Freedom’s shadows

By Brendan de Caires

Empire of Liberty: Power, Desire, and Freedom, by Anthony Bogues
(Dartmouth College Press, ISBN-10 1584659300, ISBN-13 978-1584659303, 168 pp)

Map of North America from Democratie en Amerique

Map of North America from the first edition of Tocqueville’s Democratie en Amerique (1835)

Waxing philosophical during a 1943 speech at Harvard University, Winston Churchill warned that “the empires of the future are empires of the mind.” Depending on your point of view, this could be a poetic version of what the Obama White House calls  “soft power,” or a prophetic glimpse of what would later emerge from right-wing dream factories like the Project for the New American Century. Anyone who recalls the theological tone of the Bush Neocons — eager to democratise the Arab mind with judicious doses of “shock and awe” and the timely suspension of habeas corpus, due process, and torture conventions — will immediately grasp the point of Anthony Bogues’s sceptical analysis of the myth of American exceptionalism.

Bogues, a Jamaican political scientist, is Harmon Family Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University, and the four lectures collected in this book are, understandably, concerned with tracing the roots of present problems in the past. He stresses, however, that he is “not concerned with the cut and thrust of the Bush bio-political settlement and its unravelling,” but intends to reflect on “the character of American hegemony and to ask: what does it presently illuminate about power?”

The Burkean phrase “empire of liberty” appears in a letter Thomas Jefferson sent to George Rogers Clark, a distinguished Virginian soldier, in 1780. In context, its unstated assumptions seem entirely Rumsfeldian. Jefferson writes:

. . . in the event of peace [in the American Revolution] on terms which have been contemplated by some powers we shall form to the American union a barrier against the dangerous extension of the British Province of Canada and add to the Empire of liberty an extensive and fertile Country thereby converting dangerous Enemies into valuable friends.

Mindful that a great deal of similar “freedom” rhetoric was penned by other slave-owners, Bogues asks whether the myth of American democracy can be understood without considering what he calls “the politics of the wound.”

Seen from the other side of the plantation fence, neither the Founding Fathers nor the democracy they so eloquently constructed seem as benevolent or philosophically coherent as tradition would have us believe. Bogues illustrates this with a telling comparison between Alexis de Tocqueville’s attitude to the slave question and W.E.B. Du Bois’s reflections, one century later, on what democracy looked like for former slaves. Tocqueville advocated gradual abolition of slavery within French territory as the best way to abandon the practice without losing too much national wealth, but he was apparently untroubled by its presence in America, mostly because he didn’t really consider non-whites American in any meaningful way. Bogues argues that “this narrative of separation presents slavery as an aberration, not as a historical wrong deeply shaping our present.” In Democracy in America (1835–40), “without sensing any contradiction,” Tocqueville wrote that:

An absolute and immense democracy is not all that we find in America . . . [my work] has often led me to speak of Indians and Negroes, but I have never had time to stop in order to show what place these two races occupy in the midst of the democratic people. [emphasis added by Bogues]

Bogues notes that Tocqueville “is very clear”:

American democracy is racially exclusive, the Anglo-American union is a racial state of white supremacy. It is a racial state that, though democratic, has no need to pay attention to racial slavery and Native American genocide because: “Among these widely differing families of men, the first that attracts attention, the superior in intelligence, in power, and in enjoyment is the white, or European, the MAN pre-eminently so called; below him appear the Negro and the Indian.”

Bogues suggests that this original sin —  racism — haunts subsequent manifestations of the Republic and informs a recurrent pattern of ignoring other people, especially the powerless, when making grand statements about the destiny of liberty’s empire. Bogues glosses Tocqueville’s reference to an “empire of democracy” as a good description of a political system that believes it possesses the “single universal truth under which human beings should live.”

Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction (1935), with its lyrical passages about the “magnificent drama” of ten million human beings being transported “out of the dark beauty of their mother continent into the new-found Eldorado of the West,” gives a voice to one of Tocqueville’s forgotten races, but the testimony comes too late:

If Democracy in America was Tocqueville’s attempt to think about the democratic revolution in Europe by locating America as the signifier of that revolution (an attempt that allowed him to sidestep the radical democratic movements that appeared in Europe by the 1840s), Black Reconstruction was an acknowledgement that, although the 1840s witnessed a radical experiment in democracy in Europe, the black slaves and workers in America had gone beyond even the boundaries of the limits set by antislavery activists.

After touching on the argument that Black Reconstruction has been left out of “the canon of American thought” because the self-fashioning of black identities jars with conventional narratives of America, Bogues suggest that the book

poses the most fundamental questions about American democracy. And in posing these questions, it supplies another language of democracy and its possibilities that is outside our current framework for thinking about democracy. Unlike Democracy in America, Black Reconstruction makes slavery the central question of American democracy . . .

In other lectures, Bogues sifts through Frantz Fanon, Walter Benjamin, and Michel Foucault to flesh out the perspective of the political nonbeings who endured the “historically catastrophic” experience of slavery. Some of this may be too high-flown for a general reader, but Bogues has a charming conversational style when dealing with Big Thinkers: “I do not wish to rehabilitate Hegel (he does not need my assistance for this to happen), but I find . . .” He is also refreshingly direct when he thinks they’re wrong. Chiding Hannah Arendt for saying Fanon endorses “glorified violence for violence’s sake,” Bogues suggests that she lacks a sense of

the body as a possible site within the political field. At the sites where violence operates as power, not only is death perpetual motion, but the regular crushing of life from the body becomes the crushing of animated life. Thus death has a political purpose when it becomes the ultimate negative ground of the human . . . a regime of extreme violence has to enact regular practices of death because its purpose is the absolute negation of the human life-form in its plurality.

Half of that remains obscure to me, even after a fifth re-reading, but I think I get the point.

In the lecture “Death, Power, Violence, and New Sovereignties”, Bogues offers a fascinating elaboration of his main theme. He discusses violence in the Caribbean, particularly within contemporary Jamaica, and suggests that “rude boys” and “shotta dons” are the result not only of economic underdevelopment, but the rise of young males “who did not buy into either of the two main ideologies of radical subaltern Afro-Jamaica, Rastafari or black nationalism.” Responding to the failure of creole society to include him and his kind, the shotta don

does not seek to explain and understand his social location by reference to any logic of black suffering. For this figure, the Jamaican postcolony is itself a predatory state, and the ways of contesting it that are rooted in subaltern rebellious cultures have all failed. There is only one way out, to obtain enough capital through extortion, government contracts, and haulage business to influence the formal two-party system.

In his four lectures, Bogues covers a great deal of historical, political, and philosophical ground. At the end, although somewhat daunted by the range of references (my knowledge of Levinas is not what it should be!) I was persuaded that the American experiment has a long way to go before it comes to terms with the philosophical consequences of the Founding Fathers’ racial oversights. I was also impressed by Bogues’s determination to set out an independent, radical political response to the reality of American hegemony — a project that consumed so much of C.L.R. James’s working life. (It is worth noting that Bogues is also the author of a study of James’s political thought, Caliban’s Freedom (1997)). This dissection of empire is as ambitious in its way as The Black Jacobins, and though it is not quite as readable, and certainly not for the intellectually faint-hearted, it raises many of the same questions in a timely and provocative way.


The Caribbean Review of Books, September 2011

Brendan de Caires was born in Guyana and now lives in Toronto. He has worked as an editor for various publishers, and written book reviews for Caribbean Beat, Kyk-Over-Al, the Stabroek News, and the Literary Review of Canada.