November 17, 2012
Israel: The Logic of a Settler State
Let us not today fling accusations at the murderers. Who are we that we should argue against their hatred? For eight years now, they sit in their refugee camps in Gaza and, before their very eyes we turn into our homestead the land and the villages in which they and their forefathers have lived. We are a generation of settlers, and without the steel helmet and the cannon we cannot plant a tree and build a home. Let us not shrink back when we see the hatred fermenting and filling the lives of hundreds of thousands of Arabs, who sit all around us. Let us not avert our gaze, so that our hand shall not slip. This is the fate of our generation, the choice of our life – to be prepared and armed, strong and tough – or otherwise, the sword will slip from our fist, and our life will be snuffed out.
– Moshe Dayan, 1956.(1)
This land absorbs the skins of martyrs.
This land promises wheat and stars.
We are its salt and its water.
We are its wound, but a wound that fights.
– Mahmoud Darwish, “Diary of a Palestinian Wound” (1969)
While every conflict has its specificities, it is impossible to understand the nature and trends of the Israeli state without an understanding of the greater logic of which it is but one example. What I mean by this is this: Israel is the most recent and thereby the most contradictory example of the logic of settlerism, of the settler state as a phenomenon in capitalist history. All capitalist states have certain attributes necessary for the expansion and reproduction of the capital relation, such as limitations on workers’ freedom and mobility, a military-industrial complex, territoriality, and enforcement of exploitative relations of production, but settler states are a specific social formation of these that go over and beyond capitalist ‘normality’. The settler state is, in this sense, the most complete and pure outward appearance of the capital-state relationship. When successful, its natural ideology is that of an expansionist, self-confident liberalism; when threatened, its natural ideology is fascism.
The settler state distinguishes itself from the ‘normal’ forms of appearance of the capital-state relationship in several ways. First, that it is a state which even in its historical, embryonic form is already capitalist, and does not have the inheritance of the ‘muck of ages’ of absolutism, feudalism, and so forth. Second, it involves the voluntary transfer of a people from elsewhere into a given land, whether already occupied or not, which in so doing establishes a new social formation both separate from and against the existing one of the settled land. Thirdly, the necessary result of the combination of these factors is the demographic principle of the settler state: its very existence stands or falls by the numerical presence of the settler population as against the tally of the original population(s), as these become, by the very act of the settlement itself, the respective bearers of their social formation in them. In other words, the reproduction of the social formation of the settler society is, as with all societies, dependent on the reproduction of its population; but this principle is elevated to a higher level in the settler society, because rather than the reproduction of the population being the reproduction of the different classes and the whole ensemble of the historical heritage of that particular people, the reproduction of the population takes on a competitive form in and of itself. It is measured not in the ability to reproduce the working class per se, but in the ability to reproduce the settlers over and against the ‘natives’, whoever they may be.
This leads to the fourth principle, which is that the logic of the settler state is therefore necessarily racial and expansionist. Racial, because the settler society reproduces its social formation as a whole, and thereby subsumes its class differences into an artificial unity generated not by the process of nation-building within a given territory, as in the case of the traditional bourgeois process, but by the processes of demographic-military competition with the ‘native’ population, a competition fought out on all physical fronts. This inherently racializes the relationship between the settler population and the ‘natives’, as every settler, regardless of their class, is a guarantee of the survival of a social formation in a territory where this is under threat as a whole; it thereby becomes a question not of class against class, but of people against people, of a struggle over physicality and territoriality rather than over the process of economic production and distribution within the social formation. This is a wholly regressive and vicious throwback to the worst instincts and group behaviors of humanity.
It is also for this reason necessarily expansionist; not just because of the often limited number of settlers in the first periods of the settlement, and the sense of constant danger of extinction by the ‘native’ population, but more importantly because the only possible guarantee for the normalization of the social formation, the eradication of its bad conscience and its sense of ‘having survived’, rests ultimately in the destruction of the ‘native’ population and their rival social formation. Moreover, the struggle against this latter people or peoples itself perpetuates the artificial, racialized unity among the settlers themselves, and is thereby a welcome mechanism for externalizing and staving off the inevitable internal class conflicts the process of normalization entails. Therefore, the logic of the settler state necessarily and inherently contains within itself a drive towards the total fragmentation of the ‘native’ populations and the dissolution of their social bonds, if not their physical extermination as such – in other words, settlerism always means a logic of ‘ethnic cleansing’.
