Manhar Bansal, Atreyee Majumder

Universalism and Belonging in the Logic of Blackness

What do civil and political liberties mean to those living under conditions of extreme impoverishment or difficulty? Marxists have usually said: not much. And yet, freedom is the buzzword for political and social emancipation across the globe. In his pathbreaking essay Universalism and Belonging in the Logic of Capital (2000), Dipesh Chakrabarty speaks of the singular, universal history of Capital (what he calls ‘History 1’) that is interrupted every now and then by diverse ways of belonging in the world (what he calls ‘History 2s’). History 2s have historically comprised narratives of the non-West. Their interruption of History 1 has shaped the precarious dominance of Western History which is replete with universal categories. There is a given-ness in the nature of universals that shape the present world—an assumption that ideas such as Freedom, Democracy, Liberalism and the Free Market represent the only possible range of universal categories. These are used routinely to deny other ways of conceptualising and living in the world.

What is the nature of the relationship between universal categories such as ‘Freedom’—shaped predominantly by the logic of Capital—and belonging in a world shaped by categories of ‘difference’ such as race, class, caste, gender, and so on? What makes these universal categories persist and spread despite the physical, political, and epistemic violence they regularly unleash on these different ways of belonging? Is it possible to (re)imagine a universalism which does not obfuscate or erase difference?

Achille Mbembe has been urging the global intelligentsia to think of Theory from the South. His provocation has famously been to think the world from Africa, rather than thinking Africa from the world. In his earlier work, he asks scholars to rethink Foucault’s formulation of biopolitics through the lens of necropolitics—showing Africa and other ‘Elsewheres’ to be places that harbour economies of death and death-like living conditions. Mbembe argues that it is not enough to abandon universalism for a sole politics of particularity with respect to the non-West. Despite the violence attached to the history of growth and travel of universal categories from the West to the rest of the world, Mbembe thinks—and we agree—that universal categories in and of themselves have great emancipatory power and could be of value to the non-West.  In his recent book Critique of Black Reason (2017)—an obvious riff on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781), which considers universal categories from the vantage point of an abstract, rational, thinking agent—Mbembe puts forth an argument for rethinking universalism from the vantage point of ‘Blackness’ and Africa.

In interrupting Kant’s formulation about pure reason, Mbembe predicates the Black subject as the basis of and reason for reconceptualising the very project of reason. The spread of a pristine or pure reason was Kant’s prescription for a universal human condition. In the decades following decolonisation in the twentieth century, many voices (such as Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, CLR James, Stuart Hall and Dipesh Chakrabarty) debunked the idea of a universal human condition. The opposite of (Western) reason for many of these theorists lies in sentimentality, unreason, and other forms of consciousness that supposedly rest purely in non-Western subjects.  Mbembe goes against one such popular thread in Black and other forms of identity politics, where the West carries its agenda under the signage of Universal Reason while the Rest carry theirs under that of Particularity—often of Culture, and Religion.

The most important predicate of such difference is Race. The Black man carries around his neck the eternal albatross of Race as a category that sets him apart from abstract, unmarked, standard-format human form, the fully formed human being—the central site of reason. In making this argument, Mbembe makes use of the metaphor of Africa as a sign for Blackness. A Black subject in any form and in any circumstance is equated to an extension or signpost of the African continent. The territory-culture combine gives the Black subject an identity which cannot be delinked from the geographical reality of the African continent. This identity traps them even at the emancipatory moment.

Mbembe begins The Critique of Black Reason by tracing the complex history of racial capitalism, showing that while the West became the bearer of modernity and all that came with it, the Rest became taxonomised into different versions of Difference or Otherness (16). Blackness, born on the site of the plantation, was the ‘ultimate sign of the dissimilar, of difference and the pure power of the negative’. It constituted the ‘Remainder’ of universal humanity (11). ‘Africa’, then, became a fictive placeholder for all things Black. It was a ‘living figure of difference’—a pre-ethical, pre-political space to which we cannot relate, and which therefore, cannot be accounted for in a ‘politics of the similar’ but only of difference (49-50).

