“The ‘othering’ of Jews inevitably creates an inequitable economy of compassion and a restrictive arena of solidarity.” (Fine and Spencer, 2017: 124)
I. The ideological terrain
The recent move by Britain’s right-wing Conservative government, notably, Gavin Williamson’s punitive request in October 2020 to university vice-chancellors to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, and the government announcement in February 2021 of a ‘free speech champion’ to protect freedom of speech on universities campuses, is, simply put, a demagogic culture war which should be opposed in such terms. As this looms, in this paper, I am seeking a fuller and richer culture on the activist and academic Left for freedom of thought on Palestine and Israel that involves an honest and critical self-reflection on the issue of left antisemitism, alongside freedom of speech and peaceful action against the longstanding and ever-worsening oppression of the Palestinians by Israel’s state and military. This is a plea from the Left to the Left: to oppose a right-wing government’s culture war in the name of freedom of speech, at the same time as, on our own terms, enacting what belongs to us at the grassroots, and to discuss the problem of left antisemitism while opposing the Israeli state and military occupation and dispossession of Palestinian land and subjugation of Palestinian people. My local branch of the University and College Union (UCU) debated the government imposition of the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism. Whilst I consider this working definition a good educational basis for discussion on the nature of contemporary antisemitism, which does not prevent criticism of Israel’s state and military, I supported the branch’s rejection of the government’s effective enforcement. Any working definition of antisemitism should be shaped at the grassroots by open debate and discussion within our academic communities. There is however a closure to such open debate and discussion at the grassroots, which is that the very idea of the existence of ‘left antisemitism’ is denied by many on the Left. The 2006, 2007 and 2008 UCU Congresses passed a series of motions that demonstrate this: in 2006, denying that “criticism of the Israeli government is in itself anti-Semitic” and claiming that “defenders of the Israeli government’s actions have used a charge of anti-Semitism as a tactic in order to smother democratic debate and in the context of Higher Education to restrict academic freedom”; in 2007, that “criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-Semitic”; and in 2008, that “criticisms of Israel or Israeli policy are not, as such, anti-Semitic” (cited in Fine and Spencer, 2017: 119). Much of the Left comprehends antisemitism as an exclusive embodiment of the Right: either as a feature of the populist Right and fascism against the Jews; or as a fabricated allegation made, behind-the-scenes, by Israel and the Zionist lobby against the Left globally to silence criticism of Israel; or as a reaction and product of Israel’s existence as a Jewish, expansionist, racist, and settler-colonial state. This paper is an effort to move us beyond this impasse.
To illustrate the ideological terrain that impedes recognition of contemporary and left antisemitism, I draw on rejoinders from three well-known pro-Palestinian left academics on this question. Norman Finkelstein, in an address in 2015 to the Philosophy Society at the University College Dublin, responds to a question on whether there is a rise of antisemitism in Europe. His full response is available to watch on YouTube.
Finkelstein states: “There’s just no evidence for these claims about a rise of antisemitism in Europe and we have to all renew our battle against antisemitism, it’s just not true.” He evidences this reply as follows:
“By far and away the most accepted minority in all the western countries, by far and away, are Jews […] the sign of acceptance, when you know what’s called assimilation has tipped, the sign is always inter-marriage […] Well in the United States today, I would say, there isn’t a single ruling class family that hasn’t intermarried with Jews.”
Finkelstein then goes on to qualify his answer:
“What you do find is, if you look at the opinion polls, there is a spike in antisemitism […] every time Israel launches one of its murderous invasions […] That’s not antisemitism in any meaningful sense, that’s a state that calls itself Jewish carrying out in a horrifying way and so people react to it against Jews, if you want to prevent antisemitism there’s two things you can do, number one you can stop committing massacres and number two stop calling yourself a Jewish state, just call yourself Israel, and then I think the number of antisemitic acts will go back down”.
“If you had a choice, in any European country where they say ‘oh the antisemitism is going berserk’ […] if you’re in France, would you rather be Jewish or short, would you rather be Jewish or obese, […] would you rather be Jewish or ugly […] the world is so plagued by so many horrifying crimes, so much suffering […] so okay some people have some prejudices about me, but if you take it at the legal level, Jews are doing better than anybody else, so all this talk of antisemitism, it’s just a joke.”
Finkelstein claims four things here: one, that in the context of crime and suffering across the world, antisemitism is trivial; two, that what might be considered antisemitism is not antisemitism in a meaningful sense because it is an understandable response to the murderous actions of Israel, and when Israel ceases to be a Jewish nation-state, the so-called problem of antisemitism will disappear; three, that antisemitism is the product of a Jewish nation-state that commits massacres; and, four, that in key respects, Jews actually hold a higher position in society than others. It is worth emphasizing, on this final point, that Finkelstein evidences his observation about Jewish assimilation not by identifying an assimilation to the general, vast majority population but rather by stressing an incorporation (which he calls assimilation) into the ruling class and jobs with power.
In a public meeting hosted by the Socialist Workers’ Party in 2019, titled “Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism”, which is available to watch on YouTube, Ilan Pappé lays bare the relationship between anti-Zionism, Zionism, and the allegations of antisemitism in the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Pappé (2019) explains:
“The inability to cover the criminality in Gaza is one of the reasons that you get instead a hyper inflated coverage of a few emails that may or may not be antisemitic, as if this is an issue that threatens people’s life or existence, and this imbalance between, a manipulated hysteria of something that doesn’t happen and a total ignorance of what really happens is one of the major challenges that this ridiculous equation of antisemitism with anti-Zionism is causing, and which we will have to challenge”.
He stresses, as a continuous mistake from Corbyn down to the activist base when in the mainstream media, that:
“They apologise, not understand what they are apologising for, but they think that apologising is good, apologising is terrible, apologising means that you think there is some truth in it, maybe a little misunderstanding […] every minute we waste on talking about antisemitism instead of talking about Palestine is a wasted minute”.
“because they cannot […] challenge with facts, they cannot challenge us with a moral position, they have nothing in their arsenal that can really struggle efficiently against our humane position and universal position on Palestine, so they blame us of antisemitism”.
On the journalists who covered the antisemitism allegations in the Labour Party, he speculates:
“either these people are intelligent and I suppose many people who work in The Times and BBC and so on are intelligent and that’s worse, that means they know exactly what they are doing, because they’re afraid, because someone is paying them, I don’t know, I don’t know, I’m not going to investigate, I’m interested in the outcome not in their motives […] or […] they’re ignorant […] on an area that they should know a lot as British journalists, but we should be on the onslaught here, attacking their ignorance or the sinister manipulation effects and stop apologising for something we are not”.
Pappé then moves to a full exposure of what is happening by spelling out that for the first time in the history of any mainstream political party in the West since 1948, a leader holds a pro-Palestinian position:
“This is the whole story, they thought this would never happen, it suddenly unfolded in front of their eyes, they cannot use F-16s, they cannot bomb Jeremy Corbyn, they cannot send Israeli tanks […] to the Labour Party headquarters, so they can’t use the main method they usually use to silence people […] in this case they were a bit more limited in what they could do, I must say to their, cynically I would say, to their credit, they found a way”.
In his summation, he responds to a question about Netanyahu’s rule to explain the true nature of Zionism:
“In those ten years […] all the shields of complexity that Israel, especially the Israeli Labor Party […] the so-called Israeli peace camp, the left Zionist camp, all these shields of complexity, where you supposedly could be a socialist and a Zionist, you could be colonizer and an enlightened person, you could be a progressive and an ethnic cleanser, that all these impossible oxymorons, even the Israeli electorate seem to find them quite ridiculous and that’s why they kicked out the Zionist left, it doesn’t exist anymore, and Netanyahu is just the epitome of this kind of inevitable […] political development inside Israel, where you cannot really reconcile the ideology of Zionism with universal values, whether they are Marxism, socialism or even liberalism”.
On the question of left antisemitism, Pappé presents a situation regard the British Labour Party in which a morally devoid, sinister and manipulative ‘they’ – i.e. Israel and Zionism – have exerted a global reach to witch hunt and silence Jeremy Corbyn and the pro-Palestinian Left by fabricating allegations of antisemitism. On the question of Zionism, Pappé gives it a fixed and inevitable drive of colonization and ethnic cleansing, seemingly gloating at Netanyahu’s success and the defeat of the Zionist Left because it proves him right, apropos “the so-called Israeli peace camp”, that Zionism is the absolute antithesis of progressive universal values.
Finally, in terms of a response to the question of left antisemitism, and also its relationship to the issue of freedom of speech, I present the contentions of the pro-Palestinian left academic David Miller, both from a public meeting in 2020 titled “In Defence of Free Speech” and from a conference in 2021 titled “Building the Campaign for Free Speech”; both hosted by Labour Against the Witch-hunt, an organisation that frames the allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party as a “purge of pro-Corbyn supporters” and akin to McCarthyism. This public meeting and conference are available to watch on YouTube.
David Miller (2020) talks of his “shocked, perhaps not that surprised” realisation of the complicity of the leadership of the Labour Party, under Jeremy Corbyn and Jennie Formby, in the witch hunt:
“They [the leadership under Jeremy Corbyn and Jennie Formby] adopted the witch hunt […], they decided that what was going on here was people who had genuine grievances, perhaps mistaken but genuine grievances about members of the Party, and we should engage them in constructive dialogue, and of course there is no constructive dialogue with the Zionist movement, the Zionist movement isn’t interested in dialogue, in truth, in finding out how best to tackle antisemitism, and that is the fundamental mistake and a fundamental error for the Labour Party […] so it wasn’t just a question of the Zionist movement, of the trolls, of the JLM, of Labour Against Antisemitism, and […] and all of that lot, you know backed of course by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs in Israel, it wasn’t just a question of them […] you see in the Labour leaked report […] there’s a bit where they discuss the people that they took on to be in charge of antisemitism investigations, one of whom is a former member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, a well-known [bleep] faction, and the other one says in a long passage in the report, which he himself must have written, that he learned about left antisemitism from reading a book by Dave Rich of the Community Security Trust, an organisation which has been at the forefront of pursuing the witch hunt, which is unable to distinguish between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, and which purposefully blurs together those two concepts in order to pursue the Left […] so the idea that people like that should be engaged in constructive dialogue is a fantasy, these are people who must only be faced and defeated, they are supporters of Israel, of the racist policies of the Israeli government and of course of the racist foundation of the Israeli state founded of course as we know on ethnic cleansing and settler-colonialism […] there is of course much we can do to engage in Palestine solidarity work, as many people are doing, but also we must of course engage the enemy in this which is, not just of course the British government and US imperialism but the Zionist movement, the Zionist movement and the Israeli government are the enemy of the Left, the enemy of world peace and they must be directly targeted […] in order for the Palestinians to win, Zionism as a philosophy, as an idea, as an ideology, must be defeated, and that seems to be the clarity which the current historical moment gives us […] I think that there’s a strategic problem in discussing this under the rubric of free speech on Israel or Zionism or antisemitism, I mean there isn’t free speech for racists […] and you know the problem with defending the principle of freedom of speech in relation to this issue is that we don’t have the freedom of speech and they have the freedom of speech and we are never going to get the freedom of speech because they are in power, and so it seems to me that what we should be talking about is not counterposing our conception of ‘Zionism as racism’, which I think most of us are agreed on, with their conception that ‘we’re all anti-Semites’, because that’s a balance which is based on falsehood and it’s based on a racist understanding of how things are, it’s not acceptable for them to call us racist, it’s untrue, and so what I think we should be saying is not how we create slightly more space for the Left to say slightly more things about Palestine and Israel while they at the same time are using their speech to destroy people’s lives, careers, mental health, and jobs […] we should be saying is, no we’re not here to defend freedom of speech, we’re here to end Zionism”.
