The Mbembe-Debate How Racist Is the West?

Decolonisation: 18th Century leg iron shackles that once held black slaves sits on display at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, England. The museum, through artifacts from slavery and black history, seeks to tell the story of the enslavement of people from Africa and how the British city benefited from human bondage.
18th Century leg iron shackles that once held black slaves sits on display at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, England. The museum, through artifacts from slavery and black history, seeks to tell the story of the enslavement of people from Africa and how the British city benefited from human bondage. | Photo (detail): Russell Contreras © picture alliance / AP Photo

Cameroonian historian Achille Mbembe was to open the Ruhrtriennale - and fell under suspicion of anti-Semitism. Ijoma Mangold explains: “His hatred of Israel casts a pall over Postcolonial Studies.”

By Ijoma Mangold

The issue of whether the Cameroonian historian and philosopher Achille Mbembe should open the Ruhrtriennale has been resolved without having to be answered: Due to the Corona crisis, the cultural festival will not be held this year. The debate was sparked by the question of whether Mbembe should be considered a supporter of the BDS, a political campaign calling for „boycott, divestment and sanctions“ of the state of Israel as protest against its occupation policy.

Last year, the Bundestag had condemned the BDS as anti-Semitic; no more state funds are to flow to events where BDS activists appear. Achille Mbembe's opening speech at the Ruhrtriennale would have been a case of application for this decision. 

But the debate that the process has triggered is already far more productive than the enforcement of a blanket ban. Are Mbembe's positions on Israel anti-Semitic, as not only Felix Klein, the German government's anti-Semitism commissioner, has adjudged, or is it a witch-hunt, as historian of Africa Andreas Eckert stated on SWR? And regardless of how Mbembe himself describes his relationship to the BDS, why is his thinking so popular among BDS supporters?

Let's take a closer look at his work, which has been distinguished with many awards. Mbembe is regarded as the figurehead of post-colonialism, an interdisciplinary field of research that has dominated academic discourse over the past twenty years. In his main work, Critique de la raison nègre (Critique of Black Reason), Mbembe impressively demonstrates how Europe has created an image of Africans since the early modern era in which they are described in animalistic categories, on the borderline between the human and the animal, libidinal and underdeveloped, and barely participating in reason.

In this context, Mbembe consistently speaks of the „negro,“ to revalorise the originally pejorative term through self-appropriation, in a manner comparable to the gay movement.

This racist phantasm was the discursive prerequisite for enslaving the „negro“, who was thus deprived of his humanity, and for the colonisation of Africa as a whole. For Mbembe, the modern era does not begin with humanism or the Renaissance, but with the invention of racism, which, following the example of the dehumanisation of the black human being, allows all non-European peoples to be seen as images of „inferiority“, to be exploited, reified and treated as commodities. It is from here that the great expansion movements of the modern era take their starting point: the conquest of the New World and the extermination of the indigenous population, the transatlantic slave trade for the cultivation of plantations overseas, and finally the colonisation of Africa, which had legitimised itself as a project of bringing civilisation to the „savages“.

It is moving to read this, and to have worked out how the act of economic exploitation of the African peoples was preceded by its discursive initiation is a lasting merit of Mbembe's main work. His real impulse, the initial fright, so to speak, is the undeniable scandal that the declaration of human rights and the slave economy were part of one and the same historical movement, that the Enlightenment produced both universalism and colonialism.That Thomas Jefferson, as co-author of the American Declaration of Independence, was capable of writing the sentence „All men are created equal“ and that this very same Jefferson owned slaves on his farm in Virginia (with a twinge of conscience, but not with an insurmountable one). This absurdity can be explained either with hypocrisy: then the European nations and the United States considered Africans as merely half-human because otherwise their own enlightened standards would have rendered their business model impossible. Or else, like Mbembe, one considers both movements to be the two sides of one and the same coin. Then capitalism is nothing other than racism, of the same origin and nature, an economic form that always produces a class of exploited people, which it racially marks in order to be able to deny them equal treatment. The toleration of slavery by the founding fathers of the USA would then not be a double standard, no cowardly buckling before the interests of Southern plantation farmers, but the core principle of the project of modernity. It is the latter thesis, which Mbembe not only tends towards, but which gives his work the specific organ-tones of doom. The slave trade, he writes, is the „baptismal font of our modernity“.