It is not difficult to find in history examples that underline the argument made here, and to demonstrate the particularity of this form of the capital-state relation in the modern world. In the case of the settlement of America, it has often been observed how the British upper class’ refusal to allow settlement to follow its expansionist course beyond the Appalachians was a major factor in the rebellion of the colonists. Indeed, the very same revolution in the United States which inaugurated the great bourgeois revolutionary upheavals of the modern era was an unmitigated disaster for the various indigenous peoples of what is now the USA, as their very physical existence came constantly and repeatedly in contradiction with the logic of American settlerism. The results are well known, and even now, the American counties with large native ‘reservations’ on them are the poorest in the country and have worse social statistics than many developing countries. In Canada and Australia the story was much the same, and in Australia perhaps most genocidal in its completeness, given the very low level of technological development of the various Aboriginal peoples compared to the ‘natives’ elsewhere; whereas in New Zealand the high level of military organization of the Maori and the lower number of settlers had a mildly dampening effect on the full consummation of settlerism. In all these cases, the racial factor was immediately evident from the start and has been since, and in all these cases there has been a clear political economic reality of ‘race burning class’, as J. Sakai put it.
Of course, the various practices and details of the settler logic vary from place to place according to the historical circumstances. In South Africa, the settlers being perpetually a small minority compared to the various indigenous peoples, especially after the completion of the Bantu migrations, compelled a policy of apartheid – a system in which the racially oppressed black workforce were to be kept separate and confined from the white population, lest they overcome them or destroy by ‘dilution’ the demographic basis of their social formation. It was not realistically possible for the native populations to be physically destroyed or fully ethnically cleansed from the majority of the territory, and this made the apartheid system a logical result – at least from the point of view of the settlers. (There were of course rules for ‘coloreds’, the Indian population etc., but these do not affect the larger picture.) The United States had the ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery, and imported a great number of involuntary migrants, which created in effect a double settler state with two parallel racialized social formations, one historically progressive and industrial and one historically regressive and agrarian. The inevitable conflict between these was fought out in the American Civil War, with known results. But it should then come as no surprise that the settler logic of society re-established itself with vicious vigor almost immediately afterwards, and the potential for its destruction through radical Reconstruction was quickly lost.
In Israel, the logic of the settler state expresses itself in its most virulent forms. Firstly, the Zionist project of the settlement and colonization of Palestine is a unified whole, as all settlerism must be for it to not collapse under its contradictions. It therefore makes no difference whether it applies to Hebron or to Tel Aviv, in this regard, as in all circumstances the definite characteristics of the settler state described above are in operation and must be in operation. The artificial unity is present in the militarist-racial structure of Israeli society, in particular in its universal conscription, and in the very knowledge that even the continued existence of Arab place-names is a threat to the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’. Its expansionism is clear and obvious. From its modest beginnings the Israeli state has through perpetual war and ethnic cleansing swollen beyond any of its original territorial claims, and it shows no signs whatever of stopping. Its apartheid system expresses the racialization and the demographic factor clearly, and so does the constant talk of the ‘demographic threat’, the refusal to allow any Palestinian right of return and the open talk of deportations and ethnic cleansing, the secular political trend against socio-economic and internal class struggle and towards externalization in the form of further expansion and aggrandizement speak clear language.
