Israel is currently killing hundreds of people in Gaza. As they do from time to time. To make something Abba Eban once said true by simply inverting his meaning: the Israelis never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity for peace. Though even that is too kind to them. As even White House senior staff acknowledge, the Israelis don’t want peace. Give them everything they’ve ever wanted, and it still isn’t enough – because what they say they want isn’t what they want. What they really want is to continue the war until they have finally completed the work that David Ben-Gurion left unfinished, and eradicated the Palestinians. The mindset of Israel is genocidal, and becoming more openly so by the day.
It is now clear to a great many people that what happened to the Native Americans as a result of the institution and independence of the United States of America was a scandal, a holocaust and a tragedy. The idea is so commonplace it’s become a sentimental truism in pop-culture. Well, Israel had not done very much that America didn’t do in the process of getting where it is today. Israel has shaken off its origin as a colonial possession of the British Empire. Israel has ethnically cleansed huge swathes of land of the original inhabitants, and then claimed this land for itself. Israel has repeatedly started wars for territory. Israel has herded the original inhabitants of its land mass into tiny, racially-segregated reservations. And so on. And yet the obvious – that ‘what happened’ to the Native Americans was terrible – doesn’t seem anything like so obvious to a great many people when you’re talking about the Palestinians. People seem able to get past the fact that Native Americans did some godawful things to Americans, putting it – rightly – in the context of the Native American’s fight against territorial displacement and dispossession. Yet Hamas is said to be responsible for the rampage of destruction and slaughter Israel is currently visiting upon the civilians of Gaza, because some people in Gaza have a few relatively meagre weapons which they occasionally have the temerity to use against the nation holding them in a massive concentration camp. Context be damned.
Clearly, we are more than capable of holding nuanced attitudes to the question of killing people – the problem is that the proper nuances are usually provided for us by people in power. The nuance allows us to see the sad necessity of killing that is accepted – with a sigh and a tear – by the official goodies, and the utter incommensurable evil of the official baddies. Sometimes ‘we’ are even allowed to be the baddies – as long as it was a long time ago, and we’re all very sorry now, and nobody defends it (though we all still continue to benefit from it, and do the same things to other people now), and as long as no comparisons are drawn with anything happening today. We can see that the Native Americans had a context for scalping people, as long as nobody is loopy enough to dare suggesting that perhaps Palestinians have a context for rockets.
Generally speaking, I’m very much against killing people. Why? Well, aside from the fact that it simply doesn’t appeal to me, I’d be tempted to invoke a somewhat traditional ethical idea going back to Aristotle, which is that morality is about the good and enjoyable and fulfilling life… with the added Socialist wrinkle that everyone should have such a life, and no good life that is dependant upon the curtailment of the lives of others is ultimately justifiable, because the fundamentally social nature of humanity means that the more socially involved we are, the better. Killing someone is pretty much the ultimate way of curtailing their potential for development, self-creation, enjoyment, and the leading of a good life… which is, by definition, a social life, in society, in which one’s contact with others helps them to also lead such a ‘good life’. We end up at the basic question: why is ‘good’ good? And we might get somewhere by re-framing the question slightly, making it: why do we want ‘happiness’? And, while I don’t pretend that it’s a perfect answer, we can probably fall back on a tautology (sometimes tautologies are allowed, via a materialist version of the ontological argument): ‘happiness’ is what we call that state of being that humans seek.
However, occupied and tyrannised people – like people who are refugees inside the tiny bits of their own country left to them, held under constant siege inside a massive concentration camp, subject to racist laws and persecutions, economically subjugated and constantly harassed, and periodically massacred – have the right to organise their own defence. Not that many of the rockets do much damage in Israel, certainly when compared to the wholesale slaughter and destruction rained down on Gaza. Israel, you see, has some pretty effective warning and defence systems against the rockets (unlike people in Gaza), partly owing to that pesky $3 Billion of ‘aid’ the Americans send them every year, despite the fact that they are an Apartheid state in clear breach of international law.
Ah yes, international law.
