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Though many things are being said about Vivek Chibber’s new book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, it is unlikely at this point that anyone will call the book boring. It has ignited a fair amount of controversy in its claim that the central arguments emerging from Subaltern Studies are wrong, and that a universalist social theory grounded in Marxism is capable of explaining the phenomena they fail to.

The posting of Chibber’s debate with Partha Chatterjee, one of the main targets of critique in the book, at Historical Materialism New York, will no doubt only intensify the disputes. Indeed, some are already claiming that Chatterjee has closed the book on Chibber’s arguments with his “meticulous demolition” a few weeks ago.

In this post, I’d like to examine one small aspect of the debate, centering around the contending interpretations of Ranajit Guha’s work. It is my contention that Chatterjee, in attempting to defend Guha, misrepresents the latter’s arguments, often strikingly.

Before proceeding, it is worth noting what this post is not arguing. I am not asserting here that either Chatterjee or Guha’s work is worthless or should not be read. Indeed, Guha’s criticisms of the bad faith of colonialist historiography, his portrait of the way aspects of Indian culture were mobilized to support colonial rule, and his emphasis on the brutality of the raj are all valuable and compelling. I am less familiar with Chatterjee’s work, and for that reason do not want anything in this post to be construed as a broader commentary on his other publications.  However, the issue of misrepresentation is a serious one, and deserves consideration.

Chibber lays out his side of the argument briefly in an interview about the book published at Jacobin:

Subaltern studies offers two distinct arguments for how and why the universalizing drive of capital was blocked. One argument comes from Ranajit Guha. Guha located the universalizing drive of capital in the ability of a particular agent — namely, the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class — to overthrow the feudal order and construct a coalition of classes that includes not only capitalists and merchants, but also workers and peasants. And through the alliance that is cobbled together, capital is supposed to erect a new political order, which is not only pro-capitalist in terms of defending the property rights of capitalists, but also a liberal, encompassing, and consensual order.

So for the universalizing drive of capital to be real, Guha says, it must be experienced as the emergence of a capitalist class that constructs a consensual, liberal order. This order replaces the ancien régime, and is universalizing in that it expresses the interests of capitalists as universal interests. Capital, as Guha says, achieves the ability to speak for all of society: it is not only dominant as a class, but also hegemonic in that it doesn’t need to use coercion to maintain its power.

So Guha locates the universalizing drive in the construction of an encompassing political culture. The key point for Guha is that the bourgeoisie in the West was able to achieve such an order while the bourgeoisie in the East failed to do so. Instead of overthrowing feudalism, it made some sort of compact with the feudal classes; instead of becoming a hegemonic force with a broad, cross-class coalition, it tried its best to suppress the involvement of peasants and the working class. Instead of erecting a consensual and encompassing political order, it put into place highly unstable and fairly authoritarian political orders. It maintained the rift between the class culture of the subaltern and that of the elite.

So for Guha, whereas in the West the bourgeoisie was able to speak for all the various classes, in the East it failed in this goal, making it dominant but not hegemonic. This in turn makes modernity in the two parts of the world fundamentally different by generating very different political dynamics in the East and West, and this is the significance of capital’s universalizing drive having failed.

JB: So their argument rests on a claim about the role of the bourgeoisie in the West, and the failure of its counterpart in postcolonial societies?

VC: For Guha, absolutely, and the subaltern studies group accepts these arguments, largely without qualification. They describe the situation — the condition of the East — as a condition in which the bourgeoisie dominates but lacks hegemony, whereas the West has both dominance and hegemony.

Now the problem with this is, as you said, that the core of the argument is a certain description of the achievements of the Western bourgeoisie. The argument, unfortunately, has very little historical purchase. There was a time, in the nineteenth century, the early twentieth century, even into the 1950s, when many historians accepted this picture of the rise of the bourgeoisie in the West. Over the last thirty or forty years, though, it has been largely rejected, even among Marxists.

What’s strange is that Guha’s book and his articles were written as though the criticisms of this approach were never made. And what’s even stranger is that the historical profession — within which subaltern studies has been so influential — has never questioned this foundation of the subaltern studies project, even though they all announce that it’s the foundation. The bourgeoisie in the West never strove for the goals that Guha ascribes to it: it never tried to bring about a consensual political culture or represent working-class interests. In fact, it fought tooth and nail against them for centuries after the so-called bourgeois revolutions. When those freedoms were finally achieved, it was through very intense struggle by the dispossessed, waged against the heroes of Guha’s narrative, the bourgeoisie. So the irony is that Guha really works with an incredibly naïve, even ideological notion of the Western experience. He doesn’t see that capitalists have everywhere and always been hostile to the extension of political rights to working people.

These arguments are expanded upon in Chapters 2-5 of Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital.

