“Liberalism is the only thing that can save civilization from chaos – from a flood of ultra-radicalism that will swamp the world…” These are the words of Woodrow Wilson aboard the SS George Washington in December 1918, reflecting on the tasks confronted by the United States and her allies after their victory in the First World War. It is also the fundamental thesis of Adam Tooze’s The Deluge, the long-awaited followup to his brilliant discussion of the political economy of Nazi Germany (for a discussion of which, see here and following). Applying his profound talent for combining political economy with international relations, Tooze’s central subject is the aftermath of World War I and the challenge of creating a new world order amidst the ruins of the old European powers. This challenge, as he presents it, was a dual one. On the one hand it involved the recognition by all European powers, victors or vanquished, that the United States was now the pre-eminent economic power in the world, with the potential of translating this tremendous advantage into equivalent military and political power on the world stage; and on the other hand it involved the attempts by Woodrow Wilson as American President to effect this transformation of the world balance of powers while simultaneously disentangling the United States from a war alliance that he had never wanted in the first place, and which threatened to perpetually constrain the freedom of action the Americans needed to make this potential a reality.
Given the significant impact of the murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich by two British converts to Islam, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, I’m moved to make a brief comment on what I consider its implications. The ethics of the attack itself can be debated until the cows come home; as ethics are essentially subjective and arbitrary, they cannot really be argued out, and nobody will convince anyone else of the ethical merits or demerits of such an action if they do not already share that view. I will therefore not say much about that, though this is not to say I have no ethical concerns about it. But the political and strategic consequences are real and should be debated widely. The first point is that an attack of this kind cannot simply be considered a blow against British imperialism, even if it is – as voiced by the assassins themselves – clearly a response to British foreign policy, not least the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Continue reading “On the assassination in Woolwich”
Since I recently wrote an extended, appreciative review of Zak Cope’s book of Third Worldist Marxism Divided World, Divided Class on this blog, some other radical commentators have provided reviews and replies as well. One of these is Don Hamerquist, who wrote what is in essence a review of my review. It can be found on the blog Sketchy Thoughts. Hamerquist’s commentary was critical of my analysis (on which it focuses more than Cope’s), but in a constructive manner, and has thereby given me occasion to restate and clarify some of the positions I have developed in recent times on this medium and elsewhere. Even though I don’t wholly agree, such focused, intelligent criticism as Hamerquist’s is of great value, and it would be foolish to dismiss it out of personal egocentrism or puffery. Continue reading “Convergence and Divergence: A Reply to Comrade Hamerquist”
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.
There are perhaps not many places in the world where it is possible for several general strikes to follow in succession, uniting private sector workers, public sector workers, officials, even shopkeepers in resistance to the politics of the government, and yet little seems to change. But this is the case in Greece, where today once more Syntagma was filled with the banners and shouting of demonstrators protesting against the austerity policies of the old oligarchy ruling the country. Let nobody be deceived about how dire the situation truly is: this summer, Greek unemployment hit an official 25%, with more than half the young population out of work, and the real figure is almost certainly higher due to the number of workforce ‘dropouts’ and the considerable informal sector in the country. Educated Greeks try to flee the country en masse for any place that will have them, while paramilitary toughs in black uniforms roam the streets, beating up immigrant pedlars and gay actors alike without any repercussion. The police force is now estimated to be majority at least passive supporters of the fascist movement Chrysi Avyi, a situation no European country has seen since the fall of Berlin. The enormous increases in the contradictions between the different sectors of society is making itself felt across the country as a consequence of the deeply severe ‘austerity’ imposed by order of the creditor countries to which Greece, despite previous partial defaults, remains hopelessly indebted. Indeed, the policies of shoving the costs of repayments off onto the masses of the population not only increases insecurity and resentment against foreigners and outsiders, putting lives at risk, but also so deeply damages the short and medium-term income of the working classes and small bourgeoisie, so that state policy appears as the despairing attempts of a dog to bite itself in the tail.
However, that this strategy can only further sharpen the political and economic contradictions is something clear enough to the oligarchy both within and without Greece. This is not, as some (post-)Keyenesians would have it, a mere manner of stupidity, a strategy for capital that cannot possibly work. Instead, it is the only possible strategy for capital under the circumstances of the country. It must not be forgotten that there are two forces at work here: one is the bourgeoisie of Greece and its ossified, entrenched political establishment, which attempts by means of ‘austerity’ to present the Greek people with the bill of its own mismanagement, corruption, and prestige spending. The other force is the creditor classes of northern Europe, the Germans, Dutch, Austrians and so forth. Not only is their credit to the Greek state in peril, but more generally this threatens the position of the credibility of all European states altogether, because of their monetary union. In the final instance, the credibility of a currency stands or falls with the credibility of the issuing state vis-á-vis the creditor classes, most particularly the financial speculators and banks, and vast sums of fictitious capital have already been conjured into existence to prop up the appearance of liquidity among states and banks alike.
But the irony is, as Marx so well understood but even many of the ‘Keynesians’ do not, that the more the capitalist classes of Europe attempt to stave off disaster by further ‘quantitative easing’ and further cheap credit, the worse they make it for themselves in the long run. All this accumulation of fictitious capital only serves in the longer run to further depress the rate of profit. Therefore, those states in which austerity is followed either directly on behalf of the financier class (as in the UK), or indirectly by foreign imposition, as in Greece and to a lesser extent other debtor states of southern Europe, are perfectly following capitalist rationality to its final end-point. Only the destruction of value on a large scale, the failure of many of the national capitalists and much of the credibility of the financial institutions, the destitution and devastation of much of the European population, and the generation of an enormous ‘reserve army of labour’ in the form of mass unemployment, can in the long run restore the rate of profit in value terms.
