Through a deep ethnography of Guadeloupean labor activism, Bonilla examines how Caribbean political actors navigate the conflicting norms and desires produced by the modernist project of postcolonial sovereignty. Exploring the political and historical imaginaries of activist communities, she examines their attempts to forge new visions for the future by reconfiguring narratives of the past, especially the histories of colonialism and slavery. Drawing from nearly a decade of ethnographic research, she shows that political participation—even in failed movements—has social impacts beyond simple material or economic gains. Ultimately, she uses the cases of Guadeloupe and the Caribbean at large to offer a more sophisticated conception of the possibilities of sovereignty in the postcolonial era.
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French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment
By Yarimar Bonilla
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
The Wake of Disenchantment
On April 17, 2008, one of the Antilles' most famous literary and political figures, Aimé Césaire, passed away at the age of ninety-four in a small hospital on his native island of Martinique. Throughout the world, Césaire was known for his literary masterpieces and strident anticolonial writings, most notably Notebook of a Return to a Native Land, A Tempest, and Discourse on Colonialism. In the French Antilles, however, Césaire was equally known for his political legacies. Aside from serving forty-eight years in the French National Assembly and fifty-six years as mayor of Fort-de-France, Martinique's capital, Césaire was also, infamously, one of the principal architects of the 1946 loi d'assimilation, which transformed the French Antilles into overseas departments (DOMs) of France. The commemorations surrounding his death were a testament to this profound and complex legacy. Statesmen, dignitaries, literati, and popular masses alike gathered at his memorial service — the first French state funeral held outside the hexagon — and during his four-day public wake, thousands of mourners flooded the streets of Fort-de-France to bid farewell and offer their thanks to "Papa Césaire," Martinique's version of the "father of the nation."
As with the death of any father figure, Césaire's passing became a moment of reckoning. The "sons of Césaire" — even the self-declared "rebel sons," such as the creolité writers who had long decried his politics — suddenly found themselves forced to come to terms with the legacies of Martinique's great man. Novelists, poets, scholars, and politicians offered up personal reflections asserting the admiration they felt for his lyrical mastery and uncompromising commitment to his homeland, all the while expressing ambivalence, if not disdain, toward his political project. At a public event in Paris, for example, celebrated Martinican novelist Patrick Chamoiseau paid poignant tribute but described himself as Césaire's fils d'erreur (son by mistake). Chamoiseau has often puzzled over why Césaire never advocated political independence. That night in Paris, as if by way of exculpatory explanation, Chamoiseau exclaimed that if Césaire had belonged to his generation, surely he would have been an indépendantiste.
Chamoiseau's commentary recognizes that the political possibilities Césaire could entertain were conditioned by the political and historical moment he inhabited. Born in 1913, Césaire was part of a larger cohort of Francophone poets and politicians — including Léopold Senghor (1906–2001) from Senegal and Léon Damas (1912–78) from Guiana — that came of age at the height of the French colonial project. This generation experienced firsthand both the dehumanizing effects of the colonial enterprise and the liberatory promises of its proclaimed end. For them, colonialism represented something that could be toppled, transformed, and perhaps even overcome in the short run, and decolonization was still an open question, to which national independence had yet to emerge as a definitive answer. Césaire's immediate successors — the generation of Frantz Fanon (1925–61) and Édouard Glissant (1928–2011) — also held faith in the possibility of overcoming colonialism — though for intellectuals like Fanon, only a full-scale revolution would do. Despite their differences, however, these various political actors — from Césaire up to Chamoiseau — all imagined colonialism as a temporary stage rather than a lasting condition.
Today's activists inhabit a radically different landscape. They realize that political integration will not erase the disparities created by colonialism, but they do not share Chamoiseau's faith in the possibility (or necessity) of independence. For them, the future is once again an open question. In this chapter, I examine the history of Antillean activism from Césaire's generation to the present. I show how succeeding cohorts have crafted social projects shaped by the imperatives of their times and how contemporary actors struggle to develop new political projects in the wake of their own disenchantment.
The Search for Equality
From a contemporary vantage point, the Antillean project of political integration might seem like an anomaly within postcolonial history. But when first charted, for many, departmentalization represented the logical outcome of a century-long quest to end Antilleans' unequal inclusion. Although France had extended citizenship to the Caribbean colonies after the final abolition of slavery in 1848, Antillean residents had remained "citizen-subjects" for over one hundred years, lacking democratic representation and full access to the political rights and economic entitlements enjoyed by the citizens of mainland France. The early extension of citizenship provided black and mulatto elites with access to the French educational system and entry into civil service. But economic power remained firmly under the control of the white planter class.