Bourgeois morality rests upon the polar twins of consequentialism and universalism, waxing and waning, and combining. At the crudest level, consequentialism is invoked when we need to justify something horrible; universalism when we want to condemn the evil of those we are attacking. China Mieville, in his work of theory Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law, has adapted the ideas of the Bolshevik legal theorist Pashukanis and various postmodern writers. For Mieville, international law is a never-ending oscillation between consequentialist and universalist arguments (Mieville adapts the categories of ‘Apology’ and ‘Utopia’ developed by Koskenniemi), with imperial force always lurking in the background as a way of enforcing whichever kind of politico-legal-ethical argument is currently being employed. This gets at something built-in to bourgeois morality, in all its legalistic nebulousness. Such principles – consequentialist or universalist – tend to get cloaked either in mystical obscurantism, or somewhat impoverished (i.e. market-based) notions of ‘rights’, or universal ‘maxims’ (whether encoded as ‘categorical imperatives‘ or whatnot) that are not really all that universal. The bourgeois revolutions undoubtedly had their virtues (or should that be ‘Virtue’?), but their ethics tended to be universal in letter rather than in spirit, and consequentialist to the extent of considering the consequences for national bourgeois class formations.
Even so, bourgeois civilisation has offered some laudable moral insights and principles, and certainly improved – if only at a rhetorical level – upon the morality of, say, the Roman Empire, or the automatically inherited dictatorship of certain inbred families. As Terry Eagleton has observed (following Benjamin), the task of the historical materialist is always to ask, again and again, “with a kind of faux naïveté” why such laudable bourgeois ethical ideals must seemingly always be deferred, compromised and betrayed, why bourgeois civilisation can never make good on them in practice. Bourgeois morality, we might puckishly suggest, is always very nice in theory but can’t work in practice because of… well, we wouldn’t want to say (following the high-handed transhistoricalism of the parrot-talking anti-communist) because of ‘human nature’. We’d want to suggest that there is something in the very structure of bourgeois civilisation that generates universalising ethical ideals that can never be met, precisely because of that same structure.
As Marx pointed out, it is the nature of the bourgeois mode of production that it must always be based upon exploitation (directly or indirectly coerced wage labour, extraction of surplus value… and he’s clear that this is wrong, even if – as Norman Geras observed – he doesn’t always know that he is), and thus the curtailment of freedom for the many.
But, as an initially revolutionary movement overthrowing older forms of class society, the bourgeois revolutions depend upon offering freedom as an achievable goal, and even – so to speak – believing this promise itself. This is a perennial feature, but we see it begun and demonstrated perhaps most dramatically at those moments of bourgeois revolution, when the rising middle class enlists the much-needed numbers, sinew, passion, energy, grievance and courage of the poor and the peasantry, and does this by espousing the great universalising bourgeois promises of Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité. (As I say, we might puckishly want to add Naïveté to that list.) Or when they declare “all men are created equal”, very much meaning the ‘men’ and very much not meaning the ‘all’.
This is an interesting issue in itself. The contradictions – and the attempts to resolve the contradictions – give rise, dialectically, to new material and ideological forces. Modern biological racism, for example, is partly a response to the fact that the bourgeois revolution in America rested upon both universalising promises (i.e. the Declaration of Independence, etc) and upon slavery. The inescapable, in-born, auto-segregating factor of skin colour can be used – when integrated into a new theory: modern racism – as a ‘get out clause’, a codicil of the promises of the new society. Pre-bourgeois societies in which slavery obtains – pre-C20th Tsarist Russia, for instance – don’t need to explain why some are serfs and some are not. That’s just the way it is. There’s no document, signed by people who extol ‘Liberty’, which says “all men are created equal”. So there is no need to wriggle off that hook. The hook simply isn’t there.
And here we see the fundamental nature of bourgeois morality. It is self-righteous and self-exclupatory. And it is based on the assertion of power and, ultimately, force. This is the wider meaning of Marx’s comment (adapted for the title of Mieville’s book) that “between equal rights, force decides“. Marx isn’t offering that as a ‘maxim’, but as a critique.
