The Left Travesty on Gaza

Stephen Tumino



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What is happening in Gaza is a result of class conflicts both within and outside Israel over the shape and direction of capitalist development in the region. Class analysis of Gaza is taken to be disrespectful of the cultural other on the left because it denies the need for a cultural politics for those subject to racialist violence. Through the relay of cultural mediations in which peoples' values are made to matter more than their class interests, the left makes critique of the class politics of Gaza, which exposes "human rights" as the freedom to trade in the market, a mark of being "insufficiently attuned to otherness" and thus a sign of "incivility." Class critique is silenced as a lack of civility so as to present the allegiance of the left to capital as the limit of the radical.

The Euroamerican left has abandoned materialist analysis for an object-al orientation that displaces causal analysis of the issues with an affective response to events. As a result it cannot acknowledge the social ontology of Gaza and, consequently, what is to be done to change it. Instead it places Gaza beyond the causal logic of class relations that explains why it has become a flashpoint of rival imperialisms and turns it into an empty signifier of mindless violence and affective outrage that is void of any explanatory and therefore transformative power.

Thus Butler and Zizek, following Elon Musk, the new icon of the right wing, turn Gaza into a battle scene of free speech, which has always been the trope for displacing class: for Butler it represents a struggle against the dominant Denkverbot (LRB, 19 Oct.), while for Zizek it is simply another instance of "cancel culture" (Frankfurt Book Fair, 17 Oct.).

Butler, in the name of a "different political morality" argues for a re-"contextualization" of the dominant media narrative that acknowledges "all the horror there is to represent" by recognizing that "the history of violence, mourning and outrage as it is lived by Palestinians" is part of "the history of colonial violence". Leaving aside the allusion to the history of colonialism as a story of violence, which Butler invokes not to explain but to mystify in the manner of Joseph Conrad by placing this "horror" outside history ("where does this horror begin and where does it end?"), the root of the conflict in Gaza is affective (lived experience, mourning, outrage) and the goal of politics is therefore also immaterial; to recognize the horror of Gaza and in doing so symbolically value those who have been devalued by racialist violence.

Butler's leftism is cynical as their justification for opposing the dominant "contextualization" is the recognition that as any "framework" would have to "consider some lives to be more greivable than others" it thereby defeats the cause of "true equality and justice". But as their affective framing equally does so by mourning the loss of non-violent political actors what they are saying is that "no future of true peace can be imagined" and all that can be done is to mourn the loss of any truly emancipatory goal. By marking any explanation of violence that goes beyond their affective framing as equally violent and racist in its silencing of the suffering of non-violent others Butler reveals that the "true" goal of their "politics" is sentimental and reactionary rather than materialist and transformative. As in Zizek finding a "small ray of hope shining in Israel" in that "Jews and Palestinians are both victims of Western racism" (Haaretz, 12 Dec.), the affective is deployed not to intervene into the existing conditions with an explanation of their root cause, which is necessary to change it, but to deflect awareness away from the class outside (exploitation) onto the psychological "inside" (mourning) where, as Deleuze says, "desire and its object are one and the same thing".

In Butler's moralizing leftism it is only those who "deplore violence and express our horror" who "help to create the non-violent world" to come, which must always remain a spiritual center ("true equality and justice") rather than a material reality (the abolition of class society). The spiritual ideal of non-violence is made into the most infallible means for the realization of "true equality and justice" while ignoring the materialist violence of class. The true radical in this political morality tale is one who mystifies the structural violence of class society with the metaphysics of racial violence but whose "heart goes out" to all non-violent victims of politically violent speech.

Not only is Butler's framing of events in Gaza not a "different political morality" as they claim because it cynically immunizes the class relations from critique while deploring violence, it also spiritualizes the goal of politics into an impossible "justice to come". This spiritualization of the conflicts is why despite objecting that what is happening in Gaza "is not simply a failure of political empathy" this is precisely what Butler ends up affirming by making "mourning" the imaginary basis for realizing a non-violent world. For Butler "true equality and justice" is only realized in an affective commons that banishes materialist class consciousness.