By the early 1900s, Antilleans increasingly began to demand full civic and juridical inclusion as a way of gaining greater economic and legislative protection. Their demands included agrarian reform to break the monopoly of the planter class and the replacement of colonial governors with French prefects, in hopes of stemming the widespread corruption and racial discrimination characteristic of the time. Placed in its proper context, the search for assimilation can thus be viewed as an Antillean civil rights movement comparable to that of African Americans in the United States, wherein the nation's marginalized citizens contested their unequal political and civic inclusion.
The main constituency that opposed integration was the béké planter class, which feared that extending French labor rights and legislation to Antillean workers would spell trouble for the sugar economy. Since the eighteenth century, the békés had repeatedly threatened to break with France whenever French policy appeared to impinge upon their economic dominance. In 1794, for example, the Martinican plantocracy "escaped" the reforms of the French Revolution (including the abolition of slavery and the infamous guillotine) by coming under the jurisdiction of the British. Planters in Guadeloupe attempted a similar move but were thwarted by an alliance of white republicans, free people of color, and insurgent slaves. In 1946, as departmentalization was being debated, the white elites openly discussed joining the United States to avoid the consequences of integration — a threat that carried with it the possible importation of Jim Crow legislation.
For Césaire's cohort of anticolonial intellectuals, meanwhile, France posed a radical alternative to the United States, which was then gaining ascendancy as an imperial white-supremacist nation. Immediately following the Second World War — which France fought with great assistance from Antillean and African soldiers — debates raged in the metropole over how to politically and socially transform the French Empire. Numerous forms of political organization were entertained, including formulas of local self-rule that would allow for the creation of the French Union: a multiethnic federation of over ten million citizens, of whom only four million would reside in the French mainland. It was partly the promise of this multicultural, decentered France that drove Césaire's generation to embrace departmentalization. In addition, the postwar years appeared to be an opportune moment of political experimentation. As a new coalition of leftist parties took control of the French government they unleashed an ambitious project of reconstruction that included nationalizing banks and industries, creating extensive state welfare programs, establishing national health care, and extending trade union rights and women's suffrage — all in the hopes of forging a new social democratic model.
The possibilities afforded by a leftist government in France, combined with the legacies of a century of colonial citizenship and the plantocracy's threats of either succession or US annexation, made full integration the most promising vehicle not only for decolonization, but for the larger project of social justice in the Antilles. The report (drafted by Césaire) that accompanied the bill for departmentalization stated explicitly that the goal was not abstract equality, but a concrete egalité de salaire (wage equality). This, together with the extension of the nationalization efforts already under way in France, was viewed as the only viable means of dismantling the local plantocracy.
Departmentalization was not without its critics in the French government. Some argued, using Montesquieu's climatic theory of race, that French laws were ill-suited for the residents of the tropics. Césaire countered this by strategically drawing on Montesquieu's denunciation of slavery and his insistence on equality under the law. Césaire stressed that the goal of departmentalization was égalisation (equalization) — which he saw as a search for equality, not a search for sameness.
Still, Césaire was not oblivious to the pitfalls of assimilation. In an interview with filmmaker Patrice Louis, he explained that he was initially reticent to undertake the project of assimilation because of its undertones of racial and cultural superiority. "Assimilation means to become similar," he stated, "but I felt that for us, Martinicans, the descendants of Africans, that type of assimilation is a form of alienation. And I could not be in favor of alienation." For Césaire, the loi d'assimilation, as it was titled by the French Communists, was a misnomer. "What the people really wanted," he argued, "was equality with the French. So to speak of assimilation was to deploy an inappropriate terminology." Césaire, a renowned poet and wordsmith oft lauded for his ability to reshape and transform the French language, decided to tackle this terminological problem by coining a new term. "I told myself, 'OK, then, I will ask for what you call assimilation but what I call departmentalization.' The word did not exist in French," he asserts. "It was I who imposed it."
Césaire's réforme vocabulaire carried the promise of potentially refashioning the nature of the French departmental system itself. This promise, however, quickly faded. Soon after the departmentalization law was passed in 1946, the left-dominated government was replaced by a succession of mainly centrist coalitions, and the efforts to build the French Union lost impetus. At the same time, throughout the world decolonization became narrowly construed as the search for political and economic independence — rather than the project of "equalization" that Césaire had championed.
The 1946 law officially transformed the former colonies of Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guiana, and Réunion into full departments of France, and decreed that their political systems would be equal to those of the metropolitan departments — but for exceptions specified by law. This final clause opened the door to precisely the kind of "colonial" or "tropical" exceptionalism that Césaire had sought to prevent. For example, unlike mainland prefects, the overseas prefects that replaced the colonial governors were responsible for defense against possible foreign invasion; they could thus declare a state of siege, deploy military forces, and expel foreigners. They could also modify tariffs and taxes and fix certain prices, and they had "implicit diplomatic attributions" that gave them authority over relations with neighboring states. These exceptional powers gave rise to enduring conflicts between the prefects and the general councils, with local elected members continually demanding greater administrative authority and autonomy.
