Critics of the pro-Palestine left think they are injecting nuance into an over-heated debate. In fact they are retreating from the harshness and complexity of the world, argues David Jamieson.
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Every explosion in the international system illuminates contradictions in ideology. While the smashing of Gaza has revealed, once again, the extent of the rift between millions of citizens around the world and their rulers, it has also cast its fiery light on the intelligentsia – those members of society charged with interpretation, and chairing the public square.
At times war has exposed hysteria – as in the case of increasingly paranoid right-wing apologists for the Israeli Defence Forces and their western sponsors. For British junk columnists this has meant screeching about changing racial demographics, supposedly driving inexorable shifts in public opinion.
Among many in the liberal centre, it has found a weary ambiguity. They had felt so pumped-up over Ukraine – the return of a heroic westernism. Now, those hopes are mired in yet another bout of Middle Eastern carnage – at the hands this time, as so many others, of our most symbiotic client regime.
This latter mood predominates in the Scottish commentariat. Most of our political journalists have avoided talking about Palestine – some too concerned with an expensive iPad (or something). Neil MacKay, who pledged every single one of his newspaper columns to the Ukrainian struggle until the last Russian jackboot left the country (the promise was good for a few weeks), and demanded a purge of undisclosed Putinites from Scottish public life and higher education institutions, has barely said peep about Palestine.
Kevin McKenna blamed Scottish protests on a “professional Marxist elite”, with “highly-paid jobs in the trade union and public sectors”. Here again is the tired refrain that opposition to war – which in fact unites a huge majority of the British population in the demand for a ceasefire – is the preserve of the bourgeoisies. These decadent spartacists would be better attending to: “…the real issues requiring authentic radicalism and direct action: low wages; addiction deaths; homelessness; child poverty…”.
As we will see, the idea that war and foreign policy should be beyond bounds – seen as an essentially non-political matter – is popular among professional journalists. It represents the latest turn of the intelligentsia against politics and towards mere sentiment, at just the time when the US’ slide from overweening global dominance becomes an unavoidable fact for even the most complacent.
In the US, post-Bernie socialists, reeling from the let-downs of recent years, have taken stock. But experiments in necessary criticism of failure have turned into an exhausted retreat from anti-war politics. Compact editor Matthew Schmitz responded to early protests for an end to the bombing of Gaza (which, it must be remembered, began on 7 October) with dismay: “As millennial socialists embrace the bloodiest form of Palestinian nationalism, it is worth recalling the very different perspective once represented by the DSA’s founder, Michael Harrington”, who “unlike many on the left…rejected Soviet apologetics and the vilification of Israel.”
(If the latter pairing is intentional, it’s a bit odd. The Soviet Union supported the establishment of the state of Israel for its own ends, despite having made prior commitments to Arab resistance in British Mandate Palestine. It’s the kind of squalid diplomatic manoeuvre generally ignored by those who will never criticise the USSR.)
Schmitz continues: “Harrington, for his part, identified with the Jewish state’s social-democratic tradition, while supporting Palestinian self-determination on peaceful terms.”
This must be the “social-democratic tradition” of throwing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians off their land, and into exile, murdering many thousands in the process. These were the signature achievements of the Workers’ Party of the Land of Israel, which led the ethnic cleansing in 1948 and 1967. I don’t know very much about Harrington – the founding personality of the Democratic Socialists of America – but this fragment of his worldview makes him sound embarrassingly foolish.
Schmitz concludes: “In recent years, millennial socialists have come closer to the Democratic mainstream, but they continue to distinguish themselves by their eagerness to overlook, excuse, or embrace the crimes of Palestinian extremists.”
That’s Democratic with a capital D. After months of his support for the most intensive, concentrated bombing of a civilian settlement since World War 2 (not extremist), Biden’s polling position took another plummet – especially among the young. Perhaps there’s hope for the millennials after all.
I’m not sure what Compact readers thought they might be getting with this version of post-Bernie critical leftism. The magazine bills itself as promoting a solidaristic politics combining opposition to economic and social liberalisms. But what they have here is a weak attempt at crotchety respectability politics, dead to the realities of history or the present. Weak, because in aligning itself with the (alleged) anti-politics of Harrington and the elitist husk of the Democratic party, it denies itself the moral posture necessary for condescension.
Sublation is a magazine with a similar tone, though it seems to imagine its remit as providing a more sophisticated Marxian critique of contemporary leftism. It’s twin editors, Douglas Lain and Ashley Frawley, responded to the latest war by urging their audience not to “take sides” or “participate in politics like it’s a team sport”.
Elsewhere in the publication, and in a much more useful effort, Ralph Leonard defends the conception of Israel as a colonial state – a claim which has become a focus of rage for apologists of the Gaza war. He makes the vital point, missed by so many in his milieu, that the undoubted backwardness of much modern ‘de-colonial’ thought doesn’t cancel-out the obviously settler-colonial character of the Israeli state.
