Neil Roberts’ Freedom as Marronage makes several critical moves in terms of contemporary understandings of the intersection of race, sovereignty, colonialism and freedom. For one thing, this book bolsters the view that much of what is radical in the west has its inspiration, or even its origins, in the colonies and peripheral places that the west has dominated for hundreds of years. Just as C.L.R. James shows that the French revolution got much of its radical spark from the Haitian Revolution, Roberts shows how much of the impetus for thinking about and experiencing freedom and the rejection of sovereign and colonial power (even a power that seems absolutely dominant and unavoidable) comes from the experience of subjugated peoples in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the colonized world. There can be no condition more dire than slavery in terms of the degree to which a community is oppressed and denied their own power and ability. And yet, Roberts shows quite clearly how, even under such conditions there is space for resistance, for movement, even for freedom.
Roberts offers a taxonomy of such forms of resistance under the title of marronage, a state of what could be called (and Frederick Douglass did call) “comparative freedom,” involving flight, sabotage, resistance and even escape. Roberts speaks of petit marronage (small acts of defiance and brief moments of escape), grand marronage (actual escape, setting up of alternative communities), sovereign marronage (setting up alternative states and governments) and sociogenic marronage (creating new communities, new ways of life). All of these forms share the insight that colonial power—which Roberts very convincingly associates with the kinds of state neoliberal power that we find in our own time even without the formal model of colonialism being present—is never absolute, never all powerful. Insofar as the basis of authority for states rests precisely on the sense of their unimpeachable power and authority, this is a radical insight. To focus on the way that such states were resisted nonetheless points to the way that colonialization—and perhaps sovereignty more generally—relies on a state of mind, one that marronage both covertly and explicitly works to deny and subvert.
Of the models that Roberts treats, sociogenic marronage may be the most interesting because it suggests that the forms of resistance [End Page 172] he is looking at are not merely moments of enduring and surviving the oppressions of colonialism but also are examples of entirely new social formations and new political models. In addition, sociogenic marronage, as Roberts describes it, is generated from the community as a whole rather than from its leadership. I would call this form of marronage anarchist, especially when it is opposed to the archism of sovereign marronage (although, as I will show, in his own comments on Freedom as Marronage, George Ciccariello-Maher challenges this division to some extent). By offering such a divergence of forms, the idea of marronage as Roberts describes it does far more than merely suggest the good news that slavery and oppression are never utter; it also suggests ways that resistance can be creative and productive, that it can stand in its own right as an answer to the sense of sovereign supremacy and inevitability and produce new and radical political formations. The scholars who responded to Roberts’ book in this symposium were particularly interested in the idea of marronage as an enduring alternative, as something more than fleeting and even more than flight (without losing those critical qualities). The question of whether such a possibility is a contradiction to the very nature and spirit of marronage is one of the key issues they take up in responding to Roberts’ book.
Insofar as marronage seems like it is always “in flight,” always relative, always responding to a context, many of the ideas that emerge from it have a nuance that is unusual for those more mainstream narratives of western political theory that have not taken the colonial experience into consideration. This may be particularly true in terms of the central liberal notion of freedom; rather than seeking to portray a wholly separate and fully free post-colonial form of subjectivity and politics, Roberts recognizes the way that freedom is always partial, always fleeting and temporary. Indeed, the kind of “once and for all” sense of freedom that liberalism often promises (but certainly never delivers) serves to make us less likely to notice or appreciation the radical potential in “comparative freedom,” a situation that Roberts helps to correct for in this book. For this reason, the notion of marronage offers a useful frame to think about freedom more generally. The experience of slaves and other people of color during the colonial era and in our own time points to the ways that freedom may never be utter and total but that this in and of itself does not mean that the project of freedom must therefore be abandoned. This argument is also of particular relevance at a time when the ubiquitous and systemic racism and hierarchy of places like the United States seems to be doubling down with the ascendance of Trump. Roberts’ book offers that an entire spectrum of responses, from flight to open defiance, all partake in a response which is not merely derivative from or in reaction to what it opposes but has its own separate logic and rhythms (as Fanon says as well). [End Page 173]
The essays that follow all engage with Roberts’ book and connect his thinking to larger questions of politics and coloniality in our time. Charles Mill’s contribution connects Roberts’ work to “Afro-modern political thought” which examines the way that members of the African diaspora inhabit a world that has been shaped by the legacy of slavery and the ongoing effects of racism. This legacy too, Mills reminds us, is part of “the west,” not as a peripheral issue but one dead central to the meaning and possibility of Western values. At the same time, Mills challenges some of Roberts’ contentions about the extent to which marronage does in fact speak to and for many other political movements including those based on queer rights, feminism and the struggle of the working class.
Juliet Hooker describes the way that the forms of resistance that Roberts studies are a key aspect of thinking about freedom both by European thinkers and by the enslaved communities themselves. In particular, she focuses on the way that Roberts challenges Orlando Patterson’s notion of slavery as “social death” (something taken up more recently by Afro-pessimist thinkers such as Frank Wilderson III and Jared Sexton). For Hooker, Roberts shows how agency never disappears. She notes how Roberts’ chapter on Frederick Douglass shows that, far from being an assimilationist, Douglass demonstrates the strategy of marronage as an ongoing practice, one that—just as with other more traditional forms of marronage--is often misread as passivity or escape rather than as an active and engaged form of resistance (where it is part of the power and resilience of marronage that it is misrecognized in this way) She also asks about the possibility of being a “modern maroon,” about the durability and persistence of marronage as a contemporary practice.
