Follow us on social

War and violence isn't 'cleansing' at all

War and violence isn't 'cleansing' at all

Frantz Fanon's 60-year-old post-colonial writings about the rehabilitative nature of conflict can be widely misinterpreted today

Analysis | Global Crises

Frantz Fanon has been making the rounds lately. The subject of a new biography by Adam Shatz and a recent New Yorker essay, the anticolonial activist is enjoying a sort of intellectual renaissance. Perhaps that’s because like so many people today, he lived in a world shaped by violence.

While the formal process of post-World War II decolonization had begun to run its course by 1961, when Fanon died at the age of 36, the Global South remained a violent space. Western powers continued to extract resources from former colonies, to manipulate local economies, and to expand local civil wars by intervening in regions from Latin America to Southeast Asia.

Fanon believed that violence not only begot violence, but that it could serve to uplift peoples long suffering under the colonial system. His 1961 seminal work, The Wretched of the Earth, spared no details on this point. “At the individual level,” the revolutionary political philosopher argued, “violence is a cleansing force. It rids the colonized of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude. It emboldens them, and restores their self-confidence.”

More than sixty years later, we might ask if Fanon’s claims on violence still hold merit. While Fanon’s writings focused entirely on anti-colonialism in his own time, broader interpretations of all violence as cleansing have entered the intellectual bloodstream. Recent conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Middle East demonstrate the fallacies of perpetually seeing violence as a “cleansing force.” All of this is worth examining in context, today.

The Martinique philosopher, it should be noted, did not speak in terms of “ethnic cleansing.” In no way was he following in the abominable footsteps of an Adolf Hitler or setting a precedent for Slobodan Milošević, the 1990s “Butcher of the Balkans.” Instead, Fanon meant to convey the rehabilitative nature of violence for oppressed peoples still living under the thumb of their former imperial masters. Perhaps this was because, as a psychiatrist, he actually treated victims of colonial violence — and colonizers themselves — during the Algerian war for independence from France.

But war doesn’t rehabilitate. It only despoils and destroys. War is not reparative. Instead, it requires costly reconstruction in the wake of what it leaves behind. Policymakers and hawkish intellectuals alike peddle falsehoods when they promise war’s therapeutic cures.

If Fanon justified the use of violence as a form of anticolonial self-defense — Shatz argues “cleansing” is better translated as “de-intoxicating” — such views have been extrapolated to rationalize military force for any occasion. In restating Russia’s goals in Ukraine, for instance, President Vladimir Putin spoke in cleansing terms. Peace would come, he argued, only after the “denazification, demilitarisation and a neutral status” imposed upon Ukraine. It has been nearly a year since the World Bank estimated the costs of Ukraine’s reconstruction at US $411 billion. One wonders if such massive destruction truly will wash away Putin’s fears of Western encroachment toward Russian borders.

If Fanon saw violence as redemptive, he also judged it to be reactive, at least for the colonized. Violence could be politically and strategically instrumental in altering power relationships between oppressor and oppressed. In other words, it is a way to contest the infliction of injury by the more powerful when peace failed to deliver.

Did similar thinking underscore Hamas’s 7 October 2023 attack against Israel? As the BBC reported, the Islamic Resistance Movement justified its actions as a response to “Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people.” But the orgy of violence that followed—French President Emmanuel Macron called the 7 October attacks the “biggest antisemitic massacre of our century”—hardly was cleansing.

Nor did Israel’s military response shy away from a Fanonian belief in the virtues of violence. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sidestepped criticisms of the heavy death toll among Palestinian civilians inflicted by the Israeli response, reaching back to the allies’ World War II bombing campaign as justification for the “legitimate actions” of a state at war. If Fanon maintained that the colonized individuals could regain their dignity through “counter-violence,” a way to liberate themselves from subjugation, surely Netanyahu thought similarly for the Israeli state writ large.

Yet the right-wing Likud party has gone farther than simply opposing violence with violence, with some extremists calling for the annihilation of Gaza and the Palestinians who live there. Can this language of genocidal violence, if not its actual practice, truly lead to the liberation of which Fanon spoke?

