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CÉSAIRE, AND THE NEW NORMAL by Zophia Edwards

posted 28 Aug 2020, 02:57 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 28 Aug 2020, 02:58 ]

Zophia Edwards is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Providence College, Rhode Island, USA. 

Her work has appeared in Studies in Comparative International Development, Political Power and Social Theory, and Journal of Historical Sociology.

Her research and teaching interests include international development, globalization, comparative historical sociology, race and ethnicity, postcolonial sociology, and labor and labor movements.
By and large, and up until recently, Caribbean countries have done remarkably well to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus and minimize the number of fatalities. From the latest figures from the WHO (August 16, 2020), the number of confirmed cases in countries like St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, St. Lucia, Dominica, and St. Kitts and Nevis has not crossed 100 and they have had zero lives lost to COVID.

Other countries range from 196 deaths in Haiti to 7 in Barbados. Admittedly, the Dominican Republic stands out with 85,545 confirmed cases and 1438 deaths, but this is a clear exception to the general trend.[1] There are many reasons we should be cautious about these numbers, because of problems with testing and tracking. However, testing and tracking is a problem across countries, most notably the US at this time. And, on the ground, we know that large masses of people are not dying from COVID-related symptoms.

That many Caribbean countries are performing relatively better than other countries is not simply a feature of our geography; many have said we have the advantage of being island states. It is precisely because we are islands that make us even more vulnerable to this disease.

Due to the enduring legacies of colonialism, Caribbean economies are tethered to the global political economy in ways that put us in a position of extreme dependency on international markets and international travel and exchange in ways that make us exceptionally vulnerable to becoming crippled by COVID.

But across the Caribbean, governments acted early, contained and closed schools, workplaces, and public events, restricted movements, offered economic support to citizens/citizens helped each other, and had vigorous public information campaigns and a coordinated public health response, and people largely cooperated. So it is in large part because of rapid, centralized coordinated government responses that we have done well to contain the virus and minimize loss of life.

But the sustainability of remaining COVID-safe is all very dicey. And we can see this in the case of Trinidad and Tobago, which, in the month of August alone, registered an alarming 1000 new cases after easing restrictions. This raises serious questions about the future of these countries in a COVID/post-COVID world. Can economies that depend on tourism really “open back up” for business in the age of COVID; they certainly cannot remain closed if this is their primary source of income?

What will happen in countries that depend on remittances when workers abroad who were sending money home are now experiencing COVID-related wage/salary cuts and lay offs? Can the government in Dominican Republic for example, guarantee that more lives will not be lost if workers return to the export processing zones? And for countries that depend on natural resource exploitation, what is the plan for the future when, due to reduced international demand, commodity prices have plummeted in spectacular fashion?

Therefore, the question of dependency and the legacies of colonialism through which dependency is reproduced still lingers. The Caribbean, African-African descended people continue to be disproportionately impacted by this virus because of ongoing racial and colonial logics. COVID may go away eventually and we might recover, but what about the next global disaster. What is the future for Caribbean countries in this time of COVID and beyond?

Martiniquan Black radical activist-scholar Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, a seminal work first published in 1950, remains timely and fitting for understanding the Caribbean situation and the world we are in today in 2020. While there are so many themes to deconstruct in the text, one that stands out during this particular moment is how he meticulously explicates how colonial discourse is a way of thinking. He shows how the discourse used to justify colonial domination was racist, Eurocentric, white supremacist ideology - it presented everything in Europe, everything constructed as white, as superior, better, more valuable - and this ideology is embedded in the fields of history, science, ethics, social science, theology, and law; indeed, in every realm.

It denigrated and erased the political, economic, cultural structures and practices of Black people, indigenous people, all people constructed as non-white. And African and African-descended people internalized this anti-Blackness; they suffer an “inferiority complex.” Thus, decolonization is a necessary but insufficient condition for Black liberation - “It is equally necessary to decolonize our minds, our inner life, at the same time that we decolonize society.”[2] He was vigorously against the notion that colonized people should revere Western Europe and the US, and follow their path, a path laid with cruelty, sadism, and oppression. Rather, he maintained that post-colonial countries need to pursue an entirely new direction, that we use our creative imagination and envision a new future.

