Thursday, 28 July 2016

A Left without Enlightenment? Postcolonialism in the Wake of Terror

By Blair Taylor

The murder of satirical journalists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris by Islamist gunmen became a hotly contested event for the contemporary left. On one side, liberals, atheists, and a smattering of “classical” leftists harshly denounced both the attacks and Political Islam, defending free speech and declaring their solidarity with the victims: “Je suis Charlie.” On the other, the postcolonial and anti-imperialist left denounced not the attack, but the magazine Charlie Hebdo as racist and Islamophobic for its satirical depictions of Islam, placing primary blame on domestic racism and imperial military intervention. For them, expressing support for free speech or the murdered journalists was understood as complicity with racism and the status quo. The recent Paris attacks have posed similar arguments placing primary blame on western imperialism and criticizing gestures of solidarity as hypocritical and racist. 

Thus the contemporary Left is sharply divided on questions regarding the universality or particularity of political critique, the validity of critiques of religion, and the role of international solidarity. Concerns about the cynical manipulation of solidarity and false universality have translated into a deep suspicion of these once basic left concepts. Increasingly, one set of ostensibly left commitments anti-racism, anti-imperialism, and anti-militarism are deployed against the values of universalism, free speech, and solidarity. Is this simply a matter of strategic differences, or does it reflect more fundamental political disagreements that are reshaping the basic contours of left politics?
This article will suggest the latter; namely that a political constellation which draws from postcolonialism, white privilege and Critical Whiteness theory, poststructuralism, and queer theory comprise a new and distinct tradition in left wing politics. These perspectives are typically united by a profound distrust or complete rejection of universalism, secularism, and liberalism, understood as irredeemably false universals which can only ever mask racist, imperialist, and heteronormative assumptions and power relations. As the whole is always both partial and reflective of oppressive power relations, these discourses insist that one can only ever speak on behalf of oneself – or one’s identity group i.e. in the name of the particular. The very term “we,” once the foundation of left politics, is today viewed with suspicion.

L’Affaire Charlie Hebdo 

This new perspective came clearly into focus during the recent Charlie Hebdo affair, which prompted an immediate and seemingly unbridgeable divide within the Left. Notably, large segments of the Left refused to express solidarity with the twelve left wing journalists murdered by right wing extremists. As the gunmen were Islamists, left attention immediately leapfrogged over the actual murder of leftists to the possible (however likely) anti-Muslim backlash. Richard Seymour’s article “On Charlie Hebdo” in Jacobin was typical, skipping “platitudinous points” about protecting free speech to focus on the real threat Islamophobia. Seymour begins by redefining “terrorism” – a suspicious word he puts in scare quotes as not the calculated murder of civilians for political effect, but rather a “narrative device.” He suggests this framing of liberal rights versus Islamic terror is not only dubious, but mobilized by the powerful to “defend a fetishized, racialized ‘secularism,” amounting to a form of “blackmail which forces us into solidarity with a racist institution.” Three months later, 204 prominent writers – including Junot Diaz, Eve Ensler, and Michael Ondaatje announced a boycott of the annual PEN free speech award gala in New York, arguing that by honoring Hebdo there were “not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.” In this formulation, free speech depends on one’s relationship to power, so that for a “population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims” Hebdo’s cartoons “must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.”1

By boycotting an event to honor slain journalists by an organization founded to support writers imprisoned and killed for their views, these ostensibly liberal writers performed a strange reversal of perpetrator and victim which reproduced the same arguments of the right wing extremists who carried out the attacks: Hebdo constituted an intolerable affront to the Muslim world. Indeed, they echoed the response of the Catholic Church and conservative Islamic groups: by offending religious sensibilities, Charlie Hebdo had essentially “asked for it.” Within this enclosed worldview, however, Hebdo’s racism was assumed rather than demonstrated. For Seymour, this meant condescending appeals to a different kind of sacred text: “if you need to be convinced of this, then I suggest you do your research, beginning with reading Edward Said’s Orientalism, as well as some basic introductory texts on Islamophobia, and then come back to the conversation.” Yet this was a curious and partial anti-racism; left attention focused solely on the alleged Islamophobia and symbolic “violence” posed by Hebdo’s cartoons – a charge analyzed and refuted by a Le Monde Diplomatique study and the potential violence to come. Yet these same writers said almost nothing about the actual violence which took place, and ignored completely its explicitly racist dimension the targeted murder of Jews.2 Indeed, this antisemitism has become a pattern in the wake of terror attacks; the day after the recent Paris shooting an IS supporter in Marseilles stabbed a visibly Jewish school teacher. 

