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Monday, December 12, 2005
Achieving our Liberation, part II

Note: This is the second in a series of posts, the whole of which might be a conference paper. Comments are encouraged on parts or on the whole.

The Bound Nations from Europe’s Perspective

Historically, the act of the imperialist and colonialist nations imposing the status of “colony” onto a people through military domination and economic exploitation constituted the source of national captivity. The predatory logic of capitalism drives its sponsor to create new markets and found exploitable labor power. This predation required both the domination of the colony and the submission of the local environments to the logic of capitalistic economics: competitive value-added production for a consumer base. Sartre, Lenin, and Cabral disagree, however, on exactly how imperialist capitalist logics dominate the colonies, and, as a result, disagree over what a project of national liberation would mean for the colonized.

Imperialism as a Cancer for Europe: Helping “Them” to Help “Ourselves”

Sartre develops a theory concerning the colonial logic of the metropolitan producers and the settler-colonists. Europe and its interests are central to his story, and he never fully manages to think outside his mode of life. In one essay, “Colonialism is a System”, Sartre records the French method of colonial market-creation: the transplantation of excess European populations and the concentration of the means of production—land, labor, and capital—under the colonists’ control. His historical theoretical narrative about colonialism focuses on the dynamics and imperatives of surpluses in market economies, particularly surpluses of labor and goods. His narrative mentions the colonized in relation to processes begun in Europe.

Sartre begins with the “first” definition of colonialism as expounded by Jules Ferry, “the great figure of the Third Republic”:
It is in the interest of France, which has always been awash with capital and has exported it to foreign countries in considerable quantities, to consider the colonial question from this angle. For countries like ours which, by the very nature of their industry, are destined to be great exporters, this question is precisely one of outlets…Where there is political predominance, there is also predominance in products, economic predominance (Sartre 2001, 33).

Ferry identifies the four key elements necessary as a prerequisite for a colonialist ideology: a country that defines itself as the center, surplus capital, strong export interests, and desire for economic predominance. Sartre criticizes the latter three, but misses the first. I shall come back to that later. However, he makes evident the ideological flaws at the core of Ferry’s glowing praise for France’s productive capacity: all of them center on the need for a passive, dominated colony.

“The capital with which France is ‘awash’ will not be invested in under-developed countries”, Sartre insinuates (Sartre 2001, 33). France was searching for economic and political predominance. By investing in others France ran the risk of creating competitors and thereby threatened the very precondition of colonialism, “France…awash with capital.” Nevertheless, that surplus must go somewhere and the natives in the colonies cannot afford to purchase the surplus goods. That problem—of the lack of a buyer market—quickly resolves itself, Sartre wryly noted, when the settler becomes involved. “The concomitant of this colonial imperialism is that spending power has to be created in the colonies. And, of course, it is the colonist who will benefit from all the advantages and who will be turned into potential buyers. The colonialist is above all an artificial consumer, created overseas from nothing by a capitalism which is seeking new markets. (Sartre 2001, 34)” In this way, settler colonization becomes the physical method by which the territory of another nation is incorporated in the sphere of French political and economic dominance.

The settler, however, arrives in a land owned by another people. Lacking any true normative or historical claim to the land, settlers have only two choices if they are to ground the new outposts of the French market: bribery and theft. In the sparsely populated regions of the country, settler colonization is less noticeable and takes the form of “military occupation and forced labor. (Sartre 2001, 34)” The most concentrated populations occupied and cultivated the most profitable land for France. The market, in the physical persons of the settlers, needed to acquire the land for the colonial system, and, as Sartre judiciously phrased it, “any method was acceptable. (Sartre 2001, 35)” French colonialists chose management techniques created and perfect by Spain when it invented America. Every crushed revolt, every land speculator, every law designed to break the traditional property relations of Algeria were also the elegant fingers of colonial-market-settlers tightening their grip on the land and choking the life of the indigenous people. “The results of the operation: In 1850, the colonists’ territory was 115, 000 hectares. In 1900, it was 1, 600, 000; in 1950, it was 2, 703, 000. Today [1956]…7 million hectares have been left to the Algerians…It has taken just a century to dispose them of two-thirds of their land. (Sartre 2001, 36)” For Sartre, colonialism’s dominative and dispossesive dynamics defined the relationship of the colonized and the colonizer. It also sustained support in the metropolis for colonialism among capitalists. In terms of sheer agricultural output, the French settlers out-produced the Algerians: “Agricultural production is estimated as follows: the Muslims produce 48 billions francs worth; the Europeans produce 92 billions francs worth. (Sartre 2001, 38)” The loss of Algerian colony would represent a loss of the investment of the profit.

The system of capitalism, however, is not only the economic ties, dependencies and land-ownerships supported by the system, it is also the identities “colonialist” and “native” reified by the system in its own self-reproduction. The colonial system is not just the “million colonists, children, and grandchildren of colonists, who have been shaped by colonialism and who think, speak, and act according to [its] very principles”, it is also the fabricated native, composed of “his function and interests (Sartre 2001, 44).” However, Sartre shied away from describing precisely how the Algerian [man] is fabricated by the colonial system, and focused instead on the false consciousness of the colonialist whose homeland was France but whose country was Algeria. This is because Sartre ignores how the identity of France, and not just its economic interests, were bound into and by the France-colony identity. France’s quest for economic and political predominance meant that France first had to create a political economic system of which it was the center and author.

The natives, fabricated though they were, were also always exterior to that system. French capital follows French settlers protected by French soldiers who gather the land using French law to sell French goods to French consumers. At no point was the colonial system anything but French. In fact, so distrustful and so presumptive was French colonialism that it incorporated Algeria into the political structure of France itself, and did its best to replace non-French identities with those of the French. The natives appear in Sartre’s story only to the extent which their presence confirms the self-defeating nature of French colonialism: “The Algerians…have decided to attack our political predominance…Colonialism is in the process of destroying itself…It is our shame; it mocks our laws or caricatures them. It infects us with racism (Sartre 2001, 44, emphasis added).” The goal of national liberation, from the center’s point of view, is to construct a better, less acerbic relationship between “a free France and a liberated Algeria” and to deliver France—oh, and Algeria too—from French colonial tyranny: “The only thing that we can and ought to attempt…is to fight along side [the Algerians] to deliver both the Algerians and the French from colonial tyranny (Sartre 2001, 47, emphasis in the original).” From the center’s perspective, imperialism is the unjust acquisition of land and appropriation of the value of the land by the surplus products of the metropolis. Concordantly, liberation entails the transfer of land, rents, and legal authority to the colonized people in order that the direct dominative relationship can end. It is an unhelpful view, as it does not envision a role for the postcolony outside of the world system. Sartre’s unexamined presumption of Europe as the center of world history—a position he evidences most clearly in his criticisms of Negritude in Black Orpheus—ultimately does not allow for the development of a true philosophy of national liberation.