Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Israel's Degenerate War in Gaza

I have referred to the Gaza 'war' in my title but we might question whether it really deserves this label. Hamas have managed to kill only 6 Israeli soldiers, only 2 more than the Israelis themselves with 'friendly fire'. Their rockets have killed 3 more Israeli civilians: this side of their activity is militarily completely pointness, although naturally it brings real fear to civilians in those parts of Israel within range, and so provides the Israeli government with its casus belli. The real story therefore is an almost one-sided assault on Gaza with a death toll of almost 1000 at the time of writing, several thousand wounded, huge damage to the civilian infrastructure and society and a state of terror in which a million and a half civilians, including hundreds of thousands of children, are trapped without even the possibility of flight. To conclude the commentary on Hamas: these consequences of their pathetic rocket fire demonstrate their huge irresponsibility and underlying indifference to the fate of their people.
But the real questions concern Israel's campaign. Clearly Israel had to do something about the rockets, but as Avi Shlaim argues it did not have to do this. For a start it shouldn't have broken the ceasefire by attacking Hamas militants, which precipitated new rocket attacks. And before that it should have recognised the Hamas administration in Gaza when it was elected, and talked to it as well as to the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. The idea that you can't talk to Hamas because they are 'terrorists' is as absurd as the idea that you can't talk to Israel because it practices (much greater) violence against Palestinian civilians. Of course talking would have meant that Israel would have had, sooner or later, to address justified Palestinian claims for concessions on the underlying injustices of the the Palestine situation - but there is no other way to peace.
What Israel has done instead is to assault Gaza, one of the most densely populated places on earth, from the air and sea and on the ground. Israel claims to be pursuing Hamas, to have killed hundreds of its militants and to be doing its utmost to avoid civilian harm. However we know (despite Israel's restrictions on international media access) that there have been enormous civilian casualties. Several high-profile incidents suggest that in reality care for civilians has been minimal, and both the Red Cross and United Nations agencies have called for investigations with a view to charges of war crimes. Even if Israel has attempted to discriminate in its massive violence, the simple fact that Hamas militants live within dense urban populations means that it is not possible to attack Hamas without also causing massive civilian harm.
Jonathan Freedland argues that 'Britons and Americans have no cause for self-righteousness. The scale of the Israeli offensive is shocking, and yet the killing is not of a greater order than that of the two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which our very own British troops are taking part. I spoke yesterday with one foreign diplomat based in Jerusalem who recalled how, during an earlier posting in Afghanistan, he had seen the remains of an entire village razed to the ground by American fighter jets in pursuit of a couple of Taliban commanders. "All that was left was rubble and body parts," he says now. Seen in the context of the last seven years, the grim truth is that Israelis are not guilty of a unique crime in Gaza.'
There is much to what Freedland says. But Israel's violence goes beyond the hypocritical risk-transfers of the 'new western way of war' practiced by the USA and UK. Whereas the West certainly attacks its armed enemies in such a way as to cause 'accidental' civilian harm, exposing civilians to greater risk than soldiers, Israel now has a substantial record of targeting civilian populations as such, both by economic and military means. In 2006, it was clear that the huge damage Israel caused to Lebanon's infrastructure, and the massive population movements caused, were intended to pressurise the population into marginalising if not punishing Hizbollah. Likewise in Gaza: Israel imposed a harsh blockade as punishment for Gaza's election of Hamas, restricting the entry and exit of Gaza residents as well as of food, medical supplies and other goods essential for economic and social life of the territory. As Richard Falk, the UN Rapporteur for the Palestinian territories, says, 'There is a consensus among independent legal experts that Israel is an occupying power and is therefore bound by the duties set out in the fourth Geneva convention. The arguments that Israel's blockade is a form of prohibited collective punishment, and that it is in breach of its duty to ensure the population has sufficient food and healthcare as the occupying power, are very strong.'
What seems incontestable is that the war is a continuation of this policy of collective punishment. Israel says it wants to destroy Hamas's capacity to deliver its rockets: while certainly it is attempting to weaken Hamas militarily, Israel knows that it is impossible to prevent it ever launching rockets, by this type of action. No: Israel's extensive harm to civilians is not just the accidental fall-out from its attack on Hamas. It has been so integral to its campaign that it is impossible not to see it in the same light as the blockade: Israel has decided that since economic punishment did not stop many Gazans from supporting Hamas, military punishment is necessary to complete the job. The rows of dead children, the terrorised populations, the overflowing hospitals, all are part of Israel's strategy to subdue the Palestinians of Gaza and compel them to withdraw their consent from Hamas.
Moreover within this campaign, there seems to be an ominous element of targeted mass killing of anyone associated with Hamas as a political organisation. Israel's violence has been directed not just at armed militants but all who are linked to the local state apparatus that Hamas controls - hence the massacre of policemen. This almost seems to be moving in the direction of a kind of 'politicide', or genocide of a political group, within the larger violence against the whole civilian population, summed up in Binyamin Netanyahu's idea of 'removing' Hamas from Gaza altogether.
Taken as a whole, this kind of war is even worse than what the West is doing in Afghanistan. It is of a kind, rather, with the degenerate war practiced by the UK and USA in the Second World War, bombing to bits the cities of Germany and Japan to shatter the morale of the civilian population and destroy the political basis of the regime. However the lessons of those campaigns were that this kind of violence - utterly immoral and outside the laws of war - only works in its most extreme forms, without limit and with a view to unconditional surrender. Before that, in more limited bombing, it mainly reinforces resistance. But Israel, although given far too much leeway by the discredited Bush regime, is subject to global surveillance in a way that the Allies were not. Israel cannot turn Gaza into Hiroshima or Dresden. This bloody campaign will only have the most limited, short-term successes, perhaps not even enough for Kadima and Labour to save their electoral skins, and certainly not enough to give Israel security. Security cannot come by military means.

