Thursday, October 7, 2010

Redeeming History: What It Is, and What It Is Not

On the basis of my lecture today:
Franz Fanon, in "On Violence," makes the following, arresting claim: “The violence which governed the ordering of the colonial world […] will be vindicated and appropriated when, taking history into their own hands, the colonized swarm into the forbidden cities.” (pp. 5-6)

This seems to say that colonialism will come to be justified, retrospectively, by decolonization.  This theme in Fanon is an echo of a theme in Marxism and many other radical liberation movements: that of an eschatological redemption of history, or the justification of suffering by its overcoming.

For example, Marx writes, in the notes that were turned into Capital, vol. 3
More than any other mode of production, [capitalism] squanders human lives, or living labour, and not only flesh and blood, but also nerve and brain.  Indeed, it is only through the most enormous waste of the individual development that the development of mankind is at all preserved in the epoch of history immediately preceding the conscious organization of society.
G.A. Cohen glossed this claim as: 
Despite its consequences for the producers, capitalism was needed for progress, since it extended man’s dominion over nature and so brought forward the day when the struggle with nature could be ended, and so, too, the derivative battle of class against class. (KMTH, 25)

To be more precise, Marx's claim here seems to be of the form: The suffering attendant upon capitalism is a necessary condition for the liberation of communism.

Cohen and Fanon seem to go one step further, and to claim that: The suffering attendant upon capitalism (or colonialism) will be redeemed by the liberation of communism (or decolonization).

This second claim -- the redemption of history by liberation -- certainly goes far beyond the first, which seems merely to spell out what the word liberation means.  The redemption of history thesis should not, however, be mistaken for two other theses with which it is frequently confused.

First, from the redemption of history thesis it does not follow that exploitation or colonization cause liberation by causing the suffering that motivates liberation.  does not redound to the moral credit of the capitalist, colonist, or slaver.  That is, the redemption of history thesis does not entail that exploiting, enslaving, or colonizing people is all well and good, since it leads eventually to liberation.  Rather, it redounds to the moral credit of the ones who overthrow capitalism, colonialism, and slavery; it is only the action of these self-liberators that retroactively gives some meaning or purpose to the suffering of the oppressed.  That suffering was one of the necessary conditions and causes of the liberation, and the greatness of the liberation thereby bestows meaning on the suffering – the suffering was not in vain.  

This confused thesis is not a straw man: those on the Right in the US who say that slavery ended up being a good deal for African Americans, since they are better off now in the US than they would be in Africa are making precisely this claim.  This confused claim amounts to concluding that, since suffering is the necessary condition of liberation, suffering is the cause of liberation.  This erases the act of liberation altogether. 

Second, from the redemption of history thesis it does not follow that liberation is the teleological end of history, or that suffering is explained functionally by the liberation that redeems it.  That is, it does not entail that, somehow, the suffering took place for the sake of the liberation it made possible, as if the liberation were causally pulling history forward through a period of suffering.  The fact that suffering is a necessary condition for the communist revolution does not explain why that suffering took place.  (Jon Elster imports all sorts of nonsense into Marx by reading every instance of either the necessary condition thesis or the redemption of history thesis as if it were an explanatory claim.)

Finally, for the sake of contrast, the redemption of history thesis might be compared to Locke's justification of slavery.  For Locke (on at least one reading), slavery is justified where the slave has broken the law of nature and put themselves below humanity, and submitting to slavery is breaking the law of nature (irrationally throwing your life into the hands of another), so that any existing slavery is justified -- since no rational human being would submit to be a slave, all slaves must be less than rational and less than human.  This approach justifies all existing slavery, while implying that all slavery that has been thrown off was illegitimate.  The contrast can be summed up neatly.  Locke: Only and all existing slavery is justified; Fanon: Only and all overcome slavery is justified -- slavery is always wrong so long as it actually exists, and can only come to be vindicated by being thrown off in a liberation struggle.

If this is all right, then I think the best way to understand the redemption of history thesis is as a claim that motivates -- and is designed so to motivate -- liberation struggles.  If you are conscious of all of the suffering that has gone into the creation of our world, and that continually goes into its reproduction, this “myth” or “ideology” – I use those terms consciously and without pejorative intent – of redemption through liberation says: What, will all of that have been for the sake of TiVo and barbecue flavoured Bugles?  Millions have died and worse, all so you can enjoy Law and Order: SVU?  Surely we can do better than that!  What must we do so as not to be tortured by the knowledge of the suffering that has made our lives possible?  We must make ourselves truly great – tear this whole world down to the bedrock and rebuild something worthwhile – if we are to redeem all that has happened!

Whatever faults this ideology has as ideology, it ought not be mistaken for what it is not.