Notes on Ciccariello-Maher’s ‘So Much the Worse for Whites’

las hilanderas - velazquez

If the face is in fact Christ, in other words, your average ordinary White Man, then the first deviances, the first divergence-types, are racial: yellow man, black man, men in the second or third category…They must be Christianized, in other words, facialized. European racism as the white man’s claim…operates by the determination of degrees of deviance in relation to the White-Man face, which endeavors to integrate nonconforming traits into increasingly eccentric and backward waves, sometimes tolerating them at given places under given conditions, in a given ghetto, sometimes erasing them from the wall, which never abides alterity (it’s a Jew, it’s an Arab, it’s a Negro, it’s a lunatic…). From the viewpoint of racism, there is no exterior, there are no people on the outside.  There are only people who should be like us and whose crime it is not to be. (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 178)

      /1/. Between the Universal & the Particular: Politics
In his review of Susan Buck-Morss’ Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History, ‘So Much the Worse For Whites,’ George Ciccariello-Maher provides one of the clearest formulations of the seeming antinomy between the need to defend the rights and lives of exploited and oppressed social groups and the need to uphold the ideal of universalism that is so central to contemporary liberal-Democratic discourse. According to Buck-Morss, the Haitian Revolution was, ultimately, a truncated one insofar as it was a process of social transformation that culminated in pitting one part of the population (i.e. previously enslaved Africans) against another (i.e. previously slave-owning whites). However, as Ciccariello-Maher highlights:

For Buck-Morss, the rise of Dessalines, the slaughter of the whites, and the legislative uniformity of Haitian blackness all point in one direction: that of a simple inversion in which the last become the first but little else changes, yet another turn in the “recurring cycle of victim and aggressor. (Ciccariello-Maher, ‘So Much the Worse For Whites,’ p. 30)

And with this it is said to have been demonstrated that the political process we call the Haitian Revolution was originally a revolutionary process whose content was truly universal and served the interests for all, but ultimately became a means for the previously enslaved populations to seek out a form of justice indistinguishable from revenge and by means of the physical retribution inflicted upon their white, formerly slave-owning, counterparts. By contrast, Ciccariello-Maher begins his analysis of Buck-Morss’ assertion of the existence of a betrayal at the very heart of the revolutions universal dimension with an altogether different set of questions. For Ciccariello-Maher, we would be wrong to begin by asking ‘Where did the revolution go wrong?’ or ‘Which actor or event marks the point of no return and the beginning of Dessalines betrayal to the revolution?’ Instead, we should begin any investigation into the universal aspects of the Haitian revolution by foregrounding the colonial situation: 

Why was it “the violent elimination of the whites” and not the prior elimination of various maroon and Vodou and other leaders that “signaled” a retreat from the universal? […] Buck-Morss reduces all identitarian opposition to brutality, which can only contribute to an interminable cycle of violence…As a result, she misreads the dialectical content of both Dessalines’ Manichaeism…and the universal blackness of all Haitians (as formulated in the 1805 Constitution). (Ciccariello-Maher, 28) 

Unlike Buck-Morss, Ciccariello-Maher finds Dessalines’ role in the revolution not only less problematic but also indicative of how the promises of Enlightenment universalism (universal humanity) are not obviated by the emphasis placed on particular identity groups within the context of political struggle. While Buck-Morss views Dessalines’ elimination of former slave-owners as the betrayal of the revolutions universalism, Ciccariello-Maher reads this emphasis on Dessalines identitarianism not only as an important pre-dialectical step in the dialectic between colonizer and colonized, but as containing a qualitatively different kind of universality than that espoused by Toussaint L’Ouverture and the European Enlightenment. 

For Ciccariello-Maher, then, the universality embodied by Toussaint L’Ouverture was a universalism that opposed any form of ‘racial identity that interfered with the establishment of formal equality in the here and now.’ In other words, Toussaint embodied a universalism whose content was a form of liberty and right that, when solidified into law, instantiated a new set of divisions and social relations within civil society. In place of the colonizer/colonized and slave-owner/slave relation, there would now be the relation between the public/private, individual/individual, and citizen/non-citizen. Thus, we could say that what is at issue regarding any possible decolonial, and revolutionary, politics, is the relationship between the universal and the particular. Moreover, embarking upon a decidedly decolonial theoretical and political project requires this re-examination of the relationship between the particular and the universal; since it is their relation that is both the test and epistemic schema that allows us to discriminate between a politics that serves the interests of one particular group within society and a politics that aims at realizing the collective interest of all members of that society. 

     /2/. The Particularity of Forms, the Universality of Contents
Now, unlike Buck-Morss, Ciccariello-Maher finds Dessalines’ role in the revolution not only less problematic but also indicative of how the promises of Enlightenment universalism (universal humanity) are not obviated by the emphasis placed on particular identity groups within the context of political struggle. While Buck-Morss views Dessalines’ elimination of former slave-owners as the betrayal of the revolutions universalism, Ciccariello-Maher reads this emphasis on Dessalines identitarianism not only as an important pre-dialectical step in the dialectic between colonizer and colonized, but as containing a qualitatively different kind of universality than that espoused by Toussaint L’Ouverture and the European Enlightenment. For Ciccariello-Maher, the universality embodied by Toussaint L’Ouverture was a universalism that opposed any form of ‘racial identity that interfered with the establishment of formal equality in the here and now.’

