Bringing Fanon’s “Concerning Violence” to Film

A still from from the film Concerning Violence.(Photo: Concerning Violence)

Activist and author Alnoor Ladha interviews Joslyn Barnes, co-producer of Göran Hugo Olsson’s film, Concerning Violence, which explores African liberation struggles of the 1960s and 1970s.

Alnoor Ladha: I recently watched Concerning Violence and was in awe during the entire duration of the film. What is it about these scenes from colonialism and imperialism that strike a chord at the deepest core of our humanity?

Joselyn Barnes: That they are true. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak says in her preface to the film, “The issue of colonization is a greed shared by humankind. No one is better than anyone; every generation must be trained in the practice of freedom, caring for others, as did [Frantz] Fanon, and that is what colonization stops. Within the greed for capital formation, colonization allows already existing ignorant racism to spread the markets in the name of civilization or modernization or globalization, as it does today. This film captures the tragedy of the moment when the very poor are convinced in the name of a nation, that is going to reject it once it is established on its own two feet, to offer themselves up for a violent killing. Fanon insists that the tragedy is that the very poor is reduced to violence, because there is no other response possible to an absolute absence of response and an absolute exercise of legitimized violence from the colonizers.”

Spivak’s preface was indeed powerful. And poignant. One could argue, and indeed we do, that our current brand of capitalism, neoliberalism, is simply a continuation of colonialism. That the logic of capital requires extraction, exploitation, violence etc. Would you agree with this line of thinking?

Decolonization, as Fanon pointed out, needs to work in both directions. The colonized and the colonizer both must be decolonized.

I was at a very large dinner party in Park City, Utah, a few weeks before the Mubarak regime tumbled in Egypt. I was genuinely (and retrospectively, naïvely) shocked by how many people at that dinner literally said, “Better the devil you know . . . ” meaning they’d rather see the murderous dictatorship continue than take the risk of change for better or worse. But worse for who?

“We know who supplies the weapons; we know who makes the loans; we know who then demands structural adjustment or in a new guise – austerity.”

It really struck me that even in this purportedly progressive environment, some people are clearly viewed as more human than others. And here again, we see a certain colonial mentality. Decisions are made every day in Washington, DC, and other centers of power that have a huge impact on the day-to-day lives of millions and millions of people who have no part in making those decisions. But we know who supplies the weapons; we know who makes the loans; we know who then demands structural adjustment or in a new guise – austerity.

We know, but we look away. And we’ve been looking away for so long that we not only don’t see our connection to this global situation, we don’t even see that we ourselves are a country rapidly headed in the same direction, where for example those same weapons are being used against some of us (e.g. Ferguson, Missouri), and eventually all of us. Maybe people at a dinner party on the other side of the world will think of us one day when we attempt to rise up, and say, “Well . . . better the devil you know . . .”

Where a regime cannot be established that capitalist interests view as friendly, then the plan B seems to be perpetual destabilization. This Boko Haram situation in Nigeria is a case in point. Who is benefitting from this horrific scourge? And of course, if you just listened to news reports you would never know that the roots go all the way back to colonization, to the discovery of oil, to the assassination of Murtala Muhammed, and beyond. Stability used to be valued for businesses to thrive. But the profits to be reaped through militarization, conflict entrepreneurism, extraction [and] land grabs are so incredibly massive and pertain to the highest echelons of power, that they have overshadowed even a desire for stability. This is an extractive mindset, and what can you call this but a form of colonization?

Indeed. Do you think neoliberalism is better or worse than its predecessor regimes?

I think the current economic system is destroying life as we know it on this planet, because it relies on an idea of unlimited growth that is so evidentially unsustainable, because it relies on militarization and debt, and also because it is inherently inimical to any idea of a commons – or a common good. So I wouldn’t say it’s a matter of the particular brand of capitalism, e.g. neoliberalism, but the logic of capitalism itself – the commodification of the environment and people through their labor, and private ownership of production.

“We are giving up every freedom but the freedom to choose what to buy or consume.”

But I do wonder whether this particularly aggressive form of capitalism – get what you can, while you can – comes from a displaced fear of annihilation (Freud’s return of the repressed) or from a fear of not being real enough (Buddhist philosopher David Loy). The latter idea points to a subconscious awareness that our “person” is constructed, which is also exacerbated in this social media era of the curated self.

Or perhaps we are still conditioned by the discredited social Darwinist construct that capitalism is the economic model that best suits our “human nature.” Regardless, at this precise moment where the planet’s ecological system has reached the limit of supporting what the global economic system demands, we have a no-limits, free-for-all extractive ideology and we are being deluged by an image environment that inculcates a continually deferred fantasy of wealth and power that invites us to enter a virtual reality – and shortly, an augmented reality – where we are giving up every freedom but the freedom to choose what to buy or consume.

What do you think is the relevance of studying the colonial resistances for the current struggle against neoliberalism? What are the key lessons for social movements?

