What is lacking in this narrative?
Nothing, apparently. The hegemonic cultural world has indeed been portrayed in its entirety, and the fact that all these names are still familiar to us only goes to prove it. However, after deeper thought, two fatal absences are revealed. The first is that the cultural discourse of 1913 totally fails to mention the possibility of the catastrophe that will soon shake both Europe and the world that depended on it: the First World War. 17 million people, military and civilians, will die, amongst them many Africans whose existence Europe is unaware of or simply chooses to ignore. 263,000 dead in the French colonies; 141,000 in the British colonies; 123,000 in the German colonies; 52,000 in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique. This is the most catastrophic event since the Black Death, which killed between 75 and 200 million people in Eurasia between 1346 and 1353. Why this omission on the part of the cultural elites? Perhaps Karl Kraus was the only one who was alert to the impending events in his criticism of generals, of industrialists who would make a profit from the war, and of the press that sided with them. That was why, between 1915 and 1922, he wrote his mega-drama The Last Days of Mankind, which has just been brilliantly translated into Portuguese by António Sousa Ribeiro, my colleague at the Center for Social Studies. And, in an entirely different register, in 1913, in Munich, Oswald Spengler, a depressed young man, was writing a book that was to become the bible of European reactionaries, The Decline of the West. There was an abundance of signs pointing to the possibility that the worst might come to happen, but cultural (and also political) elites refused to see them. The normality of excess was becoming an excess of normality. And what about today?
The second absence has to do with the fact that everything that happens outside Europe, or even outside Northern and Central Europe, does not exist, that is, it is constructed as nonexistent by hegemonic thinking. This thinking covers only a tiny bit of the world, and it nonetheless purports to be a manifestation of “European universalism” (an oxymoron in itself). This becomes possible because, after the European colonial expansion in the late 15th century, an abyssal line, as extreme as it was invisible, was drawn between social relationships in the world of European metropolises and social relationships in the world of extra-European colonies. According to this line, which is a geopolitical, ideological, and epistemological divide, the only relevant social, political, cultural, and ethical reality, the reality that counts when principles, values, and criteria of sociability are defined, happens on this side of the line, i.e., in metropolitan societies. On the other side of the line there live sub-human beings, there is a world of perils to be conquered and of resources to be appropriated, through violent means if need be. Europeans experience this abyssal division in an imperial mode, never doubting that consciousness is what regulates social interaction in the metropolitan world, while in the colonial world it is regulated by convenience.
Therefore, the hegemonic narrative is unable to imagine the relevance of the fact that in 1913 Gandhi organized in South Africa the first protest march in defense of Indian miners, a key moment as concerns their struggle though also an ambiguous moment as concerns Gandhi’s attitude towards the British empire; or the fact that the Natives Land Act, the law that reserved the ownership of land for whites, leaving only 7% of the land for blacks, who were the majority of the population, was passed in that same year. Indeed, on the other side of the abyssal line, thinking in terms of discrete, dated events is an epistemological trap, since this is a continuing process of violent appropriation of colonial resources as a result of the first ‘scramble for Africa’ at the Berlin Conference (1884-85), the genocide of native populations, both in the Americas and in the “Congo Free State”, a pathetic euphemism: there, King Leopold of Belgium presided over the most cruel of atrocities, known as “the Congo horrors”, which ravaged the country’s population by several millions between 1885 and 1908. Contrary to appearances, the abyssal line has not been erased with the end of territorial colonialism. It is still there today, just like colonialism is, albeit in new forms. It is this abyssal line that justifies racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, the destruction of countries like Iraq, Libya, or Syria, the Palestinian “final solution” perpetrated by victims turned into aggressors, the massive incarceration of young Black people in the United States, the inhuman treatment of refugees. How different and yet how similar today’s absences and those of 1913.