Land of the Lost

The Wretched of the Earth BY Frantz Fanon. New York: Grove Press. 320 pages. $13.

The cover of The Wretched of the Earth

AMONG POLITICAL IMPERATIVES set forth by the election, two intertwined refusals stand out. We should refuse the risk of effacing the continuity of ongoing barbarisms, a risk that comes with exaggerating what is new and exceptional about a Trump presidency. And we must refuse to be driven back into the arms of last year's horror show by this year's horror show. This leaves me disinclined to catastrophism. In this disturbing moment I am looking for books that can tell the time, register how we arrived at this odd hour, and avoid the implication that there is anything to be gained by setting the clock back.

Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth—his logic of anticolonial revolution—has been reactivated not by the repugnant xenophobia swirling around the election but by something that preceded and helped shape it. This is the most pressing social movement in the United States, gathering together the complex of struggles known as Black Lives Matter, alongside parallel counterstruggles against the immiserations and exclusions of racial capitalism. It seems to me the movement's variegations and fluidity provide much of its power. No one quite knows its contours. That said, the currents within it that can no longer believe in the panacea of institutional reform are not simply the most dramatic aspects but the most telling. They are, one might say, its Fanonian character.

Fanon is the great thinker of the anticolonial struggles that swept the globe in the '50s and continued on after his premature death in 1961, the year of Wretched's publication in French (it was translated into English in 1963). He understood the struggles as total: "Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is clearly an agenda for total disorder. But it cannot be accomplished by the wave of a magic wand, a natural cataclysm, or a gentleman's agreement." The scope of the anticolonial project is set not by some timeless antagonism but by the historical violence of colonization itself, "the organization of a Manichaean world" that produces colonizer and colonized as distinct species between whom no détente is possible. For the colonized, "there is no question . . . of competing with the colonist. They want to take his place."

Fanon's revolutionary figure was to be found among those lumpenproletariat from the shantytowns who "circle tirelessly around the different towns, hoping that one day or another they will be allowed inside"—those excluded from labor markets, from even that mean and diminished slice of the good life that can lead an exhausted and brutalized person to cut a deal with power. It is this sector that has been rising in the US, in ways dramatically and pointedly racialized. Even in 1963, Detroit autoworker and brilliant political theorist James Boggs wrote, "Today in the United States there is no doubt that those at the bottom are growing in numbers much faster than the system will ever be able to absorb," concluding that "America is headed toward full unemployment, not full employment." Those who do find work are trapped in a job market so intensely polarized there can be no escape imagined from poverty. Meanwhile those surplus to the needs of capital and empire grow, and grow restless.

The US that falls to Trump is closer than ever to the world Fanon described, with its burgeoning population of those condemned to circle tirelessly, more likely to be granted entrance to prison than the good life. But it has been a long approach, an ongoing disclosure of the structure of racialized violence fatally bent on preserving a collapsing power. If to many commentators the election seems a total break, we might say instead that it bespeaks a long-standing situation gone total—partial demands and "gentlemen's agreements" have lost any plausible appeal. It is obvious that the election should be the death knell for liberalism, neo- or otherwise, and not an occasion to double down. Many feel disoriented, for good reason. The US as a nation is no longer oriented by Left/Right ideas of how to make things work, but by the logic of included/excluded. Fanon is a vital guide here, and The Wretched of the Earth one of the great accounts of the situation from which one sets out to change the order of the world.

Joshua Clover is the author of Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (Verso, 2016).