It is not racial violence that explains the genocide in Gaza but the structural violence of class that daily through its inhuman economic logic determines who lives and who dies without the need of any overt political violence and despite any racial/moral justification or condemnation. The violence, by Israel and Hamas, is done to exploit the Palestinians in Gaza as what Marx calls an "industrial reserve army of labor" "a disposable mass of human material always ready for exploitation" that is "a necessary product of accumulation or of the development of wealth on a capitalist basis". Both Israel and Hamas torture, jail, starve, and bomb the Palestinians to make them more productively exploitable labor to increase the rate of profit while indoctrinating them with religious propaganda and cultural difference to block them from acquiring class consciousness. What is mystified by the left is that even without the occupation, whether in their own nation-state or a reformed state of Israel, the Palestinians would remain a source of exploited cheap labor in the region, as the conditions of life for workers in contemporary South Africa after the official end of apartheid shows.

Butler's cynical moralizing is a symptom of the existing travesty of the left. The left assumes that what is needed in Gaza is political freedom from Israeli state domination more than economic freedom from exploitation by capital. By making Gaza "a symbol of European oppression and colonialism" (Zizek), the left refuses to acknowledge the actual conditions of life of the Palestinians as a cheap source of labor power for borderless capital. But there is no reformist national solution in Gaza. It changes nothing for the Palestinians if their capitalist exploiters use the language of Jewish Zionism or the Islamic Republic. The struggle for the "human rights" of Palestinians makes a travesty of freedom, in short, because "right can never be higher than the economic structure of society."

The Palestinians are, by and large, proletarians. They are, in other words, economically exploited and not just politically oppressed. What this means is that they are economically "free" from owning the social means of subsistence which are owned by another (whether Israeli or Islamic makes no difference) to whom they must give a portion of unpaid labor power in exchange for a wage just to live. They are also "free" not to do so, and die. In short, they are a surplus-population "with nothing to lose, but a world to win" from "the most radical rupture with traditional property relations". To demand their political freedom without acknowledging their economic unfreedom makes a travesty of freedom.

The class reality that the left cannot acknowledge because it violates its post-class culturalist politics is that Gaza is a productive source of labor power whose low cost increases the value of labor in the global competition between rival capitals. The proxy war in Gaza between Israel, the US and their allies and Hamas, with support from the Islamic Republic of Iran, is an economic conflict between modes of production over the surplus-value of productive workers whose labor alone is the source of profit. It is, in short, an inevitable outcome of "the silent compulsion of the economic" that rules global relations under capitalism.

The left translates economic relations into an existentialist language that empties history of class antagonism. It is this cynicism toward class analysis/politics and embrace of the affective and sentimental that provides the intellectual justification for the popular left slogan to "Globalize the Intifada" which imagines a future of endless "resistance" without the emancipatory goal of socialism; as if the point of the struggle of the Palestinians is to show that their lives matter and are deserving of recognition in a virtual parliament rather than the revolutionary overthrow of the existing conditions of exploitation.

To "Globalize the Intifada" assumes that "there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations" because domination (politics) has replaced exploitation (economics) as the basis of social relations. But, contrary to the Euroamerican left, power is not, as Foucault taught, a rhizomatic network distributed across the surfaces of culture that changes with more free speech, but "fixed" in relation to property in which one class owns the means of production as their private property and uses it to exploit the labor of others for profit, and the other must submit to having their labor exploited for wages to live. Speech is itself mediated by the social relations of production: those who control and exploit the labor of others also determine what speech is heard and silenced. Class is global and cannot be reversed in localities. Resistance to political domination cannot replace the need for the revolutionary transformation of economic relations.

