often reduce him to the influence on him of white philosophers. However, his book tends to stretch too far in the opposite direction, downplaying Sartre’s and Fanon’s mutual admiration. Fanon, after being diagnosed with leukaemia, chose to speak to FLN fighters about Sartre’s book Critique of Dialectical Reason. Zeilig gives the political context to why Fanon rejected organisations of the French left. The Socialist Party (the Labour-style party) and the French Communist Party both voted for “special measures” violently to suppress the movement for Algerian independence. The Trotskyist groups were small in number, although one did support the FLN materially. The other supported the FLN’s rival, Messali Hadj’s Algerian National Movement (MNA).

Gordon explains that Fanon’s identification of the peasantry and the lumpen-proletariat as revolutionary subjects goes against the classic Marxist focus on the working class. Zeilig highlights the influence examples of guerrilla armies in Vietnam, China and Cuba—theoretically based on the peasantry—and the shift in FLN tactics to rural warfare had on Fanon’s views. This led Fanon to downplay the role of the working class within colonies, stating that it has the power to shut down the country but is bought off through its greater living standards compared to the peasantry. However, as Hudis and Zeilig both point out, the working class often did play a key role, for example in overthrowing colonialism in Nigeria and apartheid in South Africa. Furthermore, Algerian independence came on the back of protests and riots by the Algerian working class.

Fanon’s version of “New Humanism” represents a mix of ideas. He both rejects the free market and criticises nationalisation for changing one elite for another. Instead he favours direct democracy as based on rural communities. Zeilig’s work is the strongest on Fanon’s relationship with Marxism, placing it in historical context without being uncritical. Zeilig’s book draws on Tony Cliff’s concept of “deflected permanent revolution”, which is crucial to understanding how the high hopes of decolonisation often resulted in undemocratic and unequal regimes.


All three biographies add to our understanding of Fanon’s life and work. Gordon presents an illuminating account of Fanon’s life and BSWM from a psychoanalytical perspective. He engages with other works and interpretations in a useful way. As with many of Fanon’s readers, Gordon uses a more orthodox psychoanalytical approach than Fanon used in BSWM, for example. Occasionally this can lead to speculation about Fanon’s motives which can be jarring.

Hudis’s and Zeilig’s accounts are better places to start for those less familiar with Fanon’s life and work. Hudis describes Fanon’s main philosophical influences as Hegel, Sartre and Marx. As Mercier points out sometimes this can be reductionist, for example when he attempts to fit the structure of the argument of BSWM into the “Hegelian” schema of singular-particular-universal.34 All of the biographers neglect the fact that Fanon’s version of Hegel is based on Alexandre Kojève’s reading of the master/slave dialectic in Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit. Zeilig puts Fanon in historical and political context utilising the Marxist tradition associated with this journal. From South Africa to France and Britain, activists are again making use of Fanon’s work and taking inspiration from his revolutionary life. All three books show that Fanon has many lessons for movements against racism, imperialism and capitalism for today.


1 Zeilig, 2012.

2 Fanon, 2008, p156.

3 Gordon, 2015.

4 Hudis, 2015.

5 Gordon, 2015.

6 Fanon, 2008, p87.

7 Gordon, 2015, p35.

8 Zeilig, 2016.

9 Gordon, 2015 p57.

10 Hudis, 2015, p49.

11 Sartre, 1951.

12 Fanon, 2008, p103.

13 Fanon, 2008, p101.

14 Fanon, 2008, p103.

15 Fanon, 2008, p105.

16 Hudis, 2015, p45.

17 Hudis, 2015, p54.

18 Fanon, 2008, p178.

19 Fanon, 2008, p173.

20 Fanon, 2008, p176.

21 Fanon, 2008, p69.

22 Fanon, 1989, p62.

23 Fanon, 1967, p29.

24 Fanon, 1967, p32.

25 Fanon, 1967, p33.

26 Hudis, 2015.

27 Zeilig, 2016, p180.

28 Fanon, 2001, p188.

29 Fanon, 2001, p142.

30 Fanon, 2001, p154.

31 Fanon, 2001, p74.

32 Jean Ayme the Trotskyist gave him the transcripts. They “reportedly held a great fasciniation for Fanon”—Hudis, 2015, p79.

33 Gordon, 2015, p134.

34 Mercier, 2016.


Fanon, Frantz, 1967, Toward the African Revolution (Grove Press).

Fanon, Frantz, 1989 [1959], Studies in a Dying Colonialism (Earthscan).

Fanon, Frantz, 2001 [1961], The Wretched of the Earth (Penguin).

Fanon, Frantz, 2008 [1952], Black Skin, White Masks (Pluto).

Gordon, Lewis R, 2015, What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to his Life and Thought (Fordham University Press).

Hudis, Peter, 2015, Frantz Fanon: Philosopher of the Barricades (Pluto Press).

Mercier, Lucie, 2016, “Fanon’s Pantheons”, Radical Philosophy (July/August),

Sartre, Jean-Paul, 1964 [1951], “Black Orpheus”, Massachusetts Review, volume 6, issue 1,

Zeilig, Leo, 2012, “Pitfalls and Radical Mutations: Frantz Fanon’s Revolutionary Life”, International Socialism 134 (spring),

Zeilig, Leo, 2016, The Militant Philosopher of Third World Revolution (I B Tauris).

Courtesy: International Socialism Journal

Rosa Luxemburg on Present-Day Capitalism, Colonial Genocide, and Indigenous Resistance

Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were killed Jan. 15, 1919, by right-wing militiamen in Berlin.

