November 17, 2012
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.
June 13, 2012
It is right to rebel. For anyone of a revolutionary mind, even within bourgeois-Jacobin boundaries, there can be no doubt that this is the beginning of all political wisdom. As Corey Robin has recently narrated in his excellent history of the political right, The Reactionary Mind, the decisive political differentiation has rested since the French Revolution itself on this: the right supporting the power of elites against those rebelling in opposition to it, whereas the left has been on the side of the insurgents.(1) In many societies and many historical cases, things are of course not as simple in practice as an oligarchic and oppressive Ancien Régime opposed by a great mass of popular will. The recent revolts and transformations in the Arab world have proven this. In Tunisia, the situation was still relatively straightforward. In Egypt, the overthrow of the tyrant Mubarak has left the country with a situation where power is precariously balanced between the Jacobins of Tahrir, the army-bureaucratic interest and its ‘temporary’ rule, and the parliamentary power in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Libya, the overthrow of Ghadaffi has predictably led to a split of the country among its major geographic division, that between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. But perhaps more significantly, the real power, which grows out of the barrel of a gun, is in the hands of militias located in the desert cities and whose reach does not extend beyond a local military rule in the name of this or that clan, or this or that area. Of course, under such conditions any political or economic developments are stifled until these immediate contradictions are resolved, which almost inevitably requires either a civil war, or a new dictatorship, or both. And then there is the shadow of Iraq, where the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime after Western intervention brought the country years of massacres and sectarian civil strife, its parliamentary government reigning on the most precarious basis, and its the illusory nature of its national unity now shown for what little it practically is.
But it is always easy to point to the chaos of a transition. This is not itself a response befitting revolutionaries. The above cases are by no means all identical in origins, nor in their legitimacy – there is a world of difference between an invasion of Western powers into a country to merely lop off the head of a hated but effective regime, leaving the body politic to fall apart; and on the other hand, an uprising of popular-democratic power, establishing a t least the formal trappings of democratic legitimacy and thereby opening up a political struggle that had been artificially repressed for decades. Iraq is not Tunisia or Egypt. Moreover, the countries themselves are not necessarily similar in their social structure, so the structure of each uprising is not identical any more than overthrowing a monarch in Austria-Hungary was the same as doing so in Russia. Algeria has not too long ago seen a prolonged dirty war between the government and a coalition of shadowy ‘Islamist’ organizations, characterized by massacres with unknown perpetrators, and leading to a climate of terror and stagnation destroying any prospects for extending popular power.
This may well be the future of Syria, on its current course. The Assad regime cannot be overthrown outright, for it has maintained too much support, not least within the army; but the insurgency, largely operating from the northern and eastern areas of the country, supported by various armed columns of disparate origins and ideology, is likely also too strong to be simply quelled. Each has their popularity and their unpopularity; neither provides a clear revolutionary programme capable of resolving the contradiction. “Between equal rights”, Marx said, “force decides”, and this then is sadly the only real prospect. Already, massacres of civilians by mysterious militias, accusations back and forth of atrocities, and the bombardment of cities and neighbourhoods are a daily phenomenon. Effectively, this means civil war, as the Western powers for their own reasons now also allege; and the very fact it is denied by both the government’s supporters and opponents proves its truth. (This paradox is easily explained by the fact both sides have imposed an effective ban, on penalty of death, on the presence of foreign journalists to observe the facts on the ground.) Even if the process towards a domestic war with the full participation of the general population is by no means complete, the strength of each side and the impossibility of a clear resolution on the basis of their demands proves that civil war has become a necessity outcome.
This is tragic, for such wars are often the most bloody, and their resolution into a positive result the most difficult to achieve, with their legacy lingering for decades. But it is important to understand that such a scenario is not the fault of the uprisings as such, and that one cannot condemn the insurgents on the basis of having ‘divided the country’ or the like. The very fact that only force can decide the contradictions of Arab politics is the consequence of the artificial repression of all political movements by decades of tyranny. It is first and foremost the tyrants whose fault the violence is. This is not the fault of the uprisings against oppression. One blames the Czar for the violence of the Russian Revolution, and the intervention of the Whites and the ‘fourteen armies’ for that of the Russian Civil War. This applies not just to Syria, but to Egypt, to Bahrain, to Tunisia, even to Libya. No imperialist intervention can be accepted any more than Western conspiracy can be blamed, precisely because the act itself is legitimate: it is right to rebel.
This does not, of course, tell foreign observers sympathetic to revolutionary politics how to read the evolution of Syrian affairs. Class societies ruled by quasi-monarchical dynasties of tyrants for long periods have one common trait: the more nationally united the tyranny makes them seem, the more divided they really are. In Syria, the Alawite (or Alevite) minority often supports the regime, which belongs to this denomination and has given its elite a strong grip on the country’s political and economic commanding heights. The Sunni majority for this same reason may often oppose it. But the divisions between the south and the north of the country, supporting and opposing the regime respectively, are at least as significant. Moreover, all these are, as always, mediations of the class divide in a capitalist society. With regard to the great imperialist powers, the case is clear enough. Israel and Syria have long been in strife; but the Israeli government knows well enough that like any man without legitimacy, Assad can survive only by making deals, and it will prefer him to the unknown alternative.