Césaire’s concerns and analyses remain relevant because the prevailing white supremacist and imperialist discourse continues to plague our minds and constrain our imagination. Our Caribbean leaders, despite their impressive responses to the pandemic, are supremely guilty of having internalized white supremacist ideology and anti-Blackness.

Césaire told us that these Black tools of imperial and colonial interests have taken the place of white colonial state domination and will ensure the continuity of oppression. And we can see it now with the lack of creativity regarding how we construct a COVID and post-COVID world. Masses of people, overwhelmingly Black and brown people, are dying. At the same time the world has slowed to a grinding halt. The lockdowns and mandatory stay-at-home orders restricted many, though not all, people to their homes.

So here is a unique and an urgent opportunity to imagine a different way of organizing production, to imagine a different role for the state in the economy and in people’s lives, to imagine a different kind of education system that is not based on traditional colonial instruction, to imagine a different future.

But instead of being forward-looking, our leaders are backward-looking. How can we get back to how it used to be? How can we get workers back to work? How can we get students back to school? How can we get back to “normal?” Back, back, back. And normal was bad! The normal was exploitation, racism, dispossession, inequality, no job security, insufficient social services and welfare, police repression, violent crime, we can go on. It was not good.

Yet, the current discourse remains squarely on neoliberal capitalism, fixed on staying on the same course that colonialism and racial capitalism set us on, and continues to follow the Western model. But look at conditions in US and Europe!

As Césaire said in the first lines of the text, “A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization. A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization. A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization.”[3]

If this is not describing the decrepit state of the USA right now, I don’t know what is. We may not have created COVID, but we have a global racial capitalist system that is unable to arrest the harm that is being caused by this invisible terror. The Western path is not the path to liberation and self-determination; it is a path to death and destruction.

Now we have the time, we have the pause, we have a critical moment to change course and create something different, to create what Cesaire called, “harmonious and viable economies,” economies that are anti-racist, “anti-capitalist” and “democratic” like in the old societies destroyed by European colonization.

Now, we have a unique opportunity to think about how we might reduce food import dependence and realize our own food security, an opportunity to think about how we might better protect Caribbean countries and people from the looming climate change, an opportunity to combat violence against women and correct gender inequalities, an opportunity to dismantle the colonial education system and construct better ways of knowledge sharing and learning.

Instead, we are boringly, uncreatively, short-sightedly choosing to go back, not to move forward and forge a new trajectory. And that choice will surely have dire consequences for our lives in the short-term and in the long-term.

Of course, Césaire does not locate Black emancipation in the state elites, the Black Afrosaxons, les évolués. They are indeed an obstacle. And admittedly, the chains of dependency are quite firm and unyielding.

Caribbean countries have been locked into a David-versus-Goliath situation for centuries when it comes to attempting to chart our own path. Haiti, the first Black Republic in the world, was punished for centuries by France and other imperial countries for daring to want to be free from colonial rule and racial exploitation.

Cuba, because it dared to forge an anti-imperialist socialist path, continues to face embargoes aimed at starving its people. But still, we persisted. The very fact that these nations do exist attests to our agency, resilience, and creativity. Césaire says the only way forward is a total destruction of the global racial colonialist capitalist system, not by our political elite, by the revolutionary force of the proletariat. So the question is: Are we heading in that direction and will COVID-19 accelerate us on that path?




[1] https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200816-covid-19-sitrep-209.pdf?sfvrsn=5dde1ca2_2


[2] Cesaire, Aimé. 2000[1950]. Discourse on Colonialism. NY: Monthly Review Press, p.94.


[3] Ibid, p.31.
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