Gary Wilder, Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Gary Wilder (GW): This book grew unexpectedly out of a lecture I tried to write on Aimé Césaire’s understanding of decolonization that would extend one thread of my first book, The French Imperial Nation-State, which had focused in the interwar period. But in the process I became fascinated by the complex and often counter-intuitive ways that Césaire, from Martinique, and Léopold Senghor, from Senegal, were reflecting on colonial emancipation, human freedom, global politics, planetary reconciliation, historical openings, and political temporality. Thinking with them through these postwar interventions seemed to provide a valuable opportunity to reconsider entrenched assumptions about the Negritude project and the postwar order, decolonization and self-determination, the relation between that past and our present, and aspects of postcolonial theory and modern social thought.
J: What particular topics and issues does the book address?
GW: Most simply, Freedom Time examines attempts by Césaire and Senghor, between 1945 and 1960, to envision non-national forms of decolonization, or what I call self-determination without state sovereignty. Thus Césaire’s support for departmentalization and Senghor’s program for postcolonial federalism (which Césaire also adopted after 1956). These projects, so often criticized by the anti-imperial left because they were not revolutionary nationalist, were motivated by a dual commitment to end imperialism and overcome the unitary national state. I argue that these programs for a different kind of decolonization, which reconfigured territorialist notions of political association, were driven fundamentally by a concern with substantive freedom, or what Marx called human emancipation, beyond formal national liberation.
I try especially to grasp the intellectual and political specificity of these figures’ hope to transform the French republican empire into a transcontinental democratic federation that would include former colonies as freely associated members and would reconstitute the former metropole as a federated territory within a new type of decentralized polity and plural democracy. Césaire and Senghor believed that this would be the best framework at that world-historical moment through which to ground self-government, protect cultural specificity, and allow for humane and just forms of economic growth through democratic socialism.
To understand what they were up to, we have to recall their starting points. First, they recognized the entangled histories that bound overseas and metropolitan peoples and prospects to one another. Believing that European power and prosperity was partly created through the exploitation of African and Antillean labor and resources, they rejected any arrangement that would compel them, the day after independence, to approach to the French state as foreigners asking for charity. Second, given the realities of postwar geopolitics and global capitalism, they believed that de-linking for colonized peoples was not a viable possibility. Mere political separation would not end multiplex relations of economic, social, and cultural (inter)dependence between overseas and metropolitan societies. The crucial question was what the terms and form of that inevitable relationship would be.
Césaire and Senghor thus believed that imperialism had created a perversely cosmopolitan situation to which European national-states and monoculturalists would now have to accommodate themselves, by becoming something else entirely. The challenge was how to invent an emancipatory political form that would build upon, rather than retreat from or seek to untangle, the interdependencies and heterogeneities that imperialism itself had propelled. They insisted that if decolonization did not also seek to revolutionize metropolitan social relations and reconfigure the very nomos of the global order, it could never lead to substantive emancipation. In their view, decolonization would have to overcome republican colonialism and unitary republicanism, empires and national states. I underscore that this was not a desire for assimilation into the existing French nation, but a form of revolutionary integration that would explode France as a unitary state and monocultural republic. (Think here of bi-national or one-state solutions for Israel.) They also believed that the historical conditions and socio-political infrastructure for such transcontinental federal polities already existed. I thus argue that they regarded empire as federation in alienated form.
It is important to underscore that theirs was not a critique of Western civilization from the standpoint of African or Antillean culture, but of modern racism, imperialism, and capitalism from the standpoint of Antillean and African history, conditions, experience, and forms of life. More fundamentally, it was a critique of an alienated and alienating modernity—characterized by dehumanizing forms of abstraction, rationalization, calculation, reification, classification, atomization—from the standpoint of embodied and poetic ways of being, knowing, and relating (to self, to others, to the dead, to the natural world). Above all, they sought to identify within African, Antillean, and European traditions, residues of, and resources for, more just, human, and integrated ways of living together and organizing politics. They hoped to overcome the modern conditions that had impoverished human life in colonial and metropolitan societies. Contrary to what scholars constantly say about the Negritude project, these thinkers were less concerned with defining culturally authentic concepts, spaces, and arrangements (apart from Europe or uncontaminated by modernity) than with overcoming colonial capitalism and imperialism, in solidarity with other struggling peoples, in order to establish less alienated forms of human life globally.
