Achille Mbembe’s decolonization

Mbembe’s work serves as a guide to understand our fragmented global present and the urgent matter of charting ways out of our shared dark night.

Image credit Sebastien Lienard-Boisjoli via Flickr CC.

We will have to learn to remember together, and, in so doing, to repair together the world’s fabric and its visage.

—Achille Mbembe, 2020

Out of the Dark Night: Essays on Decolonization, the latest offering from Achille Mbembe (from the Wits Institute on Social and Economic Research in South Africa) takes its title from a remark by the late Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), whose work has long been arguably the most central influence on Mbembe.

A substantially reworked and amended version of a monograph first published in French in 2010, it offers a profound meditation on the potentialities and limitations of what we know as decolonization, and a future vision of the proverbial planetary humanism made to the measure of the world as seen from Africa and the global South.

Common habits of thought have led us to think of decolonization as a new term, and the political, historical, and social processes it purports to describe as limited to the assertion of national and political sovereignty among previously colonized territories and peoples in the 20th century. These habits of thought have been and remain particularly prevalent among Western political scientists mired in Eurocentric assumptions about the world. Yet, as Todd Shepard demonstrated in his seminal The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France (2006), the term has an etymological lineage going back to at least 1836. When Jan C. Jansen and Jürgen Osterhammel in their Decolonization: A Short History (2017) note that decolonization had its “most decisive phase in the middle of the twentieth century during the three decades following the Second World War” and that “as a political process, decolonization has by now passed into history,” they are of course technically speaking correctly.

At the same time, such a representation risks traducing what decolonization was and meant for formerly colonized people, as well as for politicians, activists, and intellectuals who brought about these epoch-making and world-historical changes.

In Western political science, a hitherto predominant but seriously flawed historical account of what decolonization was and entailed has represented decolonization—as Adom Getachew reminds us in her recent brilliant Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise And Fall of Self-Determination (2019)—as a natural outgrowth of Wilsonian liberal principles of self-determination, and as flowing naturally from the founding documents of the United Nations after World War II. The fact of the matter remains, colonial powers saw little contradiction between their own professed liberalism and the brutalities of colonialism, and one cannot and should not “disregard anticolonial nationalism as a site of conceptual and political innovation.”

In this revisionist reading of decolonization, with which Mbembe’s account is aligned, decolonization entails much more than simply what Mbembe describes as “a diffusion of Western models of popular sovereignty.”

Mbembe was trained as a political scientist and a philosopher. His important contribution to the by now sizeable body of academic literature on decolonization must be placed alongside important critiques of the canonical interpretations of decolonization within Western liberal political science and theory from recent years, such as Gary Wilder’s Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, And The Future of the World (2015), Getachew’s Worldmaking After Empire (2019), and David Scotts Omens of Adversity: Tragedy, Memory, Justice (2014). For if anything, Mbembe’s revisiting decolonization as “a key moment in the history of our modernity” is animated by an intellectual urge to explore precisely the “world-making” and the “will to community” that decolonization entailed, and what potential lessons it holds for our troubled and dark present. Mbembe does so in full awareness of the historical failures of the African postcolonial elites, who were brought to power through decolonization to realize the critical humanist potential inherent in decolonization as a critical and epoch-making historical event. For, according to Mbembe, the humanist critique that enabled decolonization had “the idea that Western modernity was imperfect, incomplete and unfinished” at the heart of analysis. It was an “impossible revolution,” which resulted in “a form of domination that has been described as ‘domination without hegemony’ on the part of former colonial powers.”

As in his 2017 Critique of Black Reason, Mbembe does not in Out of the Dark Night operate with a one-sided, one-dimensional and institutional account of what colonialism was and entailed: “colonization was in many regards a co-production of colonizers and colonized.”  This introductory formulation points directly toward chapter one of Mbembe’s book, which bears the title “Planetary Entanglement.” For the Africa of the past, present, and future has in Mbembe’s vision—and contrary to the visions of Africa offered in the canons of Western political thought—never been a world unto its own, let alone pure and isolated. Inspired by John L. and Jean Comaroff’s Theory From The South (2012), Mbembe argues that “the Southern Hemisphere” is “perhaps the epicenter of contemporary global transformations” and that there may in fact be “no better laboratory than Africa to gauge the limits of our epistemological imagination.” What is in Mbembe’s view pre-figured in developments in Africa and its experiments in neo-liberal deregulation is nothing less than the future of global capitalism itself. And this is in Mbembe’s optics a bleak future characterized by a growing crisis of reproduction in which human lives are increasingly rendered as devalued, superfluous and expendable forms. Africa offers us tell-tale signs that capitalism in its neo-liberal form is increasingly sutured from and incompatible with democracy. Mbembe does not fail to register the fact that Africa has become an experimental playground for the global rise in power and influence of China, but one wishes perhaps that he would have had more to say about the ambiguities involved in that for a great many Africans.

