by Elizabeth Jordie Davies
“I can’t say too emphatically that we stand at a terminal point in history, at a moment of supreme world crisis. Destruction lies ahead unless things are changed. And things must be changed. And changed by the people.”
-- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
I approach Afropessimism with a question: what here can move us forward? I understand Afropessimism as an intellectual project, a description of the state of the world as anti-Black. Afropessimism asserts that Black people exist outside of the category Human and are fundamentally excluded from social and civil life. I also understand Afropessimism as having potential as a political project, one that presents both opportunities and challenges. In this way, I depart from Michael Dawson, who, in his essay “Against Afropessimism,” warns against Afropessimism’s anti-political stance.
Afropessimism makes an important political intervention by accounting for the slings and arrows of anti-Blackness, the indignities suffered by Black people and the right-ness of Black anger and despair. As such, slavery and anti-Blackness provide foundational understandings of the past and present by validating the Black experience and by explicating the relationship of Black people to the rest of the world. Even though Afropessimism itself locates Black people outside of politics, it prompts those of us who are interested in a politics after Afropessimism to consider what we might or can do in the face of a world that again and again refuses Blackness.
While I stress the political potential of Afropessimism, I also agree with and extend a few of Dawson’s criticisms of Afropessimism. I am particularly interested in the political stakes of centering Black death as the lens through which to view the world. Afropessimism’s singular lens is useful when naming the enduring problems of white supremacy and anti-Blackness; however, I worry that it limits the scope of political possibilities that can be pursued by linking anti-Blackness with the struggles of other marginalised people and by embracing the fights of multiply-marginalised Black people.
Thus, I conclude that a Black politics and Black life must be pursued beyond Afropessimism. Black culture and Black recognition provide the foundation that links Black people together beyond conditions of oppression, forms the basis of solidarity politics, and prompts us to imagine otherwise.
I. A Black Experience
Afropessimism offers a paradigm through which Black anger and despair can be fully recognised given the terrain of anti-Blackness, which is a result of the position of Black as “slave.” Wilderson’s Afropessimism follows and extends Hartman who locates Black people in the “after-life of slavery—skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment. Yet for Wilderson, the Black condition is not solely an “after-life” but a static condition of slavery and Black exploitation in relation to the rest of the world. Blackness is the “other” upon which the world turns and operates.
In reading Wilderson’s descriptions of his life experiences of racism, both micro and macro aggressions, it seemed clear to me something was being articulated that was familiar to all Black people, something worth acknowledging for the truth it reveals and the foundational understanding it provides: the Black experience of being unacceptable to white people, being outside of social life, and unworthy of recognition.
Wilderson recounts conversations with his childhood friend’s white mother, wherein she asks the “unasked question,” first through his friend, then directly “How do you feel, being a Negro?” This exchange echoes Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk, wherein he ponders, “How does it feel to be a problem?” Wilderson’s personal experiences, though in some ways limiting the scope of his argument due to his positionality as a middle-class man, provide entry into the experience of Blackness as Black autobiographical writing has done throughout history. The barrage of attacks on Wilderson from white neighbors and colleagues echo a common theme throughout Black biography: an outsider looking in, an invisible man, or a woman hiding in the attic.
Wilderson asserts that the senselessness and inhumanity of racism and anti-Blackness can only make sense if to be Black is to not be human but to be in the category of slave. He emphasises that the history and presence of anti-Black violence is insurmountable in the political arena. He expounds on this in conversation with Linette Park for The Black Scholar, wherein he declares that there is no need for some “telos” or “destination” for Black rage. Instead, Wilderson suggests we should “pick the scab and let Black people do the work of combustion” without the “mandate of uplift” or the “mandate of civil rights.” In this way, Wilderson says, we have a “mandate of true acknowledgement of what snaps in the mind from the death of Black desire, and we’re saying that’s okay. Because, nothing can happen in this world without Black people being at the core!”
I am open to the political implications of what it means to be neither in nor of the world, positioned outside of social and civic life, and inhabiting an outsider status from where one could let go of the present and strive for a different future. Following Jasmine Syedullah, I recognise that pessimism, in particular, can serve as a “prophetic defense against the future white supremacy makes all but inescapable...despair works to expose the limits of political agency, incorporation, representation, and progress.” Afropessimism, then, suggests that to reach for some common ground with a white supremacist system is and always has been futile, given the relentless and ongoing reality of Black death since slavery. This axiom allows Black people to step away and slip through an open door to something else.
Furthermore, I agree with Sexton when he writes “Slavery must be theorised maximally if its abolition is to reach the proper level.” Sexton goes on, “The singularity of slavery is the prerequisite of its universality.” I therefore agree that the emphasis on anti-Black slavery is a useful anchor, pulling the conversation to the crux of the matter. Only in a system defined by anti-Black slavery can the logics of racism, the carceral state, colorism, capitalism, persistent inequalities in wealth and status, and diasporic divisions of Black people across space and time make sense.
There is power in naming the reality of the present in the realm of a post-slavery continuum that demonstrates how what is remains linked to what was. If Black people remain in an undignified state of being, that helps explain ongoing dissatisfaction, anger, and uprisings. Black activists’ extension of the “abolitionist” fight from slavery to mass incarceration, for example, demonstrates the discursive power and mobilising potential of placing modern struggles within the long trajectory of anti-Blackness.
II. The Limits of Afropessimism
Despite the discursive power of slavery and anti-Blackness as the defining backdrop of the modern world, this framing has important limits. Dawson asserts that Afropessimism, in its singular focus on new world slavery, obscures the genocide of Indigenous people and flattens the experience of Black people. I argue that we must be able to reasonably acknowledge and centre the experiences of Black people vis-à-vis slavery, while also linking this struggle with other experiences of colonisation and marginality. Two things can happen at once. Attention to the struggles of others does not weaken or shrink the gravity of Black struggle.
Without acknowledging the struggle of other marginalised groups, Afropessimism, as Dawson writes, is theoretically limited by not acknowledging the context in which slavery occurs. Afropessimism loses the fuller story of white supremacy and ignores that the anti-Black capitalist world was made possible through centuries of genocide and displacement of Indigenous people. Without this story, we cannot comprehend Black peoples’ stakes in fights against capitalism, colonisation, and the fight for environmental justice. The lack of acknowledgement of the colonisation of Indigenous people at the outset of modernity withdraws Black struggle into itself and refuses to see the areas upon which collaboration, mutual interests, and common enemies can build a pathway forward.
In addition, Afropessimism needlessly limits the scope of its argument focusing solely on the trials of anti-Blackness. However, anti-Blackness, and sexism, and classism, and homophobia, and (etc)... are all defining and intersecting struggles in Black life. I do not think that the answer is mere recognition of these struggles, wherein simple acknowledgement or “representation” is the reliable answer. Rather, we should name these systems of domination as part and parcel of anti-Black practices because Black people bear the brunt of all of these “-isms” in distinct ways. The Black experience is expansive and we cannot ignore the variations in conditions that make for better or worse life chances.
I am concerned that Afropessimism forecloses questions of solidarity, refusing the possibility that Black people can ever benefit from true cross-racial solidarity, as well as refusing the power of Black led social movements.
Wilderson writes that “left-wing counter-hegemonic alliances” are “an essential terror” and that “coalitions and social movements—even radical social movements like the Prison Abolition Movement—bound up in the solicitation of hegemony, so as to fortify and extend the interlocutory life of civil society...ultimately accommodate only the satiable demands and legible conflicts of civil society’s junior partners (such as immigrants, White women, the working class), but foreclose upon the insatiable demands and illegible antagonisms of Blacks” (emphasis Wilderson’s).
