In his book, The Wretched of the Earth, the theorist of colonialism Frantz Fanon provides an unprecedented legitimation of violence – passing beyond mere self-defence or the removal of an oppressive social system. Violence becomes a necessary therapy to address the ‘systemised negation of the other’. Yet to what extent is violence really therapeutic? There seems to be a fine line between its utility and its harm.Fanon offered three major reasons as to why violence is crucial for resistance:
• Violence may be a liberating force. From his observations of the behaviour of the colonisers, he concluded that the oppressed are not considered to be of equal human value. In contexts where one party possesses a clear dominance over another, universal values, such as justice or equality, apply only to the more powerful. Within this context, nonviolence is not an option, since it simply sustains the violence of the oppressors, whether physical or mental. The struggle, for the oppressed, is only a distraction from the concrete demands of emancipation.
• Violence may be a cleansing force. It rids the oppressed of their inferiority complex. Fanon claimed that the belief that emancipation must be achieved by force originates intuitively among the oppressed. He observed that, through generations, the oppressed internalise the tag of worthlessness. Anger at their powerlessness eats them from the inside, begging for an outlet. Violence becomes psychologically desirable, as it proves to the oppressed that they are as powerful and as capable as the oppressor. It forces respect – but more importantly, it gives the oppressed a sense of self-respect. By cleansing them of their inferiority complex, violence reinstates them as human beings.
• Violence may be a productive force. On a grander scale, Fanon saw violence as the means of creating a new world. Through violence, a new humanity can be achieved. Violence is instrumental in raising collective consciousness and building solidarity in the struggle for freedom. This creative characteristic of violence could bring a new political reality that comprised the creation of new values.
Ends justify means for Fanon, who accepts even absolute violence for the purposes of liberation and regeneration. Although he built on the specific case of colonial oppression, his ideas can be applied to violence against any regime in which a group’s rights are severely and systematically violated, whether there be cultural, gender, or economic oppression.
The Irish Republican Army (IRA) often referred to Fanon to justify its terrorist violence. One may recall how the partition of Ireland was followed by social, political, and economic discrimination against the Catholic population of Northern Ireland. The attempts of the British government to suppress the IRA by force only reinforced the need to find an outlet for the accumulated frustration and internalised violence. Indeed, Fanon himself claimed that terrorism may be an ‘unfortunate necessity’ to counter the retaliation of a regime after the initial revolt of the oppressed.
Nevertheless, to the extent that the violence of the IRA can be explained by Fanon, this case also disproves Fanon. In particular, the IRA experience disproves the justification of the use of violence as the only means of creating a new culture of politics. Lasting for more than thirty years, the Northern Ireland conflict shows that violence often leads to stalemate, and is unable to deliver the desired results.
The eventual willingness of the British government to recognise the legitimacy of the insurgents’ demands, however limited, offered more possibilities for creating a new culture of politics than continued bloodshed. After all, the fact that Algeria is still torn apart by violence today illustrates that the efficacy of violence in the short term can be mistaken for its efficacy in general. The danger is that the means may overwhelm the ends. Thus Fanon’s belief that, after a period of confrontation, the door would eventually be open for a modern and peaceful society seems unrealistic.
Most importantly, Fanon failed to see that reusing the methods of the oppressor is antagonistic to the idea of creating new values. For Fanon, violence signals the point of no return to the dehumanised past. Yet he was vague as to how a capitulation to anger can help establish a new humanity, for there is nothing new about the use of violence to achieve one’s aims. In fact, is it not merely an imitation of the enemy? A new system of values is rotten from the inside if it is founded on mimicking the perpetrator’s actions.