Further, he argues that objections to Israel’s colonial status cannot overcome the simple, observable reality that: “…Israel is a settler-colonial state today because of its active settler colonization on the West Bank and East Jerusalem premised on further dispossession and displacement of Palestinians”.
In many ways, his essay is an elegant restatement of the classic socialist analysis of the origins of the Palestinian tragedy, but with two startling absences.
The first is the role of the United States. As is well known, the Israeli state benefits enormously from close relations with the US – though it is less well known just how close these relations are. Israel is a small state with nine and a half million inhabitants (two million of whom are Arabs, with de facto second class status and without full access to state resources). Yet it has received funds and promises from the US worth approximately $170 billion since 1948.
The US covers around 40% of the Israel Defence Forces’ entire budget, and nearly its entire procurement budget. Israel has unusual access to US arms manufacturers for a foreign country – being able to purchase weapons directly from them without having to go through the US government. The US has bought and paid for Israel’s armed presence in the region, and in addition Israel is covered by US security guarantees. And this is only the US contribution. Other western allies supply arms and security services of their own.
Early in his essay, Leonard skewers the common claim that Israel cannot be a colony, because it has no metropolis – no ‘home base’ from which the colony is established and resourced. He points, correctly, to the British Empire as the original scaffolding for the settler state, in the era of the British Mandate. But he fails to bring this analysis up to date. Israel still has a metropolis, which it requires for its survival, but from which it exercises relative independence – the US.
The second absence is just as crucial. Leonard ends his well-argued essay with a morose shrug of the shoulders: “There will be no final solution to the Palestine question. How long until this elementary fact will truly sink in?”
But there is a force that could break the architecture of oppression in the region – the Arab street. It has long been the claim of socialists that the ultimate solution to external great power (principally US) intrigue in the Middle East would be a mass revolutionary movement against the dictatorships which rule hundreds of millions of lives.
This could be dismissed as a fantasy in the fashion of intellectuals, for whom the wisest council is usually the direst, were it not for the fact that we all witnessed such a movement a little over a decade ago. The Arab Spring did indeed challenge the walls of the Gaza prison, by briefly tearing down the border at Rafah. It also challenged key Arab states – from Egypt and Saudi Arabia to Syria – which have traditionally pursued various forms of constructive ambiguity (and sometimes outright hostility) towards the Palestinian people and their diaspora.
Both these omissions aid the fatalistic conclusion of Leonard’s article. The first depoliticises the entire issue – removing the responsibility for socialists in the west to challenge their own government’s foreign policy. This is not just a matter of ‘picking teams’ in a foreign conflict – it is a matter of domestic western politics, as the protest movement has proved beyond doubt. And by ignoring the wider politics of the Arab region, and the Arab working class, a possible solution to the Palestinian question can also be ignored, in favour of a lecture about how nothing really changes.
Concluding a useful essay in Unherd, charting the implications of the destruction of Gaza for US power, Aris Roussinos extends this quietism to the entire world system.
He writes of the retreat of US power: “There is no anti-imperialist glee to be found in the situation we are in. For all its faults, the world that follows American hegemony will hardly be more peaceful or humane than that we have come to know…the task that remains is to help America manage its own decline in as painless a way possible, preventing the conflicts nibbling at the edge of its empire from coalescing into a single war that will consume us all.”
This “task” is the impossible in the pursuit of the seemingly plausible – fine needlework in a hurricane. Are we so ground-down by defeat and frustration that we resort to this kind of wishful thinking?
Throughout the modern era, a mass left responded to war with revolution. We do not have a mass left today, and that is a serious problem. But resistance to war also created a mass left. The idea of responding to war and its consequences with socialist politics seems to have been eclipsed for many – including those who want to lecture us about the need for a class based and universalist approach that can challenge the identitarianism, flourishing in its absence.
In the arguments surveyed above, two features are evident. The first is a distaste for the activist left, so strong and so habituated, that it intrudes on rational, independent political thought. This is sometimes referred to as ‘contrarianism’, and is taken to be the root motive of this style of criticism.
Yet behind the aesthetic posture is something more compulsive – the embrace of anti-politics. Social change without politics is the utopian dream of every generation of intellectuals. This is obvious enough when they are demanding vegan diets and ethical consumerism. But anti-politics is also manifested when the intellectual counterpoises ‘real’ struggles over bread and butter issues to the middle class fancy of opposition to war.
The hunt for authenticity and rootedness takes many forms. Sometimes, it is homage to a ‘True World’ – a lost, mystical era of sanity when social polarisation directly reflected class interests. The messy reality of the observable world – the confusion of social actors groping incoherently to understand a series of catastrophic wars – is hated as a perversion.
Nevertheless, this unhappy, real world, with its massacres and broiling international warfare, is the only one we have. It will not yield to the gentle fantasies of respectability politics, or the schematism of would-be social democrats and syndicalists. It only gets uglier from here on in, and the intellectuals can either reconcile themselves to that, or drift deeper into a melancholic dream world.