To rebut Chibber’s criticisms, Chatterjee offered four arguments:

1.) Guha’s text is not comparative at all, and does not make any claims about what actually happened during the development of European capitalism. Rather, it simply comments on what liberal historiography assumed would happen in India. Therefore, Chibber’s argument that Guha compares India to a European history that never happened is simply the product of an inept reading. (made at 27:23 in the debate)

2.) Guha is not actually talking about what capitalists did or did not do, but instead is speaking of a much broader anticolonial elite. Therefore, Chibber’s attempt to compare their actions with the actions of European capitalists is an invalid exercise in comparing two very different kinds of social entities. (31:00)

3.) Guha does not hold a Whig view of history. The Whiggish view Chibber criticizes is precisely what Guha is criticizing in liberal historiography. (30:45)

4.) The appropriate grounds of comparison, and the one Guha is actually making, is between England and India of the 1950s, not between the European bourgeois revolutions and modern Indian history. The comparison Chibber makes renders the contemporary history of India nothing more than a replay of Europe’s past, an extraordinarily Eurocentric maneuver. (31:44).

All four of these arguments represent serious distortions of the arguments made in Dominance without Hegemony. In order:

1.) Chatterjee claims that “nowhere in the essay does Guha offer any propositions of his own that might be construed as a historical sociology of bourgeois revolutions in England and France.” What, then, are we to make of passages such as the following?

“liberal historiography has been led to presume that capital, in its Indian career, succeeded in overcoming the obstacles to its self-expansion and subjugating all precapitalist relations in material and spiritual life well enough to enable the bourgeoisie to speak for all of that society, as it had done on the occasion of its historic triumphs in England in 1648 and France in 1789.” (Dominance without Hegemony, 19)

“Much of the specificity of Indian politics of this period derives precisely from the failure of nationalism to assimilate the class interests of peasants and workers effectively into a bourgeois hegemony. Nothing testifies more clearly to the predicament of a bourgeoisie nurtured under colonial conditions and its difference from its opposite numbers in Western Europe…In other words, it was initially as an acknowledgment of the connection between its own interests and those of all the other nonruling classes that the bourgeoisie had led the struggle against feudalism and established its hegemony over the peasantry, whereas in India the influence it gained over the rural population in the 1920s and 1930s did not develop into a full-fledged hegemony because of its reluctance to break with landlordism. Again, in Western Europe, the conditions prevailing under the ancien regime did not allow the interests of the bourgeoisie to be reduced at once to “the particular interest of a particular class.” (ibid 133-134)

how is it that even after British capital, powered by industrialism, had come of age and the culture corresponding to it had created a homogeneous space for itself by overcoming the resistance of all that was parochial and particularistic in metropolitan politics — how is it that even at its hour of triumph the universalist tendency was resigned to live at peace with the heterogeneity and particularity of the indigenous political culture of an Asian colony?” (ibid 64)

Here, in locations throughout the 1997 text, Guha is quite plainly making claims about what actually happened in Europe during the period of the rise of capitalism. In two of these passages, there is not even a reference to the liberal historiography which Chatterjee claims is Guha’s true reference. Instead, we have what are unavoidably statements about the history of capitalism in Europe, in which it is claimed that the bourgeoisie led the struggle against feudalism, overcame the resistance of the particular, established a homogenous space, and was thus able to speak for the nation. Even in the first passage, which begins by referencing the liberal historiography, the sentence’s final clause implies that the bourgeoisie was actually able to speak for all of society after 1648 and 1789.

Chatterjee’s description of what is in Guha’s text is then quite plainly false. But he also argues that Guha does not require any historical sociology of bourgeois revolution in Europe to substantiate his claims. This is a more complicated argument to adjudicate, as it cannot be settled simply with references to the text. However, I think there are still good reasons to think that Chatterjee is wrong here. It is quite true that the overwhelming bulk of Dominance without Hegemony is not focused on the question of what happened in India versus what happened in Europe. Guha’s explication of the role of Dharma, of the ideological machinations of colonialist historiography, and of the dynamics of nationalist struggle do not depend on any claims about Europe. Indeed, Chibber says as much in the book, praising Guha’s empirical description of Indian history while contesting his theoretical explanation of it. It is this theoretical account which depends upon a comparison between Europe and India.  Chatterjee is correct to claim that, for his critique of historiography, Guha only needs evidence a) that the liberal historiography assumes that the bourgeoisie enjoyed hegemony in Europe b) that it also enjoyed hegemony in the colonies c) that Indian liberals saw the postcolonial order as similarly hegemonic and d) that neither the colonial nor the postcolonial regimes enjoyed hegemony. Unfortunately for Chatterjee, however, Guha offers us rather more than a criticism of the historiography. Indeed, in the second passage quoted above, Guha is quite explicit that the failure of the Indian bourgeoisie explains “the specificity of Indian politics.” For this claim to be successful, one must assume the bourgeoisie succeeded elsewhere. If the bourgeoisie failed in Europe as well as in India, how could its failure in India explain the specificity of Indian politics? Guha’s argument does indeed imply claims about what happened in European history, and, as we have seen, he is not at all shy about making these claims.

