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This year marked the sixth birthday of the decolonial Bildersturm that raged in South Africa under the banner of #RhodesMustFall in March and April 2015. In June of last year, a similar campaign took off in Belgium. It was part of the global wave of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in the wake of the horrendous death-by-police-brutality of George Floyd. 

The rage of Belgian activists was especially focused on colonialist public patrimony honouring King Leopold II, who brought indescribable horrors to the Congo region. Decolonial activists subjected monuments, statues and name plaques to an almost identical treatment as their South African counterparts. Crass slogans were spray-painted on monuments, they were daubed with red paint, defaced with cement, hit with sledgehammers, toppled and so on.

This campaign of decolonial vandalism clearly provided a much-needed release of the pent-up anger and frustration among several generations of Belgians with Congolese roots. It also proved quite effective, in the short term at least. In a matter of weeks a special parliamentary commission was ordered to investigate Belgium’s colonial past and the current monarch, King Philippe, publicly apologised for the country’s colonial misdeeds. In the media, discussions were held on the persistence of racism in society – blatant and covert – with regard to job opportunities, housing and education. 

All this might indicate a slowly growing awareness of decolonial and related racial issues. Yet, there were also many Belgians who dismissed the issues as belonging to the distant past or who objected that Belgium’s colonial exploits had not been wholly bad.

Decolonial vandalism and its “enlightened” critics

Even among those sympathetic to the decolonial cause, however, the crude and destructive means of cultural contestation proved hard to stomach, as was the case in South Africa at the time. A commonly held position in this regard is well expressed by a previous Brussels mayor in response to the theft of a bust of Leopold II by the Citizens Association for a Decolonial Public Space in January 2018. Although understanding the motivations behind the action, the previous mayor regretted the resort to what he described as “Taliban behaviour”, or again, a “rather primal vandalism […] under the cover of humanism”. One can here identify the fundamental structure of what might be called the sympathetic critique of decolonial vandalism whereby the latter is regarded as “understandable yet deplorable”.

A suggestion made by Marc Reynebeau in a commentary piece can be seen as a variation on such a sympathetic critique. He stated that instead of “destroying” statues of Leopold II, it would be more “interesting” to merely “chop off his hand” instead. The same horrid punishment of dismemberment notoriously imposed on Congolese workers would thus be symbolically inflicted – post-mortem – on the Belgian king. Here, it is not vandalism as such that is condemned, but its plain, overzealous deployment, with an implicit call to adopt more restrained, witty, poetic and imaginative forms of decolonial contestation.

Interestingly, the vandalistic acts were also denounced, in similar terms, by factions within the decolonial movement. In a remarkable initiative, members of the Belgian Youth Against Racism (BYAR) took it upon themselves to strip off the red paint poured by activists on a bust of the late Baudouin, the last Belgian king to have ruled over Congo. They hereby dramatised their call to fellow activists to stop damaging colonialist monuments. 

As the organisation’s spokesperson put it, the action was meant to demonstrate “that minorities in the country are better than this, and that [they] merely ask for equal rights […] like all Belgians and that includes an accurate narration of history”. The disciplined, painstaking manner in which the sticky paint was removed, as well as the collected tone in which the above statement was delivered, seemed designed to instantiate the modest, reasonable and dignified nature of Belgians with Congolese roots and other minorities.

“Understandable yet deplorable”?

In light of these sympathetic and internal criticisms, the question poses itself whether decolonial contestation through blunt acts of vandalism is at all defensible. That is to say, in terms other than the somewhat condescending terms of an “understandable yet deplorable” fit of “primal” decolonial rage, with activists supposedly losing their self-composure and dignity. As the BYAR’s action shows, some decolonial activists are concerned about the potential, demeaning effects of vandalistic actions on the Belgian-Congolese community. And indeed, from a public perception perspective such actions could backfire and harden stubborn racist-colonialist stereotypes of black people as philistines and hotheads, always demanding preferential treatment or overreacting in violent and illegal ways.

Similar concerns were raised in the course of last year’s BLM protests in the US. In response to the oftentimes violent protests involving looting and arson – even though they were disproportionately covered in the media – there were many appeals from within the BLM movement for adopting more serene, dignified and non-violent modes of protest.

