Alina Sajed and Timothy Seidel (eds.), “Escaping the Nation? Anti-colonial Imaginaries and Postcolonial Settlements,” Special Issue of Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 21.5 (2019), pp. 583-765.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this special issue?
Alina Sajed and Timothy Seidel (AS & TS): The special issue emerged more generally from our interest in the ambivalence of the national liberation state: on the one hand, it was an important instrument in restoring the dignity of the colonized and a source of immense hope for a better and more just world; on the other hand, the same national liberation state, in many cases, became the new instrument of internal repression. The idea behind this special issue started with engaging conversations around the inherent violence of the nation-state form, and the strange alchemy between crushed hopes and decolonization at a panel organized for the Annual Convention of the International Studies Association in Baltimore. One of the highlights of the discussion in Baltimore was that, when examining the national liberation project in the Third World, crushed hopes are perhaps more productive and generative than uncrushed hopes. Put differently, the failures, limitations, and tragedies that ensued with independence hold perhaps more value as learning lessons than the idealism, fervour, and hope generated both during the anti-colonial struggle and after. Examining the value of crushed hopes is especially poignant when taking into consideration the global structural constraints that accompanied the birth of postcolonial nations. One of the questions that emerged then was: what made their tragedy necessary?
The reason behind this question is the emergence of discussions and of a (relatively) recent literature that engages the notion of “alternatives to nation-states” or that re-assesses both the merits of anticolonial narratives and the story of national liberation states as “failures.” We are thinking here of David Scott’s analysis in Conscripts of Modernity, much of Frederick Cooper’s recent work, and of Gary Wilder’s recent book, Freedom Time. David Scott talks about “anticolonial utopias gradually […] wither[ing] into postcolonial nightmares,” and wonders whether the questions asked by the anticolonial narrative “continue to be questions worth responding to at all.” Indeed, he echoes many current criticisms of the “failures” of postcolonial states to materialize the aspirations of their revolutionary beginnings. It has become very common/popular to engage in critiques of the national liberation state and either to lament the failure of its initial revolutionary potential or claim the intrinsic violence of the nation-state form, and thus suggest that alternatives to the nation-state would have been the ideal form of decolonization.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the special issue address?
AS & TS: In Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon states that “[n]ational consciousness, which is not nationalism, is alone capable of giving us an international dimension.” We were intrigued by the distinction Fanon makes between national consciousness and nationalism, and the obvious question for us became: what exactly is national consciousness, and how is it different from nationalism? In that sense, the articles in this special issue address the literature on decolonization/anticolonial thought and praxis, while at the same time paying attention to the predicaments of the postcolonial present. They offer a range of explorations of the implications of Fanon’s reflections on national consciousness, several with specific attention to the Middle East and North Africa. For example, Alina Sajed’s essay “How We Fight: Anti-colonial Imaginaries and the Question of National Consciousness in the Algerian War” explores the idea that how we fight determines the types of futures made possible by anticolonial revolt. She not only investigates the types of anticolonial imaginaries that came to compete for legitimacy and possibility during the Algerian War, but also examines the idea that the predicament of the national liberation state was not simply about policies adopted post-independence. Rather, the predicament came to life during the anticolonial struggle, and acquired poignancy once the task of the struggle—removing the colonizer—was accomplished and a specific vision of decolonization came to prevail (at immense cost).
Jasmine Gani’s “Escaping the Nation in the Middle East: A Doomed Project? Fanonian Decolonisation and the Muslim Brotherhood” outlines the dissonance between nationalist self-determination and a decolonial pursuit of independence using Fanon’s blueprint for decolonization. In it, she also interrogates the decolonial potential in Fanon’s blueprint—asking whether anticolonial groups can ever truly escape the inheritance of a Eurocentric nation-state despite their decolonial intent. To explore these themes, the essay focuses on Hasan Al-Banna’s ideology and vision for the Muslim Brotherhood, exploring the parallels between Banna’s vision of independence and Fanon’s decolonial call for international solidarities and national consciousness as alternatives to nationalism.