2.) Chatterjee’s claim that Guha is not talking about Indian capitalists, but rather Indian nationalist elites, is wrong on several levels. The argument is proffered as an attempt to rebut Chibber’s claims about the French Revolution, where he argues, in the tradition of political Marxism, that the French bourgeoisie who participated in the revolution was in no sense capitalist, and that therefore the French revolution cannot be taken as an example of the capitalist bourgeoisie succeeding in forging hegemony and speaking for the nation. Chatterjee argues in response that Guha is only describing nationalist elites, not capital. It is unclear what exactly he thinks is gained by making this point. On the surface, there is the obvious effect that this claim, if true, would buttress his general argument that Chibber has misunderstood Guha. However, it does little to rehabilitate Guha’s theoretical claim – namely that the French bourgeoisie succeeded in speaking for the nation, while the Indian bourgeoisie failed. Even assuming that we are talking about non-capitalist bourgeoisies in both cases, Chibber shows that the French revolution was wracked with class conflict, with the bourgeoisie fighting for a very limited set of reforms, while attempting at every turn to restrict and repress the development of more popular insurgencies.  As in India, there was no hegemony. Abstracting from the question of capital, the attempt at contrast still fails.

Moving into Guha’s text itself, we find that once again Chatterjee’s attempts to defend Guha run aground on the pages of the very work he purports to be defending. Guha offers an expansive picture of the bourgeoisie in India, encompassing nationalist elites, Indian capitalists, and British capitalists. Indeed, his references to capital’s universalizing tendency throughout the book make clear that his argument is very much about what capital failed to do. Restricting his arguments to cover only nationalist elites is a distortion of the text.

3.) Chatterjee claims that Guha does not hold a Whig view of history, but rather criticizes the one found in the texts of liberal historiography. Yet Chibber’s argument that Guha, by claiming that the European bourgeoisie fought for liberty and democracy, romanticizes the bourgeoisie, finds substantial support throughout Guha’s text. Guha names, among the “achievements” of the bourgeoisie, “democracy” and “liberty” (67). He describes “bourgeois law” as having made “inviolable…the individual’s right to the security of his or her own person” (26). And he describes it as a “paradox” that forms of pre-capitalist oppression were mobilized by “the world’s most advanced bourgeoisie.”

In these statements, the European bourgeoisie receives credit for a series of reforms it actually struggled tooth and nail against. As Chibber notes, by the time the English Reform Act of 1832 was passed, the English electorate was actually smaller than it had been in 1630 (65). Almost two centuries of bourgeois rule yielded precious little evidence that the European bourgeoisie had any interest in democracy. Similarly, the description of the inviolability of the individual body whitewashes the sordid history of the consolidation of bourgeois rule in England, ably recounted in Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged and Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History. Finally, the utilization of precapitalist institutions in the interest of capital accumulation is hardly a paradox. Karen Orren’s Belated Feudalism tells the story of precisely such a dynamic in the United States. In Europe, the consolidation of capitalism often took place in part through a similar process, as in England, where market dependency among peasants was achieved through the assertion of a host of lordly rights to the land. In short, Guha attributes to the bourgeoisie a number of properties – an interest in liberty and democracy, a proclivity to do away with precapitalist social forms, and an investment in the rule of law – which the historical record simply does not support. This is what it means to draw on a Whig view of history. It is view that exists in the texts Guha is criticizing, to be sure, but finds expression throughout his own text as well.

4.) Chatterjee’s last claim is in some ways the most puzzling. The motivation for the criticism is easy enough to understand; it is the familiar postcolonial critique that Marxism too often reduces the history of the colonial world to Europe’s pre-history. Yet, as we have seen, it is precisely Guha who makes this claim, bringing up the revolutions of 1648 and 1789 as points of comparison with the development of capitalism in India. I will only add to this that, in focusing so heavily on the period of Indian independence, Chatterjee obscures both Guha’s text and Chibber’s critique of it, neither of which have anything resembling an exclusive focus on the moment of independence, but consider the history of Indian capitalism as a whole.

Why go through this unfortunately lengthy exercise in correction? A few reasons. First, as I have noted, Chatterjee is already being celebrated for allegedly knocking out Chibber in the debate. It is hard to square such plaudits with the reality of his misrepresentations of Guha’s text.

More fundamentally, however, I think both Chatterjee’s claims in the debate, and the support they have found, are indicative of the state of the left academy. To put it bluntly, bullshit, in the Frankfurtian sense, rules the day. Chatterjee’s cavalier misrepresentation of the text he purports to be defending seems a classic token of the concept.

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‘fashion changes.  style remains’ – coco chanel

In the world of white liberalism, this season’s must have accessory is a Kony2012 bracelet.  Having wandered aimlessly for a bit since the heady days of Save Darfur, the fashionistas of philanthropy have at last discovered an accoutrement which highlights their morality, cosmopolitanism, and general beneficence of spirit.  Though the accessorizing hits different accents this time around (notably a focus on ‘the children,’ which was lacking in the Save Darfur campaign), the essential style remains the same, based on a certain color combination whose potential for customization has proven limitless: white people save brown victims from brown villains.

