A Rough Guide to Tasks 7 and 8

This is a bit of a long post, but please bear with me and read it till the end. It’s meant to give a something of a guide or map through the thorny thickets of Tasks 7 and 8 (the debate task)! In other words, a path out of the woods! Task 7 and Task 8 are intimately linked. The former is about Violence and the latter about Borders and the right to exclude others (what others?) from entering or joining our political community. But stopping someone from joining or even entering our community, in other words using the border as a mechanism of exclusion, is a form of violence. This is very literal; violence is often used to physically repulse people from crossing borders. And other, less obvious, forms of violence (coercion) can be used to stop people from even attempting to cross them (bureaucracy, restrictions, quotas etc.). Moreover, most of the borders that we are thinking and talking about when we discuss exclusion of would be migrants, are borders that were violently formed. They are not natural and were not agreed upon by parties who considered those on the other side to be moral or political equals. So, the ideas of ViolenceBorders, and Exclusion – the ideas that inform Tasks 7 and 8 – are intimately related.

Are these new topics for us? Not at all. Though we have not used the words, we’ve been talking about violence, borders and exclusion from day one of this course. Pericles’ speech was meant to motivate Athenian citizens to fight, and at the same time he touted Athens as a city with open borders (one where foreigners were welcome to come, trade, live etc…though not engage in politics). Aristotle also spoke about violence in the form of slavery and misogyny. This was violence that formed a border between the public sphere where politics was conducted and the private sphere of the household to which women and slaves were confined. It was also a border between the truly human (read: rational) and slightly lesser beings.  

The themes of Violence and Borders become explicit in Hobbes’s Leviathan. To escape the violence of the “state of nature” a sovereign state is formed through the (hypothetical) covenant of all-with-all. This state is under the absolute authority of a sovereign leader who becomes the sole purveyor of legitimate violence (the coercive powers of the law) within the boundaries of the state. People give up their right to move however and wherever want in order to gain the right and possibility to move safely and securely. But the control of the Sovereign, its sovereignty, is by definition bounded, it has borders beyond which the sovereign is no longer sovereign. We submit to the violence of the sovereign for fear of greater violence. And in doing so a space is opened up for freedom. We can see how this central concept of liberal thinking – freedom – is made possible by the institution of violence and borders.

Mary Wollstonecraft of course was a defender of the revolutionary violence of France, a violence that was carried out not in the name of exclusion, but on the contrary in the name of inclusion. Revolutionary violence was necessary to achieve recognition and institution of the universal rights of men (and woman). But Wollstonecraft’s defense of universal natural rights, even to the extent of legitimating revolutionary violence could not help but make reference to borders. The scope of rights was meant to be the greatest possible for each person compatible with the same scope for all others and the continuation of the commonwealth. Thus, the sphere of rights is in the end co-extensive with the borders of the commonwealth. Ideally universal, but in practice requiring a commonwealth (a state) with borders. This explains why Wollstonecraft’s adversary Jeremy Bentham described the idea of inalienable natural rights as “nonsense on stilts”. To have rights required a state to issue and guarantee them, this meant that those rights had borders.

The right to Have Rights

This idea was picked up again by the 20th century philosopher Hannah Arendt, who argued that the most important right was the right to have rights, and this could only be guaranteed by a state or government institutions.

These issues continue on through Mill and Rawls, though in different ways. Mill justifies benevolent despotism over those who live on the wrong side of the border of what he thought was civilized society. For Rawls, the presupposition of his thought experiment is indeed something like what we find in Wollstonecraft. The self-enclosed and self-sufficient liberal democratic society where justice is a matter of ensuring basic rights to the maximum degree possible and distributing the benefits of cooperation within the scope of that commonwealth or society, i.e. within the boundaries. Nozick countered Rawls by arguing that while all individual were indeed bearers of rights, it was illegitimate violence on the part of the governments to attempt to redistribute wealth on the basis of a pattered idea of justice.

