Monday, 12 November 2007

Historical Materialism Conference - Part 2

Wow. Apparently my notes on the fisrt plenary session were pretty long. The notes for the next session 'Islam and American Imperialism' are a bit less so. Not becuase the talks weren't interesting, but because I'd already sat through one long session and the lecture theatre was rather sophorific, owing to the temperature and layout.

The backdrop to the talks is the increasing resistance to American imperialism and the lack of a clear socialist alternative to it. This leads - on the part of the Socialist Register, who organised the plenary - to a crisis of agency. It therefore becomes necessary to analyse the new movements that have arisen so as to conceptualise the current conjuncture.

Gilbert Achar - Imperial Uses of Islam
Achar began his talk by examining the 'clash of civilisations' paradigm, one which he described as pervasive on both a conscious and unconscious level. This view basically suggests that Islam and the West are engaged in a clash of civilisation and there can be no middle ground between them. This view is common to both Western Islamophobes and Islamic fundamentalists - who tend to characterise Islam and 'the West' is implacably in conflcit with one and other, and view this conflict as defining our current age.

But Achar notes that this is not the view of Western governments. Western governments tend to differentiate (in their rhetoric) between 'good' Muslims and 'bad' Muslims, they don't view things as a clash with Islam but a clash within Islam. Achar also argues that Huntington himself doesn't hold with the way in which his theory has been interpreted. Achar argued that Huntington is in fact a 'global multiculturalist', insofar as he thinks it's a good thing to have different 'civlisations' existing worldwide, he opposes mutliculturalism nationally because he wants to preserve Western culture in its heartlands. Furthermore, Huntington dismisses universalism as imperialism (in the perjorative sense) and argues that a project of imposing Western values will end in disaster. In other words Huntington appears as a traditional realist.

Achar argued that it is this realist Huntington that has informed US policy towards Islam. His first (and very good) example is the United States' alliance with Saudi Arabia, a state which is in fact the US' oldest ally in the Middle East. It has historically (and still does) served as the cornerstone in the US global stratey, particularly in combatting anti-imperialist nationalism. But of course Saudi Arabia is probably the most 'fundamentalist' state in the whole of the middle-east. In fact the US supported Saudi fundamentalism in Afghanistan. He further notes that plenty of fundamentalists were willing to colloborate with the US invasion of Iraq.

The point for Achar is that the US has used fundamentalism for its own ends and fundamentalism has often been (and is still) willing to colloborate with US imperialism when they had the chance. He then listed the examples of the Muslim Brotherhood and assorted other instances.

Achar's basic point here was that at best we can call Islamic fundamentalism 'anti-Western' but it is only sporadically and inconsistently 'anti-imperialist'. This of course has implications for how Marxists should approach Islamist resistance to US imperialism. At the very least when struggling with them it is necessary to view them with 'distrust' and attempt to spread our own ideas within their ranks.

One person's attempt to critique Achar's approach was based on the argument that notwithstanding our 'subjective' opposition to the domestic policies of the fundamentalists, they might nonetheless be 'objectively' anti-imperialist, since they are fighting imperialism. I wasn't there was the response, but surely Achar's argument is not about the political programme's of Islamists, it's about their record of supporting imperialists when they think it is to their advantage. Such a position of course means that while they may be 'objectively anti-imperialist' in a given instance the question is whether they will consistently hold this position. Achar's analysis seems to suggest they won't (and also that the imperialists won't consistently target them either) so this has to be the position to proceed from.

Bashir Abu-Manneh
For my money Abu-Manneh's speech was probably the most interesting of the lot, particulary because he engaged in some interesting theoretical anaylsis. Abu-Manneh's speech was composed of three arguments:
  • The Palestinians have been in a state of seige since 1991
  • The Palestinian elite has collaborated with the Israeli state
  • The above two factors have led to the emergence of a specific form of resistance, one which has entrenched militarisation and depoliticisation
The first thesis is simple enough to understand. Israel has continuously interevened in the occupied territory, denying the right of freedom of movement throughout the West Bank and Gaza strip and within Israel itself. This process has culminated in the creation of the apartheid wall, which has formalised the process by physically closing off vast swathes of the West Bank. This - of couse - is all very uncontroversial stuff. But Abu-Manneh further argued that this has destroyed any meaningful sense of spontaneity amongst the Palestinians. It has tended to eliminate any proper sense of the Palestinians as a collecitive entity who are capable of collective action. Palestinians have been alienated into individuals, families etc.

The second thesis is another one which I think is uncontroversial. It seem incontrovertable by now that the Palestinian Authority has collaborated with and legitimated the occupation - corrupting and nearly destroying the Palestinian's national aspirations. Abu-Manneh related an anecdote whereby the PA would always be there to stop attacks on settlers but would be mysteriously absent when there was an Israeli attack in the occupied territory. In line with this Abu-Manneh argued that the PA has consciously undermined any attempts to organise outside of the PA. To top it all off, when the PA did stop collaborating it was attacked by the Israeli authorities.