In other words, Toussaint embodied a universalism whose content was a form of liberty and right that, when solidified into law, instantiated a new set of divisions and social relations within civil society. In place of the colonizer/colonized and slave-owner/slave relation, there would now be the relation between the public and the private,  the individual/collective, and the citizen and the non-citizen. If this type of universal emancipation remains insufficient for Ciccariello-Maher (as it did for Dessalines) it is insufficient for the very reason Marx gave regarding the distinction between political and human emancipation: the formal universalism of political emancipation only considers individuals in terms of their alienation from others and their social totality and thereby only grants them liberties and rights appropriate to their alienated existence as opposed to abolishing the conditions of alienation as such. As Marx wrote, 

Political emancipation is the reduction of man, on the one hand, to a member of civil society, to an egoistic, independent individual, and on the other hand, to a citizen, a juridical person. Only when the real, individual man re-absorbs in himself the abstract citizen, and as an individual human being has become a species-being in his everyday life, in his particular work, and in his particular situation, only when man has recognized and organized his “own powers” as social powers, and, consequently, no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished. (‘On The Jewish Question’)

However, even if we accept the criticism of Toussaint’s shortcomings in the project of political emancipation, how is it that Ciccariello-Maher can claim that this as a false or empty universalism; a universalism that Toussaint supported, just as the French revolutionaries before him and just like Buck-Morss’ today? Ciccariello-Maher’s answer is two-fold. First, the Hegelian dialectic between master and slave remains a wholly idealist dialectic insofar as Hegel presupposes each individual in the relationship entering into the process for recognition on equal grounding. In an implicit reference to Fanon, Ciccariello-Maher remarks that insofar as we are concerned with understanding the historical development of revolutionary politics we cannot satisfy ourselves with this Hegelian presupposition because

if we see struggle as the necessary precondition for this recognition (Hegel), and if more importantly we see one-sided, pre-dialectical struggle as the necessary precondition for even this Hegelian struggle for recognition (Fanon), then our understanding of the temporal structure of the dialectic shifts accordingly. For Fanon, the ontological blockage of white supremacy creates a more immediate perspective that foregrounds identitarian struggle in the present. Despite his own yearning for the universal…Fanon finds identity repeatedly forced upon him, and his universal is deferred into the distant future. (Ciccariello-Maher, 33)

     /3/. Decolonization Is Not A Discourse on the Universal
So, against the empty formalism that posits humanity’s equality to itself as something that while being true in theory can now become true in our lived reality, Fanon’s critique of Hegel reasserts the non-identical and different material conditions definitive of colonizer and colonized as the real grounds for any dialectical progression toward mutual recognition. Thus, the formal or political emancipation promised by Enlightenment universalism is empty since it seeks to realize in the world that which was already discovered in theory: the (abstract) truth of a humanity that is equal to itself and thus allows no room for discrimination or privileging certain differences over others. As Ciccariello-Maher writes

Much like the avenging angel Dessalines, the colonized returns upon the colonizer the “same violence…which governed the ordering of the colonial world,” and as though rejecting reconciliation outright, Fanon insists that decolonization “does not mean that once the borders have been eliminated there will be a right of way…To destroy the colonial world means nothing less than demolishing the colonist’s sector” (5-6). As though responding preemptively to Buck-Morss’ approach, Fanon insists that decolonization “is not a discourse on the universal,” with emphasis on both “discourse” and “universal”: there is no convincing the colonizer in words, much less in the flowery words of human love that even Fanon himself often uses. (Ibid.)

Second, if Enlightenment version of universalism is said to be empty and limited by its formal equality, it is because it amounts to an approach that only grasps the universal ‘by negating, rather than truly passing through and inhabiting, the particular.’ To be sure, this grasping at universality by negating all particularity, is precisely what was missed and thus constitutes the betrayal of the Haitian revolution insofar as individuals such as Dessalines maintained their identitarian positions. For example, if freedom is said to be universal, it is because it something available to all persons without qualification. Thus, to propose freedom in a qualified manner; to struggle for the freedom of a particular group; presents a problem within the schema of universality Buck-Morss’ seeks to defend, since any struggle for the freedom of slaves or colonized peoples manifest themselves as a violation of freedoms universality, where universality here means ‘free of all particulars’.

Moreover, as Ciccariello-Maher points out in a series of rhetorical questions, it’s historically inaccurate to characterize the politics of individuals such as Toussaint, Dessalines, and Fanon as ‘identitarian’ or as thinkers who are not attuned to the intricacies entailed by defending a specific political identity: “Was Dessalines blind to porosity when he baptized some Poles and Germans as “black”? Was Fanon blind to porosity when he suggested that “some black can be whiter than the whites”? And was not old Toussaint performing the same maneuver when he mobilized on the basis of the nation, and even more so when he reputedly told his troops “leave nothing white behind you” (Black Jacobins, 288)?” For Ciccariello-Maher, then, liberatory struggles waged in the name of the particular are attuned to what is ignored by the tradition of Hegelian universalism: namely, that the universal is never given in advance and one reaches the universal insofar as one retains a commitment to all that is particular in a given situation. And in this way Dessalines appears not as someone who betrays the universal but as the one who makes the first real attempt at its historical, material, and therefore real construction. And so, it comes as no surprise that one finds in his recent text the following claim:

“…colonization and enslavement are not processes in which individuals and groups simply bump haphazardly into one another. Rather, they denote the sort of specifically one-sided operations to which Hegel was characteristically blind, the utterly nonreciprocal oppression of those deemed not worthy of recognition…and from whom only work, land, or simply death is desired as a result…colonial difference indicates a more concrete and precise way of grasping those oppositions not visible to a traditional dialectics but whose appearance does not mark the impossibility of dialectics entirely.” (George Ciccariello-Maher, Decolonizing Dialectics)

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