If any thinker is indispensably central to Mbembe’s account in this monograph, it is once more Frantz Fanon. For according to Mbembe, Fanon is “one of the very few thinkers who have risked something that resembles a theory of decolonization.”  Chapter two of Out of the Dark Night, entitled “Disenclosure,” is dedicated to an analysis of Fanon’s account of decolonization as “a hermeneutics and a pedagogy.” And in this chapter, Mbembe really demonstrates why he is one of the most original and insightful interpreters of Fanon’s life and legacy in our times. The categorical error of post-colonial elites that Fanon cautioned against was, as Mbembe duly reminds us, to take European models of capitalist development, popular sovereignty, and self-determination as their models. Decolonization for Fanon, was ideally about “provincializing Europe” and its claims to represent universal history and reason, and the creation of a new form of planetary humanism by starting from a tabula rasa and creating the proverbial “new Man.” Mbembe refers to this as “an ascent into humanity,” which he defines as “a new beginning of creation.” What Mbembe here advocates for is a return to the sources of what Aime Cesaire famously described as a “humanism made to the measure of the world” in the works of Fanon and other key thinkers in the Black Atlantic tradition in order to envision new and alternative futures beyond nationalism, racism, and environmental devastation.

In spite of the profound ambiguities relating to postcolonial theory that have registered in Mbembe’s work all the way back to his breakthrough monograph On the Postcolony (2001), we may identify him as a postcolonial intellectual in a Black Atlantic tradition that traverses the terrain charted out in that tradition in both its Anglophone and Francophone articulations. For against all the Western political scientists who profess positivism as their personal faith and imagine themselves to be neutral and non-situated observers of the world out there, Mbembe is adamantly clear that “theory is always a particular theory of the world.” In chapter two of Out of the Dark Night, Mbembe also offers his readers an insightful account of the development of postcolonial theory. In later chapters, such as chapter three, “Proximity without reciprocity” and chapter four, “The long French imperial winter,” he proves to be sharply critical of the by now routine dismissals of the seminal contributions of postcolonial theory that have long been a fixture of what passes for “intellectual discourse” in France. According to Mbembe, this dismissal is symptomatic of a general crisis among French intellectual elites in the face of globalization that has increasingly rendered French historical self-understandings and French claims to represent both humanism and universalism parochial and obsolete. For Mbembe, postcolonial theory is far from unitary, and a product of global entanglements: it is a body of thought to be likened to “a river with multiple tributaries.”

In the context of the current right-wing onslaught on critical theory, critical race theory, and postcolonial theory seen in the USA, the UK, France, and even in my native Norway recently,  one cannot but recommend Mbembe’s chapters on postcolonial theory and its critics to anyone still interested in what nuanced and critical scholarship may actually mean. For France’s very “inability to think about the postcolony” in Mbembe’s view has dire consequences for how France engages with the world, but also for how it thinks about the persistent problems of racism and discrimination against racialized minorities in France, whether they be African, Arab, Asian or Caribbean people. Mbembe rightly reserves special scorn for the omnipresent French media intellectual and bien pensant Alain Finkielkraut and his serial televised and by now theatrical targeting of French Muslims in the name of secularism, enlightenment, reason, and republicanism, and his preposterous claim to the effect that “antiracism is the new antisemitism.”

Mbembe is in Out of The Dark Night critical of certain tendencies within the intellectual successor to postcolonial theory, namely decolonial theory, “to theorize multiplicity as difference,” and to tether difference to acts of simple “disconnection and separation.” For this very move goes against Fanon and, by extension, Mbembe’s rendering of decolonization as an attempt to “make the world whole again.” Mbembe is in fact adamantly opposed to the form of decolonial gestures “by which one is cut off, or one cuts oneself off, from the world.”