An interesting development in this season’s iteration of the theme, however, has been the rapidity with which it has met opposition.  Immediately after the line’s immaculately choreographed launch, critics from a variety of quarters pointed out its disconnect from its purported objects of concern, its imbrication with imperial designs on the continent, and the stains of racist discourse discoloring the whole endeavor.

The prominence of this critique has provided for an interesting look into how the liberal interventionist crowd reacts to criticism of their project.  The dominant response seems to be a sort of wounded aggrievement – a shock that one could criticize such a noble endeavor, combined with an aggressive attack on those making the criticism: ‘what do YOU think should be done?’

The stubborn attachment to the ideals of the campaign reveals a bit of the affective dimensions of liberal interventionism.  On one level, the reasons for the attachments formed by the campaign’s supporters are clear enough – they allow them to see themselves as the paragons of morality, they validate nationalist narratives about the world being a place full of problems that America solves, etc.  But as significant as these are, I don’t think they quite explain the ardor with which supporters proclaim ‘something must be DONE!’

To understand this, I think it’s necessary to consider the role this campaign plays  within broader liberal ideology.  For me, this ideology is best summarized by PZ Myers’ response to Terry Eagleton’s argument that liberals refuse to admit that ‘the traumatic truth of  human history is a tortured body’:

If we want a signifier for the human condition, imagine the culture we would live in now if, instead of a dead corpse on an instrument of torture, our signifier was a child staring in wonder at the stars.

As a response to Eagleton’s argument, it’s primarily a touching display of the most syrupy naiveté.  But it’s interesting for the way it reveals the liberal refusal to confront the basic truth of Eagleton’s argument: our world is one of massive exploitation, starvation, oppression, torture, and misery.  For radicals, these are the foundational facts that determine our orientation to the world.

The liberal faith in our world’s basic reformability, however, requires that all of this be denied, or at least suppressed.  This is, I think, the role campaigns such as Kony2012 play.  They are strategies of containment, a means of partially recognizing the truth of history while quarantining its radical implications.  No ideology, after all, is ever based on pure falsehood, but rather exists in a complex relationship of repression, misdirection, misemphasis, and exaggeration with people’s lived experience.  The Kony campaign, and liberal moral panics like it, allows a limited acknowledgment of the scale of human suffering that exists in the world.  At the same time, however, it immediately works to contain this acknowledgment.  Here, one is reminded of Domenico Losurdo’s argument that liberalism works by creating sacred and profane spaces – the former are where the rights espoused by liberal philosophy apply, the latter where their negation rules.  In the period of classical liberalism, this allowed philosophers like Locke to create a rights-based system in England, while denying the rights of the indentured servants, Africans, and Indians in the New World.  Today, the logic of the spatialization is slightly different, as it works to contain the reality of oppression to distinct spaces (Africa, usually), reinforcing the appearance of justice in the West and simultaneously positioning it as the agent of salvation of the profane spaces.

This dynamic, I think, explains the fervor with which liberal calls to ‘DO something’ are made.  The limited eruption of the reality of human history into liberal ideology provokes a fevered counter-reaction, in which the oppression glimpsed must be extinguished as quickly as possible.  Once this is accomplished, the world can return to its former happy state.  It’s not perfect, of course.  Crooked timber of humanity and all that.  But once dark blots like Kony are removed, it’s still a beautiful place.

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Note: What follows is my attempt to work through issues involving the current struggles in Israel, particularly in light of arguments presented at a meeting on that subject I attended last Friday.  Many of the claims below thus originate with contributions heard there, though I of course bear ultimate responsibility for their explication here.

The series of protests that have swept Israel in recent weeks have presented a difficult question for those of us committed to Palestinian liberation.  On face, they appear a clearly positive development.  They have decisively tripped up Benjamin Netanyahu’s bellicose swagger, reducing his approval rating by 20 points in a very short time and leading various Likud ministers to distance themselves from the PM.  The protests have also grown rapidly, with 150,000 Israelis participating this weekend, and throwing up some quite punchy slogans, such as ‘the market is free, but we are slaves.’  As such slogans suggest, the protesters consciously see their role as confronting neoliberalism in Israel, which over the last thirty years has produced a society which, while free of the massive unemployment confronting many European economies, is one of the most unequal among the developed nations, subject to a dangerous combination of low wages and rapid price growth. In light of all this, the housing protests have been associated by many commentators with the Arab Spring and resistance to austerity more generally.

However, there also seem to be clear differences between the protests in Israel and the Arab Spring.  For instance, the National Union of Israeli Students, which has been one of the most prominent organizations in the struggle, has an appalling record on the question of Palestine, gaining headlines last year with absurd talk of organizing a counter-flotilla to expose Turkey as a ‘rogue state’  and working with adorably earnest StandWithUs Zionist propaganda outlet.  With such forces playing a leading role, it is unsurprising that the protesters have done nothing whatsoever to connect their own struggles with those of the Palestinians, despite the clear links between skimpy social spending and the promotion of settlements.