The watchword of the Party of Order is always ‘stability’, and this is why the ‘stability’ of tyrants is favored by the likes of Israel over the ‘chaos’ of political struggle. No observer sympathetic to revolutionary politics can be deceived by this – it is identical to the support for the Gulf monarchies by the Western powers, the same ones who now seek Assad’s deposition and an armed intervention in Syria. This does not prove Assad’s virtues, but on the contrary, simply the hypocrisy of the Americans and the Europeans; they have no interest in a Syrian revolution, merely in establishing a new ‘stability’, one favorable to their third remaking of the Middle Eastern map. Russia and China support Assad in turn because of their own desire for a ‘stability’ of lesser powers against the great ones in the West – again no motive or argument that can be of interest to revolutionaries, other than by denouncing it. The affairs of the Syrians must be settled by the Syrians themselves, even if this does mean that “force decides”. It is right to rebel.
Nothing is therefore less coherent than the argument of ‘principled anti-imperialism’. The question is not of supporting this regime or that, in the vain hope that one strengthens revolutionary politics by substituting the imperialism of Russia and China for that of the United States and the European powers. This is to play the game of 1914. It is also the error of the ‘lesser evil’; where a real possibility for a third option, a rejection of the choice between evils, exists, this path must be followed. This is not always the case, but certainly nothing necessitates upholding the rights of the likes of Assad and Ghadaffi. Not just because such a move is strategically ineffective – for any revolutionary politics, the greatest development of the last decade must be this opening up of the political sphere in the Middle East. This is perhaps the world’s most contradictory region in Mao’s sense, and full of potential for a much greater blow against the rule of the exploiting classes and states than would be a rhetorical support for some militarist clique or another. Such a move could only weaken revolutionary forces by making them look opportunistic and ridiculous, without actually affecting events on a broader scale.
But the most important argument is that it rests on a misunderstanding of the potential involved for our Party, for our side – a consistent underestimation of the power of the peoples in rebellion to create their own path, even through the fires of civil war and through the depths of sectarian strife. Indeed, one may make different strategic decisions in terms of rhetoric or domestic opposition, but it is not for us to delineate what Bassam Haddad has called “the threshold of pain“. This is for ‘reason in revolt‘ to do. The very struggle itself, on both sides, will work out the contradictions. Perhaps such an acceptance of violence as a political phenomenon may seem cynical, and it should certainly never be glorified. But this is the nature of revolt, and, as mentioned, revolt is the fault of the oppressors. Perhaps it is cynical, but faith in people’s own ability to take a stand and make a move is less cynical than the cynicism of ‘principled anti-imperialism’. We may then also be spared the cynicism of its opportunistic appeals to vague, unprincipled reformism in the form of bribery on the part of this or that ‘enlightened ruler’, as we heard so often about Ghadaffi. As Haddad has pointed out, “no other contradiction surpasses the one that exists between the state’s professed political-economic principles and its actual policies, regarding matters that concern the left: social justice, equity, class, empowerment, exploitation, labor, peasantry, and so on, especially since 1986″.(2)
Let us be clear then where we draw the line: The Czar is not better than Wilhelm and Wilhelm not better than the Czar; Putin is not better than Obama and Obama not better than Putin; the Islamists are not better than Assad and Assad is not better than the Islamists; but it is right to rebel.
1) Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind (New York, NY 2011).
2) Bassam Haddad, “Hizballah, Development, and the Political Economy of Pain: For Syria, What is ‘Left’ (Part 3)”. Jadaliyya, op cit.
January 26, 2012
There have been many theories of imperial overstretch in the past, but surely none of them would have expected any empire or its allies to be so foolish as to attack three immediately bordering targets in a row. As the sophisticated statesmen and -women of the West once again steer us all towards an unnecessary and artificial conflict, one would do well to reflect on the nature and consequences of a war zone stretching from Iraq through Iran to Afghanistan and the western regions of Pakistan. None of these areas are known for their good governance, their stable political and economic structures, or their previous history of allowing easy conquest and rule. Yet this does not appear to restrain the dogs of war from once again throwing themselves at another country of the greater Middle East, this time under the pretext of the imminent danger of nuclear weapons. Read the rest of this entry »
January 24, 2012
The Egyptian Parliament has just convened, recently elected by a partly proportional and partly district-based system in the first more or less meaningful elections in recent Egyptian history. Confirming the worries I laid out in earlier articles on developments in Egypt, the socialist and liberal parties performed according to their narrow, largely urban working and middle class bases (respectively); the great victory went to the Muslim Brotherhood and to Al-Nour, the more explicitly religious reactionary party. Now the first thing is to dismiss any attempts by Western commentators to condescend toward the Egyptians, to state the results as evidence that Arabs don’t know what is good for them, that pro-Western dictators are better than votes, and so forth. This kind of chauvinistic laziness only serves the interests of the thieving and warmongering cliques around the so-called ‘secular dictators’ in the Arab world, and the interests of the Western governments who supply them with money and arms. Read the rest of this entry »