Miller (2021) later proclaims:
“The enemy we face here is Zionism and the imperial policies of the Israeli state, and free speech is not the main problem here […] It didn’t start with the Labour Party, it’s not started with the Labour Party and moved to the universities, it’s an all-out onslaught by the Israeli government, mainly through the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, but also other ministries too, on the Left globally and this is not something which just happened in Britain […] this is an all-out attack by the Israeli government […] this attempt by the Israelis to impose their will all over the world and that I think is what we should recognise”.
Miller’s narrative on antisemitism in the Labour Party and freedom of speech on Palestine and Israel is that, Zionism is racism so there cannot be freedom of speech for Zionists, and Zionism is an all-powerful and infiltrating movement which is waging a war globally against the Left: hegemonizing freedom of speech for itself while denying the pro-Palestinian Left its freedom of speech under the accusation of antisemitism and the pretence of fighting antisemitism. Zionism must be faced and defeated in all of its multiple personifications and manifestations: both as an omnipotent, permeating global movement that seeps right down to the local and individual level and consciousness, and as a settler-colonial state. He identifies people who accept a basis to the claims of antisemitism in the Labour Party as supporting a racist Israel based on ethnic cleansing and settler-colonialism – people who, in his words, “must only be faced and defeated”. In sum, for Miller, what’s freedom of speech in times of war.
II. Defining left antisemitism
A definition of antisemitism attributed to the academic Brian Klug is often cited by members of the activist Left as offering a sensible and simple insight into what antisemitism actually is and academic legitimation of how accusations of left antisemitism are false; a part sentence or paraphrase of Klug’s work is picked out, specifically, “anti-Semitism is hostility to Jews as Jews” (Klug, 2013: 471). The pro-Palestinian left activist Tony Greenstein, speaking at a public meeting titled “The abuse of antisemitism to silence free speech on Israel” in 2017, hosted by Brighton’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, and available to watch on YouTube, is an example of how the definition of anti-Semitism as hostility to Jews as Jews is applied to the question of left antisemitism in the Labour Party.
Greenstein (2017) states:
“All this stuff of antisemitism has nothing at all to do with antisemitism whatsoever, it’s a complete blind and a complete smokescreen […] the antisemitism crisis and the allegations, of the hysteria that’s grown up, has nothing whatsoever to do with antisemitism, it has everything to do with Israel’s record and Zionism’s record in the Middle East […] one of the ways you defend it is by saying that anyone who criticizes it is antisemitic, they’re singling it out, yes we are singling out Israel in one respect because it’s the only apartheid state in the world […] there are many repressive states in the world, I grant you, but there is only one racist state, there’s only one apartheid state […] the definition of antisemitism is remarkably simple, you don’t need to be a genius to work out […] it is hostility to Jews as Jews, it is simple, an Oxford academic, a friend of mine, Brian Klug, worked that out years ago, but the government has a problem, and the problem is how to associate antisemitism with Israel, and therefore they have come up, they came up in 2004 with what they called the working definition, the European Union Monitoring Committee [EUMC] Working Definition of Antisemitism, which met a lot of resistance, the University College Union opposed it, the National Union of Students opposed it […] and in 2013 the successor agency to the EUMC […] took it down from its website and it basically fell into a bed, however, the Zionist monster is a multi-headed Hydra and it has grown again, it’s becomes something called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition.”
Here Greenstein provides an opposition to the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism based on the idea that it is an end product of a Zionist racist monster that has manufactured false allegations of antisemitism to silence international criticism of its monstrous record in the Middle East; in making this case, he offers up an Oxford academic’s simple and obvious definition of antisemitism.
The definition of antisemitism as hostility to Jews as Jews has very limited explanatory power, because what does one mean by ‘Jew’? The process of racialization is skipped: the process of identifying difference as significant and the cause of harm, which requires the one doing the racialization to identify and label a difference and to assign negative meaning and consequence to that difference. Let me put it differently, one could define anti-Muslim racism, or Islamophobia, as hostility to Muslims as Muslims. But what does one mean by ‘Muslim’? The process of racialization is omitted: again, the process of identifying difference as significant and the source of harm, which involves identifying and labelling a difference and giving negative meaning and consequence to that difference. On September 15th 2001, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a man of American nationality, was attacked and killed in a hate crime in the US state of Arizona. He was a practising Sikh with a beard and a turban – the beard and the turban were identified with the figure of the Islamist terrorist. Explaining this hate crime as hostility to Muslims as Muslims actually offers no explanation at all; more precisely, Balbir Singh Sodhi was a victim of anti-Muslim racism and the process of racialization that that entailed.
Similar to other forms of racism, with anti-Jewish racism, or antisemitism, it is not ethnic difference per se that matters but the identification of ethnic difference as significant and a problem. Contemporary left anti-Jewish racism involves a process of signification that assigns ‘the Jew’ with negative characteristics that have negative consequences – the idea of ‘the harmful Jew’ – which fuses into a way of seeing and making sense of the ills of global capitalism. The harmful Jewish Other is seen as part-and-parcel of a Zionist collective that harbours a particularly harmful imperialism, a particularly harmful nationalism, a particularly harmful settler-colonialism, a particularly harmful ethnic cleansing, and a particularly harmful racism, comparable only to two historical pariahs, South African apartheid and Nazi Germany, and which operates, surreptitiously, a particularly sinister, tyrannical and harmful global reach to shut down criticism of Israel, to dominant the world, and to threaten world peace.
In a comparison of contemporary Islamophobia and antisemitism, old and new, Pnina Werbner (2013: 451) astutely observes its intersection with the politics of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict:
“we find these concepts and the protagonists who enunciate them entangled with each other in mutual recriminations, invoking a wide concatenation of ambiguous, polysemic, ideological tropes: Zionism, Islamism, racism, colonialism, apartheid, genocide, terrorism, Nazism, orientalism, occidentalism.”
Revisiting her conceptualisation of the “three archetypal demonic figures conjured up by the racist imagination […] the slave, the witch and the Grand Inquisitor” (ibid: 455; see image below), she recognises that on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, “extremist actions seem intent on confirming the worst racist imaginaries each group has of the other” (ibid: 461): the Jews as conspiratorial witches and the Palestinians as the Islamic Grand Inquisitor.
“The witch”, Werbner (2013: 455-456) elaborates:
“crystallizes fears of the hidden, disguised, malevolent stranger, of a general breakdown of trust […] Your neighbour may be a witch who wants to destroy you. He or she is culturally indistinguishable in almost every respect because the witch masquerades as a non-alien.”
“[t]he Islamic Grand Inquisitor is not a disguised, assimilated threat as the Jewish ‘witch’ […]; ‘he’ is not subservient and bestial like the black ‘slave’. He is upfront, morally superior, openly aggressive, denying promiscuous society and the validity of other cultures […].” (ibid, 458).
Both antisemitism and Islamophobia mobilise religion as a marker for racialization and entail a dynamic of ‘conspiratorial racialization’ – defined by Reza Zia-Ebrahimi (2018) as an ahistorical and unchanging, psychological and moral essentialisation of a population as “a monolithic group animated by only one will”” (ibid: 319) that is “the ultimate enemy out for our destruction” (ibid: 318). Contemporary left anti-Jewish racism operates a racist imaginary akin to Werbner’s description of the Jewish witch and Zia-Ebrahimi’s (2018) understanding of conspiratorial racialization: many on the Left seek to expose the hidden power of Zionism and its followers who are out to destroy us and see Zionism as the ultimate epitome and personification of the insidious harm wrought by global capitalism and imperialism.
In their book Antisemitism and the left: On the return of the Jewish question, Robert Fine and Philip Spencer (2017) construct a powerful argument around the two faces of universalism: its emancipatory face that seeks to include the Other as an equal human being and its repressive face that singles out the Other as the failure of what is required for membership of humanity. They explore how the negative face of universalism has shaped the Jewish question over time; ‘the Jewish question’ being, “the classic term for the representation of Jews as harmful to humanity as a whole” (Fine and Spencer, 2017: 2). Furthermore, they recognise, quoting Hannah Arendt, “[t]he classic form in which the Jewish question was posed in the Enlightenment” – that is, the belief that the Jew can only be a human being when he or she stops being a Jew – “provides classic antisemitism its theoretical basis” (Arendt cited in Fine and Spencer, 2017: 17). Fine and Spencer (2017: 6) reason that while it should not be controversial to state that a critique of antisemitism should be integral to any emancipatory movement that strives “to understand” the problems of “modern capitalist society rather than simply blame it on secret conspiracies or particular scapegoats”, much of the Left respond to ‘charges’ of antisemitism with suspicion; a suspicion not made of other forms of racism. As such, they suggest, “something has gone seriously wrong with the universalism of the antiracist imagination” (ibid: 7). Fine and Spencer (2017) identify four methodological assumptions that have seeped into the culture of the activist and academic Left that support and intensify the Left’s misrecognition of antisemitism: one, ‘methodological separatism’, which disconnects antisemitism from other forms of racism; two, ‘methodological historicism’ that places antisemitism as a phenomenon of the past; three, ‘methodological dualism’, which obscures our view of antisemitism and racism through a world framework of ‘them’ versus ‘us’, “reinforced […] when racism is condemned as the exercise of oppressive power while antisemitism is excused as a mislabelled or misguided form of resistance” (ibid: 8), and when those who raise concerns of antisemitism are consequently placed in the camp of the oppressive power; and, four, ‘methodological nationalism’, or rather, “the replacement of the cosmopolitan critique of methodological nationalism by a simulacrum of cosmopolitanism that projects into one particular instance of nationalism the defects of nationalism in toto” (ibid: 9). The idea that something must be done to end the harm caused by the Jewish nation-state and its supporters because of its particular infliction on humanity is the contemporary form which the Jewish question and left antisemitism takes.
I propose that the methodological assumptions that Fine and Spencer (2017) identify as made by much of the Left, and which underpin and compound its misrecognition of antisemitism, have some roots in what Robert Miles (1989; 1993) critiques in much of the theorising about capitalism and racism in British and North American academia since the 1960s. Such theoretical work, while recognising the immorality of the racism that culminated in the Holocaust, nonetheless applies:
“a colonial model which has little scope to explain much of the European racism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and certainly not that form of racism which others label anti-semitism […]; it does, however, have a relevance to the controversial debate about whether or not Zionism can be defined as an instance of racism […]. Consequently, we are offered definitions and theories of racism which are so specific to the history of overseas colonialisation (that is, specific to the domination of ‘white’ over ‘black’ as so many writers express it) that they are of little value in explaining any other (non-colonial) context.” (Miles, 1989: 68)
Miles (1989: 33) understands that the scientific discourse of ‘race’ did not simply replace earlier representations of the Other, rather earlier ideas of “savagery, barbarism, and civilisation both predetermined the space that the idea of ‘race’ occupied but were then themselves reconstituted by it”. Widening one’s historical and geographical perspective beyond a colonial model of racism enables us to comprehend the racialization of religion, or rather the co-constitution of ‘race’ with religion. As James Thomas (2010: 1738-1739) in his study of the racial formation of medieval Jews points out, whilst:
“[m]ost scholars still conceive of race as a post-Enlightenment ideology built upon the Atlantic slave trade, hinged upon observable phenotypical human differentiation and therefore absent in pre-modern societies whose ideologies of difference were simply ‘cultural’ […] discourses of modern racism not only antedate the social taxonomies arising out of nineteenth-century scientific thought, but it was Christianity which provided the vocabularies of difference for the Western world, and even for secularized science […].”