Given their contradictory character, the proper response to these struggles is unclear.  Israelis opposed to the occupation have seized on the opportunity to make the connections between military spending and cuts to social services, but it is not at all obvious that they are finding any significant audience within the protests.  Despite these limitations, some leftist groups have been quick to hold up the protests as evidence of the potential for working class unity in the Levant.

My own political background is in a tradition, that of the International Socialist Tendency (specifically the ISO in the US), more skeptical about the possibilities for militancy on the part of the Israeli working class.  Drawing on Tony Cliff’s own experiences as a Trotskyist in Palestine under the Mandate, and the writings of the Matzpen group, the IST has argued that the Israeli working class is, because of its position in the Zionist colonial project, not a revolutionary class, and that Palestinian liberation can only come through the efforts of the Arab working classes.  This perspective is admirably summed up in the saying ‘the road to Jerusalem runs through Cairo.’

This was the perspective presented at the meeting Friday, where the speaker pointed out that the levels of class struggle we are currently seeing in Israel are not exceptional even in Israeli history.  In 1951, 1962, 1969, and 1971, Israel saw a series of wildcat strikes by key workforces such as seamen, dockers, and postal workers.  None of these periods saw any substantial challenge to Israeli colonialist endeavors, let alone Zionism itself.  Given the historic failure of the Israeli working class to challenge Zionism, even at its most militant, our expectations for a significant but clearly less potent struggle such as this should remain modest at best.

Undoubtedly the most interesting and challenging aspect of the meeting came in explaining the reason for this failure.  The traditional explanation in IS circles has been that put forward by Haim Hanegbi, Akiva Orr, and Moshe Machover in their 1969 article, ‘The Class Nature of Israeli Society.’  Machover et al offer three primary lines of explanation for Israel’s unique class politics.  First, they argue that the fact that Israel’s working class is primarily composed of immigrants has distorted class consciousness, leading Israeli workers to hold higher hopes of social mobility, and consequently less investment in strategies of class struggle than working classes in other nations.  As the authors note, this alone cannot explain the persistent conservatism of Israeli workers.  If it were only Israel’s immigration patterns that distorted working class consciousness, one could reasonably expect second and third generation Israelis to demonstrate more traditional patterns of class conflict.  This has not happened.

The second factor Machover et al describe is the uniqueness of Israel’s ruling class.  Unlike ruling classes in other capitalist countries, the Israeli ruling class has historically not been composed of capitalists and their retinue.  Rather, Israeli history has been characterized by the dominance of capital by the political institutions of Zionism, such as the Histadrut and the Jewish Agency.  In Mandatory Palestine, the Histadrut in particular played a key role in subordinating Jewish capital to the Zionist project, organizing strikes, boycotts, and physical attacks against Jewish employers who hired Arab labor.  After the nakba, these institutions retained their predominance in the new state, as the Histadrut emerged as a majr employer, and a significant amount of the economy was controlled by the government, which was dominated until the mid-70s by Labor Zionism.  Israeli society has thus been characterized not by the hegemony of the bourgeoisie, but by that of the Zionist bureaucracy.  In particular, the role of the Histadrut as the only legitimate representative of the Israeli working class goes a long way in this account towards explaining the commitment to Zionism evident in Israeli working class history.

The third factor figures most prominently in the IST’s account of Israeli class structure, and that is  Israel’s unique role in imperialism.  As the Zionist propaganda outfit FLAME put it, ‘Israel is indeed America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Middle East and the indispensable defender of America’s interests in that area of the world.’  The imperial powers support Israel because of its ability to punish misbehaving Arab regimes and guarantee continued imperial control over the most important strategic commodity in the world – oil. In return for this service, the imperial countries agree to subsidize Israeli society with foreign aid, guaranteed loans, and various incentives for private contributions to the Zionist project. The result of all this is, as Machover et al put it:

The Jewish worker in Israel does not get his share in cash, but he gets it in terms of new and relatively inexpensive housing, which could not have been constructed by raising capital locally; he gets it in industrial employment which could not have been started or kept going without external subsidies; and he gets it in terms of a general standard of living which does not correspond to the output of that society. The same obviously applies to the profits of the Israeli bourgeoisie whose economic activity and profit-making is regulated by the bureaucracy through subsidies, import licences and tax exemptions. In this way the struggle between the Israeli working class and its employers, both bureaucrats and capitalists, is fought not only over the surplus value produced by the worker, but also over the share each group receives from this external source of subsidies.