Postcolonial Studies are a child of post-structuralism. It is no coincidence that Mbembe's writing style is oriented primarily towards Michel Foucault in the handling of metaphors of the body - but where Foucault becomes laconic, Mbembe tends towards pathos and superlatives. But something else is of interest here. One of the founding texts of poststructuralism was Jean-François Lyotard's essay La Condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir (The Postmodern Condition), in which he bade farewell to grand narratives, i.e. above all to the philosophy of history of Hegelian and Marxian provenance. In Mbembe's work, the grand narrative returns - in its totalising claim to derive the diversity of reality from a single grand project.

A story of shattering statics

Achille Mbembe Achille Mbembe | Photo: Erick Christian Ahounou

Mbembe pays a high price for this return to the grand narrative. For in this work, which is, after all, that of a historian, there is in fact no development: if capitalism is racism and racism is capitalism, then the history of the modern era up to the present is one of crushing stasis.The abolitionist movement, which began in England in the 18th century and fought for the abolition of slavery, is left almost unmentioned in Critique de la raison nègre. Mbembe would have difficulty explaining it also, because it would have had to have been the result of a crisis of form within capitalism - at least certainly not the result of a moral paradigm shift as described by the British Ghanaian philosopher and historian Kwame Anthony Appiah (two Afropolitan thinkers who otherwise could hardly be more different).

In Mbembe's hands the term „negro“ is also a timeless cipher. As rich as his book is in quotations that impressively demonstrate the racist phantasm, the reader is left unable to assign these quotations to a specific historical context: The great era of racist capitalism has no internal periodisation. But Mbembe's „ negro“ is not only timeless, he is also in a certain sense placeless: That the experience of colonisation is different from that of enslavement, that African Americans are not black in the same way as Africans, does not matter to Mbembe. He would probably even interpret this placelessness as an effect of the violent uprooting of Africans as a whole. It is the white man's view of him that even constitutes him as a rebellious subject.

“In any case, for Mbembe as a critic of the present, the ‘Negro’ is not an empirical figure, but a metaphysical quantity instead: as a central nub of Mbembe's diagnosis of the present, he need not be black at all. ‘Negroes’ today are all who are exploited by capitalism.”

In both Critique of Black Reason of 2013 and Politiques de l'inimitié (i.e. the politics of enmity) of 2016, Mbembe repeatedly declares that „the similarities between the market and war have never been as clear as they are today“. Data-based finance capitalism is only the latest form of dehumanisation that reduces human beings to their status as commodities. Just as black people were once moveable goods, we are now all „labour nomads“. But if capital flows are just a new form of the global circulation of human capital, then the transatlantic slave trade of the 17th and 18th centuries loses, to put it mildly, something of its specificity. Then slavery is the same as colonialism, colonialism is the same as apartheid, and apartheid is indistinguishable from neo-liberalism and democracy, which Mbembe says bears „the colony deep within itself“. This is what Mbembe means when he murmurs apocalyptically with regard to our present day that „the world is turning black“.

Mbembe describes - with reference to Carl Schmitt - very plausibly how in the age of colonialism a line was drawn between the whites and the others, between Europe and the overseas world: beyond this line the „free space of uninhibited struggle“ had begun, „open to untrammelled competition and untrammelled exploitation, in which people are free to behave towards each other like wild animals“.

Here another figure of thought that is of decisive importance for the work comes into play: this violence, once externalised by the Europeans into the world beyond this line, is now returning to its starting point: in the form of neo-liberalism and poverty migration - two sides of the same coin.

“‘Sooner or later,’ writes Mbembe in “Politiques de l'inimité” (i.e. “the politics of enmity”), ‘one will reap at home what one has sown afar.’ The original act of discrimination, with which a categorical line of existence was drawn between whites and Africans, is being repeated today in the border security and control measures of the Western world.”