Marx saw – even if he never developed this in a book of his own called Ethics, the way proper philosophers are supposed to do – that the constant oscillation in bourgeois morality between universal mysticism and pragmatic consequentialism is directly bound up with the nature of the system. It relies upon relative freedom for the majority, because the freedom of the boss to hire and fire is the flip side of the worker’s relative freedom to buy, move, pursue a career, seek higher wages elsewhere, etc… so a universal declaration of rights is always useful. At the start, it helps to define emergent bourgeois culture in opposition to feudalism, to rally the support of the masses to the libertarian cause of the new middle classes, to open society for job markets and commodity markets, etc. At the same time, real human freedom is limited by the bourgeois conception of liberty as being the liberty to enjoy ones ‘rights’ in the market of life, by the conjuring trick that allows bourgeois culture to pretend that it has few enforced relations between people by relying upon the enforced relations between people and property (which is actually a social relation between people). This is why the whole idea of ‘universal human rights’, while undoubtedly a great improvement on previous ways of looking at life and worth defending on its own terms, nevertheless seems designed to limit the idea of freedom. Similarly, the corrective consequentialism comes in to limit the scope of such universal principles within the bounds of brutal pragmatism and ‘realpolitik’. It must happen that way, because the actual consequences of the bourgeois ideas of inborn freedom (and natural rights and universal liberty, etc…) would, if actually and sincerely pursued to their logical conclusions, make the oppression built into capitalism untenable. If you really believe the declarations of universal liberty, it becomes hard not only to justify owning people with different coloured skin and using them as farm machinery, but also to justify forcing huge numbers of people to work for the profit of others, or to justify the unpaid domestic labour of women, the nature of education as preparation for the job market, the exploitation of less-developed economies for the benefit of imperialist powers, homelessness, unemployment, and sundry other moral obscenities that bourgeois civilisation rests upon as normal, everyday practice.
The oscillating employment of universal and consequentialist justifications is not rigid, even or schematic. The forms of argumentation (or should I say, of ideology) are not mutually exclusive. Ideology simply doesn’t need to make sense, as long as it seems to be sense. You get the two styles blended, or employed simultaneously by the same – or different – people, ignoring the fact that they clash. Or you will get one bourgeois employing a universalist argument against another bourgeois who wields a consequentialist one, or vice versa. Or one issue gets argued about, or agreed upon, using different versions of one type of argument, or two types, or whatever. An Abolitionist might condemn slavery on the universal grounds that the slave “is a man and a brother” (negating the existence of the female slaves, by the way) against an upholder of slavery who offers a consequentialist argument, i.e. “if we free them, the slaves will slaughter us in our beds”. Or an Abolitionist might employ a consequentialist argument – “if we don’t free them, they will slaughter us in our beds” – against a proponent who offers the universal word of the Bible, in which God explicitly tolerates the keeping of slaves. The rise of biological racism offers a fusion of the two styles. The idea that black people are inherently ‘inferior’ can be seen as universalist, because it is ostensibly based on eternal and fixed patterns of human nature. But it can be developed in a consequentialist way, via the claim that because the black people are incapable of anything much besides labouring for their white superiors, to free them would thus be to condemn them to useless starvation… which would, of course, be terribly wrong. This is an argument still to be occasionally heard today in new inflections (c.f. Fox News’ hero Cliven Bundy and his views on “the negro” having been ruined by being taken out of the cotton fields and given welfare dependency as a substitute).
