First published on my legacy blog, Principia Politica, adapted from an essay submitted while studying as a first-year undergraduate student at University of Cambridge, 2018-19. The essay was awarded the mark of first.
Frantz Fanon believed in Third-World Marxism. Marxism teaches that big changes of society are, at the end of the day, the result of certain economic forces and relations. In modern times, these economic forces are all about the flow of capital (wealth). Who owns the means of production – e.g., oil rigs, telecoms, factory machines? The answer, Marx thought, is the bourgeoisie: the capitalist class which controls the flow of capital, owns the means of production, and therefore can control politics and culture. The relation of the bourgeoisie to capital assets such as the means of production is part of the ‘base’ of society. The idea is that politics and society are just a ‘superstructure’ in the great societal edifice, which rests on the ‘base’ or ‘infrastructure’ of economic forces (what are the technologies, or means of production?) and relations (who owns the technologies?). Most Marxists admit that politics and culture (= the superstructure) also influence economics (= the base). But they also think that economics is the most important cause of what happens elsewhere in society. So Fanon, as a Third-World Marxist, thinks that the base is more important than the superstructure. When explaining, for instance, the ‘psychological’ manifestations of racism tied to the superstructure, you’ve got to look to the ‘economic’ roots in the base. This is exactly what Fanon tries to show in his discussion of the structures and psychologies of racism. But when addressing the value dimension of racism, Fanon admits that you can’t always apply scientific Marxism to the moral issue of recognition.
‘Racism is just the superstructure’ which rises on the capitalist base (Fanon 1967:161). The ‘contradictions inherent in the capitalist system’, such as the contradiction between capital and labour which leads to class exploitation, can only be solved through independence from colonial capitalism (ibid.:113). Colonial racism, then, was only possible in the first instance due to the ‘rich[es]’ and consequent power of ‘white[s]’ (Fanon 2008:33). Capitalist society, then, is not intrinsically racialised, but becomes racialised due to its development in particular regions of the world: it is ‘accidentally white’ (Fanon 1967:157). Once the export of the power of European capital and state power begins, the drawing of a colour line between whites and blacks becomes a simple defence of white colonialism and white-owned capital. Racial inequality is a product of economic power disparities and the relations of production of the capitalist world-system (Wallerstein 1974). In line with Fanon’s Third-World Marxism, racial inequality is an infrastructural issue. The superstructural divisions between urban and rural emerge from the infrastructural contradiction of capital and labour. Post-independence, therefore, there is a risk that the ‘national elite’ continues the reproduction of the ‘cultural and economic logic of the former colonial state’, generating a divides between urban and rural regions and between bourgeois, lumpen-proletarian, and peasant classes (Azar 1999:30; Fanon 2001:122, 164). These divides deepen intra-state inequalities between the remaining white urban bourgeoisie and rural peasantry, but also deepen inter-state inequalities between colonial powers and newly independent states. The colonialists’ erection of state borders stymie pan-African unity and prevent the rising up of black peoples against continued extraction of resources and labour power from the Third World (Fanon 1967:133). Both the economic and political/cultural divisions exported from Europe to the Third World create racial inequalities and antagonisms which did not previously exist. State capitalism, therefore, is exported from Europe via colonialism around the world, leaving profound racial inequalities in its wake.
Fanon maintains that capitalism itself must be overthrown for racial inequality to be eradicated. The risk of investment pouring in to newly liberated countries from neocolonial powers is coupled with the risk of the development of a domestic national bourgeoisie which directly exploits the national proletariat, peasantry and lumpen-proletariat. The seizure of the means of production by the lumpen-proletariat is thus a necessary condition for societies existing without racial inequality. The relations of production are vital determinants of racial inequality—indeed, for Fanon, the infrastructure of the colonial capitalist system. Anticipating both Nancy Fraser’s concern with pursuing Hegelian recognition without Marxian redistribution and Immanuel Wallerstein’s concern about the sustaining of racial inequality along core-periphery boundaries in the capitalist world-system, Fanon cogently realises the structural basis of all forms of racial inequality. Once attempts to mimic the European nation-state and its capitalist structuring are abandoned, the psychological issues with racial inequality will evaporate. This includes the ‘abnormality’ black children brought up in normal families feel upon contact with the white world of militarised nation and family. The family will, once colonial capitalist structures are overthrown, cease to be a Lacanian psychic vehicle of racial trauma. It may be transformed, along with post-colonial society as a whole, into an inclusive unit of an egalitarian human community. Furthermore, the shared psychological states of Jung’s ‘collective unconscious’ of homo occidentalis need not be replaced by an equally morally spurious imaginary of homo orientalis, but by a shared humanist recognition of all Homo sapiens. Fanon believes that the infrastructure takes primary importance in this social levelling because ‘colonialist, capitalist society [is] only accidentally white’ (Fanon 1967:157): it is white by virtue of peculiar power structures which, once overthrown, will no longer produce the virulent racial inequalities of the modern era. Psychologies are part of the superstructure; colonial capitalism is the base. But this leaves unconsidered the moral dimension of racism which, perhaps, is not simply the result of structural dynamics: instead, the immorality of status recognition is true whether or not there exist certain capitalist infrastructures in place. The moral dimension of modern racial inequality, then, is not solely caused by colonial capitalism, although it is made possible by this infrastructure.
But parallel to the base and superstructure runs a moral scaffolding. The white values which bind this scaffolding together are at the heart of the alienation of black people (Fanon 1967:172). A world of ‘reciprocal recognitions’ must be built if psychological oppression is to be eradicated, and if structural levelling is to be meaningful. Not only psychological welfare but ‘human worth and reality’ depend on ‘recognition by that other being’ (ibid.:168-169). So the fight against structural racism must be supplemented with a moral fight for a world of equal recognitions: a world without capitalism, and a world without colonial values. So Fanon’s fight was more than simple anti-capitalism; it was a fight for a new humanism, and a new world. Whether or not we agree with Fanon, one thing is for sure: we do not yet live in that humanist world.
Biko, S., 2002. I write what I like. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Du Bois, W., 1973. The Philadelphia negro. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.
Du Bois, W., 2007. The souls of black folk. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fanon, F., 1967. Black skin, white masks. New York: Grove Weidenfeld.
Fraser, N., 2013. Fortunes of feminism: From state-managed capitalism to neoliberal crisis. London: Verso.
Gilroy, P., 2011. Darker than blue: On the moral economies of black Atlantic culture. Boston: Harvard University Press.
Wallerstein, I., 1974. The rise and future demise of the world capitalist system: Concepts for comparative analysis. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 16(4), pp. 387-415.
Image sourced from Creative Commons.