As a cultural and political theorist I am particularly interested in such disagreements regarding different forms of cultural contestation and their legitimacy, efficacy, strategic value, appropriateness, performativity and so on, which will be discussed in what follows. Moreover, I believe that the Belgian case might also shed some light on the similar debates in South Africa with regard to the #RhodesMustFall campaign.

To hell with your documents of civilisation!

To be sure, several arguments could be advanced in defence of decolonial vandalism as a legitimate form of cultural contestation. 

One could invoke Walter Benjamin’s well-known statements (in the Theses on the Philosophy of History) regarding a nation’s “cultural treasures” or “documents of civilisation”. Benjamin likened the latter to the “spoils” of a nation’s past conquests and claimed that “there is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”. Belgium’s colonialist cultural heritage could not better exemplify Benjamin’s claims, making up the “spoils” and sublimated insignia of Belgian colonialism built on the tremendous toil and suffering of generations of Congolese people. This makes the “savage” methods of decolonial activists in fact highly appropriate, matching the barbaric nature of Belgium’s colonialist endeavour itself.

Decolonial vandalism might also be understood as an instance of the kind of “pure”, or “excessive” violence that Slavoj Žižek (in The Parallax View) has affirmed as “unavoidable” in “revolutionary” situations, to be valued as a “liberating end in itself” beyond all utilitarian or strategic calculations. In specifying the value of such violence, Žižek refers to Fredric Jameson’s argument that even if “it has no intrinsic value, it is a sign of the authenticity of the revolutionary process, of the fact that this process is actually disturbing the existing relations”. 

In a similar vein, the brutal assault on Belgium’s colonialist patrimony sends out a clear signal that nothing less than a final reckoning with colonialism and racism will be accepted this time around. It does so in a way that more restrained, creative forms of cultural vandalism – such as the one proposed by Reynebeau for instance – do not. 

Finally, one could refer to Frantz Fanon’s theory of cultural decolonisation (in his essay On National Culture) which distinguishes a specific stage in which colonised intellectuals start to behave in ways that confirm the colonisers’ negative racist-colonialist stereotypes of them. Fanon’s observation might seem perplexing, yet he argues that such a self-stereotyping behaviour has a damaging, demoralising impact on the colonisers. It is experienced as the ultimate failure of their pretension to “civilise” the “natives” and to convince them of the superiority of the coloniser’s culture. Fanon says that colonised intellectuals’ self-stereotyping behaviour confronts the colonisers with the “pointlessness and superficiality” of the colonial project and serves as a “radical condemnation of the method of the [colonial] regime”. The resort to crude vandalism by members of a well integrated and educated minority in Belgian society might force the colonisers to face similar, inconvenient truths about its past colonial ambitions.

Demonstrations of civility…? 

While not without merit, such defences of decolonial vandalism are unlikely to appease its sympathetic and internal critics. They also do not fully capture the complexities of the struggle against (neo)colonialism and racism. In order to illuminate and navigate the debate between decolonial vandals and their critics concerning the appropriate means of contestation, I propose to cast the disagreement in dialectical terms. That is to say, in terms of a tensional interplay between two opposing approaches to anti-colonialist and anti-racist struggles, each with its own rationale, modus operandi and efficacy. 

I do not contend here that activists consciously adopt these approaches. Rather, they are hypothetical-theoretical constructions and interpretative devices that, if nothing else, may serve some purpose in focusing, furthering or boosting the debate on the means and ends of decolonial activism.  

Both approaches can be seen to depart from the same fact of the persistent, systematic treatment of black people as lesser human beings. In fighting this, the first approach emphasises the importance for black people to uphold their “civility” towards the racial adversary as a way to demonstrate their equal human status, if not moral superiority. Martin King Jr’s civil rights movement can be seen to exemplify this rationale, challenging a cruel social order based on white supremacy through disciplined and dignified forms of protest and a highly elevated, moral discourse. 

The efficacy of this politics of civility is to a high degree performative. Through their composed behaviour, activists prove that they are all but the inferior, animal-like beings that racist ideology makes them out to be. On the contrary, in tirelessly enduring the racial adversary’s base provocations, they display an almost superhuman, angelic quality.

Both Reynebeau’s implicit call for more restrained and subtle forms of contestation and BYAR’s declaration that Congolese and other discriminated minorities in Belgium “are better than” the crude, destructive acts of vandalism can be understood in line with this politics of civility. In the broader context of last year’s BLM protests, one can also think of the aforementioned calls for adopting less destructive and more dignified forms of protest.

