a Grouse is a gamebird that tastes distinctly unlike chicken

by zunguzungu

Vijay Prashad’s The Darker Nations is a book that, like Anarchy of Empire, I feel a little uncomfortable criticizing, yet will anyway, because that’s the kind of dutiful blogger I am. Partly because Prashad is interested in something very close to my own writing, I almost can’t help but take issue with the way he goes about it. So a certain amount of my grousing might just boil down to his failure to write the dissertation I’m writing, a weighty failure on his part, and one which I hope he’ll consider more carefully next time. But I also think it goes deeper than that, a problem that is basically endemic to the very kind of “third world”-ism he sets out to chronicle and theorize, and I think his book has largely been celebrated for the wrong reasons.

To wit: there is a certain tension between the way Prashad frames the book’s larger claims and the more finely nuanced micro-textures that emerge when he addresses particular points in the social landscape of the Third World, and when he pays attention to it, his stuff is very, very good. But when he says things like (in his broad sweeping way) “The Third World was not a place. It was a Project,” I start to get uncomfortable. When he says “The Third World Project (the ideology and institutions) enabled the powerless to hold a dialogue with the powerful, and to try to hold them accountable. Today, there is no such vehicle for local dreams…The world was bettered by the attempt to articulate a Third World agenda. Now it is impoverished for the lack of that motion” I find myself making, on the inside, the expression Barack Obama makes at minute 7:32 of this video. I get very itchy when Prashad tries to account for an unaccountably heterogeneous body of humanity by making claims like “They longed for dignity above all else, but also the basic necessities of life (land, peace, and freedom),” and can’t help but feel like he’s striving much too hard to gather under one umbrella a social reality that cannot so easily be summarized (and for which, perhaps, summarizability is precisely the wrong thing to strive for). The vexed structure of the sentence, after all, reflects the different kinds of work it seeks to do: is it possible to long for one thing “above all else” even while longing for something else as well? And what if those two things conflict, as has very often been the case? The “dignity” of national sovereignty (which so often structures the horizon of possibility in these kinds of formulations), as often as not, comes at the cost of great material discomfort and privation, in the long term as well as the short. And of course the whole issue becomes unmanageably complex when you take into account the variety of conflicting social interests that define the last half-century of “Third World” history. Bourgeois nationalists and “traditionalist” peasantries have, as as often as not, had conflicting interests when it came to anti-colonial struggle. What do you do with dictatorships of the one over the other? Calling one “authentic” and the other a comprador or dupe of the West is a losing strategy, albeit one with a long pedigree.

So Prashad’s statements like “the Third world project united these discordant comrades” feel to me like a kind of wish fulfillment that not only does not really obtain in practice, but which (as political theory) meaningfully obscures much that is of essential importance. The ability of despotic Third World politicians to use anti-imperialist rhetoric to stabilize their regimes depends on exatly this act of conceptually enfolding an entire nation’s interest into that of its elite class, with Robert Mugabe being only a currently topical example. The Algerian revolution often stands in as the paradigmatic anti-colonial revolution (Fanon being the most obvious explanation for why), but if it is, then we should pay more attention to the FLN’s use of violence against the people in whose name it was ostensibly fighting, and allow for the possibility that it did not, in fact, represent them to the extent that it did in theory. Considering every non-white Algerian to have been “comrades” is the kind of theory which forecloses the possibility that they were, in practice, rendered harmonious by a very real kind of violent force.

To be clear, my point is not about Algeria per se, about which I’m no expert, but about the ways that a place like “Algeria” gets mobilized in the political imaginary of “Third World” activism. Far from having a settled opinion about the FLN and Algeria, I find that the more I know about it, the less easy I find it to have a particular opinion or principled stand on anything. Which is why conceptualizing the “Third World” as a “project” strikes me as such a problematic gesture: unless you assume that one set of interests guided that project, that it was a projection of one kind of will and one set of desires, you come up against the problem that different people within that project have wanted different things. People very often chose not to starve themselves in order to achieve political sovereignty-but were deprived, by violence, of the ability to make that choice-while those who benefitted most from its acquisition often suffered very little in getting it and were the hands that wielded the violence that welded the revolutions together in the first place. When people in Zimbabwe say that things were better back when it was Rhodesia, this isn’t a defense of white supremacist despotism, but the very simple observation that those who fought in their name against Ian Smith and company have not, in the final analysis, made much of an effort to actually represent their interests. And this, I think, is much more widespread than easy presumptions of third world unity allow for.

In any case, the more I know about the specifics of the stories he tells the more I find to disagree with his telling of them, or at least to quibble with the broadness of his strokes. And his tendency to trade the complex, thick indeterminacy of heterogeneous history for a much more comfortable ideological narrative of virtuous struggle has a particular pattern: the third world (and nationalization as the main manifestation of that project) is always a thing being constructed. So, for example, in talking about nationalist periodicals in the wake of the Shah’s return to Iran, he glows over some very standard issue “woman is the spirit of the nation” poetry and refers to how “The ‘nation’ had to be imagined as well as thought through politically, economically, and culturally.” And I find myself bemused and confused; does he not understand how important “Persia” is as a national identity, one that had been around for millenia and hardly needs to be created? Or is he simply ignoring it? Not that an important process of re-creation of national identity wasn’t going on-communities get imagined and reimagined constantly-but the architectural metaphor he falls into has some severe limitations. The real Third World always seems to be happening in congresses of well-connected, secular intellectuals, convocations of Western educated intellectuals who (more explicitly than he focuses on) just happen to take the Western nation-state as the focus of all their strivings. And while the book attempts to evoke a global acephalic struggle against empire by grounding each chapter in a particular city, this has its own kind of bias, giving pride of place to urban third-worldism while eliding the (perhaps) much more potent push-back that occurred and occurs in what used to be called rural peasant communities.

Somewhere between the Subaltern Studies Collective, James Scott, and Timothy Mitchell lies a much more articulate critique of this kind of Third World-ism. And I actually like the book much more than it may seem. To the extent that it has a thesis, it fails: when Prashad tries to tell a single story about an ungeneralizable subject, he does metaphorically what the heroes of his story worked very hard to do in very real ways: take a massively differentiated mass of humanity and make it into a politically representable body. But there’s much more to the book than that, and Prashad is at his best when he (intentionally or not) lets his material overwhelm its framework. Or rather, when he relaxes a little, and gets interested in how the very project of the book fails to achieve itself, and when this becomes a kind of dramatization of his subject’s own very interesting and historic failure to be achieved, his book becomes (again, intentionally or not) something very, very interesting.