These positions do not result from a mere misunderstanding of Charlie Hebdo’s irreverent anarchic politics or French political culture, but rather reflect the explicit politics of a postcolonial left which discards Enlightenment values of universalism, secularism, and free speech as nothing more than masks for racism and imperialism. When considered alongside the total silence or explicit rationalization regarding one form of racism antisemitism this constellation and the strange bedfellows it results in is hard to see as either accidental, or for that matter, left in any meaningful sense. 

Decolonial Politics versus the Left: Le Parti des indigènes de la République

This becomes especially clear in the case of the French political organization Le Parti des indigènes de la République (Party of the Indigenous of the Republic, PIR), which first became known outside France in the wake of Hebdo for controversial statements like “freedom of expressiontakes on the opposite meaning and is being used instead to impose a reign of intimidation and fear,or that solidarity with the victims merely “served to unite white power.”3 Founded in 2005 in response to the racism which fed the explosion of immigrant rage in the Parisian banlieues, PIR has become a prominent political voice embraced by many left groups and thinkers. However, they openly state their politics are neither left nor right but “decolonial.” In fact, they state their “primary adversary” is the French left, whose “Eurocentric emphasis on the issues of class and employment” is presented as the primary obstacle to PIR’s priorities of “racism, police violence, Islamophobia and Zionism.”4 PIR claims these politics are grounded in the “real and authentic experiences” of postcolonial subjects, a perspective which explicitly “counteracts and opposes... the Enlightenment, Marxism, Western Rationalism, Universalism and Republicanism,” understood as contributing to a “linear historicity aiding the concept of white supremacy.”5 The resulting politics is a familiar one for those who claim to be “neither left nor right”: 

“[PIR] is a middle finger, a big “fuck you” to the Left. Or if you prefer, a quenelle. This pendulum swing to the right, contrary to appearances, is one of liberation. We should be considered allies... For this to be possible, we must be accepted as we are: a group that is racially and socially dominated, not necessarily clear-cut on several issues: not clear-cut on capitalism, not clear-cut on class struggle, not clear-cut on women, not clear-cut on homosexuality, not clear-cut on Jews.”6
But it is not the case that PIR is not “clear-cut” on these issues, but rather that it is all too clear. Although PIR are often celebrated as a more radical antiracist group than traditional integrationistorganizations like SOS Racisme, this same article, titled “Dieudonné through the
prism of the white left,” not only refuses to denounce the comedian’s antisemitism but embraces it. Despite its assurance that “the project uniting us must be a project of radical justice for all,” the very same line continues with the ominous qualification “For this, one must necessarily accept to get one’s hands dirty, as C. L. R. James advises us.” The James’ quote which follows is chilling and unambiguous: 

“The movements which seek ‘to drive the Jew out of Harlem or the South Side’ have a valid class base. They are the reactions of the resentful Negro seeking economic relief and some salve for his humiliated racial pride. That these sentiments can be exploited by fanatical idiots, Negro anti-Semites, or self- seeking Negro business men, does not alter their fundamentally progressive basis.”7
Such open racism exists alongside open homophobia. Party leader Houria Bouteldja has stated “The homosexual way of life does not exist in the banlieues, and that’s not entirely a bad thing,” and queers have been asked to leave the group.8 Given PIR’s explicit homophobia, antisemitism, cultural chauvinism, and ambiguity towards anticapitalism and universalism, the hostile reception by parts of the French left is unsurprising. What is more surprising and perhaps novel is that such ideas have found any welcome on the left. Yet oddly, such “decolonial” positions are in fact often most likely to be heard within the very groups demonized by this discourse – queers, (antizionist) Jews, “westerners,” and white leftists.