Kate Quenzer’s essay “Beyond Arab Nationalism? The PLO and its intellectuals, 1967-1974” explores ways in which Palestinian liberation became part of a larger revolutionary struggle to transform the region. She argues that the PLO’s context, goals, and ideas define them as anticolonial intellectuals, echoing Fanon’s conceptualization of the role of the colonized intellectual in the building of national consciousness. Framing them as such helps to clarify their goals, obstacles, and shortcomings. She demonstrates that Fanon’s notions of the colonized intellectuals and anticolonial efforts at building a national consciousness are parallel to and predict the efforts and failures of the leftist intellectuals within the PLO from 1967 to 1974.
Khadija El-Alaoui and Maura Pilotti’s essay “Walking with Lips Raining Fire and Love! Arab Poets’ Testimony to the World” describes how the work of Arab poets has exceeded nationalist projects in line with Fanon’s international dimension of the national consciousness, which is at heart a commitment to human dignity, coevalness, and freedom. Arab poets envisioned liberation through a revolt against the self that has surrendered to the oppressors’ fantasy to consider their injustices a necessary price for modernity and progress. The metaphor of walking with lips raining fire and love captures their quest for coexistence, or what Glissant calls “the poetics of relation” without forgoing burning questions about justice.
Timothy Seidel’s essay “Neoliberal Developments, National Consciousness, and Political Economies of Resistance in Palestine” explores the concept of political economies of resistance in Palestine as an alternative to the anticolonial imaginary articulated by nationalist visions, and the potential for liberation offered by local actors who articulate these political economies of resistance. It considers Frantz Fanon’s vision of national consciousness, its relevance to Palestinian resistance in the context of settler colonialism, and its aid in the articulation of political economies of resistance as a way to imagine otherwise in global politics.
J: How does this special issue connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
AS & TS: For Sajed, this special issue is part of a larger project on which she is currently working, around Third Worldism and its reverberations (with a specific focus on the Algerian War). This project pushes against a prevalent assumption that reduces Third Worldism to national self-determination. This assumption erases the multiplicity of political visions that inspired decolonization movements, and that helped conceptualize Third Worldism as an ideological orientation, as nothing more than an aspiration towards postcolonial national independence. The project, however, takes into consideration (Algerian) voices that push against the rigid boundaries of methodological nationalism, and provide a much more complex picture of decolonization as a deeply contested and fragmented political terrain.
For Seidel, this special issue offers interesting insights and implications related to a volume he recently co-edited with Alaa Tartir, Palestine and Rule of Power: Local Dissent vs. International Governance. Their book explores the rule of power in terms of settler colonialism and neoliberalism as well as forms of everyday resistance to the logics and regimes of neoliberal governance and settler colonialism. In particular, Fanon’s reflections offer critical insights into efforts at state-building, especially since not all Palestinians or Palestinian groups see statehood as a viable or desirable option. Especially in the post-Oslo context of what many see as ongoing settler colonialism, state-building efforts, and even the goal of the nation-state captured by the vision of Oslo, are increasingly interrogated as part and parcel of a global regime of neoliberal governance that reproduces colonial logics and institutions.
J: Who do you hope will read this special issue, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AS & TS: We hope the analyses in this special issue will resonate with all those interested in decolonization, in its hopes, promises, and aspirations, but also in the crushed hopes and dreams that attended the national liberation project.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AS & TS: We are working on another special issue tentatively titled “Anticolonial Connectivity and the Politics of Solidarity: Between Home and the World.” This special issue will examine the connections among (post)colonial spaces forged in the struggle for national liberation. The focus on “anticolonial connectivity” indicates the existence of alternative forms of spatiality that go beyond the linear relationship between metropole and colonial spaces, exploring the ways through which the colonized cultivated knowledge “sideways”; that is, they engaged in translocal relations to each other without needing to call upon the imperial center for interpretation.
Sajed is also working on two related but different projects: one revolves around the location of women and their voices in decolonization struggles; the other examines the idea of Southern Theory in International Relations arguing that critical analyses of world politics need to center the theoretical agency of the Third World, and not only its political agency.
Seidel is also working on a book manuscript that examines and interrogates dominant categories of nonviolence and civil resistance mapped onto Palestine by outside observers (expressed through questions like “Where is the Palestinian Gandhi?”) and explores the late modern-colonial constitution (and discursive function) of the violence/non-violence binary.
