Colonizing citizenship

RP 095 () / Commentary

ʻWe are not the victims but the children of a crime against humanity.ʼ1

Commemorations are important events in France. If, on the one hand, they offer the government the opportunity to reinforce a ʻcertain idea of Franceʼ, on the other hand they give historians, researchers and activists the possibility to revise and counter the official discourse. Many thought, therefore, that the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the French colonies in 1998 would receive the kind of attention France likes to bestow on such events. Many among us hoped that it would provoke a major reassessment of the place of the trade slave and of slavery in the constitution of French identity. There was indeed attention. Speeches were made; exhibitions organized; streets were renamed; prizes and rewards were given to Creole writers; teachers were asked to teach on slavery and its abolition; the small village of Champagney became the centre of the commemoration – its inhabitants, simple peasants, had demanded the end of slavery during the French Revolution. Yet, there was a sense that the official commemoration was producing a narrative that masked rather than confronted the legacy of slavery.

I advance here some reflections inspired by the commemoration. Slavery, I argue, must be studied as an early system of ʻbio-powerʼ, whereby every aspect of life of the slave is organized, defined, controlled. Slavery, I contend, is a form of human relations. It is not the embodiment of Evil, of irrationality, but an expression of a desire for limitless power over other human beings. It was not simply a system directed by greed or immorality. The forms of domination instituted by slavery constituted new ways of being whose exploration might open up interesting perspectives upon the jouissance of power and violence. It says something about predatory relations among human beings. Slavery and abolitionism must be studied as political systems, rather than being looked at from a humanitarian standpoint. Finally, a politics of reparation must become a central issue of debates in post-colonial theory. The denunciation of slavery in which culpability plays a role is a mask for the perpetuation of contempt. Descendants of slaves demand respect, not pity.

Slavery haunts the Republic

In 1998, the official discourse constructed a clear historical rupture. Monarchy had established slavery; the Republic had abolished it. It was a narrative of teleological progress, a struggle between good and evil, between les forces du futur and les forces du passé. The promise of the French Republic had been accomplished in 1848, when Robespierre had declared ʻPérissent les colonies plutôt que nos principes.ʼ The beautiful revolution had integrated the slaves in the family of French citizens. Abolition was a gift of republican France, and the emancipated became forever indebted to France. The debt had been honoured and it was now time to celebrate the creativity of Creole societies and their contribution to the culture of humanity.

In this narrative, slavery occupies the space of a radical otherness. It belongs to prehistory, to the world of tribalism, feudalism and pre-Enlightenment. If slavery still exists, it is in the elsewhere of Others, among those who have not yet been enlightened. The narrative operates a division between pre-modern (slavery) and modernity (abolition); between modern identity (unique root) and post-modern identity (Créolité, multiple identities). Our post-modern world, however, accommodates pockets of slavery and the celebration of Créolité might not threaten as much as it is wished the political and economic relations between France and its post-slavery societies (which are all French departments).

An analysis of the discourse of abolitionism reveals an intimate relationship with French imperialism. In 1848, the government which issued the decree of abolition declared Algeria to be a French department. French abolitionism was a doctrine which justified the colonization of Africa, Indochina and Madagascar. In Africa and Madagascar, the Arab slave-trader became the favourite villain of abolitionist propaganda. The 1848 motto could have been ʻPérisse lʼesclavage plutôt que nos colonies.ʼ The images, representations and ideology of slavery contaminated the emancipation. Abjection and repulsion remained inscribed on the black body. In post-slavery societies, forced labour replaced the chains of bondage. New techniques of discipline, new laws, were enacted to transform the slave into a worker for the colonial state.2 The abstract vocabulary of rights masked in the colony the permanency of colonial racism, colonial exploitation and the denial of democracy. The emancipated slave became the pedestal upon which the values and discourse of emancipation rested: family, work, subjection. In Réunion, the republican envoy declared: ʻOwners and workers are now one family. … You have called me your father and I love you like my children; you will listen to my advice. Eternal recognition to the French Republic that made you free! And may your motto be: God, France, and Work!ʼ (Sarda Garriga, 20 December 1848, my emphasis). In the Antilles, the motto was ʻMarriage, Work, and Franceʼ. The Republican ideal of liberté, égalité, fraternité was transmogrified in the post-slavery colony, announcing a programme of disciplining and punishing whose goal was to transform the slave into an obedient colonized.