… Or barbarity?

The second approach, for its part, is premised on a more realist, cynical even, sense of the inferior treatment of black people no matter how many times they have proven themselves to be the racists’ equal. It can be seen to be driven by the sobering insight that racism is chiefly a matter of the abuse of power and irrational biases and, consequently, that racists are neither interested nor susceptible to black people’s demonstrations of their equal humanity.  

An inverse politics is thus adopted in which black protesters suspend all civilities and act out the racists’ worst racial stereotypes and fears in performances of “barbarity”. The underlying motivation could be summed up as follows: “If you really think that black people are inferior, base, violent, animalistic beings despite all evidence to the contrary, then that is how we will behave toward you which, however, won’t be pretty and might not end well for you!” As such, they demonstrate to the racist the proverbial truth that one should be careful what one wishes for.

The politics of barbarity can be seen as highly paradoxical as it holds that in order to fight racist or colonialist stereotypes, one sometimes has to enact the stereotypes, as a necessary phase in this fight. However, rather than a sign of resignation to such stereotypes, their enactment is performative and serves a subversive purpose. It constitutes an act of bravado aimed at confronting the racial adversary with the ultimate consequences of his or her biases and deeply unfair and inhuman treatment of black people.

The time of decolonial vandalism

I want to argue that the demonstrative acts of crude vandalism by Belgian decolonial activists could be better understood on the basis of such a politics of barbarism. At rallies of Belgian BLM activists, it was a common complaint that black Belgians have to work twice as hard to get the same recognition for their accomplishments as their white counterparts. According to the logic of the politics of barbarism, the resulting sense of injustice, disillusion and fatigue can easily be seen to bring them to the point of no longer trying to behave at their best and do their worst instead, resorting to base acts of vandalism and violence.

Interpreted in this way, decolonial vandalism can be assessed more properly and positively. It allows one to go beyond assessments in terms of a deplorable lapse of self-composure on the part of activists, causing them to smash things up in total disregard of strategic considerations or a possible public backlash. Instead, such acts become intelligible and reasonable as part of an activist approach with its own rightful place and time in decolonial, anti-racist struggles.

Oscillations of anti-racist, decolonial politics

In closing, one can formulate some thoughts on the relation between the two types of anti-racist, decolonial politics. Despite their opposing rationales and modi operandi, the two approaches are not entirely incompatible and may complement each other in important ways. On the one hand, continuous frustration, exhaustion even, with the politics of civility may result in manifestations of the politics of barbarity that might pressurise the racial adversary to concede to its claims for the equal humanity of black people. 

On the other hand, the staging of barbarity may only be sustainable for a limited period of time as the self-reduction to the racial adversary’s stereotypes might come to be experienced as self-deprecatory. In order to counterbalance this, recourse might be taken, in turn, to the politics of civility. A recurrent chronological sequence and dialectical oscillation between the politics of civility and barbarity could thus be postulated, with a proper function and moment for each.

At the same time, however, their relation must always remain an uneasy one, as the aforementioned internal debates regarding decolonial acts of vandalism or the resort to looting and arson in the US context testify to. From the perspective of the politics of civility, such actions and behaviour must appear as self-defeating, with its “perpetrators” undergoing an unfortunate process of desublimation, blindly giving in to their most base impulses for violation and retaliation and, as such, letting the racists “win”. Inversely, from the perspective of the politics of barbarity, the performance of civility might be lambasted for being hopelessly naïve, harmless and upright.

And yet, despite their agonistic and tensional relation, the two approaches might not be able to do without one another. Each seems to need the other to compensate for the structural limitations of its own logic of resistance, which makes it neither possible nor desirable to choose one over the other, lest one reduces the efficacy of the struggle against racism and (neo)colonialism as a whole.

Author

  • Matthias Pauwels is a Belgian cultural and political philosopher who has been living and working in South Africa for the past 15 years. His current research focuses on the entanglement of aesthetics and politics in contemporary South African art practices, popular protest movements and radical decolonial politics. He is a research fellow at North-West University’s school of philosophy, the University of Johannesburg’s philosophy department and Unisa’s department of art and music.

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Matthias Pauwels

Matthias Pauwels is a Belgian cultural and political philosopher who has been living and working in South Africa for the past 15 years. His current research focuses on the entanglement of aesthetics and...

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