Fanon walks us through Hegel’s famous chapter on “Master and Slave” and turns it to his own use, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak writes and says in the film’s preface: “Fanon’s lesson was that you use what the masters have developed and turn it around in the interests of those who have been enslaved or colonized. In this he is with great leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois and Nelson Mandela.”

This is certainly worth studying deeply. To consider just one element: the state. Social movements are reimagining the role of the state, recognizing that it is actually critical insofar as it is the only entity that can deal on a mass scale and potentially check the power of multinational corporations. But also that the state cannot be created or captured as it was during colonization, or compromised as it was during the postcolonial period, or in the current era of financialization of neoliberal economic policy, by private capital or global financial institutions in its search for sources of financing.

Ensuring accountability and transparency, as with the work on the halting and return of illicit financial flows, or – as is being proposed by a growing number of developing countries together with civil society across the world – the proposed repayment of the climate debt that the [global] north owes the south, is badly needed. As is a re-evaluation of the catastrophic opportunity costs of the weapons trade, the war on terror, the war on drugs – all sources of the greatest corruption. But even this is not sufficient.

How can the state be reimagined so that it can determine its economy effectively, make decisions about where and how money gets spent, manage resources, build green domestic industries and a fair tax base, address inequalities and ensure human rights? A number of governments in Latin America and the Nordic countries are at the forefront of shaping progressive social policies, but monies to support these are generated within a growth model based on extractive industries, which social movements are challenging.

I agree with Fanon when he concludes, “We must try to set afoot a new human being.” One that recognizes, as John Berger once said, that suffering begins with the existence of the “other” as an unequal. Though, for Fanon, the issue was not about being the other; it was about not even being an other.

What do you think will be the future of the violent struggle against the state? Do you think climate change will exacerbate or accelerate the clash between the power elites and the people?

The US government entity most prepared for climate change is the Pentagon. That says a lot about how the US government views climate change, as well as how it plans to address climate change. And we know from the history of many disasters that in fact it is government agencies that often exacerbate chaos and violence, whereas most ordinary people get themselves organized, cooperate and share when they are not armed to the teeth and concerned about a spectral, harmful “other” invented by elites interested in maintaining their own power.

Unfortunately, the corporate media is intent upon cultivating a culture of fear – and notably, nothing drives consumption like fear. Patriotic duties after 9/11 were spying and shopping, per the Bush II regime. And now they go hand in hand.

Imagined conflicts are connected with scarcity in the popular mainstream narrative, and of course, capitalism runs on scarcity as a premise. But scarcity is mainly a function of inequality, waste [and] poor or ineffectual infrastructure. And that is mainly a question of priorities.

“It’s the state as currently realized that is most often violent. It is capitalism that is the crisis. And climate change is one catastrophic result.”

What happens in the streets during a crisis is rarely reported upon accurately. Corporate media creates a spectacle, and emphasis is placed on situations of conflict. In fact, narrative itself relies almost entirely on dramatic conflict in the West [or global] north. I think this has its roots in Judeo-Christian traditions, which demand a protagonist, and have a heavy emphasis on ideas of redemption and justice.

And while I think authentic defense is legitimate, this narrative is perniciously justifying tremendous expenditures on weapons, on massive surveillance – which whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and others have literally risked their lives to reveal for the common good, and which journalists like Julian Assange, Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Jeremy Scahill, James Risen and Andrew Feinstein have made visible – which is the heart of Fanon – for the common good – and on blatantly unconstitutional and often secret changes to the law, all in the name of keeping us safe. But who is this “us”?

I was not aware until I read Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell, that there is a clinical term called “elite panic.” But it makes sense – as she notes, elites fear social disorder because it challenges their legitimacy. And they are so used to being in charge that when they are not in charge they actually think no one is in charge, fear the worst and panic. Often they are in a position of power to use or authorize deadly force or to control information that everyone should be privy to, and actually make matters worse or even commit crimes as a result.

It’s truly psychotic, and this is where a psychiatrist – to return to Fanon – is useful, because he was able to analyze this insanity and propose a treatment, if not a cure. So, to return to your question, and to provide a Fanonian response: It’s the state as currently realized that is most often violent. It is capitalism that is the crisis. And climate change is one catastrophic result.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. As Naomi Klein says in her important new book, This Changes Everything, and in the new film that Avi Lewis has made based on this book (which I am producing with him), it’s also an opportunity to rethink and rebuild social and economic systems and develop alternatives that will improve our quality of life and our connectedness for the common good.

This is not a utopian hope of ending all conflict – as that kind of hope may actually attenuate neoliberal capitalism. But we do now really have to deal with the inherent contradictions at the heart of our system, stop reaching for the shiny apple of tech fixes and conceive a new narrative. Fortunately, as was evidenced in the process of making Avi Lewis’ film, there is already a global pattern of local movements living and working at the forefront of climate change who are modeling alternatives.

We are seeing the effects and constant implementation of imperialistic technik when it comes to terrorism. How do you think Concerning Violence relates to the recent attacks in Paris?