The same argument was the ideological basis for colonialism because it supplied a rationale that was brutally pragmatic and realistic, while also seeming to be attenuatedly altruistic. We all know the contours of the argument. “Give them independence and they’ll starve out of sheer stupidity,” says the Marshal of Solos. It’s basically a rearguard re-tooling of the argument from the start of the colonial project, that the ‘natives’ are not entitled to their own lands and resources because they’re not able to make proper use of them. You can give this a universalist spin in various ways – i.e. “they’re inherently inferior” and the related claim that “the superior have the right to dominate the inferior” – alongside the basically consequentialist argument – i.e. “if we don’t step in, loads of land and resources will go to waste”. (You can “make the desert bloom” for instance.) Or you can modify the basis of the argument using a consequentialist logic of stages, development and progress. “We happen to be more advanced than them…” (whatever that means coming from colonialists and conquerors) “…so it’s our duty to teach them and help them, and bring them civilisation”. The boons you supposedly bring can be consequentialist – i.e. “trade, technology, a better life” etc – or universalist – i.e. Christianity, or whatever. Pretty much all these arguments have been used against the Palestinians at one time or another, by the way.
You see the point? The merry-go-round goes on and on, with infinitely possible permutations. Every developing need of bourgeois civilisation can be met by some ingenious fusion or opposition of these two obliging moral styles. That’s the whole point: that the merry-go-round need never end. There will always be a moral point to debate, a moral claim to evaluate, a justification to ponder. Debate can be eternally contained and assimilated. Meanwhile, nobody ever has to admit that they’re doing anything wrong. There is always a point-of-view. It works like international law – or like bourgeois law in general – in Mieville’s conception. The debate never ends. It isn’t supposed to. The process of constant interpretation and reinterpretation of the law is an industry in itself. And the basis of legality is the idea of the market actors debating their competing ‘rights’… until, of course, between equal rights, force decides.
We’re often told that terrorism is a weapon of the powerless. Actually, as Chomsky has said, most terrorism is perpetrated by the powerful, as long as we don’t two-facedly redefine terrorism to mean something other than ‘violence against civilians in the pursuit of a political objective’. By that definition, Israel’s actions in Gaza are clearly terrorism, which makes the United States into the aiders and abetters of a ‘rogue state’… if not a ‘rogue state’ itself… though I dislike the term ‘rogue state’ because it implies an otherwise hunkydory international order from which a state deviates. But that old oscillation of universalist and consequentialist moralising can be brought into play. Israel (an explicitly racist state) is “the only democracy in the Middle East” (never mind the Apartheid). Israel must defend itself. In Gaza, civilians supposedly have rockets in their bomb shelters. And so on.
The problem isn’t that there are no universally applicable moral principles. I think there probably are, as long as we limit ‘universal’ to mean something like ‘transhistorical to human cultures’. I’m not personally one to discount that, though we have to be very careful about what we identify as transhistorical or universal. Neither is the problem that there are no good arguments to be made about morality based on consequences. Of course there are. Trotsky said “the ends can justify the means as long as something justifies the ends”. Nor is the problem even that you can’t mix the two. You can. The universal right to resist occupation (formally recognised by the UN) presumably entails consequentialist justifications for violent acts in the cause of liberation. And the idea that liberation is an inherently good thing may trace back to one of those permissible transhistorical principles. Freedom from exterior domination is a pre-requisite for any society to allow all its citizens to achieve the ‘good life’… even if that doesn’t always follow from such freedom. The problem is that bourgeois civilisation rests upon either mystical ideas of the universal or employs the most cynical form of brutally pragmatic consequentialism. Universal arguments become so decoupled from society that they can be mustered for either side by appeal to mystical entities. Consequentialist arguments can be mustered by either side too, with ‘good’ defined by the needs of whichever powerful person is currently speaking, and with the violent force of nation states always lurking in the background, ready to decide the issue. The UN recognises the universal right to resistance, and the impermissability of acquiring territory by war, and then permits Israel to go about its nasty business for decades, while states such as Iraq or Iran get held to more urgent account because of the priorities of the United States. The problem crystallises in that phrase: ‘humanitarian intervention’. A perfect illustration of the cynical, opportunistic marrying of spurious universal and consequentialist arguments, ultimately nullified by the priorities of Empire, and the brute reality of imperial force
The moral question of intervention in Iraq was ‘settled’ by force. The universalists on both sides squabbled back and forth – “we have a moral duty to help the Iraqis!” vs. “it’s wrong and illegal to invade without provocation!” – and the consequentialists on both sides squabbled back and forth – “it’ll be good for the Middle East!” vs. “it’ll be bad for the Middle East… and for us!”. Pretty much the only people saying anything like “Iraqis should be given the chance to free themselves and create their own new society!” were the far Left. Of course, the turn of history made mincemeat of such hopes, though the Arab Spring showed the essential correctness of the argument… But, of course, as we know, that all went wrong too. But why? Because imperial force was allowed to decide. In Egypt, a popular rebellion ended the decade-long tyranny of a US-backed dictator… until a US-backed coup overthrew the resulting new government, instituted a junta, and started executing people wholesale. A familiar story to anyone who knows the history of American foreign policy.