There is something to be learned and understood from the assertion that everyone is anti-Black, and that there (perhaps) can be no pure solidarity. I accept that. When Wilderson recounts his Palestinian friend’s anti-Blackness, or when his father was called a n*gger by a Native American man, I do not excuse these as one-off experiences but as examples of the embeddedness of anti-Blackness. There is no good reason to ignore this fact and I am not here to suggest that we pursue cross-racial solidarity at the expense of Black safety and well-being, or that we should prioritise coalitional politics only, or before first building up Black political bonds.
But avoiding opportunities for solidarity leaves a lot on the table. Acting in solidarity connects multiple struggles against white supremacy and builds power, rendering solidarity a useful tool that can be used to accomplish political goals and better the terrain, even in an anti-Black world. And better is not perfect, but it is better.
It is better for Black people to be out of prison than inside of it, it is better for Black people to be able to vote than to not be able to vote, even as anti-Blackness says those voting rights are and will always be under attack. It is better for Black people to enter class struggle in solidarity with other workers. The fight for a free Palestine has always been and always will be intertwined with the Black freedom struggle. We cannot slide into a realm of futility that diminishes the value of waging political fights for subjugated people the world over.
This is not to say that progress is a given, or that there are no fights that Black people should refuse. It is not evident to me that the oft quoted Martin Luther King Jr. aphorism “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” is accurate. I do not think that Black people should be in coalitions with people who deny their humanity. Black people will have to fight for every modicum of progress and will have to use discernment about who fights alongside. Guidance for these fights, though, can be found in a rich Black radical tradition. Furthermore, Black culture and Black community can serve as grounding and mobilising forces beyond the realities of anti-Blackness.
IV. Black Life Matters
“The archival of black life is more than counting the dead, the maimed, and the dispossessed. Rather, it holds a possibility of deep remembrance of the freedom dreams of our ancestors, those who walked before us, and walk beside us, and those yet to come. Freedom dreams don’t live in real time. They live in epiphenomenal time—that black (w)hole of our existence in which the past, present and future are coiled around each other like that tiny black curl at the nape of your neck your grandmama used to call a “kitchen.”
-- Zenzele Isoke, “Black Ethnography, Black (Female)Aesthetics: Thinking/ Writing/ Saying/ Sounding Black Political Life”
While Afropessimism offers an intellectual path away from this world, it does not fully revel in the pleasurable cultural experiences of being Black. This includes the continuum of common experiences, language, and culture through which Black people are able to recognise, know and acknowledge each other. Thus, the pathway forward after Afropessimism must be sought elsewhere.
Sexton argues that “Nothing in afro-pessimism suggests that there is no black (social) life, only that black life is not social life in the universe formed by the codes of state and civil society, of citizen and subject, of nation and culture, of people and place, of history and heritage, of all the things that colonial society has in common with the colonised, of all that capital has in common with labour—the modern world system. Black life is not lived in the world that the world lives in, but it is lived underground, in outer space.”
It may be the case that Black social life is lived outside of civil society. But even so, Black social life and culture deserves a central place in the condition of Blackness as it has always been there, moving Black people through and forward. New and old Black feminisms and Black queer politics provide rich, grounding traditions of expansive togetherness, inclusion and safety for all Black people, even as these were and are located outside of mainstream feminist and queer movements. Though the world is predicated on Black death, Black people can be revived through Black collectivity. As Kevin Quashie writes, “Antiblackness is part of blackness but not all of how or what blackness is. Antiblackness is total in the world but not total in the black world.”
Black art and literature, Black music, call and response traditions, the Black church: there is so much we give for and to us that gives cause and reason to carry on, to not despair, and to fight at least for the space where we can be us, even if that space is outside of the social world. Traditions seen as errant and often unrecognised for their artistic contributions mean something to Black people and demonstrate that Black existence is more than just a condition of slavery. We should revel in who Black people are in spite of anti-Blackness, not to ignore its persistence but to honour those who came before.
While we must take care not to, as Hartman warns, “fill in the void” with political projects that are ultimately integrationist, nor reclaim struggles against anti-Black violence as some demonstration of otherworldly strength or endurance. I think, however, there are ways to revel in Blackness that exists outside of what are typically seen as justice-bent goals or characteristics, like integration or endurance. Black people can, in fact, revel in their outsider status, as Hartman demonstrates in her book Wayward Lives, and build a “transformational politics from below,” as Cohen discusses in her essay, “Deviance as Resistance.”
In this essay, I find important political potential in grounding anti-Blackness as the defining condition of the world, as it validates and speaks to the Black experience. However, I also agree with Dawson’s critique that Afropessimism does not adequately recognise the struggles of other marginalised groups and homogenises the Black experience.
I find important limitations in the theory of Afropessimism as it forecloses possibilities for linked solidarity struggles by minimising the struggles of other marginalised groups outside of Blackness. Even as the outsider status of Blackness provides a generative space to pursue a different world and even revel in Black life, Afropessimism alone does not fully appreciate Black cultural traditions.
We may hold Afropessimism as a truism describing the state of the world; but I see Black radicalism and Black feminism as the imaginative, world-building politics that provide a path forward. Author and womanist Alice Walker, speaking at an Anti-Nuke Rally at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1982, offers food for thought in this regard:
“Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it. In any case, Earth is my home—though for centuries white people have tried to convince me I have no right to exist, except in the dirtiest, darkest corners of the globe.
So let me tell you: I intend to protect my home. Praying—not a curse—only the hope that my courage will not fail my love. But if by some miracle, and all our struggle, the earth is spared, only justice to every living thing (and everything is alive) will save humankind.
And we are not saved yet.
Only justice can stop a curse.”
 Ellison, R. 1995. Invisible man. New York: Vintage International.
 Hartman, Saidiya. 2007. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux: 6.
 Wilderson, Frank. 2020. Afropessimism. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation: 24-27.
 Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903, 1994). The Souls of Black Folk. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc. 1.
 Park, Linette. 2020. “Afropessimism and Futures of …: A Conversation with Frank Wilderson.” The Black Scholar 50(3): 40.
 Gordon, Lewis R., Annie Menzel, George Shulman, and Jasmine Syedullah. 2018. “Afro Pessimism.” Contemporary Political Theory 17(1): 128.
 Sexton, Jared. 2011. “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afropessimism and Black Optimism.” InTensions Journal. Issue 5: Fall/Winter. Toronto: York University: 33.
 Ibid, 33.
 Or, perhaps Afropessimists would say, slower or faster deaths.
 Wilderson, Frank. 2020. 222-223.
 Ibid,12-13 & 44.
 Isoke, Zenzele. 2018. “Black Ethnography, Black (Female) Aesthetics: Thinking/ Writing/ Saying/ Sounding Black Political Life. Theory and Event, Vol 21(1): 149.
 Sexton, Jared, 2011. 28.
 Quashie, Kevin. 2021. Black Aliveness, Or a Poetics of Being. Durham; London: Duke University Press: 5.
 Hartman, Saidiya V. and Frank B. Wilderson. 2003. “The Position of the Unthought.” Qui Parle 13(2): 186.
 Cohen, Cathy J. 2004. “Deviance As Resistance: A New Research Agenda for the Study of Black Politics.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 1(1): 42.
 Walker, Alice. 1983. “Only Justice Can Stop a Curse,” in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. Barbara Smith, ed. New York: Kitchen Table—Women of Color Press.
by Michael C. Dawson
Afropessimists argue that we can only understand the global system of racial domination if we acknowledge that it is, first and foremost, a system defined in toto by anti-blackness. Moreover, Afropessimism rejects a central role for political economy and politics for understanding the essence of black oppression. For the past few years, this branch of critical race theory has gained a number of supporters in and out of the academy. For example, Frank Wilderson’s highly influential 2020 book Afropessimism was long-listed for the National Book Award and was praised by several outstanding black intellectuals.