By Stephen D’Arcy

Sometimes, when reading Rosa Luxemburg’s great book, The Accumulation of Capital, published in 1913, it’s impossible to escape the feeling that one is receiving a clear, compelling explanation of the main trajectory of Canadian history — even when she never says a word about Canada. In the passages reproduced below, she walks us through an analysis of how capitalism was in its origins, and is still today, driven (by its relentless drive for profits) to seek control over the lands and resources of Indigenous peoples. When it finds Indigenous societies unwilling or unable to engage in commodity exchange, capitalism “knows no other solution to the problem than violence, which has been a constant method of capital accumulation as a historical process, not merely during its emergence, but also to the present day.”

Luxemburg reminds us, though, that the colonial violence of capitalist settler states does not go unchallenged. “For the [Indigenous] societies, on the other hand, since in such cases it is a question of their very existence, the only possible course of action is to engage in resistance and a life-or-death struggle….” The main conclusion of her analysis is that capitalism, by its very nature, is driven to pursue “the systematic, planned destruction and annihilation of any non-capitalist social formation that it encounters.” Capitalism’s logic, according to Luxemburg, is strictly genocidal.

To convey the outlines of her analysis, I reproduce here a few paragraphs from her book. (Note: some breaks between paragraphs have been added, to make it easier to read online.)

“….[C]apitalism above all wages a constant war of annihilation everywhere against any historical form of natural [that is, subsistence-based, pre-capitalist] economy that it encounters….The economic goals pursued by capitalism in its struggle with societies based on a natural economy…[include attempting] to gain direct control over important sources of the forces of production, such as land, wild game in the jungles, minerals, precious stones and ores, the products of exotic flora, such as rubber, etc….During original accumulation, i.e., during the historical emergence of capitalism in Europe at the end of the middle Ages, the dispossession of the peasants in the U.K. and on the [European] continent represented the most tremendous means for transforming the means of production and labour-power into capital on a massive scale. Since then, however, and to the present day, this same task has been accomplished under the rule of capital through an equally tremendous, although completely different, means: modern colonial policy.

“It is illusory to hope that capitalism could ever be satisfied with the means of production that it is able to procure by means of the exchange of commodities. Indeed, the difficulty for capital in this respect consists in the fact that, over vast expanses of the exploitable surface of the globe, the productive forces are in the possession of social formations that either have no inclination to exchange commodities or, worse still, cannot offer for sale the most important means of production on which capital depends, because their forms of property and social structures as a whole preclude this a priori [in advance]. This goes above all for the land, with all its rich mineral resources underground and its wealth of pastures, forests, and waterways on the surface, and also for the livestock of…pastoral peoples.

“From the standpoint of capitalism, the inference to be drawn here is that the violent appropriation of the colonial countries’ most important means of production is a question of life or death for it. However, since the…social bonds of the indigenous inhabitants constitute the strongest bulwark both of their societies and of the latter’s material basis of existence, what ensues is that capital introduces itself through the systematic, planned destruction and annihilation of any non-capitalist social formation that it encounters.

“This is no longer a question of original accumulation [at the dawn of capitalist development]: this is a process that continues to this day. Each new colonial expansion is accompanied by capital’s relentless war on the social and economic interrelations of the indigenous inhabitants and by the violent looting of their means of production and their labour-power. The aspiration to restrict capitalism to ‘peaceful competition,’ i.e., to commodity exchange proper, as it occurs between capitalist producing countries, rests on the doctrinaire delusion that the accumulation of capital could manage without the productive forces and demand of the [pre-capitalist] social formations, and that it could rely on the slow, internal process of the disintegration of the natural economy….Capital knows no other solution to the problem than violence, which has been a constant method of capital accumulation as a historical process, not merely during its emergence, but also to the present day.

“For the [Indigenous] societies, on the other hand, since in such cases it is a question of their very existence, the only possible course of action is to engage in resistance and a life-or-death struggle….Hence permanent military occupation of the colonies, indigenous uprisings, and expeditions to crush these are the order of the day for any colonial regime. These violent methods are here the direct consequence of the clash between capitalism and the natural [subsistence] economic formations that represent constraints upon its accumulation.

“The means of production and labour-power of these formations, as well as their demand for the capitalist surplus product, are indispensable to capitalism itself. In order to wrest these means of production and this labour-power from these formations, and to convert them into purchasers of its commodities, capitalism strives purposefully to annihilate them as independent social structures. From the standpoint of capital, this method is the most expedient, because it is simultaneously the one that is most rapid and most profitable…. British policy in India and that of the French in Algeria represent the classical examples of capital’s application of this method.”

[Source: Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (1913), Chapter 27]

It’s probably worth adding to the above passages the following paragraph, in which Luxemburg draws attention to a commonality between the anti-capitalist struggles of European workers and the anti-colonial struggles of Indigenous and other colonized people around the world:

“The bourgeoisie, clearly affected in their class interests, scented an obscure connection between the ancient communist survivals that put up stubborn resistance in the colonial countries to the forward march of the profit-hungry ‘Europeanization’ of the indigenous people, and the new gospel of revolutionary impetuousness of the proletarian mass in the old capitalist countries. When the French National Assembly was deciding the fate of the unfortunate Arabs of Algeria in 1873, with a law on the compulsory introduction of private property, it was repeatedly said, in a gathering where the cowardice and bloodlust of the conquerors of the Paris Commune [anti-capitalist workers’ revolt] still trembled, that the ancient common property of the Arabs must at any cost be destroyed, ‘as a form that supports communist tendencies in people’s minds.’”

