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Fanon's significance to the present moment seems to me to hinge in large part on his identification of the lumpenproletariat as revolutionary subject, an identification that was anathema then (and largely remains so now) to traditional Marxism. Surely all remember Marx's magnificent litany in the Eighteenth Brumaire of "vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars--in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass," subject to the sway of whoever held the day, notably Bonaparte, "chief of the Paris lumpen proletariat" (Marx 2003, 170-71).

We could treat Marx's assessment of the structural position of the lumpenproletariat as a historical invariant, as some have, meaning that Fanon must cleave from Marx's understanding of class. Or we could consider that the situation surveyed by Fanon in 1961, extending from the Caribbean to Africa, Maghreb and Mashreq--a situation of racialized colonization--was still capitalism but one sufficiently distinct that we could allow him such a claim about the lumpen then and there, while recognizing that this claim would have little purchase in the "developed" nations in Europe, say, or the United States. That is to say, we could have a historical rather than static approach to the contours of class.

Once we have allowed this, we are able to admit of present debates, particularly those endeavoring to rethink the relation between capitalism and colonization in both in the former First World and at the level of the world-system, including the brace of recent "new histories of capitalism" attentive to the role of slavery in capitalism's formation. We might ask, on behalf of the West's purveyors of an orthodox socialist class politics and particularly those possessors of a faith in a renewed workers' party and/or advocates of what is presently called by the awkward post-dialectical term of anti-anti-racism--we might ask the question of whether the world of the capitalist core might now more resemble Fanon's than it once did, and what that might tell us. My suspicion is that, here in the West, we are closer to Fanon than ever before.

Fanon took the historical violence of colonization to descend from a kind of speciation, "the organization of a Manichaean world" wherein no detente is possible (2004, 43). For the colonized, "There is no question for them of competing with the colonist. They want to take his place" (23). Here already we have a distance between colonial and conventionally western capitalist scenarios, the latter understood as presupposing class competition, both inter and intra, as a driver of development and of accumulation premised on exploitation. In Fanon's Africa, the lumpen--we shall modulate that name before the end--are excluded rather than exploited. Shanty-town dwellers make their way toward economic centers, condemned nonetheless to "circle the towns tirelessly, hoping that one day or another they will be let in" (81). But they are the lumpen because this does not and cannot happen; the colonized will not be absorbed into the ranks of free labor.

As Fanon points out, "under-developed" nations, upon throwing off formal colonization, often try to develop their way out of this situation toward an absorptive capitalism, premised on the ceaseless gains in productivity that characterize "developed" nations.
The political leader of an underdeveloped country is terror-stricken at
the prospect of the long road that lies ahead. He appeals to the people
and tells them: "Let us roll up our sleeves and get to work." Gripped
in a kind of creative frenzy the nation plunges into action of a hugely
disproportionate nature. The agenda is not only to pull through but to
catch up with the other nations as best one can. There is a widespread
belief that the European nations have reached their present stage of
development as a result of their labors. Let us prove therefore to the
world and ourselves that we are capable of the same achievements.
(Fanon 2004, 52)

Shortly they discover their position in the world-system makes this impossible. In this regard they remain distinct from the liberal-democratic regimes which are designed to manage the expansive capitalism of the core, machined to absorb labor inputs while driving down its price--an absorptive mechanism from which the colonial political economy is unable to profit.

Now we can summarize the basic coordinates, if they are not already overclear. Colonialism and capitalism are of course entwined. Perhaps we are speaking only of colonial capitalism, there being no other kind. Or capitalist colonization. But to the extent that they register as distinct systems, and I think there is significant historical and analytic yield in imagining they might, here is one way to render the distinction: one is oriented by productive absorption of labor in a competitive labor market; one by the formal domination of the colonial state which includes and excludes in ways that are both raced and part of racialization. This latter I'll call coloniality, not after Anfbal Quijano's distinct formulation which I do not share, but simply to indicate that it is a mode of management as much as a global political project and ideology. While the former features and arguably depends on racialized exclusion, on moments of internal colonization, this is subordinated to capital's self-expansion and intensification at the scale of national economy. While the latter features a capitalist mode of production, it is not an absorptive capitalism, at least not absorptive enough to overcome the historical speciation which divides colonizer and colonized. And it is from within these two regimes, absorption and coloniality, that the lumpen appear differently: here as counterrevolutionary dregs, here as revolutionary edge.

If one accepts, implicitly or openly, the premise of ongoing accumulation at a global scale--as I think more of us do than we might at first imagine--the assumption is that the unevenness between these two regimes will smooth over time. This has proved to be the case. However, it has not happened in the way foreseen either by orthodox Marxism or by the apostles of capital. Or it has, but with a counter-motion engendering dynamics in the capitalist core that have been hard to recognize. If the underdeveloped nations have become more developed, creeping or lurching forward, the developed nations have become overdeveloped in ways that have effectively moved them not forward but back toward a political economy which is, if not properly colonial (whatever that might mean), is non-absorptive in a way that functionally replicates coloniality. This is our present. Increasing productivity has led the capitalist core through peak labor force participation as sectors expand behind high profit rates, and then toward a deindustrialization wherein ever-higher productivity expels labor from the formal wage toward both an absolute and a relative increase of surplus population consigned to the informal economy. It is this technical category of informalization that Marx is setting forth in his great litany: those for whom secondary access to the wage provides the only hope of survival. What he did not envision was the category's growth until it provided no longer the lower margin of a class but a class fragment itself.

The informal class has not vanished but grown. And more decisively for our analysis, it has ceased to operate as a source of competition for the working classes; it is simply excluded, and excluded along racialized lines.