In the end, what resulted was a form of assimilation assouplie (flexible, relaxed integration), wherein most French laws were adapted, or simply deferred, for the DOMs. As a result, social security benefits, pensions, family assistance, and even the minimum wage remained lower in the DOMs than in the mainland late into the twentieth century. This legislative "relaxation" was strategically leveraged by local employers who to this day often refuse to abide by national labor standards, claiming that these must be "adapted" to the special circumstances of the DOMs. The French labor protections and economic guarantees that had been sought through departmentalization thus arrived only partially, and what were once described as "disparities" became increasingly justified as "adaptations." Meanwhile, the cost of living in the DOMs soared as the price of food, clothing, and other imports steadily climbed, due to high taxes and the monopolies of local merchants.
By 1956, just ten years after departmentalization, Césaire conceded that the project of departmentalization had perhaps been naive in attempting to abolish inequality without eradicating the colonial regime itself. One could, he argued, read departmentalization as a "ruse" on the part of the colonizer: an offer of abstract and ultimately unattainable equality meant to quell separatist sentiment. But, Césaire speculated, perhaps in the end "le ruse de l'histoire" would reveal the naiveté of the colonized as ruse, and the ruse of the colonizer as naiveté. Indeed, it was only after the DOMs achieved full juridical inclusion that a new nationalist sentiment was stirred in the French Antilles — fueled in part by massive disappointment in the failed promises of departmentalization.
The Rise of Postcolonial Nationalism
Antillean residents initially celebrated the attainment of departmental status. In little more than a decade, however, the political landscape shifted dramatically. By 1959 the political Right had returned to power under the rule of Charles de Gaulle and the project of the French Union was abandoned, giving way to a new era of decolonization through independence. The outbreak of the Algerian War in 1954 and the Cuban Revolution of 1959 gave rise to new political scripts of self-determination that were markedly distinct from the separatist project once championed by the békés. By 1960 the United Nations would adopt Resolution 1514, the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which defined self-determination as a fundamental human right. This shifting context — which would also impose a new form of nationalist ideology as an integral element of the decolonization project — gave new shape to the political and social demands emerging from the Antilles.
The disappointments with departmentalization were felt almost immediately once Antilleans began pouring into mainland France to study, work, and engage in the process of rebuilding after the war. As famously documented in Frantz Fanon's searing Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Antillean migrants quickly confronted experiences that belied the promises of French universalism and inclusion. Although full French citizens, they were the targets of racial discrimination and soon developed strong affinities with colonial "foreigners" — particularly African and North African students — thus becoming increasingly attuned to liberation struggles in the remaining French colonies, most notably Algeria.
Antillean residents who remained on the islands also grew frustrated with the slow application of French legislation and quickly realized that the shift from colonial governor to republican prefect would have little impact on the rampant political and economic corruption of the planter class — which proved surprisingly resilient to both juridical and economic shifts in the postwar era. The agrarian reform that Césaire had hoped would weaken the békés' monopoly served only to strengthen their dominance, as planters began taking advantage of French farm restructuring initiatives to sell off their less profitable sugar holdings to real estate developers, mechanizing their production to reduce their payrolls, and reinvesting their capital in the import-export industry. Through this process, former agricultural lands were rapidly transformed into airports and shopping centers as agricultural production steadily gave way to a service-based economy centered on tourism, commerce, and a bloated government bureaucracy. The impressive infrastructure that arose after departmentalization — schools, roads, hospitals, and shopping malls — provided an impressive facade of prosperity for the underlying economic stagnation that ensued.
Excerpted from Non-Sovereign Futures by Yarimar Bonilla. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations
Preface / Native Categories and Native Arguments
Timeline of Events
Part I: Historical Legacies
One / The Wake of Disenchantment
Two / Strategic Entanglement
Part II: Emerging Transcripts
Three / Life on the Piquet
Four / Public Hunger
Five / The Route of History
Six / Hope and Disappointment
Coda / Transcripts of the Future
What People are Saying About This
“Non-Sovereign Futures: French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment marks a significant intervention into debates about Caribbean pasts in the present. Focusing its historical and ethnographic lens on the 2009 labor upheaval in Guadeloupe, the book explores with methodological verve and seminal insight the paradoxical tension between the desire to resist continued dependence on France, and the difficulty of articulating a vocabulary that might embody the collective demand for an alternative mode of political self-determination. In short, the book aims to put into question whether sovereignty can continue to be imagined as the single normative good and ultimate value of modern political life.”
“Non-Sovereign Futures wonderfully fulfills the vision articulated by Trouillot of what a Caribbeanist anthropology can accomplish. What we get here is at once a rich and powerful documentation of a particular political movement and, through that documentation, a set of approaches to thinking about broad and global questions about politics, ideology, and practice.”