Reversing Orientalism, Inverting Eurocentrism 

These issues are not unique to PIR, but reflect particular common theoretical and political assumptions within postcolonial discourse more generally. Rather than rejecting racism, colonialism, and Orientalism, postcolonial arguments invert them essentializing various traits and positions as “indigenous” and defining them against an equally essentialist “white” or “western” population. Having abandoned universalism, postcolonialism frequently aligns with reactionary traditionalist, nationalist, and religious ideas. Unsurprisingly, nationalists and conservatives in Poland, Indonesia, and Nigeria have begun to justify their right-wing views in the language of “postcolonialism,” branding feminism, gay rights, liberalism, tolerance, secularism as “western” or “imperial” and thus inauthentic and oppressive to the “local” culture.9 Earlier, Germany marketed Nazism in the Arab and African world as an “anti-imperialist” ideology against the French and British. Therefore it is politically unclear what “decolonization” means in practice. Some seem to take the verb literally – to “decolonize” suggests abandoning any “contamination” by what is construed as “the West,” and sending colonizers and their descendants back to where they came from. 

Such arguments are not only deeply ahistorical mobility and migration have been constants of human history they are also profoundly Eurocentric. Europeans have no monopoly on imperial domination; indeed they arrived relatively late to that game, following in the bloody footsteps of the Mongol, Persian, Umayyad, and Ottoman empires. Indigenous societies were never peaceful utopias but have their own oppressive hierarchies and power relations slavery was common among Pacific Northwest tribes, while the powerful Iroquois dominated the Huron in imperial fashion. Postcolonialism often offers crude and reductive analysis of power and social relationships. Much left analysis of the Hebdo attacks followed a general pattern of explanation regarding Islamist terrorism: focusing solely on exclusion, Islamophobia, poverty, and an imperialist War on Terror. Yet in their zeal to blame Islamophobia and Empire, such explanations paternalistically ignore the actual stated motivations of Islamist actors the desire to impose a global Caliphate by force. As the PIR stated after Hebdo, “Deep inside them, they are well aware of this truth: it is they who, by their excesses and their encouragement to Islamophobia, have fueled this unhealthy climate for many years, while, conversely, we kept warning against fatal outcomes of this sort.” In these accounts, Islamist terror is and can only ever be a regrettable and confused form of resistance by the powerless to bigger and worse problems caused by the West and liberalism. While historical context is certainly important, it easily veers into rationalization. By contrast, one never hears leftists argue that “Violence by the KKK is deplorable, but must be seen as the direct result of decades of outsourced jobs, defunded schools, and the erosion of the welfare state.” Yet the arguments are structurally indistinguishable, viewing political violence as a rational if confused response to real political problems, thus requiring not condemnation but deeper introspection and self-analysis on the part of the victim.

Such accounts are not only dangerously naïve, overlooking the sponsorship of powerful, well- funded states like Saudi Arabia and Iran, but also the significant appeal political Islam poses even for the middle class and affluent. Especially in the Anglo-American left, this common sentiment does not challenge Eurocentrism, but reinforces it by viewing the world only in relation to the crimes of the imperial metropole, simply reversing the normative polarities of colonialism. This narcissism renders postcolonialism oblivious to the imperial ambitions, past and present, of non-western nations like Turkey, China, Russia, Iran, and Japan. The left’s deafening silence on Syria is telling; as the United States and Israel have been eclipsed by sectarian struggles for regional dominance between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, it no longer instinctively knows who to blame and what side to take, and thus says nothing at all.

Such narratives rest on a highly mechanistic view of social reality that is false. As David Bell notes, it is “it is in fact deeply condescending to assume that Muslims do nothing but react to the crimes and mistakes of the West.”10 It assumes that the West or in the case of Hebdo, small leftist journals acts, while Islamists (and the non-west generally) only ever react to this “prime mover.This perception is not only inaccurate but racist, as it denies the agency of those actors. There is no direct causality linking social exclusion and poverty to political radicalization, either of the left or the right. While such immiseration theories of social change have been largely discredited regarding Marxism and the working class, they live on in post-colonial discourse. The result is a reverse Orientalism wherein essentialist categories are retained but with the normative polarities reversed post colonial subjects, Muslims, and people of color are inherently good and progressive; while the West is always bad or worse regardless of the case or the stated politics of actors. Vivek Chibber thus concludes, “in the name of displacing Eurocentrism, postcolonial theory ends up resurrecting it with a ferocious intensity.”11

When Left and Right Switch Polarities 

Postcolonialism’s binary politics of “the west vs. the rest,” results in an affirmative rather than critical view of society. Rather than the “ruthless critique of everything existing” Marx called for, it becomes a ruthless apologia for everything existing. In a historical irony, the left and right have switched positions on many key issues the importance of cultural difference, universalism, relativism, secularism, free speech, human rights, and even the need for revolutionary change. This is especially clear concerning questions of Enlightenment, universality, and particularism. On this view, it is no mere accident that post-colonialism has significant overlap with conservative politics it reflects shared philosophical assumptions. This helps to explain the otherwise seemingly strange political bedfellows of Islamists and Marxist- Leninists, theocrats with queer activists, anarchists and reactionary nationalists.