Up until Friday evening, I thought this was a very persuasive account of Israeli working class conservatism.  However, the speaker in the meeting pointed out that the inspiration for these protests, neoliberalism in Israel, complicates this analysis.  The living standards of working class Israelis have been falling for almost thirty years, with no appreciable increase in political challenges to Zionism.  This itself seems a prima facie falsification of the thesis that subsidies from imperialism work to buy off the Israeli working class.  Upon further consideration, there are additional problems with the thesis.  For one thing, it is highly reminiscent of the labor aristocracy thesis put forward by Third Worldist groups that argue the American working class is bought off by the super-profits of imperialism (this thesis has been subjected to devastating critique recently by Charles Post).  This resemblance is particularly ironic given that Tony Cliff was one of the first to reject the theory of labor aristocracy as an explanation for the prevalence of reformist ideas.  Finally, the  growth of the Israeli economy in recent decades has been such that the aid it receives from imperial nations is simply too small a part of its national economy to be a significant explanation of working class consciousness.

Where does all this leave us?  First, I think it’s worth recognizing that Israeli working class conservatism itself is a fact.  In the United States, for example, income is a fairly good predictor of support for imperial endeavors, and has been for at least fifty years.  The American working class has the most to lose from American wars, and their class consciousness is reflective of this.  In Israel, support for aggression against the Palestinians and neighboring countries has enjoyed almost unanimous levels of support, with the 1982 invasion of Lebanon consisting of the only significant exception.  This is indicative of a real difference between the Israeli and American working classes.  (Unfortunately, many Trotskyist groups are unwilling to recognize this difference, with the Spartacists arguing that ‘If successful, [BDS] would hit the Israeli proletariat the hardest, causing mass layoffs and weakening its social power that could and must be mobilised to defend its Palestinian brothers, and the peoples of Lebanon, and to smash the Zionist state from within through socialist revolution’ and the US SWP even going so far as to accuse BDS activists of anti-semitism.)

The question, then, is how to explain this difference, if imperial subsidies are clearly not plausible.  At the meeting, it was argued that the commitment of the Israeli working class to Zionism has so thoroughly shaped class consciousness that Israeli workers cannot conceive of themselves as anything but a Jewish working class in a Zionist state.  Ultimately, I don’t buy this argument.  It’s a bit too close to the positions advanced by whiteness theorists, who hold that white working class consciousness is so tied up with whiteness that it will never mount a serious challenge to capital.  This seems to grant the ideological-political aspect of class formation undue causal power in explaining very broad patterns of class conflict.  For me, at least, a sixty year history of Israeli working class conservatism calls for an explanation more deeply located in the class relations of Israel.

Such an explanation is, I think, visible in outline at least in the article by Machover et al.  First, while the argument about imperial subsidies clearly cannot explain Israeli history since the 1980s, it fairs somewhat better for the earlier period.  During this time, capital inflows from imperial nations really did make up a significant portion of the Israeli economy.  from 1949-1965, Israel had a savings rate that averaged around zero percent, yet the rate of investment was nearly twenty percent of  GNP.  This meant Israel was both able to spend substantial amounts on both capital formation and consumption during this period.  As Machover et al explain, ‘the growth of the Israeli economy was based entirely on the inflow of capital from outside.’  In this period, then, it seems quite plausible that capital from the imperial nations subsidized the Israeli economy to a degree that does have explanatory power.

This explanation becomes even more compelling when combined with their argument about the uniqueness of Israel’s ruling class.  Because of the volume of imperial investment, the Israeli ruling class was able to hold as its main class project the colonization of Palestine, rather than the extraction of surplus value from Israeli workers (though of course this remained an important concern).  This assortment of labor bureaucrats, settlement agency directors, and Histadrut officials pursued a class strategy which did not bring them into as direct a confrontation with Israeli workers as other ruling classes.  Though I lack the data to substantiate such a claim, it seems plausible that the Zionist bureaucracy’s hegemony over Israeli capitalists was premised on their ability to guarantee a certain level of labor peace by subsidizing the costs of the reproduction of labor power.  Imperial subsidies thus made the victory of the Zionist bureaucracy possible, retarding the development of class struggle in Israel, and ensuring the hegemony of Zionist consciousness in the place of class consciousness.

If this combination explains Israeli working class conservatism before neoliberalism, what explains its continued hold?  Here immigration seems to play an important role.  Over the last twenty years, nearly a million Russian Jews have immigrant to Israel (Israel today has a population of seven million).  Fleeing first Stalinist stagnation and then the savagery of Russian neoliberalism, these immigrants have found in Israel significantly higher standards of living than they had previously.  Immigration as an explanation of conservatism is further supported by the fact that Russian Jews are one of the most conservative sectors of Israeli society, forming the prime support base for Avigdor Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu.

It’s not exactly clear how unique character of Israel’s ruling class continues to play out.  Much of Israel’s economy has been privatized, and the Histadrut no longer plays anything like the role it once did in organizing either capital or labor (unionization rates have been sliced in half since the 1960s, and most of the industries it used to own have been sold to private owners).  Capitalists play a much larger role in Israeli society today than in the 1960s, and the housing struggles are partially a reflection of this fact.  To be clear, these capitalists are no less committed to the Zionist project than their predecessors, but they are also subject to market discipline in a way the bureaucracy never was.  This market discipline has led them to undertake their attacks on the Israeli working class.