Lest Americans think that Fanon’s political philosophizing doesn't apply to them, they need look no further than the global war on terror. In the aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush landed on a two-pronged strategy for the Middle East that assumed a successful counterterrorism campaign would pave the way for a democratic transformation of the entire region. Turning Fanon on his head, the Bush administration saw violence as a way to bring order back to decolonized locales where disorder—and, to Bush and his supporters, violence—now reigned supreme.

Contemporary critics, of course, voiced their concerns. Not long after the national trauma of 9/11, journalist Chris Hedges contemplated American notions of war as a cleansing force that gave them meaning. Hedges wasn’t convinced. He found the language of violence hollow, the implementation of it repugnant.

I think Hedges’s doubts were (and are) justified, and not just for Americans. Do Israelis, for instance, who see themselves living in a besieged state consider their lives more meaningful for the violence they both support and endure? Do Palestinians judging themselves victims of a violent settler colonial project feel their world has been cleansed?

If Fanon remains relevant so long after his death in 1961, then perhaps policymakers and publics alike should question their enduring embrace of violence and war as cleansing forces. Historian and philosopher Hannah Arendt certainly did, arguing that the “most probable change [violence] will bring about is the change to a more violent world.” Current events in both the Middle East and Eastern Europe seem to be bearing Arendt out.

To his credit, Fanon believed that violence leading to “pure, total brutality” could undermine the very political movements employing violence in the first place. But when policymakers and their people seek to use violence as a cleansing force, brutality itself seems to be the point.

Palestinians bury the bodies in the mass grave in the city of Rafah, southern of the Gaza Strip. The Israeli army delivers 80 bodies to Gaza through the Karem Shalom crossing, on January 30, 2024. (Anas-Mohammed/Shutterstock)

Analysis | Global Crises
Diplomacy Watch: Ukraine risks losing the war — and the peace

Diplomacy Watch: Ukraine risks losing the war — and the peace

QiOSK

This week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky offered his starkest warning yet about the need for new military aid from the United States.

“It’s important to specifically address the Congress,” Zelensky said. “If the Congress doesn’t help Ukraine, Ukraine will lose the war.”

keep readingShow less
South Korean president faces setback in elections

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol casts his early vote for 22nd parliamentary election, in Busan, South Korea, April 5, 2024. Yonhap via REUTERS

South Korean president faces setback in elections

QiOSK

Today, South Korea held its quadrennial parliamentary election, which ended in the opposition liberal party’s landslide victory. The liberal camp, combining the main opposition liberal party and its two sister parties, won enough seats (180 or more) to unilaterally fast-track bills and end filibusters. The ruling conservative party’s defeat comes as no surprise since many South Koreans entered the election highly dissatisfied with the Yoon Suk-yeol administration and determined to keep the government in check.

What does this mean for South Korea’s foreign policy for the remaining three years of the Yoon administration? Traditionally, parliamentary elections have tended to have little effect on the incumbent government’s foreign policy. However, today’s election may create legitimate domestic constraints on the Yoon administration’s foreign policy primarily by shrinking Yoon’s political capital and legitimacy to implement his foreign policy agenda.

keep readingShow less
Could the maritime corridor become Gaza’s lifeline?

A tugboat tows a barge loaded with humanitarian aid for Gaza, as seen from Larnaca, Cyprus, March 30, 2024. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou

Could the maritime corridor become Gaza’s lifeline?

Middle East

As Gaza’s humanitarian crisis deepens, a small U.S.-based advisory group hopes to build a temporary port that could bring as many as 200 truckloads of aid into the besieged strip each day, more than doubling the average daily flow of aid, according to a person with detailed knowledge of the maritime corridor plan.

The port effort, led by a firm called Fogbow, could start bringing aid into Gaza from Cyprus within 28 days of receiving the necessary funding from international donors. The project would require $30 million to get started, followed by an additional $30 million each month to continue operations, according to the source.

keep readingShow less

Israel-Gaza Crisis

Latest