This development reflects the impotence of the left in an era where hopes for emancipatory social change have dimmed. Responding to the frustratingly slow pace of social change, the intransigence of racism, and relative absence of progressive mass movements, large parts of the contemporary left have embraced a politics which combines particularism with a barely concealed skepticism about the possibility of social change the same orientation that was once the exclusive domain of the right. This results in a similarly conservative and defensive orientation which idealizes static endogenous populations and reduces politics to resisting “outsiders.” As with anti-imperialism before it, this creates space for endorsing reactionary movements as vehicles for powerless leftists to project their desires and resentments onto, disregarding these movements’ own stated goals. This is “radicalism” at its worst – other- directed, backwards-looking, and violent decidedly non-utopian. The absence of serious channels for social change produces a politics of bad faith that is moralistic and highly symbolic. Yet this powerlessness-induced left realpolitik can also work both ways, by creating an equal and opposite impulse to uncritically defend liberalism, interventionism, and the progressive aspects of capitalism. Thus the unlikely alliance mentioned above has been at times been mirrored on the other side: labor leftists, certain feminists, and Marxist intellectuals finding themselves agreeing with liberals, civil libertarians, and some right wing critics. This divide between a politics based on particularity and a shared culture versus universalism and shared positions is becoming an increasingly central fault line, one that is profoundly reconfiguring “the left.” 

The legacies of colonialism and racism are all too real, as is the Islamophobia fueling a resurgence of right wing xenophobic movements. However, while combating these forces the left must avoid several pitfalls: silently ignoring or dismissing the real threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism, adopting postcolonial positions that reproduce essentialist and monolithic categories of “culture,” and the resultant rationalization of indigenous forms of domination obscured by a simplistic “inside/outside” political dichotomy. It is necessary to address the ongoing reality of inequalities based on fictional and restrictive categories of race and nation, but without reinforcing and reproducing these same irrational social divisions. The “west,” “non- west,” “white people,” and “people of color” are not stable or unified categories but relationships of power which can and must be challenged, not affirmed. It must also be stressed that these groups are not monolithic, but internally divided by class, gender, and most importantly, subjective political commitments that do not directly correspond to subject position. By fusing subjectivity, culture, and politics to one’s social location, postcolonialism often resurrects the same closed worldview the Enlightenment sought to abolish.

The cultural relativism undergirding such arguments makes politics impossible, as it allows no place to judge different “cultures” understood as static, autonomous, unitary, and authentic. Not only does this evacuate politics, but it can easily backfire; just as claims about essential difference once buttressed slavery, the Confederate flag is defended today as a symbol of a unique Southern cultural heritage that must be protected. Absent any universal metric, which “culture” is worthy of support and defense? By its nature politics means judgment and taking positions, while revolutionary politics means a transformation of the status quo, not its defense. This extends to the ideas, lifeways, and institutions of both elites and masses, whether states, markets, patriarchal masculinities, or religious obfuscation of the social world. Once obvious, many leftists seem to have forgotten that social change requires conflict and offending received wisdom, not its polite affirmation. As Kenan Malik writes, “Today, when Enlightenment ideas are often seen as racist or reactionary because they are the products of European culture, and when the line between anti-imperialist and anti-Western sentiment has become all too blurred, [C. L. R. James's] insistence . . . that the aim of anti-imperialism was not to reject Enlightenment ideas but to reclaim them for all of humanity has become all the more important.” The answer to the incomplete and partial legacy of universalism is not its wholesale rejection; a glance at the examples offered by history and the present reveals that rooting political claims in particularity, fixed cultural differences, and “tradition” is to embrace the philosophical and political project of the right. Indeed, as the examples above demonstrate, there can be no left politics without the Enlightenment’s core principles of universalism, critique, and reasoned argument. As power relations around the world shift and the power and dominance of the U.S. and Europe continue to fade, the left must be clear about its basic principles and not embrace reactionary ideologies simply on account of what they oppose or who espouses them.

Works Cited:




8 denoncent-l-imperialisme-gay#

11 Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. P. 291

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