Returning then to Fine and Spencer’s (2017) identification of methodological slippages into a left misrecognition of antisemitism, a colonial model of racism can be seen to have contributed to a disconnection of antisemitism from racism, an effective relegation of antisemitism to the past, and a framework of ‘white’ domination over ‘black’ in which Zionism is racism. In Ilan Pappé’s (2007) words, on Palestine and Israel, “[t]he story here is a simple story, a story of white people who were persecuted in Europe and who drove away the black people who used to live here”.
Contra to a colonial model of racism, Miles (1993: 21) theorises racism through a focus on “the articulation between the capitalist mode of production and the nation state, rather than between capitalism and colonialism, because”, he explains, “this maps the primary set of social relations within which racism had its origins and initial effects”. And although “[c]olonialism was an integral moment of this articulation, […] racism was not an exclusive product of colonialism […]” (ibid: 21). Miles (1993: 61-62) expands on both the distinctiveness and potential overlap of nationalism and racism:
“For much of the nineteenth century, nationalism was synonymous with a struggle for political sovereignty within defined spatial boundaries and for some form of representative government. […] By way of contrast, there was no single political strategy that emerged from the general theory of biological, hierarchical differentiation expressed in the idea of ‘race’. […] The theorisation of ‘race’ and ‘nation’ took place at a time of ‘internal’ European political and economic reorganisation and ‘external’ colonial expansion, in the course of which the range of human cultural and physiological variation become more widely known to a larger number of people. The extension of capitalist relations of production increased the circulation of commodities and of people, and this increasing mobility, migration and social interaction provided part of the foundation upon which the ideologies of racism and nationalism were constructed. […] Because nations were identified as naturally occurring groups identifiable by cultural differentiae, it was logically possible to assert that these symbols of ‘nation’ were themselves grounded in ‘race’ […]”.
Earlier in this section I quoted the pro-Palestinian left activist Tony Greenstein (2017), including his assertion, “there are many repressive states in the world, I grant you, but there is only one racist state, there’s only one apartheid state”. A colonial model of racism aids the singling-out of the nation-state of Israel as an examplar of settler-colonialism in an era of decolonization. Only seeing racism in the context of European colonization (and decolonization), rather than as intersecting with capitalist political economy and the nation-state more broadly, enables the possibility of the statement, “there are many repressive states in the world, I grant you, but there is only one racist state, there’s only one apartheid state”. On the question of apartheid, South African apartheid operated through a narrow caste exploiting the labour-power of a majority population – a class dynamic that is not present in Israel. The 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court alongside the 1973 United Nations General Assembly’s International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid define apartheid as the institutionalized and regime-maintaining, systematic domination and oppression of one racial group over another racial group. Even with this wider definition of apartheid, there are nation-states other than Israel guilty of an apartheid racism but which fall outside of the lens of a colonial model of racism. Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing and segregation of the Rohingya population, for example, and China’s persecution of the Uyghur-majority population in the state of Xinjiang through the detainment of an estimated one million Uyghars in re-education camps, the mass separation of children from Uyghar families, and the forced contraception and sterilisation of Uyghar women.
III. Challenging left antisemitism
“An emphasis upon racism as a ‘false doctrine’”, Robert Miles (1989: 80) points out, “fails to appreciate that one of the conditions of existence of ideologies (which by definition constitute in their totality a false explanation, but which may nevertheless also incorporate elements of truth) is that they can successfully ‘make sense’ of the world, at least for those who articulate and use them.” This point is congruent with Antonio Gramsci’s dissatisfaction with the notion of false consciousness and his alternative concept of contradictory consciousness: the co-existence of two competing philosophies, common sense and good sense. Common sense is a way of making sense of the world that goes against “thinking dialectically”, instead encouraging dogmatism and eagerness “for peremptory certainties” (Gramsci, 1971: 435). Common sense is employed by people simply because it seems to make sense as “a specific way of rationalising the world and real life, which provide[s] the general framework for real practical activity” (Gramsci, 1971:337) – albeit “a creation of concrete phantasy” (ibid:126). “Common sense as the site of unexamined prejudices, values and normativities” co-exists with “good sense” which “demand[s] a human life for all people” (Holub, 1992: 53). The way in which much of the Left understands and responds to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict reflects contradictory consciousness, both common sense – left antisemitism – and good sense – a sincere and passionate commitment to end the longstanding and ever-worsening repression of the Palestinians by the Israeli state and military. Freedom of speech and peaceful action are essential here, but so too is the creation of circumstances that enable people on the Left, activists and academics, to engage in critical self-reflection and honest debate. This necessitates an advancement in the culture of the Left: a culture where “people join in a criticism of themselves and their own weaknesses without [losing] faith in their own strength and their own future” (Gramsci, 1985:251), both challenging and overcoming common sense and developing existing embryonic good sense.
In a Socialist Workers’ Party public meeting of its July 2017 Marxism Festival, titled “Zionism, antisemitism and the left today”, which is available to watch on YouTube, Brian Klug is a guest speaker. The Socialist Workers’ Party member Rob Ferguson refers in this meeting to Klug’s 2004 article in The Nation, “The Myth of the New Antisemitism”, and his 2013 keynote lecture in Berlin, “What do we mean when we say ‘antisemitism’”, as a benchmark to understanding antisemitism. What Klug says in this public meeting is nuanced and insightful, and the other contributions made thereafter are noteworthy.
In sum, Klug (2017) critiques “a discourse [on the pro-Palestinian Left] that folds Zionism completely, without remainder, into the history of European imperialism and colonialism, as if Zionism does not have its roots in the Jewish experience […] of centuries of exclusion and persecution in Europe”. He emphasizes that he does not want to be seen as defending Zionism, which he is not, rather his agenda is for a change on the pro-Palestinian Left to how Zionism is spoken about and for a more thoughtful response to the question of antisemitism. Klug stresses his political credentials: recognising and rejecting dominant Zionism today as dispossessing Palestinians and possessing Jews. He continues by stating that whether or not any of the allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party were true, there clearly was a cynical and shameful campaign by enemies of Labour on the outside and enemies of Corbyn within, under the guise of combating antisemitism, “and yet”, he adds, “things are not quite that simple”. Klug then tells the meeting of an experience that was told to him by a friend, “I’ll call her Daphne, not her real name”: a lifelong socialist and a Jewish anti-Zionist. Daphne, it is relayed, had recently proposed a motion at a well-attended Labour Party CLP meeting criticising Ken Livingstone for his comments linking Zionism with Nazism. For her, Klug explains, the history of the Holocaust is part of the identity of all Jews regardless of what one might feel about Israel, and her motive had nothing to do with Livingstone’s politics on Israel which she made clear when she proposed the motion. He continues:
“Nevertheless, and I quote her, “everyone who spoke against the motion suggested that it was part of a plot by Israel or that it was an attempt to prevent discussion of Israel”. Daphne was made to feel, in her own words, “an agent of the Israeli state”. Her opponents didn’t address her arguments, they didn’t try to defend what he [Livingstone] said, Daphne told me, “they were”, I quote, “only interested in discrediting those behind the motion by linking it to Israel or right-wing manoeuvring in the Party”. In effect, her opponents, I quote, ““shut down discussion, I felt I was being silenced”, she said”.
Klug makes two points on this. On the one hand, one is familiar with people crying antisemitism to shut down critical discussion of Israel, on the other, in Daphne’s case, there were those, in effect, crying Zionism to shut down discussion on antisemitism. The second point:
“Here we have an anti-Zionist, anti-occupation Jew being made to feel by a group of people on the Left, all of whom knew her, as though she were an agent of the Israeli state. […] What should we call this? Antisemitism? Or maybe, I don’t know, and I almost said I don’t care, the word antisemitism is so contested, so emotive that it sometimes seems to get in the way of thinking [original emphasis]”.
Klug does nonetheless call this incident an injustice: an injustice to Daphne, just like the injustice when it is the other way around. He states that while he refrains from ‘crying antisemitism’, someone without a pro-Israel agenda could suspect bigotry at play. He concludes on the case of Daphne:
“All too often, when a Jewish person, even an anti-Zionist, anti-occupation Jew says they feel uncomfortable or worse with the way in which Jews or Israel are spoken about, the knee-jerk reaction is to scoff and to cry ‘Zionism!’, we wouldn’t treat members of other racialized minorities this way, then why the Jews?”
Klug then returns to expand on the standard way Zionism is thought and spoken about on the pro-Palestinian Left:
“Zionism is seen as part and parcel of the history of European, especially British, imperialism and Israel as a settler-colonial state, to which I have two responses, yes that’s true and no that’s false, it’s true as far as it goes but it doesn’t go far enough and what it leaves out is crucial which is why it’s false.”
Klug’s main point here is that Zionism was part of an argument about how to save the Jews, not a debate about how to make Great Britain greater; “this is the piece that is missing from the stock discourse […] the missing piece is the centrepiece of the story but it is certainly not the whole story”. Zionism, he suggests, should be recognised as Janus-faced, as belonging to two opposite histories simultaneously: as part of a history of Jews as a racialized minority and the internal Other of Europe and as part of the history of British imperialism. While Zionism from the outset spoke the language of colonization, Klug stresses that Zionism thought of itself as a colonization for emancipation not a colonization to expand and enrich an Empire. He cites a Palestinian academic to summate his point, the European saw the back of Jewish refugees fleeing for their lives, the Palestinian saw the face of settler-colonialists. Klug’s participation and contribution in this public meeting is commendable. His aim was to invite thinking; in a Gramscian sense, he was an organic intellectual in a genuine effort to generate a culture of “thinking well, whatever one thinks, and therefore acting well, whatever one does” (Gramsci, 1985: 25). Noteworthy then is the rest of this public meeting, i.e., the contributions of the other two panellists and those from the floor. While there was some limited discussion about Ken Livingstone connecting Zionism with Nazism, which ranged from Tom Hickey calling his comments “clumsy” whilst stating that Livingstone must nevertheless be defended, to someone else saying you don’t mention Zionism and Nazism together, no one identified the story about Daphne as either problematic or, further still, antisemitism. Indeed, the second speaker from the floor – Jonathan Rosenhead – was the only person to directly address the case of Daphne. He said this: “she was offended, she felt criticised […] I use to be offended like that […] we are not obliged to be hypersensitive about people who are still feeling offended that Israel can be criticised in serious ways”. The general Socialist Workers’ Party line pushed in the meeting was twofold, the threat of antisemitism comes from the far Right and fascists and we are the true opponents of fascism, racism and antisemitism, not the Zionists who capitulate to antisemitism and promote an illegitimate racist colonial state, and, that we must engage and have arguments with Jewish students on university campuses who are attracted to soft Zionism, while being mindful of our language, in order to get them to make the break from Zionism.
