Achille Mbembe, a cure to  the ‘fetishism of  identity’

Achille MbembeAt about 60 years old, the Cameroonian scholar Achille Mbembe devoted himself to an ambitious as well as risky exercise. He looks at the world as it is, where self-hatred has been transformed into a rejection of others, “Scapegoats have become objects  such as  foreigners, Muslims,  the ‘veiled woman’, the refugees, the Jews or black people”. According to him, a real desire of Apartheid is growing in contemporary societies, which is deeply-rooted in the establishment of liberal democracies and their link to colonialism.

Mbembe painstakingly dismantles the racist  and deep-seated fears and tries to bring a  ‘treatment  to them. Inspired by the work of the Martinican psychiatrist Frantz Fanon , in  his treatment measures in Algeria in the 1950s and his heated writings against colonialism. In this article he speaks to ADI, about his last essay Politics of enmity, published in March 2016. He presented the latter at a grand colloquium in Dakar and Saint-Louis in Senegal ( from the 27th to the 31st of October, 2016). This was a gathering of about twenty African intellectuals who are at the heart of this revival of the African thinking.

You wrote that the days that we live in are characterized by the rejection of others and for the spread of the ‘state of exception’. Furthermore, what does the “politics of enmity” that you speak about stand for? This is of course, what inspired the title of your book

In this project, I meant to take a snapshot of the world. This snapshot is characterized by the propensity to violence and the uprising of war-like instincts. Since the terrorist attacks of September 2001, in the United States, the ‘state of exception’ has become more or less the rule and is connected to the quest and the obsession with the enemy. For us, citizens of the Global South, I wanted to retrace the historical origins of this hostility; to take a look at those moments when politics becomes a vector of  hostility than one that links individuals.  

In your essay, you explain that this violence has long existed in liberal democracies. It also existed in colonial plantations or  penal colonies, far from  the eyes of the world…

The point was to rethink democracy as the ultimate form of human government. More so, a historical rediscovery of modern democracy, the liberal form particularly, enables us highlight that the system was established as a democracy for like-minded people. There is no democracy except the one which gathers like-minded people. This was the case during the long period of slave trade in the United States and in Europe during the colonial period.  Historically, democracies always needed a neutral place beyond their borders where they could accept violence without any boundaries against those who were not considered as part of their clan. The colonial period embodied this moment that I speak about. 

Why did you focus your analysis on liberal democracies? Isn’t this ‘enmity’ a distinctive feature of all states, of every national community which is founded on relationships?

Indeed, this is the peculiarity of the state, and mostly the nation- state, which as we can see with its name, is a state for nationals-for those whom we think are like us. And yet, I am particularly interested in liberal democracies, because, all things considered, I can’t see any hope beyond democracy. But, in the last quarter of the 20th century, the democracy, that we thought was going to triumph over all other political approaches fell apart and underwent a process of reversal. There has been an unprecedented opposition between capitalism and democracy. I do not think that it is possible for  a certain form of capitalism, especially financial capitalism, to co-exist with democracy. I join my voice to recent criticisms of democracy- that it has reached the end of its lifespan. We need to reinvent something else, or at least think about a possible way to revive democracy so as to bring solutions to our problems and save us from this savage world, with extreme and irrational expressions of violence, like terrorism . Although, the fight against terrorism is also an embodiment of violence.

You made reference to Franz Fanon’s ‘pharmaceutical treatment’. To what extent is his method in Algeria the model of an ideal cure?

Fanon is quite a dangerous author… I refer to him because he understood well, maybe even better than any theorist of the anticolonial struggle, how violence was both a remedy and a poison. This reference to Fanon does not aim to present him as a master with the suitable solutions for our current stalemates. I talk about him because he really emphasizes the tensions – unsolvable for most of them –  that we face.

We can say that Fanon dealt with violence and radicalism without inhibition. What would be the practical applications today?

Violence in Fanon’s work  plays a cathartic role, meaning that it enables the colonized subject to get out of his present situation. Paraphrasing Fanon, the oppressed needs to come to the realization that ‘the blood  that runs in the settler’s veins is the same colour as his’- that there is an essential and fundamental similarity among everybody. Violence wakes the oppressed from his slumber. Furthermore, violence brings us back to earth. Its is like an earthquake, which destroys the colonial and racist system and based on those ruins, we might imagine a new order.

But the mythological dimension of violence is not really what I am interested in, but the fact that Fanon who advocates violence, is very attached to what I would call the politics of treatment. It is this same Fanon, who studies the psychological disorder that the policeman who tortures Algerian nationalists has to go through. From an intellectual point of view, I am interested in the double-dialectic of violence and care.   

In order to fight this enmity, you propose the ethics of a traveler. What is this about?

Behind the idea of a traveller is the huge cosmological reflection on “who are we?” and how can we define the essence of human life in relation to the long history of the universe where the human species represents a small fraction- a species amongst others. It seems to me that one of the main characteristics of humans is our temporal being on earth as travellers. We don’t choose our place of birth, that is a choice made by others. What we choose is the type of experiences we have on our journey and what we do with those experiences.

If we really take that image of the traveller seriously, it would open us to new horizons on the question of identity and fetishism of identity. That image would also enable us think differently on the form of the nation-state, which has become a prison. In an era where mobility speeds up everything, it would most importantly, enable us reflect differently on the issue of migrants, of the person who is passing-by, and the types of laws created to face those processes which are sources of fear.

Isn’t the image of the traveller only for those who have the opportunity to travel and to meet others?

Not at all. If we consider people in motion, refugees, people who are forced to leave their place of birth and take risky paths without any guarantee of destination- their numbers are constantly on the rise. Mobility has become the most important condition of survival for a large number of human beings. The tragedy today is being stuck and not being able to move on. Millions of people are facing that tragedy. Governing this type of mobility is probably one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century. If we do not confront and find human solutions to this challenge, we will end up to multiplying the tragedies that we could have avoided. We need to take seriously this image of the traveller and temporal passage as the foundation of our human essence.  

The tone of your book is a worried one. Isn’t the intellectual situation in Africa reassuring?

Yes, absolutely. There is an intellectual and artistic effervescence in several disciplines, from Literature to Dance including the Visual Arts and Philosophical Critique. Indeed, there is a huge movement, which I think will be on the rise over the next decades from people in Africa to those in the African Diaspora. The place of birth of this effervescence is movement and mobility.  This reflection on mobility is what I call Afropolitan.

Further reading – Achille Mbembe, Politics of enmity, Ed. La Découverte, March 2016.


Translated by Laurence Mondésir

Original article by Adrien de Calan

Auteur: Adrien de Calan

Adrien de Calan est journaliste à l'Agence France Presse. Il a travaillé auparavant à Radio France Internationale et à l'Ambassade de France au Congo et s'intéresse plus particulièrement aux pays d'Afrique centrale.

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