"Ethics of Passage" Against Identitarian Withdrawal

Achille Mbembe
Achille Mbembe | © Jean Counet

As nations and communities increasingly withdraw into their identitarian shells, postcolonial theorist Achille Mbembe counters with an ethics of ”passage, circulation and transfiguration” that breathes fresh air into the confines of increasingly musty national spaces.

Europe is turning into a fortress in order to better protect the “European way of life”, under the pretext that "France can’t take in everybody", as President Macron recently put it, the government is considering abolishing free primary health care (Aide médicale d'État) for asylum seekers. Europe in general and France in particular are sinking into a “politics of enmity” that is worlds away from the much-vaunted principles of the Enlightenment.
Faced with this withdrawal into nationalist and identitarian shells, Achille Mbembe, a post-colonial theorist of Cameroonian origin who teaches at Wits (University of the Witwatersrand) in South Africa, proposes an ethics of "passage, circulation and transfiguration". Braving the headwinds of nationalism and neoliberalism, he is carrying this ethics all the way into the agora of social networks, e.g. with his reactions on Facebook to two recent events in Paris.

"Role models" vs "sans-papiers"

On 11 July 2019, the French president received a group of "representatives of the African diaspora” at the Élysée. The intended message, wrote Mbembe on his Facebook page, was that “France no longer views Africa solely in terms of foreign policy and through the prism of its anxiety-inducing fixation on security and migration flows". The proposed solution is to bank more on “promoting role models to help ‘break down barriers’" than on "’positive discrimination’, meaning quotas". But the “encouraging and appreciative remarks" of a presidency bent on regilding the image of a former colonial power are belied by its less glorious actions lately.

The very next day, 12 July, a group of undocumented migrants who call themselves “Gilets Noirs” (i.e. "Black Vests") occupied the Pantheon, a highly symbolic bastion of the French Republic, to demand legal residency as well as a meeting with Prime Minister Édouard Philippe. But instead of getting their papers or face time with the PM, the sans-papiers were charged – and several injured – by the CRS riot police as they left the building. For Mbembe, this incident epitomizes the duplicity of heads of state who pose with their handpicked "role models" for the camera while passing over the fate of migrants in the Mediterranean in silence, putting up obstacles to stop "niggers from migrating to Europe" and, if they make it across the border all the same, forcibly push them back.

The word “nègre”, as Mbembe uses it, is not to be taken at face value, for class and race are intertwined here in a specifically postcolonial context: “The condition of being a nigger doesn’t necessarily refer to skin colour anymore. The nigger has become post-racial.” In the age of late capitalism, the “nigger” is not only the colonized, but the generic form of the subaltern, the oppressed. Within Europe itself, Greece – under the lash of the European "Troika", for whom democracy is of no avail against the primacy European treaties – also found itself relegated to the position of the "nigger" of the European Union.

Proliferating borders in a finite world

Paradoxically, never before have borders been talked about as much as they are now in a world that is shrinking and accelerating thanks to technological progress. These isolationist trend all over the world is symptomatic of what might be called the postcolonial condition: the one who, it was thought, could be relegated to the colonies, in other words the "nigger", is returning to the motherland in the manner of a “return of the repressed”.
So the "nigger" is the one whom the white man has for centuries sought to confine to the colonies, to marginalize, subjugate and regard as a non-entity. Now, after decolonization, colonialism, this dark side of Western democracies, has come flooding back, though this time inside society: “The great repression [...] is therefore followed by a great release.” Confronted with its dark past, the West reacts by glorifying its self-styled identity, and the negro, the Arab, the Jew, in short, the Other, serve both as its foil and bugbear, the scapegoat of (il)liberal democracies in the throes of decompensation: "Identity has become a sort of opium of the masses today.”

The fiction of identity

This discourse, against the current of history and life, cleaves to a fiction. It is what Michel Foucault called a “morale d’état civil”, "a morality of bureaucrats and the police”, in a passage to which Achille Mbembe could subscribe: "I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face,” writes Foucault. “Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.” After all, what could be more accidental than one’s place of birth and more fragmentary than identity, which is always moving and changing?
Hence Mbembe’s preference for becoming – which is always in relation to others, whether human or not – over being. For if colonialism was the means by which capitalism sought to subdue nature and the supposedly inferior races, then overcoming capitalism must be achieved by removing all boundaries between people, but also between people and nature, embracing a policy of rapprochement and amity rather than separation and enmity.


Achille Mbembe kicked off the 31st Forum Philo Le Monde Le Mans on the subject of “identity” with a defence of a "community of passersby" against a community of essence made up of identitarians. Last up at the conference was Alain Finkielkraut, the "last patriarch“ as journalist Mona Chollet calls him, the same Finkielkraut who in 2005 bemoaned the "black-black-black" makeup of the French national football team. In other words, the philosophy forum opened with a "global thinker " and closed with the author of L’Identité malheureuse ("The Unhappy Identity") – who also happens to be a friend of Renaud Camus, the conspiracy theorist of the "Great Replacement". They mark the opposite poles of the worldwide tension between diversity and monoculture, circulation and stagnation, openness and bunker mentality, embracing the future and pining for the past.

Selected bibliography of books by Achille Mbembe available in English translation

On the Postcolony, University of California Press, 2001

On Private Indirect Government (State of the Literature), Codesria, 2002

Critique of Black Reason, Duke University Press, 2017

Necropolitics, Duke University Press, 2019