“The Jewish question is not just an attitude of hostility to Jews or to those who invoke the sign of ‘the Jews’ but a theory designed to explain the winners and losers of capitalist society. It is formulated in terms of dichotomies – the modern and the backward, the people and its enemies, the civic and the ethnic, the postnational and the national, imperialism and anti-imperialism, power and resistance, the West and the rest. In every case Jews appear as the ‘other of the universal’: a backward people who stubbornly resist progress or an all-too-clever people who manipulate progress and hold the world in its thrall; a nation within a nation that is endemically treacherous or a nation unlike all other nations in that it is not a valid nation at all; a ‘settler-colonial’ state in an otherwise decolonised world or a ‘cosmopolitan elite’ with no comprehension of global responsibility. The ‘othering’ of Jews inevitably creates an inequitable economy of compassion and a restrictive arena of solidarity. In its spiritless radicalism it at once turns Israel into the primary source of violence in the world and places Palestinians into a single identity script as victims, only as victims and only as victims of Israel. Just as it subsumes the plurality of Jewish voices to ‘the Jews’ and the plurality of Israeli voices to ‘Israel’, it also subsumes the plurality of Palestinian voices to ‘the Palestinians’ and risks turning them into ciphers of our own resentments. […] Jews never were the problem; they are not the problem now. What has to be dealt with is not a Jewish question, but the question of antisemitism that generated the Jewish question in the first place.” (Fine and Spencer, 2017: 124)
To recap, much of the Left comprehends antisemitism as an exclusive manifestation of the Right: either as an aspect of the populist Right and fascism against the Jews; or as a false accusation made, behind-the-scenes, by Israel and the Zionist lobby against the Left internationally to silence criticism of Israel; or as a reaction and product of Israel’s existence as a Jewish, expansionist, racist, and settler-colonial state. Contemporary left anti-Jewish racism, or antisemitism, involves a process of signification that ascribes ‘the Jew’ with negative characteristics that have negative consequences – the idea of ‘the harmful Jew’ – which merges into a way of seeing and making sense of the ills of global capitalism. The harmful Jewish Other is seen as part-and-parcel of a Zionist collective that harbours a particularly harmful imperialism, a particularly harmful nationalism, a particularly harmful settler-colonialism, a particularly harmful ethnic cleansing, and a particularly harmful racism, comparable only to two historical pariahs, South African apartheid and Nazi Germany, and which operates, clandestinely, a particularly sinister, tyrannical and harmful global reach to shut down criticism of Israel, to dominant the world, and to threaten world peace. What follows is the conclusion that the Jewish nation-state must cease to exist as a Jewish nation-state in order to belong to humanity, and that the Zionist Jew must stop being a Zionist Jew to be included in the commune of human beings. As Fine and Spencer (2017) make plain, the Jewish question and left antisemitism expresses itself through the negative face of universalism, as the Other of universalism. This is confirmed by Ilan Pappé’s (2019) damning assertion, previously quoted, “you cannot really reconcile the ideology of Zionism with universal values, whether they are Marxism, socialism or even liberalism”.
The independent Marxist theoretician and French Orientalist scholar Maxime Rodinson does well to emphasize that the prevailing colonial philosophy in Europe both explains and is responsible for the fact that the actual population of Palestine was generally ignored by the early Zionists (Rodinson, 1968). A new population of Europeans settled on an already occupied territory whose people refused such a settlement and these settlers “came from that world which was everywhere known as the world of the colonizers” (ibid: 215). For the Arabs, Zionism, a manifestation of nationalism that pursued its project in an era of decolonization, is synonymous with imperialism, colonialism and capitalism, and the Palestinian refugees are the living symbol of injustice (Rodinson, 1968). At the same time, the ultimate momentum for this mass settlement was European fascism: “anti-Semitism played a capital role in gathering together an entire group that was otherwise on the road to disintegration. Zionism played no significant role […] before 1939 […]” (Rodinson, 1983, page 164). Rodinson (1973, page 91-93) concludes that while the “creation of the State of Israel was an outrage committed against the Arabs as a people”:
“Colonists and colonizers are not monsters with human faces whose behavior defies rational explanation, as one might think from reading left-wing intellectuals. […] The Jews of Israel too are people like other people. Some of them have hammered out an illusory ideology to which they have sacrificed themselves as well as a great deal of effort and many human lives. They are not alone. Many are those who have suffered much but have looked with indifference upon the sufferings and rights of others. Many went there because it was the life preserver thrown to them. They most assuredly did not first engage in scholarly research to find out if they had a right to it according to Kantian morality or existentialist ethics. It is accordingly useless to reproach them for it. […] Let it be said forthrightly, even if it hurts or arouses indignation among left-wing conformists who believe the social revolution solves all problems. There is no “revolutionary solution” to the Israeli-Arab problem.”
What’s more, the proclaimed revolutionary solution of undoing the Jewish nation-state to deliver redress and justice to the Palestinian-Arabs is “liable to be calamitous and unjust” (Rodinson, 1968: 231). It “binds”, as Daniel Randall (forthcoming) puts it, the “advancement” of “Palestinian rights to an outcome” of historically unprecedented “mass collective disavowal of national rights by Israeli Jews”, which would be achievable only “by bloody force”; “[i]t is rare for lasting equality and justice to emerge from ashes”, more often, such ashes are the “fertile ground for ongoing cycles of nationalist resentment and revanchism. If the left cannot construct an active solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for self-determination on the basis of consistent democracy and equal rights, our politics are doomed”.
In our opposition to the culture war of Britain’s right-wing Conservative government against the Left in academia, which includes its punitive request to impose the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism, we must also create space for a fuller and richer culture of discussion and debate that is able to escape the prison house of the Jewish question. There is, however, a danger that opposition to this culture war is blended into the Jewish question – that too, we must resist.
Fine, Robert and Spencer, Philip (2017) Antisemitism and the left: On the return of the Jewish question, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Finkelstein, Norman (2015) “Is there a rise in anti-Semitism in Europe?”, YouTube https://youtu.be/iDSP9lmMQzg, last accessed 27 April 2021.
Gramsci (1985) Selections from Cultural Writings, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Gramsci (1971) Selections from Prison Notebooks, London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Greenstein, Tony (2017) “Tony Greenstein: The abuse of Anti-semitism to silence free speech on Israel”, YouTube https://youtu.be/M5PKI__M14k, last accessed 27 April 2021.
Holub, R. (1992) Antonio Gramsci: Beyond Marxism and Postmodernism, London: Routledge.
Klug, Brian (2017) “Zionism, antisemitism and the left today – John Rose, Brian Klug & Rob Ferguson”, YouTube https://youtu.be/XhkkpKlSvH4, last accessed 27 April 2021.
Klug, Brian (2013) “Interrogating ‘new anti-Semitism’”, Ethnic and Racial Studies 36:3, 468-482.
Miles, Robert (1993) Race after ‘race relations’, London: Routledge.
Miles, Robert (1989) Racism, London: Routledge.
Miller, David (2021) “Building the Campaign for Free Speech conference, Feb 13 2021 – part 1”, YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSjlMHNkEWg, last accessed 27 April 2021.
Miller, David (2020) “Campaign for Free Speech! With Norman Finkelstein, Tariq Ali, Jackie Walker and others”, YouTube https://youtu.be/0Yc_dO-6Ua8, last accessed 27 April 2021.
Pappé, Ilan (2019) “Socialism 101: Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism –Ilan Pappé”, YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c__G_in2Dy0, last accessed 27 April 2021.
Pappé, Ilan (2007) ““Two States or One State” – a debate between Avnery and Pappe”, The Saker http://thesaker.is/two-states-or-one-state-a-debate-between-avnery-and-pappe/, last accessed 27 April 2021.
Randall, Daniel (forthcoming) Confronting Antisemitism on the Left: Arguments for Socialists, London: No Parasan Media.
Rodinson, Maxime (1983) Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question, London: Al Saqi Books.
Rodinson, Maxime (1973) Israel: A Colonial-Settler State?, London: Pathfinder.
Rodinson, Maxime (1968) Israel and the Arabs, Middlesex: Penguin Books.
Socialist Workers Party (2017) “Zionism, antisemitism and the left today – John Rose, Brian Klug & Rob Ferguson”, YouTube https://youtu.be/XhkkpKlSvH4, last accessed 27 April 2021.
Thomas, James M (2010) “The racial formation of medieval Jews: a challenge to the field”, Ethnic and Racial Studies 33:10, 1737-1755.
Werbner, Pnina (2013) “Folk devils and racist imaginaries in a global prism: Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the twenty-first century”, Ethnic and Racial Studies 36:3, 450-467.
Zia-Ebrahimi, Reza (2018) “When the Elders of Zion relocated to Eurabia: conspiratorial racialization in antisemitism and Islamophobia”, Patterns of Prejudice, Vol 52, No 4, 314-337.
The extract below from a Workers’ Liberty article by Natalia Cassidy (2019), Transphobia and antisemitism, identifies an interesting and convincing relationship between left anti-Semitism and left transphobia. I repost my audio recording of my book chapter, On Identity Politics, Ressentiment, and the Evacuation of Human Emancipation, after this extract, since it takes up the question of ‘bringing our own house in order’ by addressing how we might move beyond the impasse.
[Moishe] Postone argues that left-antisemitism has a “pseudo-emancipatory dimension that other forms of racism rarely have”. In this, he is on the one hand speaking to the antisemitism sometimes referred to as the “socialism of fools”, in which people on the left see themselves as having an opposition to capitalism and, through the pervasiveness of racist antisemitic tropes, they associate capitalism with Jewish people. On the other hand he is also referencing what might be referred to as a “post-1948” strand of antisemitism. In that people look upon the policies and actions carried out by the Israeli state and, through seeking affinity and solidarity with the Palestinian cause, either generalise the Israeli state as a representative of all Jewish people worldwide and therefore seek to hold all Jewish people accountable, or seek revanchist solutions which would lead to the mass expulsion of Jewish populations from the Middle East. In either of the forms of antisemitism that Postone refers to here, the intentions of the person holding these views are, in general, of seeking justice and liberation for oppressed peoples. This antisemitism is justified by an idea of “punching up” rather than down. That is why these ideas have such a particular grip on the left and tend to take a form particular from that of the right.
The same can be said for transphobia. Transphobia on the left does not; generally speaking, appear in the same form as either the far-right strain […] or in the more broadly right wing bigoted view that tends to share a lot in common with homophobic bigotry that was most prominent in the 1980s. Rather, we have an extremely prominent (though small in terms of absolute numbers) layer of the labour movement organising and agitating against trans people. Some trans-rights activists make the argument that this layer of the labour movement are entirely detached from feminism. That is incorrect. Significant parts of this layer, as well as some of the milieu they draw around them, at the very least earnestly see themselves as feminists. In many cases they have a reasonably strong record in feminist activism within the trade-union movement as well as in keeping services like women’s shelters open during periods of very little funding or support.