For these reasons, Freedom Time engages Césaire and Senghor as global thinkers of a world-historical conjuncture whose insights about the problem of freedom, the politics of time, and the relation between politics and aesthetics ramifies beyond the specific situation in which they emerged. Specifically, I read them as situated humanists, concrete cosmopolitans, and embodied universalists who struggled to reconcile self-determination and human solidarity on a world-wide scale. The subtitle of Freedom Time refers to the crucial fact that they regarded decolonization not only as a way to secure political liberty or improve material well-being for their constituents, but as an opportunity and responsibility to transform the global order, to promote and model and new planetary politics based on mutuality, reciprocity, solidarity, and métissage.
Throughout, I also examine the temporal implications of these visions of federal democracy, legal pluralism, and disaggregated sovereignty. I discuss Césaire and Senghor as utopian realists and realist utopians whose interventions illuminated the relationship between existing arrangements and seemingly impossible alternatives. These were future-oriented exercises in political imagination that simultaneously sought to reactivate unrealized emancipatory projects legacies and visions—futures past—precisely by identifying aspects of existing conditions, that, if fully developed, would enable a radically different set of arrangements. I thus argue that these untimely visions, however flawed, may help us to better understand Césaire’s and Senghor’s intellectual significance, that historical conjuncture, and many of the profound political predicaments that continue to haunt our historical present.
J: What kind of intervention are you trying to make? What debates does Freedom Time engage?
GW: First, Freedom Time engages scholarship on Negritude by treating Césaire and Senghor as critical intellectuals and global thinkers of the postwar period. I thus argue with the tendency to treat them one-sidedly, as only offering affirmative theories of Africanity or black subjectivity rather than critical theories of modernity. I seek to question the provincialism, territorialism, and culturalism that continue to suffuse so much modern intellectual history and certain currents of postcolonial theory. Tendencies within each continue to reproduce dubious notions about necessary connections between place, ethnicity, and consciousness. My aim is not to provincialize Europe, important as this operation has been, but to de-provincialize African and Caribbean thought.
Second, this account challenges the methodological nationalism that has overdetermined histories of decolonization and the postwar period. Again and again we presume that decolonization means national liberation and then debate whether a given individual or event helped or hindered that presumptive outcome, rather than ask about the historically specific process through which one was made to seem the necessarily counterpart to the other. I would like to underscore that I am not arguing against anti-colonial nationalism, but only against those for whom self-determination is unthinkable apart from state sovereignty, against those who would presumptively dismiss Césaire and Senghor as imperial apologists simply because they were not revolutionary nationalists. My point, following their insights, is not that nationalism was wrong and federalism was right, but that there can be no a priori formulas, only situated experiments that may have to be revised. Their struggles show us that colonial emancipation and political freedom are genuine problems for which there are no ready-made or transhistorical institutional solutions. Freedom Time thus reflects on decolonization as a process of global restructuring and the postwar period as both a world-historical opening where other political possibilities were envisioned and a large-scale process through which such futures were systematically foreclosed.
Third, the book offers a set of political theoretical reflections on colonial emancipation, self-determination, federalism, cosmopolitanism, and post-national democracy.
Fourth, as the title suggests, the book is also fundamentally about the intersection between the problem of freedom and the politics of time. Throughout I discuss how “untimely” practices, processes, and objects pose productive challenges for understanding history and thinking politics. The term “freedom time” refers both to decolonization as a time for freedom and to the peculiar temporal dynamics that were set into motion through decolonization. I discuss the postwar moment as one marked by untimely repetitions and reenactments, when the linear continuum was interrupted, tenses blurred, and periods (seemed to) interpenetrate, when figures like Senghor and Césaire wrote and acted as if they belonged to different epochs, whether past or future. They engaged predecessors as contemporaries and addressed future generations proleptically. They identified vital possibilities that were crystallized within seemingly outmoded projects or dwelling within present arrangements even as they anticipated worlds that had not yet arrived through acts of political imagination and utopian conjuring of seemingly impossible alternatives.