[Source: Luxemburg, “Introduction to Political Economy” (More precisely, p. 163 of The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, Volume I: Economic Writings I)]


Courtesy: The Public Autonomy Project

Books: A Companion to Marx’s Capital by David Harvey

Pic: Verso

By Adam Fabry

The last 30 years, to put it bluntly, have not been the most favourable for people interested in Marxist ideas and politics. The seeming triumph of neoliberalism, particularly after the downfall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, pushed Marxist thought increasingly to the fringes of academic and public debates alike. However, this dire picture has changed radically following the onset of financial crisis in late 2007.

As the financial crash has grown into an economic crisis of global proportions there has been a surge of interest in Marx’s analysis of capitalism, as people have attempted to come to grips with the causes of the current mess, as well as to find solutions to it. As the Times put it, “The prophet of revolutionaries everywhere, the scourge of capitalism, is enjoying a comeback.” As evidence of Marx’s return to popularity, reading groups have been popping up like wood anemones in the spring, gathering people interested in reading Marx’s magnum opus, Capital (to get an idea of how these groups look, you can visit the homepage of the King’s College reading group here).

However, reading Capital is not an easy project. While many might have found the Communist Manifesto a concise and brilliant book, or perhaps read excerpts from Marx’s writings, people tend, for a variety of different reasons, often to be discouraged from reading Capital. The sheer size of the book can, at first sight, be frightening. In addition, the complexities of Marx’s method, as well as personal preconceptions, add to the difficulties of reading Capital. This is where Harvey’s book comes into the picture.

As the title suggests, Harvey’s book is written as a “companion” for people “on a journey” through the rich world of Marx’s political economy. Undoubtedly, there are few scholars who would be better equipped for this task than Harvey. Originally a radical geographer and social theorist, Harvey has been writing and lecturing incessantly on Capital for the last four decades. Based on the transcripts of his lectures (which are available as text and video at, Harvey’s book shows the reader how to read Marx on his “own terms”, in order to help us understand the contradictions of capitalism and the reasons why crisis is an inherent feature of this system.

Written in the same thought-provoking but still composed style that characterises Harvey’s previous works, this book offers invaluable insights and assistance for everybody interested in unravelling the contradictions of the current crisis following the methods set out by Marx some 150 years ago.

Courtesy: Socialist Review

Jallad: Death Squads and State Terror in South Asia by Tasneem Khalil

Reviewed by Guy Lancaster

“The history of India’s independence is the history of coercive recolonisation campaigns and brutal repression in the new colonies…. It is also a history of pervasive structural violence and massive economic exploitation endured by the people of the peripheries”

Most studies of state terror, especially the use of “death squads” for the torture and murder of dissidents, center their analysis within an explicitly genocidal context. They view armed squadrons as a tool for eliminationist campaigns against racial or ethnic others, or they examine these death squads as part of the system of governance for dictatorships, serving at the pleasure, and for the preservation, of a small clique of elites, by cracking down upon “agitators” and their ilk. Either way, the presence of death squads allegedly constitutes an exception to the traditional liberal order; this type of organization would surely be anathema in a functioning democracy, or even a government in transition. Moreover, governments that employ such death squads are popularly viewed as having turned their backs upon the modern, international order in favor of a more limited and barbaric worldview. 

That is, indeed, the popular conception, but as Tasneem Khalil documents in Jallad: Death Squads and State Terror in South Asia, this view proves incorrect. Khalil, a journalist who survived kidnapping and torture at the hands of Bangladesh’s Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, surveys the apparatus of state terror in South Asia and arrives at the following conclusions: 1) death squads are a continuation of models of oppression instituted by the old colonial powers of Europe, 2) death squads function within the capitalist order even within nations like India, which has dubbed itself the world’s largest democracy, and 3) these death squads are part of an international system of terror supported by the likes of the United States, China, and Israel. The title of his book, Jallad, comes from a word common to Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali, meaning “hangman” or “executioner”.

Khalil opens his book by hearkening back to the Rowlatt Act of 1919, described as a “black law” by Mohandas Ghandi, which allowed the Raj to impose a permanent state of emergency in British-occupied India, complete with preventative detention without trial, warrantless search and seizure, and juryless trials. Such laws, imposed during the colonial era, serve as a template for modern “black laws,” such as India’s National Security Act of 1980/1984, or the Armed Forces (Punjab and Chandigarh) Special Powers Act of 1983. These laws allow special police forces to use lethal force against civilians while protected by blanket immunity. These laws target not just armed insurgents, but also the poor and downtrodden, who reside in the impoverished “disturbed areas” at the periphery. ‘Marred by socio-economic injustices, these can be entire regions in a country or areas within the metropolis, like Punjab in 1919 or the present-day slums of Mumbai. These are the new colonies of the post-colonial mother country’ (10). Post-colonial states, asserts Khalil, have adapted colonial forms of repression, becoming modern national security states. 

Khalil devotes individual chapters to five separate South Asian states, explicating the emergence of the national security state apparatus in each, beginning with his native Bangladesh. There, Pakistan inaugurated a wave of genocidal oppression as what was then East Pakistan sought its separation, but the rise of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, former leader of the independence movement, unleashed his own reign of terror, creating the Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini, a paramilitary death squad, in 1972. Similar units, such as the Bangladesh Rifles and the Rapid Action Batallion, have been employed against various groups—the former against the indigenous jummas of the nation’s hill country, the latter against “common criminal and petty thugs who come from the slum,” so-called “economic terrorists” who eventually “outlive their usefulness or become burdensome for their political sponsors” (22). Khalil next moves to India, where the government has made use of black laws from the colonial era, and even paramilitary units originally founded by the British themselves, such as the Assam Rifles, in order to repress a population. As he writes, ‘The history of India’s independence is the history of coercive recolonisation campaigns and brutal repression in the new colonies…. It is also a history of pervasive structural violence and massive economic exploitation endured by the people of the peripheries—the adivasis of the Red Corridor and internal migrants living in the slums of Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and other metropolises’ (44–45).