For an expanded version of this post, see 'Israel's Politics of War' on

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Yet more on Israel and anti-Semitism

As our debate about 'anti-Semitism' in the opposition to Israel winds down, Norman Geras thinks he has found another weakness in my argument, in my agreement with 'the sociological truth that racism is not only a matter of overt expressions of hostility, but can also inhere in symbols, discourses and practices of discrimination. Still, in the same paragraph Martin insists on being presented with evidence of attitudinal anti-Semitism among the boycotters. He thereby undoes his apparent acceptance of the point.' No - because we still need evidence and analysis of the 'symbols, discourses and practices of discrimination', just as we do of attitudinal racism - and Norman's argument relies hugely on assumption and assertion and hardly at all on evidence or analysis.

This is clear when Norman returns to another of his arguments that I hadn't addressed: 'I gave [he says] the hypothetical example of a university that closed certain positions to women, and argued that this would constitute sexist discrimination whatever the attitudes of those supporting it. Martin offered no answer to that. Yet he remains confident that a boycott policy targeted solely on academics of the Jewish state, and who are therefore mostly Jews, has nothing of anti-Semitism about it.' My answer is this: while any campaign against the racially exclusive character of the Israeli state will necessarily be experienced as hostile by many Jews who support this state, it need not target Jews as a whole, even within Israel, and indeed many Jews are among those who support such campaigns. This is clearly different from a blanket ban on women.

Norman makes much of my confession to not knowing precisely why the boycotters should pick out Israeli academics for unfavourable treatment. A correspondent has drawn my attention to Stan Cohen's chapter, 'The Virtual Reality of Israeli Universities', in the collection A Time to Speak Out, just published by Verso. Stan makes the point that Israeli universities 'have been intimately connected with the project of nation-building', and are effectively nationalist institutions - and that the idea of a 'nationalist university' is an oxymoron. He analyses the 'culture of denial' in Israeli universities concerning the crimes of the Occupation. His account suggests that there are good reasons for criticising most Israeli universities and academics. While these are not reasons to boycott all Israeli academics (a policy that Stan, like me, does not defend) they do help me point, again, to the glaring logical flaw in Norm's own position. Just because there are no good reasons for such an all-embracing boycott does not mean that the not-so-good reasons have to do with anti-semitism. They are more obviously to do with the policies of the Israeli state - and the complicity of too many Israeli universities and academics in these policies.

A couple of final responses. First, I am concerned, and somewhat surprised (since I don't have similar reports from other Jewish friends), to hear that Norm has personally experienced several instances of anti-Semitism in recent years, but I still doubt that the academic and left milieux in which we have both worked for four decades are saturated with anti-Semitism to the extent that this significantly explains the boycott campaign, let alone the wider concern about Israel and the Occupation.