This essay centres the work of Frank Wilderson and Jared Sexton as they are widely recognised leaders of the Afropessimism school of thought. Wilderson and Sexton claim that the enslavement of Africans constituted a rupture; a rupture that was essential for the development of capitalism but also a rupture that put black bodies and black people outside of the logics of capitalism and colonialism. For Sexton and Wilderson, anti-blackness is both a unique system of structural dominance as well as an ideology. Anti-blackness, they claim, is defined by racial slavery and impervious to change. Sexton argues for example, “the application of the law of racial slavery is pervasive, regardless of variance or permutation in its operation across the better part of a millennium”.
In this essay, I offer a critique of Afropessimism, both as a theory of black oppression and as a political project. I make the following claims. First, Afropessimism incorrectly centres the experiences of people of African descent that were enslaved within the U.S. This results in the homogenisation of the experiences of peoples of African descent, and, equally importantly, mischaracterises and belittles the oppression of non-African colonised subjects. While I agree that anti-blackness is a central structural feature of global white supremacy that emerged with the mid-15th-century Iberian slave trade, I argue that it is not the only critical structural feature that historically defined white supremacy. Further, the ontological centring of the experiences of people of African descent in the U.S. radically and incorrectly homogenises the history and conditions of the peoples of Africa and those in the African Diaspora.
Secondly, I argue that Afropessimists overemphasise the continuities in the black experience in the U.S. While Afropessimists are correct that there are structural continuities across time that continue to contribute to black oppression—not the least of which is a continuing vitriolic and violent global anti-blackness—they underemphasise the achievements of black freedom struggles. Even Wilderson’s own biography is a testimony to critical changes in the black experience in the U.S. The positive changes that are elided in the work of many Afropessimists—such as the formation of modern black civil society and a great expansion of a robust and often revolutionary black politics— serves to erase the often heroic struggles of black activists; struggles that often tragically failed to bring substantial progress, but that also sometimes achieved victories in the struggle for black liberation.
Finally, and critically, Wilderson and Sexton present a fatally flawed account of the relationship between black oppression, white supremacy and the capitalist social order. I will demonstrate that this is a flaw that not only makes impossible any accurate account of black oppression, but also prevents us from understanding the contradictions and cleavages that exist within black communities and black politics.
Afropessimism Incorrectly Centres the Experiences of People of African Descent Enslaved within the U.S.
Afro-Pessimists homogenise the black experience. I agree with Wilderson when he argues that the enslavement of blacks, and specifically the slave trade, was a condition for the development of global capitalism, particularly as the Atlantic became more economically important than the Mediterranean. The large-scale sale of Africans in 1444 by the Portuguese marked Africans as the Other, justifying in the minds of royal, religious, and secular Portuguese elites the brutal and exceptional enslavement of Africans. Previously, only prisoners of war were subject to enslavement. This marked the moment when Africans were marked as the exception to natural law in service of accumulation; in service of profits. I also agree with Wilderson that this marks the inception of a set of anti-black logics that have taken a life of their own and have rendered black lives less valuable, subject to excessive and often arbitrary violence, and ultimately disposable during the entire history of capitalist development.
I disagree, however, when Sexton and Wilderson privilege the role of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the “New World” and homogenise the black experience. They fail to understand that black people have played a number of roles viz colonialism and have been valued differently by capitalist states and managers depending on those roles. Sexton’s claim “[t]he United States provides the point of focus here, but the dynamics under examination are not restricted to its bounds” glosses over the differences in black experience at the time of slavery and the present day, and between “New World slavery” and old-world colonialism. It assumes that the figure of the enslaved African in the “New World” can represent the entirety of black experience. This is untenable: After all, one might well argue that the experience of colonised Africans was more akin to that of the other colonised populations of Asia and the “New World” than that of their enslaved cousins. The work of scholars such as Michael Ralph and Andrew Zimmerman, among many others, demonstrate that those enslaved in the so- called “New World” was not the same, for example, as the experience of Africans in Senegambia who worked as agents on behalf of European colonial powers.
Further, these Afropessimists incorrectly belittle the oppression of non-white peoples who are not of African descent. If the threat and shadow of slavery followed those of African descent across generations, the very real threat of dispossession, massacre and even genocide at the hands of Euro-American imperialists and their clients similarly hung over entire indigenous populations across multiple continents and islands.
But Afropessimists deny this. Sexton, for example, argues that with respect to black folks, indigenous populations had the same relationship to people of African descent as the Europeans that colonised the western hemisphere, Asia, and Africa. Sexton argues, “freedom from the rule of slave law requires only that one be considered nonblack, whether that nonblack racial designation be “white” or “Indian” or, in the rare case, “Oriental”—this despite the fact that each of these groups has at one point or another laboured in conditions similar to or contiguous with enslaved African-derived groups.” In other words, Sexton here argues that modern racial slavery was so momentous than even the indigenous victims of genocide, or the conquered colonised peoples throughout the world, had more in common with whites than they had in common with enslaved African populations and their descendants—even though arguably colonised Africans had more in common with other colonised peoples than with their enslaved cousins in the Western Hemisphere.
Sexton declares, “we note the fact that ‘the absolute submission mandated by law was not simply that of slave to his or her owner- but the submission of all the enslaved before all whites. The latter group is better termed all non blacks (or, less economically, the unequally arrayed category of non-blackness), because it is racial blackness as a necessary condition for enslavement that matters most, rather than whiteness as a condition for freedom.” Even bracketing the historical inaccuracies, the logical and temporal slippage in the above passages that lead to the transformation from “enslaved before all whites” to “better termed non blacks” is stunning. The genocide of indigenous peoples in the New World preceded black slavery and was in many ways as or more brutal even if the dehumanisation processes markedly differed. Nine out of ten indigenous people died due to European diseases in the New World—yet that category was a condition for freedom? The American empire as well as that of its European counterparts required periodic massacres of racialised “natives” at places such as Sand Creek and Wounded Knee, or in the early 20th century, the Philippines where an extraordinary percentage of the population was killed during the American military intervention before World War I. In his work on racialised U.S. imperialism in the Philippines, Kramer calls estimates of 250,00 Filipinos dying as a result of U.S. military intervention during the late 19th early 20th century “conservative”. Massacres such as these were conducted by from Southern to Northern African by brutal imperialists such as the Germans and British.
To sum up: White supremacy was and is a global imperial project that divided the world into civilised, human, citizen-subjects, and non-civilised, sub-human colonised subjects. The enslavement of Africans and the centrality of the slave trade for the early development of capitalism and empire for Atlantic sector European states ensured that anti-blackness would be an enduring structural feature of white supremacy. But the processes of racialisation, domination, dispossession and exploitation associated with white supremacy differed within and across regions. Only by not homogenising the experiences of the various racially subordinated populations—including the experiences of people of African descent—will we be able to analytically forge theories and practices needed for black liberation.
Afropessimism is Anti-Political and Erases the History and Achievements of Black Liberation Movements.
Wilderson argues that blacks are not of the world, they are also not part of the “narrative,” not part of history. Wilderson states: “As provocative as it may sound history and redemption (and therefore narrative itself) are inherently anti-Black.” For Wilderson, blacks are outside of history; “space and time” are absent: “just as there is no time for the Slave, there is also no place for the Slave.” In asserting that black people are outside of history, Wilderson is making the claim that Blackness is irrevocably marked as slaveness—there is no historical change in the meaning of blackness and position of black people. In Afropessimism, for example, Wilderson claims that “Afropessimism is premised on an iconoclastic claim: that Blackness is coterminous with Slaveness.” “Blackness,” Wilderson emphasises, “cannot exist other than Slaveness”.