Excerpt from the special issue
The implicit question articulated by the various contributions here is the following: has the national liberation project “failed” because, as Fanon warned, it did not translate into social and political consciousness, or did it fail because the nation-form is intrinsically contained within the colonial grammar of Enlightenment, and thus beholden to the tropes of modernity/modernization, progress and development? The former entails that there is a way to rescue the nation-form from its attendant violence; the latter suggests there is no such thing as “good nationalism.”
Jasmine Gani’s contribution here takes up the latter possibility, and articulates an argument around the inherent violence of the nation-building project. She focuses on the anticolonial imaginary of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (with a specific focus on the figure of Hasan al-Banna), an imaginary that clearly attempted to escape and transcend the nation. In doing so, she also highlights what she perceives as the limits of Fanon’s thought arguing that his vision of and choice for national independence remains caught within the quandaries of the Eurocentric blueprint of the nation-state form wedded, among other things, to secular-religious distinctions. Alina Sajed, on the other hand, highlights not so much the limits to Fanon’s vision, but the deep and painful ambivalence between his unswerving loyalty to the FLN and his theoretical articulation of a nation-building process that was at odds (in fundamental ways) with FLN’s rigid nationalist agenda. His visionary prescience regarding the perils and traps of decolonization were ironically fulfilled in post-independence Algeria. Sajed’s analysis brings to the fore the ambiguity of anticolonial nationalism, caught between its impulse for liberation, retrieval of collective dignity and its connectivity to other colonial spaces, and its stubborn rootedness (however emancipatory its horizons) in a Eurocentric grammar of exclusion and rigid boundary-drawing, so intrinsic to nation-building.
Other contributions focus on the potential of using the idea of “national consciousness” to articulate diverse anticolonial experiences, such as those in Ghana (Emiljanowicz), Africa in general (Bose), Lusophone Africa (Gruffydd-Jones), Palestine (Quenzer), and Algeria (Sajed). Paul Emiljanowicz takes seriously the idea of “double consciousness,” and argues that Kwame Nkrumah’s project of national development needs to be understood within the tensions, inherent in his thought and praxis, between the promotion of national and continental consciousness, on the one hand, and his conception of African nationalism with Pan-Africanism, on the other. Emiljanowicz argues that the postcolonial state can only be understood as part of wider networks of anticolonial connectivity. In a more radical take on Fanon’s dialectics between national consciousness and internationalism, Anuja Bose argues that Fanon’s vision was never meant to be translated into the rigid confines of the nation-state form. Rather, she sees his project as one of “intercontinentalism as a form of political community that emerges out of dialectical tension and conflict.” Her analysis indicates that Fanon’s insistent emphasis on the international dimension of anticolonial struggle is crucial to a vision of national consciousness that aims to ensure it “does not ossify into exclusionary forms of political affiliation.” If Jasmine Gani’s contribution sees national consciousness as emancipatory in its potential, but ultimately beholden to a rigid Eurocentric blueprint of political community, Bose, on the contrary, argues that Fanon’s anticolonial imaginary was inherently transnational and intercontinental in its scope and vision. Nonetheless, both readings implicitly gesture towards escaping the nation as a desirable political horizon.
Branwen Gruffydd-Jones’ intervention is not concerned with the question of escaping the nation, but rather with the types of critiques that posit the anticolonial project as a failed one. She cautions against conflating the predicaments and contradictions of postcolonial states with the exhaustion of the anticolonial imaginary. The hauntingly pertinent question she launches is the following: “How, from the position of our postcolonial times, should we engage with anticolonial struggles of the past?” Gruffydd-Jones’ engagement with the main thematic question provides an ambivalent answer: while the anticolonial nation-building process fell within the larger paradigm of Eurocentric modernity, it also articulated vivid critiques of progress and civilization. A similar ambivalence can be found in Alina Sajed’s intervention on anticolonial struggle in Algeria: while the FLN posited a rigid and totalitarian vision of independent Algeria, it was simultaneously the only viable option for Algerians not only for independence but also for a collective retrieval of dignity. Katlyn Quenzer’s piece focuses on a number of Palestinian intellectuals active in the PLO between the 1960s and 1970s, and examines the ways in which they went against the grain of Arab nationalism. In that sense, she finds Fanon’s concept of “national consciousness” to be crucial to understanding the horizons to which such colonized intellectuals were aspiring beyond the rigidity of Arab nationalism. Since Palestine is not an independent postcolonial state, examining the competing visions for liberation of the main factions within the PLO (Fatah and PFLP) throws a very different light on the question of escaping the nation. The question that emerges then for these intellectuals is whether to see the Palestinian struggle as larger than the locale in which it is embedded and thus seek for a more systemic change, or to limit itself to the goal of Palestinian nationalism and independence tout court.