Nepal provides one exception in this book, given that it was never part of the British Raj, but its conflict with Maoist rebels led to the formation of paramilitary units and to the nation coming under the influence of the international “War on Terror” coalition, as well as regional powers like India. ‘For many Indian national security experts, Nepal’s war against the Maoists was an extension of India’s own war against revolutionary Naxal groups’ (58). Next, Khalil moves to Pakistan, where death squads have been employed against a number of groups, most notably those advocating for the independence of the mineral-rich Balochistan. That nation’s own international partnerships for the sponsorship of its regime of state terror transcend ideology; not only has it partnered with both capitalist and communist powers against each other and against India, but ‘Pakistan, the Islamic Republic, was a major US ally in its war against Islamic terrorism’, and has been one of the states ‘in the periphery of the world capitalist system’, where ‘Western national security states outsourced their torture needs’ (71, 70). Finally, Khalil wraps up in Sri Lanka, a state that has used a number of black laws, including the 1947 Public Security Ordinance enacted by British colonial rulers, to suppress dissent. However, this oppression did not end with the 2009 defeat of the Literation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), for, funded by the United States, Pakistan, China, and Israel, Sri Lanka’s national security state continues to target journalists, human rights activists, and others who vie against elite priorities.

Jallad would serve as a good companion to Arundhati Roy’s Capitalism: A Ghost Story (2015), which draws connections between the implementation of black laws in India and a legacy of capitalist exploitation that has left some eighty percent of the population living in poverty. After all, India has laws outlawing even thinking antigovernment thoughts, namely the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, and the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, backed up by military and paramilitary groups that can murder those even suspected of insurrectionary activities. But this goes further than a critique of regional subjectivities. Not only does the international system of state terror, exemplified in the five nations under examination in Jallad, operate in support of capitalist exploitation, but it actually, according to Khalil, follows the capitalist model, exhibiting all the traits of a franchising operation. ‘That is to say, at the global level, the business of state terror is always dependent on the relationship between the sponsor (franchiser) states and the affiliate (franchisee) states. In our world, without exception, terror is perpetrated by states that are either affiliated with global or regional hegemons or that are hegemons themselves’ (118).

Also, Khalil’s exposé calls into question the very weakness of our concept of “democracy” itself. After all, if we can see the death squad as part and parcel of a formal democracy like India, then we may well describe other phenomena in history by the same term. For example, the typical American lynch mob could be viewed in the light of the death squad model, especially what W. Fitzhugh Brundage has dubbed the “private mob”, the small group of armed men, often masked, who conducted kidnapping, torture, and murder under the cover of darkness. Lynching, after all, was regularly employed against dissidents, especially African Americans who “forgot their place”, and challenged white authority in some fashion. The fact that such acts of violence were rarely prosecuted made them essentially a component of state terror, given that the motives of lynch mobs and the state aligned in the preservation of white supremacy and the capitalist order. The United States had its own death squads, but, in true American fashion, they were democratic and existed on an ad hoc basis. So if a formal democracy can exist alongside black laws and death squads, then, perhaps, we need to redefine the term to represent not just ostensible political equality but also true economic equality, that is, if we want “democracy” to be a true term of aspiration, to represent a concept that excludes state terror.

Jallad suffers from some repetition, and its journalistic style means that some content is arranged more for fostering a captivating narrative than for providing a logical progression of development. However, Tasneem Khalil has packed a lot of information into this slim volume, drawing linkages that are often overlooked and demanding justice as only one who has suffered the opposite can do (a closing chapter relays his own experience of kidnapping and torture). Jallad not only demands a deeper study of state terror in both South Asia and the world at large, but it also demands justice for all the victims thereof—past, present, and, unfortunately, future.

Pluto Press, London, 2016. 166 pp.
ISBN 9780745335704

Courtesy: This review was originally published in The Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, it’s reposted here for readers’ interest.

‘Orientalism,’ Then and Now

Adam Shatz

Edward Said’s Orientalism is one of the most influential works of intellectual history of the postwar era. It is also one of the most misunderstood. Perhaps the most common misunderstanding is that it is “about” the Middle East; on the contrary, it is a study of Western representations of the Arab-Islamic world—of what Said called “mind-forg’d manacles,” after William Blake. The book’s conservative critics misread it as a nativist denunciation of Western scholarship, ignoring its praise for Louis Massignon, Jacques Berque, and Clifford Geertz, while some Islamists praised the book on the basis of the same misunderstanding, overlooking Said’s commitment to secular politics.

Since the book’s first publication in 1978, “Orientalism” has become one of those words that shuts down conversation on liberal campuses, where no one wants to be accused of being “Orientalist” any more than they want to be called racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic. That “Orientalist” is now a commonly applied epithet is a tribute to the power of Said’s account, but also to its vulgarization. With Orientalism, Said wanted to open a discussion about the way the Arab-Islamic world had been imagined by the West—not to prevent a clear-eyed reckoning with the region’s problems, of which he was all too painfully aware.   

He was also acutely aware of writing a work of history that was destined, like all such works, to become itself a historical document, refracting the pressures and anxieties of its moment. Orientalism was published nearly forty years ago, at the time of the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt and the Lebanese civil war, just before the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and four years before Ariel Sharon’s invasion of Lebanon and the massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. A member of the Palestine National Council who was also a passionate reader of Foucault, Said intended his book as a history of the present—a present, now past, that is very different from our own.            