This is not so much an iconoclastic claim as a false one. It is true, of course, that Black lives after slavery continued to be marked by domination and violence. The spectre of extreme violence aimed at individuals and black communities, the expropriation that marked share cropping in the rural south, the super-exploitation of black industrial workers, the precarious position of black women performing paid and unpaid domestic labour, and the continued vulnerability of black women to all of the above as well as gender-based domination, all serve to emphasise the continuities of domination.
But while there were important continuities between in the condition of black people during and after slavery, the rupture caused by the end of slavery nonetheless represented a massive change in how black life was organised—a reorganisation that transformed the articulation between white supremacy and the capitalist social order. The end of slavery presented new and important opportunities for black agency even if full “freedom” was not achieved. It was marked by the formation of black civil society, the emergence of new possibilities as well as new challenges for black politics. It was during this period that the institutional backbone of black civil society was developed—including the black church (which was as much a political institution as a sacred one); black institutions of higher learning; cooperative and mutual aid societies; and. a myriad of other organisational initiatives. All were launched and/or consolidated during this period. The ability to form families, expand black politics, and build black civil society represented a type of real if limited progress.
Further, Wilderson’s claim that the black condition is defined by “slaveness,” that blacks are not of the world, they are also not part of the “narrative,” not part of history is also profoundly anti-political. For Wilderson, blacks exist outside of the domain of politics: “The violence of the slave estate cannot be thought of the way one thinks of the violence of capitalist oppression. It takes an ocean of violence to produce a slave, singular or plural, but that violence never goes into remission. Again, the prehistory of violence that establishes slavery is also the concurrent history of slavery. This is a difficult cognitive map for most activists to adjust to because it actually takes the problem outside of politics.”
Wrong. What progress has been made has been the result of fighting through social movements that, as Malcolm X urged, used any means necessary. Fighting oppression is inherently political. The anti-political nature of Wilderson’s central claim casts aside the momentous struggles of black people for liberation in the U.S., massive struggles for freedom throughout the African Diaspora, the 20th-century African national liberation struggles, as well as contemporary African struggles against neocolonialism, neoliberal regimes, and against the new imperial project of redividing Africa.
Perhaps the most immoral implication of Wilderson’s claim that slaveness defines blackness is that the human is defined against blackness. If blacks are not human then it is easier to claim that black people are outside of history, and blacks are outside the realm of politics. For Wilderson, all human life is defined in opposition blackness, in opposition to the condition of being a slave. Wilderson explains, “Human Life is dependent on Black death for its existence and for its conceptual coherence. There is no world without Blacks, yet there are no Blacks who are in the World.” This claim places Wilderson outside of both the black radical and black nationalist traditions. Black movements whether black liberal, black Marxist, or black nationalist fought and died insisting on Africans’ humanity—although some, particularly but not exclusively many black nationalists, questioned the humanity of those that enslaved others. Black movements have historically, and correctly, demanded a place in a world the recognition of one’s own humanity regardless of one’s status as enslaved, expropriated, and oppressed.
Afropessimism Distorts the Relationship Between Anti-Blackness, White Supremacy, Patriarchy, and Capitalism
Finally and critically, this version of Afropessimism severely mischaracterises the relationship between anti-blackness, white supremacy, and capitalism. Wilderson asserts that political economy is of little use for analysing the black condition as the condition of the slave, the condition of blacks, is subject to violence that cannot be explained by political economy. Further, the status of the slave is invariant to “historical shifts.” I assert that only by understanding the interaction between the multiple systems of domination blacks are subject to—white supremacy (of which anti-blackness is a central structural feature), patriarchy and capitalism—will we be able to understand for any given era the status of blacks; the massive and multiple forms of violence that blacks experience, and the way forward toward full black liberation.
In Afropessimism, Wilderson only briefly considers the role of political economy in black subjugation. He argues that the use/study of political economy cannot explain the violence committed against blacks. This violence, Wilderson argues, is invariant across time. Specifically:
“Black people exist in the throes of what historian David Eltis calls ‘violence beyond the limit,’ by which he means: (a) in the libidinal economy there are no forms of violence so excessive that they would be considered too cruel to inflict upon Blacks; and (b) in political economy there are no rational explanations for this limitless theatre of cruelty, no explanations that would make political or economic sense of the violence that positions and punishes Blackness….the Slave’s relationship to violence is open-ended…unaccountable to historical shifts.”
What Wilderson misses is that blacks are subject to multiple sources of violence—the cumulative nature of which is monstrous. Simultaneously analysing the articulation of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism leads one to the realisation that blacks depending on context in various combinations experience violence as workers, women, and/or as black people. Each system of domination routinely inflicts violence for those at the bottom of each hierarchy. I would add that an aspect of white supremacy and anti-blackness is that for blacks even the forms of violence that derive from patriarchy and capitalism are intensified due to white supremacy. This violence is also rational to the degree that each form of violence is ultimately aimed at reinforcing the rule of those at the top of each system of domination.
In a much earlier essay, Wilderson more directly addresses the relationship between capitalism and black subjugation. Wilderson asserts that “…the United States is constructed at the intersection of both a capitalist and white supremacist matrix.” This statement is promising in that it hints at the simultaneous analysis of the interaction between capitalism and white supremacy. Yet, he does not sufficiently explore the consequences of this statement and does not analyse the actual dynamics created by the articulation of capitalism and white supremacy.
For example, in Afropessimism Wilderson correctly asserts that “….the emergence of the slave, the subject-effect of an ensemble of direct relations of force marks the emergence of the capitalism itself.” The “primitive” accumulation necessary for the establishment of the capitalist social order does have at its centre the brutal and hideous social relations of slavery and the slave trade, but not only slavery. But unlike what Wilderson argues, the historical record shows that under white supremacy and colonialism blacks are not the only racially subordinate group to be subject to “direct relations of force.” As Ince argues, “direct relations of force” do not only mark the subject of the slave, but of the colonised more generally such as the genocide of the indigenous peoples of particularly the “New” World (itself a precondition of capitalism). Establishing and maintaining capitalism has required the expropriation of resources and labour—simultaneously wedded to the violation of black, brown, and yellow bodies throughout the world. In the end, non-white bodies are disposable in the global North and South; in the ghettoes, barrios, reservations, prisons, refugee camps and immigration detention centres that can be grimly found throughout the world. The particularities are important—and anti-blackness is a key particularity that shapes capitalism and white supremacy, but as argued earlier, it still a part a global system of white supremacy marked by direct relations of force, and which non-whites are racialised differently by that force.
Within the context of the U.S., only a type of stubborn blindness, a refusal to acknowledge the historical record, and refusal to see the interrelationship between capitalism and racial domination can lead those such as Wilderson to argue that “we were never meant to be workers…..From the very beginning, we were meant to be accumulated and die.” This assertion flies against the historical evidence. No, blacks were meant to work, die, and be accumulated as need be. White supremacy often demands that blacks die. Capitalism demands that blacks must also, when necessary work and/or be accumulated. Each, and patriarchy as well, continually make their bloody demands. Through politics and other means of struggle blacks continually resist. This resistance can only be successful by understanding the mutual articulation between each system of domination.
Conclusion: What is at Stake?