Secondly, to end on what may be a controversial note. What do I make, Norm asks, 'of the fact that on the UCU activists' list Israeli actions in Gaza are compared to those of the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto?' I do indeed indeed find this an extreme comparison, and it is not one I would have made, since Jews in the ghetto were subjected to a confinement far more complete, brutal and life-threatening than that of Palestinians in Gaza, and of course it turned out to be a precursor to mass murder, which the Palestinians are not facing. However the use of an exaggerated comparison, a common ploy in political campaigning, is not necessarily anti-semitic. Nor do I find the comparison objectionable in principle. Gazan Palestinians in 2008, like Polish Jews in 1939-40, are confined in a small territory and subjected to systematic depradations of their conditions of life. The difference is one of degree, certainly a large one, and probable final outcome, rather than of kind. I find it shocking that 70 years after the confinement of Polish Jews in the ghettos, a self-proclaimed Jewish state should be content to confine another people in the manner that the Gazans are confined, and that some Jewish socialists should use indiscriminate accusations of 'anti-Semitism' to discredit the outcry against this and other policies of the Israeli state.

This correspondence is now closed.

Friday, 26 September 2008

A final (?) reply to Norman Geras

Norman Geras responds to my last post to the effect that I haven't responded to several of his points. Here they are (as he now summarises them) with my responses:

(a) A central point, indeed the main burden, of my post was that there are symbols, discourses and, above all, practices of prejudicial discrimination, and though these are often accompanied by prejudicial attitudes and motives they are not identical with, or reducible to, them. This is a well-known theme in the sociology of racial, ethnic and gender prejudice, a fact to which I also alluded. Martin says nothing in reply.

Of course there are such symbols, discourses and practices. But neither Norman nor David Hirsh has provided evidence of any that actually play a significant part in the Western opposition to Israel. Indeed Norman appeared in his previous post to endorse my statement: 'I do not think that on any serious assessment, anti-Semitism can be regarded as ... a major theme among Western critics of Israel.' Absent evidence, what are we arguing about?

(b) I drew attention to the consideration that reasons which might (though they also might not) look credible as reasons for general campaigning over Israel's policies towards the Palestinians look distinctly dubious as reasons, specifically, for singling out for disadvantageous treatment Israeli academics - Israeli academics alone - among the academics of this wide and heavily-populated world. Martin passes this argument by without comment.

Put another way, this seems to be a question about why other current solidarity campaigns (e.g. over Tibet, Burma or Zimbabwe) do not target academics as a way of getting at oppressive regimes, whereas the anti-Israel boycott, like the anti-apartheid boycott before it, has done so. I don't really know the answer to this - although perhaps because Israeli academics are (unlike academics from many other oppressive states) significant players in global English-speaking academia, they seem plausible targets to some anti-Israeli campaigners, where academics from China, Burma or Zimbabwe aren't? But I can't exactly see how anti-Semitism explains the discrepancy - unless, absent evidence, anti-Semitism explains all discrepancies?

(c) I asked how a 'sociology of activism' could justify an academic trade union - not merely, be it noted, this or that individual or a voluntary assemblage of like-minded activists - treating the academics of a single country differently from the academics of every other country (despite, I will add here, records of oppression and mass murder elsewhere than in Israel sufficient to keep the human rights NGOs very busy indeed). Martin doesn't trouble himself about this one either.

Clearly the sociology of activism does not justify this - but it might explain it, as I suggested in my response to David Hirsh.

(d) I gave reasons for thinking that, even if attitudinal anti-Semitism isn't of preponderant weight in motivating the boycotters, it plays some role among them. And I said that, given that it does, we should call it by its proper name and oppose it. This Martin also doesn't answer - except by dodging it. What he does is to transmute the strains of attitudinal anti-Semitism that I suggested there are into a mere possibility, a 'hypothetical' anti-Semitism. Where, before, I said that Martin makes light of such anti-Semitism as he allowed there was 'among Israel's critics' and more widely than that, now he makes even lighter of it. It's a possibility and no more than that.

I am more than happy to recognise and condemn attitudinal anti-Semitism wherever it plays a role - but unless I missed something, while Norman suggests reasons why there could be anti-Semitism, neither Norman nor David has presented any evidence that it actually plays a serious role in current Western opposition (as distinct from some Arab opposition) to Israel. Indeed the absence of such evidence seemed to be the reason for David's original argument that the boycott campaign represents 'institutional' anti-Semitism.

(e) ... I joined a debate about whether or not the academic boycott of Israel is anti-Semitic, and the arguments I made are pertinent to that question. Had the debate been about Israel and Palestine in general my arguments would have been differently shaped and focused. ...

Norman still misses the fact that for me the debate was always broader than the academic boycott of Israel, as I made clear in my original arguments with David.