Orientalism is a work of intellectual history, based on readings of an enormous range of literary and scholarly texts. But, in essence, its thesis can be distilled to the proposition that Orientalism is, in Said’s words, “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction between ‘the Orient‘ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.’” He did not say that Orientalist depictions of the West’s Other were merely fictions. If they were, they would be much easier to deconstruct and dislodge. Quite the reverse, classical Orientalism drew upon elements of positive knowledge and scholarship, work that was often admiring of—at times, even besotted with—its object. The problem with Orientalism was not that it was false in some crudely empirical sense, rather that it was part of a discursive system of “power-knowledge,” a phrase Said borrowed from Foucault. And the aim of Orientalism as a system of representations, sometimes explicit, more often implicit, was to produce an Other, the better to secure the stability and supremacy of the Western self. 

Orientalism, in Said’s description, is a discourse of the powerful about the powerless, an expression of “power-knowledge” that is at the same time an expression of narcissism. The syndrome is very much in evidence today. Orientalism is a foreign ambassador in an Arab city belittling popular concern about Palestine and depicting Arabs as a docile mass who only woke up in 2011, during the Arab revolts, and then reverted to being a disappointment to a benevolent West that merely seeks to be a good tutor. It is a Western “expert” reducing Islamist terrorism in Europe to a psychology of ressentiment, without bothering to explain why European citizens of Muslim origin might feel alienated, then telling an Arab critic of the Westerner’s work that he is being emotional for objecting to a presentation purely based on scientific data, and finally flying into a rage at being misunderstood by this stubborn Oriental. 

So, Orientalism is still with us, a part of the West’s political unconscious. It can be expressed in a variety of ways: sometimes as an explicit bias, sometimes as a subtle inflection, like the tone color in a piece of music; sometimes erupting in the heat of argument, like the revenge of the repressed. But the Orientalism of today, both in its sensibility and in its manner of production, is not quite the same as the Orientalism Said discussed forty years ago.

Orientalism, after all, was very much a product of the Vietnam era, when America’s “best and the brightest” had led the country into an intractable quagmire in the jungles of Southeast Asia. A new generation of Ivy League-educated experts, as Said saw it, were legitimizing America’s deepening confrontation with the Arab world, especially over the question of Palestine. Orientalism is, at its core, a critique of the expert, the producer of knowledge about the Arab-Islamic world, from Flaubert and Montesquieu to Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes. The cast—and quality—of characters changes; their aim, however, remains pretty consistent. 

The seemingly unvarying nature of Orientalism provoked a good deal of criticism of Said’s thesis and still does. Said was obviously more interested in explaining continuity than change, because he was trying to establish the existence of an ideological tradition. Still, he understood that Orientalism was a dynamic and supple system of representations, that as a style it had a wide array of expressions, and that it held up a mirror to its time. This ability to shift register depending on political context has been a key to its resilience and vitality. 

After September 11, 2001, the Bush administration reacted with a kind of Orientalist frenzy, heralding the liberation of Muslim women among its reasons for the invasion of Afghanistan, and applying the insights of Raphael Patai, that expert on the so-called Arab mind, to the torture tactics employed at Abu Ghraib. Bernard Lewis was invited to pontificate on the “roots of Muslim rage” in The Atlantic, journalists traveled to the West Bank to investigate the fury of Palestinian suicide bombers, and no subject evoked so much compassionate concern as the need to emancipate Muslim women from their violent, irrational, domineering men, a classical Orientalist trope. The language of Orientalism during the Bush era was not always overtly racist, but it often reflected a racism based on putative differences in culture—differences that, some “experts” argued, justified a military response, as well as civilizational tutelage in the form of “democracy promotion.”

Under President Obama, the grip of Orientalism appeared to relax. Obama made it clear, at first, that he did not intend to dictate to, but to cooperate with the Arab-Islamic world, and he made welcome gestures toward Iran and the ending of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But even the message of his famous Cairo address in 2009 was filtered through an Orientalist prism, albeit a more liberal, multicultural one. Not a few listeners in the region wished that he had addressed them as citizens of their respective countries rather than as Muslims—not only because some of them were Christians or atheists, but because religion is but one marker of identity, and not always the most pertinent one.

An extraordinary demonstration of this came less than two years later in the streets of Tunisia and Egypt. The Arab uprisings raised a great number of demands—democracy, rule of law, equal citizenship, bread and freedom—but religious demands were not among them. 

If the uprisings demolished the Orientalist myth that religion is a uniquely determining force in the Arab-Islamic world, however, they also encouraged and flattered another Orientalist fantasy: namely, that Middle Easterners simply want to be like “us,” that Anglo-American liberalism is the natural telos of human societies and that Middle Eastern “difference” is an aberration that will eventually dissolve, with help from Facebook and Google. 

Then came the so-called Arab winter. Since then, the rise of the Islamic State, or Daesh, and the resurgence of Salafism have helped restore the old prism, the Orientalism of rigid and immutable difference, just as surely as they helped restore the old regimes. Arab and Muslim leaders also contributed to the reconsolidation of this distorting lens. Autocratic regimes like President Sisi’s in Egypt had an obvious interest in promoting the idea that the Arab citizen needed, and indeed preferred, a stern, patriarchal authority, human rights be damned. As for Daesh, it was even more passionately attached than al-Qaeda to Samuel Huntington’s thesis of an inevitable and apocalyptic clash of civilizations, pitting the umma against the infidels. Orientalism has long been a co-production, even though not all its producers have equal power. 