It is precisely this drama, the shifting tension between absorption and coloniality, that animates efforts in the sixties to understand US ghettos as the colonies at home. The situation is ambiguous, hybrid--as is perhaps capitalism in its truest form. On one side, black populations are ruthlessly exploited to deliver superprofits necessary for imperial adventures. "The slavery of Blacks in this country provides the oil for the machinery of war that America uses to enslave the world," writes Huey Newton in 1967 (2002, 135). On the other, black populations are excluded; from about 1960 onward, as white flight begins, the cities of the second great migration begin to see growth in both employed and excluded black populations (Gibson and Jung 2005, Table 23). Consequently, as Newton continues, "penned up in the ghettoes of America, surrounded by all his factories and all the physical components of his economic system, we have been made into 'the wretched of the earth,' relegated to the position of spectators" (135). Black lumpen, catastrophically free of wage discipline, must in turn be managed by "the occupying army, embodied by the police department" (149).

This exclusion is registered even earlier by the prescient James Boggs, circa 1963, the year of Wretched's translation into English: "Today in the United States there is no doubt that those at the bottom are growing in numbers much faster than the system will ever be able to absorb," he suggests, concluding that "America is headed toward full unemployment, not full employment" (1963, 50, 58). Those who do find work are trapped in a job market so intensely polarized there can be no escape imagined from poverty. Meanwhile those surplus to the needs of capital and empire grow, and grow restless.

The picture offered by Boggs and Newton has only grown clearer; black and white labor force participation (to continue for the moment along that racial axis), converging in the earlier twentieth century, will diverge sharply in its later decades. Racialized hyperincarceration will be the most dramatic consequence and expression of this development (Gilmore 2007, 113).

We can now note the evident but nonetheless surprising trajectory: the United States has, in its development over the last century and a half, achieved a greater rather than lesser coloniality, ever more oriented not by left-right debates within a liberal-democratic mode but by the axis of inclusion and exclusion, the basis among other things for Black Lives Matter, the resurgence of urban riots that I elsewhere call "surplus rebellions," and a renewed nativist code of hyperracism and protectionism.

But this phenomenon, the end of absorption and the arrival of the colony to the metropole, is no less marked in Europe--indeed, it is the continental story, from Brexit to the European Union refugee crisis. The debate over borders may appear as xenophobia and no doubt it is; its power and its salience cannot be disentangled from the European Economic Community's ongoing stagnation, a continental zero-sum game which has enriched Germany, Switzerland, and to some extent Holland, only at the expense of the Euro-periphery. Zero-sum, non-absorptive, same difference. And so Fortress Europe is now the town Fanon mentions, around which the global lumpen circle, hoping that one day or another they will be allowed inside. But this is a hopeless hope; even this dire achievement is not on offer.

So then, some summary remarks. One, discovered along the way: liberal democracy, the kind with a left and a right, not long ago thought to have generalized itself so thoroughly that history had ended, is waning. It is not waning because it is being overdone by capitalism, as Wolfgang Streeck or Achille Mbembe would have me believe, but because it is absorptive capitalism's management style and must decline with it. Two, the United States and Europe, the early-industrializing nations, capital's home counties, are overdeveloping toward coloniality, toward a weaponized mode of inclusion/exclusion. The planetary classes dangereuses are increasingly united not by their role as producers but by their relation to state violence, organized along raced and racializing lines. Three, thusly, the lumpen, the informalized, the surplus population, take on Fanon's revolutionary aspect more broadly in these quarters where once they stood as revolution's opposite. Four, this will either set them---conceptually and perhaps concretely--against the historical working class still preserved within contemporary social democratic visions (visions which, despite occasional and often indifferent lip service to racialized exclusion, retain a world-picture of social reorganization derived entirely from the presumption of continued expansivity of absorptive capital), or we will develop an expanded sense of the proletariat as a new unity of lumpen and labor--allowed precisely by the weakening of intra-class competition which follows, dripping immiseration, from the end of absorption.

If there is to be a revolutionary project it will resemble decolonization--not in the sense of nationalist armed struggle against a colonial state, but as a struggle against a capitalism compelled to act as colonial. It will not be orderly in the ways imagined by the prophets of revolutionary projects preserved from the previous century. Like Fanon's decolonization, this revolution, "which sets out to change the order of the world, is clearly an agenda for total disorder" (2004, 2).


Boggs, James. 1963. The American Revolution. New York: NYU Press.

Fanon, Frantz. 2004. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Richard Phil-cox. New York: Grove Press.

Gibson, Campbell and Kay Jung. 2005. "Table 23. Michigan--Race and Hispanic Origin for Selected Large Cities and Other Places: Earliest Census to 1990," PDF, United States Census Bureau, February 2005,

Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. 2007. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Marx, Karl. 2003. The Class Struggles in France: From the February Revolution to the Paris Commune. Chippendale, Australia: Resistance Books.

Mbembe, Achille. 2011. "Democracy as a Community of Life." In The Humanist Imperative in South Africa, edited by John de Gruchy, 187-94. African Sun Media.

Newton, Huey P. 2002. The Huey P. Newton Reader. Edited by David Hilliard and Donald Weise. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Quijano, Anibal. 2000. "Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America." International Sociology 15.2: 215-32.

Streeck, Wolfgang. 2011. "The Crises of Democratic Capitalism." New Left Review 71. 5-29.


JOSHUA CLOVER is author of six books including poetry, cultural history, and political theory; he's been translated into a dozen languages. His most recent books are the poetry collection Red Epic (Commune Editions 2015) and Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (Verso 2016), a political economy of insurrection and renarration of capital's history. He is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UC Davis and edits Studies in Revolution and Literature for Palgrave Macmillan as well as Singles for Duke University Press.
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Author:Clover, Joshua
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Date:Jan 1, 2018

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