Admittedly, this leaves my account in a lame position, as I am forced to rely on some kind of ideological intertia or hangover to explain the persistence of Israeli working class conservatism since the 1980s in the face of increasing capitalist attacks, precisely the kind of explanation I dismissed as insufficiently materialist earlier.  Two replies.  First, I think immigration is a significant factor, and is actually invaluable for explaining the rise of the far right in contemporary Israeli politics.  Second, it’s important to emphasize that the combination of Zionist bureaucratic hegemony and imperial subsidies is a good explanation for the pre-neoliberal period, and that this significantly reduces the period of conservatism to be explained by ideological factors.  I find it a good deal more plausible to explain thirty years of conservatism as a result of previous class formation than to explain sixty years on the basis of politics alone.

In conclusion, I’m not sure my argument here is necessarily incompatible with the perspective laid out at the meeting.  The struggles over housing will almost certainly not develop into a generalized challenge to the regime, because their participants remain committed to the Zionist project.  Though it’s possible that the struggles will create splits in the ruling class Palestinians can put to good use, neither they nor their supporters should expect much from the tent cities.

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It’s no secret that Israel has a PR problem.  Even the most fervent Zionists at this point admit as much, and the increasingly frenzied efforts of the Israeli state only confirm the feeling.  The Kushner Affair seems to be only the latest in a string of propaganda catastrophes for Zion.  Yet I also think it represents a turning point of sorts.  While previous incidents like the Mavi Marmara or the Operation Cast Lead helped solidify the growing opposition to Zionist barbarism, Kushner’s blackballing led nearly the whole of the liberal class in the United States to unequivocally condemn the censoring of a critic of Israel.  In what follows, I will attempt to lay out what I think the Kushner Affair represents for Israel and liberal opinion, by contextualizing it in a broader history of liberalism.

In Domenico Losurdo’s book Liberalism: A Counter-History, he argues that liberalism has always been far more compatible with domination than its own self-image would lead one to believe.  Through an examination of the writings of Locke, Tocqueville, Mill, and other leading lights of the tradition, Losurdo shows that liberalism historically has functioned by establishing a ‘community of the free,’ to whom the vaunted promises of rights and privileges correspond, while those outside that restricted community were entitled to no such enjoyments.  Locke, for example, did not believe that Africans or Native Americans deserved any of the rights he so carefully formulated for fellow Europeans.  Tocqueville thought it perfectly appropriate to crush the workers’ rising in Paris in 1848 through the suspension of constitutional order,  that the privileges of the liberal upper class might be preserved.  In other words, for Losurdo, the traditional Marxist critique of liberalism – that it promotes formal equality in the face of substantive inequality – gives liberalism too much credit.  Many of its leading thinkers were unwilling even to extend formal freedoms to those beyond the boundaries of the community of the free.

While this account has some problems (it seems difficult to differentiate liberalism and conservatism on this reading.  Symptomatically, Losurdo includes Burke firmly in the liberal tradition), it is also tremendously suggestive.  Losurdo demonstrates how liberalism’s naturalization of its social vision – the privileges of a restricted community – inevitably produces the pathologization so characteristic of liberal polemic.  The right to dispossess the natives is obvious, and you’d have to be a madman or mohammedan not to recognize as much.

Though much of the book concentrates on the changing definitions of the community of the free, Losurdo is equally interested in the conflicts internal to liberalism and their consequences for the tradition’s future.  The American Revolution is his first case study.  Here, he shows how restrictions on those accustomed to considering themselves part of the liberal community – the colonists – led to fissures with England, which since the Glorious Revolution had been the standard bearer of liberalism.  The course of the conflict itself involved debate over how this community should be defined.  Samuel Johnson’s pithy reprimand to the colonists (“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”) is representative of the ways that British liberals sought to both brand the rebels as hypocrites and reinforce their own liberal self-presentation.  At the same time, the colonists responded by pointing to the English involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, a practice the rebels held to be far more odious than merely owning a slave.  In this way, both sides of the conflict attempted to brand their opponents as the illiberal force threatening to crush precious liberty.

This same pattern reoccurs in the American Civil War.  Here, the slaveowners, who conceived of themselves as the most democratic and liberal ruling class in history, argued that the various Northern initiatives to limit the expansion of slavery constituted unacceptable aggressions against liberty.  The rhetoric of the planter class, which represented abolitionists as deranged fanatics, fits the pattern as well.  However, the Southern counter-offensive, whether in the form of the Gag Rule or Dred Scott or the Fugitive Slave Act, worked to antagonize the North all the more.  Each of these Southern responses could be, and were, read as infringements on the Northern community of the free.  As John Ashworth has written:

In the mid-1830s southerners were able to count upon some northerners to aid them in their war against the abolitionists.  Again, however, the consequence was to strengthen the forces of antislavery.  The pressure on northern legislatures to act against abolitionists alarmed many northerners who were themselves quite unconcerned about the plight of the slave but very concerned to maintain freedom of speech.  The anti-abolitionist riots of these years, conducted by men who were taking their cue from the leaders of southern opinion, also created deep disquiet and tended to confirm the abolitionist claim that slavery disorganized the entire nation.  Charles Sumner in 1836 wrote that ‘we are becoming abolitionists in the North fast: riots, the attempts to abridge freedom of discussion, and the conduct of the South generally, have caused many to think favorably of immediate emancipation who have never before been inclined to it.’ Ashworth, Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic, Vol I 143.