This trend has continued under Trump, but there has also been rupture. As a system of “power-knowledge,” Orientalism has always been based on a desire to know, and not merely to construct, or even vilify, the Other. The expeditionary force that Napoleon Bonaparte sent to Egypt in 1798 included 122 scientists and intellectuals, among them a handful of professional Orientalists. The history of Orientalism is rich in tales of Westerners assuming Oriental masquerade, as if they wanted to become, and not simply to master, the Other. Just think of T.E. Lawrence in his romantic desert gear, or—to take a more extreme example—Isabelle Eberhardt, a Swiss explorer in Algeria who dressed as a man, converted to Islam, and reinvented herself as Si Mahmoud Saadi at the turn of the twentieth century. And in more recent guise is the fictional character of Carrie Anne Mathison, the CIA officer played by Claire Danes in Homeland, covering herself in an abaya as she plunges into the alleys of the souk.

The knowledge collected by Western explorers and spies was hardly disinterested: it underwrote colonization, wars of conquest, and “humanitarian” intervention. Yet this Orientalism preferred to recast the West’s violent conquests as consensual interactions: seductions, not rapes. Politically speaking, it was often liberal, republican, and secular—based, at least in principle, on winning hearts and minds, on assimilating the Other to Western democratic values. In the French empire, as Pierre-Jean Luizard argues in his new book, The Republic and Islam, colonization was “a project led by republican elites opposed to the clerical right, who were much more cautious about colonial expansion.” (This, he adds, is an important reason why Arab and Muslim opponents of French rule came to view liberal secularism with such suspicion.) Even the Orientalism that justified the Iraq invasion had its conciliatory side: in the wake of September 11, George W. Bush was explicit in his rejection of Islamophobia. 

Under Trump, the human face of Orientalism has all but vanished. This might sound like a good thing, insofar as it is a defeat for hypocrisy. But it’s also something else, something much darker. Back in 2008, I wrote a piece for the London Review of Books about a documentary called Obsession, which had been sent in DVD form to 28 million Americans as an advertising supplement to seventy-four newspapers. Obsession, which first appeared on Fox News and had been funded by the US real estate magnate and Likud supporter Sheldon Adelson, was a sixty-minute screed whose chief claim was that 2008 was like 1938, only worse—since there are more Muslims than Germans in the world and they’re more geographically dispersed, an enemy within as well as a hostile foreign power: “They’re not outside our borders, they are here.” The tone of my piece was caustic yet bemused because I didn’t take Obsession seriously: it seemed so obviously lurid and marginal.

In retrospect, I was naive. Obsession, if anything, prefigured the kind of fear and hatred of Islam and Muslims that Trump has made mainstream and effectively turned into policy, the Muslim travel ban being only the most flagrant example. Orientalism in the age of Trump has no interest in promoting democracy or other “Western values” because these values are no longer believed, or they’re regarded as an inconvenient obstacle to the exercise of power. This new Orientalism speaks in the language of deals and, more often, that of force and repression. It keeps Arab despots in power and angry young men of Arab origin in prison. 

Unlike the Orientalism that Said analyzed, it does not require experts like Bernard Lewis and the late Fouad Ajami, a Lebanese scholar who became Dick Cheney’s favorite “native informant.” Say what you will about Ajami and Lewis, they were writers and intellectuals. Today’s Orientalist is more likely to be a number-cruncher who studies police reports on terrorist suspects and calculates degrees of radicalization.

The older style of Orientalism—though it has not entirely died out—is less useful to those in power because it is based on deep historical and literary learning of a kind that is anathema to an American president who does not have the patience for books and who is ruled by his impulses. The Internet and social media have stripped those once regarded as experts of much of their authority, and has in turn empowered non-experts, those who parade anti-intellectualism as a virtue and even as a strength. The consequences of this critique of expertise have proved to be at best ambiguous, since it can lend itself to ignorance, intolerance, and irrationality, rather than provide a basis for the counter-hegemonic knowledge that Said envisioned.

The Orientalism of today, the Orientalism of Fox News, Bat Ye’or’s “Eurabia,” and Steve Bannon, is an Orientalism based not on tendentious scholarship but on an absence of scholarship. Its Eurocentrism, which feeds off the idea that Europe is under threat from Muslim societies and other shit-hole countries, is an undisguised conspiracy theory. It has spread not by way of bookshops and libraries but Twitter, Facebook, and the Dark Web. And under Trump, the remodeling of American foreign policy along the lines of Israeli strategy—which is to say, an increasing reliance on military force in its dealings with Arabs and Muslims—has been consummated, with support from conservative Jews and even greater support from Evangelicals. 

Trump’s anti-Muslim racism is unprecedented for an American president, but it is hardly unique elsewhere. You find similar iterations of it in France, where an older, colonial discourse with roots in Algérie française has been deployed against second- and third-generation citizens of Muslim origin who are still described as immigrants, and still seen as ill-equipped for “integration” and “assimilation” to the French republican values of laîcité. You also hear it in Scandinavia, in Hungary, in Italy, and in Germany—really, throughout the countries where the idea of a “fortress Europe” has taken hold.

This is the Orientalism of an era in which Western liberalism has plunged into deep crisis, exacerbated by anxieties over Syrian refugees, borders, terrorism and, of course, economic decline. It is an Orientalism in crisis, incurious, vindictive, and often cruel, driven by hatred rather than fascination, an Orientalism of walls rather than border-crossing. The anti-integrationist, Islamophobic form of contemporary Orientalism is enough to make one nostalgic for the lyrical, romantic Orientalism that Mathias Énard elegizes, somewhat wishfully, as a bridge between East and West in his 2015 Goncourt Prize-winning novel, Compass. 