In Task 6, Elizabeth Anderson wonders why within our supposedly liberal commonwealths of rights, we have in some cases carved out these rather large areas, inside the boundaries of which violence in the form of coercion is seen as legitimate; namely our jobs. Why would anyone freely agree to a situation where employment contracts are allowed to create islands of dictatorship and hence violence within supposedly liberal societies?

If the legitimation of authority and the tension between freedom and equality are the red threads that we’ve tried to make visible running through the course, then violence is the shadow cast over claims of legitimate authority, universal equality, and freedom.      

This brings us up to Task 7. 

Task 7 is about revolutionary violence in the post-colonial context. It’s about the violence that occurred in the liberation struggles of colonized peoples. The specific context is French colonization of Africa, but it applies anywhere where peoples have been colonized, especially when they have been colonized in the name of universal civilizing ideals. If Wollstonecraft argued that revolutionary violence could be a legitimate means for acquiring natural rights, then the claim that Frantz Fanon makes is even stronger. The violence of the anti-colonial had the power to remake colonized people, the allow them to reform themselves as human beings, in a fashion that the colonizers had refused them.

Franz Fanon

Fanon, our main author for Task 7, was a philosopher, anti-colonial, and a psychiatrist. He was heavily involved in the struggle for Algerian independence from French rule. These three streams of analysis come together in his writing. He diagnoses colonialism as a kind of psychological illness or diagnoses the pathologies of his patients as symptoms of colonialism. Violence, in some cases, can be like a therapy.

Fanon does not glorify violence. He’s fully aware of its horrors. But he does not ignore it either. Nor does he think it something that must be avoided at all costs; Fanon takes on the presupposition of liberal philosophy that politics is a way out of violence and demonstrates the hypocrisy of supposed liberal political thinking when it comes to the colonized world. As he writes in the conclusion to The Wretched of the Earth: “Let us leave this Europe which never stops talking of man, yet massacres him at every step […] For centuries Europe has brought the progress of other men to a halt and enslaved them for its own purposes and glory; for centuries it has stifled virtually the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called ‘spiritual adventure.’ […] And yet nobody can deny its achievements at home.”

Our task is to try to understand Fanon’s approach to violence; does he legitimize it? Under what circumstances might violence be political in the most fundamental sense, i.e. transformative of the humans being who wield it or are victims of it. Fanon is of course not a liberal in the traditional sense of the other (modern) philosophers that we have studied, but his aims are also not divorced from the aims of early liberal like Wollstonecraft: he seeks the conditions under which people who have been denied their humanity can finally achieve it.

We have a youtube playlist to help you in your reading of Fanon and understanding of the context:  

Task 7 sets us up for our final task of the course: the debate task. Building on all that we have read we’ll examine and debate the other side of the question of violence: the border.

Who has the right to exclude another from membership in the commonwealth (nation or state governed by the people), and under what conditions could exclusion possibly be justified? You will be split into three debate groups (per tutorial group). One group will argue for the absolute right of a state to exclude others; a second group will take a more nuanced view arguing that while there are some limitations, states can exercise some jurisdiction in deciding who has a right to join or become a member; a third position will argue that the whole concept of a border that can be used to exclude has no justification. There are no good grounds for exclusion.     

We will provide you with additional resources to make these arguments.  These include some traditionally grounded “liberal” arguments for and against the right to exclude, but also an attempt by the contemporary philosopher Achille Mbembe to think the whole idea of a border in a different way, one that is foreign to liberal philosophy, but finds its grounding in African philosophy.

Reading Fanon will be unlike reading the other authors in the course. This makes it more challenging, but it can also be a joyful shock to read his arguments and the style with which he mixes philosophy, psychiatry, history, politics and polemic. Please also take the time to watch the videos we’ve selected. They should help.

If you want to get a more in-depth understanding of the background of Fanon’s thinking, you can listen to this:

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