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...