In the spirit of Walter Benjamin, I thus try to construct a series of historical constellations between apparently distinct epochs. I trace how Césaire’s vision of departmentalization was refracted through the spirit of Victor Schoelcher and his unrealized program for the abolition of slavery in 1848, then how his vision of federalism was refracted through this spirit of Toussint Louverture’s 1801 constitution and his unrealized program for self-government within a federal framework. I examine how Senghor did not only invoke African forms of collective life and practices of sympathetic knowing, but also identified with pre-Socratic Greeks, the early Christian Church, and the writings of Marx and Proudhon. Similarly I try to construct a historical constellation between the postwar opening and our post-Cold War present. Freedom Time may thus be read as an inquiry into historical temporality, the prospect of a different kind of history of the present, and on the non-self-evident relations between existing conditions and alternative arrangements, realism and utopianism, historical openings and processes of foreclosure, living pasts and emergent futures.
J: How do you see your argument about postwar Negritude, decolonization, and world politics as speaking to our contemporary political context?
GW: I engage these figures with the sense that precisely the type of postwar order they warned against is now unraveling. Once again, though under different conditions, human freedom presents itself as a real problem whose institutional solution is not self-evident. The fact that state sovereignty cannot necessarily guarantee self-determination is everywhere apparent, as revealed by the Greek debt crisis. From all directions we are witness to the dangers of cultural and territorial autarchy, the challenges of constructing new forms of plural and post-national democracy that could correspond to the constitutively entangled conditions of contemporary life. Think, for example, of Israel’s occupation of Palestine and wars in Gaza, of the Mediterranean refugee crisis, Russia’s annexation of the Eastern Ukraine, the assaults on places like Kobane by the Islamic State, xenophobic massacres of foreign workers in South Africa, and the mass deportation of Haitians in the Dominican Republic. Even more important are the new forms of US-UN imperialism, practices of regulation and violence that are legitimized through international law, the “responsibility to protect,” human rights, and humanitarianism. These developments, along with so many others, indicate that the urgent need for new forms of anti-imperial internationalism committed not to protecting a bankrupt interstate order but to promoting social justice on a world-wide scale, through new approaches to coexistence, reciprocity, and human flourishing, without the intercession of instrumental national states and unaccountable international agencies. The task of reconciling autonomy and solidarity, of conjugating democratic self-management with planetary politics, has never been more urgent.
Given these conditions and challenges, Césaire’s and Senghor’s much maligned reflections and interventions during decolonization resonate, across the epochal divide, with our world-historical predicament. In Walter Benjamin’s terms, they become newly legible or recognizable. Of course their solutions, imperfect even in their own context, cannot be ours now. But the exemplary way that they grappled with the problem of freedom in relation to imperialism, capitalism, statism, territorialism, determinism, and instrumental rationalism remains a rich and underexplored legacy. Their engagement with cosmopolitanism at the level of political form, their radical commitment to new forms of concrete humanism and situated universalism, their non-dogmatic and experimental approach to political projects, their understanding of politics and aesthetics as inseparable, their interest in overcoming sterile oppositions between pragmatics and ethics or realism and utopianism, their close attention to political temporalities, their interest in reactivating unrealized past possibilities and in anticipating seemingly impossible worlds to come—these, along with so many other facets of their acts and texts, suggest why we should now enter into dialogue with them as our belated contemporaries.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
GW: My work is rooted in worldly concerns, but primarily addressed to other scholars. I care little about disciplines or the academic profession. I find disputes about minor facts among narrowly trained specialists to be sad and tedious perversions of the promise that intellectual work can be publicly meaningful. I try always to ask questions that have some kind of purchase on present problems, even as I also usually grapple with questions that can never be definitely answered. I am less interested in persuading people to agree with me than with making a substantive contribution, however modest, to rethinking assumptions or framing questions regarding issues that demand our attention now, whether as intellectuals, political actors, or humans. I never expect that work like this will be widely read. But I do I hope that, in whatever minor or unexpected ways, it may prove to be thought-provokingly useful to anyone, whether inside the academy or out, whether in Euro-America or the Global South, who is grappling with the political challenges of our present, especially from anti-imperial and radically democratic perspectives. More modestly, if Freedom Time leads readers to discover or revisit Senghor’s and Césaire’s postwar writings and interventions, I would be enormously gratified.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
GW: Currently, I am co-editing with Jini Kim-Watson a collection of essays tentatively titled “The Postcolonial Contemporary” on new directions towards which this kind of scholarship might proceed. Beyond that, my current writing projects seem to be proceeding along three lines. I have begun working on a series of essays on the relationship between history, politics, and time, including the question of why disciplinary history has consistently avoided temporality as an object and problem. Another set of essays examines the place of radical humanism in the Black Atlantic critical tradition. Finally, I hope to return to an earlier research project on on international law, postcolonial justice, and long-distance solidarity from which Freedom Time diverted me. It has evolved into a plan to write about the passion of Patrice Lumumba, the crimes of Bob Denard, and recent reparations campaigns in the Atlantic world. But I’ve learned that every little piece takes so much longer than expected, so it will be interesting to see where I will wind up focusing most of my efforts. I also remain very committed to the collective work we have been doing in the Committee on Globalization and Social Change at the CUNY Graduate Center.