Yes, agreed. War is a diversion, as Walter Benjamin said, and the only way that people can be mobilized not as classes but as masses. Hence, desperately flailing politician Francois Hollande takes a page from the US handbook and declares war on terror – i.e. perpetual war. And his popularity rises, if not soars. “As if air-strikes in Iraq will help France with its social disintegration,” Vijay Prashad immediately pointed out in Al-Araby. “There is as much a direct line from the 2005 Clichy-sous-Bois banlieue riots to the alienation of the French-Algerian brothers as any line that goes from them into northern Syria, Iraq or Yemen.”

I think we should start there, rather than with the terrible attacks on Charlie Hebdo or the kosher supermarket, because there is something a lot deeper going on than a hashtag activism campaign or purportedly equal-opportunity-offender satire can address. Thomas Chatterton Williams noted in a recent piece in n+1 magazine, “What gets lost in all the sudden reflexive sentimentality is the degree to which #jesuischarlie creates a false binary between legally permissible bigotry and murderous terror – a virtually impossible political bind for many of the already marginalized targets of the publication’s relentless ire.”

“That is the heart of Fanon – making the invisible visible, both in life and in death.”

To examine this from a Fanonian standpoint: When Fanon says in “Concerning Violence” that decolonization is always violent, he means effectively that things have to change, and because of the mindset of power, this means that someone has to lose. He also underscores that it’s naïve to think that violence will make the change that’s needed. But what we are seeing unfold before our eyes is exactly what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak points out to in the preface: The moment when people are convinced to offer themselves up for a violent killing, and exploited for this very purpose, “the tragedy is that the very poor is reduced to violence, because there is no other response possible to an absolute absence of response and an absolute exercise of legitimized violence from the colonizers.”

Why do we not see this cause and effect equation clearly? Because it is deliberately obfuscated. We immediately get the so-called “terror experts,” whom Intercept journalist Jeremy Scahill rightly excoriated this past week. And we get the bugbear “clash of civilizations” narrative when what we are seeing here is more a clash of barbarisms. Western values? Really? Shall we do a body count? Because that is the heart of Fanon – making the invisible visible, both in life and in death.

Teju Cole, in a recent New Yorker article, echoes Judith Butler in her book Frames of War, where both ask the very pertinent question of whose lives are grievable? “Specific lives,” Butler says, “cannot be apprehended as injured or lost if they are not first apprehended as living.”

This is exactly Fanon’s point – whatever is being done to you, the colonized, is not registered as unethical because you don’t even appear in an ethical relationship. And this is precisely why so many people live in a situation of violence. And apparently the only way to not be violent is to be invisible within this framework.

In a competition for a kind of visibility, we get 90,000 militarized French police taking to the streets to find three armed men. And a parade of world leaders, many of whom imprison journalists; disavow, justify, torture and bomb civilians; and have their entire populations under surveillance in programs that dwarf anything the Stasi ever conceived of, under the guise of championing free speech. Among these are repressive regimes that the West has supported and armed. And then there is Benjamin Netanyahu flying in to invite the Jewish population of France to emigrate to Israel, that exemplar of Western values in the Middle East: He-Who-Mows-the-Lawn of Gaza every few years, most recently slaughtering some 2,000 people – a third of them children.

I think Fanon is important here because he has a response to this lunacy. He understood violence as a condition into which he was born. He felt he had to do something about it or he would be complicit. So he left Martinique as a teenager and went to fight the Nazis in World War II. His traumatic experiences, which he details in his work, led him to become a psychiatrist. During the Algerian struggle for independence he dealt with patients who had psychiatric problems because they had been torturers or because they had been tortured. He began to analyze and write about the sick society. And as Professor Lewis Gordon has pointed out, “Fanon had a critique of people who claimed to be anti-violent. If your anti-violence means doing nothing about violence, then you are an agent of violence. You have to actually do something to support human dignity.”

Fanon offers a way out of hell, literally by walking us through it. And this is what the film Concerning Violence does so well. This is the project of Fanon, to awaken people to seeing themselves and their societies and countries in ways that they may not have seen themselves, or may not wish to. Everyone needs the practice of freedom, as Spivak said, and every group has to understand that it has to set the conditions for the “new concepts” Fanon proposed. The direction in which we will go, depends on every one of us.

What is the main takeaway from your film? Why did you make it? What lesson do you want to impart on the world?

Louverture Films became involved in making Concerning Violence because we trust Göran Hugo Olsson [the director] and his partners at Story SA in Stockholm, with whom we made Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975. And also because we feel that Fanon’s essay is of tremendous historical and contemporary relevance. It provokes important questions. It’s never our intention to impart a lesson. As for the takeaway, I think that’s for audiences to decide, it’s the viewer who completes the work, after all.

Concerning Violence is showing at select theaters across the United States in February. You can see the viewing schedule here. Lauryn Hill, the narrator of the English language version of the film, will be showing the film and playing acoustic sets at select venues.