What is at stake is far more critical than an abstract academic debate between theorists. These debates speak directly to how we understand Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential elections and the racist, authoritarian and potentially fascist phenomenon of “Trumpism” and the rise of neo-fascist movements in the global north and south. It speaks to how we best understand the accelerating rates of inequality in both the global north and south popularly described by Thomas Piketty. It speaks to how we understand the rising wave of violence that black folks face here, throughout the Diaspora, and within Africa itself.
Afropessimists have an ahistorical narrative that distorts the relationship of white supremacy to capitalism—insisting despite all historical and contemporary empirical evidence to the contrary that the core logics of slave-based anti-blackness exists outside of, and ultimately invariant to, the dynamics of the capitalist political economy. This strand of theorising has taken root in real-world activism—in this case among young black activists struggling once again for black liberation. Afropessimism, however, presents real political dangers for those organising for black liberation. I will mention three such dangers here. By arguing that black subjugation lies outside the realm of the political, Afropessimism serves as a basis for political demobilisation rather than mobilisation. Indeed, Wilderson is correct when he states, “This is a difficult cognitive map for most activists to adjust to because it actually takes the problem outside of politics.” Second, Afropessimism severely undermines those attempting to build solidarity with other racially subordinate groups. Do we still need to be building independent radical black movements and organisations? Yes. Is building solidarity hard. Yes. Is one likely to experience anti-black racism from some other peoples of colour? Yes. Is it still a necessary task if meaningful political victories are to be achieved? Yes.
Third, by ignoring the class and gender dynamics within black communities, Afropessimism makes it far more difficult to understand the dynamics of intra-black politics. Understanding these dynamics is crucial for fighting all forms of oppression and domination that are experienced within black communities. Afropessimists are correct to insist that the logics of racial domination are autonomous and not fully determined by a capitalist social order. Afropessimists fail to understand, however, the effects of the interaction of multiple systems of domination have on black life and politics. It is our task to forge better theoretical weapons to not only illuminate the nature of oppressive systems of domination, but also to provide effective tools to combat oppression.
 There are a wide range of activists who either have been identified with Afropessimism and/or have been in conversation with prominent Afropessimists such as Frank Wilderson. Brilliant scholars such as Hortense Spillers, Saidya Hartman, and Fred Moten have been claimed by those supporting and critiquing Afropessimism. The latter two in particular have been in sympathetic conversation with Afropessimists, such as Frank Wilderson. However, they—as well as scholars such as Christina Sharpe whose argument is congruent with Afropessimism—rarely use “Afropessimism” in their own published research. Fred Moten has publicly stated that he is not an Afropessimist.
 Jared Sexton, ‘People-of-Color-Blindness: Notes on the Afterlife of Slavery’, Social Text 28(2 (103)) (2010), 37. Emphasis added.
 I am making an historical claim about global capitalist social order that emerged during the 16th century. I am agnostic about the theoretical claim that processes of racial subordination are necessary for original and ongoing capital accumulation, and thus necessary for capitalist social orders.
 Anna More, 'Necroeconomics, Originary Accumulation, and Racial Capitalism in the Early Iberian Slave Trade', Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 19 (2019), 75-100.
 Michael Ralph, Forensics of Capital (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015); Andrew Zimmerman, Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).
 Sexton, ‘People-of-Color-Blindness’, 36.
 Ralph, Forensics of Capital; Zimmerman, Alabama in Africa.
 Sexton, ‘People-of-Color-Blindness’, 16.
 Ibid., 36.
 Paul A. Kramer, The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, The United States, and the Phillipines (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 157.
 Frank B. Wilderson, Afropessimism (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2020), 226.
 Ibid., 227. Original emphasis.
 Ibid., 225–6.
 Ibid., 229.
 Ibid., 224. Original emphasis.
 Ibid., 228–9.
 . Patriarchy is not addressed as a system of domination or oppression in Wilderson’s analysis.
 Ibid., 216. Original emphasis.
 Frank B. Wilderson, ‘Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the Slave in Civil Society?’, Social Identities 9(2) (2003), 225.
 Wilderson, Afropessimism, 229.
 As I and many others argued, going back to Rosa Luxemburg, it is more correct to understand accumulation as an essential ongoing aspect of the capitalist social order and reject Marx’s terminology of “primitive” or “original” (depending on the translation of Volume I of Capital).
 Onur Ulas Ince, ‘Primitive Accumulation, New Enclosures, and Global Land Grabs: A Theoretical Intervention’, Rural Sociology 79(1) (2014), 104–31.
 Wilderson, ‘Gramsci’s Black Marx’, 238. Emphasis added.
 Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
 Wilderson, Afropessimism, 224.
by Emily Katzenstein
Afropessimism issues a radical challenge to contemporary theories of the role and nature of anti-Blackness and its relation to other forms of oppression and domination. As the very term makes clear, it is characterised by a deeply pessimistic attitude towards the possibility of Black liberation. For Afropessimists, modernity inaugurates a “new ontology” of anti-Blackness that defines Blackness, as a constructed category, as inextricably tied to the condition of enslavement and thus as a structural position of “social death.” Afropessimists here draw on the work of Orlando Patterson, who understands enslavement as a form of “social death” defined as “natal alienation, generalised dishonor and violent domination”. As Frank Wilderson III, one of the leading theorists of Afropessimism, puts it: “Blackness and Slaveness are inextricably bound in such a way that whereas Slaveness can be separated from Blackness, Blackness cannot exist as other than Slaveness.” Wilderson thus rejects, in the most radical way possible, a narrative of progressive Black emancipation. Blackness as a structural position remains essentially fixed despite historical changes, no matter how transformative they may seem. “The changes that begin to occur after the Civil War and up through the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power, and the American election of a Black president,” Wilderson argues “are merely changes in the weather.”
But Afropessimism not only issues a radical challenge to theories and histories of anti-Blackness. It also challenges the idea that anti-Blackness functions analogously to other forms of oppression and domination that are based on distinctions of gender, race, ethnicity, or class. Anti-Blackness, in Afropessimist thought, isn’t one form of subjugation amongst many forms of oppression (race, gender, class, sexuality, etc.) but a condition of radical alterity and abjection that must be recognised as the limit of the human condition—the other of the category of “human.” Laying claim to humanity in the face of pervasive dehumanisation, Afropessimism insists, is doomed to failure because Blackness denotes a position from which laying claim to “humanity” is a political and, indeed, ontological impossibility. This implies a radical reconceptualisation of the relationship between struggles for Black freedom and struggles against other forms of oppression. In his most recent book, Afropessimism, for example, Wilderson argues that non-Black struggles against domination ultimately only become legible through the comparative illegibility of Black political claims and thus perpetuate the exclusion of Blackness from the category of “human” in order to make themselves legible as “human.”
In this series of essays on Afropessimism, which will be published in installments, Michael Dawson, Jordie Davies and Marcus Lee reflect on and grapple with the theoretical and political challenges that Afropessimism poses. In the first essay of the series, Michael Dawson reflects on the question of whether an ontological account of Blackness can theorise anti-Blackness in its complexity and in its changing historical articulations and asks if Afropessimism allows us to recognise the ways in which different forms of domination are articulated. Dawson evaluates Afropessimism’s relationship to other ideological traditions in Black political thought, such as Black nationalism and Black radical thought. In this context, he critically examines Afropessimism’s foregrounding of the libidinal (rather than political) economy and assesses its potential for generating a critique of the entanglements of white supremacy and capitalism.
In “Afropessimism and Narrative Theorising”, Marcus Lee offers a rejoinder to Michael Dawson’s critique of Afropessimism. Lee provides a close reading of Frank Wilderson’s authorial and narrative strategies and reflects on how Afropessimism imagines Black sociality and practices of recognition.