A central and recurrent debate following in the wake of decolonizing movements in Africa and Europe in recent years has involved debates about the return of artifacts appropriated in the course of European colonialism. Chapter five of Out of the Dark Night, “The house without keys,” is dedicated to Mbembe’s deft analysis of what is at stake in these debates. He here takes issue with those opposed to restitution in the name of both legalism and paternalism. Legalism here entails arguments to the effect that since one cannot always know to whom the artifacts in European museums originally belonged, the artifacts cannot legally be returned; whereas paternalism entails arguments to the effect that contemporary Africa does not have the required institutions, knowledge, or resources to preserve the artifacts in the event that they should be returned. For Mbembe, these are all at base moot arguments: “every authentic politics of restitution is inseparable from a capacity for truth.” It entails nothing less on the part of Europeans, than “a recognition of the seriousness of the harm suffered and the wrongs inflicted.”

We return, once more, to world-making and the ascent into humanity: honoring truth and acts of repairing the world are for Mbembe foundational acts meant to engender a new connection and a new relationship . The hope remains, of course, but it is in the present historical conjuncture—which has been marked by a European descent (or return) into inhumanity—a faint hope to think that Europeans will cease to approach others without “the attitude of someone who considers that only their own reality counts and is necessary.”

Out of the Dark Night was first published as Sortir de la Grande Nuit in French in 2010. In the ten years that have passed since then, both the world at large, and Mbembe’s own rendering of our global present have taken a discernably dark turn. This is particularly noteworthy in Mbembe’s Necropolitics, which was published in English by Duke University Press last year, and in his Brutalisme, which was published in French by Editions Galimard earlier this year. In Out of the Dark Night, Mbembe still sees great hope in what he refers to as Afropolitanism. In the last chapter of Out of the Dark Night, he identifies Afropolitanism firstly, with the postcolonial literature of African intellectuals such as Ahmadou Kouroma and Yambo Ouologuem in the 1970s, and secondly with the intensification of migration and the establishment of new African diasporas in the world at large. These are for Mbembe processes by which Africa has become “decentered.” Like former South African president Thabo Mbeki—who for all his political flaws insisted on defining South Africa as a nation for all who live in it in speeches such as I am an African—Mbembe opposes a racialized grammar of African citizenship, and the idea that Africa “belongs” to black Africans alone. For the very idea of Afropolitanism is for Mbembe centered upon the idea of circulation between and co-imbrication of worlds, and the human recognition and valorization of “the foreigner.” In the face of the recurrent waves of xenophobia, racism, and violence against black Africans from other parts of the African continent that have marred the post-apartheid era, and which Mbembe has repeatedly spoken out against in his adopted homeland of South Africa, these are crucially important reminders on Mbembe’s part.

In the postcolonial Black Atlantic tradition in which one may rightly place Achille Mbembe alongside other distinguished and remarkable scholars such as Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall, Felwine Sarr, Saidiya Hartman, and Hazel Carby, male scholars working within this tradition have rightly been criticized for a lack of attention to feminism and feminist themes. So many will be pleasantly surprised at the sections of the last chapter of Out of the Dark Night, in which Mbembe writes about the question of sexuality and changing mores relating to women’s and LGBT sexualities in contemporary Africa. I must admit that Mbembe here writes in a very philosophical and psychoanalytic register with which, I am as a social scientist, not completely comfortable with or convinced by. But it will nonetheless be of interest to Mbembe’s many readers. Mbembe’s South African readers may perhaps be disappointed by the fact that the English version of this monograph is so centered on the French context that it has relatively little to say about recent decolonial movements in South Africa, and especially the 2014-2015 #RhodesMustFall movement. Readers interested in a detailed account of that movement, its fractures, and limitations, will arguably be better served by Francis B. Nyamnjoh’s monograph #RhodesMustFall: Nibbling at Resilient Colonialism in South Africa (2018).

But let this not distract from the fact that Out of The Dark Night: Essays on Decolonization is an indispensable book for anyone seeking to understand our global present, and to think about the urgent matter of charting ways out of our shared dark night.

Further Reading