If Orientalism has assumed an increasingly hostile, Muslim-hating tone, this is because the “East” is increasingly inside the “West.” This is a clash not of civilizations, but rather a collision of two overlapping phenomena: the crisis of Western neoliberal capitalism, which has aggravated tensions over identity and citizenship, and the collapse of the Middle Eastern state in war, which has fed the refugee crisis. As a result, two forms of identity politics, both of which reflect a caricatured, Orientalist vision of the Muslim East, are feeding off each other: right-wing populism on the one hand, and jihadist Islamism on the other.

The Orientalism that Said described was an affair of geopolitics, the “knowledge” that the West needed in the age of empires and colonialism. The hard edge of today’s Orientalism targets the fragile fabric of domestic politics, the very possibility of coexistence, particularly in Europe and the US. The Western self, produced by this contemporary Orientalism, is not a liberal who measures his or her freedom or reason by the absence, or weakness, of those concepts in the East. Instead, he is an aggrieved, besieged white man standing his ground, with his finger on the trigger, against the barbarians who have made it through the gates. He is not Lawrence of Arabia, or even the Quiet American; he is Dirty Harry.

The contemporary landscape is bleak, and there is no getting around it. But there is also considerable resistance to Orientalism and its progeny. We see it in the citizens’ uprisings in Algeria and Sudan, which have demonstrated the enduring power of democratic values in a period of authoritarian regression; and in the emergence of a growing movement to oppose the Israeli occupation, grounded in the same ideals of racial justice that shaped the black American freedom struggle. In the cultural sphere, we hear it in the music of the Tunisian oud master Anouar Brahem, who has produced remarkable work with jazz and Western classical musicians, and in the Free Palestine Quartet of the New York composer John King, each of whose movements is based on Arabic melodic modes and rhythmic units, and is dedicated to a village destroyed in 1948.

Énard’s novel Compass is perhaps the most ambitious effort in contemporary fiction to transcend the oppressive heritage of Orientalism, via, paradoxically, the Orientalist tradition itself. And yet, it does not quite succeed because it tends to gloss over the hierarchies and inequalities that marked even the most advanced and enlightened forms of Orientalist scholarship, and also, crucially, because it ignores the central chapter in France’s Orientalist history, the colonization of Algeria, a strange and telling silence. Compass remains, in spite of Enard’s intentions, a story of the West, rather than a genuine dialectic, a limitation that also bedevils much of the recent European cinema on its internal Others. 

In the Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke’s Happy End (2017), the refugees of Calais appear on screen briefly as disquieting reminders of Western privilege and hypocrisy, but are never given names; they are little more than devices, much like Albert Camus’s nameless Arab in The Stranger. The drama in The Unknown Girl (2016), by the Dardenne Brothers, turns on the crisis of conscience experienced by a young Belgian doctor confronted by the death of a young African prostitute. Once again, the figure of the African, of the Muslim, is passive, a victim without agency, an object of pity or contempt.

A notable exception to this rule is Aki Kaurismäki’s extraordinary 2017 film, The Other Side of Hope, about a young Syrian refugee in Finland, Khaled, who is leading a clandestine life, evading capture by the authorities with the help of a group of Finns acting in solidarity, not out of charity. At the same time, he is stalked by a neo-fascist gang. Khaled is determined to be the hero of his own story, accepting assistance from his Finnish friends, but only on terms of equality; struggling by his wits to make a life for himself and his sister in the new old world of Europe. Kaurismäki is too honest a filmmaker to reward his protagonist with the “happy end” that Haneke’s title mocks, but, unlike Haneke, he aligns himself with the perspective of Europe’s Muslim Other, and allows us to glimpse, for a moment, what a world beyond Orientalism might look like. 

Said’s Orientalism was not the last word on its subject, nor was it intended to be. Angela Merkel’s decision to resettle a million Syrian refugees, and Putin’s alliance with the Assad regime underscore Said’s failure to say anything about German or Russian Orientalism—one of the more persuasive criticisms raised at the time. But Said’s warning about the “seductive degradation of knowledge” has otherwise preserved its chastening power. In recent weeks, as the Trump administration escalated its campaign of financial intimidation and military threat against the Islamic Republic of Iran, we have been reminded that “discourses of power… are all too easily made, applied, and guarded.” While Trump may lack John Bolton’s appetite for battle with Tehran, he has also threatened to “end” Iran on Twitter. War will remain a temptation so long as the United States sees the Arab-Muslim world not as a complex fabric of diverse human societies, but as a “bad neighborhood” ruled by Iranian mullahs and Arab dictators, Palestinian terrorists and Daesh jihadis.

As Said argued, Orientalism’s failure was “a human as much as an intellectual one; for in having to take up a position of irreducible opposition to a region of the world it considered alien to its own, Orientalism failed to identify with human experience, failed also to see it as human experience.” If the “global war on terror” has taught us anything over the last seventeen years and more, it is that the road to barbarism begins with this failure.

Courtesy: This essay was originally published in it is reposted here for readers interest.

Book Review: Ethnography at the Frontier: Space, Memory, and Society in Southern Balochistan by Ugo E.M. Fabietti

By Hammal Baloch

There is a dearth of serious socio-scientific literature on Balochistan. The region is remote, isolated; expansive, and has a small population. The rare works that are published usually set up the developments in the context of wider geopolitical issues: the Cold War, regional rivalry, proxy wars, and occasionally federal design. Needless to say, this approach is popular with distant observers and armchair experts. However, in Ethnography at the Frontier: Space, Memory and Society in Southern Balochistan, Ugo Fabietti seeks to understand the southern Balochistan or Makkuran (the local name for the region) on its own terms.