In the final essay in the series, “After Afropessimism,” which will be published on 31 May, Jordie Davies asks what political opportunities Afropessimism presents by re-centering anti-Blackness in struggles against racism and white supremacy and tackles the implications that Afropessimism has for coalition-building in movement politics.
 Wilderson, Frank B. Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2010: 18ff.
 Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. ACLS Humanities E-book. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982: 38.
 George Shulman. "Theorizing Life Against Death." Contemporary Political Theory 17:1 (February 2018), pp. 118-127: 119.
 Wilderson, Frank B. Afropessimism. Liveright: Kindle Edition, 2020: 42.
 Ibid., 96.
 Wilderson, Frank B. Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2010: 20
 Wilderson, Frank B. Afropessimism Liveright: Kindle Edition, 2020: 243ff.
by Tejas Parasher
It is difficult to overstate just how much of a watershed moment the immediate aftermath of WWI was for modern democracy. No previous global crisis had revealed on such a scale the self-destructiveness and the fundamental unsustainability—political, economic, and military—of the European states-system. Writing from London in 1917, the British economist John Hobson predicted the rise of new movements which would increasingly seek to disentangle democracy from the military-industrial state; as a result of the war, Hobson argued, “not only the spirit but the very forms of popular self-government have suffered violation.” The war had made clear in stark terms the ever-present possibilities of autocracy and violence underneath the veneer of democracy in modern states.
Hobson’s observation proved prescient. The months after November 1918 witnessed a proliferation of political experiments, ranging from the council communism of the Spartacus League in Berlin to pluralism and guild socialism in Britain, France, and the United States, bringing together political and legal thinkers like Rosa Luxemburg, Léon Duguit, Harold Laski, and G.D.H. Cole. Though distinct in their respective ideologies, these movements were all propelled by disillusionment with the representative, parliamentary republics created in Western Europe through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
That diagnosis was not restricted to pacifists and democrats. Carl Schmitt asserted confidently in The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1923) that nineteenth-century liberal models of representative government inherited from John Stuart Mill and François Guizot had outlived their usefulness in a new age of mass politics, and only remained standing “through sheer mechanical perseverance as an empty apparatus.”
But how the problem that Schmitt called “the crisis of parliamentary democracy” was perceived beyond Europe and North America after 1918 still remains a largely untold story. In recent years, historians have uncovered the depth of interaction between subject peoples in the colonial world and the various political ideologies and institutional proposals circulating in Europe in the wake of the Great War. A notable example is Susan Pedersen’s exemplary study of petitions submitted to the League of Nations Permanent Mandates Commission by groups in the Middle East, the South Pacific, and south-western and eastern Africa, demanding political independence from imperial rule. A much less examined aspect of this period, though, is the orientation of anti-colonial thinkers and leaders towards the critiques of nation-state sovereignty and representative democracy consuming European political thought of the time. To put it differently, how were Hobson and Schmitt’s diagnoses of the post-WWI situation understood in Bombay or Cairo, instead of in London or Berlin? The point of such an inquiry is both to provide a more global historiography of the early twentieth-century crisis of parliamentarism and to better understand the full range of political thought precipitated by the crisis.
My recent research explores these themes through an examination of the rise of a normative challenge to representative democracy, particularly its nineteenth-century parliamentary variant, within Indian political thought between 1918 and 1928. My focus is on a group of historians and philosophers based at the north Indian universities of Allahabad and Lucknow and at the southern University of Mysore. Identifying themselves as political pluralists, these writers turned to pre-modern Indian history to unearth forms of classical republicanism and participatory law-making. Their books, pamphlets, and draft constitutions contained the earliest theories of direct democracy as a tangible constitutional ideal in modern South Asia.
By the mid-1910s, there was an established, well-organised nationalist movement in the Crown Territories of British India. For three decades, the Indian National Congress (INC) had been lobbying for political and economic reform within the empire. Politically, the INC sought the introduction of a parliamentary system elected through adult suffrage, modelled on the settler colonies of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Parliamentarism was seen both as a distinctively English achievement and, as an arrangement wherein only representatives deliberated and legislated, as the most effective way of selecting members of an educated, urban elite to govern in the interests of the wider population.
Thus, between 1885 and 1915, Dadabhai Naoroji, a key figure in the evolution of Indian nationalism, repeatedly defined the Indian demand for self-rule (swaraj) as an extension of parliamentary principles established in England after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and imported to the satellite states of the Anglosphere by the late nineteenth century. Even as nationalist politics came to be divided between liberal and revolutionary camps from the first decade of the new century, the embrace of parliamentarism remained secure. For the revolutionary leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who constantly linked Indian nationalism with the struggles for Home Rule in Ireland and Egypt and was hailed by Lenin as a “democrat” in 1908, swaraj meant the election of members of political parties into self-governing representative institutions. For all the disagreement over tactics, early nationalist arguments in India converged on a view of popular self-government as an indirect electoral enterprise, exercised by a limited number of deputies on behalf of the citizenry.
From 1918, the nationalist attempt to mediate popular sovereignty through the established procedures of parliamentary representation provoked a reaction amongst a new group of writers who held a different understanding of swaraj. A key moment in the fracturing of the consensus around parliamentary government was the publication of Radhakumud Mookerji’s Local Government in Ancient India in 1919. Mookerji was born in rural Bengal in 1884 and trained as a historian at the University of Calcutta. The backdrop to his political formation was the upsurge of anti-British agitation in eastern India in 1905, known as the swadeshi movement, which highlighted to him the role of historical narratives in shaping anti-colonial nationalist politics. Radhakumud eventually settled at the University of Lucknow as Professor of Ancient Indian History.
Local Government in Ancient India was a strikingly presentist political book to have been written by an academic historian. Radhakumud challenged the Indian National Congress’ uncritical acceptance of parliamentary government. He insisted that WWI had made clear not only that parliamentary republics did not always express the full will of their people, but that representative institutions under the conditions of modern economic life, electioneering, and party politics could easily be co-opted by political and economic elites and interest groups. In seeking to transpose the nineteenth-century English system of electoral representation into India in the 1910s, the Congress was essentially introducing “self-rule from above,” leaving the power to make and amend law in the hands of a relatively small political class.
Radhakumud’s response was to turn to constitutional models from ancient and medieval South Asia. Relying on recent archival discoveries of Sanskrit and Pali-language treatises and archaeological inscriptions from southern India in the ninth and tenth centuries CE, Radhakumud made the claim that pre-modern Indian states had been elaborate federal structures consisting of semi-independent local jurisdictions overseen by a central monarchy. The jurisdictions themselves were governed by large citizens’ assemblies (sabha) consisting of adult house-holders; the sabha performed all legislative, executive, and judicial functions, and chose sub-committees for specialised functions on the basis of sortition.
Radhakumud was not the first modern Indian writer to give a republican re-interpretation of states which had frequently been denigrated in terms of either Oriental despotism or ungoverned anarchy, as in James Mill’s History of British India (1817). But Radhakumud was the first to consider a medieval federation of citizens’ assemblies as a viable political model for the twentieth century, as a real alternative to parliamentarism. Much to the chagrin of other historians, Radhakumud proposed that replicating a system of citizens’ assemblies provided a coherent model of direct democracy, much more participatory than the models of representative government espoused by the INC leadership.