The root of the problem is not lack of a broadly defined feminism that is. Rather, it is what we might term a “feminism of fools”, in which the societal prominence of misogyny is seen to be embodied by trans women, just as the 19th century’s “socialism of fools” scapegoated Jews as the embodiment of abstract capital. Quite a significant layer of activists who have for some time been on the left of feminist issues within the labour movement have managed to be on the wrong side of the issue of trans rights on the basis of “punching up” against trans women. It is important for the broader labour movement to come to terms with these tendencies. Given that the labour movement and the organised working class possesses the structural capabilities to fight for change in society, it is crucial that our own house is in order. If we are to fight for human emancipation, particular sections of our class cannot be sold down the river under the premise of “punching up”. (Cassidy, 2019)
O LIVING always, always dying! O the burials of me past and present, O me while I stride ahead, material, visible, imperious as ever; O me, what I was for years, now dead, (I lament not, I am content;) O to disengage myself from those corpses of me, which I turn and look at where I cast them, To pass on, (O living! always living!) and leave the corpses behind. (O LIVING ALWAYS, ALWAYS DYING by Walt Whitman)*
We know why students were promised a near normal campus experience. We understand the politics of government and the dance of Vice-Chancellors. The government should have stepped in over the summer of 2020 to underwrite the higher education sector, but they did not. And so the propaganda of university managements began, which, they gambled, if spun out for long enough would prevent the realisation of tuition fee and accommodation refunds.
University managements promoted their campuses as COVID-secure and, by enticing students back, made the university a major amplification hub of COVID-19. The assurance that the space of the university is COVID-secure was and remains a troubling and dangerous fallacy in contradiction of scientific evidence and recommendation, and critical thought. The COVID-secure campus implies a certainty to remain safe and unthreatened by COVID-19 when there is no certainty, only some measures that might reduce the risk of infection. It infers an ability to make the bodies within a designated space free from viral contamination. However, the higher education sector is unique in its geographical concentration of networks of young people and in its generation of the prime conditions for COVID-19 to spread and (as an RNA virus) to mutate.
The outcome we all saw coming was stated in The Lancet in early November 2020: “Universities have been a major hub of community transmission”. As academics and union members, the university amplification of COVID-19 has dragged us from a strike of biophilic love, solidarity and living towards the “valley of the shadow of death” (Fromm, 1968: 48).
In a surreal, illusionary alter-universe, university managements continue to busy themselves with surveys asking students what they want. It is the perverse logic of a marketised higher education sector to ask students what they want amid a global pandemic and public health emergency, rather than focus on what they need and delivering that well. It is a further perversity of this marketisation that university managements have chosen to ignore the possibility of morbidity, i.e. Long COVID, in their risk assessments and health and safety measures, while on their websites and press releases promote the cutting-edge research of their institutions on the reality and nature of Long COVID. The falsehood that set students up for a little less than normal university experience is one that threatens some of these students and their academic staff to long-term heart and multiple organ damage. The tendency of most academic staff to seek to avoid face-to-face teaching and deliver online is an expression of “the most elementary form” of biophilia: “a tendency to preserve life, and to fight death” (Fromm, 1968: 45). It is the basic desire for life, for oneself and others, not morbidity or mortality.
When university managements respond to the actual manifestation of sick students and staff and to the prospect of one of us dying, their rehearsed lines imply an indifference to life: one cannot prove they caught COVID on campus, or if they did catch COVID on campus then it was their fault for not following the health and safety guidance. This is the necrophilic logic of “quantification, abstractification, bureaucratization, and reification” (Fromm, 1968: 59); the “question here is not whether [we] are treated nicely […] (things, too, can be treated nicely); the question is whether people are things or living beings” (ibid: 57). The COVID-insecure and market-driven university has acutely exposed its workers, its students and the public to both an amplification of a perilous new infectious disease and its own class nature and detachment from life.
Fromm, Erich (1968) The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. Harper & Row: London.
* Whitman poem cited in Fromm (1968)
The outbreak of SARS Coronovirus 2 or Covid-19 proceeds an escalation of recent epidemics and proto-pandemics: notably, H5N1 or Avian influenza, SARS, MERS, Swine flu, Ebola, and Zika. We are not currently experiencing a pandemic, Mike Davis (2020) pronounces, we are living in an age of pandemics. Rob Wallace (2020) explains this trend as the consequence of interrelated changes in economic geography and ecological geographies: a widening circuit of agricultural production, consumption and exchange that is pushing deeper into forests and back out into cities; with subsequent changes in the ecologies of host species that historically would have been confined to deep forests, which are now transported to peri-urban regions with high concentrations of human bodies. Traversing a globally integrated air traffic network, pathogens previously not on the global stage are being brought to it.
Davis (2020), citing a study from Science magazine, illustrates the context of Ebola and other diseases emerging in and from West Africa (currently the fastest urbanizing area in the world). The population of West Africa has traditionally relied on fish protein, however, commencing in the 1980s, European, Russian and Japanese factory fleets have trawled and significantly reduced this biomass. Concurrently, multinational logging companies have increased their operations; to keep their costs down, they hire professional hunters to kill mammals in their path. With fish becoming too expensive for West African city dwellers, the population has turned to the consumption of bushmeat (originally just practiced in the logging camps) as the major source of protein. In sum, this widening commerce of bushmeat hunting alongside the destruction of rainforest have generated new viral exposures and pathways to humans of previously isolated pathogens.
In this essay, using the case studies of HIV/AIDS and SARS, I explore the nexus between capitalist political economy, nature, and emergent infectious diseases; concluding that, without radical change to how we organise and run our world, our future will be locked into this trajectory of escalating pandemics.
HIV-1 and HIV-2 originate from the Simian Immune-deficiency Viruses (SIV) of chimpanzees and sooty mangabeys in Central and West Africa (Honigsbaum, 2019), with the probable zoonotic leap, from one chimpanzee to one human hunter of bushmeat (through a cut or wound), no later than 1908 (Quammen, 2013). From here, the virus travelled. At this moment, put in historical context, previous epidemiological dead ends were no longer so: the virus travelled because of changes in conditions of existence propelled by a capital-fuelled colonial age. Mark Honigsbaum (2019) points to the emergence of steamship transportation and road and railway construction during the colonial period of the Congo, and the relentless pursuit of profit by logging and timber companies, intersecting with social and cultural phenomenon (bushmeat hunting and consumption, and prostitution by the labour camps of railway and timber companies), as the central early drivers in the journey of HIV/AIDS.
While official Belgian colonial rule of the Congo ran from 1908 to 1960, the groundwork for colonial expansion began in the late nineteenth century. Given the need of capital to self-expand and thus the impetus for greater mobility of both capital and labour, the 1892 steamship service from Léopoldville (later renamed Kinshasa) to Stanleyville (later Kisangi) and 1898 Matadi-Kinshasa railway (linking the port of Matadi to Léopoldville) provided geographical connectivity and concentration of populations previously separated. With a consequent influx of labour migrants and Belgian administrators, a rapidly urbanizing Léopoldville became the capital of the Belgian Congo in 1923, running domestic flight services and by 1936 a direct international flight route to Brussels. Further geographical connectivity and concentration of capital and labour came under French colonial administration, notably, the construction of the Congo-Ocean railroad in the 1920s, which – cutting through forest – brought labourers into rural territories home to the Simian Immune-deficiency Viruses. Once built, this railroad provided a constant flow of Africans and Europeans between Brazzaville (the new capital of the French colonial federation) through Léopoldville to Pointe-Noire at the coast. What’s more, road construction through the Congo Basin by timber companies pushed bushmeat hunters deeper into the forest and encouraged the growth of prostitution near the labour camps (Honigsbaum, 2019). One way or another, through new viral pathways that were new transport pathways driven by capital accumulation, by the 1920s, Léopoldville was home to HIV.
Both Honigsbaum (2019) and Quammen (2013) draw on research by Jacques Pepin to explain how the virus amplifies from here into an eventual global pandemic: sex and medical technology – specifically, the reuse of ineffectively sterilized hypodermic needles and reusable syringes in public and humanitarian health campaigns in Africa, and blood banks and transfusion services – were the key amplifiers of HIV. By the 1920s Léopoldville had a large male labour force, with economic migrants discouraged by the Belgian colonial administration from bringing their families with them; consequently, men outnumbered women four to one and prostitution was widespread (Honigsbaum, 2019). The virus likely amplified through a campaign by the Congolese Red Cross which established a clinic in 1929 in Léopoldville to treat sexually transmitted diseases; this campaign ran throughout in the 1930s and 1940s and peaked, in terms of the number of administered injections, in 1953 (Quammen, 2013). Another possible amplification was during the 1930s though the vaccination campaigns along the railways against yaws and sleeping sickness, and against malaria in southern Cameroon (Honigsbaum, 2019).
HIV-1 group M subtype B, around 1966, travels from Léopoldville to Haiti and, in or around 1969, from Haiti to the United States. Honigsbaum (2019) and Quammen (2013) again draw on the work of Pepin for a plausible answer as to how. Congo’s independence in 1960, marred by civil war, led to an influx of refugees into Kinshasa and an expansion of prostitution (Honigsbaum, 2019). Another outcome was the exodus of a Belgian expatriate skilled middle class. This vacuum of labour supply was addressed by campaigns to bring in skilled labour from elsewhere. Overseen by the WHO and UNESCO, recruits came from Haiti in the early 1960s. By the late 1960s and early 1970s however, the political instability of the state ideological campaign known as Zairianisation or Authenticité – to rid the Democratic Republic of Congo (later renamed Zaire) of colonialism and Western influences – drove many of this labour force back to Haiti. It would have taken just one of these returnees to have carried HIV with them. In January 1972, The New York Times broke a story of the commodification and export of Haitian human blood plasma and a political economy involving both US based capital and the Haitian government. The article states:
“PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Jan 26 – An American‐owned company here is buying blood plasma from impoverished Haitians who need the money and exporting 5,000 to 6,000 liters of it every month to the United States. […] Hemo Caribbean is owned by Joseph B. Gorinstein, stockbroker with interests in New York and Miami. He has a 10‐year contract with the Haitian Government that was negotiated with President Francois Duvalier, who died last April. Werner H. Thill, the company’s technical director, said that the Haitian Government received no money from Hemo Caribbean. Reliable sources here say that the principal agent between the Government and Hemo Caribbean was Luckner Cambronne, the Minister of Interior and National Defense, who is said to be one of the most influential persons here. […] Mr. Thill says that applicants are rejected if they are known to have hepatitis, but he adds that he is not especially concerned about those who may slip through the screening process with venereal disease or malaria. The freezing process used on the plasma “kills those bacteria,” he says. The Haitians, many in rags and without shoes, crowd into Hemo Caribbean six days week from 6:30 A.M. to 10 P.M. They spend about an hour and a half to two hours in screening and actually giving blood. […] The plasma is frozen and shipped to the United States by Air Haiti, Mr. Cambronne’s airline.”
“Capital is dead labour”, which, Marx (1867) tells us, “vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks”. Luckner Cambronne, because of his central exploitative role in the selling of blood plasma of Haitian donors to the United States, was widely coined both in Haiti and overseas, “The Vampire of the Caribbean” (Davison, 2006). Via either one infected person or one infected container of blood plasma, around 1969, HIV travels from Haiti to the United States; from there, it later travels to Canada, Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Estonia, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, and Australia; it also travels back into Africa (Quammen, 2013). Since the first cases of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome were officially reported in 1981 in the US, worldwide, 76 million people have been infected with HIV and 33 million people have died (World Health Organization, 2020).