(f) For the second time, Martin has invoked the academic boycott of South Africa as if it might provide a good analogy. But it doesn't and, by its very nature, it couldn't. ... First of all, South African universities were not staffed only by Afrikaners, but by English-speaking South Africans as well - I don't know exactly in what proportions but both groups had a substantial presence there. Consequently, the prejudicial discrimination involved in that boycott was against South Africans and not against Afrikaners. It is, in any case, not credible to suggest that that boycott could have been racist or have contained a racist component. Martin might choose to discount the fact that there is no history to speak of in the West of anti-white racism that could have been at work in the boycott of South African universities, whereas there is a very long history of anti-Semitism. But others of us are less inclined to feel complacent about the latter. It is one of the many unhappy consequences of the Israel-Palestine conflict that there is today a sector of left and liberal opinion become both blasé and cynical about that history, and which is ready to treat others who are less lightminded about it as if we looked upon the long persecution of the Jewish people and its most calamitous outcome as a mere convenience of political argument.

I'm sorry, Norman, but this will not do. I am not at all light-minded about the history of the persecution of the Jews, let alone the Holocaust (I've long recommended your own book concerning the latter to students), but I don't think you've presented a good reason for dismissing the analogy with South Africa. First, there are good reasons for comparing the Israeli and South African situations in general. Israel is and South Africa was a settler state in which the pre-existing populations were dispossessed and then confined. True there are important differences - Zionists were not motivated by doctrinal racism towards Arabs, but nevertheless perpetrated, in 1948, a more radical destruction of Arab society than anything the South African Nationalist regime achieved against the blacks. Second, this is the major past example we have of an academic boycott. That boycott was indeed of South African academics as a whole, but few of them were from the oppressed black majority (just as few Israeli academics today are from the large Palestinian minority); and most came from the white population that benefitted from apartheid (just as most Israeli academics come from the Jewish population that benefit from the Israeli state). And contra Norman, 'reverse' black racism against whites was not unknown in the period of the anti-South African boycott, not least in the USA, but would anyone have thought of assuming that even blacks who supported that boycott must be motivated by such racism? I agree that anti-Semitism has a longer pedigree and may be more deeply ingrained, although pretty certainly it is declining in importance compared to other prejudices such as anti-black racism and Islamophobia in the populations of Western societies. But does is there any good evidence for supposing that in Western academia or the Western left today, the milieux that generated the boycott, anti-Semitism is a significant current, strong enough to have a major influence on the boycott or any other anti-Israeli campaign?

Norman, like me you've lived in these milieux for four decades or more - admittedly I've experienced them as a non-Jew, while you've lived in them as a Jew - but do you have any real evidence? I for one am not prepared to spend any more time debating suppositions, conjectures and hypotheses.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