The study is the result of eight years (1986 – 1994) of fieldwork, and is set in a village. It is not common for foreign researchers to spend this long in the region (the notable exception is Robert Pehrson, who studied the social organisation of the Marri Tribe in early 1960s), and given the current security situation in Balochistan, it is unlikely there anyone will be writing a follow up in the near future as it is almost impossible to conduct impartial research. Fabietti, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Milan, is interested in the broader question of social change in ‘peripheral’ regions; in southern Balochistan he finds a region which largely exists outside the imperatives of capitalism and globalisation. Yet, at the same time the area has been caught in the ‘winds of change’ brought by these forces. The author finds the confluence of the ‘tribal’ and the modern instructing; in the same vein, he imagines this junction to be a frontier, one that is in constant flux and engaged in the process of negotiation with the new forces and reformulations of its past.

This picture is obviously very different from what one sees in a standard account of Balochistan: that of a society trapped in a time warp and perpetual conflict. This image is produced and reproduced by both insiders and outsiders for varied and, more often than not, for self-serving reasons. On the contrary, this study places Balochistan, in the contemporary and breaks away from placing ‘remote’ areas in a certain schema – a trend once quite dominant in anthropology as a discipline as well. However, the placement of the area in the contemporary does not comes with a discount of the history. Rather, the now of the Southern Balochistan is situated as a continuum of the past, both of area itself and the places and peoples with which it interacted. This approach makes the past less fossilised. Moreover, the author’s reformulations do not come with the rejection of local accounts. In fact, he uses them to construct his models to make sense of the continuity and change in the local society. That possibly is one of the methodological charms of anthropology.

The key contribution of the book arguably lies in the considerations given to the agricultural geography of the area. The Karaiz system – a series of horizontal wells which enables water to flow from an elevated source to low lying irrigable lands – for centuries served as the backbone of the productive property. As the locus of the local economy, the system shapes the social relations of the area. Fabiattei not only enables his readers to comprehend the intricate regime of the water rights in the area, but also recounts the ways in which it orders the social form of the locale. The detribalisation of the Makkuran, an often cited but not much investigated subject, is placed here as a function of water rights, land ownership and inheritance customs.

Forms of individualisation and flexibility are presented through water rights, which create a participatory space in an otherwise rigid and stratified social order organised around Zaats (social groups), the membership of which defines the social position of an individual.  This contradiction in the Southern Balochistan’s society is best captured in the chapter ‘Equality and Hierarchy’. Moreover, the author challenges, the popular notion that the Zaats were lineage based, instead he understands them to be patronymic groups. Essentially, this line of argument calls into question the theoretical models presented in the past, which imagined the social order as ossified and with no room for social mobility. Alternatively, Fabiaetti shows, that it at the intersection of these opposing forces, of hierarchy and of equality, that shapes Makkuran’s society.

It was indeed a time of great changes one learns. The monetization of the economy, the breakdown of patron-client relations and the general collapse of the social order were already underway when Fabiaetti was conducting his fieldwork. However, two phenomenon particularly affected Makkurani society: the emergence of drug lords, and the massive migration of labour to the gulf countries. The drug lords, with their newfound wealth and coercive power, challenged the established social order. It was in the late 80s and early 90s that a new class of ‘Big Men’ emerged. The labour migration created a serious shortfall of the workers, which hit the agricultural sector – the traditional source of the economic gain and social prestige – particularly hard. With the collapse of the local economy, the politically affluent started to tilt towards the new encroaching power: the state. This is demonstrated by the fact that from the mid-1990’s onwards the ‘contentious politics’, to use Charles Tilly’s categorisation, had largely subsided (although it made a violent comeback the following decade with new set of actors).

The exclusionary politics that seemingly dominates southern Balochistan’s landscape today is not corroborated by the history of the region, one learns from the book. Located at the crossroads of South Asia and the Middle East, the area has received its fair share of foreign influence throughout the ages. Fabietti argues the assertions of the homogeneity in the local populace emerged as a response to the extralocal forces. Against a backdrop of powers that sought to superimpose change and ‘development’, the Balochi nationalist movement gained popular support in the area. The book does talk about the growing tensions between the central government and the region. However, one learns that the intensity of the conflict was much lower than what we witness today. Moreover, Fabietti reflects on how the Balochi nationalist movement manages construct to coherent imagination of the past, future and political ambition despite obvious inconsistencies. He credits nationalist intellectuals with playing the leading role in this discourse construction. Thus, his understanding of the Balochi movement is essentially political – as opposed to ethnic.

Ethngraphy at the Frontier, despite its small size, is an ambitious book. It observes, dissects and explains the southern Balochistan’s society in a holistic manner.  One feels that one hundred and thirty pages are not enough, given the breadth of the project and the book leaves the reader craving more. The book does not give out any information on the dynamics of the gender in the area and if they were changing at all. A particularly important subject during the times of social change is thereby, ignored. More space should have been dedicated to the growing tensions between the Sunnis and Zikris, two sects of the Islam that are practiced in the region. The issue is fleetingly touched upon in the book and that too in the context of the nationalist movement. Despite these shortcomings, this is a path breaking work, as it records great changes in southern Balochistan and in the process, opens up new questions for the future investigators. The minimal use of disciplinary jargon makes the book an easy read. The style of the author is lively, with which he brings otherwise placid subjects, such as the geography of the area, into life. It is indeed a pleasant surprise that this style was not lost in the translation, as the book has been translated from Italian into English.

Title: Ethnography at the Frontier: Space, Memory and Society in Southern Balochistan

Author: Ugo Fabietti

Publisher: P. Lang, 2011

Courtesy: This book review have been previously published on LSE Blogs, it is reposted here without any changes in the original text, for viewers interest on Baloch and Balochistan.