A popular narrative (as represented through Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On) that either politically stigmatizes or reclaims the association of HIV/AIDS with queer sexuality is only one part of the historical story, specifically, how the virus amplified once it arrived in the United States. In the wider historical narrative I have relayed, capital is a leading actor. Marx (1857) observes in Grundrisse:
“Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier. Thus the creation of the physical conditions of exchange – of the means of communication and transport – the annihilation of space by time – becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.”
From possibly just one human exposure in southeastern Cameroon, HIV/AIDS made its way into and later out of Kinshasa through the new transportation routes of a colonial era and a globalizing era; because capital abides no geographical limits, former epidemiological dead ends were no more and new viral pathways were generated.
In the period since 1979 known as opening and reform, the Chinese Communist Party has overseen the entry of foreign capital into the country. Through the 1980s, especially the 1990s, and into the early millennium, China has experienced a staggering pace and degree of economic growth and urbanization. Guangdong, a coastal province in southern China, has been at the centre of this rapid capitalist transformation. Home to the earliest Special Economic Zones, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shantou, and to the Pearl River Delta Economic Zone, Guangdong is now the largest provincial economy and population in China, with Guangzhou (its capital) and Shenzhen global megacities and the country’s top two cities for GDP output. This has driven two ecological effects: the development of industrial-scale poultry farms to supply Guangdong’s huge labour force, growing from an estimated 700 million chickens in 1997 to, by 2008, one billion so-called high quality broiler chickens annually; and the orientation of smaller livestock producers and rice farmers to fattening domestic chickens and ducks to sell in “wet markets” that exist on the edges of Guangdong’s urban areas (Honigsbaum, 2019). Wet markets are markets that, along with fruit and vegetables, stock live animals for slaughter as fresh meat and fish. Davis (2005) explains:
“Thanks especially to the prevalence of wet markets in the cities, the urbanization of Guangdong has probably intensified rather than decreased microbial traffic between humans and animals. As income has risen with industrial employment, the population is eating more meat and less rice and vegetables. […] An extraordinary concentration of poultry […] coexists with high human densities, large numbers of pigs, and ubiquitous wild birds. […] Moreover, as the urban footprint has expanded and farm acreage has contracted, a fractal pattern of garden plots next to dormitories and factories has brought urban population and livestock together in more intimate contact. […] Guangdong is also a huge market for wild meat.”
Quammen (2013), referencing Karl Taro Greenfeld, observes that the wild animal trade within the Pearl River Delta is less to do with limited resources, need, or ancient traditions, and more attributable to the capitalist boom and related rise in conspicuous consumption. The contemporary Era of Wild Flavour, most prevalent in southern China, draws from earlier traditions and goes beyond them; Wild Flavour (yewei) is regarded as a way of gaining “face”, prosperity, and good luck. To supply Guangdong’s wet markets to meet the demand of a burgeoning affluent class frequenting the Wild Flavour restaurants of the province’s cities, there has been an increase in the volume of wild animal trade, with greater cross-border commerce (both legal and illegal) from other South East Asia countries (Vietnam and Laos, for example) into southern China and a rise in captive bred animals on unregulated small farms (Honigsbaum, 2019; Quammen, 2013). This is what Mike Davis, in 2005, coined the monster at our door, and, in light of SARS Coronavirus 2, states as the entirely familiar monster that has now walked through our front door (Davis, 2020). He elaborates, super urbanizing animal populations by factory farming is artificially creating the optimal conditions for the emergence of newly infectious diseases, speeding up the evolution of new strains, and guaranteeing the advent of pandemics (Davis, 2020). Following the work of Rob Wallace, an article from the Chinese Chuǎng journal (2020) argues that emergent infectious diseases arising in and out of China are best understood through a wider economic geography innate to capitalism, specifically, “the evolutionary pressure cooker of capitalist agriculture and urbanization”, which:
“provides the ideal medium through which ever-more-devastating plagues are born, transformed, induced to zoonotic leaps, and then aggressively vectored through the human population. To this is added similarly intensive processes occurring at the economy’s fringes, where “wild” strains are encountered by people pushed to ever-more extensive agroeconomic incursions into local ecosystems. The most recent coronavirus, in its “wild” origins and its sudden spread through a heavily industrialized and urbanized core of the global economy, represents both dimensions of our new era of political-economic plagues.”
The exceptional coming together of multiple species, which would not have otherwise crossed paths in nature yet are now stacked up together in crowded conditions in dense urban environments, is, as Quammen (2013: 189) puts it, “zoological bedlam”. It should be of no surprise then that a wet market of Guangzhou was the source of the zoonotic leap of SARS in 2002, and a wet market in Wuhan, Hubei province in south central China, the source of the spillover of SARS Coronavirus 2 in 2019. The natural reservoirs of both SARS Coronaviruses are likely bats. While SARS had a higher mortality rate, a critical difference between SARS and SARS Coronavirus 2 is the latter’s higher viral load prior to the onset of symptoms, which makes the effort to contain its spread much more difficult.
In narrating two stories about HIV/AIDS and SARS, I want to warn against geographically limiting one’s attention to Africa and Asia when thinking about pandemic threat. Instead, a focus on the intersection of the local and the global is key: local conditions of existence and capitalist political economy shape viral evolution, thus have meaning in explaining and predicting emergent infectious diseases, but the local intimately intersects with the global networks and processes of capitalist political economy. Eskew and Carlson (2020: e216) note, “due to globalisation, industrial agriculture, and the ubiquity of viral biodiversity, a pandemic can emerge practically anywhere.” For instance, the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, which originated from a pig farm in the United States. At the same time, influenza is also emergent, as Wallace (2016: 29) states, “by way of a globalized network of corporate poultry production and trade, wherever specific strains first evolve”. Furthermore, in the context of the biosecurity of a globalized agribusiness, in which, for example, mass vaccination of poultry is itself generating, in reaction, more evolutionary virulent strains of influenza (Wallace, 2016), a myopic focus on Africa and Asia takes our attention away from the fact that richer countries “routinely outsource their biodiversity threats to other nations” (Eskew and Carlson, 2020: e215). Or, as David Harvey (2010: 3) remarks, “capitalism never solves its crisis problems, it moves them around geographically”. At all scales, states and capitals are involved in the covering up and downplaying of emergent infectious diseases because pathogens are “enmeshed” within “the political economy of the business of food” (Wallace, 2016:48). Moves by the World Health Organization to a new system of nomenclature, away from specifying geographic or animal origin, is precisely because of political pressure by powerful states and industries (Wallace, 2016).
There is a conceptual error that can be found in much work exploring ecological crises (both on pandemics and on climate change). The Anthropocene, for example, effectively presents humanity as a single homogenous bloc, outside of historical forms of society with distinct socio-economic relations, which, as Andreas Malm recognizes, re-naturalizes ecological crisis as an outcome of human disposition (see Kunkel, 2017). Marxist ecology applies a crucial insight and steer to the relationship between human socio-economic relations and nature, by understanding that capitalism “produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself” (Marx, cited in Verdansky, 2019). The problem is capitalism, as such the solution is a global system change that has at its centre a “socialised humanity” that “govern[s] the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control, instead of being dominated by it as a blind power” (ibid). If we are to find ourselves out of a current trajectory of escalating pandemics, we need a socialist politics that is radical and visionary:
“The view of nature attained under the domination of private property and money is a real contempt for, and practical debasement of, nature. […] It is in this sense that [in a 1524 pamphlet] Thomas Münzer declares it intolerable “that all creatures have been turned into property, the fishes in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth; the creatures, too, must become free.”” (Marx, 1844)
Chuǎng (2020) “Social Contagion: Microbiological Class War in China”, http://chuangcn.org/2020/02/social-contagion/
Davis, Mike (2020) “Mike Davis on Coronavirus Politics”, The Dig podcast.
Davis, Mike (2005) The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu. The New Press: London.
Davison, Phil (2006) “Obituary: Luckner Cambronne”. Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/luckner-cambronne-418865.html
Eskew, Evan A and Carlson, Colin J (2020) “Overselling wildlife trade bans will not bolster conservation or pandemic preparedness”. The Lanset, Volume 4, Issue 6, e215-e216, https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(20)30123-6/fulltext
Harvey, David (2010) “RSA: The Crisis of Capitalism”, https://www.thersa.org/globalassets/pdfs/blogs/rsa-lecture-david-harvey-transcript.pdf
Honigsbaum, Mark (2019) The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria and Hubris. Hurst & Company: London.
Kunkel, Benjamin (2017) “The Capitalocene”. London Review of Books, 39(5), 22-28.
Marx, Karl (1867) Capital: Volume One, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch10.htm
Marx, Karl (1857) Grundrisse, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch10.htm
Marx, Karl (1844) On The Jewish Question, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/jewish-question/
Quammen, David (2013) Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. Vintage Books: London.
Severo, Richard (1972) “Impoverished Haitians Sell Plasma for Use in the U.S.” The New York Times, 28th January 1972, https://www.nytimes.com/1972/01/28/archives/impoverished-haitians-sell-plasma-for-use-in-the-us.html
Vernadsky, Paul (2019) “Marx and the environment”, Workers’ Liberty: Reason in Revolt, https://www.workersliberty.org/story/2019-10-09/marx-and-environment
Wallace, Rob (2020) “How Global Agriculture Grew a Pandemic”, Smarty Pants podcast.
Wallace, Rob (2016) Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science. Monthly Review Press: New York.
The following is an edited version of Matthijs Krul’s “Why read Capital, 150 years later?”, originally published in 2017 on New Socialist.
- It is an indispensable guide to political economy.
[…] Marx was very keen that his book should be seen not simply as a polemic against capitalism, but as a serious and sober-minded analysis of how it actually works. This also explains the abstraction of the first three chapters: they are essentially Marx defining his terminology and the way he is going to use his concepts for the rest of the work […] In order to understand what the book is about and why it is still important, it is essential to know that it presents a pure theory of capitalism: […] stripped of any historical and geographical particulars, and so applicable to any capitalist society. […] Marx wanted to understand capitalist society as a historically specific way of life, a particular way of organizing labour and goods. […] he observes capitalism as it appears to us: based on the two major drives of competition and accumulation, showing constant technological changes and increases in labor productivity, an almost complete system of private ownership of all things, a regimented workforce that sells its labor for wages during a given working day (or week, or month), plus of course such everyday things as money, finance, and credit. Marx sees these things and describes them, but he goes further than that. He asks why they are the way they are. In that sense, Capital is the answer to a series of questions: why should it be that in this society, the vast majority of people work for someone else for a living? Why is it that not only (almost) all goods and all land, but also our own ability to work is exchanged in markets as private products, and what role does money play in making those markets possible? And if all these goods exchange at the price that they are ‘worth’, and everyone gets as wages what their work is ‘worth’, then where does profit come from? Why is it that while technology was relatively stagnant for most of history, under capitalism everything changes all the time, and there are constantly more things being produced in the same amount of time and work? Why does capitalism need there to be economic ‘growth’, or accumulation, or else it falls apart? […] Although the discussions of ‘value’ and ‘commodities’ may appear strange and difficult, […] the point of them is to answer these questions, and to show how the answers follow from the way capitalism works at its very core: a system in which accumulation takes place under private ownership of competing owners of means of production, and where everything is produced as commodities for the market by competing individuals who sell their labor-power for a wage. […]
- It is a great read.