Israel here has the misfortune of being the newest settler state, and so its victims can learn from history, even if its own settler population cannot. The very notion of a ‘two state solution’ with its own Arab Palestinian ‘natives’ is a risible one given the parallels between the Israeli consideration of Palestinian treaties and Palestinian land claims and the American treatment of the same relations with the various Native tribes, all of whom eventually ended up in open-air prisons called reservations. Indeed, Gaza, presently being bombed to smithereens, is nothing if not a ‘reservation’ of this type. But the Palestinians are not the only ‘natives’ victimized by settlerism: Israel treats its Druze and Bedouin populations no better, and regardless of the willingness of Druze to serve in its military, they have been systematically expropriated. It is worth noting that the willingness of settlerism to destroy any social formation opposing it on its physical-territorial domain of expansion finds its parallel in its willingness to accept any kind of settler as long as they are willing to underwrite the racial-settler system: one can look here at the history of the Irish and Italian migrants to the US, but even in the case of Israel there have been many Russian, Indian, even Peruvian migrant settlers accepted into the Israeli polity as ‘returning Jews’ whose Jewish identity was deeply spurious or nonexistent.
It is no coincidence that as Israel has become stronger and its logic has expressed itself more fully, it has become ever more fascist and less concerned even with formal equality and democracy – as shown most recently by the restrictive laws forbidding even the commemoration of the Naqba (the original ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians), the exclusion of anti-Zionist groups from parliamentary representation, and the unification between Likud and the fascist organization of Avigdor Lieberman. As I have argued, this trend of the capital-state relation to move away from formal liberalism and into a fascist siege mentality is characteristic of a settler state frustrated in its normalization process. For settler states, this normalization process can only occur on the basis of the destruction of the social formation of its rivals, of the original inhabitants; the US and Australia only even considered reforming the racial ladder system after their physical-demographic security as a settler state and their destruction of all rival social formations was complete. So it is with Israel also, and therefore Israel as a state does not and cannot want peace, whatever individuals within it may fervently hope.
Of course, this analysis is not to claim that such a logic develops wholly on its own, or that there is no agency on the part of the Other to which the settler state opposes itself. Indeed, the civil rights struggle in the United States and the campaigns for recognition on the part of the First Nations in Canada were major and inspirational examples of revolutionary organization on the part of oppressed groups, and it is equally no coincidence that such groups became more radicalized against the whole structure of the racialized capital-state relation of their settler societies as they struggled against them. The Palestinian cause has rightly taken inspiration from these examples, as well as from the resistance against the slightly different settler structure of northern Ireland, and it has in turn become a major emancipatory force of its own.
This is also why it is irredeemably silly when people point to the Palestinian struggle and ask why it garners so much attention and passion compared to the many struggles worldwide, whether in West Papua, in Syria, in Brazil or in Sudan. What such smug distraction misses is the essential role of the struggle against the settler logic. It is not a contingency of history that the US and Israel are so closely connected in alliance that there is ‘no daylight between them’. On the contrary. The hegemonic United States is a settler society and Israel is the only social formation of a similar type planted, in the decolonizing period of modern history, in the middle of the periphery (for want of a better term) and in a land of great religious significance at that. Therefore, much more than all the other such sites of struggle, Israel is a cornerstone of the political world-system. The struggle against Israel is therefore not just a question of the emancipation of the Palestinians, but it is a struggle against settler logic altogether, and through this, a struggle against the political manifestation of the current world order. This makes it a crucial site in the perpetuation of the imperialism of the West as well as in the ‘containment’ of global revolutionary and emancipatory struggles, and this gives it its particular significance.
It is also for this reason that any attempt at a ‘two state solution’ is not just inadequate and impossible, given what has been said about the inherent logic of settler states, but is actively reactionary compared to the enormous victory for revolutionary forces a unified Palestine would be. A single Palestine on the basis of secularism, democracy, and socialism would be transformed from a cornerstone of the capitalist-imperialist world order into a cornerstone of an emancipatory one. The prerequisite for this possibility is the defeat of Israel as a Zionist entity, the defeat of its inherent settler logic (and Zionism is historically just one example of settlerist ideology), and thereby the dissolution of its current social formation into one that is not irredeemably anti-emancipatory. There can be no ‘Zionist left’, no ‘liberal Zionism’, and so forth, for such propositions are incompatible with the practical logic of the settler state. The concept of Israel must die so that a Palestine may live for Jews and Arabs, Druze and Bedouin alike.
1) Cited in: Ghada Karmi, Married To Another Man: Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine (London 2007), p. 3.