This is an important issue because the key to the fate of Palestine lies in the working class of Egypt, the largest (and most recently radicalised) working class in the Middle East. The military junta in Egypt has redoubled the siege of Gaza by re-tightening the border – a border the Egyptian revolution threatened to weaken, thus weakening Israeli control over the besieged Palestinians, and thus also American-imposed ‘stability’ in the whole Middle East. As I write this it is being reported that Egypt is trying to broker a peace deal or ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. Hamas has supposedly ‘rejected’ the deal. As usual, the media reports within the ideologically-policed parameters of the thinkable. Apparently you can have a ‘truce’ or ‘ceasefire’ or ‘deal’ between a massively powerful military power and the hostages they’re dropping bombs on. Quite apart from anything else, the ‘deal’ being offered will inevitably mean nothing to the Palestinians beyond ‘more of the same’. The deal will allow the Israelis to step back a bit (thus hopefully allowing the protests – which make them look bad – to die down). Hideous normality will resume. They can carry on attacking the Palestinians a bit, keep on holding the population of Gaza hostage and under siege, keep on with the Apartheid, keep on with the blockade, keep on with the economic subjugation, keep on with the relentless theft of land for new Jewish ‘settlers’, keep on with the control of water, keep on with the relentless and humiliating inspections at checkpoints, keep on arresting people for protest… etc etc etc. The ‘deal’, as far as the Palestinians are concerned, will just mean ‘more of the same’. It always does. It will mean ‘ back to how things were last week… apart from the hundreds of us that are now dead, or bereaved, or maimed’. It always does.
And the consequentialists and universalists on both sides can go back to the debate.
Meanwhile, the only thing that will ever break this endless, genocidal situation will be the resistance that the Palestinians are condemned and demonised for ever daring to show… joined by the organised, militant resistance of millions of workers all across the Middle East. We saw it start in Egypt, and get suppressed. We saw it start in Libya, and the ‘humanitarian interventionists’ of NATO jumped in to co-opt and control it (odd how we never hear the humanitarians advocating NATO airstrikes on Tel Aviv on the grounds that “we’ve got to do something!!!”).
It will, ultimately, come down to force. The force of resistance. We in the imperialist countries need to actively work to prevent our rulers from intervening. A decade of protest, activism and agitation led to widespread public anti-war sentiment that finally penetrated the Commons to the point where that vote about intervening in Syria was defeated. We forced them to back down. (This, incidentally, is why we have to fight through these centenary years to stop the Tories rewriting the history of World War I until it becomes a narrative of patriotic glory and heroism in the name of a noble cause. If many of us have failed to see the ideological utility of such a rewrite, the staunchly neo-con Tories certainly haven’t. The connection is more then just general. WWI was partly an imperialist scramble for the Middle East.) One of the reasons Israel wants to descale its most recent murderous attack is probably the worldwide protests, part of the growing public revulsion at their antics, visible despite the near-blackout in the mainstream (corporate) media. Combined with popular resistance in the Middle East, popular resistance in the West to empire and ‘humanitarian intervention’ will be key.
Force will decide, one way or another. But not, in the end, between equal rights. Because the desire of the many to lead good lives, uncurtailed, self-creating, happy, with the free development of each being a prerequisite for the free development of all (and vice versa) should trump the desire of the few to rule, plunder and kill.
ADDENDUM, 20/07/14: Far from backing down, Israel has since launched a ground assault on Gaza.