While Sumner exaggerated in describing the results of Southern maneuvers as increased abolitionism, it is certainly the case that the South’s efforts increased Northern antipathy.  Both North and South conceived of themselves as liberal societies, but the planter class’s strategy for maintaining control only put more ammunition in the hands of those who sought to portray them as enemies of liberty.

In a nutshell, I think something similar is happening today with Israel.  Like the Southern planter class, Israel defines itself, crucially, as part of the community of the free.  This is an endlessly repeated theme in the hasbara – Israel is the only democracy in the region, Israel has women’s rights, Israel has gay rights, etc.  Though Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians has led many to argue that this self-image is a farce, Losurdo’s account demonstrates that, at the least, it is not an anomalous combination in the history of liberal states.  At the same time, however, it is undeniable that Israel has, in seeking to preserve its status as the liberal utopia among the barbarians, adopted a whole slew of blatantly anti-liberal policies – a new set of gag rules.

In the US, this comes in the form of the attack on Kushner.  Though censorship of criticisms of Israel is nothing new in the US (see Edward Said’s brilliant essay ‘Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims’ for some perspective on how total this censorship once was), CUNY’s treatment of Kushner provoked an unprecedented outcry.  The New York Times, no friend to Palestine, was on the case immediately, issuing an editorial denouncing CUNY and publishing an interview (with the wonderfully understated title ‘A CUNY Trustee Expands His View of What is Offensive) with the the lead Zionist bully that was clearly written to make him appear every bit as disgusting as he actually is.  Other important liberal venues have jumped on the bandwagon as well.

As in the case of the conflict between North and South, the sympathy for Kushner in these publications has not, by and large, been based on sympathy for the Palestinians.  Rather, it stems from outrage over  the treatment of one of the finest representatives of liberal America.  Kushner himself is no radical on Palestine, and he has repeatedly affirmed his support for Israel’s continued existence and his opposition to BDS.  Indeed, his very timidity on the question has made CUNY’s offense all the worse in the eyes  of the liberal class.  If Israel’s defense is now coming at the expense of people like Kushner, it signals the potential for major conflict on the question within the liberal community.

This doesn’t mean that Israel is finished, or anything nearly so final.  Rather, I think it is an important moment in the struggle against Zionism, and one whose structure is familiar in the long duree of liberalism.  It signifies the moment when the actions of those outside the community of the free – abolitionists and slaves in the nineteenth century, Palestinians and solidarity activists today – succeed in pushing their demands to the point where they begin to create a crisis for the rulers.  Then and now, the outcome of that crisis is uncertain, but its arrival is unquestionably to be welcomed.

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Or, further adventures with monkey metaphors.

The Hun as Black Beast

Simian suggestion in the war on terror.

Appropriation or Appreciation?

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‘Everybody knows, no matter what the professions of my unhappy country may be, that we are not bombing people out of existence in the name of freedom. If it was freedom we were concerned about, then long, long ago we would have done something about Johannesburg, South Africa. If we were concerned with freedom, boys and girls would not, as I stand here, be perishing in the streets of Harlem. We are concerned with power, nothing more than that. And most unluckily for the Western world, it has consolidated its power on the backs of people who are now willing to die rather than be used any longer. In short, the economic arrangement of the Western world proved to be too extensive for most of the world, and the Western world will change its arrangements, or its arrangements will be changed for them.’

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Simian vituperation as multi-theatre asset.

‘What, then, does the “coloured” world include? Not only Africa, the Indians – as well as the Negroes and half-breeds – of the whole of America, the Islamic nations, China, and India extending to Java, but, above all, Japan and Russia, which has again become an Asiatic, “Mongolian” State. When the Japanese beat Russia, a ray of hope shot up all over Asia: a young Asiatic State had, by Western methods, forced the greatest power of the West to its knees and thereby destroyed the aureole of invincibility which surrounded Europe. It was as a beacon, in India, in Turkey, even in Cape Colony and the Sahara. So it was possible to pay back the white peoples for all the pains and humiliations of a century! Since then the profound cunning of the Asiatics has been thinking out methods inaccessible to European thought and superior to it. And now Russia, after suffering in 1916 its second great defeat, from the West, has removed its “white” mask, to the mocking satisfaction of its ally England, has again become Asiatic with all its soul, and is filled with a burning hatred of Europe. It took with it the experiences of Europe’s internal weakness and used its knowledge to invent new and crafty methods of fighting, which it has instilled into the whole of the earth’s coloured population, with the idea of a common resistance.’

Oswald Spengler, The Hour of Decision, 1933.

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