Edward Said's (Class) "Politics"

Amrohini Sahay


Over the years, especially since the publication of his book, Orientalism, in 1978, Edward Said has insisted that the most effective way to understand the world is by cultural analysis. Even though the general public usually associates him with "politics", he is, in any meaningful sense of the word, not only not political but clearly opposed to politics and political analysis. Culture has been the key to understanding and solving problems. In fact, culture has acquired the status of a secular sacred in his writing. The privileging of culture is, of course, the hallmark of the writings of liberal intellectuals in the West—from Arnold to Gramsci, to Trilling, ...and to Said. A few years ago in an interview in Z Magazine, Said went so far as to basically condemn as irresponsible those teachers of the humanities who used the "literary" (the canonic text of culture for Said) to draw political conclusions from it. As he said at the time, "I don't advocate and I'm very much against, the teaching of literature as a form of politics… I don't think the classroom should become a place to advocate political ideas. I've never taught political ideas in a classroom. I believe that what I'm there to teach is the interpretation and reading of literary texts" (Z Magazine, July/August, 1993).

The emphasis on "culture" has done two things for Said: it has made his writing pretty much harmless to the establishment and made him into a valuable commodity for the U.S. academy, which bids for his services on a yearly basis. It has, however, trivialized the issues that he deals with—trivialized them by reducing their dense class content to a subtle cultural layeredness and thus worked towards diverting the reader from unpacking the layers of the cultural web and obscured their class content.

Said's writings on the Palestinian and Israeli "conflict", are exemplary of this use of culture to divert attention from the ongoing class struggle in the contemporary situation. Take for example, Said's April essay in Z Magazine, "Thinking ahead: After Survival, what Happens?" (April, 2002). The essay, in spite of its seemingly political orientation, is focused on reading the situation in Palestine in terms of the moral "values" of the two sides. On these terms, it is Sharon's "homicidal instincts" and his "single-minded negation and hate" and not the class interests of Israeli capitalism in preserving Palestine as a cheap labor pool and secure market for Israeli big business that is at issue in the colonial occupation and recent military aggressions. And Palestine should, in turn, be defended not as part of the historical struggles of the oppressed and exploited of the world against their oppressors and exploiters but because it is "one of the great moral causes of our time".

This is, to be clear, part of Said's larger view: that it is not the "exploitation" of "labor" and the struggles against it that make history, but "culture": the zone of "values", "ideas" and "representations". Thus, according to Said, Israel's "success" in its colonial occupation of Palestine is only secondarily due to its overwhelming use of its military power (funded by U.S. imperialism which needs Israel to protect its own class interests in the Middle East) to quell the class revolts of the Palestinians and maintain its colonial occupation of Palestine. Rather, according to him, "What has enabled Israel to do what it has been doing to the Palestinians for the past 54 years is the result of a carefully and scientifically planned campaign to validate Israeli actions and, simultaneously, devalue and efface Palestinian actions". In this perspective, what "has enabled Israel to deal with [the Palestinians] with impunity" is "the immense diffusionary, insistent, and repetitive power of the images broadcast by CNN, for example" which represent all Palestinians as "terrorists" and Israel as merely acting in "self-defence". Thus what is "politically" necessary to defend Palestine, according to Said, is to "tell the Palestinian story" in order to "provide context and understanding" and "a moral and narrative presence with positive, rather than merely negative, value". The outcome of this view is of course to shift the focus onto (cultural) "representations" and thus displace any serious discussion of the class interests determining colonialism and the kind of struggle that is needed to combat it. It is to posit the world as an effect of "ideas" and thus cancel the possibility of any historical and materialist inquiry into the foundations of the social relations which in fact explain all practices (including the political economy of "representations").

Far from offering any effective political analysis of the causes of the Palestine-Israel struggle, Said's "postcolonial" discourse—in its blindness to class—is itself symptomatic of the class violence of imperialism which is currently being unleashed upon the workers of the world, including Palestinian workers. The ultimate symptom of this class blindness is when Said says, "To hear our spokesmen, as well as other Arabs, throwing themselves on its [America's] mercy, cursing it in one breath, asking for its help in another, all in miserably inadequate fractured English, shows such a state of primitive incompetence as to make one cry". But as Saeed Urrehman asks: don't "the material circumstances of the dominance of English need to be foregrounded before we can demand that Palestinians speak 'correct' English" (from discussion on Monday, 8 April, 2002)?  These "material circumstances" of "correct" English are the class circumstances of capitalism which have not only made "English" the privileged language of transnational big business under the global hegemony of U.S. imperialism but is what divides postcolonial intellectuals such as Said—educated at the elite institutions of the metropole—from those without access to the lingua franca of the global elites. In condemning the Palestinian spokesmen and other Arabs for their "miserably inadequate fractured English", Said thus in fact defends the very class system that is ruthlessly crushing the people of Palestine and echoes the class violence of imperialism in a cultural idiom. In doing so he does what he has always done: deploy "culture" to cover over the contradictions of class.

 THE RED CRITIQUE 6 (September/October 2002)