The new anti-anti-semitism

In recent months I have become publicly engaged for the first time with the issues surrounding Israel and Palestine - although obviously I have long held private views about this conflict. On the first page of my book What is Genocide? (Polity 2007) I wrote, among several examples of how past genocides figure in current politics, that 'The spectre of the archetypal genocide, the Nazi Holocaust, stalks twenty-first-century relations between Israelis and Palestinians.' By this I meant no more than that the Holocaust influences thinking about the conflict on both sides, so that, for example, some Israelis see the Holocaust in every attack on Jews in Israel, and some Palestinians go so far in their opposition to Israel as to deny the Holocaust. Later in the book, however, I used the Zionist drive to expel Arabs from Mandate Palestine, in the run-up to 1948, as one example of how forced migration involves genocidal thinking.
In the light of this later analysis, my opening statement was picked up by an Australian academic, Mark Baker, writing in Australian Jewish News, as an indication that I believed that Israel might be planning to do to the Palestinians something like what the Nazis did to the Jews - although my words bear no such interpretation. This in turn led Baker to imply, through a thoroughly distasteful anecdote about a scientist in the Nazi era, that I am not only incorrigibly anti-Israeli but also anti-semitic. I requested and eventually received an apology which was published in Australian Jewish News' print edition (although it is not to be found on their website, from which the offending article has also been removed).
Following this I read an article by David Hirsh in Democratiya, an online centre-left journal on whose advisory board I serve, implying that the academic boycott of Israel, proposed at one point by the British Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), was not only wrong but inherently, 'institutionally', anti-semitic. I fired off a short letter challenging this idea, which provoked a long reply from Hirsh, who it turns out runs an organisation called Engage devoted to this issue. I responded also at length; he replied again; and I was given the last word - so a brief comment turned into an extended debate.
Now Norman Geras, another supporter of Engage, has joined the fray. His is also a lengthy piece, but unlike Hirsh, Norman (whom I know a little from our days in different fragments of the far left many years ago) does refer carefully to my argument. He also makes some reasonable points - yes, I agree that the boycott (which I never supported) discriminates against Israeli academics, but this is hardly the clincher that he seems to think it is, since no, that still does not mean the boycott campaign is anti-semitic.
Norman's version of the latter argument is that 'The academic boycott ... targets Jews, though not all Jews, and for no good reason that anyone ... has yet come up with. That seems to me to provide prima facie grounds for describing it as anti-Semitic.' This is truly bizarre, since the boycott targeted Israeli Jews, on the manifest grounds of their being Israeli rather than their being Jewish, and while it is not justified to discriminate against all Israelis, or all Israeli academics, simply because they are Israeli, it was quite clear in this case that it was because of their Israeli citizenship and presumed linkage to the policies of the Israeli state, and not because of their Jewishness, that these academics were targeted. It is exactly the same principle, misguided though it is, that guided the boycott of academics from apartheid South Africa in the previous generation, and in neither case has the campaign been inspired by racism. While it is not justified to discriminate against academics because of the policies of the Israeli state, there is simply no good reason to doubt that the stated rationale of the boycott, opposition to these policies, rather than hostility to Jews as such, is in fact the reason for this campaign. Why not answer it on these terms rather than resorting to the argument of implicit, 'institutional', anti-semitism?
Nevertheless Norman cannot let go of the idea that there is an inherent link between anti-Israelism and anti-semitism, and therefore he asks 'how does Martin exclude the possibility that ... there might be at least threads of anti-Semitism staining the boycott campaign?' And he wonders 'how Martin can be so sure that no attitudinal anti-Semitism, that is, no anti-Semitism on his own very restricted definition of it, is at work in the academic boycott campaign'. So I am being called to account for not being more concerned about the possibility of anti-semitism, that is to say, a hypothetical danger. While I accept that one should be concerned about this possibility, it does not seem to me to weigh very heavily against all the actual, clearly existing dangers to Palestinians from Israel's repressive policies, or indeed to Israelis from the attacks of Palestinian armed groups. As Norman goes on to write, 'If I want I can spend all my free time campaigning against Israeli policies I regard as mistaken and unjust, like the occupation of the West Bank and (once) Gaza, or the Jewish settlements on that occupied territory.' These policies include, one might add, the confinement of Palestinian academics which is far more harmful than anything that has been done to any Israeli academic. So that would seem very much more appropriate than spending one's time worrying about the hypothetical anti-semitism of what is now, in any case, a failed boycott campaign, which has hardly harmed a single Israeli scholar.
The other big problem with Norman's discussion is that he refuses to accept my broadening the argument from the boycott to opposition to Israel in general. This was for the good reason that the 'anti-semitism' charge is not merely an argument of those who oppose the UCU boycott. It is widely made or insinuated by supporters of Israel against its critics in all sorts of specific arguments, as I experienced myself with Australian Jewish News, and as John Meiersheimer and Stephen Walt have extensively documented in The Israel Lobby. Since Norman has 'no quarrel' with my 'overall judgement' that 'on any serious assessment, antisemitism [cannot] be regarded as politically potent in Western societies today – by historical standards it is definitely weak - or a major theme among Western critics of Israel', it seems to me that he really ought to question why he gives his support to David Hirsh's dogged campaign to tar the boycott movement with anti-semitism. This charge, in this and many other cases, is little more than an underhand way of attempting to discredit opposition to Israel. In the end it raises more questions about the commitments of the anti-anti-semites than it does of the anti-Israelis.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Lessons for the West from the Georgian War

The August war in Georgia underlines the fundamental deterioration in the global political situation in the 2000s and the increasingly sharp choices facing the democratic left. The easy bit is to condemn Russian aggression against Georgian cities and there has been no shortage of Western political figures queuing up to do this. The difficult bit is to recognise the Western responsibility in this outcome, which is both immediate and general.

First, let us consider the role of the USA in Georgia’s opening of this war. Whatever provocations Georgia was under from Russia, it is clear that president Mikheil Saakashvili made a monumental error in attacking South Ossetia. Georgia under Saakashvili is a heavily dependent US client and it seems certain that if the US administration had known of his plans and wanted to stop him, it could have done so. So did it not know – a very surprising failure of intelligence – or did it not want to – a shockingly irresponsible and reckless position to take? Or was there an April Glaspie moment (Glaspie was the US ambassador to Iraq in 1990 who notoriously allowed Saddam Hussein to think he could get away with the invasion of Kuwait) when the State Department or US Embassy gave the Georgian government an ambiguous response to his plans, which Saakashvili foolishly took as a green light?