This burden of difference was so overbearing that even discourses of self-determination such as identitarian movements like Negritude and Pan-Africanism were unable to escape this fiction of Blackness and Race. In proclaiming that ‘We are Black’, these movements rehabilitated singularity and difference, precluding the possibility of any real universalism (158). In accepting the categories of the coloniser, the colonised commit themselves, irrevocably so, to the colonial pedagogy of desire for liberal citizenship (119). The Black Man is unable to remember a past in terms other than those imposed on him by the coloniser. If he tries to, he ‘stutters’ and ‘falters’. Colonisation produces a ‘failure of consciousness’ from which there is no escaping (128).

Mbembe argues that the Black Man, the ‘Remainder’, could contribute nothing to the ‘work of the universal’ for he was not a human being to begin with (86). He was the ‘raw material’ from which both difference and surplus were produced—a kind of mutilated humanity which could be named and then committed to waste (34). This surplus becomes the support system for global capitalism. Race emerges as the sign-system through which capital generalises its surplus-machine. Race becomes the metaphor for death-like living conditions, for necropolitics.

Can a universalism be generated from the vantage point of this death-like living subject that becomes legible through the sign of race? Darryl Li (2020) tells us that the work of universalism is not to erase or preserve difference, but to ‘process’ it (14). In many ways, the central lament of Critique of Black Reason is the inescapability of articulating or processing historically produced difference in terms other than difference itself. Mbembe’s provocation—and our challenge—is to think of the possibility of processing difference in a way that does not make it the very fulcrum of universalism.

In her new book Indifference (2023), Naisargi Dave provokes us to think of an ethos of indifference that is not inconsistent with care or cobelonging. She argues that indifference is fundamentally relational. It entails ‘mutually existing in difference rather than being different beings seeking to grasp, gaze, admire, and master the difference of others’ (6). Mbembe asks something similar of us: can we live in a world where the category of Difference—not difference itself—becomes redundant in an argument for universalism? He writes:

The Other is at once difference and similarity, united. What we must imagine is a politics of humanity that is fundamentally a politics of the similar, but in a context in which what we all share from the beginning is difference. It is our differences that, paradoxically, we must share (178).

The Remainder—as Mbembe theorises it—can potentially become the standpoint from which to articulate a new horizon of politics of solidarity and emancipation. Mbembe argues that modernity today has transformed the Black Man from the ‘slave-form’ of early modernity into a ‘ghost’ of late capitalism (130). While the Black slave is dead, his Blackness and Race have become ‘open-ended signifiers’ which can insert themselves into any context (5-6). The Black Man today stands not only for the degraded slave who worked on the death-camp that was the plantation, but for all of degraded humanity rendered death-like by the universal logic of Capital.

It is in this slippery quality of Blackness that Mbembe finds the potential for another, more emancipatory, universalism. He argues that Blackness can become the symbol for a ‘conscious desire for life’ (6)—a life lived in cobelonging with the rest of humanity without the burden of Difference. Mbembe argues for the ‘rise of humanity’ in general where ‘there is no Black or White’ but a ‘a world that every­one has the right to inherit’ (167). He concludes the book by reminding us that despite our desperate attempts to build more walls and fence off peoples whose lives we will never understand, ‘there is’ after all, ‘only one world’ (182).


Banner image courtesy Atreyee Majumder. This photograph of a North African mask at the National Archaeological  Museum, Athens, symbolises the culture and heritage of the Mediterranean rim where Europe and Africa merge.

About the Authors

Manhar Bansal is a third year undergraduate student of arts and law at NLSIU, with an active interest in social theory and philosophy.

Dr. Atreyee Majumder is Associate Professor of Social Sciences at NLSIU.