For 80 long pages in Politiques de l'inimitié, Mbembe describes in darkly flickering metaphors, but without historical concretion, the extent to which racism in today's society has lost none of its deadly violence. And while as a reader one waits impatiently for concrete proof of where exactly the not-entirely-harmless sounding „procedures for the annihilation of all those who are declared enemies of the state by democracy“ are taking shape, Mbembe suddenly becomes terribly concrete, as if it were breaking out of him as though he were suffering from Tourette syndrome: in Israel and its occupation regime, which „recalls the model of apartheid“. „But the metaphor of apartheid is insufficient to capture the Israeli project of separation.“ The goal of Israel's „fanatically destructive dynamic“ is to „turn the lives of Palestinians into a heap of rubble and a mountain of refuse destined for disposal. In South Africa, the mountains of rubble have never been so massive.“

The world divided into perpetrators and victims

In a preface to the English-language book Apartheid Israel, the proceeds of which went to the BDS, Mbembe describes the „occupation of Palestine“ as the „greatest moral scandal of our time, one of the most dehumanising ordeals of the century we live in, and the greatest cowardice of the last half century“.

One could point out in Mbembe's favour that his rhetoric is basically only superlative and that the border fence with which Israel seals off the occupied territories is for him only the icing on the cake of a worldwide tendency to build walls, to seal off and fatally exclude the foreigner, Seen in this light, Israel is in the best of company. But there is another problem with Mbembe's work: the rhetoric of moral maximalism, which always sounds as if the seven angels of the Apocalypse were speaking at the same time, renders his thinking in terms of sinister gestures compatible with political activism. But this rhetoric is also an immunisation strategy against critical scrutiny. By doing everything to ensure that no one can outdo him in his radical gesture of rejection, questions of historical differentiation always come across as though, even if one does not intend to deny fundamental racism, one is at least trivialising it.

Yet Mbembe, with his relentless anti-liberalism, is not by chance representative of an entire political-academic milieu in which the BDS movement enjoys great popularity. At the core of this line of thinking, one of whose key proponents is the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, is the conviction that the world has become a single camp and that the western democracies with their fortified state borders are places of disenfranchisement and extermination. The fact that refugees in Europe have legal rights does not escape Mbembe's lips, presumably because he thinks it is a mere hypocritical sleight of hand. After all, liberal universalism's promise of humanity will not pull the wool over the eyes of someone like Mbembe.

So how shall we now answer the question of anti-Semitism? I do not believe that fixation on this term will bring the expected relief. We do not need to resort to this ultima ratio to critically examine Mbembe's work. It raises enough questions as it is, why an author who identifies racism at the centre of humanity's calamity is practically lashing out, as well as why Israel is the issue here. One possible explanation could be: In the architecture of Mbembe's thinking we all become „negroes“, but the Jews as victims of the Holocaust were the highest form of „negro“. But if the Jews were „negroes“ in this sense, then the Israelis, as the people who drew the borders, are no longer Jews, but whites.

„The apartheid regime in South Africa and - on a completely different scale and in a different context - the destruction of the European Jews are two emblematic manifestations of this separation mania”. Is Mbembe relativising the Holocaust with this statement? There's something sterile about this question. Something else is much more interesting: Mbembe can easily integrate the victims of the Shoah into his world view, whereas the state of Israel with all its ambivalences, ally of the USA, but mortally threatened by its neighbours, fits far less into Mbembe's division of the world into perpetrator and victim. His hatred for Israel has something of the anger at a traitor who has changed sides.

“Rarely has a debate been as productive as this one. Even in the taz, which is always well-informed about postcolonial issues, the question is now being raised as to whether it is due to a ‘fundamental error in construction’ of Postcolonial Studies when its theorists for the most part understand the discipline not only ‘as a science, but also as a form of resistance’.”

So where does that leave us? Mbembe should still be invited to Germany. It is intellectually more rewarding to confront him with critical questions than to guiltily endure his moral maximalism like a fire-and-brimstone sermon. Postcolonial Studies are too important for the reconstruction of our present for us to afford to declare them sacrosanct. Here, too, dogmatism needs to be stirred up. The debate surrounding Achille Mbembe will sharpen arguments and contexts and weed out sloganeering without fundamentally questioning Mbembe's great contribution to the history of racism.

This article was first published on 28. April 2020 in the weekly newspaper  DIE ZEIT No. 19/2020.