Whatever the answer to these questions, the opening that Saakashvili presented has not only allowed Vladimir Putin’s Russia to shatter any chance of Georgia’s reintegrating its breakaway regions and (possibly) its coherence as a state. It has also dragged the USA and the West down with it and highlighted the underlying incoherence of Western policy towards Russia and the post-Soviet region since the end of the Cold War. The US policy of drawing the newly independent post-Soviet states into its own and NATO’s embrace, while containing – and in order to contain – Russia, has blown up in its face. The earlier failure to pursue a more ambitious and consistent policy, in the wake of the Cold War, of providing aid to the impoverished Russian people, supporting Russian democrats and integrating Russia with Western-led international institutions, has left Russia with little choice but the road of national and regional re-assertion whose results can be seen in the wrecked towns and villages of Georgia. Likewise the West’s uncritical support for leaders of the ‘colour’ revolutions even when, as with Saakashvili, they have shown their authoritarian and militarist colours, has betrayed the promise of democratisation as well as the prospects of peace.

Yet the responsibility of US and Western leaders is also wider. In the 1990s, Western leaders squandered the opportunities to genuinely move towards a ‘new world order’. But in the 2000s, George W. Bush has led the world backwards towards an era of unabashed great power politics: not surprisingly, a resurgent Russia and the emergent Chinese superpower are ready to follow his lead. The ready resort to war after 9/11, in Afghanistan and Iraq, showed a disregard for international law and world opinion, and a reckless attitude towards the lives of many innocent civilians – both of which Putin is now aping in Georgia. The lassitude allowed to Israel in its grossly disproportionate bombardment of Lebanon hardly sent a message of moderation to other states. If the West wanted to create a climate in which Russia, China and other regional and local powers would feel restrained from using armed force, they could hardly have set about it in a worse way than the policies pursued in the Bush era.

For the progressive left, the obstacle to seeing the situation clearly is the question of democracy. Russia and China are emblematic of deeply embedded authoritarianism, if not worse, and it seems axiomatic – as it did to those who misguidedly backed the Iraq invasion – to support the ‘democratic’ side, i.e. the West. And yet there is hardly a democratic side in the Russo-Georgian conflict: despite the Rose Revolution which brought him to power, Saakashvili has not only turned on Georgian democrats, but his crude, even brutal attempt to force Georgian rule on South Ossetia was the opposite of serious engagement with the wishes of the people of that province. Deep-entrenched, ethnicised political divides, in regions like Ossetia and Abkhazia, can only be resolved by negotiation and confidence-building. Sovereignty is not an absolute, to be imposed by right, but depends on the consent of the people.

Fundamentally, we have to recognise that democracy and violence are not compatible; there are no short cuts or quick fixes from military power. As the Bush era finally draws to a close, this latest debacle should concentrate our minds. Yet John McCain ever more clearly represents Bushism by other means. It would be nice to think that in the light of the latest lessons Barack Obama (or Gordon Brown/David Miliband) might recoil from Bush’s legacy. But how likely is it that, in thrall to soundbite media and opinion polls, they will truly dare to rethink? It seems all too probable that Obama will seek to reassure a purportedly hawkish public opinion by repeatedly proving his own militarist credentials. Brown/Miliband will, likewise, refuse to show even the limited independence from the USA that French and German leaders have from time to time demonstrated. An uphill struggle beckons.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Theory of the global state revisited