[…] As soon as Marx is past the most abstract discussion […], he gets into a very lively narrative description of the various ways in which capitalism appears immediately at the surface, so to speak. First he discusses how money accumulates, how people sell their ability to work for a wage, and how this creates ‘the market’ in the abstract that is always the subject of economic discussions in the media. Then he describes in great detail, and with many critical comments, the fight over the length and intensity of work-time, the division of labour, the development of modern industry, the different ways in which workers are exploited, and the historical process of robbery, violence, force and extermination that brought capitalism about in the first place. Finally, he points out what all this leads to: endless accumulation that makes capital, and the owners of capital, seem productive, when in fact it is the people working for them that are productive and that make the existence of capital possible even as it exploits them and forces them to compete. In this way, he shows how people unwillingly and unwittingly produce the very system that oppresses them and how that system makes it seem as if it is a force of nature. All this is done in a very readable and vigorous way. Marx’s writings here are some of the best that 19th century polemical writing could produce […] he invokes Don Quixote in order to criticize the idea that the answer to capitalism’s problems is a return to a supposedly better and unproblematic past, or to ways of living that are no longer compatible with modern circumstances. […] He contrasts throughout the glorification of capitalism as a system of liberty, individual rights, and prosperity by the commentators of his day with the reality on the ground that is found in government and newspaper reports […] This reality was and is one of poverty, disease, drudgery, hopelessness, and death for working people, and all the while – then as now – being lectured to about your moral failings in the bargain. […]
- It is a political must.
[…] without Marx’s analysis, it is all too easy to blame unemployment, poverty, and economic crisis on other things: strangers in our midst, immigrants, moral failures, insufficient hard work, bad management, or conspiracies. Marx […] shows in this book where the weak points of capitalism are. […] the chapters on the working day, on wage and piece work, and on co-operation are essential for understanding the labour process and resistance against it. Similarly, the indignant analysis of the forced expropriation, murder, and repression of people in pre-capitalist social relations, and the discussions of ongoing legislation and violence against the working class, jointly help to comprehend the class nature of laws, governments, and their enforcers. […] understanding the political significance of finance and credit systems is also indispensable […] Capital is about understanding the way that technology and technological change affect the way society is organized and the division of labour, and the impact this has on every aspect of social life. It is hard to think of a topic more politically relevant [in] the age of automation […]
- It makes you rethink the nature of our society.
[…] Marx’s preoccupation was with the idea that the social forces that determine the course of people’s lives in our society appear to us as if they were inescapable and unchangeable forces of nature, even though they are simply the product, the aggregate result, of our own actions and relationships. […] It is also meant to help the reader understand just how bizarre capitalist society actually is. Why should we survive by spending the vast majority of our lives working for someone else in someone else’s office or shopfloor? Why should the way to get the best out of people, and to create the most liveable and fruitful society, be having everyone compete against each other to produce objects (or services) that exchange for the smallest amount of pieces of paper that have a value printed on them? How come a few people own most things, in terms of the amount of work they can be exchanged for in the market, and most people only own their own ability to work? And most importantly, how come that technology that should make our lives easier never seems to make the workload less, or mean we can stop accumulating and competing? […] he shows […] [capitalist social relations] has come about in a particular historical way, and that it took – and still takes – an enormous amount of both ideological and real violence to make it seem natural. […]
There is a particular freedom in strike action. The humanistic Marxist philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm reminds us that Marx’s critique of capitalist social relations is based on more than simply the conflict between those who have nothing to sell but their labour-power in order to survive and those who live off the profits. The biggest industrial dispute in UK higher education history pushes to the foreground the contradictory tension between the conditions of existence for academic workers – workload intensification and unpaid labour time, vast casualisation and precarity, a crisis in mental health and wellbeing – and a senior managerial glut personified by those who “drive their Bentleys and sail their yachts through the new wild west” of a sector ravaged by marketisation (Erickson, Hanna, and Walker, 2020). Fromm (1956: 95) identifies a further dimension of Marx’s critique, the “conflict between two principles of value: that between the world of things, and their amassment, and the world of life and its productivity.” Here, by productivity, Marx envisions a productivity beyond capital’s restless drive to self-expand through the exploitation of labour-power, specifically, an autonomous productivity of self and others to holistically develop: a freedom to grow intellectually, emotionally, creatively, and spiritually. On the picket line, one glimpses that freedom; in strike action, one tastes that independence. It is in stark contrast to a marketisation that has alienated academics and students from the university.
The UK university sector has come to embody what Fromm (1956: 6) calls “the pathology of normalcy”: imposing upon us, as academics and students, a social character that “internalizes external necessities” and exploits “human energy for the task” of capitalist relations (Fromm, 1985: 29). Elucidated in The Seven Deadly Sins of Marketisation in British Higher Education (Jones, 2019), the commodification of degrees has turned the academic and student relationship into one of opposition between producer and consumer while degrading the product itself. Competition between universities – based on deeply flawed quantifiable ‘quality’ and associated metrics and league tables – has driven vanity building projects hand-in-hand with a growing managerial bureaucracy fixated with maximising surpluses (along with private finance) to pay for such unstable developments (Jones, 2019). Maximisation of surplus has meant a reduction in the proportion of overall expenditure spent on academic staff (down from 57% to 54% from 2008 to 2018), employment of more and more academic staff on casualised, precarious contracts (currently representing 53% of teaching and research contracts), working academics harder and longer, and sweating the assets – buildings that might look glossy on the outside but are packed full to overflowing on the inside (Jones, 2019). All of this is in the context of a sector “now awash with cash” – higher education income increased 63% from 2008 to 2018 (Jones, 2019).
Students tragically incorporate the marketisation of higher education through the internalisation of its external necessities. The burden of the fee-paying student translates into an expectation that their time at university will provide them with ‘added value’. The pressure on students to gain a high classification in their chosen package of university, degree and modules is an exploitation of their human energy to transform themselves “into an instrument of use and exploitation for others” (Fromm, 1956: 73):
“the aim of learning is to gather as much information as possible that is mainly useful for the purposes of the market. Students are supposed to learn so many things that they have hardly time and energy left to think. Not the interest in the subjects taught or in knowledge and insight as such, but the enhanced exchange value knowledge gives is the main incentive for wanting more and better education.” (Fromm, 1985b: 44)
The effect of this on students’ sense of self is devastating: if they are “successful” in their degree classification, they are “valuable”, if they are not, they are “worthless” (Fromm, 1985b: 42). This marketisation has had a destructive pathological effect on the mental health and wellbeing of academics too. We are trapped in a treadmill to be ‘outstanding’ lecturers, researchers, and administrators, where outstanding is quantified and abstracted in a parallel universe that bears no resemblance to reality and quality, while we work amid ever-worsening conditions of existence. Take, notably, the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) which ranks ‘the product’ (the commodity of the degree and the service provider of the university) by a metricised ranking of so-called teaching quality, which is quantitatively scored through the abstract measures of graduate employment outcomes and student satisfaction results, not through the quality of the real social relationship between the educator and the educated. This is alienation writ large.
Marx understands alienation as estrangement; in Fromm’s (1961: 44) words, alienation “is essentially experiencing the world and oneself passively, receptively”. Alienation in higher education, for the academic and the student, fuels a sense of loneliness and powerlessness: the “students and the content of the lectures remain strangers to each other” (Fromm, 1979: 37). The idea of the university which expands knowledge and understanding through critical frameworks and human connection – as a meaningful process in and of itself – has been lost. And in the process we have lost our freedom to independently express ourselves and grapple with the world. This loss and denial, Fromm (1961: 30) insists, is the prevention of living itself: for if we are passive and receptive, then we are “nothing”, we are effectively “dead”. This UCU strike is an act of critical resuscitation. Through the space of the picket lines and beyond, in our conversations and solidarity with striking colleagues, students and members of the public, we are strangers no more, we experience a negation of alienation: what “Marx calls “productive life”, that is, “… life creating life …”” (Fromm, 1961: 34). For those of us old enough to remember the university prior to its full exposure to destructive market forces, this space reminds us of why we originally fell in love with the university, because it gave us the imaginings of a freedom to – a freedom to be total human beings able to affirm our individuality in all of our relations to the world: “… seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, willing, [and] loving …” (Marx cited in Fromm, 1961: 38). In strike action, we hope and we love once more.
Bassi, C. (2019) “On the Death Throes of Education: Erich Fromm’s Marxist Rallying Cry for a Healthy University.” In Juergensmeyer, E, Nocella II, A J., and Seis, M (Eds.) Neoliberalism and Academic Repression (pp.31-42). Leiden: Brill Publishers.
Erickson, M., Hanna, P. and Walker, C. (2020) “The Senior Management Survey: auditing the toxic university.” LSE Blogs. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2020/02/17/the-senior-management-survey-auditing-the-toxic-university/
Fromm, E. (1956) The sane society. London: Routledge.
Fromm, E. (1961) Marx’s concept of man. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing.
Fromm, E. (1979) To have or to be? London: Abacus.
Fromm, E. (1985a) “The Social Character and Its Functions.” In R. Funk (Ed.), The Erich Fromm Reader (pp. 25-30). New Jersey: Humanities Press International.
Fromm, E. (1985b) “The marketing orientation.” In R. Funk (Ed.), The Erich Fromm Reader (pp. 39-45). New Jersey: Humanities Press International.
Jones, L. (2019) “The Seven Deadly Sins of Marketisation in British Higher Education.” Medium. https://medium.com/@drleejones/the-seven-deadly-sins-of-marketisation-in-british-higher-education-c91102a04a8f
The BBC In Our Times podcasts “Tea” (2004) and “The Opium Wars” (2007) are a fascinating insight into the interrelated historical journeys of tea and opium and the early development of global capitalism. Originating in and solely sourced from China, European contact with tea in the early sixteenth century paved the way for it later becoming Britain’s first mass commodity and a core component of its national identity. From 1660 onwards, the British East India Company’s dealings with local merchants in the port of Canton provided a foothold into trade with China and its produce of tea. Tea became one of numerous exotic and luxury commodities introduced into Britain from around the world in the expectation that some would appeal to consumers and generate a profit. Tea, coffee, sugar, and tobacco all grew in demand – promoted, in a partnership between commerce and medicine, as medicinal products. While at the end of the seventeenth century, tea drinking in Britain was the preserve of the aristocratic elite, by 1750 there had been a huge increase in the importation and consumption of tea. The mass success of the tea commodity was in conjunction with that of the sugar commodity: Chinese black tea became domesticated as British with the addition of milk and sugar. Sweet hot milky tea satisfied a demand for a non-alcoholic energising beverage that was easy to prepare. Two interconnected trading triangles and systems accordingly developed, signifying the emergence of a global economy by 1750: one, trading in tea, connecting Britain to India to China back to Britain; the other, trading in sugar, connecting Britain to the continent of Africa to the West Indies back to Britain; both plugged into one another.