The combination of the two above factors leads to Abu-Manneh's third argument. The point of these factors is that they have pushed Palestinian strategy towards militarisation. Firstly, this is because any meaningful political resistance seems impossible. The Palestinian's traditional representation - Fatah - has been collaborating since Oslo. Furthermore, it is difficult - if not impossible - to develop political positions and mobilisation when freedom of movement is physically restricted. Furthermore, political action seems so difficult precisely because the Palestinians have lost their faith in their own capability for collective action. This depoliticisation means that solutions based on mass action seem impossible, which naturally seems to lend support to the idea that small acts of military resistance are necessary.

But it is not just the content (military acts) that are shaped by these social conditions, it is also the form. This is because the small military action per se is - in some respects - a collective political act. This would certainly seem to be the case when one considers the links between militants and political parties. The ultimate culmination of the tendency towards atomisation is the emergence of the suicide bomber as a 'weapon' in the struggle against of Israel. This of course makes a lot of sense, because the suicide bomber is the precisely opposite of a collective political struggle. Thus, the tendency towards atomisation and depoliticisation, combined with the concomitant process of militarisation tends to produce the ultimate individualist military act - the suicide bomber. Although, as Abu-Manneh points out, we shouldn't exaggerate the degree to which suicide bombing has become the norm, and ultimately as a tactic it has proved counter-productive, since it tended to fit the Palestianian struggle into the discourse of terror.

What I really like about this analysis is the way in which it traces the particular configuration of Palestinian resistance back to the social conditions in which it operates. This is a much better position to take than just 'condemning' particular forms of resistance without understanding why they gain popularity or the opposite but related one of just saying 'it's understandable because they endure so much'. It's therefore good to see someone take a materialist position on this issue. What's also interesting is the degree to which Abu-Manneh's position dovetails with Lukacs in History and Class Consciousness. This is because capitalism itself has a natural tendency towards depoliticisation (reification), alienation and fragmentation, of course these tendencies are often counteracted.

I think invoking Lukacs is useful for another reason. Abu-Manneh's preferred solution to the problem is to replace this strategy of individualised militarisation with one of collective self-mobilisation. Well, this is fine in practice, but the whole point is that the situation Abu-Manneh outlined has already shown precisely why this collective self-moblisation is going to happen, and certainly not spontaneously. This is where Lukacs is especially relevant. Because Lukacs core insight is that the proletariat can't just spontaneously organise against capitalism. What is needed is something that can take the viewpoint of the proletariat but do so in a way that transcends the reifying tendencies of capitalism. That is to say a vanguard party. In the Gramscian analysis this Party is composed of the organic intellectuals who arise from the class in the midst of struggle. And this is what Abu-Manneh's analysis really seems to lack - the need for a conscious organising element of the Palestinian people able to mobilise them against the Israelis. But of course the other problem is that the people who you would expect to be able to fulfil this role in Palestinian society are - as Abu-Manneh argued - completely compromised. This - perhaps - is why he didn't delve into this question, as it is one to which there doesn't seem to be much of an answer.

Unfortunately I missed the last talk because I needed to get home, so I can't comment on that. More stuff will follow over the rest of the week. This will reveal how horribly theory-obsessed I am, however, and no doubt I will be much looked down-upon for it.

7 comments:

ian said...

Good report.
I like the nub of your gist so I have put a link on your good site.

Ian

ian said...

I mean 'to 'your good site!!!

randomvariable said...

Achar's position that fundementalists do strike deals with imperials has been corroborated in the economic analysis by Collier, P., & Hoeffler, A. (2005). The Political Economy of Secession. Negotiating Self-Determination.

I think it's also important to note that many of these organisations started off as non-fundamentalist, but move towards fundamentalism in response to security moves by state actors. See Jacob Shapiro (2007), “The Terrorist’s Challenge: Security, Efficiency, Control,” unpublished paper or Singh, R. (2006, Mar) A Constructivist Approach to Suicide Bombings in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, Town & Country Resort and Convention Center, San Diego, California, USA Online

a very public sociologist said...

Hold on, you got to present a paper(!!) How come? I thought it was only open to "stars" this year, which is why I stayed away this time. Still, there's always next year.

Rob said...

Are you saying I'm not a star!? I'm the third hit on google for Pashukanis! But seriously I think it was because someone had pulled out and at the time they didn't feel like they were going to be able to fill up the session. That being said there were a fair-few non-stars there (at least at the sessions I attended) and it didn't really feel that star-packed.

Cheers Ian, if we haven't reciprocated I'll tell Korakious to blogroll you.

Random, cheers for those references, I'm doing some stuff on self-determination at the moment so I'm going to chase them up. Also, there wasn't really a point when I doubted Achar's analysis.

Maina van der Zwan said...

Anyone interested kan listen to Abu-Manneh's speech at http://is-nieuws.blogspot.com/2007/11/leninistisch-veldwerk-en-andere.html

I'll put the debates with Brenner up in a few days.

AN said...

It seems to me that Achcar's poistin as described here is no different from that which the SWP argues at a theoretical level?