The left takes an "object-al orientation" rather than a materialist one in the way it assumes that the root of the crisis in Gaza is the lack of estimation that "Palestinian lives matter," which reduces them to a condition of "bare life" as so many bodies traumatized by state violence rather than a productive source of labor power that increases the value of capital. As in nationalist discourse what is thought to be lacking is the freedom to express their cultural identity and thereby acquire the self-esteem necessary for self-determination. The politics of class that comes out of the social conflicts over material resources are thus displaced with the "politics of recognition," which relies on the "concept of the political" as an autonomous cultural realm where the rule of capital as a real abstraction is subsumed in the affective concrete where an "undeconstructible justice" stages its "eternal vigilance" against the "violence of metaphysics". As in Hegel's master/slave dialectic, here the problem of the political becomes how to invent a novel symbolic context where the proper recognition and self-estimation of others may take place beyond the contest to the death demanded by the existing order. The existing left adopts the left Hegelian solution as well and imagines the inversion of ideology from within to be the only true solution rather than the class critique of ideology from its outside.

"Palestinian lives matter" is the sign of an undeconstructible "justice to come" in how it eschews the "sovereign violence" of the state inscribed in the "mystical authority" of "law" (formal equality over differences) and "right" (individual freedom as natural-born). The object-al left grants recognition to the Palestinians through the slogan's symbolic negation of a regime that denies both their humanity by treating them as an exception outside the law, as well as their natural right to resist their oppression. "Palestinian lives matter" imagines a space of freedom for the Palestinians in the popular resistance to representative statist politics as such, the function of which is thought to violently identify the desire for freedom with the form of the universal and thus subordinate peoples' imaginary to the reproduction of existing cultural inequalities (racial, gender, sexual, ). By translating differences founded on class antagonism into self-enclosed immaterial differences the left reifies politics into a "justice to come" that never comes.

The contemporary left's concept of the political derives in part from Levinas' religious notion of oppression in which the "more persecuted" a people are "than the proletariat itself, which is exploited but not persecuted" the more they represent "a universality higher than that of a class exploited and struggling". Derrida's notion of "undeconstructible justice" similarly rewrites the concept of the political by separating it entirely from something as crude as "property and ownership" so that it becomes synonymous with "a sort of affinity" or "congeniality," i.e., a "taste for not-belonging" to a class. With subtle cynicism, the left has suspended "universality" as a transcending of differences and thus undone "class" as a place in the relations of production. Difference is no longer the materialist alterity produced at the point of production but the trope of an immaterial otherness by which the left divides the "multitude" into singularities in difference. But, what kind of justice is it that "resists" the concept of class and undoes the causal explanation of why the Palestinians need economic emancipation from capital and not just political freedom from foreign occupation?

The left resistance to statist politics and rejection of class politics justifies the ongoing invisible daily violence of capital over labor. The left demand to recognize that "Palestinian lives matter" is predicated on their being the most politically oppressed and ideologically dehumanized which separates them entirely from the normal exploitation at the center of capitalism whose economic dehumanization is already highly naturalized and invisible as just the way things are and ought to be.

In capitalism "human" or individual rights means the freedom to trade in the market. The workers are therefore free to sell their labor for a wage in order to live, but do not have the right to the means to live (which are owned as private property), while the owners are free to exploit the labor of others, but not the right to profit (which they must realize through market competition). The left is cynical because political freedom for Palestine means Palestinian labor should be free to be exploited equally alongside Israeli labor, and for a select few to be allowed to become capitalists and exploit others' labor should they acquire the means to do so. "Free Palestine" is a political travesty in short because what it means is more "capitalist realism". It is this same cynical realism that cannot imagine an end to capitalism that accelerates the reactionary nationalisms that have re-emerged in the wake of the failure of the national socialisms of the twentieth century to manage the crisis of capitalism. But there is no national solution to capitalist exploitation because the "workers have no country".

It has become the task of the Euroamerican left for which as petty-bourgeois in the "knowledge industry" they receive a salary taken from the profits produced by workers to put a "human face" on capital by translating its materialist contradictions into cultural conflicts over the limits of speech.

The realm of freedom is beyond the regime of wage labor. The Hamas-Israel "war" is about wage labor. The left has obscured the cause of war in sentimental slogans and maxims for the benefit of the owning class.