This implies that any other strategy is a strategy of deception: it will prop up the capitalist institutions of today in appearance, and thereby seem to prevent a freefall in the living standards of middle and working class alike; but in the longer term, it will inhibit further capitalist investment, burden an already low-liquidity system with more debt, and eventually an even greater and more severe crisis will be the consequence. It doesn’t matter how well the post-Keynesians regard the European peoples and their struggle, no matter how good their intent in attempting to stop the vicious and regressive campaigns to maintain the position of a proportionally tiny group of financiers and creditor organizations as myopic as they are self-seeking. If they attempt to tell the Greeks and other suffering peoples that the capitalist order can prevail but without having to also accept its terms and conditions, they are consciously or not deceiving the population as to the true nature of capitalist crisis.
The political consequences of this are dire, because it will work in favour of the decaying social-democratic forces whose strength diminishes by the day, and who can form no secure basis for the future, and it will also encourage those – such as the fascists – who consider the crisis to be a purely contingent phenomenon, the fault of ‘international bankers’, foreign impositions, money crankery, or even immigrants and refugees. To politically confront the consequences of capitalist crisis, we must be honest about what we are facing: capitalism will always return to crisis, no matter how many counter-cyclical measures and state investment programmes are undertaken. If the rate of profit is not restored, instead of papering over the crisis by accumulating further debt and shifting vast sums of value artificially towards the financial institutions and the speculators, the consequences can only be a greater crisis in 10, 15, 20 years’ time, and in the short run a tremendous waste of the people’s money on bailing out insolvent capitalist entities to which they owe nothing.
It is of course understandable that such sentiment has become so widespread. For the latter day fans of laissez-faire and for the lackeys of the financier class the situation is clear enough: where profit rates cannot be maintained, the population must pay and overaccumulated value must be destroyed one way or another until investment once more resumes. The balance within the capitalist class between the interests of industry and of finance in this battle is essentially a political question, and in Europe today it is the financiers who hold the power, especially in Britain. But for many people the situation is in absolute terms not yet dire enough to create a truly revolutionary prospect: the workers of Europe have still too much to lose for that, in particular the older workers who have built up pensions, own houses, and have accumulated all manner of stakes in society in the waning years of the social-democratic consensus. Demographically, this is the largest group. At the same time, it is clear that their position and that of their children is being rapidly undermined by forces outside their control, and this creates a great unrest and a great wave of resentment and sentimental opprobrium.
Much of the protest resulting from this is essentially romantic reactionary and disorganized in nature, involving great numbers of people attempting by sheer anger and indignation to restore a situation of ‘fairness’, ‘democracy’, the ‘welfare state’, and so forth; essentially backward-looking idealizations of the existing political economic order, which no amount of demonstrating or striking will bring back. In Spain, the hundreds of thousands who took the streets even identified themselves as the indignados, each called to the streets by the same justified fear and loathing produced by the current crisis, but all individually seeking a return of the good old times of secure work and fair pay. Such times, if they ever existed, will not return. This crisis heralds the final phase of social-democracy, and it is a losing game for capitalism. This is why no government anywhere has ceded even the slightest demand to these protestors, and why they have been unable to translate their numbers and courage into a political change: they fear damaging the political structure of their societies just as much as they fear its continuation, and therefore rhetoric and moral appeals are their only weapons.
In Greece, the left opposition party SYRIZA is the best expression of this. While it contains a number of serious revolutionary organizations in its ranks, its leadership represents the Greek masses very well indeed – it seeks to do away with the debt burden without doing away with the monetary union, it seeks to oppose austerity without confronting the logic of capital, it wants to do away with the old oligarchy without extra-parliamentary mobilization, and it utterly fails to recognize the looming threat of fascism on the horizon, focused as it is on achieving the impossible and incoherent. This is not to sneer at the Greeks. Indeed, not only has the period of roughly 1980 to 2004 been one of enormous increases in the Greek standard of living and a modernization of the country in technological and prestige terms, but the membership of the European political and economic system has made the Greeks feel safely included in the common European project, has given them hope for the future after the long darkness of dictatorship and Cold War strife, and made it seem like the only way to go was up. This is indeed a bitter awakening for the self-proclaimed ‘cradle of democracy’.
One can argue forever about to which extent the Greek people let themselves be bribed and sung to sleep, their Argus eyes closed by the soothing melodies of road-building, Olympic games, peace with the Turks, and all this without any apparent need for state revenues. What matters is that they are now being made to pay the price for the greatest global crisis since the Great Depression, most of which was none of their making and totally beyond their ken. We must not try to lull the Greeks again with easy tales of Keynesian investment and the return of the drachma solving all the economic problems. That which capital has made can only be unmade with the overcoming of capital’s logic itself. It is well possible the current crisis will resolve itself outside Greece far before this point is reached politically; in that case, all will probably go back to sleep again, and will have an even more rude awakening in 15 years or so. If this does not happen, and the crisis endures without a clear explanation of its causes, its logic, and its consequences, the temptation for masses and bourgeoisie alike to force a solution will become very great. Here, history provides us with but two examples. It shows us either the colonization of Greece, Ottoman Turkey, Egypt, and the like by the European creditor powers, impoverishing the masses and inhibiting their political struggles for decades; or the course of the Weimar republic and its inability to overcome the contradictions of that society, after which the revanchist powers forced a ‘final solution’ on their own account. The former was the solution of the 19th century, the latter that of the 20th. It is time for a different solution for our age. The tocsin rings for Greece, and all who wish her well must heed the warning.