Local Government in Ancient India went through two English editions in 1919 and 1920. Its core thesis was reproduced in a number of other Indian texts from the 1920s, including Brajendranath Seal’s Report on the Constitution of Mysore (1923), Radhakamal Mukerjee’s Democracies of the East (1923), and Beni Prasad’s A Few Suggestions on the Problem of the Indian Constitution (1928). Radhakamal Mukerjee’s Democracies of the East—from which I draw the title of this post—was the most detailed example of the genre. Radhakamal Mukerjee decried the nationalist acceptance of the English model of electoral representation, premised on suffrage, political parties, and parliamentary supremacy, as insufficiently democratic. Nationalist politics limited legislative sovereignty to “a certain small and well-defined class which packs and directs the assembly, and speaks in the name of the people.” Radhakamal accordingly presented the creation of directly democratic assemblies patterned on medieval Asian states as a way to overcome the structural hierarchies of sovereignty embedded within parliamentary government. As in Local Government in Ancient India, the reconstruction of pre-modern republicanism was a response to the perceived inability of parliamentary states to allow for wide political participation.
Democracies of the East framed its program of historical recovery as an attempt to avoid the fate of European parliamentary regimes during WWI—in particular the threat of unaccountable governance by a class of periodically elected political elites, the conversion of popular rule into the rule of a few. Indeed, Radhakamal Mukerjee saw his proposals as part of a wider trans-national backlash against statism and representative democracy between 1918 and 1923, praising movements such as syndicalism, pluralism, and guild socialism in Western Europe, the Middle East, East Asia, and beyond. Indian history was for him a repertoire of intellectual resources to aid these movements in the imagination of new democratic futures. He was especially drawn to the guild socialist G.D.H. Cole, aligning his own intellectual project with the latter’s attempts to revive medieval practices of self-management in associational life in lieu of electoral forms of labour politics. While there is no evidence that Democracies of the East was read in the British guild socialist circles around G.D.H. Cole, in the mid-1930s Radhakamal did travel to London to meet with Cole’s fellow pluralist Ernest Barker at the Institute of Sociology.
The Indian pluralists’ visions of participatory democracy remained academic experiments in the 1920s, never really taken up by political movements on the ground. By the late 1940s, the dominant constitutional paradigm in India came to be narrowed into a demand for sovereign statehood and parliamentary democracy. As John Dunn has argued, in such circumstances the mid-century transition from imperial rule was unable to be a truly transformative rupture with the state-form of representative democracy ubiquitous in Western Europe following the Second World War.
Given these subsequent developments, returning to the defeated democratic traditions emergent in the immediate aftermath of WWI in British India is an exercise of intellectual retrieval. It allows us to reconstruct the contours of a discourse and ideology at odds with the tradition of self-government which eventually triumphed with independence. The existence of the pluralist discourse indicates, above all, how the profound crisis of liberalism and modern democratic thinking that Carl Schmitt associated with the European 1920s was a global phenomenon stretching far beyond Europe.
In South Asia, these years were similarly an opening for thinkers to challenge the principles of representative government consolidated in the region’s political thought and practice by the 1910s—principles which, in the hands of nationalist leaders, would re-assert their dominance by the 1940s. The civilisational language that Indian pluralists adopted in their opposition to representative democracy—turning to an invented tradition of ‘Asian’ republicanism—was of course strikingly different from Schmitt or Hobson. Yet their turn to history was a response to similar underlying political dynamics, produced by a shared global moment of transformation and experimentation in theories of sovereignty and collective self-government.
 J.A. Hobson, Democracy after the War (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1917), 15.
 Carl Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, trans. Ellen Kennedy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 21.
 Susan Pedersen, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
 Tejas Parasher, “Federalism, Representation, and Direct Democracy in 1920s India,” Modern Intellectual History (January 2021): 1-29. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/modern-intellectual-history/article/federalism-representation-and-direct-democracy-in-1920s-india/625B0116F57186A02ABE261B001012CE.
 Radhakumud Mookerji, Local Government in Ancient India, 1st ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1919).
 Radhakamal Mukerjee, Democracies of the East: A Study in Comparative Politics (London: P.S. King & Son, 1923), 356.
 Mukerjee, Democracies of the East, 340-41. Also see G.D.H. Cole, Self-Government in Industry (London: G. Bell and Sons Ltd., 1918).
 Radhakamal Mukerjee, India: The Dawn of a New Era (An Autobiography) (New Delhi: Radha Publications, 1997), 166.
 John Dunn, Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), 154.
by Meir Hatina
The development of Islamic Studies during the twentieth century and beyond has found little favour with Islam as a religious phenomenon. The body of knowledge on Islam has expanded, and new genres based on new sources have gained momentum, such as social history, urban studies, public space, holy landscape, religious practices, gender, and the documentation and empowerment of subaltern voices (women, minorities, and slaves). But it seems that this wealth of scholarship has touched on Islam as a culture and civilisation, much less on Islam as religious thought, especially in terms of theology and jurisprudence, religion and state, jihad and martyrdom, war and the treatment of captives and non-combatants, international relations—issues that continue to provoke debates and polemics in the modern era as well.
The twentieth century witnessed a religious resurgence in all three monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, depicted by sociologist Jose Casanova as the “de-privatisation” of religion and its return as a contentious issue to the public sphere. The Enlightenment project, which raised the banner of secularisation, confining religion to the private sphere, was contested, whereas manifestations of blasphemy remained on the sidelines. Thus, while modernity indeed constituted a significant challenge to the established faiths, it was also a fertile breeding ground for religious redefinition, innovation, and rejuvenation. In essence, modernisation had spawned new religious ideas, communities and movements. Some of these movements, like neo-evangelical Christianity, messianic Zionism, Israeli ultra-orthodoxy, or Islamists, questioned and often defied the prevailing “secular” order. In the Islamic milieu such defiance was accompanied by assertiveness, protest and violence, affecting intellectual and scholarly discourse, which also became dominated by rigid paradigms of tensions and antagonism among the Abrahamic creeds.
These paradigms lacked a comparative historical perspective and an awareness of the diversity of Islam and the complexity of interfaith encounters. One such paradigm, nurtured by post-colonial climate, was that of Edward Said’s book Orientalism (1978), which accused Western discourse of harbouring demonic perceptions of Islam and the East as archaic and intolerant entities, in contrast to a rational and progressive West. The contribution of Orientalism to the craft of history and to Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies has been extensive. It has significantly altered the way we think, write and present the history of the peoples of Islam and the East by displaying sensitivity and empathy towards them. Orientalism heightened our awareness that non-Western societies can develop their own modernity without necessarily breaking away from indigenous identities and cultures—what Shmuel Eisenstadt called “multiple modernities.” Yet, in spite of its merits, Said’s concept precisely because of its sweeping assertions sharpened the dissonance between East and West and gave further impetus to the politics of identities. Orientalism portrayed a Western plot to uproot indigenous cultures, and it permeated not only Islamic protest movements, but also academic institutions in the Arab-Muslim world.
The rise of the “culture of criticism” (al-thaqafa al-naqdiyya), carried out by socialists and liberal circles, which challenged and even dismantled Islamic traditions and norms, has been largely marginalised in the Western scholarship. Rather, many researchers were preoccupied with political Islam or Islamism and its call for the restoration of past legacies.
Another paradigm that drew the attention of scholarly discourse in the early 1990s was Samuel Huntington’s book Clash of Civilizations (1996). It delineated a built-in tendency in Islam to violent conflict and to “bloody borders” between Muslims and non-Muslims, and demonised Islam as a religion of tyranny, intolerance and violence. The emergence of global jihad—especially in the wake of the September 11 attacks—played into Huntington’s thesis, creating a climate of cosmic war, of a permanent state of dissonance and confrontation.