A book is rather like a child: once you give birth to it, it has a life of its own. So to discover a highly critical review, which appeared shortly after publication, of a book you published 8 years ago is a bit like finding out that your child got into trouble when it was young, but you never knew so at the time. So it was for me to discover William I. Robinson's review in the American Political Science Review (95, 4, 2001, 1045-7; find it online via your University library website) of my Theory of the Global State (Cambridge University Press, 2000). Robinson, who has himself written on the 'transnational state' from a Marxist international political economy (IPE) perspective, credits my book as 'an important and innovative study' but concludes, 'I do not want to negate the importance of this work, especially since it explores uncharted terrain, but nevertheless it remains inconclusive, contradictory, and deeply troubling on several counts.' 'Inconclusive' I can live with, since this book was manifestly ambitious, tackled a (very large) moving target, and certainly raised more questions than it resolved. But I think Robinson's 'contradictions' and 'troubles' mostly reflect his own theoretical and political prejudices rather than problems in the coherence of my argument.
Robinson claims that my theory has an 'idealist core' because I define the 'global' and 'globality' primarily in terms of 'the development of a common consciousness of human society on a world scale'. But I do not suggest that this idea has a transcendent existence, like Hegel's world spirit; rather I suggest that it has emerged from the historical developments that have made people think in 'global' terms, which take up the major part of my book. Robinson recognises this historical account, and so asks: 'how does Shaw reconcile the antimony of his idealist definition of globality as consciousness with his material emphasis on the rise of a global state?' My answer is that, like most social scientists who have escaped from the vulgar Marxist antinomy of 'ideas' and 'material reality', I don't see ideas as existing outside social relations - or social relations as possible without consciousness and ideas.
Perhaps more serious than this 'idealist' label is the 'realist' tag which Robinson also wants to pin on me. I offer, he says, 'a neorealist theory of hegemonic stability account [sic] of the capitalist core as a new hegemon within an otherwise anarchic system of states and state blocs.' Here he is on to something, as clearly I do argue that states are defined by relations of violence and so my world-picture corresponds superficially to what critical realists might come up with if (quite a big if, actually) they fully recognized the changed relations of violence in today's globalized world. Yet, as he recognizes, I am not really a realist in any traditional sense, but a 'neo-Weberian historical sociologist'; but since my historical sociology (unlike most) is present/future-focused, I don't fit simply into any of Robinson's preconceived intellectual categories. And so my theoretical position is described as 'an eclectic admixture of neo-Weberian, realist, liberal, postmodern, and institutional analysis'. I'm not quite sure where all these additional labels come in, but what I think this says is that Robinson is obsessed with the boxes - I freely confess that thinking outside them has always seemed rather important to me. Yet engaging in normative argument doesn't make one a 'liberal', recognizing changing categories a 'postmodernist', or discussing institutions an 'institutionalist'. All are quite compatible with my core historical-sociological perspective.
Robinson seems to have particular problems with the 'normative and ideological' element of my argument. It is ironic that a Marxist-influenced scholar should have such a problem with the idea of 'progress': of course what really irks him is that I attach a 'progressive' label to Western state forms compared to those of the old Soviet bloc and contemporary authoritarian or semi-authoritarian non-Western states. His own prejudices here are indicated by the charge that 'The narrative is laced with strong does of crude anticommunism'. This is supported by no stronger evidence than that 'Adjectives such as "brutal" "genocidal", "totalitarian", "stagnant", "bureaucratic", and "repressive" ... abound in Shaw's discussion of the former Soviet Union.' I had Bill Robinson down for a rather enlightened sort of Marxist but I seem to have touched a Stalinist raw nerve. Anyone familiar with the historiography of the USSR will know that these adjectives are hardly overstated; for example, the relationships between Stalin's (and Mao's) socially destructive, mass-death-producing episodes and the wider pattern of genocide are a burgeoning topic in contemporary genocide studies.
These engagements, however, are all consequential on the core arguments of my book:
  • Against the assumptions of critical IPE (with which, contra Robinson, I did engage - witness critiques of his own and Stephen Gill's work, for example) I dared to argue that the major, direct determinants of state transformation lay in the history of modern warfare, and hence largely although certainly not exclusively in interstate relations. Robinson does not confront me directly on this issue - which is an enormous lacuna in IPE generally, not excluding its critical, neo-Gramscian and Marxist variants.
  • I argued that there had been a major transformation in the state system from the inter-imperial system (which produced two world wars) to the bloc-system (the Cold War) and finally today's 'global' system. Robinson does not dispute these transformations, but nor does he engage with my argument about them - or indicate a better explanation.
  • I argued that social movements, primarily in the non-Western world, had also contributed substantially to 'global' change through worldwide movements for democracy which had challenged Cold War structures in the Soviet bloc, the post-colonial world and the West - so it was simply inaccurate for Robinson to claim that 'linkages of the non-Western world and a larger global system dominated by a Western capitalist core play no causal role or are not any determination or explanatory value'. Again, the problem seems to be that (in this dialogue of the deaf) I highlighted linkages of a different type to those that he thought important, namely those that can be explained by more traditional Marxist categories of colonialism and imperialism.
It is not that I think colonialism and imperialism unimportant; but in their classical forms they belonged to the old inter-imperial system which, for all its many legacies, exploded during and after the Second World War. Social theory needs to engage too with contemporary dilemmas. There, it is absurd for Robinson to suggest I showed a 'one-sided enthusiasm' for today's emergent global society, or provided 'a renovated colonial tale of Western superiority'. My recognition of the relative superiority of internationalized, democratic Western state forms to the doggedly national, semi-authoritarian forms of major non-Western states like China and Russia was no paean to contemporary Western globalism, whose contradictions and limitations were highlighted. I stressed not the 'arrival' of a 'global state' but the indeterminacy of a messy, contradictory 'Western-global state conglomerate'. As my 2003 introduction to the Italian translation suggested, the 2000s have a seen a 'regressive globalism' in Washington which has sharpened the contradictions further. But this development, too, was conditioned by military-political developments (9/11 and the 'war on terrorism') rather than socio-economic forces. That is something which my model helps to explain, but on which Robinson's has less to offer.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Israeli minister threatens Gaza 'Holocaust' - what will the International Association of Genocide Scholars say?