Timothy Seidel’s article continues the focus on the Palestinian resistance but moves away from political factions, and instead examines what he calls “political economies of resistance.” Seeing the impact of the Oslo peace process as a signaling of the end of the Palestinian anticolonial utopia, Seidel sees Fanon’s idea of “national consciousness” articulated differently today through acts of resistance that are local as they are transnational, arguing that nationalist commitments—wedded to liberal notions of economics and politics—obscure these acts of resistance that interrupt the postcolonial present in Palestine. In a thought-provoking narrative, Khadija El Alaoui and Maura Pilotti reflect poetically on the betrayals of the national liberation state in the Arab world. To make sense of the disillusion of the postcolonial present and the unfulfilled promises of the national liberation state, they rally the rage, passion and bitterness of contemporary Arab poets. Echoing Fanon’s injunction that the revolutionary struggle should be appropriated by the masses if it is to morph into national consciousness, Alaoui and Pilotti, through the language of fire in Arab poetry, re-articulate a sense of collective and individual dignity that emerges from human relations based on respect and compassion, and not on domination/repression and power. Melody Fonseca’s piece continues to reflect on contemporary postcolonial settlements by focusing on Puerto Rico. With its status of unincorporated territory of the United States, Puerto Rico is another case of unfulfilled national liberation perhaps even more ambiguously situated vis-à-vis the idea of national consciousness since the nationalist struggle was small and rapidly contained by the U.S. Fonseca takes up the idea of “national consciousness” to examine how contemporary activist mobilizations in Puerto Rico go beyond a national liberation frame—and its production of what she describes as a “colonial entrapment”— to resist current neocolonial arrangements by the U.S., and thus articulate a sense of political community that is more inclusive and engaged than that imagined by nationalist movements.
Seidel’s, Alaoui’s and Pilotti’s, and Fonseca’s interventions thus bring the question of escaping the nation into the postcolonial present. Although the points of focus differ from one article to another, all three contributions highlight the intersections between nation-building (as aspiration in the case of Palestine) and neoliberalism, and how current mobilizations among civil society groups and activist movements provide both a critique of neoliberal globalization but also of the national liberation state that betrayed its formative ideals and horizons (in the case of Palestine, Seidel focuses on the Palestinian Authority, while Fonseca takes to task the pro-status quo political establishment of Puerto Rico). In the case of contemporary Palestine, the question of escaping the nation is ambivalent at best, since for many Palestinians (and Palestinian political movements), statehood continues to be a much-desired goal. As an unincorporated U.S. territory, Puerto Rico and the question of escaping the nation seems even more ambivalent since the horizon of independence continues to hold sway (though mainly in the form of plebiscites). In the case of Arab states, with established postcolonial states, the question becomes one of the betrayal of the initial revolutionary impulses that founded the national liberation states (especially in the case of states such as Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Tunisia).
This betrayal underscores, again, Fanon’s exhortation that “[e]ach generation must discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it, in relative opacity”. This helps to explain Fanon’s qualified emphasis on “national culture” that returns to the theme of this special issue. National consciousness and national culture can play an important function in terms of providing “a source of coherence for the constitution of ‘the people,’” but it must be “a living form of cultural resistance” that avoids “petrification”—a cultural production oriented toward a future not yet known and so “paradoxically a challenge to its own permanence” … As Gordon observes, this leads Fanon to conclude: “Self-awareness does not mean closing the door on communication. Philosophy teaches us on the contrary that it is its guarantee. National consciousness, which is not nationalism, is alone capable of giving us an international dimension”.