The militancy image of Islam was reinforced by the rise of ISIS at the threshold of the twenty-first century and its chain of victories in Iraq and Syria. The question, posed by early Islamists in mid-twentieth century, as to whether there would be a revival of the religion of Muhammad has now been replaced by the question posed by global jihadists whether someone would be able to stand against the religion of Muhammad. Kasr al-hudud, namely the dismantling of geographical and political boundaries was ISIS’s driven force. This self-confidence mood was also reflected in ISIS’s English-language online magazine Dabiq, which opened one of its issues with the title “Break the Cross” and closed it with “By the Sword.” The cross had become a code phrase for the “new crusade,” which harboured humanity’s deviation from the path of God—such as democracy, liberalism, feminism, and atheism. It served as a trigger for violence as a purifying force.
Yet, even analysts who were not convinced of such paradigms as Orientalism and the Clash of Civilizations continued to focus on the political aspects of modern religious revival, while downplaying historical legacies and ignoring other, more ecumenical voices, in favour of such labels as “fundamentalism,” “puritanism,” “scripturalism” and “strong religion.” Accordingly, fundamentalism in world religions was explained in the five-volume Chicago Fundamentalist Project (1991–1995) as a product of pressures of modernity and reactions to these pressures: thus secularisation led to religious revivalism; the consolidation of feminist ideologies caused a backlash favouring modesty and family-based ideologies; and technology and free access to knowledge have led to religious confinement and censorship.
Neither Said’s Orientalism, nor Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, and nor the Chicago “Fundamentalism” project reflect the complex nature of interfaith encounters. Viewed from a historical perspective, civilisations were never fixed polities, but rather heterogeneous and diverse, with changing boundaries and intellectual orientations. Moreover, they were exposed to inner frictions, which at times overshadowed external conflicts with other cultures. This is true with regard to the religious wars in European history, as well as to clashes within Islamic societies, as the global jihad of al-Qaʿida and ISIS represented only one small radical fraction in a multifaceted Islamic spectrum.
On the Jewish-Christian axis recent years have witnessed an abundance of research reflecting a revived Christian interest in Jewish tradition, for example in Kabbalah. The revised scholarship has changed the long-standing stereotype of a monolithic divide between Judaism and Christianity in pre-modern times that was fed by sustained polemic traditions and modern anti-Semitism. It demonstrated the diverse nature of the study of Jewish esoteric lore among Christians, and, simultaneously, presented the Jews as agents of cultural transmission functioning within the framework of a wider society. The existence of a more diffused reality applies all the more to the multiethnic and culturally diverse Muslim world, where Jewish and Christian communities were influenced by Muslim values, norms and practices, and vice-versa, revealing deeply acculturated processes.
Approaching prevailing paradigms in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies as relative concepts that should be examined cautiously will highlight cross-cultural features and introduce a more constructive analysis of modern Islamic resurgence. Such an approach will also eschew a binary picture in favor of a diffuse reality of intertwined worlds: on the one hand, religions striving for the sole possession of revelation and holy places; and on the other, mutual recognition by religions of a shared background of myths, founding figures, injunctions, values, cosmology, social behaviour, and interactions across time and space.
Moving away from artificial precepts to examine more concrete communal realities, using sociological insights and fieldwork, is more productive and insightful. Thus, for example, many speak of religiosity and its manifestations in the public sphere. However, in the context of Islam in Israel, for instance, an increase in the number of mosques and welfare associations is clearly not a sufficient indication of the strength of the Islamic Movement and the degree of Islamisation of the Arab public domain. Public polls conducted in recent years among Muslims in Israel show that only 20% of the respondents indicated that religion should play an active role in the public sphere; the rest saw it as a moral and cultural code, and adopted a pluralistic approach to religion. Moreover, field studies conducted in mixed localities in which Muslims and Christians live, such as Haifa, Nazareth, and Kafr Qana, show cordial interethnic relations based on interpersonal and family acquaintances, joint activities in local institutions, and common interests related to their positions as minority groups vis-à-vis state authorities.
A similar picture of Islamisation as a relative process can be traced in the Middle Eastern environment. For example, with regard to the veil or head covering which stem from a social, not only a religious, trigger that allows women to move freely in public. In addition, opinion polls and interviews conducted in various Arab countries from the 2000s onward showed that a significant percentage of respondents, mainly young people, expressed a desire for the shielding of personal freedoms and the establishment of a democratic regime. Some of them even displayed indifference and skepticism to religion. These indicators, together with the different approaches regarding the place of Islam in the polity, are clear signs of religious diversity.
Perhaps it is, after all, not surprising that the Arab revolutions of 2011 (dubbed the “Arab Spring”), did not erupt on religious demands for the implementation of the shariʿa (Islamic law), but against the background of mundane issues, such as individual and civil rights, social justice, and democratisation. It is also plausible that the failure of the elected Muslim Brethren to promote these secular issues eventually brought on their downfall in 2013 only a year after they had gained power. The 2011 uprisings overturned entrenched research paradigms about the endurance of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and the inherent submissiveness of the people. The Arab public space changed both its face and its historic role. It was no longer a background against which rulers projected their authority in public processions and official festivals, while the masses played a submissive role, cheering and granting them legitimacy. The demonstrators, led by educated and embittered youths, stormed the symbols of sovereignty of the Arab state, creating new modes of collective action. The dramatic events attested to a Middle East that was an integral part of the global village in terms of its exposure to modern technology, communication networks, and Western ideas.
The post-2011 scholarship was seemingly reorganising its patterns of thought, but this was not the case. Two years after the Arab revolutions, and in the shadow of civil wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen, and against the backdrop of the rise of ISIS, another paradigm emerged—the failed state. The failed state model refers to the breaking of the state’s authority, which is reinforced by the renewed vitality of ethnic, religious, tribal, and regional identities. Hence, ethnic-religious sectarianism became a central component of the Middle Eastern landscape and provided a platform for bloody confrontations. This conclusion seems too sweeping, and completely eliminates 100 years of state-building project in the Arab world, which witnessed the consolidation of geographical borders and the construction of national identity, even if feeble one.
Critical review of prevailing paradigms in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies does not aim to draw firm conclusions, but only to highlight the importance of having a historical and sociological perspective. Historical monitoring will keep us from falling into essentialist concepts, such as “Islam is the religion of the sword” or “the army of shrouds,” referring to suicide bombers. Of course, one cannot ignore society’s formative ethos and judicial rulings anchored in classical texts, but one must closely examine their historical evolution and the new interpretations that have permeated them. After all, social agents and movements play a crucial role in remoulding of the “truth” of scriptures, in accordance with the circumstances and aspirations of their time.
 José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), mainly chapters 1, 8.
 Said, Orientalism (new ed., London: Penguin, 2003).
 S N. Eisenstadt, "Multiple Modernities," Daedalus 129/1 (2000): 1–29.
 Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), mainly 254–265.
 Dabiq, 1437 Shawwal, no. 15. In: http://clarionproject.org/wp-content/uploads/islamic-state-magazine-dabiq-fifteen-breaking-the-cross.pdf
 Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (eds.), The Fundamentalist Project (University of Chicago Press, 1991-1995).
 Muhammad al-Atawneh and Nohad Ali, Islam in Israel: Muslim Communities in Non-Muslim States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 73-101; Muhammad al-Atawneh and Meir Hatina, "The Study of Islam and Muslims in Israel," Israeli Studies 24/3 (Fall 2019), 101-125.
 Brian Whitaker, Arabs without God: Atheism and Freedom of Belief in the Middle East (California: Createspace, 2014).
 Kobi Michael and Yoel Guzansky, "The Nation State vs. the Failed State and the Arab Upheaval in the Middle East,” in Vladimir Sazonov et al (eds.), Cultural Crossroads in the Middle East (Tartu: University of Tartu Press, 2019), 220-235.
 Meir Hatina, Martyrdom in Modern Islam: Piety, Power and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).