Jane Gordon recognizes and appreciates the way that Roberts expands the notion of marronage from small acts of flight and escape to much larger contexts, hence rendering it more legible as a mode of politics. Like Hooker, Gordon also asks about the sustainability of marronage and whether flight as such can be “perpetual.” For Gordon, a key point to stress in marronage is that it is flight without permission (as opposed to emigration for example) and is hence always at odds with the ordering of the state and social hierarchy. This helps to demonstrate the richer understanding of resistance freedom that Gordon notes in Roberts’ book. She also notes that Patterson never meant to say that slaves were actually “socially dead” but only that they are described and treated as such by the larger slaveholding society, suggesting a way to reconsider the agency of slaves even in the context of the existing literature.
George Ciccariello-Maher describes the scope and ambition of Roberts’ idea and critiques the categories and notions that come from his theorizing. Specifically, Ciccariello-Maher interrogates the distinction [End Page 174] between sovereign marronage and sociogenic marronage and whether these practices are all that distinct from grand marronage. The difference between sovereign and sociogenic marronage is that one is top down and the other is bottom up. Noting that C.L.R. James himself was ambivalent about the notion of Toussaint Louverture as a “Black Jacobin” (that is, someone who imposes freedom from above and who becomes detached from the masses and their own push for freedom) Ciccariello-Maher offers that Dessalines, who was much more in line with the mass movement than Toussaint himself was no less sovereign than his predecessor.
Ciccariello-Maher also is concerned that these typologies may freeze thought in assuming the permanence of coloniality and also accepting slavery as a more or less permanent position from which there is no “outside” only lots of inside escape hatches.
Andrew Dilts also seeks to engage with Roberts’ work from a perspective of respectful critique. Some of his concerns are similar to Ciccariello-Maher’s, namely that in notions of freedom coming from within the ongoing context of slavery a kind of parasitism may remain intact wherein freedom is “purchased” and much is compromised. He also worries that the psychological interiorization of slavery might reproduce it in material forms in whatever new communities may or may not arise. Dilts also asks how Roberts’ work helps understand and respond to a phenomenon that Dilts himself works on: the US prison system. He applauds Roberts for establishing a non-metaphorical relationship between slavery and prisons. Dilts wonders how Roberts account of marronage helps in a system where literal escape is unlikely (although not impossible) and where therefore the kinds of resistance, boycotts and strikes that do arise in prisons may or may not reflect the kinds of freedoms and acts of marronage that Roberts looks at.
Keisha Lindsay notes how Roberts’ work challenges the disavowal of slavery that is major part of western political thought (a disavowal that hides rather than banishes slavery as an ongoing practice). She also notes that in extending concepts of sovereign and sociogenic marronage, Roberts gives dignity and form to practices for which there has not been a language. In particular, she focuses on the way that Roberts’ narrative gives voice to the experience of slavery and the flight from it. This experiential potential, she suggests, lies at the heart of the idea of sociogenic marronage. She notes how slaves do not always successfully escape the effects and psychology of slavery (echoing a point that Dilts makes in his essay), looking for example at the “masculinism” of Frederick Douglass (a point that Jane Gordon also focuses on in her essay). By looking at the messiness of sociogenic marronage, at once both explicitly anti racist and, at times anti feminist, Lindsay notes that with marronage “it is not only the case that [it] occupies the liminal terrain between ‘freedom’ and ‘slavery.’ It is also the case that marronage, [End Page 175] including dosciogenic marronage is itself liminal.” Accepting that there are degrees of freedom means, Lindsay suggests, being open to the ways that marronage as such offers a freedom that is in flux and hence comes with many of the problems that marronage offers itself as a solution for in the first place.
At the end of the symposium, Neil Roberts himself provides both an explanation of his motivations for writing Freedom as Marronage, as well as offering an overview about the concept of freedom and how it functions and is thought about in a creolized world that doesn’t recognize itself as such. Roberts thinks about black politics and in particular the black radical tradition in a way that recognizes its trans national character. As Roberts points out, to think of US black thought in isolation, fails to see the larger context that such writings are part of. Accordingly, he links this tradition to narratives of settler colonialism, histories of resistance and struggle, European and North American thought, as well as to the rich and diverse tradition of diasporic black thinking that connects North America to the Caribbean, South America, Europe, Africa and beyond. Above all, for Roberts, the radical black tradition is about freedom and this is precisely where his book makes its intervention. He extends the concept of marronage to many contexts where it is not formally recognized (or understood as no longer existing) in order to show how this concept remains critically relevant. Roberts also offers that, given the example of marronage, contemporary ideas such as Afro-pessimism, Afro-optimism and Afro-futurism don’t always recognize the way that there is agency even in slavery, even in flight, and that freedom itself can be found in the harshest and most sterile of conditions. This freedom and this agency can be (indeed has been, is, and will be) the basis for new social and political forms that defy all predictions of social death or despair. Roberts also engages with his readers in this symposium. He does so with generosity, respect, and insight and it is to be hoped that this discussion will continue beyond the confines of this issue of Theory & Event. Given the remarkable and important nature of Freedom as Marronage, we are extremely pleased to be able to include this symposium, and Neil Roberts’ reactions, in our twentieth anniversary issue. [End Page 176]