“… you have Africans imported in their millions by the British … to produce sugar which you mix with Chinese tea to slate the natural thirst of even the lowest income people of this country …” (BBC In Our Times: Tea, 2004)
The problem for British traders in the eighteenth century was paying for tea. China wanted and needed very little from Britain in exchange, so an unbalanced tea trade was paid for with a depleting stock of silver. Silver represented a further global movement: originating in the silver mines of Central and South America and transported via the trading triangles of the colonial empires into China; China being known at this time as “the silver grave of the world” (BBC In Our Times: The Opium Wars, 2007). A crucial development in paying for tea was the British control of the territory and revenue of Bengal in the 1760s, which generated a considerable surplus revenue; between 1750 and 1780, British investment in Indian textiles (namely, cotton) were exported to Canton, providing proceeds to pay for tea. It is at this point in the story of tea that opium enters the picture.
The Portuguese Empire first discovered and shipped opium to China; it also introduced the practice of smoking from the New World, turning opium consumption from a medicinal to a pleasure product. By the 1770s and 1780s opium was in great demand in the country, despite being banned by the Qing Dynasty for reasons of social control. Opium was desirable both as a consumable good and, for traders, as a portable currency, preferable to heavy copper and a shortage of silver. The British East India Company not only had a monopoly on the production of opium in India, its Patna opium was highly demanded because of its known superior quality. The Company, whilst publicly stating its adherence to the Qing Dynasty’s opium ban, oversaw private British traders dealing opium into China; the receipt of which was paid into its treasury.
This late eighteenth century rise in the trade of (Indian) opium offset the trade deficit between Britain and China and paid for the British addiction to (Chinese) tea.
The 1839 burning of opium at Humen (part of an organised crackdown endorsed by the Qing Dynasty) actually benefited private British traders, since, before this event, the country was inundated with opium driving down its price, while after, its price soared. What followed was the First Opium War (1839-1842): a spectacular military response by the British that used the latest technology of the time, armour-plated steamers, which led to Chinese defeat, the Nanking Treaty (opening port cities, or treaty ports, to foreign trade) and the territorial concession of Hong Kong. The Second Opium War (1856-1860) was both a further defeat for China and a further opening of treaty ports to foreign imperial powers. The rise of Chinese nationalism following the Opium Wars turned an anti-opium failure into a discourse of anti-opium hero; a narrative that remains a key part of Chinese national identity against the West.
Other national identities were bound up with this story of early globalisation. The export of tea from Britain to North America in the early eighteenth century, and its demand and consumption, was part of how American colonial elites defined themselves. However, when the British government imposed taxes on this tea trade in the 1760s, the response was non-importation of tea and throwing tea into Boston harbour, known as the Boston Tea Party. This anti-tax protest was also an anti-British protest. In the early years of the Republic, America was self-consciously on a course to becoming a coffee drinking, not a tea drinking, nation.
The problem of only being able to supply tea from China was eventually resolved by turning to India. Although the British East India Company was involved in early trials to grow tea elsewhere, the loss of its monopoly in India in 1813 explains its reluctance to heavily invest in tea production there, since it would be undercut by private tea growers. What’s more, the Company maintained its monopoly in China until 1833. Once the monopolies in both India and China ceased, tea production in India (notably, Assam) significantly developed.
Reflecting on the BBC In On Times podcasts, the historical and interwoven journeys of tea and opium provide a story on the construction of national identities during a period of early globalisation, in which such national identities are themselves the distinct products of globalisation. This story is also an insight into the emergence of a genuinely global economy: its centre and peripheries, and its peculiarities and forced economic and social resolutions. The story of the Opium Wars is actually the story of tea, and the story of tea is in fact the story of capital relentlessly pushing geographical boundaries and abiding no limits.
BBC (2004). In Our Times: Tea, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p004y24y
BBC (2007). In Our Times: The Opium Wars, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00776k9
Amitav Ghosh’s (2016) book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, is a commendable thesis on how the climate crisis is not simply a manifestation of physical geographical quantities but also a qualitative crisis in human geographical imagination. In other words, the climate crisis reveals an inability of the cultural imagination to face up to this reality and to envisage alternative possibilities and ways out. Ghosh is a highly accomplished Indian novelist whose catalogue of fiction is distinguished by its interweaving of global and historical political economy with personal narrative. He is thus well positioned in his criticism of the literary profession:
“That climate change casts a much smaller shadow within the landscape of literary fiction than it does even in the public arena is not hard to establish. […] When the subject of climate change occurs in these publications, it is almost always in relation to nonfiction; novels and short stories are very rarely to be glimpsed within this horizon. Indeed, it could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously by serious literary journals: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the grave of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.” (Ghosh, 2016: 7)
Ghosh (2016: 22) contextualises this myopia of literary imagination as born out of nineteenth century discourse on modernity as orderly and progressive; a discourse which also shaped the discipline of geology:
“The victory of gradualist views in science was similarly won by characterizing catastrophism as un-modern. In geology, the triumph of gradualist thinking was so complete that Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift, which posited upheavals of sudden and unimaginable violence, was for decades discounted and derided.”
Narratives from fiction and nonfiction accordingly came to chime with the new regularity of bourgeois-dominated life, and yet the unpredictability of global warming now defies this conventional lens.
Ghosh (2016: 58-59) explains how the modern novel unfolds through a ‘setting’ – the construction of a ‘sense of place’ (as humanistic geography would understand it):
“settings become the vessel for the exploration of that ultimate instance of discontinuity: the nation-state. In novels discontinuities of space are accompanied also by discontinuities of time: a setting usually requires a “period”; it is actualized within a certain time horizon. […] It is through the imposition of these boundaries, in time and space, that the world of a novel is created.”
This fictive geographical imagining, a bounded and discontinuous spatial-temporal terrain, is contrasted with the holistic and fluid space and time of the Anthropocene:
“it was in exactly the period in which human activity was changing the earth’s atmosphere that the literary imagination became radically centered on the human. Inasmuch as the nonhuman was written about at all, it was not within the mansion of serious fiction but rather in the outhouses to which science fiction and fantasy had been banished.” (Ghosh, 2016: 66)
The setting of the novel, Ghosh (2016: 131-133) contends, mirrors a dominant culture of politics, economics and literature that has exiled the idea of the collective in the search for personal authenticity and (at best) a career in personal political virtue – impeding effective resistance to, and reimagining of, the climate crisis:
“the public sphere, where politics is performed, has been largely emptied of content in terms of the exercise of power: as with fiction, it has become a forum of secular testimony, a baring-of-the-soul in the world-as-church. Politics as thus practiced is primarily an exercise in personal expressiveness. […] Of late, many activists and concerned people have begun to frame climate change as a “moral issue” […] When framed in this way, authenticity and sacrifice become central to the issue […] To think in those terms is to accept neo-liberal premises.”
Ghosh (2016: 129) continues, “the great, irreplaceable potentiality of fiction” in imagining alternative futures has been lost in its orientation towards the self and away from the human collective and the nonhuman; he astutely asks:
“Consider, for example, the stories that congeal around questions like, “Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell?” or “where were you on 9/11” Will it ever be possible to ask, in the same vein, “Where were you at 400 ppm [parts per million]?” or “Where were you when the Larson B ice shelf broke up?””
Echoing the title of the book, Ghosh (2016: 11) proclaims:
“Quite possibly then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.”
Ghosh is keen to distinguish himself from those who attribute the climate crisis to capitalism alone, since, he claims, this underplays the central role of empire and imperialism. He argues:
“To look at the climate crisis through the prism of empire is to recognize […] that the continent of Asia is conceptually critical to every aspect of global warming: its causes, its philosophical and historical implications, and the possibility of a global response to it.” (Ghosh, 2016: 87)
“The factor that gave the carbon economy its decisive shape was not the provenance of the machines that ushered in the Industrial Revolution: these could have been used and imitated just as easily in other parts of the world as they were in continental Europe. What determined the shape of the global carbon economy was that the major European powers had already established a strong (but by no means hegemonic) military and political presence in much of Asia and Africa at the time when the technology of steam was in its nascency, that is to say, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. From that point on, carbon-intensive technologies were to have the effect of continually reinforcing Western power with the result that other variants of modernity came to be suppressed, incorporated, and appropriated into what is now a single, dominant model. The boost that fossil fuels provided to Western power is nowhere more clearly evident than in the First Opium War, where armoured steamships, led by the aptly named Nemesis, played a decisive role. In other words, carbon emissions were, from very early on, closely co-related to power in all its aspects: this continues to be a major, although unacknowledged, factor in the politics of contemporary global warming.” (Ghosh, 2016: 108-109)
Whilst Ghosh recognises that both capitalism and imperialism are interconnected, he states that “even if capitalism were to be magically transformed tomorrow, the imperatives of political and military dominance would remain a significant obstacle to progress on mitigatory action” (Ghosh, 2016: 146). And yet if a movement successfully overthrew capitalist social relations tomorrow – and it would have to be a mass, labour-based movement that could achieve this – such a movement would also (in its nature of being successful) represent a profound democratic shift to the grassroots that has radically altered the political and cultural sphere. Ghosh does not indicate who crudely separates capitalism from imperialism. In the “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”, Marx (1999: 376) in Capital makes no such separation:
“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China”
On a movement for radical social resistance and alternatives to the climate crisis, it is not an organised mass labour movement that Ghosh (2016: 111) sees as the lever for change, despite at times recognising the fundamental role of labour’s antithesis, capital:
““Money flows toward short term gain,” writes the geologist David Archer, “and toward the over-exploitation of unregulated common resources. These tendencies are like the invisible hand of fate, guiding the hero in a Greek tragedy toward his inevitable doom.” This is indeed the essence of humanity’s present derangement.”
Instead, Ghosh’s (2016: 159) desire for future alternative imaginings is actually a turn to past imaginings – a rediscovered sacred, community and kinship – that the forces of religion offer:
“Bleak though the terrain of climate change may be, there are a few features in it that stand out in relief as signs of hope […] the most promising development, in my view, is the increasing involvement of religious groups and leaders in the politics of climate change.”
Religion represents, for Ghosh, transnational mass mobilisations of people capable of intergenerational, nonlinear and non-economistic thinking; but so too do capital’s gravediggers possess such potential imagination. Both the commonality and critical difference between the two can be explained by Marx (1977: 64) in Towards a Critique of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right”:
“Religious suffering is at the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless circumstances. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To demand to give up the illusions about their condition is a demand to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore the germ of the criticism of the valley of tears whose halo is religion.”
Ghosh’s hope in religion to move us beyond the present impasse reminds me of the words of Marx (1973: 162) from Grundrisse:
“It is ridiculous to yearn for a return to that original fullness as it is to believe that with this complete emptiness history has come to a standstill. The bourgeois viewpoint has never advanced beyond this antithesis between itself and this romantic viewpoint”
Rather than fixating in a nostalgia with the past, one must recognise the radical possibilities thrown up by the globalisation of capital (a global working class, a world literature, social intercourse in every direction, to paraphrase The Communist Manifesto) and sublate such potentiality out of capital’s heartbeat of profit-making from human and nonhuman resources.
The following is my presentation on the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989, drawing on Ma Jian’s (2009) Beijing Coma and Shen Tong’s (1990) Almost A Revolution.
Below are original tape recordings from BBC Radio 4 as the Tiananmen Square protests unfolded.