'Israel's deputy defence minister yesterday warned his country was close to launching a huge military operation in Gaza and said Palestinians would bring on themselves a "bigger shoah," using the Hebrew word usually reserved for the Holocaust. The choice of vocabulary from Matan Vilnai, an often outspoken former army general, was unusually grave - the word is not normally used for anything other than the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews. Vilnai was speaking about his government's plans to tackle the continued firing of makeshift rockets, known as Qassams, from Gaza. "The more Qassam fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, they will bring upon themselves a bigger shoah because we will use all our might to defend ourselves," he said, in a telephone interview with army radio yesterday morning. His spokesman later tried to play down the force of his language, saying he meant only "disaster". "He did not mean to make any allusion to the genocide," the spokesman said. Vilnai appeared to suggest a big military operation was inevitable. "It will be sad, and difficult, but we have no other choice," he said.'

Vilnai's genocidal rhetoric, even if unpremeditated and withdrawn, is surely a significant indicator, if one was needed, of the increasing seriousness of the Israeli threat to Palestinian society in Gaza. No one believes, of course, that Israel aims to subject Gaza's people to a Hitlerite 'Final Solution', and in this sense Vilnai's threat is purely rhetorical. But the threat of extensive violence and suffering is real all the same. Largely caged in, regularly deprived of electricity and constantly threatened by murderous incursions by the Israeli 'Defence' Force, the population now faces the threat of an altogether bigger operation. At its worst, this could be on the lines of the operation which pulverized large parts of Lebanon in 2006 - a huge, totally disproportionate onslaught of 'degenerate war' in which Israel once again targets civilians in bloody response to the provocations of the militants who fire rockets at its own civilians.

As a genocide scholar I await with interest the response of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS), which describes itself as 'a world-wide professional association of experts on genocide'. In early 2006 the IAGS responded to what it described as the 'openly aggressive statements' made by the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who of course is also a Holocaust denier) calling for Israel to be “wiped off the map” and inciting students to scream “death to Israel” at a government sponsored conference on 26 October 2005'. In a resolution the IAGS expressed its 'profound alarm' and concluded, 'Direct and public expression of genocidal intent by a national leader coupled with a clear and present danger that genocidal acts will be committed is incitement to genocide. The risk of genocide against Israel is not yet imminent, but once Iran has nuclear weapons, it will be. When genocidal intent is openly expressed, and means to commit genocide are being prepared, the Precautionary Principle places the burden of proof on those who deny that genocide will be committed. Urgent preventive action should be taken.'

There are good reasons to believe that the IAGS resolution, which I was one of a small minority of members to vote against, was adopted on the basis of partial information. A number of commentators have suggested that Ahmadinejad did not mean the wiping out of Israeli society, which would indeed be genocide, and may not even have used words that meant this. Instead, they suggest, he meant the removal of the Israeli regime. On balance, it is not clear that he really distinguished between them. A more important point, however, is that Ahmadinejad's speech seems to have been a rhetorical gesture without specific policy implications, designed primarily to boost his internal and pan-Muslim support, and therefore not a serious threat to Israeli society. Even the IAGS agreed that the risk was 'not yet imminent', although it appeared to suggest that this was only because Iran had not yet developed nuclear weapons. However, even if Iran does develop these weapons, there is no particular evidence for the view that Iranian leaders have a specific intent of using them against Israel - although of course they would constitute a structural threat to Israel, exactly as Israel's own nuclear arsenal is a threat to Iran itself. But if the 'precautionary principle' is ever to be effective, it is important to understand the difference between rhetorical violence, nuclear weapons development and a policy of war or genocide.

In the case of Gaza, however, there is every reason to believe that the gap between rhetoric and policy concerns not the threat of violence, but only its probable genocidal character. The point of minister Vilnai's speech is that Israel's policy is veering, very concretely, in ever more violent directions: extensive anti-civilian is probably imminent. If the 'precautionary principle' means that 'urgent preventive action should be taken' by the international community, perhaps the IAGS will take the lead in making this case for intervention?