The political-economic fault line: Some remarks towards a research program

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It seems we have arrived at one of those moments when different people (albeit in the same milieu) begin to think intensively about related questions. Such apparently mystical Zeitgeist-phenomena usually have an explanation, and searching for one can in itself yield interesting outcomes. Seeing as I’m one of the people involved, however, I would like to present some scattered remarks, mainly in order to introduce people to one another. Maybe I’ll also have something to say about the reasons for the convergence.

The nexus I’m talking about can be approached empirically or theoretically. I’ll start theoretically: the question is that of the boundary between economics and politics, or to be fashionable about it, between the economic and the political. The Marxian tradition, which in this sense is continuous with classical Political Economy, affirms the existence of an object known as the “(political) economy”, though it denies its trans-historical validity (Smith and Ricardo’s mistake) as well as its apotheosis into a sacrifice-hungry divinity (the fallacy of the petty bourgeois economic press). To be more precise, Marx and his disciples speak not of “the economy” but of the “capitalist mode of production”. This mode has political conditions of existence: that is, violence of a particular sort is needed in order to initiate it and reproduce it, but it also has an existence all its own, autonomous laws of movement which cannot be reduced to violence – that is, you can’t just reduce the capitalist economy to political questions of power.

Obviously things are more complicated and I can’t go into all the relevant questions here. Just one then: the question of the economy of violence (which has a doppelganger, the question of the violence of the economy). That is, if violence is a fundamental condition for the functioning of the capitalist economic system but remains in some sens (though a rigorous sense is needed here) outside that system, how can we understand the economic sectors employed in the production of violence – that is, the security and arms industries?

This question has global importance, but is especially acute in the Israeli/Palestinian context. On the empirical side, Yotam Feldman’s new film The Laboratory (which I haven’t seen yet) sheds new light on the absolute centrality of the violence industries to the Israeli economy. As Eilat Maoz writes in her review (Hebrew), if we take this centrality into consideration it becomes clear that under current conditions, ending the occupation or even slowing it down considerably will constitute a clear and present danger to the livelihood of a very large (and very powerful) part of the Israeli public. This is a very pessimistic political conclusion, of course, but well-grounded pessimism is better than wishful thinking.

Theoretically, though, there is a chicken-and-egg problem: the occupation (by which I mean all of Israel’s repressive mechanisms) is profitable because it gives Israeli companies a competitive advantage in selling their violent wares to repressive mechanisms around the world. But what motivates those mechanisms? The need to sell arms to someone else? Of course not; the buck has to stop somewhere, with a violence that is necessary to the system. Which we need to understand.

I think the answer has to do with a factor that is mostly implicitly present in Marxist theory but can definitely be developed out of it – the concept of the surplus population. Capitalism has a tendency to cheapen the means of subsistence (food, medicine, clothes etc.) to a minimum, such that in comparison to the past it is much cheaper to stay alive. The growth of huge slum populations across the world – not only in the South – can be explained along these lines.

In this context it is easy to understand how one state with experience in the repression of a surplus population (as the Palestinians have been since the labor market was closed to them in the 1990s) can profit from selling repressive services to other states dealing with such populations – whether internally ghettoized communities or migrants attempting to gain access. But from a Marxian point of view the value which these customers hand over to the repression industries still has to come from productive labor done by non-surplus populations within their borders.

I don’t know exactly where all this is going, but it seems relevant to the comprehension of the political reality in Israel. Thus, when Tal Giladi (Hebrew) writes that the left needs to have two praxisal answers to every question – a “political” and an “economic” one – while attempting to create a theory which will bring the two together – it is questionable whether the two can even be separated for the instant necessary for the production of a political statement. Shimshon Bichler and Yonatan Nitzan have been working on this issue for years, and the immense empirical value of their work is irreproachable, but analytically it boils down to reducing the economy to politics – which is what I am trying to avoid here.

These questions are very relevant to the Israeli context from a more historical standpoint as well. If we are trying to produce a materialist history of the Zionist project, we need to deal not only with the current motor of the Israeli economy and its current role within the American imperialist order (which, despite its almost complete denial within the Israeli left, is not too hard to comprehend) but with what started this snowball rolling. As Max Ajl writes in a forthcoming Historical Materialism piece, the literature analyzing Israel as a settler colonialist society gives ample grounding for comparing Israel to societies such as South Africa and Australia, but this grounding is not material.

Here again we cannot avoid slipping into the fault line between economics and politics. Palestine/Israel was never an important source of natural resources; it was and remains important for geo-political reasons, including its proximity to the Suez Canal and its possession of the  Mediterranean ports closest to the oil of the Persian Gulf – like Haifa, the once (and future?) endpoint of a pipeline starting in Kirkuk.

But Zionism didn’t begin as a British geo-political project; it was offered to them as such only after immense efforts, and especially money, were invested in it by rich Jews from Western Europe and the USA. Another factor, then, definitely material if not precisely economic: the need felt by that elite to channel the giant wave of poor Jews fleeing Eastern Europe elsewhere. This is not particularly unusual: the settler colonialism of the 19th century, in the USA and elsewhere, was among other things a matter of channeling surplus populations formed in the rural areas of Western and Central Europe following the capitalization of agriculture there.

Yet, for well-known reasons, most of the Jews who ended up in Israel didn’t actually come from Europe. The Middle Eastern immigrations were to bring Zionism the human masses it needed. A material explanation of this immigration is still lacking. Moshe Behar writes (with great anger) that by adopting the Zionist definition of nationality, Arab national movements abetted the Zionist cause of transfering their local Jews to Israel, but this begs the question of the reasons for this choice. Thus, just as in order to understand the genesis of Zionism we need to understand the material circumstances of the Jews in Eastern Europe, in order to understand its immense success in the 1950’s we need a better understanding of the circumstances of the Jews in the Middle East. In order to do so, we need to get beyond myth-spinning about the wonderful relations between Arabs and Jews before Zionism.

These are a few directions for research that seem to me to be implicated in the questions people have been asking recently. I would love to see a discussion about how this can be done, a real practical discussion – writing? sminars? conferences? I have a few ideas but I would like to hear others’ ideas before I show my cards. I’ll finish with a few words on the reasons that this is happening now. For dozens of years, maybe since the disappearance of Matzpen, the radical left in Israel has not dealt seriously with economic questions. I believe this was due to the dim hopes people had for class struggle within Israel, and also perhaps from a (disavowed) belief that with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian struggle the progressive class in Israel was actually the bourgeoisie (as can be surmised from some of Yoav Peled’s writing, for example).

It’s obvious, then, that the main catalyst for the renewed interest in these questions is “J14”. Today it is not taken for granted that no class struggle is possible within Israeli-Jewish society, or that such a struggle must be regressive. Class struggle exists and shall continue to exist, and the relationship between it and the anti-colonial struggle remains open. Thus many theoretical questions become quite urgent, and doubly so when we keep in mind that Israel is a particularly active section of a theoretical and political fault line whose cracks are proliferating around the world.

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