Excerpts from Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World
The world-historical transformation known as “decolonization” was simultaneously an emancipatory awakening of peoples and a heteronomous process of imperial restructuring. Most actors and agencies on both sides, however, believed that territorial national states would be the elemental units of the post-war order. Former imperial powers, the United States, the UN, and the majority of non-European peoples whose social worlds had been brutally deformed by imperialism shared the assumption that self-determination meant state sovereignty.
I have argued that Senghor’s and Césaire’s refusals to reduce decolonization to national independence derived from their convictions about the difference between formal liberation and substantive freedom. Each proposed plans to reorganize his society, reconstitute France, and remake the global order. But neither adequately tethered his transformational vision to a dynamic social movement through which it could be realized. Both supervised political parties that, although seeking to channel popular demands, failed to express a people’s will, except in narrowly electoral terms. They each led massively popular political organizations whose constituencies felt little commitment to their leaders’ most cherished aims.
This disconnect between constitutional initiatives and direct action was rooted equally in strategic blindness and untimely insight. Césaire and Senghor were canny political actors. Yet each gradually lost touch with the growing conviction among the global dispossessed that political independence was a necessary prerequisite for emancipation from colonial rule. But their inability to identify and inflect mass sentiment was also tied to an unwillingness to do so. Pragmatically, they believed that autarchic national solutions could not adequately address the problem of colonial freedom in an epoch of global interdependence. Ethically, they believed that the history of imperial entanglement allowed them to claim the legacies, resources, and rights supposedly reserved for metropolitans.
Césaire celebrated the long history of popular insurgency through which Antilleans had shaped history; he wrote explicitly about the dialectic of direct action and constitutional acts upon which radical transformation depended. Yet the PPM became an institutionalized political machine, controlling the levers of departmental government in Martinique and municipal government in Fort-de-France. While calling for a new regime of autonomy to transcend departmentalization, Césaire also made a series of accommodations with the French state. To many younger autonomists, nationalists, trade unionists, and communists, he represented the status quo in a context of socioeconomic decline for ordinary Antilleans.
Though speaking on behalf of ordinary Africans, Senghor rarely acknowledged the importance of direct action for any project to radically transform mentalities, social relations, and political practices. He retained a vanguardist conviction, adapted from the American New Negro movement, that a subaltern social group’s most educated, talented, and privileged members had a duty to lead their consociates toward a better life. Like Césaire, he assigned a special role to writers and artists who would creatively anticipate different ways of being (free). Politically, he idealized the democratic process, trusting that radical constitutional change and progressive social policies could lead to a peaceful societal revolution. As a leader, he was less concerned with harnessing the power of social insurgency to build a new socialist society than with maintaining a balance between political dispute and public peace. His commitment to consensus through incorporation prevented him from understanding that his postwar political projects could be realized only if propelled by mass movements. He too became identified as an entrenched boss of a political machine.
Whether Césaire’s and Senghor’s untimely acts were “failures” is debatable: the criteria for evaluation are hardly self-evident. I have tried to prepare the ground for such a debate by attending to the complexity and specificity of their political, critical, and aesthetic visions and practices. In contrast to conventional historical methodology that instructs researchers to look behind actors’ statements for what “actually” happened, I suggest that a deep understanding of events requires close attention to what was actually said. An assumption that their writings were primarily instrumental and should be measured against their empirical effects forecloses the opportunity to let their thinking illuminate the problems they confronted and those that we have inherited. Rather than rush to judge Césaire’s and Senghor’s acts against existing political metrics, we should consider how their political legacies might unsettle inherited assumptions about success and failure, ends and means, revolutionary and reformist, utopian and realist, progress and regress.
[Excerpted from Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World, by Gary Wilder, by permission of the author. © 2015 by Duke University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]